Mearls was right, May 24th came around quickly and RPG fans were eagerly awaiting their playtest pack from Wizards in their email. Unfortunately, server problems go the better of them, leading to 404s every which way and silly redirects when trying to use the download link. Anyway, I've got my copy and here are my initial thoughts.
The pack is split into 9 PDFs, with characters, a play guide, DM guide, the bestiary and the adventure, Caves of Chaos. I suppose we were all thinking going in whether the designers would stay with the over-the-top 4e system or revert back to earlier editions. Thankfully, the playtest has shed most of 4th edition, leaving something resembling 3.x with a hint of Essentials thrown in.
Gone are the at-wills, encounter and daily powers for all and sundry, and while magic-users and clerics have cantrips they can use at will, we're firmly back in Vancian territory. Interestingly, the material doesn't assume you'll be using a grid, so measurements are back to feet instead of squares, which is telling of how combat has been scaled back.
Encounters are no longer the big sprawling set pieces that take 3 hours per fight. You get one action and one move, but you can split your move to pre- and post-action, allowing for tactical fighting. Since characters don't have reams of powers to go through, just spells and attacks, combat will be more or less back to how it was before 4th edition. Wham bam, thank you ma'am.
The bestiary details all creatures in the Caves of Chaos adventure included in the playtest, and there are a lot of them. From low xp goblins to big ol' xp trolls, it's clear that your 1st level adventurers could end up in way over their heads, which is a good thing when it comes to telling a story and something that 4e sorely lacked.The monsters all have some really cool flavour, from combat methods to legends and lore as well as descriptive stuff. Their special abilities actually mean something now. Take the Medusa for example. In 4e, her Snaky Hair read as follows:
+15 vs AC; 1d6+5 damage, and the target takes ongoing 10 poison damage and takes a -2 penalty to Fortitude defense (save ends both).
Whereas in the playtest we have something much more descriptive, explaining how the snakes act and adding more flavour to the attack (forgive me, but the ToC's forbid excerpts). The same goes for magic, which is now in list format again. Everything carries much more flavour to it.
Obviously these rules will change, but I hope not by much. I love the advantages and disadvantages, where you roll 2d20 and take the higher or lower result depending on whether you're at an advantage or disadvantage. This means you don't have to track -2s all over the place. It can also be used for a bunch of things, including conditions, which there are a bunch of and perhaps more than I personally wanted. However, again, they are all about flavour, not mechanics. I quite like 'frightened' where the victim should make all possible actions to keep out of sight of the enemy, although I'm a bit dubious about 'intoxicated' giving you 1d6 immunity to damage. That seems daft.
The Caves of Chaos seems like a great adventure for a starting DM. There's no 4 encounter adventure here, this is a sprawling 64-room dungeon teeming with creatures to slay and loot.
Right now, I think this is a great-looking game. While it still retains an air of 4e, such as Hit Dice replacing healing surges but in a much more logical sense, and lots of character customisation, it looks like a step in the right direction. Plus, your character can fit on a page!