5e: The Playtest Process

It’s review time. I refer of course to the end of December surprise of one last playtest package before the end of the year. This would be our fourth real package, excluding the small updates with added an extra class or two to the mix. This time we have the full 1-20 level range of for five classes.

It seems like as good a time as any to really look at the playtest package and the playtest process in general.
Let’s start with the biggest addition to the playtest package, the one rule that makes me most happy: the addition of falling damage. I swear, this came up a half-dozen times in my playtests and I always bounced between d6 and d10 damage.

Poking Feedback

Wizards of the Coast has been managing this public playtest for roughly seven months, since the first package was released back in late May. We’ve seen some ups and downs and some changes to how the design has been approached.One thing that has not changes is the reaction-seeking nature of the playtest.

The MO of the paytest is that changes are introduced with the intent of garnering feedback less than testing the actual mechanics. The designers are using the playtest as a means of eliciting design and game feedback. Such as the 3rd package’s deliberate nerf of sneak attack and rogue damage to see how forgiving people were regarding classes having differing combat effectiveness. This most recent playtest also has a lot more dead levels and very few additional powers at high level, likely to see how many people want continual advancement at higher levels or if players will be more satisfied with a plateauing of options and powers. Likewise, changes such as skill dice, high level spells like wish returning, and meteor swarm having such a long range are likely included to illicit as strong a reaction as possible, to gather feedback and see exactly how many (and much) people care.

It’s undoubtedly effective. People will react, either strongly and vocally or through silence and ambivalence. This provides a strong answer, likely more than polling the audience. But it feels manipulative, as we (the fans) are being deliberately poked to see what our reaction will be. And because the poking begins at an extreme it potentially increases the number of vocal detractors; people that would be okay with a more middle-ground approach or would not have notice suddenly disagree with the direction the playtest seems to be going.

A sad side effect of regularly provoking a response is that the playtest is burning a lot of bridges. Rather than seeing a refinement or improvement, the playtest seems to lurch to various extremes, reguarly and repeatedly infuriating players with each iteration. Hopefully they’ll return and see the later packages, but many people will not realize the incremental and provocative nature of the test and decide 5e is not heading in a direction they enjoy and walk away.

The above also means that we’re being given a product to test that’s not actually in a testable state, because the rules are not what are being evaluated. It’s a little like testing rats to see how the run a maze to see how the maze is designed versus testing how rats in a maze react to mild electric shocks.

At the end of the day, after a month of testing, little feedback on the rogue was relevant as most would relate to its lesser damage output compared to the fighter. The benefits of mass public playtesting – having 80,000 people looking at the balance and problem areas of the game – are lost.

Consistent Change

Following-up on the previous point, after a year of design, very little has emerged as consistent. The fighter has radically changed with each package, and the rogue has been heavily overhauled in the last two packages. And the cleric and wizard have also been revised to some extent. After half a year, potentially a third of the length of the playtest before work needs to be finalized, nothing has yet been solidified.

This is problematic. While the early stage should be one of refining and seeing what works, to design the best game eventually designers have to stop designing and start balancing and finetuning. Are the classes perfect? No. But they never will be. Ever. They designed 4e for three years, continually tweaking classes, and were still able to overhaul the design for Essentials and again for the later builds. You can continue designing, tweaking, and revising a game forever. Even if you get it as close as possible, if it takes too long what people want out of a game will change and the game will no longer be perfect. This is why some video games are never released: the designers want everything to be perfect but it never can be.

This was one of the big problems with 4e: the designers never stopped designing long enough for the game to settle into a truly testable state. This is the state where they could notice the smaller more subtle problem areas. Problems like the failed monster math, game tables not getting larger to accommodate Epic-powers, paladins running from enemies to abuse their mark, and the broken nature of the skill system. If testers are distracted learning how sneak attack works this package they’ll never notice abuses of subtle problems in time for them to be fixed. And not just fixed, but re-fixed. Fixes always, always need to be tested to make sure they don’t go too far or make things too complicated.

This isn’t a real problem yet. But this should be the focus of the last six months of the playtest in the second half of 2013. Major changes and additions should just STOP and the focus becomes making the game actually work. Ideally, given the modular focus of the game, it would make sense to finish solidifying the core earlier – such as the middle of 2013 – and then test rues modules for the last couple packages.

Games tend to have a design focus. 4e designers really focused on being the best tactical combat resource management game it could be. Everything that was not part of that focus was set aside as “good enough” as then design moved elsewhere. You can already see this happening with 5e, with the focus on classes being the best representation of that class. There have been some small tweaks to other aspects, but for the most part other elements haven’t changed. A good example of this is races, which have only seen minor, minor changes since the first package.

Races

If any part of the playtest were to be seen as “done” it would be races, which haven’t changed in any serious way since the first package. (As mentioned above, this is likely because the continually shifting classes are taking the majority of the design time and taking attention away from the rest of the game.) I think dwarven poison immunity became resistance and skills were added but that’s about it. I’m mostly okay with race design, but some elements do need work.
The lack of regular skill bonuses seems glaring, especially after skills crept their way into the base assumptions of the game. A couple races (dwarves and elves) get free training, which is nice but not that great, as the default system does not let you pick your skills (more on this when I talk about backgrounds). Elves and dwarves are not better at their skill, they’re just trained. Which seems odd. I’d like a return to bonuses, which are simple as you can do the math on your character sheet once. It’s not something you need to worry about every time you roll. You can imagine elves getting a bonus to spot and listen, either static or having the skill dice improving one step.

Most races seem to only get a single stat boost, which seems low. Personally I’d like one base stat boost and a second tied to subrace. All dwarves should have a good Con, but the subrace could boost Wisdom or Strength.

Dwarves I’m not a huge fan of dwarves only having low-light vision. I never saw the point of that change. They live underground and thirty years of fiction has them seeing in the dark, they should have darkvision. It’s not that huge of a power increase. Given the short range of darkvision, they’ll need torches for large cavernous chambers anyway.

Elves Elven Weapon Training is kinda useless for high elves, the go-to wizard race, as wizards lack proficiency with those weapons. This is the opposite of 3e, where elves granted proficiency which was nice for wizards but useless for everyone else. It might be nice to double down and have Weapon Training grant proficiency OR increase the damage die if you already have proficiency.

Halflings I still think stout halfings (hobbits) and lightfoot halflings (kender) have the wrong abilities: hobbits are stealthy burglars while kender are fearless handlers. The stout Fearless ability does not seem particularly useful. Spending an action to remove frightened is a steep penalty, especially when they could just attack and use Lucky to reroll the lower die. The frightened condition also only applies to attacks and checks, making it not as detrimental to spellcasters and with its Charisma bonus the stout halfling is better suited to being a spellcaster.

Humans Boooooring and yet overpowered. Why wasn’t this race completely redesigned three packages ago? Especially now that other races have skill bonuses. I still dislike the idea that the average human is just as agile as the average elf, as tough as the average dwarf, etc.

Classes

It’s hard to say anything about the classes that won’t be redundant in a couple weeks (if not already redundant as WotC provokes a reaction to confirm what they already suspect).

The latest package introduces high level play which is most decadently… non-Epic. The power level feels very restrained upon reading, but perhaps it plays differently. Classes seem to get very few new powers, not even getting improved versions of their powers. It’s hard to evaluate how well this works without knowing WotC’s plans. Are they thinking of a “Epic Module” like Pathfinder’s Mythic Adventures rules, which will add epic to all levels? We already know there’s a Legacy system that might do something simmilar, and Prestige Classes might affect tone. But there’s so many other options. Is this just to test balance by aiming low and working up until the system breaks? Are they seeing how epic fans want high level play to be? Will there more Epic content for levels 21+?

I’m especially saddened by the lack of capstone abilities and the sheer number of dead levels. This hurts. While those are very easy to add – as we have been told via a Google chat – it doesn’t make the game any less unimpressive to test. Dead levels are an overly visible gap, a flaw that will continually attract attention away from other less visible problems.

Cleric The big change in this package is the inclusion of martial dice, which is likely a continued attempt to see how far they can push that mechanic into non-fighter territory. While clerics are a potentially melee-heavy class, the dice don’t seem well-suited to every cleric. A robed priestly cleric that relies on spells won’t use them, so they might be more suited as a bonus tied to domains. Having the martial dice be an option tied to deities works, leaving a gap in other domains that shouldn’t be too hard to fill; granting additional bonus powers at higher levels would take some of the differentiation of domains away from Channel Divinity, which has become a bit of a catch-all.

Right now, the Channel Divinity are too combat focused lacking any fluff, the worst example of 4e power design. For example, we have Channel Regrowth, whose name suggesting healing or plants or nature (and tied to Lifegiver gods) yet is just damage reduction against an attack. Is it healing that damage? Is it imbuing extra life? Is there some kind of magical shield? We’re not told as it’s solely a selfish version of Channel Shelter. I’m not fond of this as no fluff means there’s no ways of using it creatively or for story reasons (such as healing a corrupted forest or the like).

I’m not a big fan of class design where your build just gives you a new stack of powers that are unrelated to every other build. I think I might much prefer a single Channel Divinity option as a baseline with domains modifying it slightly rather than reinventing the wheel every time.

Fighter With Martial/Expertise Dice spreading out farther and farther, fighters still need a unique mechanic. Right now WotC is experimenting with a flat bonus to damage. This is nice and simple, without adding too many extra dice and math. I like it, as it’s something that can easily be yanked out wholesale and replaced with more maneuvers or tactical options for experienced players or those who like more complexity to their classes.

I’d still like to see a bonus tied to fighting style, to make them more than lists of suggested maneuvers. It would be silly to suggest differentiating wizards by spells known, so I’m not sure why it’s acceptable for fighters.

I also preferred the multiple attacks of the earlier playtest to the Combat Surge of the current playtest. While many people were calling out for a fighter resource to manage, it’s not particularly exciting. And not being able to regularly attack multiple times limit’s a fighter’s effectiveness against many small opponents. In an edition that is built around having battles with mobs or weak enemies being stuck attacking one minion at a time, well, sucks.

Monk I’ve never been a monk fan but the class looks solid. The lack of monastic weapons does stand out. Monks without sais or quarterstaffs seem odd.

I don’t see many powers inspired by actual martial arts or fighting schools (no Money Style or Drunken Masters), and there’s no way to play a less overtly magical monk. While the monk should liberally draw from Wuxia and kung-fu films, equal effort should be placed on making the class flexible enough to play a lower magic monk.

Rogue I like the changes to the rogue, focusing less on improving their chances for success at tasks (which frequently removed the reason to roll) and more on granting bonuses when attempting certain skills. It’s a good idea.

Schemes provide a nice unique bonus, which is something I would like to see done for the fighter. And the return of later features like Evasion is nice. Like the fighter, it’s a little odd that the rogue stops gaining familiar options at higher levels, not even getting better at what they can already do, and instead gaining an entirely new mechanic. It’s almost like the rogue becomes a prestige class for levels 11-20 (the Luckmaster or Acehole).

Wizard I’m not a fan of the change of spell preparation. It’s a neat idea but I don’t like it as a core assumption (but it will be nice as an option), especially as it makes every wizard a spontaneous caster. At low levels you can regularly prepare fewer spells than you have slots, invariably having to cast the same spells again and again. This makes it harder to justify having those non-combat spells prepared to use as rituals; each potential ritual means having to rely on spamming At-wills a little more.

There’s an odd change at higher levels with the reduced number of spells per day, which means that you can suddenly prepare more spells than you can cast.

Backgrounds & Skills

The background system remains fun, and a neat way of managing the skill system. The big problem with the background system is the lack of ability to swap skills. No rogue is going to pick the “Guild Thief” background as there is a skill overlap, reducing your total number of skills. Likewise, if a race grants you training in a skill it potentially limits your choices of backgrounds, or you have one fewer skill.

This is an easy fix. Perhaps backgrounds could give you a choice of four skills from a list of five or six. Or doubles could boost the skill die (from a d6 to a d8 and such). So a rogue would be encouraged to be a Guild Thief as it makes them better at a couple skills.

Let’s talk about the skill die for a moment. While I was initially not fond of the idea, not seeing it as very D&D-ish, it is a solid idea. It reduces the average total of a skill check (a d4 is slightly less than a +3 bonus) while adding more dice to the mix. Rolling dice is fun. Still, with skills now seemingly part of the core, raising the assumed DCs by 2 wouldn’t be a bad idea.

However, some discussion should be given to the increase in PC potential from stat boosts and skill bumps. DMs should be aware that the DC 13 check might not be as hard to make at level 17. Assorted boosts potentially lead to a disparity of 7+ between someone with an un-bumped yet high ability score and someone training a skill while bumping, and a disparity of 11+ for someone who dump-stated the relevant ability. Which is high but not as high as the 25+ of 3e/PF or the 14+ of 4e. It’s unlikely PCs will never need to even roll, as a “1” or “2” might still lead to failure.

I’m not a fan of all the skill dice going up at the same time. I like being able to have customize a character, picking areas of focus. Plus it’s a nice easy benefit to levelling. Being able to pick a couple skills every couple levels and increasing their die is nice. There might be a level based cap on the die, so you can’t increase the same skill over and over again and have to spread around your increases.

Specialities

I’m uncertain how I feel about specialities. They were more interesting before feats were separated and they became packages of pre-assembled builds. The flavour is nice and they’re handy for new players, but they’re a lot of design work for little benefit.

There’s also the problem of what happens when you need to add a new feat to the game as every new feat idea needs to be built into a Speciality. Specialities seem to be set with no options, so if a new feat is added do you give the appropriate speciality the new feat as an option making it more flexible than other specialities, or build a new speciality? If the latter, I can imagine much Speciality bloat as we get numerous needless Specialities every time we need one new feat. It also means options patch feats, pre-req feats will be harder to work into the game.

Initially Specialities were interesting because they acted as shared builds between classes. Instead of every spellcaster class needed an Illusionist build or Necromancer build – each incompatible with the other and needing their own mechanics, there’d be the one Necromancer or Illusionist speciality. It was a good design idea. But now they’ve moved back to giving each class some customization options, which are taking much of the design away from Specialities. We’re back to needed a distinct Psion and Sorcerer and Warlock Necromancer or Enchanter option.

Because Specialities needs to be useful for all builds there’s some questionable decisions elsewhere. There’s a feat that grants Maneuvers (so clerics can gain access) but that needs to be in a Speciality somewhere, so we get that in the archer speciality, however there are also archer builds for the fighter and rogue with recommended Maneuvers in the class. So they need to deliberately exclude a useful archery Maneuvers from the class build so the archery Speciality is still useful and desirable.

Of all the bits of the Playtest, I think Specialities are the weakest link. They hurt the design of feats and artificially limit the design of classes. And they don’t really add anything that couldn’t be done in half the space with shorter lists of suggested feats.

Monsters

Monsters are… okay. The numbers are still being fine tuned.

A few monsters still suffer from a flaw of 4e design, where they have unique snowflake powers rather than just replicating a known PC power. Like the death knight. The Next death knight has the eldritch fire power. What does it do? We don’t know but creatures that fail their save in the effect must make a saving throw or take fire damage. Do they just catch fire? Is there a ring of fire or flames rising out of the ground? Given death knights in prior editions could cast fireball and the mechanics are pretty much identical, it’s likely a renamed fireball. but if it walks like a firey ball and quacks like a ball of fire why not call it fireball? For the most part the names make it obvious what the power is doing, but it’s easy to slip and get too creative or not include a descriptive line.

Monsters still use the 4e recharge mechanic, which works well. But I wonder if making it a d20 would be easier. With monster attacks having static damage, it would be possible for the DM to run an entire session with just a single die… except if a monster has a recharge. Plus having it use a d20 let’s recharges be retooled by abilities that allow a d20 reroll, including advantage/disadvantage. A leader monster granting advantage on recharging would be interesting.

The oddities of bounded accuracy are also very apparent with this test, with an Asmodeus that seems very low in hit points, damage, and AC. Again, this is likely a test to see how hard people want end boss monsters to be, but currently he looks quite killable for even a level 15 party. Bounded accuracy means not letting the numbers increase while the chance of hitting remains static, but there’s no reason high level monsters might not have a lower chance of being hit. As PCs do have some limited attack and ability boosts, monster numbers should go up a little between levels 1 and 20. Level 20 foes should be rocking a 20-25 AC, and likely some limited DR so they’re not too easily defeated by an army of low level commoners.

Final Thoughts

I’d like to say I like where the playtest is going. I would. I really enjoyed the first couple packages, for the initial simplicity of the game followed by response to feedback. But since then, so much has changed and the core game appears to have bloated a little with Backgrounds and Skills becoming mandatory and Specialities becoming the same. And not all of the changes appear to be going in a direction I like.

Intellectually, I know this is due to the iterative design process. Things will change and not always change for the better because different ideas are being tested at different times. I know that just because something I like was removed does not mean it is gone for good as they might just be trying out a new concept for a package or two. In my mind I know this. But so much of my perceptions of gaming are not informed by my mind. I listen to the voice of my heart, which is so much more reactionary.

So while I already like this edition more than 4e, I’m not sure if I still feel it’s going in the right direction. Mostly because I don’t know what direction it’s going, and with all the changes I’m not feeling like it’s any closer to completion. While the playtest was designed to be this big open process I don’t feel very much in the loop or informed regarding the design. As the playtest continues I’m becoming less and less excited about the new edition at the same time apathy is setting in over the fact the news of 5e is almost a year old.