Tabletop Games I Have Played: D&D Next

Lately for lack of a home-game proper, I’ve been playing the newest D&D Next playtest with some friends.

To get the early stuff out of the way: I like it, generally. I’m running it with the Temple of Elemental Evil that it was released with which is not, strictly, a “proper” new module and relies a lot of conversion on-the-fly. Combat is a bit less interesting due to a variety of oldschool monsters who, at low levels, really only have one or two tricks, but it’s appropriately deadly. An interesting thing about the way things seem to be balanced is you do not have a lot of hit points, but, the monsters miss, mostly. So if you are hit, it might be a big problem, but the actual situation where that happens a lot is rare.
I started a thread on the D&D Next Facebook group to this general effect, but I also mentioned the following points, which are all true:
  • I like first and second editions.
  • I liked fourth edition.
  • I’m not a big fan of third and especially 3.5, which is probably my least-favorite D&D edition.
This is a kind of weird opinion. It doesn’t have much to do with the books or their layout or the modules written. Some cool people worked on D&D 3.5 and I respect their work. It’s just that, after playing 3.5 a lot – and I’m sure I’ve actually played it more than I’ve played any other edition – I discovered that I wasn’t having much fun. 
It’s entirely possible that I reached the point where the game was dull for me because I’d finally mastered it, or, that I just didn’t like the sorts of adventures DMs were running (though I played in both home and living campaigns, published modules and not). 
But something did occur to me today. In addition to the complaints on the Facebook page, I’m also frequently linked to the twitter feed Grognards.TXT, which is largely characterized by people complaining about 4E. Really, the nature of the complaints people have about 4E are a mixture of truth and not-truth about the game. There’s a certain color of complaint that goes like this: “they just made it into a CCG and dumbed it down for newbies.” I see it a lot, but it really doesn’t feel true to someone who has actually played the game and realized it’s pretty tactical. But it certainly feels true if you aren’t playing the game, and just reading the source material. D&D4 has things about it that I don’t really like (skill challenge system just slows things down and feels clunky compared to combat, always gets homeruled or tweaked somehow), but “dumbed down” isn’t really one of them.
Then it occurred to me that maybe the people complaining about the game aren’t really playing the game. And here is a big flaw in D&D4 that I never considered really: Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons is not much fun to not play. And that’s absolutely a valid complaint, in a way.
A lot of people enjoy the metagame of tabletop games. Rather than playing the game they like to discuss game strategy, develop items and creatures, and, especially, create broken characters using the game systems. D&D 3.5 was a particularly fun game for this non-player player because by the end of its life cycle, the sheer volume of different prestige classes and other content that you could toss onto a character made the game feel hugely imaginative and open. Not everyone has time to actually play, or a group that they can reliably count on to play with them. But many people enjoy the metagame as a solo activity, and 3.5 is very accommodating for that.
However, when you got down to the table and were actually playing, I always felt very limited in what my character could actually do at any given moment. As a full ranger, my best bet was to always, always, use Multishot. In theory I had a lot of options – an animal companion, a short spell list, a few other arrow tricks – but they were always non-optimal compared to the one thing the character was built to do. That meant that while it was fun to build a character that got to roll all those dice on that one trick, in play, it was very dull. The challenge was absolutely gone from trying to come up with a tactical situation. My husband had a wizard that was very powerful but the results were similar: the end result of hours of focused optimizing meant he had a character who was best off always casting Magic Missile, every single turn. It was fun to design this, but not much fun to play it.
3.5 can be hacked a little to prevent this problem. Notably if you give everyone more skill points, you might allow them to choose a larger variety of skills, and maybe then they will have a “second trick” of some sort. I’ve heard of people building jack-of-all-trades type characters in 3.5, but those characters will always under-perform compared to a character who threw all of their eggs into one basket. I’ve also heard that Pathfinder is better and fixed all the problems (but I’m not sure, because I was done with 3.5 when 4 came out).
But all of this brings me around to Next, which is I guess an interesting hybrid.
To be honest, Next feels like first edition, mixed with a little of fourth. The symmetry between Next and First is obvious if you consider that it runs fine with a mostly-unaltered Gygax module from AD&D. The fourth edition stuff is more subtle: more hit points for starting characters, a lot of potential healing during rest and downtime, general hacks to make characters a little more heroic and survivable. There’s some 3.5 innovations in there too – mostly on the cleric, which feels a lot like a third edition cleric (meaning if you have more than say two of them in your party things are going to get broken fast, and I could probably write another entire article about the 3.5 cleric). I’m sure a second edition module would also mostly run fine in Next (provided you remembered to flip the armor classes to eliminate THAC0 calculations).
First Edition D&D can sometimes be frustrating to play, which is something that Next (can we call it 5E?) is trying to eliminate by making characters hardier. But one thing about First Edition is that it has an interesting metagame, which I would describe thusly:
AD&D is fun to talk about… after you have played it. 
That makes it different from 3.5, which is a lot of fun to talk about before you’ve actually played it, and 4E, which is… sort of fun to talk about after playing, but a lot less random. The stories that you’re going to have from a 4E campaign mainly relate to if the DM comes up with some really interesting content for you to crawl through, rather than something that happened in the game itself. It is in fact more videogamey in that one way.
Actual play generates the most interesting stories when the players do something unexpected. Oldschool runs really easy on the fly, leaving room open for this. Fourth Edition runs pretty tightly, so while there is certainly room for players doing an unexpected thing (and I do have stories), it’s less flexible in that regard. Next runs a lot more like oldschool.
I think players will like the 5E metagame, but it has one critical flaw in that it’s only a good metagame if you’ve played the real game first. That means it’s tough to judge the game from just reading it. So I’ve actually played Next, and I think you should too! Anyone can download the mostly-complete game materials. The organization isn’t great, so I like running from a PDF where I can easily search the document for what I’m looking for. If you’ve tried it, feel free to leave comments with what you like and don’t like about Next, but let’s not have the 3.5/4E edition wars happen here again if possible. Already dealing with that on Facebook.