Whatever else I might say in this review, it shouldn't overshadow the fact that mere existence of a free basic ruleset is always a good thing, and that anyone who complains about what's in it, including me, is not entitled to a full refund. I say good on you to any publisher who puts out free material.
Second, I'm happy to see Kevin Kulp's name in the credits. I can hardly claim him as a close friend, but I've been lucky enough to run a couple of Northern Crown games at his Boston game days, in an atmosphere of comfort, acceptance, and fun. As for Zak S and Pundit, I can't believe the spite-envy piddling out of the dorkosphere because WotC asked two prickly and very self-aware gadflies to give their game the scoff-test. If you're a cynic you're going to see it as a move by Wizards to co-opt two potentially damaging critics and turn them into rah-rah boys. If that's true, then at least they co-opted the entertainingly opinionated ones.
My big takeaway on the rules architecture is that it's more D&D than 4th edition was, and that's a good thing, but sadly it's at least as much D&D as 3rd edition was, which is a bad thing. I am not an OSR booster, but what I do like about the OSR philosophy is the lack of post OD&D epigenetics/barnacle growth, which sadly the new edition doesn't seem to have mustered the gumption to scrape off, and has even added to. Is it nostalgia? An artifact of how Mike Mearls likes his games? What?
Damage types, for example, seem to front and center in the combat system. Bludgeoning, slurping, and cankering are the three main categories, and they exist to make damage resistance more nuisance-ey. I question whether it's worth having every D&D player for the next 8 years write "slashing" next to their scimitar just so it can do less damage when you smack a gargoyle with it. I would prefer that such exceptions reside with the monster stats rather than cluttering up the character sheet.
Spell components are back. Again, I question the cost/benefit ratio. Requiring spell components is an onerous chore that has never added fun or wonder to any game I've played in. It's a designer's bandaid fix on spells that are too powerful to be cast without gouging the caster. Can we just say you can't cast a spell if you're gagged or your hands are tied? If you really like the idea of auditing your players' gear lists to make sure they have enough grasshopper legs, be my guest.
Backgrounds, personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws. I can't keep them straight in my head yet, but the only one that has a formal influence on game play is your background. You might get a shovel and an iron pot if you choose your background wisely. I'm serious.
OK, its twenty minutes later, and I can tell you that personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws are scripted ways for your character to act. Personality traits are more like habits, some good, some bad. Norman Bates liked to eat candy. I say "actually" too much and I have an evil cackle when I'm truly amused by something. These things make me endearing. Ideals are beliefs, like, "The thicker the cushion, the sweeter the pushin," except less fun to test empirically. Bonds are what you would see at the bottom of a teaser poster for an X-Men or Avengers film, like "You won't like me when I'm angry" or "I have breasts but I endorse male-centered power fantasies."
While you were reading the last sentence, I just made a sage who uses polysyllabic words that convey the impression of great erudition; who believes nothing should fetter the infinite possibility inherent in all existence; whose life work is a series of tomes related to a specific field of lore; and who overlooks obvious solutions in favor of complex ones.
Holy crap — I'm playing a designer responsible for 3.5e!
This all seems very GURPSy to me except that the ads/disads/flaws aren't mechanically effective in play except for the shovel and iron pot.
This fluff fills up a lot of space and shows a lot of sweat, which gives me leave to speculate about who exactly are Mearls & company pitching D&D to in the year 2014. Show me the legions of players who will put up with spell components and damage types AND need to be told that "There's no winning or losing in the Dungeons & Dragons game" AND need to be handheld through the process of flufferizing their 1st level PC. Who is that person? Can we stop pretending that a rule set which opens with four pages of unrelieved text is the way to introduce a game to anyone?
I hope the box set has a clearer vision of its audience because an accessible, attractive iteration of D&D is good for all of us — it will always be the gate that people walk through into this hobby, and so it better look good and play nice.
The big question: does this version of D&D model the swords-and-sorcery tales it claims to take inspiration from? No. I don't think D&D ever did this, except in the sense that OD&D and the Holmes blue box set left enough empty canvas so that you weren't explicitly prohibited from modeling any particular genre. All editions since then have had various degrees of success at modeling the experience of sitting around a table playing D&D, which can be super fun, but there's no room for wonder or enchantment in it. I get that most people who play D&D are cool with that — I have lots of players whose love of the game comes from choosing character options and seeing what advantage they give you in combat. D&D has been really good at that for a long time and it looks like it will still be that in future.