I signed up for the D&D Next playtest mainly out of morbid curiosity, but I’m really digging it.
(Yes, I know this makes me a terrible traitor to Savage Worlds, but if Sean Preston can write his own game and “Wiggy” Wade-Williams can get on the Ubiquity wagon, then I figure a schlub like me is fine.)
I got started in gaming with AD&D 2nd Edition and all of its different saving throws, bend bars/lift gates chances, and non-weapon proficiencies. A few years of chafing against the restrictions of class and level (even with kits) drove me screaming into the welcoming arms of d6 Star Wars, and then on to Storyteller, Unisystem, and Savage Worlds. I flirted with D&D 3.5 after becoming a fan of “The Order of the Stick” and bought the 4E Red Box for the counters and maps, but I never thought I’d actually enjoy playing a class and level game again.
D&D Next is a much more carefree system than any version of Dungeons & Dragons I’ve ever played. It is explicit and reiterated in the playtest documents that DMs should feel free to make judgment calls, to use or discard optional systems, and make the game their own. The basic mechanic is to just roll against a target number with a bonus based on the relevant ability score (Strength, Dexterity, etc.); this is used for saving throws, skill checks, and whatever else the DM deems necessary.
Like that vaunted Original D&D I read about on the OSR blogs, there isn’t really a skill system; if the DM feels the need to make you roll for success, all you need to do is roll an ability check. If you implement the Backgrounds and Specialties, then your character gets access to a set of three skills that she gets a bonus on. We played our first session without using the optional Backgrounds and Specialties and it was quite successful; we played our second session with them and it was even more fun. Significantly, despite the fact that three of the four PCs has the Stealth skill and the fourth did not, all four player characters were able to sneak around together quite easily. Even with Backgrounds and Specialties, you don’t have to have a skill to use it.
My favorite fantasy writers are Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, so it’s important to me that a fantasy game system be able to mimic their relatively low-magic stories. For whatever perverse reason, none of my players has chosen to play a wizard or cleric yet so I can report that low-magic games work just fine with D&D Next. Honestly, I’d love to start testing out the magic system at this point (because, even more perversely, my favorite setting is the high-magic Forgotten Realms), but I don’t want to play a DMPC wizard to do so.
Speaking about magic, I like how the “rest” and “hit dice” mechanics remove the need for clerics to be walking medicine chests. I know there’s gamers out there who feel this somehow violates the verisimilitude of the game – how can taking a breather let me recover from getting chopped up by a great axe? – but the important thing to remember is that hit points are abstract. They are not necessarily wounds. They also represent fatigue, luck, parrying, and all that might prevent you from receiving an actual wound. That’s why adventurers get more hit points as they level up, as they get better at avoiding death – and that’s why taking a breather let’s you keep fighting. It’s just like in The Fellowship of the Ring when it looks like Frodo was killed by the orc chieftain in the Mines of Moria but it turns out his mithril shirt stopped the spear. He just takes a short rest and keeps going.
D&D Next is a great game for casual role-players. There’s not a bunch of counter-intuitive rules to memorize, there’s no skill lists to master, there’s very little math, and character creation and advancement are very straightforward. Most of my friends aren’t really gamers -- several of them still have trouble telling different dice types apart – but they like getting together to wander the caverns of Blingdenstone and kill orcs. I hate to admit it, but I think D&D Next is going to be my go-to system for gaming with friends for awhile.
(Unless I can talk them into giving Regency/Gothic a try!)