The One D&D Playtest: Big and Small Surprises and Why I Like the Controversial Critical Hit Rule

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons started as a game with a strong foundation, strong enough that when I imagined 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.

The D&D team agrees. “We did a smart thing with fifth edition by listening to the fans and what came out of that process was a system that is stable, that is well loved, that incorporates the best elements of earlier editions.” Designer Chris Perkins says. “Now that we have that, we are no longer in a position where we think of D&D as an edition. It’s just D&D.”

The D&D team started fixing trouble spots years ago. For example, newer books like Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take. Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes the most updates, with a new way to assign ability score bonuses, alternatives to game-stopping summoning spells, and new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype. The changes improve the game without invalidating anything in the 2014 Player’s Handbook. (See D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books.)

In 2024, the D&D team will release new core books, making that 2014 Player’s Handbook obsolete. In a way, this 2024 update resembles the jump between first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and second edition. In the 80s when designers started work on second edition, copies of first edition adventures and books like Oriental Adventures were staying in print and selling well for years. TSR management wanted to keep those evergreen products earning, so they required that second edition remain broadly compatible with first. Second edition’s most important goal was “to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed.” Of course, first edition had already seen changes and new options would continue to evolve second edition. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

For the next 12 to 18 months, the D&D design team plans to release monthly playtest packets, enabling gamers to sample and provide feedback on the game’s 2024 release. “You’re going to be able to use all of these playtest docs with your existing core books,” says designer Jeremy Crawford. “We’ve designed these docs so you can take each one, and other than the places where we tell you here’s an update, all of this material works with the core books you already have.”

The D&D team emphasizes how the new release will just build on the game we play today. Their claim and my feeling that the game’s foundation is good leads to the playtest package’s biggest surprise: The document makes changes to rules such as critical hits and conditions—changes at D&Ds foundation. Make no mistake: I’m fine with these changes and the package convinces me that the designers will improve the game.

The changes to D&D’s foundation hide in the packet’s unremarkable sounding “Rules Glossary.” Roleplaying game design often means making choices between the benefits and drawbacks of a particular choice. To weigh the choices revealed by the playtest, I like looking at both sides of this equation. My listing of the drawbacks of a choice doesn’t mean I wouldn’t choose the same.

Critical Hits rate as the candy of D&D. No one ever accused D&D co-creator Gary Gygax of giving players too much candy, and he hated crits. (See page 61 of the original Dungeon Masters Guide.) Like candy, crits give joy, but they’re also bad for us, and especially bad for our new characters. Forget bugbears and goblins; blame most new character deaths on a natural 20. First-level characters lack enough hit points to survive the extra damage. D&D’s designers aim for a game that makes players feel like characters can die while rarely actually killing them. (Some gamers enjoy a more dangerous game, but fifth edition needs optional rules to cater to that taste.) Removing crits helps D&D avoid wasting new characters, but we love our candy, so the test rules allow only player characters to score crits—a change that would have appalled Gary. I like it.

As a DM who speeds play by using average monster damage, monster crits add extra friction. That 20 interrupts my flow and forces me to hunt for damage dice to roll and total. (Yeah, I know I could find a short cut.) A crit and a miss deal less damage than two hits, so the slowdown adds little to play.

Some folks complain that not letting monsters crit makes them too weak, and I’m sympathetic because D&D’s mid- and high-level monsters are too weak, and I’ve complained as much as anyone. But the fix comes from much more damage than the occasional critical hit delivers. Hopefully, the 2024 Monster Manual will deliver the power bump foes need.

The test critical hit rule also affects players. Spell attacks no longer deal crits. This just brings the rule in line with what new players expect: Only weapon attacks and unarmed strikes crit. We D&D enthusiasts can master this change.

The new critical rule also changes the damage formula: Only weapon damage dice get doubled. The designers probably aimed to weaken characters designed to farm criticals with feats like Elven Accuracy. The new formula hinders paladins and rogues by eliminating doubled smite and sneak attack damage. Paladins rate as one of the game’s strongest classes, so this change helps bring them down to Oerth. Rogues suffer more from losing a double sneak attack damage.

Still, in D&D specific rules beat a general rule. The critical rule works like this in general, but a class like rogue might gain a feature that adds additional damage to crits. If that feature worked for melee attacks and not ranged attacks, then it would help make up for the inferiority of melee-focused rogues. A guy can dream.

Rolling a 20. Another change deals monsters a more serious blow than losing critical hits. Based on the new rules for rolling a 20 and inspiration, characters will rarely fail saving throws. Now players gain inspiration whenever they roll 20 on an ability check, saving throw, or an attack roll. Players gain more fun candy for their high rolls. If you already have inspiration, you can pass the award to another character. “We wanted a way to feed people inspiration through the system itself. What the system is intentionally doing is encouraging you to use the inspiration.” Dream on. Inspiration proves so much more valuable for saving throws that I plan to continue hoarding it until I need to make a save. I suspect this will bring my characters closer to never failing a save. When I run games, players like me who hoard inspiration make monsters much less fun to run because characters rarely fail a save and so many monster abilities amount to “Action: Waste a turn while every single character laughs off your biggest threat.” At tables using the widespread house rule that lets players spend inspiration to re-roll, the heroes’ edge grows even stronger.

Instead of the players fighting ice cold dice who could use a lift, the inspiration-on-a-20 mechanic awards more success to the character already rolling 20s. Perhaps if a 20 let you inspire another character in the party, the rule would feel better.

Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings about the inspiration-on-a-20 rule. As a player, I love rolling natural 20s and hate failing saves. But even more, I love challenges that press my characters to the limit.

Ability score bonuses. The playtest’s update to ability score improvements rates at the playtest’s least surprising change. Now instead of pairing each race with set of ability score bonuses that reinforce a fantasy archetype, every player chooses where to put a +2 and a +1 bonus, or alternately three +1 bonuses.

Since first edition AD&D, each race has gained ability score modifiers that match the fantasy archetypes of robust dwarves, agile elves, and so on. This started back when everyone rolled characters at random and when good play meant making the most of whatever the dice gave you.

Now most players build characters to match their tastes, so ability score bonuses limit freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Setting ability scores should require just one step: Assign the scores you want to suit your character. Instead, the current design asks players to assign scores and add bonuses as separate steps, likely adding some back-and-forth friction as players find the right values. I would like to see a process that folds the two steps into one. That would work easiest if the game simply offered a few standard arrays of scores with the ability score bonuses included.

Feats at first level. Originally, the fifth-edition designers sought to make new characters as simple as possible. This returned to D&D’s 1974 roots. Then, characters just started with 6 ability scores and a class. Characters developed in play. Those simple characters proved especially easy for new players. You could immerse yourself in your role and play without knowing the rules. If you’re a hero with a sword and a monster charges, then you know your options: talk fast, hit it, or run. Now text like “a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus” weighs races, 1st-level feats, and classes. If you’re coaching a new player, prepare to explain “proficiency bonus.”

The playtest rules make a new character’s history feel more important by bolstering it with mechanics. “I’m super excited about this whole approach that we’re taking with backgrounds,” says Jeremy Crawford. “It’s all about building your character’s story and making certain meaningful game-mechanic choices that reflect the story you have in mind for your character.” Or instead, you can take the Lucky feat.

For new players, the added “game-mechanic choices” risk making the game feel overwhelming. Maybe that’s fine. New players confronted with a pregenerated character always find it overwhelming, but the end of the session, they typically feel comfortable with the basics.

The designers seem enchanted by the phrase “a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus,” but I wish fewer feats added things to track.

The playtest feats include a change that strike me as ingenious. Each feat includes a level. “One of the ways to make sure that feat selection is not overwhelming is to break feats up into smaller groups, and one of the ways that were doing that is with levels.” Credit Pathfinder second edition for adding this innovation first.

Grappling. The playtest changes the rules for grappling. Now, if your Unarmed Strike hits versus AC, then you can grapple the target. Likely this change aims to make grappling for characters work like all the monsters that grapple by hitting a target. Starting a grapple with an attack strikes me as odd because it defies a fifth edition design principle.

Fifth-edition designer Mike Mearls once explained that to determine whether to use an attack roll or a save, designers asked, “Would a suit of plate mail protect from this?” Armor protects against darts, scythes, and so on, so traps using such hazards make attacks. Poisonous fumes, lightning, and mind blasts all ignore armor, so targets make saves. Attacks to grapple fail this test. Surely though, rules for saves to avoid a grapple would add more complexity than the designers want. Besides, D&D hardly needs another reason to favor Dexterity over Strength.

19 thoughts on “The One D&D Playtest: Big and Small Surprises and Why I Like the Controversial Critical Hit Rule

  1. Pingback: The One D&D Playtest: Big and Small Surprises and Why I Like the Controversial Critical Hit Rule -

  2. Ancient Sage

    BS about monster crits. No, they don’t invariably have to slow anything down or force you to “hunt for dice.” You could simply 2x average damage.

    You really seem like an apologist here in this essay instead of someone who is objective.

  3. Gashren

    Critical hits – as the SlyFlourish said: they probably put it inside so that they have something to give up, like they’re listening to the feedback. A cover topic to push through other changes, that would generate much stronger backlash if not for the big, fat, criticals thing.

    “Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes.”
    Except in 5e there were no ability scope penalties for playing certain race. Now, in the name of I don’t know what, they want to get rid of giving uniform bonuses. Look, the kobold is the same as ogre. Still has the same +2 he can put anywhere he wants. Sure, that kind of rids the game of racial stereotypes… but it also outs racial archetypes in the same move. There are no “elven archers” anymore – just “bowpersons”.

    “Now, if your Unarmed Strike hits versus AC, then you can grapple the target.” It already worked in similar way, and if character has more than one attack, you could already chose to grapple with one, and make regular attack with another, as grappling is an option to resolve the attack’s effect, not an action in itself. Only thing that changes is grappling and escaping a grapple will now be against static DC (either AC to grapple, or static DC to escape) instead of an opposed roll. And at least it now will have any effect other than just make enemy stand in one spot (disadvantage against other targets than grappler. Which brings on another question – if multiple creatures grapple a single opponent, does that mean he can freely hit any of them without disadvantage?).

    It is weird that you always get to add proficiency to the DC though – before you did get proficeincy bonus only if you were proficient in Athletics. Apparently every character now takes tae-bo classes (actually, since “you are proficient with your unarmed strikes” everyone already did, just not the wrestling).

    And another fun thing – the section in PHB has a sidebar “Contests in combat” and lists grapple and shove as examples. Except now there will be no contest, just one sided roll. Backwards compatibility and no need to buy new book, eh?

    What I would like to see is getting rid of the damage by weapon, and simply using d6 or d8 for every weapon (yeah, just like in 0e) – at least some of the weapons would actually be used, instead of gathering dust on the weapon table.

    As for the other changes… they do not cater to my area of interests, and if they are going to follow that direction, I’ll probably just switch for other systems. 5e already was “kinda meh” for me.

    1. Frederick Coen

      All weapons doing the same damage is almost already where 5e is. There are definitely a few offenders (Rapier is too good, trident is too bad), but all the one-handed martial weapons basically do 1d8, and there is nothing special about them. I prefer the other direction – Pathfinder 2 style, I suppose – but I can respect going the 0e route and just having them all do the same, sure. Or, like some systems, the weapon damage is based on class… in the hands of the Fighter, that mace is a lot more deadly than in the hands of the cleric. I’ve always wanted, in the back of my head, a combination of Rolemaster and D&D: your weapon has a base damage value, sure, but the awesomeness of your attack roll makes your weapon strike more lethal. Not just critical hits, but – just as an example – “+1 damage for every 2pts you exceed the target’s AC”. So the humble d4 dagger might score 9 damage against an AC10 foe with no training (that’s rolling a 20), while the level 17 fighter with 20 STR (dmg boost) and 20 DEX (accuracy boost) would do 14 (4 base + 5 STR + 6/2 proficiency + 5/2 DEX accuracy).

  4. Clawless

    Very good article. I especially agree with folding racial bonuses into standard array now that theyre floating ( except that i love the ” creating characters” mini game aspect of dnd but still the right move) and contrary to other commenters, i think players will still make the agile elven archer or the muscle bound orc…Dnd reflects pop fantasy lit; it doesnt dictate it

  5. David

    Inspiration is a great example of candy. 🙂

    Imho inspiration is mainly a meta-gaming resource with hardly any connection to the narrative. The proposed changes do not improve that significantly but instead add more bookkeeping and emphasize thinking a lot about rolling dice rather than engaging with the world, the characters, the story in a meaningful way (a successful roll is already it’s own reward, it doesn’t require additional gamification). Even mechanically speaking, it doesn’t give players new ways to express themselves beyond “My chances of success are now higher!”, and it sure doesn’t add much to the narrative in indispensable ways (“oh, I just thought back to how wonderfully I jumped on my horse this morning, watch me strike with extra precision now!”).

    Imho it should therefore either be cut completely, or at least simplified in such a way that it gets out of the way as much as possible (since cutting things is always hard when you’re trying to sell a new product). Hand it out once per day or per level-up or some other easy to track schedule and be done with it. That would also make it much easier to balance around it.

    DMs don’t need an inspiration system to be able to give advantage on the next roll after a critical success (or when somebody did something cool, even if they didn’t roll a 20, shocker!), if we want to create these little highlight/momentum shift moments. If we want non-bards to be able to inspire their friends with music, let’s model the musician feat after bardic inspiration, the way we do respectively with meta-magic adept, martial adept etc. And humans will be just fine with their second starting feat.

  6. Daniel

    I think if they just put stat bonuses in *class*, instead of race or background or anything, then it would solve all the problems they have.

    You are a fighter? Sweet. You get +2/+1 or +1/+1/+1 for str, dex or con. Wizard? You get +2/+1 or +1/+1/+1 for int, dex or con…. etc..

    (as a side note, if you cannot pick three stats for the class then it indicates that there is an issue with the class that needs to be addressed)

    That way no mater what you choose for your character’s past, it wont impact their game effectiveness (unless you specifically choose to put low numbers in your primary stats – there is still this option for those who want it for reasons).

  7. erics

    I for one welcome our new future where the yokel farmer is stronger and hardier than our intelligent and charming noble class.

    Bring on the class wars.

  8. Frederick Coen

    The Grappling change to initiation – attack vs. AC – does not actually change the advantage of DEX over STR. *Everyone* applies their DEX to AC (except heavy armor wearers, who obviously already invested in STR anyway). The only thing this did is make Grappling *harder* against *all* foes, but especially against low-level foes. The 2HD generic guard might have had only +2 proficiency bonus at most to Athletics or Acrobatics, and +1 STR, but now that suit of AC 16 chainmail just made him essentially “+6” vs. grapples instead of +4. The Goblin, +2 DEX, wasn’t trained in Acrobatics, so he was only +2… but now his armor makes him +4. And the scholarly level 1 Wizard, STR 8, DEX 10, no skill training, is now +8! (mage armor already cast, plus shield).

    On the other hand, Being Grappled now imposes a penalty to attacks, as well as mere “speed 0”, so that’s great. and I’ll immediately house rule that you must be using a small / unarmed / natural weapon for that attack against the grappler, or even that attack is penalized (unproficient “improvised weapon” pommel strikes, for example)!!

    Critical Hits only kill characters at low levels who are in single digits and haven’t gotten healing or retreated. A hit has to drop you to “negative your starting hp” to outright kill you. Otherwise it merely drops you to 0, and then the bard/cleric/artificer/paladin/Cellock/divsorc/MagicInitiate heals you, and you’re back at 100% effectiveness. Maybe the lesson is “treat greataxe wielders and ogres with respect at 1st level” not “sorry, special snowflake, here’s a 1UP token to save your life”. Goblins do a maximum of 13 points on a critical hit, average 8. Takes you down (if you’re already wounded), sure, but d@mn, you got stabbed in the face! If adventuring was safe, everyone would do it! Combat is potentially lethal – use your brains and tactics. Impose disadvantage to greatly (1in400, not 1 in 20) reduce the chance of crits. Bad luck happens, it sucks, but by 5th level, Revivify has already removed any threat of death.

    On the flip side, if the game system has decided Critical Hits are “BAD” (for multiple reasons), apply the change impartially – no one gets them. Barring a class ability – maybe raging barbarians, high level fighters and rogues (and all rogue[assassins], and some spells grant “extra damage on a Nat20”. (I would have included Half-Orcs, but they are gone now too…)

    For attribute bonus, just say “roll/pick your attributes, and add 3 points (no more than 2 to any one score”. Done. It doesn’t matter if the 3 extra points come from race (as in every previous edition), or background (6e), if the “extra” isn’t *set*, then there is NO VALUE in keeping them separate. If “Farmer” gives “+2 CON and +1 any” (hard work and exercise makes you healthy, but your approach to farming determines your other bonus), then your Background matters. But if “Farmer” is the same as “Blacksmith” or “Cloistered Scholar”, and they all give “3 extra points, max +2 to any score”, then the bonus has nothing to do with Background and shouldn’t be there.

    [I’m heretical, I know, in *wanting* your base attributes to be affected by your choice of Race. I don’t want to start that discussion here, I’m just giving background that be influencing my thoughts.]

  9. mattzane

    Great take! I think that player feedback around critical hits will result in some sort of change to what’s offered in this playtest. Which is the great thing about playtest material and (hopefully) community-focused design choices.

    The Grapple change seems very odd to me, but I think they’re going for simplicity over logic (sad that grapple-specialized characters won’t be as able to specialize anymore, though).

    I like the Inspiration on a Nat 20 change, but I do agree that many savvy players will continue to hoard Inspiration right up until the party is fully stacked on it.

    The Feats and Backgrounds changes are mostly well-received from what I can tell. Great that I just started a new campaign, my players are excited about their 1st-level Feats 🙂

    I wrote an article that attempts to cover every single change introduced in this latest UA, would love to get your feedback on it:

  10. Ben

    Regarding ability bonuses, I wish wizards had gone the other way in Tasha’s: instead of making every race more similar (halflings as strong as goliaths, etc.), get rid of the word race altogether. Replace it with something that’s more accurate (we’re talking different sentient species here), such as Ancestry, Blood, or Kind. That way, players who want to address or ignore the topic of racism in their games are free to do so, and we don’t have to deal with speciesism as a clumsy (and often racist) replacement in published sourcebooks or the base rules.

  11. Mark Widner

    Savage Worlds has been doing tiered Feats (Edges) since it’s inception. They have also been allowing assignment of ability scores Critical Hits (Raise) equates to plus weapon dice. Also awarding inspiration (Bennies) for key events like playing to a Hinderance or some really exceptional play as award by the GM. They are just really borrowing good ideas from lesser known games systems and treating them like they are something revolutionary.

  12. The Byzantine

    Not only would it appall Gary, it did! From Dragon #27’s installment of the Sorcerer’s Scroll, a guest column by Bob Bledsaw, covered by Grognardia’s post on the 22nd:

    “Any advantages given the players must be offset by advantages given the monsters. Mr. Gygax called me on this very subject [Blesdaw used an Empire of the Petal Throne instant death rule, but houseruled it to double damage instead. Gygax was under the false impression that Bledsaw gave this advantage only to players.]”

    Have to concur with Ancient Sage above, you come across more as an apologist here. These changes deflate my desire to play 5e.

  13. Ajax Plunkett

    Wizards of the Coast have the legal rights to the name and the game of Dungeons and Dragons but is 5e the best version or even a good version of the game? It has slowly drifted away from the fantasy literature and stories I personally recognized in the game mechanics.
    I can list a dozen D&D retro clones or OSR RPG’s that do it better. But their name isn’t D&D.

    This edition and the point fives ( (.5) editions onward is about treats with no downside.

  14. Joseph M. Rion

    I use point buy in the games I run. I make the sixteen cost 11 points and I give everyone 33. I worked out the math for it. I don’t get why you wouldn’t unify the system. Ability score generation under one root. Even for rollers have them add like one to three different rolls of their choice.

  15. Mattwandcow

    I really like the changes to grapple. They made it more punishing, less punishing, and tactically viable. Under the new system, if a gnoll is attacking your wizard friend, grappling makes sense to pull the gnoll away, keeping him away from the squishy.

    I’ve been using the new inspiration rules at one of my tables, and its amazing to have people paying attention on other’s turns, ready to spend their tokens and getting them back. Very dynamic.

    I think its possible that its too early to see all their ideas for the d20 changes. It feels too big of a change to judge it fairly. We need to see what’s happening with monsters and classes and maybe even some magic items and spells.

    Personally, I think that the d20 changes might be clickbait. They certainly got everyone talking about it, because they managed to make a system that is different from how anyone runs it.

  16. Pingback: Ten Insights into the One D&D Playtest of Expert Classes | DMDavid

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