D&D Next Playtest Nearing Its End, Still Making Big Changes

(If you haven’t read anything about D&D Next so far, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of my articles covering the changes in the system. Some of that stuff is now a bit old/obsolete, but the majority still applies)

Skill-free

Skills are gone. A large part of the game since 3rd edition, the removal of skills further pushes DDN towards simplicity.  Knowledge skills have been replaced with Lores. Things such as “Cultural Lore”, “Natural Lore”, and “Planar Lore” reflect a character’s knowledge.  Having a relevant lore is a huge bonus, granting a +10 on checks.

Class-, race- and feat-specific bonuses are pretty similar to before.  Rather than getting a +2 on Perception, Elves’ Keen Vision gives Advantage (roll twice, keep higher) when trying to spot or listen.  Half-Orcs get a similar Advantage on Intimidate checks.  Some of these bonuses could be a bit less specific and a bit more fluid than they were in editions past, mainly because the change in how these checks are made.

Ability checks (d20 + ability score bonus) are the main way skill-like checks are now resolved.  The playtest documents give examples for all of the ability scores, and they are what you would expect. Each ability score that was tied to a skill is now the main source of bonuses to actions related to that skill.  Want to be good at climbing or jumping? High Strength will help you get there.  Want to sense someone’s motive (aka Insight)? Wisdom will make you better at it.

Skills and Scaling and Stacking and NUMBERS

Previous DDN playtests removed the majority of scaling factors from the game. These changes reduced the rate at which characters grow in power as they level up.  The removal of skills and skill training reduces things again, but in a different way.  Skill training locks in at level 1 and stays roughly the same throughout the character’s career.  With the removal of skills, characters are more similar to each other at level 1 and thus stay relatively closer as they level.  Let’s look at a 4E situation where skills were a bit problematic and then discuss how DDN’s changes address it.

Aklanth, the goliath warlord, and Isab, the deva wizard, both want to jump across a pit.  Due to his high strength, class skill, and multiple goliath bonuses, Aklanth has +12 to this roll and may roll it twice at level 1. Isab has low strength, no class skill, and no racial bonuses, giving him -1 on this roll.

On a d20, roll-twice-keep-highest raises the average roll by just under +4 (see Tyler Akins’ useful page for more info). This means that Aklanth’s average roll is approximately 26, whereas Isab’s is 9.5. Though it seems cool that Aklanth is appropriately superior at his specialty, these numbers create problems at actual table play.

A DC10 pit is pretty challenging (50/50) for Isab, but is below trivial for Aklanth. Even a DC16 pit is almost totally trivial for Aklanth and borders on impossible for Isab.  A pit that would provide Aklanth a decent challenge (50/50) would be DC26, but even with heavy situational bonuses would be impossible for Isab. These numbers separate further as characters level up, as Aklanth Strength grows and he gains equipment and feats to make him even better.

Highly differentiated skill levels makes coming up with DCs quite difficult.  DCs also need to be adjusted based on party composition, and makes DCs in printed adventures often a bad fit for a particular party.  Skill challenges can turn into a weird search of everyone’s character sheets, trying to justify how a fighter fits into a diplomatic scenario or how a cleric aids in a white water boating challenge.  It also makes group skill checks, such as a group Stealth check, basically impossible as most monsters’ passive perception will crush the feeble rolls of non-Rogue characters.

When looking at DDN, we’ll see that these characters would still be quite differentiated, but no so much so that they are in totally different leagues from level 1.  Aklanth’s ability bonus would probably be +4 instead of +5, due to ability scores being somewhat lower in DDN.  With skills gone, he’d lose his +5 skill bonus, too.  Goliaths are not in the playtest, but we could infer based on other races that they’d probably have Advantage on jumps and climbs  Also due to the removal of skills, Aklanth wouldn’t have a +2 racial bonus to athletics.

Instead of +12 as well as a double-roll on jumping, Aklanth would have a much more modest +4 plus double roll (now called Advantage in DDN). Isab would probably still have his feeble -1.  This might seem like a huge nerf, but there’s still a large amount of differentiation between these characters!  See this chart, remembering that DCs are much lower across the board in DDN to compensate:

DC Aklanth Isab
Easy (7) 98% 70%
Tough (13) 80% 30%
Almost Impossible (18) 58% 10%

You can see that we don’t even have to hit 20 to start to really challenge Aklanth, and his bonuses from Strength and his race still give him a ton of differentiation from other party members.  Where this gets especially interesting is when a character has some bonus (perhaps due to race) but isn’t specialized.  Let’s take Orilo, a Goliath Cleric who only has a +1 bonus from strength, but has Advantage due to her race.  Compared to Aklanth, she’s a pretty proficient jumper:

DC Aklanth Orilo
Easy (7) 98% 80%
Tough (13) 80% 70%
Almost Impossible (18) 58% 36%

There is a solid, but not huge difference between the characters.  In 4E, Aklanth would still be over 100% when it came to DC18!  Keeping skill checks differentiated, but not radically so, should make skill-like checks much more fun in general in DDN.

New opportunities

Removing skills also removes some cookie cuttering from the game, and will hopefully improve and encourage improvisation.  What skill should it be to tie someone up with a rope?  Well, without skills, one instead looks at the ability scores. A dwarf might use his Strength to tighten the rope or Wisdom to know some common escape manuevers.  A elf might use Dexterity to make a particularly intricate knot or use Intelligence to remember of several advanced knots that are difficult to defeat.

I’m a fan of the “idea with justification” style of skill rolls, and I think simplifying the system allows for more of that.  It also greatly reduces what the players have to reference and remember, as it uses the same ability scores that spells, attacks, and other subsystems use.  The removal of skills is a deep cut, but I think it to be a reasonable one with significant advantages.

Feats

Feats are overhauled and are actually optional.  Every few levels, but not before level 4, characters get an Ability Score Improvement.  This grants two points which can be be use twice on one skill or spread between two.  ASIs come at different levels for each class, mainly to plug bonuses into levels that don’t have much else going on. Barbarians, for example, get ASIs at 4, 9, 13, and 18, whereas Clerics get them at 4, 6, 12, 16, and 19. Fighters, perhaps calling back to traditional Fighter bonuses to feats, have 7 levels with ASIs.

Instead of taking an ASI, a player may instead select a Feat. Because they are so rare and actual cost ability score points to take, they’re much more powerful than 3E or 4E. They’re almost like an entire Specialization track from early DDN playtests. For example, here is the Archery Master feat:

  • You gain proficiency with martial ranged weapons.
  • Attacking at long range doesn’t impose disadvantage on your ranged attack rolls.
  • Your ranged attacks ignore half cover and three-quarters cover.
  • Once on your turn when you use your action to make a ranged attack with a short bow or long bow, you can make one additional ranged attack with that bow, but all of the attacks that are part of the action take a –5 penalty to the attack roll.

That’s a lot! Another feat, Lucky, gives 3 rerolls of d20s per day. Tactical Warrior basically gives the whole Marking system from 4E to a character.

When you remember that you’re taking this over, say, +2 Dex, it makes more sense.  Feats are now an optional subsystem with ASIs being the main-line alternate.  Since Ability Checks are the replacement for skills, ASIs are also a good route for skill-minded character archetypes.

Subclasses

Subclasses are a new concept and have different names for each class: Paladins call them Oaths, Mages call them Schools, Rangers call them Favored Enemy.

Whatever they are called, subclasses are a mix of Class Features and Paragon Paths from 4E. You pick your subclass at level 3, and it gives a bonus every few levels.  Spellcaster classes generally get new spells available to them or bonuses with those spells.  Other classes get a variety of themed bonuses every few levels.

For example, the Fighter has three subclasses: Gladiator, Knight, and Warrior.

Gladiator grafts in the majority of the expertise-and-manuever system from earlier DDN playtests, and is fairly complex.  Each turn you get a bunch of smaller add-on maneuvers to choose from to modify your actions. It’s pretty complex but probably not moreso than the average mid-level 4E character.

Knight is mainly a Mark/Taunt defender with a few complex powers related to getting and keeping your enemies’ attention.

Warrior crits more often and really hard, but not much else.

The DDN dev team seems to be doing several things with subclasses.  Subclasses provide a lot of plug-and-play versatility in a class.  They also allow players to choose the level of complexity they want in their class, allowing for a 4E-style choice between PHB- and Essentials-level complexity. Finally, new subclasses will make fine fodder for supplemental material like splat books and web site articles.

Conclusion

Wizards has mentioned that this is probably the second to last playtest packet that will be released, so we’re starting to see the overall structure for character creation firm up:

  • Strong emphasis on character class and ability checks
  • A little flavor provided by background and race
  • Magic items, feats, and subclasses provide few scaling bonuses but instead give large orthogonal bonuses

Much of the philosophy of DDN has stayed the same from the start: simpler, fewer numbers, orthogonal bonuses, and optional complexity for those that want it.  I’m pretty happy with recent developments in the system, especially as they aid making the game more inclusive for a variety of players.