In last week's Legends & Lore Mearls tried to justify inflexible class features with two key points: it speeds up character creation and ultimately does not really matter, because the first two levels go by really quickly—being tutorial levels, I guess—and you can always start at 3rd level if you want to get to that one major decision point.
Of course both of these points are bullshit—you can have fast character creation and still choose stuff, and the rest of the class is almost as inflexible—but he continues his spiel on low-level play, this time trying to pitch the "benefits" from the Dungeon Master's side of the screen.
He describes the first two levels as a chance for the Dungeon Master to set the tone of the game; as the players try to memorize a couple of preset mechanics, the Dungeon Master can not only use this part of the campaign to start slow and build towards bigger things, but also experiment with the rules, including the experimental ones...except that those levels are only supposed to take about a session each. Fast, slow, which is it? Is it a good idea to shift the rules around on players as they are trying to learn the game?
Also, are the first two levels really a sufficient time frame and mechanically robust enough for determining how well certain rules are working out? Characters start out pitifully anemic, so should I really be judging how well, say, a variant hit point module is operating then, or wait until they can actually do stuff like reasonably survive more than a handful of encounters in the day? Are a couple sessions even enough time to get a handle on how the default game works, without throwing optional rules into the mix?
I am not sure why he describes backgrounds as "key tools" in campaign creation; all they do is create more work for everyone and still maybe pointlessly limit things. Take the commoner background for example: it gives you proficiency in Animal Handling, Athletics, Survival, artisan's tools, gaming sets, and mounts (land). What if I settle on a former blacksmith, and do not think that my character would have had anything to do with horses or survival?
Well thankfully there is a sidebar on creating your own custom backgrounds (ie, pick the skills that you think actually make sense for your character), and the default is even that if your class gives you proficiency in an identical skill you can choose anything else you want, which is nice because all fighters are apparently proficient in mounts (land) for...some reason.
So, wait, why do we need backgrounds again? What is gained by even encouraging the Dungeon Master to prefab skill lists that the players are probably just going to tweak or ignore? Why not just make the default that you can pick whatever skills you want, like so many other games? Would it help if I pointed out that not even the dreaded 4th Edition offered that freedom?
If I were planning a game I would not make a background for organizations, guilds, or whatever. I would let my players pick whatever proficiencies they feel is appropriate for their character, allowing an organization or guild to at best guide their choices because A) not everyone in an organization has the same skillset, and B) the player might think of an interesting way for a skill to apply that I did not.
I would much rather have the player actually think about her character than restrict their imagination, even if it adds all of a few minutes to character generation.
Is the traits/flaws/bond trinity still a thing? Huh. It would have been nice to see these in some capacity in the playtest, but given how badly classes are designed, backgrounds are implemented, and his oh-so brief example I do not have much excitement or hope for them. Like the rest of the game it is not exactly innovative or new, except for Dungeons & Dragons I guess. It sounds nice in theory, but I do not believe that they are going to look at games that utilize something like that well for inspiration.
Many groups use the first session to create characters? I thought the goal for character generation was to clock in at 30 minutes or less. The first session should focus on the overall tone of the campaign and the Dungeon Master's approach? I thought the first few levels were supposed to be enough time for the Dungeon Master to figure out the tone, and somehow decide how well the rules are working out.
Like the first two levels is character generation intended to be fast, slow, or whatever the group wants? If we want to take a long time (or even make characters before the game), is there going to be a rules module that lets players actually make decisions?
I ask this because, similar to what I said at the end of last week's Legends & Lore, the rules for 5th Edition are a constraint: characters are incredibly fragile, have severely limited resources, spellcasters are reliant on an utterly nonsense magic system, and the classes have very little variety. Feats and "customized backgrounds" are both not enough to really differentiate characters and frankly nothing new or innovative.
I am surprised that it took the game this long to allow characters to pick whatever skills they want (if the Dungeon Master permits, at least); if only the rest of the game could get back with the times.
The article closes with another little snipe at 4th Edition, where he talks about how a Dungeon Master not using the guidelines for building encounters informs the players to expect an "exciting campaign fraught with danger". Because as we all know you cannot use well-designed encounter guidelines to make an encounter at anything but the normal difficulty level. Maybe he is getting edition-war trolls to proofread his articles? It would certainly help explain his previous statement about warlords shouting wounds closed.