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D&D Next

diceI played AD&D once. Maybe twice. Mine was a Palladium group, and I grew up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Heroes Unlimited and Ninjas and Superspies. From there we graduated to GURPS, where we spent many a happy campaign, and from the GURPS supplements we transitioned into the World of Darkness, eventually taking our show online to a host of MUSHes, some of which we ran ourselves.

We didn’t venture over into the worlds of D&D. We didn’t want to be tied down into classes and levels and such. We were above that.

Fast forward a few years, a few jobs, a few kids. I’ve still got lots of sourcebooks but they come out of the closet only semiannually, when we can foist our responsibilities on others for a lazy Saturday. Most of my “gaming” is board games on holidays and other family events, with the occasional convention for spice.

Then two years ago my younger brother mentioned idly that he was starting a group for a weekly game. They were going to play D&D.

I’m in.

I’d heard the Penny Arcade podcasts and I recognized in their banter the pure delight that gaming can be. I’d been yearning for it. And their experience with D&D’s new “Fourth Edition” seemed like some game designer had actually sat down and fixed most of what I remember laughing at years before. I crashed through the rules and made a character, and we began having a tremendous amount of fun, week after week. I learned the boundaries of the system, pushed the limits of the rules, found a few secret walls. I took a turn as Dungeon Master.

But eventually I began to get annoyed with what’s still broken in 4E. Its focus on combat skews the table time away from role playing. Its character generation rules leave you penalized if you try to do anything interesting. It relies too heavily on archetype and assumes that all characters hew closely to the preconceived choices inherent in the system. I still hate levels. Everything takes too long, and an endless march of new supplements is constantly making everything take longer.

We actually took a shot at fixing these shortcomings, with houserules to speed up combat and houserules to make non-combat situations interesting. They are mostly successful, but the railroading character creation is still a problem, and combat speed makes it impossible to get enough done.

When D&D Next was announced I was hopeful that they had come to the same conclusions that I had: 4E did a good job of streamlining the system and unifying the mechanics of the game, but spent too much of its attention where game time and table time are slowest: when swords and blood are drawn.

They agreed with me on half of that.

After the announcement the news dripped onto the Internet bit by bit, and none of it seemed good for the 4E fans. Powers were gone. Things would be more deadly. Skills seemed to be close to the chopping block. It sounded like the design team was taking all the editions but the most recent into consideration.

But I wanted to withhold judgment until I sat around a table and played the game. I read the playtest packet when I could finally download it, and on Saturday at Strategicon I arrived for a 9am table.

The Setup

We had five players and a DM, so we got to see all the pregenerated character bounding about. We did half our session at level one and half at level three to check out how different that felt. We ran the included dungeon, with a “fast forward” montage in the middle when we jumped levels. As such, we didn’t engage the rest mechanics; when we ran out of healing we skipped ahead a year and two levels.

The Good

By far, the biggest improvement in this material over existing 4E is the sheer speed at which the game runs. I played the halfling rogue, where one of the major tactics is hiding. The rogue does this– literally– every other turn, in order to gain advantage and sneak attack and earn his keep. So half my turns consisted of me saying “I’m hiding behind the cart/table/dwarf” and pushing a token on the map. But since my next turn was about two minutes away, I had no problem forgoing the quick hit and was happy to get the bigger bang for the buck I could get with patience. The player who ran the fighter, whose sheet is half as long as everyone else’s, reported that his turn was a simple matter of seeing where to run, and hitting a thing over there. But the simplicity meant that he got to do that a lot of times, and the combined effect was that his guy was plowing through enemies, a fearless warrior dispatching his foes and aiding his friends. You did smaller things but you felt more heroic, since you got so much stuff done.

The speed is accomplished in a number of ways. First, you have fewer choices both in number of possible attacks and ways those attacks “hit” the bad guy (only AC, but some spells require a savings throw instead). Second, fewer dice and smaller modifiers means that the math is quicker, which lets you do less work once you’ve chosen (or when weighing choices, which I do a lot). Finally, Advantage and Disadvantage is a simple mechanic that takes the place of a host of temporary modifiers while also being a ton of fun to do.

The At-Will Spells let the magic-users play up their thematic role without hurting their ability to meaningfully contribute to the game for long stretches of time. This is a definite 4E influence that I was glad to see carried over, even if the existing spells might be a tad overpowered.

Speaking of the magic-users, all the Characters did a good job of being different to play without being obnoxiously overbalanced. I really like the Slayer and Guardian themes and the mechanics they use. The two clerics do a fantastic job of showing how important the other big choices on your sheet are. Making sure that all remains true when the characters aren’t included in the box is another feat entirely, though.

The Skills system is very freeform, with new skills intended to jump in as needed. I like the flexibility that this provides the design, but I fear that the skills introduced later will obviate the ones present now. Worse, the backgrounds present now won’t ever include the skills introduced later so those will atrophy as well. I’d urge them to push just a little farther and make skills more like FATE’s Aspects, each encompassing a feeling more than a specific action. They’ll have more staying power if the rogue’s skills are “Keen Eyed” and “Intruder”.

And while the Feel was a lot less tactical than 4E can (sometimes gloriously, and sometimes laboriously) be, it was certainly heroic, with our little troupe venturing forth to do Great Things and making a fine show of it.

The Bad

So now let’s talk about what isn’t so great.

The major loss I mourn is the lack of a unifying ability mechanic, a la 4E’s powers. Powers have major shortcomings, chief among them their insistence that the Encounter is the smallest meaningful block of time and the pernicious effect that has on everything, making small skirmishes impossible and large battles deadly. 4E thus ends up with a constant parade of perfectly-sized almost-dangers. But without such a refresh mechanic you cannot give players middle-powered tools, and you end up with a smattering of “twice a day”s and “once a session”s and othersuches all over the sheet, with no useful way to tell how “tired” any given character is.

The other big problem I foresee is that the mundane healing is simply puny relative to 4E’s stock. I realize that this is a deliberate effort on the part of the designers to make the game more “realistic” and dangerous, but if I wanted realistic dangers I’d go play in traffic. My fantasy heroes should take a licking and keep on ticking; hit dice should start somewhere closer to 3d and scale up from there.

Related, the damage output of the existing characters seems a little off. The dwarf fighter can do almost as much damage as the rogue, even when the rogue is doing a lot of hiding and sneak attacking. The laser cleric can at-will to do almost twice the damage of the wizard’s magic missile. These are all just slightly off from where I’d like them to be.

I will miss the customizability you get with feats, but I like the effortless mix-and-match that the race/class/background/theme accomplishes. There is talk of allowing for multiple themes for the fighter, and I would support that for everyone: it lets me pick a couple of ingredients and see how they taste together, which lets me make characters that are more interesting and varied than 4E’s rigid roles and classes allow. I still dislike levels, but those aren’t going away.

The bit about AC being the only defense is a great simplifier, but it leads to an imbalance between AC attacks–where the offense’s target number is 10 + attribute bonus + armor bonuses + other bonuses–and spells–where the defenses’ target number is 10 + attribute bonus. That who rolls changes is slightly odd, but that the one has so many more modifiers is more odd. This may simply be a case where we don’t have the “+2 when saving vs poison” items yet, but it’s a weird little wrinkle.

Another weird little wrinkle is how the playtest material speaks of checks and saves. I can make a check to push a rock… or I can make a save to do so. I’m not sure when I’d want to do one or the other. They should clarify, or– better yet– drop one wording and use the other.

Other things they need to clarify: does the Rogue’s Skill Mastery protect him from critical failures (we ruled it does)? How often do you get a Reaction (once a round)? Why would you ever want to be a human (do they get attribute bonuses)?

Finally, the Caves of Chaos is a sad little module with no plot and no characters, which is a terrible vehicle to show off the new system that allows you to play up those aspects of the game. And while the characters themselves offer a good groundsoil to role-play in, their construction leaves something to be desired: the rogue is terrible at scouting, the wizard has an abnormally high constitution, and no one in the party knows how to speak to the denizens of the elaborate cave network they’re venturing in to.

Summary

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed myself. My major remaining concerns are those that cannot be quelled by the material at hand: does the heroic pace of mostly mundane actions keep things interesting long-term? Can the paucity of healing available sustain the party during a good-sized dungeon delve? Can they maintain balance when the doors of character creation are flung open?

All that remains to be seen. And while I will miss the tactics of a clever 4E battle, I am much more excited about Next than I was last week.