D&D Next Playtest – Character Generation

As promised, the blog is steering away from Pathfinder for the time being to dwell on the D&D Next Playtest. I ran an aborted attempt at the Caves of Chaos back in May, but this time I’m taking a more serious stab at it. I recently ran the first session of a short campaign designed to get the PCs from 1st to 5th level. I’m not using any of the published adventures, instead setting the game in an amateurish mash-up of Mystara and Greyhawk (apologies to anyone who has any affection for those settings).

I’ve thought a little about how best to present these blog-posts. I have a great deal to say, but there doesn’t seem much mileage in posting something 20,000 words long to a blog. So I’m going to split things up a bit. This post deal with character generation; the next post will focus on how the first session went, and then I’ve got some other more thematic posts up my sleeve. The second playtest session will be on 26 September, so hopefully I’ll have a few posts under my belt by then.

All these comments are based on the second playtest packet released by Wizards of the Coast on 17 August 2012.


On the whole, I like the character generation process. It is simple, quick and intuitive. I think it’s fair to say that Neil sat down fairly blind to the system but had a functional fighter up and running in about 45 minutes. The combination of Race, Class, Background and Speciality seem to come together very well for new players. I also think that experienced players would like the freedom to be able to dispense with Background and Speciality and select their own skills and feats accordingly.  Taking things in order from the playtest packet:

Determining Ability Scores

Three out of the four players decided to go old-school and roll 4d6 and drop the lowest die, assigning stats as they wished. Neil grumbled about this, due to his amazing lack of dice rolling skill and sure enough, the elf he generated had obviously been repeatedly dropped on its head as a baby. Taking pity on him, I let me use the standard array (15, 13, 14, 12, 10, 8)  instead.

Herein lies a bit of a problem. D&D Next is a system that is incredibly reliant on ability scores. Skills, base attack bonuses and the like are proportionately much less important to a character. The in-game explanation is that a character’s ability scores represent both inate ability and training. However, it boils down to the fact that a fighter with a high strength and little skill is going to be a better at using a sword than a highly-skilled character with low strength.

I don’t like that at all, but I don’t want to get into a dicussion about the short-comings of the skill system here. My point is that if D&D Next is going to put ability scores front and centre like this, then there needs to be an equitable method of creating those scores. Rolling dice can’t be the default, as its dependence on luck is inherently unfair. There is simply too large a discrepancy between player characters.

A point-buy system similar to 4e or Pathfinder is probably the way to go here. DMs should have the option the use different methods of determining ability scores if they wish: but don’t make that the core assumption.

My second issue with the ability scores is a similar issue to one I have with Pathfinder. High ability scores make characters disproportionately good at everything at first level. Starting characters with very high ability scores find it very easy to punch above their weight. I don’t really want to see a starting character with an ability score of 20, but I got one on the shape of Marc’s warlock. It will be interesting to see how that pans out once we have a few more fights under our collective belts.

A score of 20 is the highest a player character is permitted regardless of race or level. Although I appreciate that much flatter power cure in D&D Next requires bonuses not to rise above a certain point, this strikes me as terribly artificial. PCs have various ways and means to increase their ability scores as they advance in level. Let them. Just set the bar lower for first level characters.

Race

A lot of work has been put into these races: not just in terms of the mechanics, but also in terms of the description and story-related material. This is head and shoulders above the “Play this race if you want to be…” boxes that appear in the fourth edition books. I’m grateful that Wizards has realised that D&D players should be treated as intelligent readers who have moved on from Floppy Phonics.

The new mechanics are also highly flavourful. I’m really pleased to see the return of the sub-races, as it adds a degree of needed variety. Elves, Dwarves and Halflings really feel like Elves, Dwarves and Halflings… both in how they have been traditionally portrayed in D&D over the years, and also in the wider Tolkien-esque sense of the races. The intrinsic racial characteristics we’ve seen in the past have been turned up to 11, which not only makes the mechanics simpler, but also gives the player an awesome trait they can hang their character on.

Elves now have immuuity to sleep and charm; dwarves have immunity to poison. The rules don’t pussyfoot around with trifling bonuses to this and that – which I am grateful for. The dwarf’s immunities led to a quick discussion among the group on the ramifications of poison immunity to a society. Is dwarven food inherently poisonous to other races? Do they use arsenic instead of salt because it tastes better? Surely Dwarven cuisine is something to be feared! A little extrapolation, and suddenly we’re distancing dwarves from other races. We’re making them less human, and better defined. It’s little things like this that get you imagination firing – something that was sadly lacking from 4e.

Elves enjoy Advantage with all Perception-related checks. I think that’s appropriate in principle. The only issue I have with it is that because of the flatter progression of characters, and the low DCs, the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic is pretty powerful. In practice in the sessions I’ve run elves never fail perception checks. Which is all right if you’re playing Legolas, but surely not all elves need to be played that way.

The Stout halfling’s Fearless ability should be singled out for praise. It has a wonderful “Pull-yourself-together-Samwise-Gamgee,-Master-Frodo-needs-you-and-no-mistake” feel to it. I like that.

Also, I like mechanic for increasing the hit dice of weapons. However, I’m not convinced that increasing 1d12 to 2d6 for dwarven axes is a good deal. Marc assures me it’s mathematically sound, but it nags at me. Sure the dwarf will do more average damage with his axe, but he’ll have less chance of doing maximum damage than an non-dwarf using the same weapon. That strikes me as wrong. Why not increase the die from 1d12 to 2d8? That would suit me better.

And finally: humans. We’re definitely following on from the third edition convention that humans are both the blandest and most desirable PC race – at least from a mechanical perspective. They get +1 to every ability score except for the one which they get +2 in. That’s a massive, massive advantage in D&D Next. Just look at the rules as you’ll see how massive. When Marc generated his character, all the naked die rolls were odd. Make the character human gave him +1 to absolutely everything. Fortunately, I don’t think this mechanical advatantage overshadows the flavour of the other races. So I only have one human at the table.

Classes

I don’t want to go too much into the mechanics of each class here. It seems more appropriate to discuss them in play. Therefore, I’ll just give a quick overview of each one as they appear to me on paper.

Clerics

What I’m looking for in a cleric is a class that is versatile enough to represent the followers of numerous different gods. I want my cleric of the God of Fire to be completely different to my cleric of the God of Trade: different abilities, different spells and different skills. The very best example of this in published D&D are the Clerics of Specific Mythoi from 2nd edition. Second edition enjoyed all cleric spells being divided into Spheres, and each cleric having access to a limited number of different Spheres. Combine this with unique and flavourful powers at different levels, and two clerics who worshipped different gods didn’t even ressemble the same class. This is what I want to see captured in D&D Next.

The cleric isn’t quite there yet. The Domains are promising, but they are not creating quite the divergence between clerics of different gods that I would like to see. I approve of Channel Divinity, and I definitely like the fact that Turn Undead is now a spell and not something common to all clerics. Improvements to the cleric would generally come from improvements to the description, presentation and classification of spells (which I’ll come to below).

However, none of my players even considered playing a cleric. James had played one back in May so maybe he just didn’t want to repeat himself… but no-one else seemed at all inclined. There’s nothing that makes the cleric more mechanically undesirable than any other class, so is this  a prejudice against clerics themselves? I don’t think a party needs a cleric at all: the healing in D&D Next is well handled, and as long as a party has a healing kit or some potions they should be fine. There’s no need for a healing class like the 4e Warlord. But it does raise an interesting point: how does Wizards of the Coast make the cleric sexy again?

Fighter

The big news here is the inclusion of Combat Superiority: the die the fighter gets that he can use the inflict extra damage, mitigate damage, and perform some interesting combat manoeuvres. The fighter selects a fighting style, and that lists the combat manoeuvres that the fighter will master as he gains levels. On paper I thought this was fantastic, and during the session I thought it was fantastic too.

I have two slight comments/worries about the system. Firstly, there needs to be more freedom of choice. Fighting Styles should be suggestions and not straight-jackets. If I want my fighter to have Protect, Precise Shot and Cleave then I should. Secondly, I’m concerned about other characters trying out the fighter’s signature manoeuvres.

At the moment, there are no rules in the game for what third edition would refer to as “actions in combat”. There are no rules for pushing, tripping, barging, throwing or even grappling (despite it being mentioned elsewhere in the rules). Now I know that of lot of these manoeuvres would need rewriting from their 3rd or 4th edition versions to work in a game sans battle grid. But they still need to be there.

Push, Tumble and Knock Down are among the fighter’s repetoire of combat manouevres. Arguably anyone can attempt to do those things, not just a fighter. The Combat Superiority mechanic makes the fighter better at it, and more likely to succeed, but naked common sense says that even a wizard can try to push an orc over. At the moment this aspect of the game is too woolly and needs firming up.

Rogue

Quite a few issues here. Skill Mastery is simply too good. “When you determine the bonus for each of your skills, you use your associated ability modifier, or +3, whichever is higher”. Why? Because some people moaned that a rogue needed to be stealthy to sneak about, but also wise to spot traps. Well, boo hoo. Even rogues can be bad at things! Any character is as much defined by what they can’t do as what they can. And by assuming all ability score modifiers are +3 and then layering on a Take 10 ability (rising to Take 11 at level five), you’re simply making the character too good across the board.

This is one of the problems of making the ability score count for more than skill ranks. In third edition a character could work to overcome the drawback of a poor ability score in some skills. In D&D Next (or 4e) that’s never really possible.

The Rogue Scheme grants a number of abilities (fine) but also gives the Rogue a second background. What’s the point in that? If you want to give the rogue more skills then simply give him more skills. Don’t use the background rules to do it, especially when backgrounds might be optional to all other classes. Plus Thief and Thug are already backgrounds. So any rogue that takes the Thief background also gets Thug, and any rogue that takes Thug also gets Thief… making most rogues functionally identical.

Sneak Attack does too much damage. If you have an NPC rogue with this ability, he will be able to kill a PC of the same level with one blow. And don’t tell me that I shouldn’t be using PC character creation rules to invent adversaries for the party. Of course I want to do this. As do many GMs. Separating PCs and NPCs/Monsters into different rules was the worse thing about 4e and made it impossible for me to run the game. I can’t be alone in this. A third edition rogue gets +1d6 sneak attack every other level. Why is it 1d6 + 1d6/level in D&D Next. That’s an enormous increase in potency.

The Knack ability doesn’t make any sense at all. “Twice per day you can give yourself advantage on one check”. How? Why? It’s an ability that can’t be explained in the real world. And I don’t want to hear that the rogue picks his moment to strike and only gets a couple of opportunities each day: that’s a load of old rubbish. This is the reason the martial powers made zero sense in 4e. The text says you smack your foe on the head to daze him. You can only do that once per day because…. because… well actually there’s no reason at all except for “game balance” which is a pretty poor reason.

Knack is just like that. It can’t be explained from a story perspective, and everything must be explained from a story perspective.  Why not simply have Knack introduce new ways in which a rogue can set up Advantage, and then it’s up to the player to try and take advantage of those options whenever he can? It makes much more sense. This stops the rogue being able to automatically turn Sneak Attack on twice per day, like a TV remote with faulty batteries.

Wizard

No wizard in the party this time either, but I think that stems more from a desire to try out the warlock or the sorcerer. I’ve not much to say except to point out how much I like the idea for rituals. Vancian casting actually makes sense. It normally takes minutes to cast a spell. A wizard can “pre-cast” magic and hold it in his mind, but he can only hold a certain number of such spells per day, or at any one time. Of course, that understanding would mean that all spells would require a ritual version.

Sorcerer

New blood! I do like the new sorcerer. He seems properly different from the wizard, and the Sorcerous Origin provides a series of abilities that will differentiate sorcerers from one another. Of course, we only have one to look at right now: the Draconic Heritage. I love the spell point system for casting magic, and also like the fact that the more Willpower you spend the more likely you are to lose control, and your sorcerous aspect is to assert itself.

So although you can activate spells and draconic powers by spending Willpower, you get natty draconic abilities for free each day as your willpower diminishes. So once you’ve spent 3 willpower you get claws, once you’ve spent 10 you get scales and so it. This creates an interesting dichotomy in the character in that you’re a half spellcaster and half warrior quite literally: a spellcaster in the morning, and a warrior in the afternoon.

My one observation is that in campaigns with less combat (like many of mine) it’s possible that some days the sorcerer may never get to the point at which his draconic heritage manifests. Which is a shame if it means a whole suite of abilities is always unavailable to the character.

Warlock

This looks excellent. The Warlock pact gives you specific powers at certain levels. The first thing I thought when I read it was why not develop the cleric along similar lines? I like it that warlock invocations are separate from the normal spell list, but I then ask why wizards, sorcerers and clerics are sharing the same list. A greater separation of spell lists (either by class or power source) would help to differentiate the other spellcasters as well as the warlock.

Eldritch blast seems very powerful. More so even than the rogue’s sneak attack at low levels – although it looks as though Sneak Attack over takes it by level four. The other invocations are solid, and I like the way that simply knowing a spell granted by the patron changes the warlock in some way. Where were all these good ideas in 4e?

The rules for favours is interesting. Warlocks are effectively limited to two spells and/or patron abilties per encounter (they are restored by a short rest). There’s no indication that the number of available favours increase as the warlock gains levels, and this might be the one thing that saves the wizard from always being in the warlock’s shadow, expecially as the walock also (rightly) has access to ritual magic.

Backgrounds

My feelings to backgrounds are mixed. I’ve always asked players to give me backgrounds for their characters and I’ve been lucky enough to have players that have always wanted to create a rich back story for their characters. From those backgrounds we’ve worked together to create important allies, enemies and story threads that can be woven into the wider campaign. I know there are some D&D groups that don’t do this, and I guess that Backgrounds provide a novel way to flesh out a character for those players. Otherwise, I think they’re a bit of a waste of time.

I actively dislike most of the traits that are listed. Here’s what it says for the thug: “No matter where you go, people are afraid of you due to your connections to the dangerous criminal underworld or your history of violence. When you are in a place of civilization, you can get away with minor criminal offenses, such as refusing to pay for food at the tavern or breaking down doors at a local shop, since most people will not report your activity to the authorities.”

Or the one for the sage: “When you attempt to learn or recall a piece of lore, if you do not know that information, you always know where and from whom you can obtain that information. Usually, this information comes from a library, scriptorium, university, or a sage or other learned person or creature.”

I can’t see abilities such as these fitting into the campaigns I run. Each action must have consequences. If a player decides to stiff the innkeeper then it’s up to me decide whether the innkeeper is the sort of man who would have an issue with it. If the players wants to hammer home his point then let him make an Intimidate check (which would presumably be fairly high with his character concept). Obtaining lore and other information is crucial to any game I’ve ever run. Giving anyone with the sage background carte blanche to find out anything is ridiculous.

The trouble is that once these points are enshrined in a rulebook they become very hard to avoid.  A player might point to that fact that he has a trait that says he has contacts that find out any fact for him. It’s only a matter of time before one of them delivers him Orcus’s true name, so it might as well be something that’s done between sessions. Worse: backgrounds may limit player creativity. Rather than coming up with something truly original, the player just looks through a list of pregenerated choices and picks one that has the most advantageous mechanical benefits.

What I do like is that the new system divorces skills from character classes. There’s no reason why a fighter can’t be skilled in Religion and Perception, or a Wizard can’t be a great swimmer. This is a good decision. However, if I were to GM a proper campaign with these rules, I think I’d just instruct the players to choose three skills and come up with their own character background. I wouldn’t touch the background traits at all in their current form. They’re too limiting.

During  character generation Malcolm felt that characters didn’t get enough skills. This was a universally agreed on point, as was the fact that the skill system itself is largely rubbish. I won’t dwell on this here because I have a nice tirade on fifth edition skills to post at a later date. However, three skills for one character is clearly not enough. The skill list needs to be longer, and characters need more versatility. Third edition had a great skill system, fourth edition did not.

In D&D Next, Backgrounds are optional: therefore skills are optional. If skills are going to be an optional part of the game anyway, then you might as well make an attempt to create something a little more meaningful for the people who want to use them. The third edition skill system should be their base model.

Specialities

Okay, so Specialities are effectively feat-trees telling players what feats they should be choosing at levels 1, 3, 6, 9 and every three levels thereafter. There’s nothing more to them than that. They are a shorthand approach to character generation. You don’t need to wade through a hundred sourcebooks looking for the perfect feat: just pick a speciality at character generation and the job is done.

Of course, I would expect to be able to ignore this restriction and tell players that they get a feat at levels 1, 3 and 6 and they can choose any feat for which they qualify. I haven’t done that for the playtest, but it is probably the way I’d handle a proper campaign.

Looking at the feats themselves, it’s worth point out that an effort has been made to make each feat unique, desirable and cool. All of the boring and bland mechanical benefits (+1 to hit with weapon X, +1 to AC when the moon is full, your special ability does +1d6 extra damage etc.) from 4e is gone. These feats are even more outlandish than third edition, just look at the necromancer speciality for examples. But I think I like this. D&D Next makes feats awesome again. It’s about time.

Now the party of four that we wound up with at the end of the process had two Survivors… so I think it’s worth noting that the Toughness feat is pretty desirable in its current form.

Magic and Spells

Just a quick note on this.  The arcane triumverate (Wizard/Warlock/Sorcerer) present three different magic systems. The other spellcaster in the game (the Cleric) shares the same magic system as the Wizard – more or less. The cleric is a little more versatile. If this is the way the game is going, then I think I could get on board. Yes, I could run this as a campaign without changing the magic rules.

I think I’d prefer an official option that allows me to use a different spell system for Wizards and Clerics, but if that doesn’t materialise I think I would be happy with the actual casting mechanics in my game world (no, not Iourn).

What I’m not happy with is the spell list. The spells need greater classification. Let’s see spell lists for individual classes or for the wider ‘power sources’: i.e. Arcane spells, and Divine spells. Let’s see a cleric’s spells subdivivded into Spheres. Let’s see descriptors. All these things make it easier to manipulate and reference magic.

The wordier presentation of the spells is 10,000% better than the boring descriptions in the 4e books. However, I would like to see a little more scaling in terms of spell-power. I’d likely to see more spells that last for 1 round per level, or inflict 1d6 damage per level rather than inflicting a set amount of damage, or lasting until “the end of your next turn”. I want things with a good beefy duration, and spells that continue to improve for at least five levels over their minimum caster level.

There’s been a lot of talk about making fighters feel like fighters. Well, wizards have to feel like wizards too.

Wounds and Healing

The last thing we decided during character generation was which healing variant we’d use. The group felt that getting all your hit points back after a long rest was unrealistic, so they opted for the “Slower Hit Point recovery” variant. This was quite a brave decision with no cleric in the party, but we all agreed it was the way to go. Generally, we like the Hit Dice mechanic for healing, so this seemed to be the best option.

The Final Party

After all of that, these were the four PCs that were created:

  • James: “Renko Silverbeard” – hill dwarf sorcerer, bounty hunter background, survivor speciality
  • Malcolm: “Adric Hummerstone” – hill dwarf rogue, charlatan and thug backgrounds, jack-of-all trades speciality
  • Marc: “Lord Wilhelm Cryton” – human warlock, noble background, necromancer speciality
  • Neil: “Erannis” – high elf fighter (slayer), bounty hunter background, survivor speciality

Next time, we’ll look at how the first session went.

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5 thoughts on “D&D Next Playtest – Character Generation

  1. You say:
    “There’s been a lot of talk about making fighters feel like fighters. Well, wizards have to feel like wizards too.”

    I say : why bother – you’ll only decide they’re over powered in 2 years and set about downpowering them.

  2. No druids in the playtest yet. Only clerics, fighters, rogues, wizards, warlocks and sorcerers.

    You know that I’ve never done anything other than increase the power of wizards. I have have down-powered my house rules, but the wizard is still significantly more powerful and versatile than the Pathfinder/Third Edition rules would have it.

  3. I’m a tad confused concerning skills (especially Knowledge, for the Sage background). Is each skill allotted +3 at 1st level? Or is it +3 divided as the player sees fit at 1st level?

    • Hi there. My understanding is that the +3 bonus applies to all skills in which you are trained. So if you select the Sage background, you choose four Knowledge skills (e.g. arcana, folklore, nature and religion) and the check for each of those skills is you Intelligence Modifier +3.

      At least that’s how it works in the sixth playtest packet (dated 13 November 2012). The static modifier might be replaced by bonus dice in a future revision.

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