The Read First file mentions, among other things, a list of languages and a revised list of lores under Intelligence, changes to critical hits, various actions like dodge and disengage, short and long rests, the
ethereal incorporeal and prone condition, spells, and more, but the big addition is three, count 'em three new(ish) races, including one of my favorites, the gnome.
|Which means that I won't have to wait until|
Player's Handbook 2 to roll a gnome barbarian.
I like that gnomes no longer rely on magic in order to speak to animals, but the three-gadget limitation does not make any sense. Why can only rock gnomes build them? Why can they only have three at a time? How much does it cost to build them? Why do they only last for 24 hours?
Half-elves are about as interesting as they were in 3rd Edition, which is to say pretty boring: you get a +1 to Charisma and something else, and advantage on sleep and charm effects, as well as Wisdom-based listen and spot checks. They do not have any subraces, which is kind of odd given that elves do. They could have at least been able to snag something from their parent race.
Half-orcs are also 3rd Edition-boring, gaining a +2 to Strength, +1 to Constitution, darkvision, and advantage on Charisma checks to intimidate. As with half-elves they have no subraces to choose from, but unlike half-elves they do not get to make any choices.
There are two tables worth of languages, dividing them into standard and exotic categories. I get that the idea is to cordon off a group of languages that the DM might not want the players to have right away, like sylvan and thieves' cant, but I think that limiting access to languages should be up to the DM. Put it in the Dungeon Master's Guide.
Critical hits get a slight reduction in efficacy. Instead of maxing out your damage and then adding another die, you just roll your damage and add another die. Still better than 3rd Edition's damage multipliers.
I dislike that short rests require an hour of downtime, up from 10 minutes. I think that is far too long and will disrupt pacing with adventurers going into a room, fighting some monsters, then waiting an hour to bandage themselves up before moving on. It also unnecessarily makes magical healing even more significant than it already is. If they are going to require that you spend an hour to heal up, I would almost prefer an hour recovery rate (which would sync would both types of exploration turns).
Long rests now only give you back half your Hit Dice, rounded up. While I like the idea of a long rest not restoring you to tip-top shape, I wish they would base the rate of healing on the character's class and/or Constitution. As with short rests, why not just give us a recovery rate that gets a small boost when resting for a long period of time?
There are a lot more spells, and the spell lists got shuffled around. For example, clerics lost access to lance of faith, animal messenger, and locate animals and plants, but picked up sacred flame. I am still not a fan of spells-per-day, spells with levels, the attack roll/saving throw division, pretty much how magic in Dungeons & Dragons in general, but it is nice to see some of them getting better if you slot them that way, instead of having burning hands, burnier hands, and burniest hands. Also the format is becoming better organized. Baby steps, I guess.