The newest packet includes the ability to create your own character, rather than just using the pregens. To do this, you roll up stats, then mix-and-match your race, class, background, and specialization. It reminds me of one of those flip books, where you make different monsters by matching up heads, bodies, and legs. I really hope they keep it this simple; it looks like it's going to be a lot faster rolling up characters in this edition.
The packet includes several backgrounds to flesh out your character. Primarily this is a way of giving your character a set of skills bonuses, but some of them give you a few other random benefits as well. Optimizers will pick the background that most closely matches their class - Rogues will often pick the Thief background, Fighters will pick Soldier, etc. But there's also some cool roleplay-related backgrounds as well, like Artisan or Commoner. This really sets the tone for the system, in my opinion. I never agreed with the critics who accused 4e of discouraging roleplay, but even so it looks like 5e is going to be better in that regard.
The "Themes" in the last playtest are now called "Specialties". I really like where they're going with them. Themed builds you used to put together yourself (such as two-weapon fighter or hard-to-kill damage sponge), you now just pick as a package and get the feats automatically as you level. Since you no longer cherry-pick your own feats, you won't have powergamers finding magical combinations of feats that do infinite damage. I'm sure the final product (or at least one of the later splat books) will have optional rules that let you pick your own feats, but for now it looks like you have to stick to an archetype.
While certain specialties are recommended for certain classes, so far it looks like any class can pick any specialty. However, a couple of the feats did list prerequisites. I wonder if this means you can still pick the specialty, but just don't gain the benefits of that feat. I do hope they don't go overboard with the prerequisites, because I like this mix-and-match system. I want the freedom to build quirky characters who are more interesting than useful. If I want my Cleric to specialize in two-weapon fighting, don't judge me. Not all campaigns are about having optimum stats.
They recently announced that 5e's multiclassing would be like it was in 3e, where every time you level you get to pick which class to level in. This decision did not meet with universal acclaim. Personally I think it's fine to have that system as an option, but I also think they should look into the specializations as a multiclass option as well.
For example, they could make a specialization that grants non-magic classes one Wizard spell per level. A Fighter could use that specialization to be a Fighter/Wizard. Of course that Fighter would be sacrificing a more fighter-y specialization that could have given him better damage or more hit points, but multiclassing is always a trade-off. This version of multiclassing wouldn't be as 50/50 (or 33/33/33) as 3e's multiclassing; it would be more like "Fighter who dabbles in Wizard" than "Fighter/Wizard". But that's okay with me.
Last time, people (myself included) complained that there wasn't enough healing. To "fix" it, they lowered the max hit points of all characters, both PCs and monsters. But they kept the healing rates the same, so you would end up healing a greater percentage. Personally, I wasn't complaining about the amount healed so much as the number of times per day you can heal. At first level you can only heal by resting once per day (using a healing kit, which I still think are an unnecessary complication), and 1st-level Clerics can only cast "Cure Light Wounds" twice a day (using spell slots they could have saved for other spells). Still, that's just level 1. It looks like by level 5 it all starts to seem more reasonable.
Last year I played a few sessions of Pathfinder before we switched our campaign to 4e. One of our biggest gripes was Pathfinder's slow healing, which really slowed the game down. But to be fair, it all depends on how much combat you're going to have in your campaign. If your game is mostly fighting, then you're going to need access to a lot of healing just to keep the story moving. But if your group tends to do things like scout ahead, avoid monsters, set traps, seal doors shut to control enemy movement, parlay, wear disguises, sneak into enemy kitchens and poison the food, or even avoid dungeons altogether in favor of business endeavors... then healing's not as much of an issue for you.
This version of the playtest also has variant rules for long rests. The basic rules still have you healing to full, but it also has options for DMs who want to make healing a bit slower. This is a good example of how the final product might treat optional rules, in their effort to please fans of every edition.
Instead of the clunky system from the last playtest, where surprised characters got -20 to their initiative rolls, the new playtest treats surprise a bit more rationally. Now you just roll initiative normally, and if you're surprised you can't act on your first turn.
In the last version of the playtest, they had not yet put in Opportunity Attacks. They're back in this version, but a little bit different. Instead of triggering when you leave a threatened square, now it triggers when you leave an opponent's reach. So you can run circles around your enemy without provoking. The downside is there's still no shift/five-foot-step. Instead you can disengage, which lets you move 10 feet without provoking. But that's an Action instead of a Move, so you can't attack and disengage on the same turn. But you could disengage and still move further away, if all you're trying to do is escape. (Note that some Fighters have a shift-like ability they can use once per round; see "Combat Expertise Die" below).
I'm not crazy about these OA rules, but I've never been a fan of OAs in the first place. I like to keep rules as simple as possible, and avoid the ones that restrict your options. I realize lack of OAs can make certain combat strategies too easy, but whatever rules are in effect for the players are also in effect for the monsters, so it's an even playing field. In the movies, you often see the hero gliding through the battlefield, taking a swipe here and a slash there, deftly avoiding counterattacks while stabbing random opponents. It's all very fluid and dynamic. D&D, however, seems to think combat should be more robotic. Walk up to target, roll d20s until it dies, walk up to next target, etc.
Yes, I understand the guy in the movie is probably a seasoned veteran, while my level 1 fighter shouldn't be as good at dancing her way through a battlefield. But that just proves it can be done eventually. So here's my suggestion: Keep OAs like they were in 4e, but you get a +1 per level bonus to AC against them. So a level 1 character might still have trouble jumping from enemy to enemy, but by level 10 you're so good at it that the DM might not even bother attempting the rolls.
This is more a presentation change than a mechanical one, but the bestiary in this version is much easier-to-read than in the last playtest. This is a good sign; it means they're not just thinking about the crunch.
Fighter Expertise Die
The fighter now has several maneuvers it can use instead of just whacking away with his sword. Depending on his level and his fighting style, he can spend an expertise die to perform extra actions like cleave, knockdown, shift, and so on. Some actions require you roll the die, others don't, but either way you spend the die like it was a 4e Action Point. You get your die back at the start of your next turn, so basically fighters can do one extra thing every turn. The size and number of the dice goes up as you level. It reminds me a little bit of the Stunts system in the Dragon Age RPG.
The Sorcerer and Warlock were a late edition to the Playtest, and they're a good example of just how different the classes can get. The Sorcerer uses a "Willpower point" system for casting instead of Vancian, and has more melee presence than the Wizard. The Warlock's spellcasting is sort of similar to the Sorcerer, except it's INT-based and calls the points "favors". Like the Wizard, both of these classes have some spells that don't cost anything, similar to 4e's At-Wills.
On the various boards I read, people are predicting Next is going to crash and burn. I guess they just don't have faith in WOTC any more. They're still catching flak for mistakes they made years ago. A typical example:
I remember that just within ONE WEEK before the release of 4.0, WOTC announced in VERY terse terms that there was NO plan for a new edition and NO plans for researching a new edition and there was NOT going to be a new edition... and to drive the point home, I recall that they released either two or three new 3.5 supplements to show their "good faith." Seven days later, there's a new edition. This time they are giving the public notice. To heck with them. I'm sticking with Paizo and Pathfinder. (source)Talk about an Unreleasable Fanbase. It's damned if you do, damned if you don't. I see a company that has learned its lesson from past mistakes, but others will never forgive them. Oh well, they're going to miss a lot of cool gaming sessions.
I'm not psychic or anything, but as a general trend-watcher, so far 5e reminds me of those reboots that ends up being big hits. 5e looks like the "Batman Begins" to 4e's "Batman and Robin". The "Star Trek 2009" to 4e's "Star Trek Nemesis". The "Mortal Kombat 9" to... well, you get the idea. (And this comes from someone who really liked 4e.)
It really looks like they're taking all the right steps this time. Rather than surprising people out of the blue with the new edition's mechanics, this time they're having public playtests out the wazoo, and getting feedback after every step. Heck, they even had us vote on whether Minotaurs have tails. The end product is going to be something we all had a hand in making So if you don't like the final version... it's your fault. Actually, that would be a great new slogan: "Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition... It's not our fault!"
WOTC thinks it will be two years before 5e is officially released. Ouch! So while I really like the direction they're going, there's a lot of time for things to change. It's quite possible that the final product won't have any of the stuff I liked best about these early playtests. Heck, there's already been a couple of changes that bothered me between the first playtest and this one. I have to admit, a small part of me wants to sit out the playtests and wait until the final product is released, so I don't get attached to rules that get changed later. But if everyone did that, the playtest would be pointless. Besides, a much larger part of me wants to see and experience every single step of the development process.
Overall, I like what I'm seeing so far, and can't wait to see how it turns out. It's going to be a long couple of years.