The latest D&D Studio update on the 2024 core rule books should have excited me, but it just made me apprehensive.
Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons started as a game with a strong foundation, strong enough that when I imagined the changes that would best improve the game, I just wished for replacements for the annoying spells, overpowered feats, and toothless monsters—the game’s features atop the foundation.
So far, the playtest and design team’s reports excited me, because the preview showed that the team understood the pain points in the 2014 game and sought ways to relieve them. But now I’m concerned.
Until now, only one change struck me as a bad idea: The design team chose to strengthen 1st-level characters in the worst way. Instead of making new characters more durable by giving them a few extra hit points, the designers opted to make new characters more complicated by adding an extra feat.
To welcome new players, 1st-level characters need to become a bit more durable—just another 5 hp or so. This boost would spare them from starting as fragile as soap bubbles. D&D should not prove deadliest at 1st level. Sure, some of us love the challenge of 1st level, but to a new player who invested time creating a character often with a personality and backstory, a quick death just feels like a major loss. Such failures push players away from the game. We all know the problem. To avoid such disappointments, the D&D team seems to love the now worn trope of starting characters safely at a fair or carnival. I typically contrive a way for characters to gain the benefit of an aid spell as reward for a good deed.
At conventions and game stores, I’ve introduced hundreds of players to D&D and a key lesson stands out: Simpler characters work better. The 2014 design team made a winning choice when they kept new characters streamlined, but the 2024 redesign adds complexity by giving new characters another feat to choose and to play. For new players, the addition risks making the game feel overwhelming. Maybe that’s fine. New players confronted with a pre-generated character always find it overwhelming, but at the end of the session, they typically feel comfortable with the basics.
Surely, lead designer Jeremy Crawford can point to Unearthed Arcana surveys that show the sort of super-invested D&D players who spent an hour completing the playtest surveys love the extra feat, but that just proves players who mastered the game enjoy characters sweetened with more power. Candy isn’t always good for us or the game.
D&D fans already knew about the extra feat and I accept that not every aspect of D&D will suit me. However, another reveal from the studio update leads me to worry. Jeremy Crawford says, “We’re making sure that every major piece of class design does appear in Unearthed Arcana at least once, but there are going to be some brand new spells that people won’t see until the book is out. There are a bunch of monsters people won’t see until the books are out. There are magic items people won’t see until the books are out.”
Apparently the team feels that class features deserve the scrutiny of the D&D public, but spells don’t. Apparently the team failed to learn from the public playtest leading to the 2014 core books.
In D&D, if you play a spellcaster, your spell list forms the bulk of your abilities. So every wizard tends to prepare the same powerful spells on the list. Spells deserve the same scrutiny as class features. In 2016, when I looked at the most annoying spells in the D&D game, I learned that none of the problem spells appeared in the public playtest documents. Back then, the design team figured their in-house playtesting would suffice for these spells. That proved wrong. Thanks to the power of certain annoying spells, the spells weighed on just about every session with a character able to cast one.
Now the team seems to be falling victim to the same overconfidence. Perhaps the team would say they’ve learned from 10 years of experience and can better evaluate new game elements. Surely that’s true, but still they recently released twilight domain clerics and silvery barbs, so I see a some hubris behind touting all the new surprises in the new books.
I don’t want all new surprises. I want a game polished to perfection because it benefits from 10 years of play.