A few weeks ago, I finally got the opportunity to play D&D Next, using the playtest rules released on 8/13/12. It was a last minute sort of thing, with the prospective GM eager to run and scrambling to find at least four players, enough so that each of the four base classes could be tried out.
As I'm wont to do, I choose to roll up a Human Fighter for my first foray in to D&D Next. Compared to earlier editions, I must say that character creation is a bit more streamlined than 3e, with a bit more initial complexity than 4e. Our pack of 1st level heroes were built using "4d6, drop the lowest" and I will admit that my d20 Radio GenCon 2011 dice did not fail me. All said, it took just under half an hour for most everyone to get our characters built, which given this was the first time half the group was even laying eyes on some of this material was pretty impressive. Simplest oddly enough was our Halfling Rogue, while the Elf Wizard took the longest due to her debating what spells she wanted in her spellbook. One thing of interest with current character creation is that instead of just getting ability score boosts from your race, you also get a score bump from your class. However, for those D&D players preferring a bit of an "old school" approach to character survivability, 1st level PCs in this version tend not to start with a whole lot of hit points; the Wizard was super-squishy at only 5hp. Admittedly, this can be overcome if using Feats (or "specialties" as they're currently being presented), namely Toughness which is no joke by an stretch.
Skills are fairly interesting, going the route of 4e's "trained or not trained" rather than 3e's skill points or 2e's "proficiency" system. In short, you simply roll an ability score check, and if you have a relevant skill, you gain a trained bonus to your check. For the latest playtest packet, skills are still attached to specific ability scores, though the notion from the prior packet that skills did not have a default ability score to fall back on made them more interesting, as it would encourage newer players to try and make more use of their skills in new and interesting ways.
So, with our fresh-faced pack of adventurers chomping at the bit, the GM ran an updated version of the old "Raiders of Oakhurst" module that was created back in the days before 4e was released. We didn't really get all that far, doing some investigation and interaction with the townsfolk.
One of the elements of D&D Next that I liked was the Background system. Instead of choosing your trained skills bases solely upon your class (with few a minor exceptions), you instead get three trained skills based upon what Background you've chosen. For my Human Fighter, I chose the Background of Knight, figuring him to be a "poor knight" in that he was of non-noble birth but had recently earned his knighthood. Said background gave me a healthy boost when trying to converse with various townsfolk, which normally for a Fighter would be a problem, since prior editions had social aptitudes marked as "not available." So, after some asking and poking around, we learn that there's been goblin attacks in recent weeks, mostly harassing travelers and traders. Being heroic-mind types, we offer to go "sort things out," and here my being a knight helped out, as it lead the town mayor to take us at our word and even offer a small reward for our time and efforts.
Long story short, we found a couple different groups of gobbos and laid into them. Frankly, against the rank-and-file goblins, we were death incarnate. Thanks to my very high Strength modifier, I almost couldn't miss and always did enough damage to take out any goblin I hit. Now while pre-4e Fighters were pretty much limited to "I engage the enemy, I smack them until they drop, rinse & repeat," D&D Next gives you a little bit of combat versatility in the form of maneuvers, enabling you to strike for more damage, parry an attack, or several other abilities depending on which fighting style you choose. Being all knightly and all, I opted for the Protector style, which gave me an option to reduce damage done to an adjacent ally. This proved handy a few times to spare the Wizard from being dropped, as she had the worst AC of the group in addition to her paltry amount of hit points (her player has only played 4e D&D, so being so fragile was quite a shock for her). Me on the other hand, I was indeed the party tank, having taking Toughness for a boatload of hit points and being decked out in heavy armor with a shield; I think only three attacks out of the several dozen that came my way during the session actually hit, and with as many hit points as I had, they really weren't much for me to worry about, especially if I was able to parry them to reduce the damage total.
Interestingly enough, the Rogue in this version really, I mean really has to work if they want to get their Sneak Attack damage. Nothing in the rules packet suggested that flanking provided any benefit, so he was having to make skill checks to feint and get advantage over his foes, which pretty much reduced him to attacking every other round. Neat thing with Rogues is that if they're trained in a skill, they're pretty much guaranteed to get a minimum result. So however he sought to feint or trick or whatever, the target had an uphill battle to counter it, especially if they weren't trained in Spot (which seems to be the "skill to observe things" in D&D Next). Granted, he didn't really need a lot of Sneak Attacks for the first encounter, as well he had to contend with were basic goblins and a few dire rats, all of which got taken down pretty quick.
Wizards and Clerics are at an interesting level of power. While both have minor, at-will spells they can cast as often as they please (including few decent attack choices for Wizards), they're back on the old-school "spells per day" system. It was a good thing our Cleric was patterned after Durkon of Order of the Stick, so he could at least do some melee stuff once he'd run out of his daily allotment of spells. One point about the Cleric we weren't sure one was if using their granted domain spell counted against their "number of spells cast per day;" if it does, then a low level Cleric will need to be extra careful about when they use their spells. For those familiar with 4e, the Channel Divinity ability is here, but it's now a daily effect rather than a per-encounter thing. I'm not sure how I feel about this; given the limits of the ability (either a free Cure Light Wounds on an ally or auto-damage on Undead), I don't see it as being a game breaker to move this to "once per encounter" rather than "once per day," especially seeing as how frail a low-level PC can be, as was proven in a later fight.
So, our quest to exterminate the goblin raiders continued, and we finally managed to track them back to a large warren, where we found a humanoid priest of some dark god urging the flock to sally forth and lay waste to Oakhurst. Yeah, we weren't about to let that happen. The Halfling got off a really good shot with his sling, pretty much taking down one of the priest's bodyguards with one stone. The fight was pretty tough for us, as the Wizard got outright dropped by what I'm guessing was the evil priest's own Channel Divinity ability, as there was no attack roll, just her taking more than enough damage to drop her into negative hit points. This kind of worries me on a design level, as it's much to close to "save or die" type of effects from 3e, only without the courtesy of some kind of save. On the upside, we did get to test out the dying rules, where much like 4e you have to make a saving throw, except it's not "three strikes you die," but rather three successes and you stabilize, otherwise you take take automatic damage. Our Cleric was johnny-on-the-spot with his healer's kit though, so he was able to stabilize the Wizard quite handily before healing her on the next round. The priest suffered the same fate as Thulsa Doom from the old Conan the Barbarian movie after getting shanked in the thigh by the Rogue, with the remaining goblins thoroughly routed.
Though only first level, the Fighter can be fun to play. I'm inclined to think of the D&D Next Fighter having their lineage traced to the D&D Essentials Fighter, only instead of an "always on" combat stance, you instead have a round-by-round choice of tricks you can do. I've heard some folks comparing to Iron Heroes, which was created interestingly enough by Mike Mearls. The Fighter has to pay out of a special dice pool to use their various maneuvers, and with only a single die to start with, you need to pick what maneuver you are going to use from round to round. The first fight, I spent most of my dice reducing the damage done to the Wizard from the few enemies that got in close enough to take a swing at her and either survived or simply didn't trigger an opportunity attack from my Fighter; looking at the bestiary after the fact, I would have had to roll pretty darn poorly in order to miss or not kill most of what we fought outright, with the Goblin bodyguards (I'm guessing they were Gobbo Leaders) and the Dark Priest (again, guessing based on hit points and the rusty ring mail he was wearing) being the only ones I'd have to roll at least half-way decent in order to land a hit on them.
One thing I did see that kind of worries me is the ability, or lack thereof, to resist an enemy's spells. Due to rolls, the Wizard started out with a 20 Intelligence, meaning that the monsters had to beat a pretty high DC on a straight ability score roll to avoid getting fragged by her magic, with one group of gobbos getting flat-out incinerated by a use of the burning hands spell just before she got dropped by the dark priest. That she was able to cast magic missiles and rays of frost as at-wills gave her plenty to do in the fight without having to draw upon her more potent (in comparison) spells in order to be helpful.
The Cleric, at the least that of the War domain, showed every sign of being as burly in a fight as 3e Clerics could be, which is slightly worrisome given the prevalence of "CoDzilla" that ran through that edition, particularly when various supplements, official and third-party, started rolling in. Heck, he took down one of the priest's goblin bodyguards in one shot thanks to a mix of his domain spell and being a dwarf with a warhammer and an above-average Strength score.
Rogues are interesting, as they go back to being the skill monkeys they were in prior editions, particularly with how many trained skills they start with in addition to a class ability that makes them less dependent on high ability scores when it comes to their final skill check bonus. This might seem a bit alarming up front, but so far there really doesn't seem to be a way to improve your skill check bonus, and D&D Next seems to aiming for a set range of DCs instead of having to constantly scale the check DCs with the party's level.
What's also interesting is that D&D Next seems to have gone back to attack bonuses that scale based on your class, with Fighters getting a hefty starting bonus to their weapon attacks while Wizards get a similar bonus when casting attack spells, while Clerics seem to be taking a middle path on both and Rogues are really going to need to rely on having advantage since they too have lower base attack bonus, but at least they get Weapon Finesse pretty much for free, so a Thief-style Rogue can pretty much not worry too much about Strength since they're using Dexterity for both attack and damage.
One other element, this one pertaining to the races, is the how D&D Next is (so far) implementing the idea of "racial weapon preferences." Older editions simply made your character automatically proficient with the weapon, which didn't mean a lot if you were playing a Dwarf Fighter or Elven Ranger. This time around, if your Dwarf, Elf, or Halfing is wielding a certain type of weapon and they're already proficient with it, the damage die for that weapon is increased to the next die type; so a Halfling with a short sword is doing as much base damage as a Human with a longsword, and a Dwarf with a warhammer can really dish out the pain. It really does encourage players to chose weapons that are typically associated with a certain race, which can be both good and bad, as it rewards playing to a certain stereotype and discouraging choosing less optimal weapons.
Well, that's my thoughts on D&D Next, at least after one playtest adventure. While I'd largely written off D&D in all its forms (having become disgusted by 3rd and its variants, such as Pathfinder, and largely bored by 4e) by the time Wizards announced that they were doing an Open Beta for the next version of D&D, depending on how this version shakes out, I might be more inclined to playing, or perhaps even running, the occasional adventure every now and again. And if it can bring other former D&D players back into the fold, then so much the better for WotC, especially if they can make the game less daunting to new players while still having enough variety and complexity to intrigue the old salts that cut their teeth on much earlier editions of the game.