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Playtest: First Round Overview
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

B y now, you probably have had a chance to take a look at the first round of D&D playtest materials. This week, I'm going to walk you through the different elements of the game to give you insight into how we arrived where we are and where we want to go next. It's probably helpful to have the files handy as you read this, or to at least have read them. If not, you can sign up to be part of the playtest here.

Character Classes
First of all, big thanks go to Jon Schindehette and Emi Tanji for their great work on the character sheet. We thought about going with a plain text file, but I'm a big believer that character sheets tell you a lot about a game. We wanted a sheet that didn't look like a tax form, and having Jon and Emi mock something up for us told us a lot about how the game would look like when a graphic designer looked at the rules and decided on the best way to present them.

Dwarf Cleric of Moradin and Human Cleric of Pelor: It was clear from the feedback we received from initial playtests that people were unhappy with clerics. The two biggest issues we saw were a call for more healing and a feeling that clerics weren't wielding enough magic. We did see that a good chunk of people were happy to play a traditional, AD&D-inspired cleric. What you see in the first round of playtest materials is our stab at representing the classic, heavily armored cleric from the game's earliest days with one domain and a more spell-based cleric with another domain.

The guardian theme draws on the concept of the defender role in 4E, while the healer theme speaks to the leader. These are but two expressions of the role concept in themes, and you will likely see more. For instance, a bodyguard might interpose himself between his allies and attackers, while a tactician might use her tactical insight to improve the group's combat abilities. Of course, plenty of themes don't speak to any specific role.

I wrote about turn undead a while back, and you can see from this cleric's Channel Divinity ability that we settled on making it a spell. We'll see how that goes in the playtest.

Finally, we introduced a new mechanic for cleric spell preparation. Right now, clerics function similar to 3E's sorcerer class with one big exception. A cleric picks spells to prepare, but can then cast any of those spells as long as he or she has an available spell slot to expend. The slot must be the spell's level or higher. We wanted to make cleric magic feel different from the wizard's spells, while also making it easy to use healing spells as needed.

One final detail: the current cleric's warhammer deals 1d10 damage. The warhammer in the equipment section uses a d8 for its damage. For the races, we decided to use a mechanic that improves a weapon's die to indicate a racial affinity for a weapon. This cuts down on math at the table and also means that you need to look only to your abilities and class for modifiers.

Dwarf Fighter: This particular pregen represents a fairly simple fighter. This character relies on a big axe and the slayer theme to cause havoc on the battlefield. Also, remember how the dwarf cleric did more damage with a warhammer? You can see a similar mechanic with the fighter's Hit Die. Fighters use a d10, but this hill dwarf uses a d12.

We're thinking about granting fighters two themes at 1st level, so if you want to test that I'd suggest grabbing the dwarf cleric's guardian theme and adding it to this fighter. We're looking to introduce combat maneuvers by using themes, so you can expect to see those in the near future.

Finally, it's worth noting the "old school" mode that we mention on the character sheets. Our philosophy with this game has been to limit all the expected bonuses and math progression to the classes. You can play with or without themes and/or backgrounds while also removing Hit Dice. The game becomes deadlier and relies more on player ingenuity and planning rather than direct combat. This set of changes points to how we want to approach rules modules. Try playing the game with those modifications and see how it matches up against AD&D.

Elf Wizard: To be honest, I was a little surprised at how much positive feedback we received on at-will spells for the wizard from initial playtesting. Most players were either happy we kept them in the game or were excited to see them implemented.

We thought about casting minor spells as the kind of thing a wizard might use around a laboratory that also happened to be useful in a fight. For example, a cantrip used to ignite a torch could also burn a goblin. At the last minute, however, we decided that trying to make that design work would take too long to hit this playtest. Since getting the feel of the game is a big priority of the test, we'll be listening to feedback on how this plays out. If you want an old-school feel, remove both the cleric and the wizard minor spells, and give the wizard a brace of daggers.

I have to admit that I like our familiar rules, especially when Jeremy Crawford sends his familiar forward during a playtest and it dies horribly. My cleric, Clark of Griswold, loves that.

Halfling Rogue: The biggest new thing with the halfling rogue character sits under the Skill Mastery header on the second page. To reflect mastery in a skill, when a rogue makes a check using a skill in which the rogue has training, his or her minimum die result is 10. Keep in mind that this applies to the skills the rogue receives from the thief scheme and from the commoner background.

In play, Skill Mastery has made rogues the most reliable skill users without forcing their total check results too high up the scale. This means that a DM doesn't need to distort the range of suggested DCs to challenge a rogue. Instead, the rogue is equally challenged by high DCs, but easily succeeds at low to middling ones. A rogue can sneak by a snoozing orc or a clueless goblin, but a sharp-eyed gnoll might still spot him.

How to Play File

Here's a general overview of some new or modified elements to the game that you'll see in the playtest.

Contests: We decided to call out opposed checks with a different name while still folding them under the check banner. This allows for more natural language. We can say, "Contest the orc's Strength with your Strength" in text, which is smoother and matches natural English better than "Make an opposed check using your Strength against the orc's Strength." Having rules terms that are both verbs and nouns is handy.

Advantage and Disadvantage: Here's another place where we tried to cut down on math at the table while also making this mechanic play a bigger role in the game. Advantage and disadvantage used to be a –2 penalty. By rolling two dice and taking the higher or lower result, we hope to make it easier to resolve situations that call for these rolls. Also, it's much more forgiving if you forget to apply it, but have already picked up your d20 (and can't remember what the result of the die roll was). Let's say you make an attack and miss, but forgot to apply the advantage granted by a cleric's spell. If you remember it after you picked up your die, you can simply roll the attack again. The same applies to disadvantage. If you hit and picked up the die, you can just roll again. If the second roll misses, you missed.

Ability Scores: These are now the heart of the resolution system in the game. Skills are merely situational modifiers, with specific tools or training called out if they are required to attempt a check. For instance, you can't pick a lock without thieves' tools.

Movement: These rules are another example of our attempt to focus on abilities rather than skills. We assume that swimming, climbing, and jumping don't require any special checks. The default is that you simply swim across a pond or climb a broken wall. Checks come in only if a situation is particularly difficult, just like walking across a slick patch of ice might require a check.

With this change, we can simply say that moving or swimming "costs" twice as much of your speed. For jumping, we did a little research and tried to find a rule that both models reality and is fairly easy to remember.

Stealth: These rules are a good example of how we tried to start with the important rules, and then worked backward to address other areas of the game. To design stealth, we first decided that we wanted rogues to be able to hide in situations where other characters cannot. This decision is a call back to the original Hide in Shadows thief ability. We then decided that we needed three levels of illumination or obscuring effects.

Nobody can hide in bright light or without an obscuring element unless they are invisible.

Rogues and other stealthy monsters and characters can hide in shadows or if they are partially obscured.

Anyone can try to hide in darkness or if they are fully obscured from view.

With this ladder in mind, we then looped around and used it to create our guidelines for lighting.

You'll also note that hiding is now a contest. If a rogue hides and no one is around to see him, don't bother with rolling the dice unless you want to record the result for future contests. I like having the rogue not bother rolling, since it leaves the result up in the air until the rogue actually has to avoid someone or something.

Combat: The big change here is slicing things down to one action and a move. We've found that this really speeds up play by cutting down on the number of decisions each player must make. That pace was overwhelmingly popular in our playtests, though we'll see how it holds up in the public eye.

Hit Dice: This was a big change made in response to initial playtesting comments that the game didn't have enough healing. We also inflated hit points a little bit to err on the side of characters surviving a combat. At this stage, we want to test the core system. We'll refine the system math as we move forward in response to how people want the game to play out.

As I mentioned above, you can easily remove Hit Dice if you so choose. The only mechanic outside of the actual Hit Dice rules that refers to them is the cleric's second feat. Even that feat is still useful without Hit Dice. Try the game without them and see how it feels.

Conditions: Our condition list is a little slimmer than it has been in the past. We decided that a condition should represent a physical change to a character in the world, and we will usually rely on the specific spell or monster ability to give a few other effects to fully model what's going on. For instance, a mind flayer's ability to dominate a creature might charm it and also cause an additional effect that we describe in the ability.

We chose the names of the conditions to allow for better wording. Paladins now cannot be frightened, and by extension they ignore effects that frighten creatures and do something else. The same applies to charmed for elves. Going back to the example above and looking at how to implement it somewhat differently, the mind flayer's domination might not refer to charmed because it isn't magic based on deceit or manipulation, but instead a brute force attempt to seize control of a creature's mind.

Equipment: We decided to simplify weapons and allow special abilities to come in by using themes. Thus, the typical character can just pick a weapon and go. The specialist can look at the themes and decide to focus on an axe or sword, and use feats to unlock special abilities based on those weapons.

Right now, we're thinking that buying equipment will be optional. Your background and class give you a set of starting gear. This allows us to seed some fun options in backgrounds. For instance, a smuggler might start with a few hidden pockets sewn into his or her belt. A noble might have a set of fancy clothes for formal ball.

Spells: The spell rules should look familiar to 3E fans. The big change here is in the spell description. We wanted something that was fun to read, so we decided to fall back on plain language rather than a formal stat block. You read through the spell and do what it says under its effect. That's it.

Rituals also show up in specific spells that can be cast in that way. We liked integrating rituals into spells, since this gives casters more flexibility and keeps things fairly direct. You can cast alarm in an instant, or choose to use it as a ritual.

Wrapping Up

That's a quick tour of the player's side of things. Next time, I'll talk about the DM's guidelines and our philosophy on running the game. Remember, if you haven't signed up to playtest, do so now. Your feedback will help us to deliver a great game that matches what you want out of D&D. So, come join the fun!

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
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