And here I was not expecting to see a new packet until sometime around GenCon, on the day of my weekly playtest campaign and release of the backer-only Numenera pdf no less. The general reaction from my group was—aside from a few things here and there—almost entirely negative, especially with the removal of skills, changes to feats, and further homogenization of many classes.
We still had fun mind you, but not because of anything to do with the system, which is disappointing because the Numenera playtest felt much more polished in a much quicker time frame, and it was not designed by a massive company. Anyway, let us take a look at the packet one pdf at a time.
NOTE: Between this, over ten previous packet releases, Numenera (both the core book and player's guide pdfs), an ongoing campaign, reading up on 13th Age, a new job, and a few projects on the side I am sure I overlooked or mis-remembered something. Feel free to point it out in the comments and I will address it there.
Most of the classes were already pretty boring, because aside from a handful of levels you basically get what the game gives you at a given level. Playing a barbarian? You gain fast movement at 2nd-level, feral instinct at 4th-level, feral reflexes at 7th-level, and so on. No exceptions. Of course they are not the only class to suffer from this: line up a bunch of druids, monks, paladins, rangers, and rogues and you would be hard pressed to find something that sets them apart.
Now? You have to wait until 3rd-level to even begin diverging. Want to play a wolf totem barbarian? Whelp at 3rd-level you can take the Path of the Totem Warrior option from Barbarian Tradition and gain a +5 on Wisdom checks to spot things, and at 6th-level you can detect invisible and hidden creatures that are really close to you while raging. I was actually surprised to see some variety, here, but then I noticed that the level 10th, 14th, and 17th traits are all the same.
The sad thing is that most of the classes function this way: you get to pick from one of two options at 3rd-level, which just funnels in a bunch of other preset class features on top of the presets you already are going to get. Would it really be so bad to let a 1st-level fighter pick from several options, instead of just giving them Second Wind no matter what? Must every wizard gain Scribe Scrolls at 6th-level? How come all paladins have an Aura of Protection, or can summon a mount at 6th-level?
Given the extensive history that Dungeons & Dragons has, and all the other games out there, I am baffled that the classes are still so limited, both in what you can get and when you can get it. Though I admit it might have been a bit much for some people to handle, 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons let you pick from a variety of class features and powers from the start, as well as new powers at almost every level, Dungeon World lets you choose a move when you level up, and 13th Age lets you pick from a list of talents during creation.
That is my general opinion of almost all of the classes, but here are some bulleted specifics:
- The homebrew barbarian I whipped up a long time ago featured spirit boons, so it is nice to see something similar as an option for the barbarian class. I just wish there were more flexible options in the tree, or that picking one tree did not lock you out of the other. Like, I think it is pretty evocative of a concept to have a bear totem and still pick up Terrifying Rage.
- The cleric domains are pretty interesting, and I kind of like the shift from Warbringer to just War. They still give you a new Channel Divinity option (though I hate that Turn Undead is a default) and spells, but they also give you some other things. Like the barbarian I dislike that you have to get what your domain gives you, instead of being able to pick from a list of talents/features based on your domain. Update: I noticed that at 10th-level clerics out of spells can try to get divine intervention. This is a neat concept, but I feel that it should be a more central function of how cleric "spellcasting" works.
- The druid is a lot worse off, to the point where the druid player basically wanted to rage-quit. You do not start with Wild Shape (why?), but you get it no matter what at 2nd-level (also, why?), it is still limited on a per-day basis, and the specific shapes are based off of level. Druid Circles are a thing, and there are quite a few Circle features spread throughout the progression, but are still just a list of presets.
- Fighters no longer universally have Expertise Dice, and lose out on Deadly Strike in exchange for multiple attacks, which is not so bad because you can move between them. At 3rd-level you pick a Martial Path, which determines everything else you get that your class did not already. I see the loss of maneuvers as a bad thing, as it was a really nice way to customize your fighter, and do not see a reason why they should commit to a single path. The Path of the Knight seems interesting, especially since in 3rd Edition fighters and Charisma did not synergize well, though I question why you have to wait until 19th level to attract followers, and that they are all 5th-level.
- The mage is the odd man out in that you get to pick a feature at 2nd-level, but blah blah you get whatever the game gives you blah blah. I would complain that magic still makes no sense, but then nothing about the
wizardmage does. I will admit that I like the nod towards 4th Edition focuses, in that you only get your spellcasting bonus if you are wielding an implement of sorts. I would still love to see focus-specific bonuses, though.
- I like that monks regain ki points after a short rest. Not exactly what I wanted, but at least a step in the right direction from all the pointless per-day resource management. Heck, even the Disciple of the Elements Monastic Tradition adds in some things I wanted, namely a mountain-themed monk being able to stand still and resist damage. Too bad that aside from a couple of these things that I guess all monks train to learn the exact same things. They get an Expertise Die to add to either Dexterity or Wisdom checks (choose at 2nd level). Simple, but why does not every class have this option at some point? Should not mages get a bonus on lore checks, and a barbarian on Strength checks?
- Paladins only have one oath, and of course it is the goody-goody one. Even worse their oath determines almost everything they get. I guess on the plus side like monks they have encounter-based resources.
- Rangers no longer get spellcasting at the start, but they get it no matter what because that is how it worked in 2nd and 3rd Edition. Like monks they get to add a scaling Expertise Die to either Dexterity or Wisdom checks, so they can choose to be better than average at hiding or detecting things.
- Rogues gain Expertise Dice, but only to Dexterity checks (I could have seen a case for Charisma, but meh). They get Rogue's Cant at 2nd-level no matter what, and only they can have it because that is how it worked in 2nd Edition, as well as a bunch of 3rd Edition features when the game tells you to because that is how is how it worked in 3rd Edition.
Skills are gone. Mostly. I really liked how Next used to let you pick any four skills you wanted as it allowed for more interesting, diverse characters. Now you now pick two fields of lore, which are all Intelligence-based. Some classes gain an Expertise die that they add to specific ability score checks, but I do not see why skills have to be reduced to something so bland and underwhelming. Again, why not give every class at least the option of picking up Expertise dice keyed to certain ability scores? Like Strength for barbarians and fighters, or Intelligence for wizards.
I really do not like most of the feats. Arcane Archer is fine because a wizard learning to put spells in arrows does not seem like a huge magical breakthrough. It is the big feats like Archery Mastery that bug me, because a character could go from having no skill at all with a bow, to suddenly being able to use every bow, shoot at long range and at enemies in cover without much trouble, and even shoot twice. That drastic jump from 0 to 11 breaks the narrative for me. Again, why even have feats at all? Classes effectively determine how many feats they can get, so why not just build more incremental features into the class that players can choose from?
The most interesting change to equipment was cribbing Shadowrun's lifestyle expenses. I wish they would borrow more, like the ability to make diverse characters and an interesting magic system. Equipment could still use some work, but it is still a step forward.
The exploration rules have been divided into dungeon adventuring and wilderness adventuring. There are rules on wall and door materials, finding secret doors, adverse weather based on terrain, high altitude, a sidebar on exhaustion, food and water, and so on and so forth. You can also use a set of optional wilderness exploration rules to add more exploration tasks and resolve getting lost. This is one of the few parts of the playtest where I feel they did not end up with a net loss to the overall fun of the game.
Though fields of lore might be able to give you an inkling of what a magic item can do, the most reliable way is still using magic.
On one hand I am glad that this is just the playtest, because I would not play nor recommend this game to anyone, especially with other, more engaging and interesting games out on the market. On the other hand this has been a fairly boring and at times confusing playtest, where I can only wonder what the design goals of Next are, and why they are seemingly afraid to let you actually build a character.