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What’s New in D&D Next: A Primer

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By Nelson Schneider - 07/06/14 at 05:33 PM CT

Last month I discussed the rise and fall of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG, and how Wizards of the Coast managed to lose their non-digital gaming crown to upstart Paizo. What I didn’t discuss was what is actually changing in D&D Next (a.k.a., D&D 5th Edition). Let’s take a look at how D&D Next will be breaking compatibility with 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder (henceforth, 3.x), as well as 4th Edition, while streamlining game mechanics at the same time.

1. Goodbye Skill Ranks, Base Attack Bonus, and Saving Throw Bonuses; Hello Proficiency Bonus
3.x introduced these three core mechanics to replace a lot of Gygaxian weirdness that was present in AD&D, such as the infamous THAC0, negative Armor Classes being better, and inconsistency in determining whether high or low roll on a 20-sided die (d20) determines success. D&D Next wants to get rid of the complicated paperwork and number inflation these mechanics can cause by combining them all into a single bonus: Proficiency.

The weird thing, and something I’m not sure will work quite right in practice, is that ALL characters, regardless of race/class/whatever get the SAME Proficiency Bonus as they move up through the levels. This Proficiency Bonus starts at +1 at level 1 and maxes out at +6 at level 20. This is a far cry from the huge numbers granted to melee-type characters for their Base Attack Bonuses, and is also significantly lower than the ‘good’ Saving Throw Bonuses or a fully-invested set of Skill Ranks. Consequently, monsters are going to need lower Armor Classes and the Difficulty Classes of various Saving Throws and Skill Checks are going to need to be lower. I don’t know if 3.x materials will have a simple conversion for these numbers (like, say, subtract 10), but I have a feeling that this will be the single greatest stumbling block for players wanting to use older adventure modules with D&D Next.

2. Advantage and Disadvantage are Everywhere
3.x had dozens of little bonuses and penalties that could be applied to dice rolls in a huge variety of temporary situations. Is the Barbarian raging? Bonus to one stat, penalty to another! Is a nearby ally helping with a Skill Check? Bonus! Did that Otyugh just crawl out of a pool of diarrhea? Penalty for anyone that can smell him and fails their Fortitude Save! It got to the point where all of these bonuses and penalties were INCREDIBLY difficult to keep track of, especially for a Dungeon Master dealing new new/lazy/drunk players who can’t be arsed to keep track of the effects affecting their own characters.

D&D Next will be replacing every instance of a small, temporary bonus or penalty with either Advantage or Disadvantage. Both terms simply mean that the character/monster/NPC in question needs to roll 2d20 instead of one. In an Advantage situation, the higher roll takes precedent while in a Disadvantage situation, the lower roll takes precedent. Since neither Advantage nor Disadvantage stacks with itself and since the two cancel each other out, players and Dungeon Masters never need to worry about whether a large number of small bonuses/penalties are cumulative or not, providing an elegant solution to streamline bookkeeping and speed-up gameplay.

3. Fighting is for Fighters
3.x allowed every character to earn multiple attacks per round as their Base Attack Bonus increased. At every additional +6 worth of bonus, a character would gain an additional attack at +1, up to a maximum of 4 attacks per round. This was never the case in AD&D, as extra attacks were strictly limited to characters and monsters who specialized in beating face.

D&D Next will be returning to the old ways of AD&D in this regard. Martial-type classes get extra attacks at specific character levels, while non-martial characters don’t. Multi-class characters that dip into martial classes can earn extra attacks, but the solution is, as of the final playtest release, inelegant and far more difficult to calculate than Base Attack Bonus ever was.

4. Fewer Feats, More Ability Score Increases
3.x introduced Feats as a way to add player-chosen special abilities to a character that weren’t just part of the default abilities that came with the character’s class. Unfortunately, Feats got out of hand and ended up being the cheap and easy thing to throw into extra sourcebooks to make a few bucks. As a result, there are hundreds of Feats available across 3.x (some of which work differently in each revision of 3.x!), most of which are worthless, but a few of which can lead to horrendously broken Munchkin-style characters. Since there are so many, it is nearly impossible for a Dungeon Master (or even a non-uber-player) to keep track of them all.

Likewise, 3.x also allowed players, at specific character levels, to increase one of their character’s 6 core ability scores by 1 point. This was unheard of in AD&D outside of god-level magic or demonic bargains, but it provided a much-needed way of evening out a character’s ingrained weaknesses or spiking their strengths to great heights.

In D&D Next, every few levels, as determined by class, a character can choose to either add 2 points to one ability score (to a maximum of 20), 1 point to two ability scores, or a Feat that grants a number of bonuses or small improvements to a more specific aspect of the character. This focus on raising ability scores is understandable, as, with the new Proficiency Bonus system, characters will be relying primarily on having a high Strength or Dexterity modifier to help them hit their targets in combat. Likewise, reducing Feats actually should lead to expanded character options (currently, it appears that there are no Item Creation Feats or Meta-Magic Feats) by baking many Feats into the character classes themselves.

5. Simplified Stat Blocks and Obsfuscated Mechanics for Dungeon Masters
As someone who has spent a lot of time behind the Dungeon Master’s Screen, one of the first things that caught my eye about the D&D Next Bestiary document (the contents of which will most likely appear in the Monster Manual) was the fact that monster stat blocks no longer look like accounting ledgers that take up half a page. These stat blocks are condensed down to the pertinent information a DM needs to run the game, with the superfluous calculations left out. One especially nice touch is that it appears to be a formatting standard in D&D Next to include the Ability Modifier in parenthesis right after each Ability Score in a stat block, which should be extremely helpful for those who can’t remember the rate at which bonuses and penalties accrue.

On the other side of the coin, though, I’m concerned that the information provided for Dungeon Masters in the D&D Next playtest material isn’t clear on WHY specific stats have the values that they do. Armor Class has been simplified to simply a single AC score (as in AD&D), with Touch AC and Flat-Footed AC nowhere to be seen (indeed, Flat-Footed as a mechanic has been replaced by the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic). Likewise, the breakdown of what values are adding into an Armor Class has been removed, leaving the Dexterity bonus, Natural Armor bonus, Deflection bonus, etc. as something of a mystery.

The fact that 3.x had a stat for EVERYTHING and revealed all of the underlying mechanics of how the game was put together was incredibly helpful to me as a Dungeon Master because for the first time I was able to get a feel for balance. After shrugging my shoulders and running AD&D campaigns into the ground with too much loot or unbalanced custom content, 3.x actually showed me the steps the manual writers took in creating the system, which finally granted me the freedom to create a game that ran well… even through prep took forever due to how complicated everything was.

AD&D was a completely arbitrary (but fun) disaster that placed the burden upon the Dungeon Master to make judgment calls with little to no context, but a lot of hand-waving. Based on the playtest material, it looks like D&D Next might be pulling that old skeleton out of the closet along with the other AD&D-inspired changes it will be adopting. I’m hoping above all hope that the reason the D&D Next system seems so opaque at the moment is the ‘confidential’ and non-final nature of the playtest materials.

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