while back, I wrote about how the character classes in D&D Next offered few, if any, choices at 1st and 2nd level. Low-level characters in D&D Next look a lot like their 1st Edition and 2nd Edition counterparts, with features and abilities largely locked into place. We came to this design decision for a number of reasons.
To start with, we wanted to make creating a 1st-level character as quick a process as possible. In the past, creating a character could take an entire session on its own. We wanted to ensure that a gaming group could create characters in thirty minutes or less, allowing you to pick up and play D&D in the same way you might pull out a board game.
Simpler low-level characters also make it much easier for experienced players to aid newcomers in creating and running their characters. With a few games under your belt, you can memorize almost everything a 1st- or 2nd-level character can do, especially if you steer new players toward the fighter, cleric, wizard, and rogue. A DM introducing new players to the game can help them make decisions without constantly referencing the rules.
Of course, we know that experienced players like to have a variety of choices to help shape a unique, memorable character. In D&D Next, backgrounds shoulder a big part of that customization at 1st level. Though each background comes with a variety of prebuilt options, you can choose your own proficiencies in skills and tools, plus a background benefit to match your character's story.
In D&D Next, we very intentionally allow any character to take any skill and tool proficiencies. If your fighter was once a street thief, you can take a background that reflects that, selecting proficiencies that allow you to pick locks, tell lies, and sneak around. The old model of limiting skills by class—saying a rogue can train in Stealth but a fighter can't—appears to provide a kind of game balance, but it's an empty balance. In the end, the usefulness of skills is driven by the adventure or situation, and the more skills you have, the more likely you are to gain a bonus and to have a chance to affect the game. By keeping tool and skill choices wide open, D&D Next makes proficiencies easy for a DM to adjudicate and gives players enough choice to make their 1st-level characters feel unique.
In addition, the game's level progression assumes that 1st and 2nd level each take about one game session. That gives anyone enough time to master the basics of a class before diving into making significant character choices. For new players especially, those first game sessions can provide an understanding of the character and the campaign that creates a strong foundation for choices. For groups that like the experience of playing at 1st and 2nd level, DMs can use an optional experience progression that allows for more play at those levels. On the other hand, for experienced players who want more options for character creation than 1st-level backgrounds, the game includes rules for creating experienced 3rd-level characters right from the start.
In terms of campaign design, adventures we publish will treat 1st and 2nd level as the DM's chance to introduce the campaign to the characters, laying out potential options before opening up the campaign at 3rd level. Those two levels can be focused on giving players a chance to get their feet wet, allowing them to understand the campaign and develop a sense of their characters' goals.
Using the classic adventure The Keep on the Borderlands as an example, the first two levels of that adventure might cover the characters' journey to the keep, perhaps marked by a bandit ambush and a running battle with a peryton, then a follow-up mission to drive the bandits from the area. Between those encounters, the characters meet the key NPCs in the keep, pick up a few rumors that point to adventures, and develop a sense of what they want to tackle first. When the characters hit 3rd level, they are powerful enough to survive extended forays into the Caves of Chaos and the wilds around the keep.
For your own game, these elements of D&D Next allow you to run a campaign the way you want to. Beginner groups might want to use slower advancement at 1st and 2nd level to spend even more time getting a feel for their characters and the game world. Experienced players might want to create characters starting at 3rd level, making maximum use of all the character options in the game at the outset. Flexibility has always been a hallmark of D&D, and it's an aspect of the game we're making even stronger in D&D Next.
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.