Whelp, looks like this is it. Well, except for the part where they mention a packet update for the druid and a paladin oath.
Spoilers: I felt that 4th Edition was a major step forward for Dungeons & Dragons. Aside from a few legacy mechanics like per-day resources they were not afraid to change whatever they wanted to make the game better. With Next Wizards of the Coast is well on their way to making a very...adequate game. Nothing about it seems fresh or innovative, much less even interesting. It looks like a 3rd Edition clone—flaws and cluttered language and all—with some 4th Edition mechanics tacked on, just without actively referring to it whenever possible.
A lot of Next looks like they are sticking with past editions just for the sake of sticking to a past edition. Who knows, maybe down the road they will write some rules modules that will make it easy to work around these issues (or better yet just fix the core game). As I said before I am still going to keep tabs on how the game develops, and hope that they do not take the easy way out and just rehash an older edition. The silver lining is that even if they do I still have 4th Edition (and to a point 13th Age), and I fully expect 4th Edition hacks to crop up that might be improvements over it.
With that here is my breakdown of the actual packet. Really the only thing I do not talk about are spells, partially because as I have said a million times the magic system makes no sense and is boring, partially because I already played 2nd and 3rd Edition, and partially because there are a lot of them. It sucks, and there are plenty of games out there with better magic systems to choose from.
(NOTE: After reading through so many packets it is very possible that I will overlook or confuse something with material from a previous packet. Actually, given the similarities to 3rd Edition it is possible that I might even confuse something in here with that.)
I hate how things are formatted, namely features and powers. The number of times something can be used in an encounter or per day is buried in one or more paragraphs, making it easier to overlook. This was one strength of 4th Edition, where it was incredibly easy to at a glance determine the frequency, action required, and any other relevant keywords in a power, feature, or what have you. Why go with something so clunky and difficult to sort through (which is a similar issue I have with 13th Age)?
Also if you want to go "mind's eye" with the game, then why not get rid of explicit speed and range? It would be a lot better to use distances with a slight variation to their range, like in Numenera where an Immediate speed means anywhere within 10 feet, and a Short distance is between 10 and 50 feet. You could also use 13th Age's rules for being engaged. All of this has the added benefit that players can still use minis as visual aids.
I dislike that races only get +1 to an ability score, as it means that about half the time the bonus will not do anything, and depending on your class you might never see a benefit from it. Go with 4th Edition and 13th Age's +2 bonus so that you are guaranteed to get something out of it. Also, increase the ability score cap at certain levels (like, I do not know, 24 at 10th-level).
Rock gnomes can still for some reason only create up to three clockwork devices that always work for an absolute amount of time. I would think that they would just gain proficiency with a craft skill and/or tools, or have some racial knack that lets them fiddle with devices or fix them, but since this is more restrictive and makes zero sense I guess we are going with it.
Not only are humans, half-elves and half-orcs still boring, but tieflings and warforged join their ranks with their pointless and contradictory uniformity. So much for various infernal heritages and construction materials.
Not only am I very disappointed that certain races are unnecessarily categorized as universally unusual (including to my surprise gnomes, half-elves, and half-orcs), but that the designers are very careful to make sure that—likely certain groups of people—are very aware warforged come from Eberron, and dragonborn have a ridiculous background: they come from un-blessed dragon eggs.
Yep, I am serious. As a consolation to 4th Edition they put in a sentence about how in some worlds they interbreed so much that they take on a uniform appearance. As a member of the 4th Edition crowd I want to say that I prefer the unique look of them, and have said so many times. Also it is not that I want 4th Edition mechanics and flavor for its own sake, but that in a lot of cases I think that both were just plain better.
The major change to classes is the addition of proficiency bonuses for attacks, saving throws, tools, and skills. This idea sounds good in theory, but it is just a uniform bonus across the board. You do not actually get to choose what to increase, it just goes up when it says it does, even if you pick up a new proficiency down the line. A pretty big missed opportunity for giving characters some variety and choice, as well as attaching benefits for having a proficiency at a certain level.
Classes saw many features adjusted or removed but are still, as I expected, boring and rigidly defined: with few exceptions when you gain a level you just write down what the game says you get based on an arbitrary depiction of a handful of concepts, and at 3rd level you lock in the rest of the features you get.
This means that, for example, every barbarian gets Thick Hide and proficiency in Tools: Mounts (land) at 1st-level. Why do all barbarians automatically know how to ride animals regardless where they came from or what your background is? No idea. Normally I would blame a previous edition, but I do not think that was even the case in 1st Edition, so...huh.
I want to point out, again, that there are very simple games out there that let you make meaningful decisions about your character. Not even just at 1st-level, but at other levels, too. Just saying it is kind of cool to be able to actually customize things and make choices. As someone who has played a lot of 4th Edition, some Dungeon World, and read plenty of 13th Age these seem like the kind of classes you would throw together over the weekend just to have something to show.
Backgrounds & Skills
While it is nice to see skills make a comeback, unfortunately they rely on the universal proficiency bonus I mentioned above in classes. Again this misses out an a major opportunity to let players actually make choices about what skills they want to increase, as well as link special features to skill ranks, and like classes this comes across as a bit lazy.
Feats can still grant spontaneous mastery in weapons and armor regardless of your prior skill or experience, which contrasts strangely with how magical feats provide incremental benefits over the course of several feats.
Athlete and Loremaster are the only two feats that grant bonuses to Strength and Intelligence respectively. I wonder why it is just those two; it should pretty easy to whip up a feat for each ability score.
Everything is still in gold pieces, which I guess I should not be surprised about since there has been no mention of a silver standard in a long time.
Heavy armor is now only nearly pointless since medium armor caps out at 17 with a Dexterity bonus (heavy armor can get you an 18). Still, it would be nice if heavy armor did something more to make it clearly worth your while.
The most interesting thing I noticed, aside from the lifestyle expense (which was in the previous packet) was that the orb focus lets you use your spellcasting proficiency bonus when using magic. A nice 4th Edition idea—among many—that I have missed in Next.
Not all magic items are bad. The +x stuff is pretty boring and I dislike charged items, but a good number have interesting capabilities; efreeti chain lets you walk in molten rock like it was solid ground. That is a lot more interesting than just a list of combat-oriented bonuses.
I think that the tables for magic item details could and should be applied to some mundane stuff; for example a "normal" sword crafted by genies might weigh half as much, while a spear could also be thrown twice as far. Barring an interesting flavor reason ould stand to see per-day powers go away, though.
With few exceptions most of the monsters seem basically like bags of hit points that try to hit you. The lack of an elite/solo status makes it hard to have the players deal with only one or two monsters; in my home campaign the characters were easily able to swarm and take down a "boss" within a few rounds. No tension, no dynamics, just hit him while he stands there and falls over.
Many have per-day spell-like abilities, which does not make any sense and at this point just seems lazy, as if the designers could not come up with anything new. Even Dungeon World sounds better, and it basically just tells you to use whatever, whenever.
This seems pretty decent this time around. Your proficiency bonus is based on your overall character level, so you do not have to worry about falling behind as in 3rd Edition. Extra attacks seems kind of clunky, and I am not a fan of gaining all the proficiencies of the new class. There is also the issue that if you multiclass too much it can take along time to actually pick up a feat.