One D&D: My Theories and Predictions for the Next Evolution of D&D
It’s official — Wizards of the Coast has begun releasing playtest material for the next evolution of Dungeons and Dragons, which they are calling “One D&D”. This material gives us the first glimpses at their design philosophy and approach towards D&D, and by reading between the lines I think we can actually learn a lot more about what the next version of D&D might look like. Today I want to give my thoughts and opinions on the currently release playtest material and, more importantly, make some predictions on what all of this means for the future of D&D. Without further ado, let’s get started.
The playtest document begins with “Character Origins” — specifically races and backgrounds. While most of the changes here are relatively minor, I think they reveal a lot about how the thought process and philosophy behind D&D design has changed since 5e was first released. First, there is a clear trend in favor of player customization. No longer are character’s stat increases tied to their race — instead, they are tied into your background, which is completely customizable. This opens up complete freedom to mix any race and class that you wish, without worrying about whether the ability score increases match up with what your class requires. This is a direction that 5e was already moving towards, but it’s nice to see it solidified here.
In addition, several of the races, like the Tiefling and the Aardling, provide the players with a choice of “legacies”, which they can use to further customize their characters. However, the Ardling also highlights a potential pitfall of infinite customization — it can be difficult to make a choice feel satisfying if it doesn’t have actual mechanical weight. The ardling race basically lets you pick an animal head, and allows you to play as whatever kind of anthropomorphic creature you prefer. However, no matter what you choose, the mechanics of the race are 100% the same. I know a lot of players aren’t a fan that that there is no mechanical different whether you decide to make your Aardling have the head of a frog vs the head of a dog or an eagle, and are worried that this might be a replacement for the more flavorful anthropomorphic options, like Tortles and Harrengons. If that were the case I would also be pretty bummed, but I really don’t think it will be. Rather, I think that it’s more of a “catch-all” race, for players who only own the player’s handbook. Sure, if you have access to all of the source-books with all of the race options, you can play whatever race you want, but a lot of people are probably only going to have the core rulebooks, and I think this race is a good way of covering all of your animal (and celestial) bases.
However, something similar was done with the rules for “mixing” different races, and I’m much less happy about it. Currently, among the race options in the 5e players handbook are the “Half-elf” and “half-orc” races — these races have been completely removed from this playtest document. Instead, this document provides rules for mixing ANY humanoid races. On the one hand, this should be very exciting! What if I wanted to play a half-dwarf? Or a character that’s part-orc, part-halfling? 5e doesn’t really support these options, and having rules to handle this could open up a TON of possibilities. Unfortunately, the rules don’t really provide any mechanical oomf behind playing a mixed-ancestry character. Instead, they just advise you to pick the mechanics of one of the parent races, and describe your appearance however you wish. This is pretty unsatisfying — sure I can roleplay being a gnome tiefling, but mechanically I will have to choose one or the other. I understand that balance-wise it might be difficult to make rules for actually mixing different character races, but I do hope they can come up with a more satisfying solution.
It’s also very clear that WotC has been making a dedicated push to separating the cultural and biological factors of their characters — placing biological features such as size in the race, and moving cultural factors such as languages and skill proficiencies to the backgrounds. However, there are still some strange outliers, such as Dragonborn instinctively knowing how to read and write draconic, or all rock gnomes being able to make clockwork figures. I don’t personally have a problem with these types of features, but if they are trying to draw a clear distinction between race and background (which it seems they are), I think they need to be more consistent about it.
Another design shift you can see in these changes is pretty subtle, but actually represents a very major change in the game, and that’s WotC trying to make things a bit more standardized, and allow for more valid options in the game. For example, in the current version of 5e, it is recommended that an adventuring day have 6 to 8 “encounters”, and probably a few short rests in between. This is the playstyle that the game was balanced around, but not all DMs play this way — in fact, I would say that most don’t. In my experience most DMs have maybe 2 or 3 encounters per day, and it’s not unheard of for a day to only have a single encounter. This creates a gap between characters whose abilities recover on a short rest vs those who recover on a long rest. Short rest characters are designed to handle longer adventuring days by recovering their features more often, but if they only have a single encounter this actually puts short rest characters at a big disadvantage. It looks like WotC is trying to remove this distinction by basically making all characters “long rest” characters. To this end, they are removing all features that recover on a short rest, and changing them to be “proficiency bonus times per long rest”, for the most part.
You can also see this idea with the backgrounds — each background now comes with exactly 50gp worth of starting equipment, and is completely customizable, so players can choose whatever fits their character concept. Speaking of backgrounds, each one now comes with a free first level feat. This indicates a few things. First, it looks like feats are no longer going to be an optional rule, and they are now going to have levels. This change fits very strongly with the design theme of “make the game work the way people expect it to work / the way they are already playing”. Although feats are technically an optional rule I’ve never met anyone who didn’t allow them at their table, and giving free first level feats is a very common house-rule.
However, you can’t just pick any feat — feats are now going to have level requirements, so your character can only start out with a 1st level feat. I like this change, because I think feats have become very centralized. There are a handful of feats, like Lucky, Sharpshooter, and Great Weapon Master, that are extremely popular on optimized builds, whereas other feats are basically never used. Be honest — without looking it up, can you tell me what the “Durable” feat does? Because I can’t, and I wrote this script. By putting level limitations on some of the more powerful, character defining feats, I think players will have much more variety in the types of feats that they pick for their characters.
However, I don’t think this is going to be the only changes to feats that we see. In addition to be very powerful, feats like Crossbow Expert and Polearm master are also very limiting — if you want to use their abilities, you need to use a very limited subset of the available weapons. I expect the next edition of D&D will probably have a much wider range of feats that cover basically every weapon type and fighting style, and hopefully give them all a chance to shine. In addition, the idea of taking a static penalty to gain a static bonus, like Sharpshooter and Great Weapon Master’s “-5 to hit, +10 to damage” effects, doesn’t seem very fitting with modern D&D design — if they do keep this effect, I would expect it to not only be available to a much wider range of weapons, but probably impose disadvantage on the attack roll rather than a static penalty.
Let’s now move on to the more controversial part of the playtest document — the Rules Glossary. Most of these rules changes are pretty minor, but there are definitely a few that are worth talking about. First, the playtest document introduced new spell-lists for Arcane, Divine, and Primal magic, and have already shown how these spell lists can be used to revise things such as the “Magic Initiate” feat. This feat used to require you to pick spells from a chosen class’s spell list, but now asks you to choose one of these three lists. I can see these lists being used in a lot of places where specific class spell lists used to be referenced. For instance, the Arcane Trickster rogue currently lets you choose spells from the Wizard list, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was revised to choose spells from the Arcane list.
However, I definitely don’t expect class spell lists to go away. Rather, I expect that the class spell list will probably just add additional spells on top of whichever type of magic is applicable to the class. For example, Druids will probably have access to all spells on the primal list, but also have additional druid spells on top of that.
I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the expansion of subclass-specific spell lists. Clerics, Warlocks, and Paladins have been getting subclass specific lists from the very beginning of 5e, and more recently Sorcerer subclasses have also been getting them. It’s almost guaranteed that the Players Handbook sorcerer subclasses are going to be revised to have these expanded spell-lists, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was extended to ALL spellcasting classes. I also think it would be interesting to see more “Spell Sources” introduced into the game over time — the obvious one is a Psionic spell list, which would be useful for things like the Soulknife Rogue, the Psi Warrior fighter, and maybe even a future Psion class (which underwent a lot of development and playtesting, but was never officially released in 5e).
The Rules Glossary also introduced some changes to how D20 rolls work, and this is probably the most debated rule change in the whole playtest document. It seems like one of the major goals of the next version of D&D is trying to simplify and streamline the rules, removing edge-cases and making everything work consistently. To this end, they have combined Attack Rolls, Ability Checks, and Saving Throws all under the umbrella of “D20 Tests”, and have tried to make them all function more similarly. Specifically, a roll of 20 is now a guaranteed success on any D20 test, and a roll of 1 is a guaranteed failure. This was already the case for attack rolls, and is honestly probably not a big deal for saving throws, but making a nat 20 on an ability check an automatic success has huge implications for the game. Suppose a player is trying to convince the BBEG to stop fighting and join the player’s side. On a Nat 20 persuasion check, according to these rules, that attempt would automatically succeed — which seems pretty awful.
Now, the obvious counter argument is that, if a particular action is guaranteed to fail, why even roll for it in the first place? However, sometimes an ability check doesn’t necessarily determine IF you succeed or fail, but HOW you succeed or fail. A nat 20 should absolutely guarantee the best possible outcome, but sometimes success was never on the table, and the best you can do is fail gracefully. On the other hand, if you are playing a character with expertise and a high skill bonus, a roll of a 1 might still be high enough to succeed in a given task — but just barely, whereas a higher roll would result in a more spectacular success.
However, that’s just my opinion on the topic, and I know a lot of players have already been playing this way as a house-rule. This change, coupled with giving players free 1st level feats, makes me wonder what OTHER common house rules might become official in the next evolution of D&D. I can definitely see drinking a potion becoming a bonus action rather than an action, and I can also see them adding rules that let players delay their entire turns (rather than the current confusing and clunky rules for holding an action).
One house rule it seems they AREN’T interested in adopting is the common rule to make critical hits more exciting by adding max damage to the crit dice, instead of just doubling them. This guarantees that critical hits do more damage than a normal attack could, makes them more exciting and swingy, and eliminates the possibility of a lackluster crit that can occur if you roll poorly on the damage dice. Instead, this playtest document goes in the complete opposite direction — limiting critical hits to only adding additional weapon dice, making it so only players can crit, and even then limiting critical hits to weapon attacks (not spells). This significantly reduces the power and excitement of critical hits.
I think this change comes from their philosophy of trying to make everything more balanced and consistent — critical hits add a lot of variance, and it seems like they are trying to reduce this variance as much as possible. While I am generally in favor of consistency and predictability (probably because I had a hectic childhood and therefore desperately seek a feeling of stability and control in my life), I think we need to be careful how much we reduce the variance in D&D. Critical hits SHOULD be incredibly exciting, and the possibility of a monster rolling a crit SHOULD add tension to a combat. If you are worried about a critical hit dealing too much damage and killing a low level character outright, then I would just get rid of the rule that says you instantly die if you take too much damage instead, and let the character make death saving throws.
While there are a lot of changes in this playtest document, it also only covers a small fraction of the rules of the game. In this section of the video I would like to make some predictions about changes I think they might make in the future, that aren’t covered by the current unearthed arcana.
One trend I expect to continue is the consolidation of abilities that are very similar, but slightly different. You can already seem them starting to do this — for example, the Gnome’s tinkering ability now references the Prestidigitation cantrip, rather than listing a bunch of minor abilities the clockwork can perform. This is something that I hope they do more of, because right now 5e is very inconsistent about this. For example, the “Hat of Disguise” specifically references the “Disguise Self” spell, and says you can cast it at will, but the “Cap of Water Breathing” does not reference the “Water Breathing” spell. Similarly, the “Potion of Fire Breath” works slightly differently than the “Dragon’s Breath” spell.
Moving on to class changes, one obvious change I really hope they make is adding the Artificer class to the Player’s Handbook. The artificer is one of my favorite classes, but it also feels very neglected, and I think making it a core class in the PHB would give it more of the attention it deserves.
I can also see them introducing “Optional Class Features” as a core rule in the new PHB. Rather than automatically gaining a particular class feature when you level up, I could see the features having multiple options that the player can choose from — Tasha’s already started moving in this direction.
One change I would love them to make would be to make the structures of the different classes more consistent as far as which levels each class gains class features, subclass features, ability score increases, etc. Right now it’s all over the place — Bards, for example, gain subclass features at levels 3, 6, and 14, whereas fighters gain subclass features at 3rd, 7th, 10th, 15th, AND 18th levels. Making this structure more consistent would not only make it easier to learn the game, but it would also make it easier to balance the classes, and even open the door for things like subclasses that can apply to multiple different class types. However, unfortunately I don’t think they will change this due to backwards compatibility.
I expect the spell system to work more-or-less the same in the next version of D&D — concentration and rituals will almost definitely stick around, spell levels, and the spell-slot progression will probably all be about the same. I hope that, when they are revising the spells in the player’s handbook, they are more consistent about what does and doesn’t require concentration. Right now it seems to be very inconsistent — why do Bigby’s Hand and Mordenkainen’s Sword require concentration, but Spiritual Weapon doesn’t? Why does Alter Self require concentration, when Disguise Self doesn’t? Similarly, why are Find Familiar and Phantom Steed ritual spells, but Find Steed isn’t? Sure, it’s typically a Paladin spell, and Paladin’s don’t have ritual casting, but there ARE ways for ritual casters to get access to the spell, so it makes sense for it to be castable as a ritual.
On the topic of consistency, certain spells and abilities, like Aid, raise your hit-point maximum rather than granting temporary hit points. The whole idea of temporary hit points is that it eliminates the potential for shenanigans because they can’t stack. However, you CAN stack increases to your hit point maximum, and can even put temporary hit points on top of that!. I think it’s possible that these types of abilities will be adjusted to just add temporary hit points.
As far as the rules for actually casting spells go, I don’t expect to see many changes. However, there is one particularly confusing rule that I hope they revise. In 5e, if you cast a spell as a bonus action you can’t cast another spell on the same turn, except for a cantrip with a casting time of 1 action. That’s very wordy and convoluted, and it’s easy to forget exactly how it works. Therefore, in the interest of making the game work how players think it works, I would simplify this rule to simply say you can only cast 1 leveled spell per turn.
Speaking of leveled spells, I think there are too many different levels going on. The fact that character level is different from spell level — e.g. your level 9 wizard can only cast level 5 spells — is confusing for a lot of people, especially newer players. Spell levels need a name change — I think “Spell Ranks” would work well.
But what do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on this playtest document, as well as my predictions and proposed changes, in the comments down below. If you enjoyed this video, make sure to give it a like, and subscribe so you don’t miss more D&D content in the future. If you want to see more, make sure to check out the rest of the channel — I recently posted a criminally underrated video about homebrewing spells, complete with tons of example spells, and I also have over 150 game design articles and videos on the RemptonGames blog. And join me next time for the next installment of my “Game Designer Spotlight” series. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time!
Originally published at https://remptongames.com on September 11, 2022.