What? A rational look at the new playtest that will surely ruin D&D forever? How can it be? I demand hyperbole and wroth!
Fair warning: I did not listen to the actual Wizards of the Coast announcement regarding the playtest, as listening to corporations hype their product is like attending a timeshare presentation. I may be reiterating or misinterpreting things. It probably doesn't matter, just like this initial post, because of how many things are going to change.
Fair warning: I haven't playtested the rules. I will convert to the OneD&D rules at some point, but my current 5e game has plenty of brand new players, and I'd rather not burden them with relearning the system! Yet. A note: OneD&D is less a playtest and more a smattering of variant rules and previews of larger design changes to come. We cannot judge these design changes yet because there are rules interactions that have a disproportionate impact on some classes. One chief rule change is the alteration of critical hits. According to the new rules, critical hits apply only to weapon attacks (no spell criticals), and they do not double any dice rolled outside of the weapon dice. This change has a knock-on effect on classes like the rogue and paladin, so I suspect they will be redesigned to accommodate these rules changes. (For example, a rogue wielding a 1d6 weapon adding 2d6 sneak attack dice rolls 3d6 damage normally. In 5e as-is, a critical hit doubles this to 6d6. In OneD&D, he would roll only 4d6.)
The biggest takeaway: in a totally unsurprising turn of events, OneD&D is taking cues from D&D 4e. The online playerbase has expressed dissatisfaction with D&D 5e's core, and the online consensus—an important distinction!—is that the game needs more elements that were hallmarks of D&D 4e. These include:
Parity between spellcasters and non-spellcasters ("martials"). A disparity (power/versatility) between these two has always and ever existed since D&D’s birth. Spells are simply more powerful and interesting than the limited collection of abilities relegated to martials. The ability for a high-level fighter to attack eight times in a round is powerful within the combat system, but the ability to pump out high damage numbers is not impressive next to the potency of a suggestion spell.
Choices for martial characters. Ignoring the perceived balance issues in the game, martials are less enjoyable to play for many gamers because of their lack of choices. In D&D 4e, all classes gained access to a slew of abilities, both usable within combat and outside of combat.
Arcane, Divine, and Primal spells. A callback to 4e power sources. I have no strong feelings on this. There is much sound and fury about all classes having the same spell lists now (bards and wizards both being arcane casters, for example) but this is premature as we have yet to see class redesigns to accommodate these changes. Will we see a list of special abilities categorized as "Martial" abilities available to rogues and fighters and monks? One wonders.
Monster reworks. In D&D 4e, there existed a very tight set of mathematics for creating monsters. 5e abandoned this, and the rework promises a more predictable fight cadence that was introduced in 4e. For good and ill, monsters can no longer score critical hits, and the designers have explained that monsters will now have abilities that provide more consistent damage spikes in accordance with certain climactic moments in a combat (at least, this is my interpretation). The loss of monster critical hits has been so controversial that I suspect it will be walked back immediately, and I guarantee we'll see something akin to 4e's bloodied condition.
Some additional scattered thoughts:
Racial changes are (mostly) positive. While I do not care for the removal of ability score adjustments from races, this alteration is negligible, and I'll simply be reintroducing it into my games. Emphasizing unique mechanics to differentiate the races is desirable, though I wish they centered less on the combat system.
The demise of short rests. OneD&D is phasing out short rest recharge mechanics, something that has been a bugaboo in online discussions for ages. In D&D 4e, it was expected that characters would short rest after every encounter to refresh their resources. 5e changed short rests from a few minutes to an entire hour, creating an awkward situation where players are reticent to take a short rest due to time constraints and would rather take a long rest or not rest at all. For classes dependent on short rest recharge mechanics (like warlocks), this greatly impacted their efficacy.
Proficiency bonus times per rest mechanics are hideous. This is one change I am against wholeheartedly. I don't like it, I don't want it, please do not do this (it's going to happen regardless). Adding more resources to track (on top of potions, scrolls, hit points, hit dice, magic item uses, spells, and other class mechanics) introduces a level of tedious bean counting that I cannot abide.
Custom backgrounds are a heckin' big misserino. OneD&D offers a group of preselected backgrounds and then immediately says "btw, build your own background." This is a terrible decision that guts the enjoyable aspects of the background system. Character backgrounds in 5e aren't geared toward character optimization, making it a choice that was more influenced by roleplaying considerations. With a custom background of skills, ability score boosts, and a bonus feat, the system simply becomes a Lego builder that encourages optimal configurations irrespective of roleplaying considerations. (Such decisions can be justified as roleplaying, but it will be curious to see how many custom backgrounds just so happen to grant Stealth and Perception proficiency.)
Inspiration is becoming something of a big deal. Acquired upon rolling a natural 20 on the d20, inspiration is likely to be gained and spent far more readily--but don't forget that it is lost upon taking a long rest. (The inspiration must flow!) Players gain inspiration, spend it to gain advantage, then are more likely to roll a natural 20 and gain more inspiration. The design goals encourage a forward momentum amongst player characters, previous success improving the odds of later success. Making inspiration a larger part of the game is excellent. As it stands, it’s almost entirely forgotten (at least in every game I have played), and I hope that easier acquisition emboldens players to undertake more daring exploits.
Unarmed strikes are changed. Shove/grapple are simplified. I don’t have strong feelings on this because I’ve never seen these used prominently. Already online discussions are gnashing and wailing their teeth about the changes, so I suspect these rules will change almost immediately, so I am not devoting any more thought to them.
Individual notes aside, my broader perspective is that OneD&D is going to make a lot of smaller changes to the rules that will be difficult to track. Upon first readthrough, many rules appear to be the same, except there are slight variations that change them. WotC claims that the release in 2024 will be backwards compatible with existing 5e products, but I’m skeptical of this. Although the rules will be superficially similar, I anticipate numerous changes that fundamentally change the game. Yes, you will surely be able to port in the same monsters and characters as listed in the existing adventures—the basics of hit points, Armor Class, etc. will remain the same—but the minutiae will be sufficiently changed as to make this difficult. As far as rules adoption goes, I suspect the majority of people will accept these changes in the same way that the majority readily accepted the change from 3.0 to 3.5. My coldest hot take from this whole OneD&D project is that Wizards of the Coast is looking to create a digital product that they can “patch” like a videogame, adding errata and content easily without relying on physical sales. Some people are concerned about this, but I am not, as I prefer a physical medium for gameplay and am certain there will be a demand for physical books into perpetuity. The ability to issue errata on the fly or clarify/rewrite rules text instantly is an interesting prospect that will have a huge impact on the hobby—for better and for worse. We will no longer be paying for D&D books, but instead we will purchase a D&D service. If we don’t like the rules changes from D&D 5.1 to D&D 5.2, one wonders if we’ll be able to “roll back” to a previous version. I suspect not.