Yes. It is coming. Did you have any doubt it would?
Here are some of my thoughts about what D&D Next should entail.
First let’s talk character classes. Step away from the power system and underlying mechanics for all character classes. While I felt this added options to classes that previously had little more to do in combat other than swing a weapon or fire a bow, it handcuffed creative thinking casters and in a game where imagination is the fun, stifling creativity is bad. It also really limited creativity all around as most classes were driven towards a really limited set of abilities or a very common feel of advancement.
So… shift the caster classes back to a spells per day system (Vancian) with spell lists that can easily be expanded on and grown. That’s going to be your money winner there.
For the hybrid casters types (Ranger and Paladin come to mind) either leave them with a short list of spells like it was in 3.5e (or as Pathfinder has) or switch those spells per day out into common abilities per day. I think this is one of the few places a ‘powers’ system would work – so long as every class isn’t painted with the same mechanics brush.
As an example? Take the Smite Evil ability of a Paladin and make it work like a 3-square effect. Did I mention I actually did like some of effects the powers had? Give them some choice of three squares in a straight line (or even two squares) but give them choice. Give a Ranger a Volley ability if they are going the ranged route or a sweeping strike ability for melee – both allowing them to hit multiple targets. Why not give Fighters and Barbarians a Cleave ability through level progression rather than make it a Feat anyone could pick up along the way? Or give Fighters, Rangers or Rogues some options for movement on the field of combat? Stuff like shifting targets or even moving if they are missed. Small things like that make the melee classes more interesting and provide them with more options.
I touched on this lightly above, but wanted to add emphasis: non-caster classes need more options than swinging a weapon multiple times. Give them interesting options and choices as part of their class and not just dump a heap of skill points or feats on them. The class should be interesting to play without Feats whiles Feats add spice to their existing abilities or extras outside of their class domain (within reason).
Consider how Feats impacted a caster in 3.5e – they add to the effectiveness of their class abilities. This should be the same for non-casters, they shouldn’t have to pick up Combat Expertise to do advanced combat maneuvers, it’s what they do!
I’ll say Pathfinder took a good step forward in class design. Really, this is the direction 4e should have gone. However, I do still feel they lack in the department of mundane abilities affecting combat. Yes, they added in some ‘Re-position’ type abilities but those are buried deep into some Feat tree – shouldn’t an expert duelist be able to move his opponent into a corner? Or force him into a dangerous position? These are the things missing from mundane combat.
Also do something different with Skills, allowing learned classes to appear learned. I sort of like how Pathfinder and 4e changed skills, squishing similar ones in together and making it so you don’t need to spend a ridiculous number of skill points per level. I don’t like the limitation on number of skill points though. I think I’d be happier with certain skills automatically increasing with a number of points left to dabble with rather than have some of the more learned classes get very few skill points. Maybe this doesn’t need to be the case for all classes since you do want some choice to be available.
A quick example would be having a Wizard pick two knowledge skills which would advance automatically on leveling and their Spellcraft as well. Then only giving them 2 points as a base wouldn’t seem as harsh. Same idea for a Cleric, knowledge Religion would go up automatically? For the other classes, I think automatic increases don’t make as much sense – maybe it doesn’t make sense for any class? Maybe you can choose to forgo the automatic skill increase for some other benefit? It’s a rough idea… I’ve always disliked how few skills classes other than Rogues and Bards get – even with most skills getting squished together.
Ditch multi-classing or do it in a way that doesn’t massively impact the character power. I’ve always had issue with multi-classing because it often didn’t work unless the rest of the group was doing it too. It reduces the character’s power (significantly if you’re a caster) for the sake of flexibility but that flexibility is often rendered useless if there is a pure class in the group.
Further, it makes it difficult for DMs to balance encounters because your pure Fighter type will be able to hit monster-X but your half level multi-class won’t simply because the advancement for attack bonuses is likely slowed. As I said, this is often worse for casters, especially healers where most encounters against a particular character level expect a healer (or caster) to have defenses (or cures) against certain types of attacks.
This was one other area I liked about 4e where you could spend a Feat to pick up a minor ability from another class with deeper Feats along the line getting some of higher abilities. I’m not sure how you’d do it outside of the ‘power’ system they had in place though I suppose if they had lesser versions of class abilities available as feats it could work. For example a (brute) Fighter and Barbarian have Cleave which lets them attack three squares consecutive squares adjacent to them where as the Cleave Feat would let others do the same but for two square. A Rogue that dabbles in magic might spend a feat to pick up Detect Magic or some minor illusion spell. Something to that effect.
This would require a lot more design but also present players with more options for customizing their characters without trying to mash two different classes together and hope it works for balance. It also has the added value of their being more options to publish.
D&D Next needs to free the imagination for casters (more so than melees), provide more options in combat for all types and provide more choices for classes to define themselves within the class mechanics (i.e. rely on Feats to enhance their choice, not define it). Make each class have its own set of abilities as it progresses through the levels and allow for choice and customization or even specialization!