When I first read through the new playtest materials I started getting excited. It looked like I was finally going to be able to make Brianna Sheàri, the female protagonist of the series of short stories I’ve been working on over the past several years.
She started life as a Wood Elf Ranger in Champions of Norrath years and years ago. I later used her name for an elf ranger in a HackMaster 4e campaign. After that I started writing her story.
She has largely kept the ranger theme: her skills are primarily focused on archery and wood lore, and she has some access to both elemental (mostly by enchanting arrows on the fly) and healing magic (infusing into healing poultices after applying them). The details of those skills have changed as my world has developed (for instance, elves, orcs, and humans are all different types of humans instead of distinct races), but that’s enough to be getting on with.
Naturally, I can only truly make her in GURPS, and have done so, but I’m forever trying to shoehorn her into various class-based games just to see how close I can get. So far I have only managed it by focusing on one aspect of her character and ignoring others. In D&D Encounters she is a Hunter Ranger. That gives her the forest survival and hunting skills, as well as the marksmanship, but complete ignores her magic side.
Then came the new playtest and it looked like I might finally be able to make Brianna in a class-based game. I started with High Elf since it gives her a free wizard cantrip, and made her a Fighter with the Sharpshooter Fighting Style. To gain her herbalism and healing magic I added the Healer Specialization. It gives her the ability to make healing potions and healer’s kits. I can easily flavor those as using the combination of herbalism and healing magic she uses in my book.
That left me with two unsolved issues: neither of her cantrip choices were reasonably re-flavored into her ability to ignite arrows as they leave her bow, and she didn’t yet have any skills beyond the ability to shoot and heal. Looking at the skill list, she needs Natural Lore, Survival, Spot, and Stealth for her ranger skills, and Magical Lore to finish her off.
The first problem I can solve by simply adapting Ray of Frost into a fire attack, or devising a new spell that lets her spend her action to add extra fire damage to her next bow attack.
The second problem is harder. As in the first playtest, skills are gained via Backgrounds, but unlike before all backgrounds now yield exactly three skills, no more, no less. Each also includes a Trait that gives things like owning a house and plot of land somewhere, knowing where to find a piece of information you can’t call to mind, or having contacts in various places and organizations.
Not surprisingly, the included list of backgrounds is short so it can’t possibly cover every possible combination of skills, but I can’t find one that’s remotely suitable for Brianna. For one thing, the only background that includes Survival is Soldier (which bundles in Intimidate and Spot) and the trait gives you a military rank, which is likely not at all useful to the majority of characters that want that combination of skills.
In 4e, included backgrounds were suggestions to give you an idea of the things they can do, with the assumption that you would make up your own (which I do with nearly every character). The playtest likewise calls them “Sample Backgrounds” so I expect there will be guidelines for making your own eventually, but if they’re all “Pick three skills and make up a fluff Trait” then I’ll pass.
As far as I can tell, the only way to have more than three skills is to take the specialty that gives you the Skill Training feat at first and third levels, but that prevents you from taking far more interesting specialties instead.
At that point my balloon of excitement popped. Adding further to my disappointment is that skills are now tied to attributes again. Their separation was brilliant and one of the things I loved best about the original playtest.
It makes me wonder why they don’t adapt D&D 3.x’s skill points instead of being so restrictive with skills. Even better would be following HackMaster’s example and go full-on hybrid point-buy – but I’m not holding my breath.
So here’s the short version: I’m loving D&D 5e so far, except for backgrounds and skills. Those two things are very in the way of me enjoying the system.