What Do I Know About First Impressions? One D&D and Unearthed Arcana 2022: Character Origins

dragonarmiesThis week saw some pretty big news out of WotC regarding the future of D&D. While I want to look at the first Unearthed Arcana debuting, it’s going to be hard to discuss this without touching on the context in which the UA exists. And yes, I know, most of you reading my blog have probably heard all this elsewhere, but on the teeny, tiny chance that you missed some of this, I’m going to do a quick recap.

D&D’s Future

We’ve known for a while that there was a new version of the core rulebooks coming out in 2024, and that those core rulebooks are meant to be compatible with current D&D 5e products. As part of this rules update, WotC will be putting out regular Unearthed Arcana articles previewing prospective changes for the next year or so.

There will be a drive to better integrate D&D Beyond with core D&D content. As an example of this, the Dragonlance adventure Shadow of the Dark Queen is being sold as a “bundle” that includes the physical book as well as the digital content on D&D Beyond.

We also received confirmation that WotC is working on their own virtual tabletop. We didn’t receive any specific date, but we do know that the tabletop with be a three-dimensional implementation, with virtual maps and miniatures, utilizing the Unreal Engine.

On top of all of that, we got the rundown of everything else coming out in 2022 and 2023 for Dungeons & Dragons:

  • Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dark Queen (December)
  • Keyes from the Golden Vault (Adventure Anthology, Winter 2023)
  • Bigby Presents Glory of the Giants (Sourcebook, Spring 2023)
  • The Book of Many Things (Sourcebook, Summer 2023)
  • Phandelver Campaign (Adventure, Summer 2023)
  • Planescape (Campaign Setting, Fall 2023)

Context

Before we dive into the Unearthed Arcana, I want to link to some of the videos that came out last week. I’m doing this because there will be some places where my thoughts on the Unearthed Arcana is informed not just by the rules presented in the document, but by the discussion about why the rules were written and what else might be done with them in future releases.

Unearthed Arcana 2022: Character Origins

The first Unearthed Arcana of this playtest is dealing with character origins. This is a 21-page document that includes the following items:

  • Character Races
  • Character Backgrounds
  • Starting Languages
  • Feats
  • Rules Glossary

This is everything between generating your ability scores and picking your class. The Rules Glossary is included for all the game terms that either exists in the current game, but have been redefined, or for new terms. Feats have been moved into this section because they now tie into character creation.

I know this has been discussed quite a bit online, but, yes, the term race is still used in this document. I would love it if D&D moved away from that term, but I don’t think the use of race in this document is indicative of the intent of WotC to continue using the term. I just think that whatever they replace “race” with, it’s going to be as much a marketing decision as it is a design decision, and probably not something they want to imply is up for “playtest.” I hope I’m right.

Right off the bat, we see that there is a specific format that character races and backgrounds are going to follow:

Race

  • Creature Type
  • Size
  • Life Span
  • Special Traits

Background Trait

  • Ability Score Bonus
  • Skill Proficiencies
  • Tool Proficiency
  • Language
  • Feat
  • Equipment

This foreshadows a few of the upcoming changes we’ll see in the individual sections of this document. In the playtest, ability score boosts are moved from race (in the core books), and from floating bonuses (Tasha’s and beyond), and specifically to backgrounds. We’ve seen this in a few Unearthed Arcanas previously, but background feats look like something the 2024 rules may be enshrining.

One more thing that comes up before we look at the specific races is a sidebar dealing with characters with multiple ancestries. There is no half-elf or half-orc in these rules, and the directive in this sidebar is to determine which parent the character inherited their traits from, average your lifespan, and describe your appearance as whatever kind of combination you wish your character to have.

This helps to remove the game trying to quantify the experiences of characters with parents of multiple ancestries and all of the potential trouble that comes with that. Additionally, this also addresses something I’ve heard some players mention in the past. Given that many races now have options to be small or medium, it’s even easier to explain that your aasimar is a halfling with celestial ties, or that your tiefling comes from a gnomish family that has dealt with the diabolical in the past.

Because I saw this come up online, I want to make clear that I’m not an authority on real-world people who come from multiple cultures, and there has been some discussion about how removing mechanics and specifying that characters like half-elves and half-orcs exist may cause the stories of people with multi-cultural backgrounds to be diminished. I’m not an expert on walking the line between creating a too narrowly defined narrative for all people of multi-cultural descent, and not making room for the stories at all. I hope WotC hires people with the proper background, empathy, and perspective to tackling this a bit more.

Except for one thing that I’ll get into later, I like all of the broad strokes we’ve seen up to this point. I’m happy to see lifespan as an entry again, after having lifespans handwaved in the most recent releases. I really like the change to characters of multiple ancestries.

Humans

Humans have the same option to be medium or small that other species have had in more recent releases. Their special abilities change to the following:

  • Resourceful (Inspiration every morning when you wake up, or, you know, after a long rest)
  • Skillful (proficiency in a skill)
  • Versatile (you get the Skilled feat or another feat of your choice)

Resourceful is in line with something we see later, where we’re seeing more quantification of how characters gain Inspiration based on specific game rules instead of roleplaying and DM fiat. Skillful and Versatile are still a little . . . um . . . uninspiring, but at this point, I’m not sure what to do with humans without making humans different based on different cultures.

From the standpoint of someone that allows feats in their game under the current rules, I wouldn’t have a problem with Versatile, and I’ve allowed people to play variant humans from the beginning. That said, I’ll go into this more later, but this does fly in the face of people that may have gotten comfortable with feats being optional.

It is interesting to see in the flavor text that humans may have gathered in ancient times in Sigil, created the Common tongue, then disseminated it to the multiverse from there. That’s a lot to take in. I was willing to buy into Common existing on lots of worlds since everything is a fragment of the First World, but this is potentially an even wilder origin for humans across the planes.

Ardling

So, this is new. The Ardling are a celestial-associated humanoid race. Traditionally Aasimar have been positioned as the “counterpart” to tieflings. This feels like it’s meant to be another “counterpart” for the core rules, even though aasimar still exist due to their appearance in previous supplements.

The biggest physical difference between Aasimar and Ardlings are that Ardlings have animal heads. This is meant as a nod towards celestials both in D&D and in folklore that don’t appear completely human. Ardlings are aligned along three axes, Exalted (from Chaotic good planes), Heavenly (from Lawful good planes), and Idyllic (from Neutral good planes). They have these traits:

  • Angelic Flight (flight a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus)
  • Celestial Legacy (a cantrip and additional spells at 3rd and 5th level)
  • Damage Resistance (to radiant damage)

Picking Exalted, Heavenly, or Idyllic only affects the spells that the Ardling receives. The spell they receive at 3rd and 5th level can each be used once per long rest but are also available for the character to use with any spell slots they have.

I’m fine with Ardlings mechanically. It feels strange to come up with another celestial/humanoid option to go along with tieflings when aasimar don’t appear to be on the way out. Ardlings are more directly mirrored by tieflings in these rules.

Dragonborn

Dragonborn are interesting, in that we’ve seen the 2014 Dragonborn, then the updated Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons version, redefining them as distinctly Metallic, Gemstone, and Chromatic, and now this version, which realigns them into one species once again. Plus, we got two versions of the Dragonborn in the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. This version of Dragonborn have the following abilities:

  • Breath Weapon (action to activate, number times equal to proficiency bonus)
  • Damage Resistance (based on the chromatic or metallic ancestry you pick)
  • Darkvision
  • Draconic Language (instinctively known language)

These Dragonborn resemble the 2014 Dragonborn much more than the Fizban versions. The breath weapons can be substituted for an attack within the attack action for those that can attack more than once. They also lose the 5th level abilities that were granted in Fizban’s. This makes them a bit less powerful, but also a bit less complicated. I wasn’t overly concerned about the Fizban’s Dragonborn, but I’m also not going to complain about realigning them more with the original 5e concept of the race.

The thing that is strange to me, which has already shown up in published products, is the “instinctive” of “god-given” traits as a workaround from saying that people “genetically” have certain skills or knowledge, and I’m not sure that having a god give you automatic abilities feels a lot different than saying you’re born with those abilities. In this case, it’s a language, but it also seems like there is a lot of narrative traction in having a Dragonborn raised in a culture that doesn’t speak Draconic.

Dwarf

Dwarves shift from having two subraces to being just dwarves, with different cultures that might call themselves Hill Dwarves or Mountain Dwarves, or not. This works well for me, especially since Dwarf subraces seemed to mainly exist to give them different ability score bonuses and herd Dwarves towards which classes they were best at due to those ability scores.

The new playtest version of “consolidated” dwarves has the following traits:

  • Darkvision
  • Dwarven Resilience (resistance to poison and advantage on saves that involve poison)
  • Toughness (an extra hit point at every level)
  • Forge Wise (two tool proficiencies)
  • Stonecunning (gain tremorsence a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus)

Tough fits with the dwarven narrative, and dwarven build, as does resilience. I really like this new version of stonecunning. It’s active, instead of situationally useful, and it gives dwarves something that feels “folkloreish” regarding their abilities.

So . . . again we get a racial ability that is based on a race automatically “knowing” something, that isn’t biological, but is automatic for the species because their god gives them the ability. The more I see this, the more this feels like adding more words to make it seem like the ability is doing something different than what it’s doing.

Again, from a story standpoint, having Moradin/Reorx/Goibhniu/Hephaestus/Ptah grant dwarves the knowledge to use certain tools cuts through some story elements that a player might want to embrace. A dwarf that is raised by human artists still knows how to use some kind of crafting tool. A dwarf that rejects their family trade can’t be bad at using the tools they rejected.

Elf

Leave it to elves to have a justification for having multiple types of elves. Just like in the 2014 rules, elves are split into drow, high, and wood elves. These aren’t referred to as subraces, but lineages. Oddly, elves can’t be small, unlike other species in this playtest. This version of the elf has the following traits:

Darkvision

  • Elven Lineage (cantrip, and additional spells at 3rd and 5th level)
  • Fey Ancestry (advantage on effects that inflict the Charmed condition)
  • Keen Senses (proficiency on perception)
  • Trance (four hours of meditation instead of sleep, immune to magical sleep)

The main change here is moving elves towards the cantrip/3rd/5th paradigm. Additionally, each of these lineages get a minor kicker (drow get better darkvision, high elves can switch out their cantrip, wood elves get +5 feet of movement).

The narrative of elves is that they naturally adopt magical traits based on the locations where they live. So, drow don’t have their abilities because they are cursed by Corellon, they have their abilities because they have lived in the Underdark for so long.

I’m actually pretty happy with this iteration of elves.

Gnome

Gnomes retain their 2014 split between Forest Gnomes and Rock Gnomes. As with the previous race options that formerly had subraces, the different categories are now referred to as lineages. The playtest version of the 2024 gnome looks like this:

  • Darkvision
  • Gnomish Cunning (advantage on intelligence, wisdom, and charisma saves)
  • Gnomish Lineage (we’ll go into these differences because they take some explanation)

I’m just going to say this straight up. Outside of Tinker Gnomes from Krynn, D&D doesn’t have a strong narrative for Gnomes, and maybe there was at least some logic to not making them a core race in 4e. I said it. I work for Gnome Stew. Let the hate flow.

The closest thing we have for a narrative for Gnomes has been that they are reclusive, fey adjacent tricksters. Forest Gnomes get minor illusion as a cantrip and Speak with Animals as a free spell once per long rest and can use spell slots to cast it more often. Rock Gnomes get Mending and Prestidigitation, and three paragraphs of how they can make a clockwork device that lets someone else use cantrip for 8 hours, as long as you define what broad effect the spell has.

My personal preference would be to use this opportunity to dive into making gnomes in the Player’s Handbook a singular lineage and play up their illusion/trickster abilities, possibly using the cantrip/3rd/5th extra spell progression and fey ancestry, but I think Tinkers are too ingrained in people’s thoughts at this point.

If nothing else, I would clean up the Rock Gnome ability. Instead of paying 10gp, I would let them just have a pocket full of junk that they can repurpose on a long rest, which they can loan to someone else to cast a specific function of prestidigitation with.

Also, because I might as well beat this drum, even though it’s expressed with spells, “knowing how to build machines is something I’m born with” is another one of those borderline weird “it’s magic, not a biological trait” abilities.

Halflings

What do they have in their pockets? That depends on the background. Anyway, let’s take a look at the hobbit, er, halfling. Their 2024 playtest version looks like this:

  • Brave (advantage on saves involving the Frightened condition)
  • Halfling Nimbleness (move through the space of someone larger in size, but not stop there)
  • Luck (reroll a 1 on a d20, using the new roll)
  • Naturally Stealthy (proficiency in the Stealth skill)

We’re basically reinforcing the idea that halflings adventurers either like to push their luck, or they wind up in adventuring situations they never really wanted to be in, but still manage to survive more often than you would expect, which all makes sense.

We don’t have lineages for halflings, at least in this document, so like Hill Dwarves and Mountain Dwarves, distinctions like strongheart, stout, lightfoot, or tallfellow are all just cultural distinctions with no mechanical differences, and I’m fine with that.

This is simple, and it conveys a general niche for halflings in the game. I like it. It is interesting that in the flavor text, we get a reference to halflings in Athas, which compares them to crime syndicates and calls them a territorial mob, rather than a people that traditionally eats other sapient humanoids, which really makes me want to see a hypothetical 5e Athas at some point in time.

Orcs

Because half-orcs aren’t mechanically defined in these rules, orcs move up to core race status, and I’m cool with that. The orc backstory still ties them to Grummsh, which I could do without. He’s just not a deity with a lot of nuances and trying to move orcs away from “born evil” feels like it would be an easier task if you could cut Grummsh out of the mix, not unlike the shift in goblin lore that they were fey and Maglubiyet was an interloper deity. Since Corellon is getting more of an absentee parent that overreacts to events them, I would love to see orcs more closely tied to Luthic, with Grummsh interested in orcs only after Luthic helped them survive. But that’s all backstory. Let’s look at the orc mechanics:

  • Adrenaline Rush (dash action a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus as a bonus action, temporary hit points equal to proficiency bonus when you do this)
  • Darkvision
  • Powerful Build (treated as large for carrying, pushing, dragging, or lifting)
  • Relentless Endurance (once per long rest, when you reach 0 hit points, you “nope” back to 1 hit point)

If this looks familiar, it’s because the orc is pretty much the Monsters of the Multiverse version of the race, which works for me. As a side note, they mention Obould Many-Arrows in the “Orcs of Many Worlds” section, and wow would I have loved to have seen The Kingdom of Many-Arrows as an established Orc nation in the Forgotten Realms. I mean, it still exists, but in diminished form, and it felt like it could have been a really big deal for shifting the narrative on Orcs in what was for much of 5e the default setting.

Tiefling

Tieflings return as one of the core races being considered for inclusion in the 2024 version of the rules. After 4e spent a lot of energy shifting Tiefling origins specifically towards Hell, this playtest is broadening the horizons a bit, returning the Tiefling narrative to those that have been touched by any of the lower planes. Interestingly, the three choices are referred to as Fiendish Legacies instead of lineages. Here is what we get:

  • Darkvision
  • Fiendish Legacy (gaining a cantrip to start, and a spell at 3rd and 5th level that can be used once per day for free and cast with spell slots, different choices for each Fiendish Legacy)
  • Otherworldly Presence (Thaumaturgy cantrip)

I’m not against it, but there are lots of free cantrips flying around. Cantrips are the new darkvision. Anyway, I like this setup, although I’m not sure I love the extra spells for Abyssal (Chaotic evil planes) and Chthonic (Neutral evil planes) as much as the Infernal (Lawful evil planes) spells. I don’t hate them, I’m just not sure they are as evocative of Hellish Rebuke and Darkness. Each Fiendish Legacy also gives the Tiefling resistance to something, in this case Poison, Necrotic, or Fire damage.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the change to Tieflings, and there is even room for some additional Fiendish Legacies (maybe an ice-related one associated with Levistus, for example?).

Character Backgrounds

Three big things are going on here. First off, the emphasis is on players creating their own backgrounds, and following the procedures for what goes where. Second, backgrounds are much more standardized, right down to the exact amount of stuff in gold piece value all backgrounds get. Finally, we have the integration of feats as part of the background, replacing the Background Feature section.

Before we get too far into this, I wanted to talk about Background Features and how they were implemented in the past. The original 2014 Backgrounds all gave out what amounted to “narrative permission” to players, saying they can talk to someone in the criminal underworld, or they get to stay in a safe place with a meal, etc. They weren’t mechanical, and usually forced players to actively ask the DM if the narrative permission was relevant, which can be a hard thing to remember in play.

Both in 3rd party products, and in later official 5e material, there was some drift into making Background Features something that had a mechanical element (even though the Background section in the 5e DMG says you definitely shouldn’t do this). Giving PCs advantage when talking to very specific people at very specific times is an example of this. This makes it a lot easier for the player to say, “hey, this sounds like a situation where I get advantage,” instead of asking the DM if their narrative permission is really permission in this instance.

There was one other form of Background Ability that sat between mechanics and narrative permission, and that was the number of Background Abilities that said, “hey,  you can just feed you and X number of allies when you are traveling,” and honestly, that kind of absolute is right up there with rangers never getting lost. It’s narrative permission, but it’s a very broad, absolute narrative permission.

This is all a way for me to say I was all for Background Abilities giving something that feels like a feat as it’s benefit, rather than relying on narrative permissions that might be awkward to work into an ongoing play session. All of that said, I would much rather have a list of plug and play Background Abilities that are “feat like” than to just plug a feat into a Background. It feels like a distinction without a difference, but I don’t think it is. Saying you get a feat to go with a background streamlines design, but I like the feel that the mechanics you get from a background are going to be more focused on things that can still be useful, but were likely things you learned before you were adventuring.

So, what do backgrounds give you:

  • Ability Scores (determine what +2, +1 fits with this background)
    Skill Proficiencies (2 skills)
  • Tool Proficiency (1 tool)
  • Language
  • Feat (from the 1st level feat list, oh, we’ll get to you, feat levels . . . )
  • Equipment (50 gp to spend on starting equipment, but keep in mind there will still be starting adventure kits in the Player’s Handbook as well)

While all the example Backgrounds have one ability at +2, and another at +1, in the Background building section, it does mention that you can make your character Background with three +1 bonuses as well.

The biggest problem with all of this is that it’s taking away some of the more fun aspects of backgrounds that the 2014 rules developed. There aren’t quirky items that may or may not ever come up again in play but may have informed your character’s story. While I felt they were too broad in many cases, there aren’t bonds, traits, flaws, and ideals tied to your background.

It would be perfectly valid for you to make a background of “Future Adventurer,” and just dump all your ability scores where you need them, and all of your proficiencies where you want them, and it doesn’t really inform who your character was much at all. I’m not sure building your own Background is really going to add depth to a character, I think it’s just giving permission to people that wanted to skip it to more or less do so.

The sample Backgrounds given in the document are as follows:

  • Acolyte
  • Artisan
  • Charlatan
  • Criminal
  • Cultist
  • Entertainer
  • Farmer
  • Gladiator
  • Guide
  • Hermit
  • Laborer
  • Noble
  • Pilgrim
  • Sage
  • Sailor
  • Soldier
  • Urchin

If there is one thing that these premade Backgrounds bring home to me, it’s that campaign setting definitely adds context. For example, if you are going to add a language to a background, knowing what extra languages exist in the setting, and what those languages tie into narratively, really helps for this sort of thing.

We’ll touch on this again later, but I never knew standardizing the exact cost of starting equipment between backgrounds was going to be such an important design goal.

Starting Languages

Nothing much here, except giving some building blocks for the Backgrounds. The biggest one is that Common Sign Language is included on the list of languages, which is great. I remember so many weird contortions that different stories and adventures went through to justify “hand signs” when they could have just said that sign language was a thing.

Part of me wishes they would have taken this opportunity to separate out Aquan, Auran, Ignan, and Terran into distinct languages. Primordial is a bit of a catch-all for being able to talk to anybody from the Elemental Planes, and so many entries still specifically mention the dialect, which I guess just means you speak with a watery accent if you are communicating in Primordial because you know Aquan?

This is another pitch for how important campaign setting details are, because when it comes to languages, having fallen ancient empires and scholarly languages that only sages regularly know are some great elements to add into the game, but they are hard to do from a “multiversal” perspective.

Feats

Okay, buckle up, because this is my biggest area of concern in the whole document. Feats have levels now. That implies that higher-level feats are more powerful than lower-level feats. This is even confirmed if you watch the Jeremy Crawford video above, as he mentions that the older “+1 to an ability, plus another benefit” feats will be higher-level feats in this paradigm.

First, this wreaks havoc with backward compatibility. If you have a character from a campaign using feats, and they took a feat that will now be a higher-level feat, does that make them too powerful? Are those feats going to be redesigned to give them even more mechanical effect?

This makes me wonder about several things not touched on in these rules, but related. For example, if you still have ability score bonuses tied to class level, and not character level, multiclassing puts you at a disadvantage to get your “appropriate” feats available to you. Will higher-level feats just be flat-out better than potential ability score bonuses? Are they going to shift ability score bonuses/feats to being based on character level instead of class level? If so, that’s another fairly major change, as it means people will be getting a power boost if they replace the 4th level class ability with something else. We’re not going to get answers to these here, but we may see more of this coming up in the future.

So, with the 2024 playtest feats, the feat has the following parts:

  • Level (minimum character level to take the feat)*
  • Prerequisite (other prerequisites, like ability scores, etc.)
  • Repeatable (can you take this more than once, and what does that do?)

*There is no mention of character level versus class level, so in absence of that information, and given that we’re only seeing level one feats, I’m going to assume character level for now, until we know for sure.

The feats we get in this section are the following:

  • Alert
  • Crafter
  • Healer
  • Lucky
  • Magic Initiate
  • Musician
  • Savage Attacker
  • Skilled
  • Tavern Brawler
  • Tough

Some of the nuances of the feats interweave with the Rules Glossary section and the redefinition of some existing rules. I don’t dislike any of these feats, as presented. I like the “switch initiative” function of Alert, and I think redefining magic into Arcane, Divine, and Primal helps to clarify Magic Initiate and keeps you from needing a feat like this for every class spell list.

Lucky is still causing questions. It’s one of those things where its mechanics depended on a Sage Advice ruling, beyond its own wording, and the rewording doesn’t really address how it interacts with disadvantage. I believe the point is to keep it from being “super advantage” and allow you to roll three dice and pick the best one in some circumstances, but it’s still kind of a mess. I think instead of interacting with d20 rolls at all, it would be better for Lucky to let you spend a point of luck to roll d4 or a d6 and add it to a roll.

I’m pretty sure you could just change Tavern Brawler to Brawler and get the same effect from the feat. I know it’s trying to evoke certain imagery, but it’s also the best way some PCs are going to have to show off their hand-to-hand skills without taking levels of monk, and “tavern” kind of implies something not every pugilist may want to have as part of their character.

Savage Attacker lets you roll your weapon damage twice, once per turn, and take the better roll. It’s okay, but not inspiring. It’s also probably the only thing on this list that doesn’t apply to what I’m about to say next.

All of the feats on this list, except Savage Attacker, are exactly the kind of thing you could frame as Background Features instead of feats and plug into a Background. They imply things about your past that feel like they could play into careers but will still be useful adventuring.

Rules Glossary

Now we’re going to get into the great open expanse of things that are implied, but not fully fleshed out, which can lead to a lot of speculation. Let’s take each of these redefinitions one by one.

Arcane/Divine/Primal Spells

I’m going to lump all of these together. Past editions of the game have had all these distinct power sources. These aren’t new, but aside from some descriptive text, the only real difference in power source explicitly in the rules came from what kind of spellcasting implement you used with each of them.

Along with making these explicit power sources, there are now default spell lists. The example spell lists in this playtest document only shows cantrips and 1st level spells. The classes are broken down by the following lists:

  • Arcane = Bards, Sorcerers, Warlocks, Wizards, Artificers
  • Divine = Clerics and Paladins
  • Primal = Druids and Rangers

What’s interesting about this arrangement is that there are a few “signature” spells from a class that show up in the broader spell lists. For example, Vicious Mockery and Hex aren’t just Bard or Warlock spells. I’m assuming if you are going to use these broad spell lists to simplify what spells a class or subclass has available, you aren’t going to have a list of spells that you don’t have access to from your core power source. However, unless you are really planning on realigning play styles, some classes are going to need “add these spells to your spell list” addendums. I can’t see bards, for example, losing the healing ability that they have had for the past two editions, and technically had when they were the weird prototype prestige class in AD&D.

I can see grouping spells by power source, but I kind of hope individual class spell lists don’t go away. I don’t really want to see Vicious Mockery as a regular tool for wizards and sorcerers, or the smite spells going too far beyond the paladin’s hands. Er, weapons. They can’t smite with their hands, I guess. For now.

Artisan’s Tools, Gaming Set, and Musical Instruments

These were redefined to say that no matter what kind of artisan tools, what kind of game, or what kind of musical instrument, they all cost the same, as part of the drive to make all of the starting packages for Backgrounds equal out to the exact same gp value.

Creature Type

There doesn’t appear to be any changes in this that I can tell, other than to reiterate that creature types are just names, and that specific rules that deal with creature types are generally found in spell effects, magic items, etc. Even with all the standardization going on, we’re not getting 3e era definitions of exactly the traits each creature type has.

D20 Test

Here we go . . .

All d20 rolls are now a d20 Test, and all d20 Tests have similar rules. Those rules are:

  • Never drink or do drugs
  • Never say you will be right back . . .

Wait, wrong rules. Here we go:

  • A d20 Test must always have a Target Number no less than 5 and no greater than 30
  • A 1 always fails
  • A 20 always succeeds and grants Inspiration
  • Critical Hits*

*This is getting its own subsection below, don’t worry.

The 1 always missing and the 20 always hitting already existed in combat rules, but expressly didn’t apply to ability tests or saves. Now they do. However, this opens a whole lot of questions about how this interacts with rules that haven’t been redefined.

  • How does the automatic failure interact with passive scores?
  • What happens if you bring something’s armor class below 5?
  • Is it impossible to hit something with an armor class above 30?

The emphasis on the 5 to 30 range is to let the GM know that they shouldn’t be using this rule as a means to punish a player that can auto succeed, but at the same time, there are different characters that can auto succeed, or can’t possibly reach 30 in the same party.

I’m fine with awarding inspiration on a 20, but I like the idea that you can do that even if you don’t manage to succeed.

In the end, the DM may still not have anyone that is skilled at a particular task rolling in a manner where they could roll a one on something they can do automatically, and this appears to be the intent of the rule, but if that’s the case, why expand the “1s always miss” outside of the range of combat?

This is one of the rules that, in Jeremy Crawford’s video, it seems was implemented because many players didn’t realize that it wasn’t already a rule, and honestly, I don’t think designing around how some people play accidentally is the best design practice.

Critical Hits

This is a potentially major change. The 2024 playtest, as it stands, changes critical hits so that only player characters can get a critical hit, and critical hits only allow you to roll an extra weapon damage dice. This cascades into a few of things:

  • No spell attack criticals (the dice aren’t weapon dice)
  • A critical hit with sneak attack only does +1 weapon die damage

I’ve said this online when I first read this rule, but I am a fan of my players, and every time a player has gotten a critical hit with a sneak attack or with a spell attack, the table goes wild. It’s a great feeling, and I don’t think it will be nearly as exultant if that critical hit is only dealing one extra die of damage.

Additionally, no critical hits for monsters is definitely taking away some of my fun. In the video posted, Jeremy Crawford said they are trying this for two reasons:

  • Monsters already have a randomizer with recharge mechanics
  • You must switch gears when a monster crits if you are using average damage, because you need to roll the dice to determine critical hit damage

The problem with this is that:

  • Not every monster has a recharge mechanic
  • Most monsters don’t live long enough to recharge their abilities
  • You could print the average critical damage for attacks in monster stat blocks

I’d also argue that some recharge abilities are way more devastating than critical hits, because they can hit the whole party. If you are worried about PC lethality, I would clearly list optional rules for characters to have greater survivability, like not using the Instant Death rules.

This is also another one of those items included in this playtest that seem to be driven by players not doing it right or being confused by the rules, according to Crawford, and I respect that he’s trying to respond to play at the table, but again, I’m not sure that’s what signifies a good change to the rules. Just to recap, this is what the 2014 rules say about critical hits:

When you score a critical hit, you get to roll extra dice for the attack’s damage against the target. Roll all the attack’s damage dice twice and add them together. Then add any relevant modifiers as normal. To speed up play, you can roll all the damage dice at once.

For example, if you score a critical hit with a dagger, roll 2d4 for the damage, rather than 1d4, and then add your relevant ability modifier. If the attack involves other damage dice, such as from the rogue’s Sneak Attack feature, you roll those dice twice as well.

That’s actually a pretty simple explanation. I’m almost starting to think that some of the rules confusion has nothing to do with what the rules actually say, but that a lot of D&D is taught to new players without referencing the actual text of the game, which is a whole other thing than trying to reword the rules to disentangle misunderstandings.

Grappled, Unarmed Strike, and Slowed

I honestly think this is a case where something was simplified in the rules, and the 2024 rules playtest are actually making them more complicated. Because these play into one another, I’m consolidating them here.

Instead of making an opposed strength test, which also allowed for the Athletics skill, now you have to hit someone’s armor class to initiate a grapple, and they get a strength or dexterity save on their turn to escape at the end of your turn.

The Grappled condition now adds the kicker that you have disadvantage to attack anyone other than the person grappling you, and that change I’m fine with. If the person grappling you tries to move you, they gain the Slowed condition, which means their movement costs twice as much, they have disadvantage on dexterity saves, and attackers have advantage to hit them.

Since the Slowed condition only affects them while moving, that means they will probably only suffer from the penalty to saves and the advantage to him them if they provoke an attack of opportunity, but it is an interesting package to quantify for other effects that might cause the Slowed condition in other aspects of the rules.

So basically, when you hit with an Unarmed Strike, you pick Damage, Grapple, or Shove as the effect once you hit. Since this now involves hitting an armor class, that complicates the tactic of having a strong character knock over someone that is hard to hit so their allies can gain advantage, because just hitting them to knock them down is as hard as hitting them to do damage.

I’m understand adding the Slowed condition and adding the “disadvantage on attacking anyone but the grappled” rider, but this takes a way a tool that PCs would have against a high AC target, as well as making Athletics and Acrobatics less useful, since they now have no place in Grappling. I’m not sure why this was made more complicated, unless this is another case of too many players remembering 3rd edition and forcing people to roll to hit before they initiated a grapple.

Incapacitated

This really didn’t change, other than to clarify some rules that pertained to incapacitated but were found elsewhere, other than the definition of the condition. You can take actions or reactions, concentration is broken, you can’t speak, and you have disadvantage to initiative rolls (this one is new).

Surprise itself isn’t defined in these rules, but I’m now wondering if this is foreshadowing some aspect of combat that comes into play when anyone is surprised when initiative is rolled.

Inspiration

Inspiration works the same, with a few new addendums. You gain inspiration when you roll a 20 on a d20 Test, and you lose inspiration when you take a long rest, possibly as incentive to use your Inspiration more often.

Speaking of rules that often get misinterpreted, I’m really surprised that if we’re redesigning based on mistakes that players make when implementing rules at the table, Inspiration isn’t changed to a reroll instead of rolling with advantage. That alone might encourage more players to spend their inspiration, and I would be behind that redesign.

Deciding when to use advantage from Inspiration can lead to decision paralysis, because even on an important roll, you may not want to roll with advantage when you have no idea if you are going to get any benefit from spending a limited resource.

The other option I’ve seen come up a few times is to allow the character to keep inspiration if both of the die rolls would have been successful. While this means the character has Inspiration more often, it also means they are more likely to spend it if something is important, but not that hard for the character.

Long Rest

A slight change in the definition of a Long Rest. Now, if the thing that interrupts your rest, even if it doesn’t last a whole hour, is combat or spellcasting, you don’t get the benefits of a Long Rest, but if you rested an hour before the interruption, you get the benefits of a Short Rest.

This also seems to indicated that Short Rests are unchanged, and will still take an hour to perform.

Tool Proficiency

The definition of Tool Proficiency is quantifying a rule that Xanathar’s Guide to Everything suggested that you can implement to make Tool Proficiencies more attractive. In this case, if you make a d20 Test where either a skill or a tool proficiency applies, you roll with your proficiency bonus. If both apply, you gain advantage on the roll.

One interesting thing about the Tool Proficiency description is that is specifically mentions that if you have Tool Proficiency, you can add your proficiency bonus, but doesn’t mention an Ability Score bonus, and I’m wondering if that’s intentional, or just a quirk of the wording.

Tremorsense

Since it’s a dwarf ability as well now, and thus more likely to be player-facing, we get a more detailed description for Tremorsence. Tremorsence pinpoints a location of a creature if a character is touching the same surface. It’s interesting in that it mentions that you can’t detect flyers, but it omits the reference to incorporeal creatures found in the definition of the ability in the Monster Manual.

I think the biggest reason for the definition here, however, is the last paragraph, which indicates that Tremorsense doesn’t count as a form of sight. That means that if you are pinpointing something invisible, you can attack to hit it, but still have disadvantage, and if a spell requires you to see your target, this doesn’t help you.

One D&D LogoThe End?

Wow, that was a lot of words. I love this game, and have lots of opinions, and I also respect the people working on the game and want to make sure that I’m neither dismissing their decisions, nor providing knee-jerk reactions that I haven’t spent time examining. It’s also why it has taken a few days to put all of this together.

I like most of what I’m seeing in the race section, except, you know, the term race. I really don’t want to see level-based feats, but I would love to have beefier background features. I think for people that have kept feats optional up to this point, they should stay optional. I like some of the simplified groupings like the spell lists, but still want to see more context for how they are used.

I’m not a fan of the unified d20 Test rules, if only because I think they confuse things more than the previous rules did. I don’t like the changes to critical hits, and not just because my monsters, as a DM, won’t get to participate in them, but because I want the players to stay excited about them as well. I don’t like the changes to grappling, because again, it feels like its clarifying something into being more complicated.

My final takeaway is that I don’t think setting design goals based on what people apparently get wrong is the best way to go about revisions. I think that no matter how clearly you spell out the rules, a game that is taught by doing, based on one person learning the rules and imparting that knowledge, is going to have disconnects with the rules as written.

3 comments

  • Can I say I hate the concept of “One DnD”? Not that it’s essentially 5.5e. We knew that was coming some day, but rather this concept of a rolling set of rules that can be updated over and over while you struggle to incorporate the new rules at the table. I suspect that this is tied in to their new VTT, which will of course always have the most up to date rules, so why bother to fight with the confusion, just use our VTT along with all the expenses that entails.

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    • “a rolling set of rules that can be updated over and over while you struggle to incorporate the new rules at the table” sounds a lot like the ubiquity of 2e “Splatbooks”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In my mind the distinction is those splatbooks were optional and offered additional content, whereas One DnD is altering content that already exists in the base books, and is also altering the base rules. So if I ignored the complete book of thieves in 2e, no big deal. But if I miss some of the changes One DnD makes, I can end up with a mess. Like a game where neither races nor backgrounds give stat points, or one where they both do. (or more likely where some do and some don’t) Or one where different players think crits work differently and then I have to sort out which one of these things is the most recent version of the RAW.
        That said, maybe I’m just imagining scenarios and worrying myself for no reason. Maybe they won’t be rolling out tweaks every fiscal quarter.

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