Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Warlock's (P)Review: D&D Next Playtest Rules (Actual Play!)

It's been buzzing all over the web that the D&D Next playtest rules--the next incarnation of the most storied RPG in history--are now available online.

The playtest begins...
Truth be told, I haven't been following the updates on 5e as diligently as I had 3e, 3.5e, or 4e, despite the numerous ways to keep updated on the rules.  After running several lengthy 4e campaigns, I was a bit burned out on D&D, frustrated at the release of Essentials, and not really willing to continue chipping in money on a product that wasn't satisfying.  Other games--most notably Savage Worlds and its numerous settings--have been providing more entertainment for my table, with less numerical crunch, more interesting and flexible mechanics, and more unique settings.

However, I still remained on the mailing list for Wizards of the Coast's upcoming playtest and, when it went live, I figured that I had nothing to lose:  just this past Friday, my home group had a sesssion off (as two players were AWOL), so the rest of us threw together a quick session of D&D's newest incarnation, using 3rd level versions of the playtest characters in section K:  "The Caves of Evil Chaos" in the provided adventure.

The result of that session?  A resounding 'meh'.  The current mechanics for D&D Next are a Frankenstein's Monster of grafted together mechanics, combining seemingly random mechanics from prior editions while adding few new or innovative mechanics of its own.  Billed with the expressed intent to unify gamers, these current rules will do little to placate any of the fractious factions in gaming. 

Truth be told, D&D Next most reminded me of Heroes Unlimited from Palladium Games.  Kevin Siembieda's system was a loosely cobbled-together amalgamation of rules from early editions of D&D, GURPS, and a host of other homebrew systems.  While it was fully playable as a system, its flaws were numerous and its mechanics were incredibly fiddly.  While using d20s for its combat mechanics--which were culled right from AD&D, minus the THAC0--Heroes Unlimited used a percentile-based mechanics pulled straight out of Call of Cthulhu's first edition.  This schizophrenic feel carries over directly into D&D Next to great detriment.
We'll start with what hasn't changed with D&D.  The standard races, classes, and six ability scores are all there, with little change between them.  In addition to class and race, each character also gets a Background (a combination of mechanical element from 4e and a pre-determined choice of 3e feats) and a Theme (almost identical to a Kit from 2e).  While these are nice touches, they serve as little more than cursory elements--chosen once, with little variation or customization to come.  While WotC has claimed to be shooting for a "modular" rules-set, there is little evidence of such in play currently. 

But, it's still D&D at its core...just a mish-mashed, unenthused version of D&D, pulling its mechanics from prior editions like Herbert West pulling bodies from a grave.  Elves still get bow proficiency and a dexterity bonus, halflings and dwarves still get a speed penalty, and fighters still suck out loud.

While printing the materials for the playtest, I couldn't help but note that where every other character--two clerics, a wizard, and a rogue--each got a two-page character sheet, the fighter's entire information fit on a single sheet with room to spare.  Hands down, the fighter received less interesting mechanics, less diverse options, and few things to do aside from say, round after round, "I hit it with my axe."  ChaoticFrederick--as open-minded and creative a player as I could imagine--had an incredibly hard time staying interested with his character. 

I'm fully aware of the continual argument over the fighter in terms of D&D--some believe that fighter should be the "simple" class, given to newbies and those players who prefer limited or simplistic options, while others (myself included) relished tactical elements, enemy placement, and holding aggro.  However, the fighter present in the D&D Next playtest was dumbed down to the point of disinterest. 

The frustrating portion of the playtest, for me, was the fact that the PlatinumChick's "guardian" cleric served a better job as a fighter than the actual fighter did!  She had 3 higher AC, dealt almost as much damage with a one-handed weapon and a single buff spell, and still was able to buff the party and provide out-of-combat healing!

Unfortunately, while the PlatinumChick's cleric out-fightered the fighter, it absolutely failed at fulfilling its own archetype of sagacious healer!  The playtest packet contained two clerics--one "tanked" cleric and one "laser" cleric--in order to show off the 'versatility' of the cleric class, though it only went to show that the clerics provided could do precisely one thing well--fight in melee, heal/cast as a spellcaster, etc.  The actual class differences between the two clerics, however, came only in spell choices and in their choice "Channel Divinity"--a holdover from 4e, which relied on the use of Turn Undead attempts.  If real difference and variety is the end goal for clerics, why not replace Turn Undead entirely and give a domain-related ability?

The wizard and rogue, thematically, were closest to their archetypal roots, though they weren't without their own issues.  Both clerics and the wizard were given at-will attack spells (coming straight from 4e), though both relied on Vancian-style 2e spellcasting.  However, either the wizard's spells were incredibly underpowered or the rogue's Backstab ability was massively overpowered.  After achieving stealth (possibly every other round, as the rogue could hide behind his own party members!), the rogue could pull off a ranged backstab dealing 1d8+3d6+ability mod!  Every other round!  The poor wizard, on the other hand, could only manage such damage maybe twice a day, using his Arc Lightning spell.  Our wizard and rogue player--FridayNightWill and Chris I, respectively--probably had the best time of the group, but even they were left dissatisfied.

As a GM, I had similar problems with running the adventure.  A revamp of the old 1e adventure, "The Caves of Chaos", the session brought next to no actual opportunity to role-play, eschewing characterization and interesting NPCs in lieu of dungeon-crawling and combat.  Okay, I can understand that on some degree, as the playtest is meant to exercise the combat rules.  But, the adventure's set up and organization was amazingly miserable.  Monster mini-stat blocks were tossed into the adventure at seemingly random points, and did not include basic, vital information like initiative bonuses or special defenses.  I had to keep referring back to the Bestiary packet, which defeats the entire purpose of having mini-stat blocks in the adventure!

That said, the game wasn't entirely a wash.  Here and there, the game managed to shock me with a novel concept or idea which really made for an elegant change.  The "Advantage/Disadvantage" mechanic provided a quick and easy way to adjucate basic benefits and drawbacks, and my group didn't have the seeming "Advantage-fishing" issue that some other playtest groups seemed to have had.  While the mechanic itself is a little "swing-y" in terms of mathematics, it makes for a spectacular way to toss out bonuses and penalties. 

Similarly, the replacement of Fortitude/Reflex/Will saving throws with saves based directly on the core 6 ability scores made for a novel and intuitive change.  However, I worry about how these will hash out at higher levels, particularly if the dreaded "Christmas Tree" effect of prior editions carries over.  Skills actually work almost identically to Saving Throws, as well, which makes for an awkward sense of understanding.  Coupled with that, there are few ways to customize ones' skills, as they're intrinsically linked to Themes and Backgrounds.  As such...yeah.  Skills are almost negligiable in this edition.

All told, we did not have fun with D&D Next.  The enjoyment we had at the table really came only from our own table-banter and from another's company, which we could do with almost anything.  Not saying that's bad, but the D&D Next playtest failed to engage my group on almost every level.  There's a lot of work to be done on this edition before release...and a lot to be done to win us back over from the numerous other games that we're enjoying.


  1. One should rememberv that the caves of choas was the combat section of the B2 mod "keep on the borderland" where the roleplaying happen with verious NPC. such as talking with the tavernner.

  2. A perfectly articulated review, Your Platinumness. I agree on all counts, even with your concern over higher level ability-based saves, though I'm very very much in favor of them.

    I think the design blind spot with fighters is as old as the Old School RPG itself. When detailed tactical miniatures rules are not being employed, few designers feel it necessary to give fighting men more options than HIT or NOT HIT. I suppose they feel it's easier for players to imagine the difference between a Magic Missile and Burning Hands than it is to imagine the difference between a parry and a feint, so why bother...

  3. Fully aware that this was meant to test the combat mechanics, there should still be SOMETHING to demonstrate a fully-fleshed out adventure. Moreso, shouldn't they be using something NEW, for a new edition? Why the unnecessary nostalgia? It's not like the Caves of Chaos were that memorable the first time around. They're no Tomb of Horrors, Ravenloft Castle or White Plume Mountain.

    I really wish that they'd drop the idea that "fighter = newbie/easy" class. One of the best things about 4e was the fact that it gave fighters unique tactical options round by round. That made fighters Fun from the mechanical perspective. As is, in the playtest, they're awful.

    Thanks for the comments, gang!

  4. After having run this for my own group yesterday, I can say much the same thing. The way the adventure was laid out was horrendously organized, and could have benefited from a cursory amount of formatting. It made my life as GM harder, for sure. But that wasn't the core of the playtest...

    I won't get into the fiddly bits that we noticed as a group, but we were astounded by how underpowered the Wizard was compared to our Healy cleric, who out-DPS'd the arcane caster by far, but who was fairly poor at healing besides from two spells a day. Eric seemed perfectly content to play the fighter--and dole out what, 2d6+7 ad infinitum?--though longed for a cleave or charge or something to do more than basic melee attacks all day. Our rogue didn't seem to take advantage of backstab nearly the same way, though. Maybe he didn't realize what he had...

    Overall, it was a very, very rough playtest, and though it certainly feels like D&D, it seemed over-simplified, and the general consensus at the table was they missed power cards after all, they just wish 4e hadn't gotten so bloated over time.

  5. I'll be interested to see your fuller thoughts, if you're planning on writing up a blog entry about it.

    The "laser" cleric was the only archetype that wasn't taken in our playtest, and my players wished desperately that they had. Our night ended with a TPK actually, due to lack of healing and an inability for the party to retreat (the fighter was stuck by Hold Person for 5 rounds, while the mage and armored-cleric got beaten down by 6 cultists).

    I am a little surprised that Eric didn't like the "basics" fighter. Then again, it's hard to min-max a character with no options other than "I hit him. Again."

    Our group is really souring on D&D as a whole, particularly in the face of newer systems like Savage Worlds and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. I'll be interested to see if 5e can "bring us back".


  6. Chaosmancer12:02 AM

    I haven't actually had a chance to play my copy yet, but I'm glad to get your opinion. If you are right about the lack of roleplaying in the pre-made adventure I'm even more disappointed with the themes and backgrounds. The rogues thematic ability is to gain an advantage while hidden, which every character class can do and the wizards is knowing where to locate lore he can't specifically remember, which would be great if there was roleplaying but seems useless in a combat-oriented adventure. I hope things smooth out a lot over this playtest

  7. I'm playing in one of the WotC-sponsored playtests on Friday at Origins. Hopefully things will be a little more excited and better designed in that packet!

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