My commute reading today is the D&D Next play test update stuff. So far, I've made it through the races and classes documents, and skimmed the backgrounds and specialties documents.
First up, the change in name from "Themes" to "Specialties" gets a big thumbs up from me. The word theme reeks of artifice. Books, music, paintings, movies, etc. have themes. Political campaigns have themes. People do NOT have themes. My character does not have a theme, although the adventures in which that PC participates may have one. Ditching that term takes the game one step farther away from the dissociated wargame that was 4E. Bravo.
Next, rolling for ability scores. Yea! Of course it's 4d6-L arrange to taste, but at least point buy is not mentioned and the "default array" is mentioned that it's just there for speed and convenience. Roll them dice!
Hit points have returned to AD&D/3E levels. Max HP at level 1 is still the default (as in 3E), but then I've been using that since my Mentzer Red Box, so I have no quibbles with that. The option to take a set amount of HP at each higher level is there, or you can roll. I still haven't looked at the monster document to see how the monster HP fare, though.
Races - wow, a whole heaping ton of fluff about the races, that basically says the generic stereotypes of the races anyway. Dwarves dig tunnels, drink beer, like to fight, are grumpy and stubborn. Did you need to spend a page and a half telling me all that? Sub-races are a default mechanic. Not a good thing. It's just one more choice needed at character creation and looks to only serve min-maxers (for example, High Elf gets you +1 Int for your Wizard, while Forest Elf gets you +1 Dex for your Rogue or Ranger). I don't expect that you'd see many Hill Dwarf Clerics when Mountain Dwarf gets you a +1 Wis.
Classes - some interesting things here. First of all, Level 10 spells. Really? REALLY??? With level 0 spells (Orisons/Cantrips) the game will now have 11 levels worth of spells.
Clerics - an interesting magic mechanic. Memorize your X spells per day, but then you can choose any of them to cast up to X times per day. Sort of like the 3E Sorcerer, but you need to limit your spells known. You always have your Domain spells and Turn Undead prepared without taking up slots. I don't like that Turning takes up a spell slot to use, but oh well.
Fighters - the expertise die mechanic. You get a d6 each round (more and bigger dice as you level) that you can use each round for extra damage, damage reduction, or to pull off a special maneuver. Interesting. Not sure if it will prove overpowering or not. It may be a nice simple way to give Fighters that edge they've always supposed to have had over Rangers, Paladins, and the like.
Rogues - I didn't notice too much different about them. Sneak Attack starts at +2d6 dice, though. Is that new, or was it in the first play test doc? Don't remember and I'm too lazy to go look it up. The Rogue scheme basically gives you an extra Background plus what amounts to a feat tree, so Rogues will have six trained skills total (Fighters only get 3, I think, while Clerics and Wizards get 4).
Wizards - Pretty much as before. Cantrips are at will powers (including Magic Missile), while other spells are standard Vancian magic.
General Impression - Better than the first iteration. If they continue with what they've got here, I'd buy a copy of the PHB to have for reference if someone wanted to run this game. Like Pathfinder, I would happily play, but doubt I'd ever run the system.
Now, the really bad news. Whoever is writing the copy for these playtest documents needs to be taken out back and shot. And I'm not complaining about the abundance of useless fluff (if they had new takes on the races, I wouldn't consider that fluff useless, but as it stands they're not telling me anything new about them so it's just a waste of space). The style of 4E, with its overly complex faux legalese is annoying and makes it hard to comprehend in a few places.
Ex. one of the Fighter combat maneuvers is a "dead eye" ranged attack thing. What it does is let you roll an Expertise die when shooting at a target with cover, but the bonus cannot exceed the penalty to hit from cover. The way it's worded makes it sound like you're better at shooting people with more cover. Also, since other maneuvers let a Fighter simply exchange the die for an automatic effect like knocking prone or pushing the target 10' away, why not just expend the die to ignore the cover penalty, rather than making it a chance to ignore the whole penalty, but with a high chance to "roll over" and "waste" that extra accuracy?
Mike Mearls and WotC (OK, I realize you're not reading this, but I'll address this to you anyway), seriously, stop writing the rules in overly detailed but dense ways just for "that one guy." Nobody likes to play with "that one guy" anyway, and the rest of us are intelligent and mature enough NOT to abuse the rules just because they're written in plain English instead of near gibberish faux legalese.
On my next commute, I'll look at the Backgrounds and Specialties, plus equipment and spells.