n August, we released a pair of updates to the playtest packet. The first one revised the core classes and made some modifications to the core system. The second update, released to coincide with Gen Con, unleashed the sorcerer and warlock upon the world. Over 85,000 people have taken part in the playtest, and it’s great to have so many people looking at the game. We’re thrilled at the continuing interest in the playtest. So, how are we doing?
Let’s start with the big picture. In June we got our first round of playtest feedback, and we’re pleased to see a considerable increase in the positive rating for the latest packet overall. While it’s obviously nice to see that number increase, we also know that most people who were unhappy with the first packet wanted to make characters. We anticipated a bump, but I’m also happy that the bump is higher than I had anticipated.
Of course, the big issue lies in figuring out why people are happier. Looking at the data, I see a few things happening. Obviously, people are happy that they can make characters. In addition, changes that people were happy with, such as the advantage/disadvantage system, are rated even higher than before. That information makes me very happy, because it likely means that people are finding the rules useful in play. They either like them the more they use them, or they had some initial reservations that were overcome by experiences at the table.
On top of that, I’m quite happy (relieved might be a better word) to see that the fighter changes have gone over very well. I’ll go into a little more detail later, but I think that change has fueled a lot of our improvement.
So, overall, I think we are heading the right direction.
What Went Wrong
My wife hates playing new games with me because I invariably complain about this or that mechanic. It’s the nature of a game designer to zero in on imperfections and ruthlessly terminate them. With that in mind, let’s look at what isn’t working.
Sorcerer and Warlock: Both of these classes have some issues. The warlock’s eldritch blast is too powerful, and we have a lot of feedback that the sorcerer has strayed too far from its identity in the game. People like the concept behind both classes, but they aren’t sure the sorcerer is actually a sorcerer. I’ll write about these classes in more detail in a later column.
Wizard: Hit points are an issue here, so they might see an increase. In addition, we’re seeing a consistent knot of unhappiness over the wizard’s use of magic. The best thing about revising the packet and running new surveys is that we can track how attitudes change. The wizard has regressed a little in its ratings. Based on feedback, we’re seeing a call for more flexibility in how wizards use magic. We had originally thought about keeping the magic systems very distinct for each class, but I think that the introduction of traditions gives us some room to maneuver so that we can give people more options. You can expect that some traditions will hew to traditional D&D magic, but others will open up new casting systems.
Rogue: The rogue, like the wizard, didn’t see as much improvement as I’d like. The areas of concern include a lack of focus on skills, the skill mastery mechanic draining the tension out of the game, and sneak attack being so good that rogues spend all their actions in fights in a too-scripted manner (get advantage, sneak attack, repeat). Our focus right now is on simplifying the rogue’s skill benefits and making sure the class focuses on its core strengths as a trickster and skill master. For instance, sneak attack might become an option rather than an ability given to all rogues. A smooth-talking con artist might distract enemies, evade danger, and confuse foes rather than stab them to death from behind.
Healing: There are still a lot of issues with the Hit Die mechanic, cleric healing, and death and dying. I’d like to create a simple, easy, scalable mechanic that tackles these issues. The mechanic might not be in the next packet, but healing is the primary issue we’re facing in terms of core system.
Monsters: The monsters felt a little too easy to people. Specifically, their accuracy seemed too low and the characters’ damage was enough to easily crush them. We’re going to do a round of damage deflation for PCs at some point—in this packet or the next—and adjust monster accuracy upward. We also had some concern that the monster abilities were too abstract. Part of that abstraction is that we didn’t have time to give monsters much flavor text, but it also points to the abilities as being a little too complex to track.
Ease of DMing: This is an area where we saw some regression. It’s not completely clear what’s going on, but I suspect that with the new monsters, the rules for opportunity attacks, and the opportunity to create adventures, the game feels like a little too much to manage at the table. A majority of DMs felt that the game ran well, but enough people felt that it was too complex that we’re examining things across the aboard.
What Went Right
Here’s where we made some progress.
Fighter: People really like expertise. The fighter went from being the lowest rated class to, by far, the highest. It hits the target I set for us at the beginning: a mechanic that can scale in complexity, that feels right in terms of the story, and that speaks to what a class is good at. We’ve built in a fighter option that is a good starting point for new players or people who want to attack each round without worrying about fancy maneuvers. Unless things change, the fighter has hit the target we aimed at. We have some specific work to do (glancing blow needs to be fixed) but the structure is sound.
Cleric: The cleric is doing well, though it’s not quite where the fighter is. The big issues here were spells per day, turn undead as a spell (people didn’t like that one), and interaction with the healing rules. I think we’re close to having this class complete once we solve healing and how channel divinity should work.
Core System: Speed of play is looking quite healthy, and the advantage/disadvantage system has proven its value. The issues we’re tracking now primarily focus on individual bugs such as critical hits, surprise, and similar small-scale issues. The overwhelming feedback we’ve received, though, is that the game moves quickly, you’re getting more adventuring done, and you’re very happy to have that.
What Went . . . Somewhere
There is one final issue to touch on that I think does a good job of showcasing how we work with playtest feedback: Players consistently feel that their characters don’t have enough hit points. The feedback about number of hit points was overwhelmingly clear for the wizard.
Except that people are happier with the game than before.
And people consistently rated the monsters as being too weak.
It would be easy to simply raise hit points if monsters were rated as being too powerful and people were less happy with the game, but you don’t always have the luxury of a giant, glowing arrow pointing out your next move. Something more subtle and interesting is going on here.
In the case of hit points, we aren’t going to do anything other than give the wizard a boost (the wizard far and away came up the most in the data and in comments). Personally, I think the issue relates more to how much healing the characters have, how dangerous the monsters feel, and the overall level of tension in the game.
The real trick to figuring this situation out also relies on how the game plays. Of course players want more hit points. More hit points means less risk of a character’s death. On the other hand, risk is what drives excitement in the game. Some of the most memorable moments in D&D come about when you clutch that last hit point and pull off a brilliant idea or a ridiculous set of rolls to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
At this stage, we want to focus on the rules for healing and how that affects that game. Once we have a handle on that, we’ll consider changing hit points.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.