Evolution of Fifth Edition, Part 1: Thank You, Next!

I got my dirty paws onto a bunch of play-test packet PDFs from 2012-2013 for DndNext, the pre-release version of D&D Fifth Edition. I thought I would check them out sequentially, to figure out at what point different changes were made, and how different play styles contemporary to that time period meshed and came into conflict with each other. Notably, DnDNext was supposed to be the great absolution of the OSR; at the same time, it was an implicit apology for the radical changes made in Fourth Edition from the wildly successful Third Edition. Does DnDNext return the game to some past state, or does something new come out of this mess? Let's learn and find out! Don’t tell those pesky Pinkertons.

The picture above is originally by GeekDad.

B/X and the Caves of Chaos

The original adventuring locale used to play-test DnDNext was the Caves of Chaos from the 1979 module, B2: The Keep on the Borderland. Doesn’t it go that something isn’t old-school unless it can run B2 (which cannot be anything but a “new-school” slogan, since it was not until the 2010s that the focus of the OSR shifted from playing actual TSR rulebooks to writing one’s own bespoke rulebooks)? Something like that. Let’s take a look at what the 1981 Basic D&D has to offer players, so we have a point of comparison for what DnDNext offers instead.

Character Classes

We have seven main classes. Their features are in addition to some ability modifiers, determined by 3d6 scores (e.g. it is extremely likely that a fighter will also start with a +1 or +2 in melee combat, just by virtue of their strength score). The summaries below are for level-1 characters.

  • Cleric (HD d6 ~ 3 hp): Can turn undead. Cannot use edged weapons in combat.
  • Dwarf (HD d8 ~ 4 hp): Like a fighter, but with improved saves. Cannot use bows or two-handed swords. Infravision for 60’. Requires decent constitution.
  • Elf (HD d6 ~ 3 hp): Starts with one level 1 spell. Also infravision for 60’. Requires decent intelligence.
  • Fighter (HD d8 ~ 4 hp): Can use all armor and weapons.
  • Halfling (HD d6 ~ 3 hp): Bonuses to saves, missiles, and hiding. Actually the most complicated as far as having many disparate bits.
  • Magic-User (HD d4 ~ 2 hp): Starts with one level 1 spell. Can only use daggers or staffs, and cannot wear armor.
  • Thief (HD d4 ~ 2 hp): Can only wear leather armor and cannot hold a shield. Bunch of thief abilities: backstabbing, lock-opening, pick-pocketing, silent-moving, cliff-climbing, shadow-hiding, noise-hearing – Jesus.

Very squishy and lo-fi. Not much going on. Even the casters start with just one spell, except for the cleric who starts with none.


Now, here’s 20 sample monsters (you’re welcome!), presented in an array. AC is ascending and movement is per combat action, since those are our best point of comparison for DnDNext.

Monster HD hp AC Mv. Attacks
1. Acolyte 1d 4 17 20’ 2-8 hp
2. Beetle, Fire 1d+2 6 15 40’ 2-8 hp
3. Berserker 1d+1 5 12 40’ 1-8 hp or weapon
4. Bugbear 3d+1 14 14 30’ 2-8 hp or weapon + 1
5. Centipede, Giant 1/2 d 2 10 40’/60’ poison
6. Gnoll 2d 9 14 30’ 2-8 hp or weapon
7. Goblin 1d–1 3 13 20’ 1-6 hp or weapon
8. Hobgoblin 1d+1 5 13 30’ 1-8 hp or weapon
9. Human 1/2 d 2 10 40’ 1-6 hp or weapon
10. Kobold 1/2 d 2 12 20’ 1-4 hp or weapon – 1
11. Medusa 4d 18 11 40’ 1-6 hp, poison, petrification
12. Minotaur 6d 27 13 40’ 1-6 / 1-6 or weapon + 2
13. Ogre 5d 22 14 30’ 1-10 hp
14. Orc 1d 4 13 40’ 1-6 hp or weapon
15. Owlbear 5d 22 14 40’ 1-8 hp / 1-8 hp / 1-8 hp
16. Rat, Giant 1/2 d 2 12 40’ 1-3 hp, disease
17. Skeleton 1d 4 12 20’ 1-6 hp or weapon
18. Stirge 1d 4 12 30’ 1-3 hp
19. Troll 6d+3 30 15 40’ 1-6 hp / 1-6 hp / 1-10 hp
20. Zombie 2d 9 11 40’ 1-8 hp or weapon

The numbers are much lower than we would expect from modern Fifth Edition, although the early-game monsters like kobolds and giant rats are somewhat weaker than first-level adventurers – compare an average of 2 hp damage versus an average of 3 maximum hp. The most powerful monster on this list is the troll, having 30 hp and dealing an average of 16 hp per combat turn if all attacks hit (more like ~8 hp in practice).

The First Packet (2012-05-24)

This is our starting point. We’re going to see what the first play packet of DnDNext is like, and how it compares to its apparent predecessor in B/X.

Base Rules

Six abilities each with a score and bonus. The bonus equals half the score minus 5.

Make ability checks by rolling d20 plus a relevant ability bonus. The target number or difficulty class changes depending on the task’s difficulty. Saving throws are also ability checks.

Advantage and disadvantage are here out of the gate.


We don’t start with any rules for character creation. We just get five premade characters: a dwarven cleric, a human cleric, a dwarven fighter, a halfling rogue, and an elven wizard. How daring!

Though that’s just the beginning. Characters have four main aspects: race, background, class, and theme.


Race seems to inform a character’s ability scores like in modern Fifth Edition, though the specifics aren’t obvious – it just seems like characters start from a basic array which they modify, as they do now. Let’s look at what explicit benefits each race has:

  • Dwarf: Immune to poison; low-light vision for 30’; no speed penalty for heavy armor; can navigate and analyze underground structures.
  • Elf: Immune to charm and sleep magic; advantage on listening, searching, or noticing checks; low-light vision for 30’.
  • Halfling: Reroll failed ability checks once a day; hide behind larger creatures.
  • Human: Lol. Lmao.

Subraces are mentioned – for example, the two dwarves are from the mountains and hills respectively – but don’t seem to factor into the above special powers. Maybe they factor into ability bonuses?


This is actually listed third after class on the character sheet, but whatever. Backgrounds give +3 to a handful of skills, as well as a special ability. We get five:

  • Commoner: Skills include animal handling, commerce, folklore. Earn wages for your particular craft, and have rapport with fellow artisans of the same craft.
  • Knight: Skills include animal handling, diplomacy, heraldic lore, religious lore. Receive free accommodation wherever knighthood is recognized.
  • Priest: Skills include diplomacy, insight, religious lore, wilderness lore. Receive free healing and care from a temple associated with your faith.
  • Sage: Skills include forbidden lore, magical lore, natural lore, and religious lore. While researching, you know who to talk to or where to go in order to learn something.
  • Soldier: Skills include intimidate, perception, survival. Perform strenuous activity for twice as long, and carry twice as much weight without being encumbered.

Off the bat, it seems like that – unlike in Fifth Edition – the set of skills is not closed, meaning that you don’t have a big list of skills which encompass every activity in the game. Rather, characters have a list of skills which, if any are applicable, apply to ability checks. All but one of the background abilities also serve specifically to locate the character within in-world society. The commoner (lol) can talk well with other artisans, the knight gets special service for their knighthood, the priest is a member of a religious institution, and the sage knows where they have to go to find answers. This reminds me a lot of group identities in Whitehack, with the addition of explicit skills (rather than associating a group with a specific ability category; pick your poison!).


Let’s just save class for after this. A character’s theme gives them a starting feat, which is kind of annoying because the names of themes are not the same as the names of feats, but whatever. You start with a theme that translates into a feat? Whatever. In the list below, the item before the slash is the theme name, and the item after is the feat name.

  • Guardian/Defender: While holding a shield, when a creature adjacent to you is attacked, you can give the attacker disadvantage on their roll as a reaction.
  • Healer/Herbalism: Spend 1 hour to make up to three objects from this list: antitoxin, healing potion, or healer’s kit. If you start with this feat, you also start with three of those items.
  • Lurker/Ambusher: When you start a turn hidden from a creature, gain advantage while attacking them.
  • Magic-User/Arcane Dabbler: You know two additional cantrips (wizards don’t seem to have cantrips by default!).
  • Slayer/Reaper: When you miss an attack, you still deal damage equal to your ability bonus.

We’re getting good use out of that thesaurus, aren’t we! These actually feel like useful and interesting powers to start with. I like that both feats and backgrounds are very concise and snappy, though I do think it’s kind of annoying that they aren’t the same thing. Like, you should still start with two special things, but why can’t they just work the same way? A skill and a power? Hahahaha.


Okay! Classes. I’ll try my best. Least to most complicated. Notice that we’re working with levels 1-3 here. Basic.


Can equip all weapons and armor. Gains +2 to damage (?!).

At second level, can take two actions per turn twice per day.

At third level, gain the Cleave feat: upon defeating an enemy in melee, immediately attack another enemy in melee.


Both clerics can use divine abilities three times a day, though they both only get the choice of turning undead (treated as a spell, but the ability lets them cast it without preparing it). Add +2 to magical attacks. Your spell save DC is 10 + WIS.

The cleric of Moradrin knows three spells: crusader’s strike, divine favor, and healing strike. The cleric of Pelor on the other hand knows light wounds, spiritual hammer, and searing light. Level-1 clerics can only cast two of these level 1 spells a day.

Level-2 clerics can cast three level 1 spells.

Level-3 clerics can cast four level 1 spells and one level 2 spell. The cleric of Moradrin learns the Hold the Line feat where you can force your shield to prevent a smaller creature from moving past you on their turn. The cleric of Pelor learns the Healer’s Touch feat which maximizes the healing potential of hit dice during a short rest, as well of that of potions that you make yourself.

It’s at this point I wonder if themes might be a backhanded way of doing subclasses, like if the cleric of Pelor always has the Healer theme. Who knows!


Our favorite mishmash whatever-the-hell-goes-on class. Rogues have four base abilities:

  • Skill Mastery: When attempting a check at which you are skilled, your minimum die result is 10.
  • Sneak Attack: When you make an attack with advantage, you also deal d6 extra damage.
  • Thieves’ Tools: You can use these tools to pick locks and disarm traps; those tasks are impossible without these tools.
  • Rogue Scheme, Thief: You gain proficiency (+3) with opening locks, finding/removing traps, and stealth. Also includes thieves’ cant and hiding in shadows.

It seems like you would be able to create a rogue with a different non-thief scheme, but their abilities still assume thievery with or without that scheme. Probably an oversight at this point.

Level-2 rogues can give themselves advantage on a check twice a day, and can see in shadows when spending 1 minute in the dark.

Level-3 rogues gain the Skulker feat, which allows them to remain hidden after failing a ranged attack.

These are just thieves. Not rogues. Thieves.



Have a spell matrix. You can prepare that number of spells per spell level per day. You can prepare multiple of the same spell. Etc. (Aren’t spell slots on demand now?) Add +2 to magical attacks. Your spell save DC is 10 + INT.

Spell Level Wizard 1 Wizard 2 Wizard 3
1 3 4 4
2 2

Level-3 spells get the Find Familiar feat, which gives them a cute animal friend (“tiny magical beast” 😊). If the familiar loses all HP, it cannot reappear until the wizard performs a 30-minute summoning ritual.

Actually not the worst! Whew. Oh, they can also only use daggers and slings as weapons.


It takes 2k experience points to advance from 1st to 2nd level, and 6k experience points to advance from 2nd to 3rd level. I was going to save commentary for the end, but those are TSR numbers. It doesn’t say how to gain xp, though the xp earned by killing monsters is relatively very low (e.g. 125 xp for an orc, or 400 xp for an owlbear).


We don’t get much here. It offers different timeframes: days, hours, minutes, and 6-second combat rounds. Characters can move their speed times 10 in one minute. You can walk, jump, climb, swim, stand up, or crawl.

When being stealthy, make a dexterity check opposed by the wisdom check of the most perceptive opposed creature. It requires you to be obscure and quiet, and you will lose stealth automatically if you don’t meet those conditions. However, while hidden, you can’t be targeted by attacks and you gain advantage on your own attacks (isn’t this redundant with or even contradicted by the Lurker theme / Ambusher feat?).

Perception checks. Woo.


The sequence of play:

  1. Determine who is surprised.
  2. Determine initiative by rolling d20 + DEX. Anyone surprised subtracts 20.
  3. Iterate through combat rounds, everyone taking a turn, until the battle is over.


Attacks are ability checks versus the opponent’s armor class. Most melee weapons use STR, finesse melee weapons may use DEX, and ranged weapons all use DEX.


There’s three groupings of armor: light, medium, and heavy. Light armor allows you to add DEX to your AC, and medium armor lets you add 1/2 DEX. Heavy armor subtracts 5’ from your speed rating. It takes 1 minute to remove light or medium armor, and 1 + d4 minutes to remove heavy armor for some reason. It also takes time to put armor on. Not sure why this is included so early on.

Upon a successful attack, you deal damage by your weapon plus the ability bonus you used to attack. Monsters die at 0 hit points, but PCs can try to make three death saving throws (CON) to survive. On failing any of these throws, they take d6 additional damage. They finally perish upon reaching negative hp equal to their constitution score plus their level.

But how much positive hp do characters have? Glad you asked!

Hit Points

Off the bat, these level-1 characters have crazy hp. Let’s see what might be happening under the hood, because all we get are these numbers with no direct understanding of how they relate to each other.

Character Hit Dice Constitution CON Hit Points
Dwarven Cleric d8 13 +1 17
Human Cleric d8 13 +1 17
Dwarven Fighter d12 14 +2 20
Halfling Rogue d6 13 +1 16
Elven Wizard d4 14 +2 16

You see what I mean? But here’s what I think is happening: level-1 characters have hp equal to their constitution score plus 1 roll of their hit die, and each level thereafter add another hit die to the roll. Check out my math:

Character Constitution + Avg. HD Hit Points
Dwarven Cleric 13 + 4 17
Human Cleric 13 + 4 17
Dwarven Fighter 14 + 6 20
Halfling Rogue 13 + 3 16
Elven Wizard 14 + 2 16

So, there’s that. Keep in mind this is in addition to the negative hit points they can take while dying. That fighter basically has 35 total hit points. Think about that.

Healing & Rests

Characters can take a 10-minute short rest to spend hit dice in order to heal some lost hp. You add CON to each hit die spent. Level-1 characters only have 1 hit die, which feels sad at first glance but the average rates for our premade characters disagree: the clerics each restore 5 hp, the fighter restores 8 hp, and the rogue and wizard both restore 4 hp.

Characters can fully heal and regain all hit dice (and spell slots etc.) by taking an 8-hour long rest, which can only be done once every 24 hours.


Let’s cross-compare our monsters from earlier!

Monster hp AC Mv. Attacks
1. Acolyte 11 16 25’ 1d6+1 hp
2. Beetle, Fire 5 15 30’ 1d6 hp
3. Berserker 15 13 30’ 1d10+2 hp
4. Bugbear 16 15 30’ 2d4+2 hp
5. Centipede, Giant 1 11 50’ 1 hp, poison
6. Gnoll 11 14 30’ 1d6+2 hp
7. Goblin 5 14 30’ 1d6 hp
8. Hobgoblin 11 15 25’ 1d8+1 hp
9. Human 5 10 30’ 1d6 hp
10. Kobold 2 14 20’ 1d8–2 hp
11. Medusa 66 13 30’ 1d6+1 hp / 1d6+1 hp, poison, petrification
12. Minotaur 132 14 30’ 1d12+4 hp / 1d6+4 hp
13. Ogre 88 15 25’ 2d4+6 hp
14. Orc 11 13 30’ 1d8+1 hp
15. Owlbear 110 13 30’ 1d6+3 hp / 1d6+3 hp / 1d8+3 hp
16. Rat, Cave 1 12 15’ 1 hp
17. Skeleton 9 13 30’ 1d6+1 hp or 1d4+1 hp
18. Stirge 4 15 10’/50’ 1d4 hp, blood drain
19. Troll 132 16 30’ 1d6+4 hp / 1d6+4 hp / 1d6+4 hp
20. Zombie 15 13 20’ 1d4+1 hp

Yeah. Keep in mind I did not include the awful six-stat blocks for each monster. Each row above is so much more complex than appears here.


The first thing that I want to point out is that these rules are similar to Mike Mearl’s house rules for 1981 Basic D&D (the document itself dating to March 6, 2012), which is where we get advantage and disadvantage and healing hit dice – not to mention characters getting a vast hp bonus, equal to 1/2 their constitution score (not as generous as above, but still quite!). Except for some of the ridiculous fluff, it feels on a mechanical level like a 3E-ification of B/X rather than an OSR-ification of 3E. It is missing most of B/X’s structural support for activities like exploration, but in that sense it is basically in the same boat as most early-to-mid-2010s bespoke OSR rulebooks. Maybe, like in those games, it’s assumed for the play test that the referee is going to import their own particular exploration procedures and so on.

Something I was particularly interested in comparing was the hit point amounts between Basic D&D, DnDNext, and Fifth Edition. It’s funny because half the time I was like, okay, the bloat was not too bad at this point! But then you look at ogres. And trolls. And medusae. And you think to yourself, oh, it was here from the start. I do feel like we have to account for increased damage output due to characters adding their ability modifiers to the rolls; what was once a 4.5 average damage rate easily jumps up to 7.5 or even 9.5 in the case of fighters who (in this version) add +2 to damage. With somewhat similar to-hit chances, that’s a 67% to 111% increase in damage output. This might not fully justify boosting the hp of trolls from ~30 to 132, but that counts for something.

I also appreciate how characters are relatively simpler than their modern Fifth Edition counterparts. A character’s main abilities just take up the top third of the sheet! The layout itself is very intuitive, with the character’s armor class and hit points right at the top left of the page next to their abilities and other info. The rest of the page is literally just notes so you can write down as much as you need to function. It kinda sucks how much it expects you to do anyway, but it’s better than having to reference the book.

That’s just one play packet. We got so much to go through. It’s gonna be a journey over fifteen months of drafting and play-testing, by the end only barely resembling the final product. Think about what we haven’t seen yet. There still isn’t a unified proficiency bonus to consolidate the bonuses that characters are getting to attacks, skills, and magic. We’re missing more than half of the classes and races that appear in the final book. There’s even some weird special abilities that fighters get, and which they try to give to rogues, but also which neither of them keep by 2014. Let’s see what happened!


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