I was able to get my copy of the DnDNext playtest material several days ago but because of circumstances just hadn't had the chance to sit down and read through the material until tonight. That circumstance was that my youngest had his high school graduation this weekend and with relatives in and out and what not it was kind of hectic around here. Things finally calmed down a little late this afternoon and I finally got a chance to read through the provided material, so I wanted to post a few first impressions.
I like 4E. I like it a lot. I think it does a lot of nice stuff and I have enjoyed DM'ing it and playing it. Having said that, yes, there are some things that need to be trimmed back. It was nice for players to have choices, but far to often I have seen "paralysis by analysis" as players peruse and rethink and ponder their many, many choices.
Let me make an analogy. I have played APBA baseball for ~30 years. Of course there was a computer version of the game released many years ago, but there wasn't always one. You had to sit down with your player cards, your result boards, a pencil, a score sheet, and a pair of dice and roll it out, every batter, hit, out, inning and game. It was pretty easy, to learn and once you got the hang of it you could roll through a game in about ten minutes. But yes, it was pretty basic, so we often tried to tweak this rule or that and add additional dice rolls for different situations all in the name of realism, and then next thing that happened was our quick and dirty ten minute game soon became a 20-30 minute game. I was the proponent of many of these rule changes at the time, but looking back now I am not sure we actually gained anything from over-analyzing the game and essentially rewriting it like we did.
Similarly, I think 4E might have been that same kind of "one step to far" type of game implementation, or at least that was the sense of what I was reading into what the Wizards game developers had said over this past year or so as they have talked about development goals for DnDNext. If Wizards was looking to trim DnD back from its 4E excesses to a more basic level game with some of its 4E flourishes left in then yes, I am interested in what they would have to propose.
The first thing I read was "How to Play," basically the Players Handbook. Imagine distilling the basic elements of any version of DnD into a 31 page rule book. It would have to be a real basic level introduction to the most basic level concepts of DnD, and that is exactly what you get here. What are classes, what are the attributes and what do they affect, weapons, armor, and mundane items are included. There is also a section on magic where the few included spells are laid out.
Similarly the "DM Guidelines" serves as a very basic 9 page Dungeon Master Guide. There was a 30 page "Bestiary" including the creatures to be found in the provided adventure, and the included adventure was the familiar "Caves of Chaos." This was actually kind of clever as Wizards really wanted players to focus on the playtest experience itself and not on a previously unknown dungeon.
There were five pre-generated characters that included a wizard, a rogue, a fighter, and two clerics, one cleric being more combat oriented and the other being more healing oriented. The fighter character sheet was only one sheet long while the others were two pages long as the spells and/or extra abilities were given their own sheet. And yes, they were pretty basic characters. For example, the fighter can attempt their basic melee attack. No powers, just swing and hit or miss. It does look like much of the fighter benefits are part of the character creation portion of the process where themes and skills will differentiate what particular benefits a character has.
The magic users and clerics earn a requisite number of spells at each level, although this number can be adjusted based on attribute scores and theme and skill choices. So yes, apparently Vancian magic really is back. Spells fall into the following categories: At-Will or Cantrips (think mage hand), Encounters (think Sleep), and Rituals (non-combat type spells). I do have one complaint here - trying to shoehorn all of the character sheet material into two pages is going to be hard on my aging eyes.
My long time Sunday night DnD group had never played DnD 3E or 3.5. We played DnD 2.0 until we migrated to 4E when it was released, so yes, this looks familiar. In fact, it looks very familiar. It looks like 2.0 with some 4E verbiage thrown in. I am assuming there are some 3.0/3.5 elements in there as well (skills?), but regardless, this version is a real basic DnD type of game. I only read through the material once and I have not had a chance to playtest it yet, so my first impression is that I got what I asked for - a more simplified and streamlined version of DnD.
One more disclaimer - this is not a finished product. I expect additional updates to the playtest material a couple of times a year (Gencon is in August) as the developers work their way through the process. I continue to be curious about walking through this and to see where it eventually goes.