Having read the latest version of the D&D Next Playtest rules, I’m not a happy camper. Skills are missing. Specialties are missing. These are two of the aspects I loved. I loved the front-loading of complexities and the ability to customize the character.
I verified with the characters in the Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle D&D Next preview that rather than skills and specialties, the character have proficiencies, provided both by classes and backgrounds (at least they kept those). I have no issue with having something abstract like proficiencies rather than the specificity of skills, but really its semantics. Skills could have been left with one-line explanations and the ability for players and GMs to negotiate their use.
What I loved about specialties and skills was the ability to create atypical characters. The fighter with arcane training? No problem. The cleric who had once been a noble knight? Yup, could do that too. Now, while this remains a narrative option in D&D Next, it was pretty hot having the mechanics to back that up. Backgrounds certainly provide a level of customization, but I really liked the interchange between class, background, and specialty.
So, right now, D&D Next seems to be drifting into 2E land, which isn’t on its own a terrible thing, but 2E was the 1990s. It’s now 2013, and rules have evolved. I thought D&D Next was doing well mixing both the simplicity of earlier editions with the complexity and customization of later editions. With this particular version of D&D Next most likely almost the final one – given the expectation that D&D Next will be released at Gen Con 2014, and the requirements of a print schedule – my enthusiasm has drained.
Then again, I still have the older playtest versions. The layout’s not pretty, but the rules make up for that.