Tuesday, May 29, 2012

D&D Next Playtest: My first game

So. I finally got to play the playtest version of D&D Next. I just had time for a single session, and the rules are still at a very early and incomplete state, but I could conclude the following:

  • We all had a lot of fun.
  • This is my second favourite D&D (or RPG, for that matter) ruleset of all time - but 4E remains the best, in my opinion. I expect to try out the new game, and maybe play it alongside 4E, but not to replace 4E altogether.
  • That said, this has given me many ideas to improve 4E...

It’s the combat, stupid

If I have to point to one reason that prevents D&D Next from becoming my game of choice, it is the fact that I don’t find its combat system as appealing as that of 4E. Simply put, 4E offers the most engaging, deep, and balanced tactical combat experience of any game I have played. This is not to say that the new system is bad at all - on the contrary, I have been impressed by its speed, its simple elegance and, yes, its balance. Again, this is an early version with only a fraction of the content of the final game, but I can see a solid foundation, and an excellent implementation of mechanics that I had previously dismissed as outdated and clunky, like Vancian magic.

I cannot emphasize this enough: I now believe Vancian magic can work. I don’t necessarily prefer it to an encounter/daily power system, but with enough checks and balances and a well polished spell list, it can be fun to play, without completely overshadowing mundane characters. And the playtest rules get it just right. At-will spells let wizards and clerics forget any nonsense about crossbows. Damaging spells are in line with martial attacks. Non-damaging spells are kept in check by target hit points, so they are actually comparable to the damage-based ones. And non-combat magic works with the skill system (more on that below), rather than against it. Overall, I’d say that this magic system is fundamentally sound, and has the potential to work quite well.

But, ultimately, the combat paradigm of D&D Next is radically different to that of 4E, and loses what I enjoyed the most about its predecessor. Rather than positioning and teamwork, combats in the new edition emphasize resource management, pre-combat preparation and improvisation - which are very respectable goals, mind you, and provided us with a lot of fun this weekend... but eventually, they are not what I am really interested in.

Over the course of our first session, the PCs slayed no less than thirty goblins and one troll, which is quite an impressive feat considering that the party consisted on 4 level 1 adventurers, there was no short rest between these encounters (though not for lack of trying!), and our gaming group has never managed to pull off more than a single 4E combat encounter in that period of time. A great advantage of the new system is that it allowed us to play without a map, with very little bookkeeping, and in highly challenging circumstances (since I was DMing while taking care of my two baby girls, one of them in my arms), and we could even keep playing through dinner (which is usually a showstopper for our 4E sessions). There is a cost to that, though.

In about thirty rounds of combat, the fighter player only used a single maneuver: basic attack, alternating between axe and javelin. Ditto for the rogue, though he at least tried to hide a couple of times. The clerics didn’t have it much better, with a couple of spells spicing up the spam of hammer and laser at-will, respectively. Still, there was a lot of back and forth, and the characters kept moving around the map, from one group of goblins to the other, and some basic tactics were involved. It was simple, fast, and fun. And yet, I couldn’t help missing the myriad of options, tricks, combinations and other subtleties of 4E.

That said, it was not bad, by any means. I’m far from an expert on classic D&D experiences, having started the game with 3.0 (and Baldur’s Gate, if that counts). But, for what it’s worth, I much prefer combat in D&D Next to that of any pre-4E edition. The game is simple, not just from lack of options, but also because needless complexity has been carefully removed. Rules and spell descriptions may be missing the textbook clarity of 4E, but they are well written, with few loopholes or room for ambiguity. First level characters are competent, without reaching the super-heroic status of 4E adventurers, and both casters and non-casters coexist without overshadowing each other. Players felt threatened at all times, and fights were tense but never hopeless (which is a sweet spot that not even 4E could often get to).

I remain curious, and mildly hopeful, about the announced tactical combat module, which is expected to 4E-ify combat encounters to some degree. But you can only add so much complexity before turning it into a completely different game, and I suspect that, at best, this module will let us get halfway between the current version of D&D Next and 4E.

Wait, is there still game after combat?

Judging only by the previous section, one might think that the best decision for our group is to give up on the new game and go back to our good old world of squares, shifts, and +1 modifiers. However, it turns out that there is one aspect of the game where D&D Next is genuinely better than my beloved Fourth Edition. And it’s what happens after the goblins are dead and the dust is settled.

D&D Next designers have said that, for this edition, they are looking at the game as having three basic pillars: Combat, Roleplaying, and Exploration. As a die-hard 4E fan, I’ll let you in on a little secret: that edition sucked at exploration.

The problem for exploring in 4E does not lie, as one would expect, in the skill system or the way character interactions are handled (though skill challenges remain hopelessly flawed, to this day). No, the responsible for killing exploration is none other than the Short Rest. Short rests were introduced in 4E as a convenient method to separate combat encounters and ensure that they could start each fight with a full load of encounter powers and hit points. The problem is, they turned out too effective. For all their awesomeness (and don’t get me wrong, they ARE awesome!), 4E combats are isolated, self-contained events, not unlike a football match or an episode of the Simpsons. You load a fancy map, take out a bunch of monsters, and five turns later, it’s all over and you can take a break to go back to your previous status (give or take a couple of healing surges or daily powers). And this pretty much makes any kind of compelling exploration impossible.

A basic premise of 4E is that, if you are not in immediate danger, you can take a break of a couple of minutes and go back to normal (or almost). Ambushed by kobolds? Doesn’t matter, if they don’t kill you, you will recover after a short rest. The same applies for any random trap in the dungeon or, god forbid, a random monster. Every combat needs to be a full featured team vs team (or team vs solo) fight, because anything less fails to present a credible threat - or any kind of attrition.

By contrast, encounters in D&D Next are much more fluid. Short rests are much weaker and limited, and take more time, so you just go from one fight to the next. Adventurers need to actively seek some safe place to take a breath. Combatants run away and pursue, reinforcements arrive, and this is not a result of pre-scripted events, but a natural consequence of the rules and environment. Encounters are fast and cheap to generate, so letting the adventurers defeat entire fights with a bit of exploration and ingenuity doesn’t seem such a bad idea.

At this point, I have a confession to make. In the 4E campaign I DM (which consists mostly of single-combat sessions, remember), I tend to err towards railroading my players a bit, or at least to decide beforehand where they will go on a session - usually by discussing it at the end of a previous session, or by an e-mail poll. The reason? I have found that I can only deliver really enjoyable combat encounters with some previous preparation, and that is not really possible if we go all freeform or sandbox-y. Not in our available timeframes, at least.

On the other hand, I have a 4E story to tell as a counterpoint. I may have mentioned this on a previous post, so forgive me if I am repeating myself. Some time ago, we were wandering around a dungeon when we encountered - a Dragon! Surprising, I know. Anyway, this was a white dragon who, rather than attacking us from the get go, decided to chat a bit. For some entertainment before a meal, I guess. Anyway, what followed was a convoluted, hilarious conversation where the adventurers ended up convincing the dragon not to kill them, and maybe even help them a bit, with no real loss on their part. The encounter was defeated in an awesome, original way. But we all felt terrible!

You see, I had spent some time tweaking the monster rules to come up with a really challenging solo. And the group knew it - they were looking forward to the fight. So we ended up closing the adventure for the day, and then started a completely different one shot game where a group of adventurers unrelated to the previous one (but with suspiciously similar sheets) happened to come across a white dragon in cool cave (did I mention there was a poster map, too?) and beat the crap out of it. The moral of the story, I guess, is: exploration is cool, but we don’t want to miss a cool 4E combat because of it.

Anyway, and to go back on track: exploration on D&D Next can be lots of fun, and is in my opinion one of of the major pulls of the game. This is possible due to a fast combat system where individual encounters are expendable, and a rest system that doesn’t automatically clean the slate after every couple of minutes. Implementing such a thing in 4E would involve fairly major system changes, but could add a whole new dimension to the game - and this is something I intend to experiment with, at some point in the future.

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Guest Post: D&D Next Playtest report

Yesterday I had the chance to DM my first game for the D&D Next playtest. I am still preparing a post to comment on the experience (short version: solid, fun, fast), but in the meantime, here you have a report from one of my players. Rodrigo, a regular in my gaming group, is starting out as an RPG writer, with an article published in Kobold Quarterly, and his own upcoming indie RPG, La Puerta de Ishtar (in Spanish, but English speakers can take a look thanks to the magics of Google). Here is what he had to say about the latest version of D&D.

I have just played my first playtest game for D&D Next. My impressions (and those of the whole table) couldn't be better. We have started our exploration of the Caves of Chaos, experimenting the famous three pillars (exploration, roleplaying and combat). We thought the game was very good, with a good mix of Old School feelings (despite not being a retro-clone, it really caters to that style of play) and more modern mechanics from 3rd and 4E. In fact, it's interesting to see not only why some modern mechanics have been preserved, but also why others have been left out.

The advantage/disadvantage system felt really great, reducing game complexity and slowness, and adding a very interesting layer to it. The capabilities of different character types feel diverse and engaging. Simplified combat gives place to more interesting fights than we initially expected (to be sincere, we had thought of this as the weakest aspect of the game), and this simplicity allowed us to play at a very good pace. The way HPs are assigned and the Hit Dice mechanic (the new Healing Surges, much weaker than before and with harsh timing restrictions) added a lot of tension to the situation without falling into the “five minute workday”. At least at first level. We have been on the brink of death in several occasions, but the way we fought led us to victory. The way actions are resolved in combat gives players a lot of freedom.

I played a dwarven Cleric of Moradin (Gurni Gotreksson), and other players had a dwarven Fighter (Gotrek Gurnisson, my son), a halfling Rogue (Will), and a human cleric of Pelor (Mark Pelorflauta). Perico was DMing. This means that we still have to try out the Wizard.
As I was saying, time flew while playing the session, and the game was universally enjoyed at the table. I recommend trying it out (not just reading it) with an open mind and as written, without worrying about whether certain rule we like is there or not. It mixes very well modern rules with certain grognard styles.

Unless the game changes a lot during the beta, or it breaks at higher levels (though with the math it uses, I don’t think so), they have a buyer here. And yes, we have a very good dungeon master [*blush* - Perico], but he is the same who DM’ed 3rd and 4E in its day, so we can compare. I’m looking forward to the “tactical combat” module, because if it can be combined with the core rules we have tried, it can be very useful for certain “special” combats where the situation calls for it.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

D&D Next Playtest: Initial Impressions

At last, the playtest is upon us! After months of waiting, the first public sample of the D&D Next rules is available for player experimentation. I will be playing my first test game this weekend but, in the meantime, I wanted to share my impressions on the new rules - which could be summarized as “not like 4E, but quite interesting anyway”.

First, though, I need to discuss a very important point. Sadly, it appears that, in the upcoming edition, Fireballs will no longer be Square! Spell books are full of spheres, cones, cylinders and lines, but there are no squares (or, to be more geometrically precise, cubes) in sight! However, concerned readers may rest assured: even if I end up migrating to D&D Next, the shape of bursts and blasts in this blogs will remain a perfect quadrilateral.

With that out of the way, we can proceed with our dissection of the new rules.


The document we have received includes only a subset of what will be in the future Player’s Handbook, and an early version at that. But even at this stage, we can tell that there is a solid rules core, with streamlined mechanics, and what is possibly the best integration of combat and non-combat mechanics of any D&D edition.

The base mechanic of the game will be familiar to any D&D fan: checks are resolved by rolling a d20, adding an ability modifier and other bonuses, and comparing to a DC. Attacks are a form of check, rolling against the target’s AC. For certain spells or effects, a saving throw is used instead of an attack - which consists in an ability check against a save DC. Notably, six types of saving throws exist, one for each ability score, in an interesting effort to make all character stats relevant. That said, most saves seem to be based on Constitution, Dexterity, or Wisdom (roughly equivalent to Fortitude, Reflex and Will), and only a few examples of Strength, Intelligence and Charisma are provided.

As a general comment, my impression of the ruleset can be summarized in the following points:

  •  Old look: In aesthetics and structure, the rules look to earlier editions for inspiration. Gone is the textbook clarity of 4E - or, for that matter, any game term that reminds to that edition. Remarkably, spell descriptions are purely textual, making that section harder to use as reference, but also less daunting to read. That said, aside from the format, the rules themselves are well written and easy to understand, which is a very nice change of pace from older editions.
  •  Quick, simple play: Pending a future tactical module for more sophisticated combat rules, the game looks very streamlined. It lacks the many combat options and complex effects of 4E (including opportunity attacks!), but also much of the artificial complexities of other editions. Many things that used to be a problem just work: stealth rules are simple but surprisingly robust, most fiddly bonuses have been aggregated into advantage/disadvantage (letting you roll 2d20 and use the highest or lowest, respectively), and the way movement is handled is just brilliant.
  •  Modern ideas hidden, but present: Looking at the previous points, it would seem like there is no trace of 4E in this game - and, indeed, I suspect this is what they want players to think. But the rules are deceivingly modern in many subtle aspects. Vancian magic may be back, but casters have all-important at-will powers (called cantrips and orisons, just in case). Healing surges are gone, but all characters have “Hit Dice” (another name used as a throwback to old schoolers) that grant them access to non-magical healing during short rests. It’s early to tell if balance will be perfect, but it clearly has been an important consideration - none of the pregenerated characters looks particularly stronger or weaker than the rest, and all spells remain at a fairly similar power level. The level 1 wizard in particular looks perfectly competent out of the gate, which couldn’t be said of any version of that class outside 4E.

Character Generation.

No actual character generation rules are provided in the current playtest document, but there is enough to make some extrapolation. That said, take the following with a grain of salt.

Ability scores are the same six as always, and have their modifiers calculated the same way as in 3.X and 4E - which is a good thing, in my book. As to their effects, the greatest innovation is the fact that all abilities are used for saving throws (as explained above). Other than that, ability effects are fairly close to those of 3.X, with a few welcome fixes.

Strength is mostly used for attack and damage with melee and thrown weapons. It also determines encumbrance, which seems to be more emphasized than in the later editions of the game, but will probably be ignorable anyway.

Dexterity determines AC (no int-based AC anymore, 4E fans!), initiative, and ranged attacks. Interestingly, it also works for attack and damage of “finesse” melee weapons (i.e. daggers and rapiers), which was a sticking point of 3.X rules.

Constitution is used for HP, with initial HP value equal to Con score, and Con modifier affecting non-magical healing, and having a small effect on HP gain across levels.

Mental abilities (Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) don’t change much, and are used mostly for certain types of magic, and skills.

Speaking of skills, I really like the current approach. There is no closed list of skills - rather, characters use plain ability checks for most tasks, and have “trained skills” which apply a moderate bonus (+3) to specific tasks, such as Perception, Stealth, or Handling Animals. Most skills have direct equivalents in 3.X and 4E, but there is also new stuff, like Commerce. For the most part, skills have been dissociated from class choice and are entirely dependent on Backgrounds, which are an optional addition to character building. This means that character classes that were traditionally lousy outside of combat, like Fighters, now have the same flexibility in roleplaying and exploration as most other characters. That said, there are specific classes (i.e rogues) that excel at skills and gain additional skill-related choices and bonuses.

The creation of a new character involves four important choices (apart from ability score allocation): the traditional Races and Classes, on the one hand, and the more modern Themes and Backgrounds (explained above), on the other. Overall, they seem to make for a more intuitive and flavorful character generation process.

The choice of Race is fairly important, with perhaps less mechanical benefits than in 4E, but more than in earlier editions. Each race provides a +1 bonus to an ability score and a few features affecting either combat, exploration, or roleplaying.

Classes are primarily focused on combat, with varying elements of exploration and roleplaying, that range from the fighter (100% combat) to the rogue (which has a very strong focus on skills). Complexity also changes drastically from one class to the other, with wizards and clerics full of options next to a fighter that does nothing but devastating attacks. That said, at least for the level range of the playtest (1-3), it appears that these differences in complexity don’t translate into balance problems, as both casters and non-casters look similarly competent.

Finally, Themes are options that focus mostly on combat utility, improving a character’s ability to deal damage, heal, or have a variety of magical abilities, among other effects. It is important to note that, though 4E-style class roles (Defender, Striker, Leader and Controller) no longer exist, certain mechanical aspects of roles are available through themes. This way, there is a Guardian theme that lets your character protect nearby allies, and a Healer theme with obvious applications. In theory, themes are made up of individual feats which can be combined arbitrarily, though in the playtest we can only see them in their packaged form.


As a fan of the ultra-detailed combat in D&D 4E, I find the basic combat system of D&D Next to be extremely simplified. With no flanking or attacks of opportunity, there is little incentive for careful positioning, or, for that matter, for using a battle map at all. Player options in combat depend highly on class choice, since casters have plenty of spells to choose from, whereas non-casters have little to do beyond their basic attacks. The rules make an effort to encourage players and DMs to improvise, and the skill framework is very friendly towards unorthodox actions, but I can’t really tell how it will all work in practice. It seems to me there’s a definite risk of fights becoming repetitive after a while, though, on the other hand, combat should be much faster overall compared to 4E, which might make up for it. This is currently the big mystery to me: will it be fun to kill monsters and take their stuff? Only experience will tell.


The magic in D&D Next is an evolution of the Vancian system of older editions, of which I’m not a fan. That said, I’m fairly impressed with the current implementation, which addresses many of the problems I saw in vancian casters.

For me, one of the major improvements is the introduction of at-will powers cantrips and orisons, which let casters have utility and combat magic available every turn. Light, Magic Missile, Death Ward (though, sadly, no Scorching Burst) are small magical effects that wizards and clerics can use regularly, allowing even first level casters to feel like actual magic users, and not glorified crossbowmen.

The other great change is the overhaul of the spell list. Spell names and effects are mostly familiar, but the actual implementations are brand new, and have been designed with the math of the current game in mind. Spell scaling is only possible by preparing a spell in a slot of higher level (of which, sadly, I have found no examples in the playtest spell list). This means that higher level casters become more powerful in just a single way: by getting more and better spells.

I’ll grant the designers this: actually reading the list of spells is a much improved experience, compared to 4E-style power lists. Spell effects are all over the place, and the unstructured descriptions, as much as they make it harder to work out what the spell actually does, make for an entertaining and varied read. They are also remarkably compact, with the most basic evocations taking up just a paragraph or two. But the most pleasant surprise lies in the spell effects. Spell lists of old where all over the place with regards to power level, gleefully mixing useless chaff with world-breaking magics - sometimes in the same spell level. By contrast, spells in D&D Next remain fairly uniform in strength, with damaging effects that are comparable to one another, but also to non-damaging attacks.

Traditionally, the strongest effects available to casters have not consisted in pure damage, but in devastating conditions: what has been called “Save or Die” (or, alternately, “Save or Suck”). Save or Die spells disappeared in 4E due to the concerns for balance, and early comments about D&D Next bringing them back were received as a sign that game balance would be consumed in a sphere of annihilation. Oddly enough, this has not happened. The current spell list includes Save or Die classics like Sleep, Hold Person, or Silence, and every one of them is effective yet fair. The trick lies in conditioning effects to the current HPs of a target - Sleep knocks unconscious targets only if they have less than 12 HP, and Hold Person only has its full effect on targets below 40 HP. Alternately, devastating conditions can be saved against each turn, such as the paralysis of Hold Person, or the spell disruption of Silence.

Another potentially problematic type of spells are those that grant bonuses to a caster or his allies. As far as I can tell, these have also been toned down so that they are useful, but not overwhelmingly so.  Mirror Image lasts for  just a minute (10 rounds) and creates 2 duplicates. Likewise, Shield lasts for 10 minutes and grants a small but useful defense bonus. The limited duration of most of these buffs makes it difficult to stack many of them at once, as was the custom in previous editions.

We also have those spells that are of little use in combat but tend to break non-combat encounters, like Charm Person, or Knock. One of the main problems of these spells was their tendency to completely sidestep the skill system, effectively rendering entire skills obsolete. While Knock is not present in the playtest, we do have Charm Person, and I really love it. It makes a target unable to attack you unless you attack it first (with no save if the target has few enough HP), and it gives you a bonus to social interactions. That is, the spell encourages you to roll diplomacy and skill checks, rather than the opposite!

Finally, a word on rituals: They are in the game, and the implementation is excellent! You have certain situational spells that have useful effects but are not usually worth a precious spell slot, like Alarm. The solution, then, is to offer the option to use them as a ritual. Instead of casting them by spending a slot (which is still possible), you can spend more time and some material components to use them without preparation. It remains to be seen which spells will have this option, and how they will fit in the economy of the game, but for now, it looks like an awesome idea.

I remain fairly optimistic about the magic system. It’s entirely possible that some higher level spells we don’t know about yet end up spoiling casters, but for now, it looks like a well thought, consistent, and fun system.

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