D&D Next: 5th-Level Stress Test

Kamon and Melissa enjoyed the 1st-level stress-test well enough that we decided to kick things up to 5 and give it another shot. Kamon was adamant against playing a wizard this time, opting instead for the fighter seeing as he enjoyed the rogue (which was 4th-level) during our Isle of Dread playtest. Melissa dug the monkwhich was nice since we all wanted to see how interesting/complex it got later onso just leveled her up.

Since despite my dissatisfaction with the wizard overall I still wanted to see how well the wizard fared when it actually used spells that were not cantrips or recovered in a short time-frame, it was up to me.

One thing I noticed--and really like--is that except for the wizard (and presumably cleric) the complexity from 1 to 5 does not change much; the fighter got a few new maneuvers, more expertise dice (going from 1d4 to 2d6), and a feat, while the monk got those and another ki-powered feature. Everything else--hit points, attack bonuses, skill and ability score increases, etc--just gets rolled into the final modifier, and does not require constant referencing.

Compare this to 4th Edition, where characters start with at least four different things--often more--without counting stuff that anyone can do, such as basic melee/ranged attacks, bull rush, etc. Then add in a new power at almost every level and feats every other level, and everything adds up pretty quickly (as well as leads to choice paralysis, especially with new players).

Initially I liked this approach because it provided ways for non-magical classes to remain viable throughout a campaign, as well as give them mechanical diversity (as well as reign in casters), but 5th Edition seems to be doing the same things, just with less space and a slower rate of feature/power accumulation.

First on the roster was a vrock. Fire and magic resistance made it difficult for the wizard to really do anything, and I was surprised to not see damage resistance against non-magical weapons on the menu, too. It was able to move around and use the terraina combination of pillars, pits, and rubbleto its advantage, but it ultimately went down without too much trouble. Maybe next time, spores.

After that was a pair of fire elementals. I included a couple of burning braziers out of habit more than anything else. The fighter, lacking a magical weapon, could only chip away as the monk and wizard rapidly whittled them down with their bare hands. I do not think I even hit anyone at all during this combat, as the slam's fire kicker seems like something I would have remembered. Though it did not matter, I do like their inability to cross large bodies of water. Had I planned these encounters out I might have included something like that.

The gargoyle's hide in plain sight ability is standard fare, even if it had no utility in this scenario. Damage resistance, again, made it a pain for the fighter. I imagine in a lot of games that the fighter would have a magical weapon by now, but it is good to know that they were able to finish the fight without one.

Hydras have often been tricky things to represent mechanically. In 2nd Edition dealing a set amount of damage automatically severed a head, and the body was virtually invulnerable to damage (which made no sense). In 3rd Edition you had to choose to hit either the head or the body, and after a short period of time two heads would grow unless the neck stump was hit with fire or acid. 4th Edition made it so that heads would roll whenever the hydra's hit points were reduced enough, but again, two heads would regrowthough hit points would not increaseif it did not take acid or fire damage before it started its turn again.

5th Edition hydras are a mix of 3rd and 4th Edition in that you have to elect to sever a head instead of dealing damage to the body, but instead of automatically growing new heads it has a recharging power. Besides having a recharge, it also only works if it has fewer than five heads, meaning that at most it can end up with six (instead of 2nd and 3rd Edition's twelve, and 4th Edition's seemingly lack-of-cap).

Envisioning it as a sort of magic laser, I decided that the wizard's scorching ray could feasibly be used to slice a head off, and since you can divvy up the damage as you like I put 5 points towards its body. Even with one head in the grave it still had four bite attacks to make, though at a +3 bonus its odds were not so hot. It got some lucky chomps in at first, but the fighter was able to keep it a few heads down the rest of the encounter (an average damage of 14.5 will do that).

This battle was somewhat difficult, which was to be expected given that it exceeded the average encounter difficulty budget by 160 points. I like this iteration of the hydra because players end up having to choose between killing it faster, or reducing the number of times it can make an attack. The head cap is nice for keeping things manageable on both sides of the screen, but I kind of like the idea of things being able to get out of control.

The problem is that if chopping off a head results in the temporary loss of an attack, can possibly result in a net gain for the hydra, and does not reduce overall hit points, then why would players even bother? It would be less risky and faster to just attack the body. So, currently having a temporary attack reduction with the slight risk of it having a small net gain seems to be working; my players went for the head in the rare instance that high-enough damage was rolled. Maybe if you gave the body fast healing and make it so that if all the heads get chopped off that it is dead dead?

I will confess to not actually rolling the last encounter. Mostly I thought that, hey, I have a Huge white dragon mini that I had yet to use in any edition, so...why not?

Well...it is kind of unwieldy on the grid.
As a level 8 monster just shy of one-hundred hit points, I figured that it would make for a climactic last stand for the night. As a concession I even gave the fighter a flame tongue, because I wanted to see a 5th Edition rare item in action. What I learned was that fire damage, even 2d6, adds up quickly. Especially when the monster is vulnerable to fire damage. They killed it in three rounds, and I did not even have to fudge anything.

It opened up with a breath attack, dealing 25 cold damage to Kamon's fighter and 12 to the rest thanks to good Dexterity saves. Everyone got a few good hits in, but its bite/claw/claw routine on the next round dropped the fighter. Melissa used her action to administer a potion of healing, while the wizard dropped a web on it. Though it made its save, the followup round involved a burning hands spell, which coupled with the fire damage from the web was more than enough to finish it off.

So a party of three was able to get through five encounters, two of them toughies, without a healer or long rest (and most of them without any magic items). I think that some monsters could have a slightly higher attack bonus: as written, a fire elementala level six monsteronly has a 35% chance to hit the typical 1st-level fighter. The hydraalso level 6only has a 30% chance (and, oddly a Strength of 17 despite being Huge).

The fighter was fun, but we had already seen that with the Isle of Dread playtest (the only real difference this time around being some more hit points). The only part that sucked was monsters with weapon resistance, but even so the group got along just fine.

The monk was a lot more fun now that its flurry of blows dealt standard unarmed damage sans ability score mod (though that might change if Mearls actually removes ability score mods from damage). The added dice made her a lot more flexible, as Melissa was able to use step of the wind to close the distance and still flurry something. Deflect missiles ended up not being used at all since nothing actually threw/shot anything. Oh well, at least it was more competent than the 3rd Edition monk.

The wizard got boring pretty quickly.  Burning hands deals a piddling amount of damage once you graduate from giant centipedes, kobolds, and human commoners. Average of 3.5 damage if they fail their saving throw? Against 34 hit point gargoyles? They can take that heat without breaking a sweat (literally, because they are stone), and that is just gargoyles; owlbears have just over 40 hit points, and minotaurs over 50.

Shocking grasp fares a bit better, but you have to get into melee for that, and when the consequences could prove to be a 20+ damage love tap I do not think it is worth it. Wizards really need some manner of scaling and frankly, consistent magic that does not involve them preparing a specific group of spells; bring back the cantrips from previous playtest packets. Seriously, does WotC expect wizards to get by/care about their signature spell when a fighter (and possibly a monk and rogue) adds thunderwave-grade damage to their attack every round?


  1. I just completed my very first playtest. I ran the first chapter from Reclaiming Blingdenstone for 5 people and it was quite fun. We played with the pre-generated characters.

    It's interesting to compare it to the stresstest here. The wizard at level 1 felt very diverse and flexible to the party. It's a shame to see it deteriorate at only level 5. Wizards needs this kind of feedback, and I sincerely hope they take stuff like this into account. Then again, watch it get released as it stands and get errata'd after a couple of months. Dito on them zombies cfr your 1st level test.

  2. In the 1st-level playtest we did, the wizard got repetitive pretty quickly, though how effective it was depending on the number of monsters and their hit points. Sheering off a couple is all well and good when there are lots of things to hit, but when your only other at-will option requires hand to hand combat, well...

    My problem at 5th-level was made worse by the lack of scaling. Burning hands is pretty situational, so when horde-type monsters have buttloads of hp it goes past unattractive to ineffectual (especially when other classes DO get bonus damage and/or extra attacks).

  3. I guess we're pretty much limiting analysis of the wizard to damage capacity in combat, and finding it wanting?

    My impression of the intent of D&D Next was that WotC wanted to diversify play. Aren't there ways that the wizard can contribute tactically other than damage?

    Just playing devil's advocate here. Thanks for posting the analysis!

  4. No one wanted to play the wizard, but I still wanted to see how it could contribute combat-wise (so ended up pulling double-duty).

    The concept of a war wizard (or blaster, or evoker) is not uncommon, and it was interesting to see how the wizard measured up in that regard. My opinion is "not very well". Even for area-effects they inflict too little.

    This could be fixed with some form of scaling (automatic, spend class features, a charging mechanic, etc).

    The wizard CAN still do some pretty creative stuff...if you have the right spells and opportunity; Melissa used web in our Isle of Dread playtest to lock down a huge carnivorous ape, and in this playtest he did quite a bit of damage by failing to lockdown the white dragon and just lighting it up anyway.


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