Well now we have it! 15 months after the first eagerly awaited D&D Next play-test pack, Wizards of the Coast have now released the last public pack!! It’ s over … although of course it isn’t. The current pack is still an extremely long way from an actual product: no art, spread among a number of short PDFs, no word on digital tools or 3rd-party licensing, and clearly still a long way from the modular, elegantly expanding game they promised. There is clearly still a huge amount of play testing to be done, as well as much design work rounding out the various classes with more complete ‘sub-class’ options. But all this will be carried out in semi-private, with the target (I guess) of releasing the first actual product at next year’s Gen Con, at the same time the Sundering event closes.
Wizards have come by a lot of flak for the slow speed of the game’s development, drawing unfavourable comparison with other projects such as Monte Cook’s Numenera and Pelgrane Press’s 13th Age. I think we have to take a step back here though: the designers of these games, great though they may be, certainly do not have to cope with the vast range of opinions about the D&D game. As the play test has progressed, every design decision seems to have been greeted with viewpoints all along a wide continuum between extremes, with every opinion coming from someone totally convinced that they are ‘completely right’ about how D&D should be!!
So at the end of this phase, what state is the game in? It is clear that the design team have focused throughout the public play test period on the ‘core’ game – one which they clearly hope will appeal to fans of the older editions – and in fact most of the play-test adventures that have been released in the packets have been pretty minor conversions of old AD&D adventures! This has lead to criticism that the classes particularly are too simple and boring for a ‘modern’ RPG, with not enough options to select when making character choices.
I can understand this point of view: if you compare the number of potential actions a typical 4E 1st level character has compared to a DnD Next one …. well typically there is no comparison. Most of the 1st level DnD Next classes, except for the ones that can cast spells at first level (like, 2 per day …) can take precisely one combat action per turn: Basic Melee Attack!! This was certainly not uncommon back in AD&D 1e/2e days, but it does feel now like a regression! Some classes have extra options or damage they can apply to their basic attack (e.g. Sneak Attack for the rogue), while some have spell-casting options as well as their basic attacks – but even in this case with the return to minimal daily spell slots, a melee attack will often be the default action.
Obviously as characters level up the number of options increases, especially as they hit 2nd/3rd level and select the ‘sub-class’ mechanic (couched as Path, School, Domain, Oath depending on the base class) that the designers have chosen to present class variability using. I’ve seen quite a lot of viewpoints that these are far too pre-packaged, and provide ‘boring’ classes. My opinion is it looks fine, and allows for easy tweaking to integrate class options into particular campaigns and themes. In any case, I expect one of the early optional ‘expansions’ will be a sub-class that is simply: ‘choose any of the sub-class options at the appropriate level’, and everyone should be happy I also think that the lack of alternatives in the current sub-classes (i.e. the powers that are gained at specific levels within a sub-class) are partly the desire to keep the core game simple – there is nothing to prevent a particular build presenting several (e.g.) 7th level options of which the character can choose only one. This package is also the first time that multi-classing has been presented, and it looks pretty elegant; certainly better than the fairly convoluted approach that 4E took!
So what of the remainder of the game (I’ve always felt far too much time and angst is spent on class progression, which is largely irrelevant in actual play!!)? Well, combat has remained relatively stable throughout the play-test, and seems an elegant blend of the simplicity of original D&D and the tactical interest of later editions. I think it allows a fairly complete range of play styles, and there is definitely going to be a optional module presenting as much complexity as you want!! The Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic seems to have been well-received by most people, and has stuck throughout: I think is a real gem – easy and fun to play at the table, and has the added benefit of removing the +/- modifiers from a huge number of powers! Non-combat is also pretty well covered with the skill system, backgrounds, exploration rules etc. I certainly can’t see any major issues with the core rules in terms of in-play usage.
In some ways I’m glad the public play-test has come to an end: I still haven’t actually run any adventures using the rules, although I’ve been working on a mini-campaign, and now that the final packet is out, at least I can go forward without everything changing underneath me. For example, I was actually working on some ideas for this campaign recently, and trying to build some character concepts that would fit into my Havenscoast setting … and then another packet came out … and or sorts of stuff (e.g. skills) I was based this on were gone!! They’re back now, but for a while I was wondering …
The coming months may be quieter in public, but hopefully that means work on the game can continue apace! Whether you’re a fan of DnD Next or not, it’s release is still going to be a massive event for the RPG hobby we all love!