Earlier this year, I wrote an article on what I hoped to see in the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons. With the recent release of the Character Origins Unearthed Arcana for the so-called “One D&D,” I’m getting my first chance to see how closely my vision aligns with the designers at Wizards of the Coast. This article is split into three parts: the first covers changes to the foundational rules of the game, the second covers ancestries, and the third looks into feats and backgrounds. Since we only have a partial set of new rules to work from, I’m assuming that rules not specifically mentioned remain the same as they currently do in 5E, though of course that could change.
The term d20 Test encompasses the three main d20 rolls of the game: ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws. If something in the game affects d20 Tests, it affects all three of those rolls. The DM determines whether a d20 Test is warranted in any given circumstance. To be warranted, a d20 Test must have a target number no less than 5 and no greater than 30.
ROLLING A 1
If you roll a 1 on the d20, the d20 Test automatically fails, regardless of any modifiers to the roll.
ROLLING A 20
If you roll a 20 on the d20, the d20 Test automatically succeeds, regardless of any modifiers to the roll. A player character also gains Inspiration when rolling the 20, thanks to the remarkable success. Rolling a 20 doesn’t bypass limitations on the test, such as range and line of sight. The 20 bypasses only bonuses and penalties to the roll.
A focus of this document is an effort to clean up the rules of 5E. The aggregation of ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws into the umbrella term D20 test is a good step in that direction. Alongside this wording improvement is a change to how natural 1s and 20s are treated. Currently in 5E, only attack rolls have the chance to automatically fail or succeed. In these new rules, any D20 test has a 5% chance to succeed or fail regardless of the roll’s difficulty or a character’s skill.
I’m not a fan of this change, as it takes the already swingy result of a single die roll and adds even more unpredictability. From a tiny child outwrestling a 20 strength barbarian to convincing the monarch to hand over their title, if a roll is called for, it can succeed or fail no matter how nonsensical such an outcome is. This puts more of a burden on GMs to know when a roll should be skipped since the task’s outcome is obvious. Experienced GMs probably won’t suffer too much with this rule change, but newer GMs who don’t know when to refuse a player’s request for a roll could easily find themselves in trouble because an unexpected 1 or 20 ruins the outcome they had planned.
This rule change also adds a hard maximum or minimum difficulty for any roll made. For the most part, this probably won’t matter, but at higher levels, making a character with enough skill bonuses to routinely reach or beat 30* means it is possible to succeed at a skill no matter how difficult the GM wishes to make the challenge. I don’t really know what the designers were going for with this inclusion, and the lack of value added by the change makes me hope it doesn’t survive test play.
Weapons and Unarmed Strikes* have a special feature for player characters: Critical Hits. If a player character rolls a 20 for an attack roll with a Weapon or an Unarmed Strike, the attack is also a Critical Hit, which means it deals extra damage to the target; you roll the damage dice of the Weapon or Unarmed Strike a second time and add the second roll as extra damage to the target. For example, a Mace deals Bludgeoning Damage equal to 1d6 + your Strength modifier. If you score a Critical Hit with the Mace, it instead deals 2d6 + your Strength modifier. If your Weapon or Unarmed Strike has no damage dice, it deals no extra damage on a Critical Hit.
As a grumpy old man who hates fun, I subscribe to the unpopular take that critical hits shouldn’t be in the game at all. They don’t change average damage by that much, but they can easily unbalance a fight in a way few other mechanics can, so anything that reduces the number of crits in a game is good in my book.
Monsters being unable to crit lowers the randomness present in a fight and prevents a random 20 from unexpectedly killing a player character. The designers have said that monsters will replace the ability to crit with potent recharge powers, and while the thought of managing a horde of different recharge rolls chills me to my very core, I’m still glad to see fewer crits in my game.
The way this change is worded also means that abilities like Sneak Attack and Holy Smite no longer double their dice on a crit. I have a feeling that such a change will be unpopular enough that either this crit rule will be reworded or special exceptions will be made for popular player damage abilities.
While you are Grappled, you experience the following effects:
Speed 0. Your Speed is 0 and can’t change.
Attacks Affected. You have Disadvantage on attack rolls against any target other than the grappler.
Movable. The grappler can drag or carry you, but the grappler suffers the Slowed Condition while moving, unless you are Tiny or two or more Sizes smaller than the grappler.
Escape. While Grappled, you can make a Dexterity or Strength saving throw against the grapple’s escape DC at the end of each of your turns, ending the Condition on yourself on a success. The Condition also ends if the grappler is Incapacitated or if something moves you outside the grapple’s range without using your Speed.
The first of the reworked conditions, grappled is a mixed bag. To start with, I like the way this condition is formatted. The different effects that make up the condition are very clear, and it doesn’t mix in unnecessary flavor that could confuse the mechanics. I also like some of the mechanical changes made here. Suffering disadvantage against targets that aren’t grappling you makes thematic sense and helps grapple-based characters control where their target’s attacks go.
What I don’t like is when and how the condition is ended. In 5E currently, the grappled target must spend their action and make a contested check against the creature grappling them. Now, escape attempts are made passively each turn and are made against a set DC* rather than an opposed roll.
This is a huge hit to grappling’s power since it now costs nothing to try and escape and is much easier to do so. In the existing rules, characters who focus on grappling can easily increase their athletics skill until losing to any target is almost impossible. Under the new system, it’s much more likely your target will escape your grapple. Grappling was already a niche strategy that generally wasn’t that powerful, and I’m disappointed that it’s shaping up to be even weaker under the new system.
While you are Incapacitated, you experience the following effects:
Inactive. You can’t take Actions or Reactions.
No Concentration. Your Concentration is broken.
Speechless. You can’t speak.
Surprised. If you are Incapacitated when you roll Initiative, you have Disadvantage on the roll.
The main point of interest here is the inclusion of the surprised effect. Currently, surprise is a condition that stops you from doing anything on your first turn of a combat. This new wording might point to the removal of the existing surprised condition. Given how swingy the current iteration of surprise can be, a rework can only be a good thing.
When you have Inspiration, you can expend it to give yourself Advantage on a d20 Test. You must decide to do so before rolling the die.
The main way a character gains Inspiration is by rolling a 20 for a d20 Test. The DM can also award Inspiration to a character who’s done something that is particularly heroic or amusing.
Only One At A Time
You can never have more than one instance of Inspiration. If something gives you Inspiration and you already have it, you can give Inspiration to a player character in your group who lacks it.
If you still have Inspiration when you start a Long Rest, you lose that Inspiration.
The designers are tired of everyone forgetting about inspiration and plan to do something about it. Now, you gain inspiration automatically whenever you roll a 20 and can hand that inspiration to another player if you already have it. Given how many players seem to ignore the current iteration of this mechanic, I think these changes will help inspiration see actual use at the table.
While you are Slowed, you experience the following effects:
Limited Movement. You must spend 1 extra foot of movement for every foot you move using your Speed.
Attacks Affected. Attack rolls against you have Advantage.
Dexterity Saves Affected. You have Disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws.
Slowed is a new condition, and a decent one at that. So far we only know that this condition afflicts someone who is trying to move while grappling a creature, but I assume effects like the Slow spell will also cause this condition. I’m cautious of adding too many conditions to the game, as I don’t want to see the game transformed into a sea of keywords. But I do think that, currently, 5E goes too far in the other direction, which makes some new conditions a welcome sight.
A creature with Tremorsense can pinpoint the location of creatures and moving objects within a specific range, provided that the creature with Tremorsense and anything it’s detecting are both in contact with the same surface (such as the ground, a wall, or a ceiling) or the same
Tremorsense can’t detect creatures or objects in the air, and Tremorsense doesn’t count as a form of sight.
Given the gray area senses like blindsight and tremorsense currently occupy, any effort to clarify these mechanics is a good thing. However, I do not understand why the designers decided to add a sentence explicitly declaring tremorsense not “a form of sight.” Does this mean that creatures relying on such a sense still count as blinded? If so, what is the point of tremorsense? You are already aware of a creature’s location without seeing it unless it is actively trying to hide. Does that mean tremorsense bypasses any attempt to hide? I’m not sure, but even if it does, that is such a narrow use case that I would consider this almost a flavor feature.
An Unarmed Strike is a melee attack that involves you using your body to damage, grapple, or shove a target within your Reach. Your bonus to hit with an Unarmed Strike equals your Strength modifier plus your Proficiency Bonus. On a hit, your Unarmed Strike causes one of the following effects of your choice:
Damage. The target takes Bludgeoning Damage equal to 1 + your Strength modifier.
Grapple. The target is Grappled, and the grapple’s escape DC equals 8 + your Strength modifier + your Proficiency Bonus. This grapple is possible only if the target is no more than one Size larger than you and if you have a hand free to grab the target.
Shove. You either push the target 5 feet away or knock the target Prone. This shove is possible only if the target is no more than one Size larger than you.
I am glad to see unarmed strikes receiving some love in this new edition. Now instead of just dealing damage, you have the option to substitute that damage with a grapple or a shove. Given how weak grappling is now, I think knocking your target prone is the best substitution you can make with your unarmed strike. This is a power increase to any build that makes use of unarmed strikes, especially a dexterity-based unarmed character like the monk. In the existing rules, shoving requires a high strength to be effective; now, you can make a dexterity-based unarmed attack to knock your enemy prone before making the rest of your attacks with advantage.
There are now three main Spell lists in the game: Arcane, Divine, and Primal. In future Unearthed Arcana articles, we’ll show how Classes use these lists and how a Class or Subclass might gain Spells from another list.
I really like the idea of spell tags being added to D&D. They are a great method of future-proofing. For example, a feat that lets you add a spell from the Divine list will now include any newly created Divine spells without having to errata the feat. I do worry that these tags could indicate a homogenization of spell lists between classes, but I’ll save my thoughts on that until we see how the casting classes have been changed in future UA.
That wraps up my thoughts on the major rules changes in the next edition of D&D. Now that I’ve gone over the foundational shifts in the game, I can cover the new feats, background, and ancestries without having to stop and explain myself whenever a changed rule is referenced.