Playtesting Dungeons & Dragons Next

Last week Wizards of the Coast released the playtesting materials for their new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, D&D Next. It is open to anyone who wants to try it out — you can sign up at D&DNext.com — and this weekend my regular gaming group and I gave it a spin. They had an epic battle with an ogre, were kidnapped by hobgoblins who crept in through a secret door while they slept, parlayed with a motley band of prisoners, and negotiated with a cruel and cunning warlord… losing two of their noble companions along the way. We gave it a pretty good shakedown and here is what we had to see about it in the aftermath.

 

The Good

I can’t sing the praises of the “Advantage” mechanic highly enough. Quite simply, if you have a nebulous edge — you are hiding, or you’re fighting from a better position, or you are electrocuting someone wearing metal armor, or whatever else might naturally come up in the course of the game — you roll two d20s and take the better result.

A “Disadvantage” is the inverse of that; if you are stuck in mud or cursed or laboring under some crummy situation, you roll two d20s and take the worse result. This simple little mechanic gives Dungeon Masters and players a powerful tool to support improvised play. Want to reward the fighter for deciding to swing off the chandelier like a swashbuckler? Give him Advantage on his attack. Is the wizard trying to communicate with an ancient lich using a dead language that he only knows how to write, since there are no living speakers? Disadvantage! “Aid Another” has been replaced with “Help,” and you guessed it, it grants Advantage. Elegant, simple and it feels very “Dungeons and Dragons-y.”

Overall, my impression of D&D Next was very positive. One of my players described it as “Like Second Edition, only they took out all the stuff that didn’t make sense, and replaced it with the smart rules from Third Edition.” There is some element of truth to that, but I think it is more a reinvisioning of earlier systems, reimagined through the prism of Third and Fourth Edition. It is stripped down, but has a keen eye on the lessons of playability from past versions of the game.

My players were particularly grateful for the new rules on standing up from prone — it is just five feet of your move — and how easy it is to switch weapons. Of course, they weren’t so happy about that when the ogre that was frozen in place started throwing javelins at them, but that is the way the cookie crumbles.

Other sophisticated pieces of simplicity are the rules for light, medium and heavy armor—add Dex bonus, half Dex bonus and no Dexterity, respectively—as well as the fact that now every attribute is its own saving throw. You could make a Strength saving throw, a Charisma saving throw, et cetera. That sort of fresh thinking goes a long way toward making a cogent system.

 

The Bad

The biggest problem my players had was healing. I understand that this is a common thread of complain among playtesters, but I think we might diverge from the main point. First, the obvious. For a cleric with the theme “healer,” the human cleric of Pelor does not pack much of a healing wallop. One cure light wounds and one healing potion…and both were used in the first combat of the session I ran. Not only that, but the cleric doesn’t know the ranged healing power, healing word. The whole thing was a problem; one of my players commented that the addition of spontaneous casting would have fixed it—if the cleric could use the spiritual hammer or searing light slot to cast another cure, things would have gone differently.

The flip side of this is that regaining all your hit points after an eight-hour rest seems ridiculous to my group. To go from “I was near death’s door this morning” to tip-top shape really impacted our suspension of disbelief, even in a world with a hundred ton fire-breathing reptiles. Regaining a hit dice after a short rest is a good conservation of the “healing surge” idea, but I think 4e’s “bloodied” condition is something that D&D Next should consider keeping. It telegraphed being “hurt” in a way that hit points have always failed at, and it could be incorporated into healing perhaps?

 

The Ugly

Strictly from a Dungeon Master perspective, I find The Caves of Chaos both fun and frustrating. Fun, because it is a reactive complex that encourages the DM to alter it, evolve it, and in general treat it like an organic system. Frustrating because…well, here is where the ugly comes into play. There are some “old school” elements that really make things tricky to use — most notably, the sheer number of enemies in some encounters. Now, I am happy that not every room was built to be a balanced math problem that your finely tuned characters just cut down at a statistically normal rate; that isn’t what I mean. What I mean is that by embracing a “theater of the mind” ethos, supporting play without miniatures and battlemats…they’ve made it hard to use for those of us who like using minis. Twelve rats? What happened to swarms? I don’t have a dozen rat minis! Eighteen stiges? Are you kidding? 

I’m as granola and low combat as they come; my usual games are roleplaying heavy and we can go for many sessions without a brawl, but when they do come up, I like to use the grids and the minis, for two equally important reasons. One, I find it helps people stay engaged and make sense out of the fight — how many times have you heard “oh I thought I was attacking the ones outside the cave!” or “Wait, didn’t I damage that guy? No? How he is across the ravine?”  Using visual aids cuts down on that and gives players something to look at when it isn’t their turn. Two, minis are cool. I like ‘em, and I like busting them out on players and having them go “oh what is that, let me see, oh no I hate it!”  I’m not a painter, but that is an important part of the hobby too; I just want both styles to be supported.

 

Characters

Seeing them in action, all the classes have something to recommend them. The fighter is notable for his Reaper power, a call-back to Fourth Edition’s Reaping Strike that lets him do his ability score bonus in damage, even if he misses.   The rogue’s Sneak Attack is well designed; our halfling was sneaking and attacking ever other turn, which is what you want as a rogue, I think. Besides that, the rogue’s Skill Mastery seems awfully potent; even if he rolls a 1, the die still counts as a ten, plus his bonuses. The elf wizard’s at-will spells are neat, too; an at-will “magic missile” is nice, but it is even nicer that “ray of frost” and “shocking grasp” are so well designed that you might actually want to use them, depending on the circumstances. The wizard’s “Lore” skills are too vague to be very useful, though. I was least impressed with the human cleric; his attack spells actually seem potent, but when you have a healer…well, I expect him to be a better healer. We didn’t get a chance to see the dwarf cleric in action, but the theme that allows him to give enemies Disadvantage when they attack someone adjacent to him seems really neat.


Mordicai Knode honestly can’t believe they brought the electrum piece back. Making it the relic of a forgotten empire is cute but please cut it out and stick with decimal coinage! Maybe you really like absurd numismatics?  You can argue about it with Mordicai on Twitter or Tumblr, if you like!

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