I have finally finished reading the DnD Next* playtest materials! It took me way too long to get through it all considering how relatively short it all was, but I did it. Add to that the fact that it took me a couple of days to write this, and that everyone and their brother has pretty much already written this post... feel free to skip this, and instead go read my posts about Dogs in the Dungeon.
My overall initial impression is that they took 3.x added in some of the best bits of 2e and 4e and mashed them all together with a liberal dash of house rules. I really get the feeling that had this rules set been put out last year as a “fantasy heartbreaker” that it would have garnered a fair amount of positive attention from the old school gaming crowd.
Now, onto specifics:
The Caves of Chaos
It’s been awhile since I last read B2 The Caves of Chaos. I think I actually read the silver anniversary edition Return to the Caves of Chaos more recently, but it seems very similar to what I remember of the original. I don’t remember the various plot hooks, or the discussion about the possible relations between the tribes, except for the goblins bribing the ogre for help. The fact that the adventure plot is left up to the DM, that the tribal relations are left up to the DM, that the entire tone of the adventure is left up to the DM is very old school. While the Caves of Chaos may be old, and showing it’s age a bit, I think it was a good choice to open the playtest with. I’m hoping that next they use a 4e module, just to show how that might work with DnD Next.
On one hand this is a pretty basic collection of very typical monsters. On the other hand, I really love the Lore sections for the monsters. Each one was different, with an interesting factoid, and it seemed like just the sort of info that adventurers would collect. I especially found the cultists fluff to be really evocative. Three things that really stood out for me was the lack of morale, and the fact that basic rats were individual creatures rather than a swarm... Lastly, zombies. I miss the instant kill with a crit.
How to Play
Checks and Contests, pretty familiar.
Ability score checks for saving throws? Interesting.
Exploration, standard sorts of stuff.
Combat - I love that “Improvise” is a specific action open to all. Did it need to be spelled out? Maybe not, but then again, maybe in the age of MMORPGs, it is?
Advantage and Disadvantage... I can see these getting a lot of mileage.
Death and dying and healing... I think the threat needs to be ratcheted up a little bit. I say this as a non-killer DM.
12 conditions seems like a pretty workable number, especially when one is intoxicated!
Equipment - I feel like the armor table is problematic. There are a couple of armors on there that just seem like they aren’t going to get a lot of use. I can’t see anyone getting ring mail over studded leather.
Weapons, I like the breakdown in types, and I think that the resistance and vulnerability to types, used sparingly, could be a lot of fun.
Acid, Oil, and Holy Water rather got nerfed didn’t they?
Magic - I’m glad the wizard and cleric get access to cantrips and orisons! Not sure how it’ll work in play as written, but with wizards especially I like to see them able to fling basic combat spells at will.
Rituals - I’m also glad to see rituals being available to spell casters in those situations where having a spell available in a memorized slot would be (most of the time) not worth it. Combined with the material component costs, I think this will work out quite well.
I like how much attention is given to when to use dice and when not to, especially with checks. Specifically the ability score threshold idea.
Sorry if some of that was vague. If you have the playtest materials, you know what I'm talking about I think, and if you don't, you should go get them! They're free, and your voice might just have an impact on DnD Next!
*I really wish they’d just give it a better name. DnD Next sounds like New Coke. How about D&D Ultimate Edition? Or even just 5e?