Our initial playtest session went pretty well. There was the usual sidetracking and goofing off but that's a big part of playing a tabletop game of any kind.
Once we eventually got down to business, we went over some of the big changes from the rules we're all familiar with. The concept of having advantage and some of the overall simplifications. Then we handed our characters (we took turns rolling to randomly assign the pre-generated ones provided) and looked them over to spot anything interesting.
For starters, the wizard has an interesting little thing that affects his spellcasting. Namely, if he takes damage, on his next turn he has to make a Constitution check to successfully cast a spell. If the wizard casts a cantrip or does anything else, there's no check required. My first thought was that it would be same for any spellcaster, but a quick check of the two clerics showed that to not be the case. Odd but okay.
I rolled the halfling rogue, and there were a couple of things I noticed. For one, the sneak attack damage is essentially the same as his hit dice. In other words, it goes up every level. I thought that was going to be really overpowered, but during actual play, I only had one sneak attack opportunity. So, it might not be a big factor as long as there's no official flanking rule (more on that in a bit).
Second thing I noticed was this little rogue feature that is basically a Take 10 on any skill the rogue is trained in. I still roll the check for opening locks, finding and disarming traps, and sneaking but any roll lower than 10 is bumped up to 10. Nice! But it made disarming even moderately difficult traps impossible to fail. That means a 1st level novice rogue can disarm a moderately tricky trap without breaking a sweat. Not so good.
Finally, I found that the rogue was much more tactical in combat than the fighter, cleric, and even the wizard. I spent a couple of combat rounds doing nothing but hiding and looking for an opening to deliver a sneak attack. As I already mentioned, I only got one such opportunity.On the plus side, having advantage allowed me to nail the sneak attack (I rolled a 15 and an 8), so that mechanic is great.
While I was busy lurking and sneaking, the others struck me as being one trick ponies. The fighter, predictably, swung his axe every round and did serious damage thanks to a bonus that feels really huge at first level. Oddly enough, the cleric and wizard also came across as predictable. There were a few notable exceptions but for the most part, round after round they used their at-will radiant lance and magic missile (respectively). I was not a fan of the at-will carrying over from 4th Edition, and I like it even less after seeing it in action.
Yes. I know. No one wants to play a wizard or cleric that runs out of spells halfway through the first fight. I get that. I just don't think letting them spam magic missiles and shocking grasps and radiant lances is the answer. Making them usable X number of times per encounter isn't a good solution either because it makes one wonder why the wizard could cast, say 3 magic missiles early in a fight but then stop, and then move to the next room and suddenly be able to cast 3 more. It makes no sense.
Personally, I think the easiest fix would be to simply increase the numbers of low level spell slots available to casters. Give them a dozen or 20 cantrips per day, or whatever number that let's players feel like they have lots but not so many that they can waste them.
The best fix might be to do away with the Vancian magic system. A few months ago, I read a blog (sorry, I can't find the link) who suggested that the Dragonlance Fifth Age system could be a great foundation for DnDNext's magic. I'm not overly familiar with that game but from the little bit that I've read, it's system of circles and points is pretty cool. Unfortunately, it also appears to be a little math heavy which is clearly anathema to 5th Edition D&D.
I have one other early complaint but I think I'll save that for another post.
Overall, I'm quite happy with the initial design and rules. It's definitely simplified and a lot of discretion is put into the hands of the DM. For example, does flanking give advantage? That's apparently up to the DM to decide. Also, 1st level characters are nowhere near the helpless and lucky to survive noobs of 3rd and earlier editions. They've got some pretty serious teeth.
As does DnDNext.