Subraces: Three of the four races in this packet (Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings) have two subrace options, which is a nice throwback to some optional rules from D&D history and is a way to satisfy both sides when combining a species like Eladrin and Elves from 4th edition. Each of the subraces gives a +1 to a single ability modifier and a special ability that fits the flavor of that species. Some fans might be annoyed that in previous editions or in games like Pathfinder they'd get a much longer list of abilities, but, overall, these traits seem like a fair trade on their own.
Class Variety: Three of the four classes have some really neat additions to make them feel unique. Clerics have always had domains, which have granted them specialized spells, but now domains cover weapon and armor proficiencies, which really makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Why would a cleric devoted to a god of knowledge be comfortable wearing full plate armor, and why would a cleric to a god of war not know how to use a sword? Well, not anymore they won't! I wish this packet had included just a few more domains on top of Sun and War, but the idea behind them is solid.
Fighters now have expertise dice, which power their fighting style special abilities. This is a neat way to represent the differences between your archers, your shield and sword fighters, dual-wielders, etc. without resorting to the ton of feats of 3rd edition or weapon specialties of 2nd. Not to be outdone, Rogues have Schemes, which are similar to the Fighting Styles but with more out of combat abilities to suit the ever-loving pick-pocket in your party.
Backgrounds: I love the fact that roleplaying is coming back to D&D. I'm a big fan of having a character's history or personality represented mechanically in a game such as with Assets and Complications in Cortex or Aspects in Fate. Backgrounds are a.) Optional, so DMs who aren't fans of the idea don't have to use it, and b.) Very simple, which will make it a good introduction to those more accustomed to just rolling dice and killing monsters. Some of the backgrounds clearly had one class or another in mind, but there are several that would fit perfectly as an extra layer to any character. And, as heard on the Penny Arcade D&D Next podcast, backgrounds are entirely subjective. It's easy to pick three skills and an ability, slap a new heading on it, and go. If WOTC hopes to have player-created backgrounds be a norm, I'm hoping the final product will include a full list of abilities to complement the separate list of skills.
Bestiary: WOTC had to toss in something for the DMs. The bestiary includes a wide variety of different threats for an enterprising party to face. The different traits and abilities of these creatures gives a better idea of how such things will be handled across the board. Monster stat blocks are short and to the point.
Simple & Quick Rules: Even with the new additions, D&D Next is a simple and fun game to play. Character creation took very little time once I had an idea in my mind. I'm very happy with how my free spirited, naïve, yet helpful, elf wizard turned out, who had powerful magics at her disposal, but her background and specialties allowed her to be a creator and a healer, the latter of which wouldn't have been doable to the same extent in previous editions.
Humans: I was rather displeased with how humans have been handled. Currently, they receive +2 to one ability score and a +1 to all other ability scores. At best this sounds incredibly dull when compared to the abilities and subraces for Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings. At worst this seems like humans have been given too much with D&D Next's heavy reliance on ability scores for most rolls.
A Mage is a Mage is a Mage: All of the other classes got a cool way to show some variety and be different, but Wizards didn't even have representations of specialty schools like in previous editions. The argument can be made that a Wizard's diversity comes from their spellcasting, but other spellcasters, like Clerics, still have a cool way to separate them from every other Cleric. I want to see that for Wizards, too.
Skills: I have two problems with the skill list as it currently stands. 1.) There are no physical skills, no acrobatics, climb, athletics, etc. which really seem like they should be there for the more physically inclined characters. 2.) Lores as they stand. I like the idea of there being a wider list of Lores and for more characters than just the Wizard, Cleric, or Bard being likely to pick them up. I'd almost love to see Lores as a separate thing away from Skills where everyone has a handful, perhaps with Bards and Wizards possessing a few more. One evolution in 4th edition I rather wish they'd kept is having Knowledge/Lores connecting to other attribute scores than just Intelligence. After all, you don't need to be academically smart to know a lot about your home area, know how to bake, or have proper manners during dinner.
Specialties: I like Specialties as a means of condensing feats and no longer requiring a player to plot her character's progression out to level 20 in advance; however, one is chosen at first level and then that's it. There's no ability to develop a character beyond the choices made at level 1. As a huge fan of multiclassing and creating some wacky, stereotype breaking characters, I'd like to have more options with Specialties: either the ability to pick up more along the way or having some choice within each Specialty.
Opportunity Attacks: That's right, they're back and already creating problems. Opportunity Attacks were notorious in previous editions for being some of the most complicated rules, just behind grappling. I see why WOTC saw a need to bring them back. In D&D Next games I had played, the lack of Opportunity Attacks gave the Rogue and Wizard far too much room to operate, but now, without the important 5-foot step, ranged combatants, Rogues, and Wizards are out of luck against a melee opponent. WOTC did include the disengage action, which allows a character to move 10 ft. without provoking an Opportunity Attack. There's just one problem: a character gives up their attack to move 10 ft. away and then their opponent moves right back up to them and gets to strike.
If you'd like to join try out D&D Next for yourself, you can sign up for the playtest over at www.wizards.com/dnd. If you've had a chance to check out the second playtest packet, I'd love to hear your thoughts and character creation experiences in the comments below.