Understanding D&D Next

The public play test of D&D Next has been released.  This preview allows us to get an idea of where they are going with the the successor to 4th edition.  Their stated goal is to simplify the game and return to the roots of the game.  I’d like to break down some of the major changes, using 4E as a starting point, but with references to past editions where useful.

Character Building Blocks

Background and Theme to rise to the prominence of Race and Class

Themes were introduced late in 4E’s lifecycle as a way to add some extra abilities and perks to a character.  In Dark Sun for example, you could add a Noble Adept theme to gain extra psionic power.  This is the best for psionic characters but it could also spice up another character.  In DDN, themes are integrated into the basic gameplay and seem to absorb what was formerly the “role” of the class.  Being a fighter in 4E also made you a defender.  Being a fighter in DDN just makes you a weapon swinging armor wearer.  If you want to be a defender, you’ll take the “guardian” theme, which confers bonuses similar to basic defender powers in 4E.

4E had a large number of classes due to the matrix created by multiplying the four roles (Defender, Striker, Leader, Controller) by the power sources (Martial, Divine, Arcane, Primal, Psionic, Shadow).  Psionic+Defender = Battlemind, for example.  Each class, over its 30 levels, has over a hundred powers.  Many of these powers overlapped or were similar to powers of other classes.  By pulling the role out of the class, the complexity of classes can be reduced substantially.

Backgrounds are also absorbing part of what classes use to provide, mainly skills.  Each background, which are things like “soldier” or “commoner”, provides three skills and a feat-like bonus ability.   Backgrounds in 4E gave smaller bonuses to two skills. Backgrounds help get some flavor for a character, and tying bigger bonuses give a bigger incentive for players to seriously consider them.

Spotlight on Ability Scores

Skills and non-AC defenses mostly removed

Skills have traditionally been the second most complicated system (after combat).  DDN simplifies the system by looking at the reality of skills in 4E.  In 4E, you’re good at the skills your ability scores (Strength, Intelligence, etc) support, decent at a few others, and useless at the rest.  To reflect this, DDN removes the massive skill list.  Instead, skill rolls go through your ability scores (so, Athletics would simply be a Strength check).  Your class, theme, and background can provide specific skill bonuses, and feat training seems likely.  This reduces the list of skills from 17 to just the 3-5 that you have.  Skill bonuses can be (and are, in the play test) much more specific.  The wizard has several different knowledge skills.

Fortitude, Reflex, and Will have been removed and saving throws are back.  The “Non-AC Defenses” (NADs) were part of 4E’s effort to differentiate physical attacks from magical ones and allow some physical attacks to target weaker attributes of opponents.  This has been all but scrapped in DDN and ordinary spells just target AC.  Those that don’t (generally, the most severe ones) cause the defending player to make a saving throw, which target an ability score appropriate for the spell’s effect.

Advantage and Status Effects

Combat advantage spread everywhere

Combat advantage from 4E is a +2 bonus that comes from many situations: flanking a monster with two players, attacking a character that is knocked down, attacking from stealth, etc.  There are -2 penalties as well, though they don’t have a generic name: attacking a character who is partially behind cover, attacking while dazed, etc.  Now these have been given a simpler name, advantage/disadvantage, and have been incorporated into all rolls, such as skill checks.  Advantage and disadvantage negate each other one for one, so if you have two advantageous conditions and one disadvantageous (such as stealth attacking a prone creature while drunk), you simply have advantage.  Multiple advantageous factors don’t provide a multiplied bonus, however.

The way the bonus works has also changed.  If you have advantage, you roll 2d20 and take the higher die.  With disadvantage, you take the lower.  This works out to roughly +2 or -2, but has an interesting effect on the cognitive load put on the person rolling the die.  I hear this conversation often: “I rolled a 19″ “Was that with combat advantage?” “I think so…” “Did you add the +1 for charging?” “Let me recount”. CA is common enough that this kind of confusion happens frequently.  In the situation I outlined, the character would simply have advantage and make the two rolls.

Hit Points and Healing Changes

Hit points per day massively reduced, randomized

This one is pretty deep, so we’ll start with pre-4E, then move forward.  Pre-4E healing was at the mercy of one’s supply of healing potions and the kindness of your clerics.  A character with 20 hp might be able to count on receiving one healing potion and one or two healing spells during a day of adventuring, effectively doubling his starting total for HP he could use before dying.  Keep in mind that neither of these are available at low levels, where potions are too expensive and clerics have few spells.  On the other end, one could hypothetically heal an infinite amount of damage in a day if she had a bag of healing potions.

4E introduced the concept of surges, which represent the amount of wounds a person can be healed in a day.  Each surge restores a quarter of your health, plus any bonus that the healer himself provides.  A weak character might have 6/day (or, 150% of his starting HP) and a tough character might have 12/day (or, 300% of her starting hp).  Anyone can spend surges during a rest, and a night’s sleep restores surges.

DDN seems to revert to a pre-4E system, with a small nod to non-magical healing.  Potions and healers operate in a pre-4E fashion.  Out of combat, characters can use healer’s kits to use their “hit dice”, which allow them to heal some portion of their health back.  A first level character has a single one of these hit dice, which are d6 for weaker characters up to d12 for stronger characters.  Such a character would have around 20 hit points, so a hit dice restores 5% of his health at its worst and 50% at best. For the rest of her healing, she depends completely on healers and healing potions.

This change dramatically shortens the adventuring day from 4E levels.  Your starting health is the majority of the total health you will be able to spend in the day.  As a defensive character, you could take three or four mild hits in a fight and be too wounded to even have a second fight.  This is one of the largest departures from 4E.

Combat and Monsters

Grid made optional, player and monsters powers simplified

The grid becoming optional doesn’t itself change much, but it does remove much of the “design space” of potential powers and spells.  Spells that rely on pushing and pulling or on specific ranges just don’t work.  It moves much of the remaining combat logic to the DM and players.  How many of these 10 goblins are surrounding the fighter?  Is the rogue behind the corner or just near it?  Did the ranger, as he backed away from the ogre, step backwards towards the wall or towards the door?

Player powers are pre-4E style.  Spellcaster have “X casts per day” restrictions and melee character have only basic attacks.  Monsters are similarly simplified.  Whereas there are 4 or 5 different types of low level goblins, each with 2 or 3 powers or tricks, there is one regular goblin and a much, much more powerful boss goblin.


Both the grid change and the simplification of monsters may just be part of the nature of this particular play test.  Wizards has said that they want to have add-on modules that add extra rules to the game, for DMs and players that wish to include them.  Melee characters may have expanded rules as part of this subsystem.  Other changes, like the prominence of ability scores and class changes, seem too deep to swap out with a module modification.  We’ll see what Wizards has in mind.  D&D is certainly a game of house rules, and we’ll see if this core gameplay can serve as a basis for all types of players.