OK. So it’s a little over a week after the D&D Next playtest at DDXP.

In my previous post, I was extremely circumspect regarding my playtest experience. This was due, of course, to the NDA which WotC required all playtesters to sign.

The closed playtest, however, was not the only event going on at the convention. WotC presented a seminar each day, and all but one of the seminars dealt, in some way, with D&D Next. I have now had a chance to go over the seminar transcripts in detail, and to identify which information WotC has decided to make public.

Since my NDA only prohibits me from revealing confidential information, I feel comfortable commenting in more detail on aspects of the new system which WotC discussed at the seminars. This gives me a welcome opportunity to describe my playtest experience in terms that I hope will be helpful to those who could not make it to the convention.

First, WotC has revealed enough about races and classes that I can (mostly) outline the composition of my adventuring party from the playtest. Since I didn’t get a full look at every character sheet, I have used question marks to indicate where I am unclear regarding a race or a class. I have omitted the race of Joe’s warlord, because it is a race that has not yet been discussed publicly by WotC (hint: it’s not the flumph):

Human Paladin (me)

Elven Wizard (my friend Lauren)

Warlord (Joe from The Fifth Column, and Lauren’s husband)

Halfling Rogue

Half-Orc Barbarian?

Human? Cleric

So I played a paladin for four hours. He felt very righteous…

In the WotC seminars, Monte Cook explained that characters in D&D Next have stats, a class, a race, and a theme. To be honest, during the entire playtest I didn’t even realize my paladin had a theme. There wasn’t some big header on the character sheet that said THEME in 16-point type. The character, however, was given a knightly honorific (it started out as Dame, but I don’t get into gender-bending my RP, so I changed it to Sir.) There was also a paragraph or two of background about what it meant to be a knight, and how my character got along with the upper classes.

After reading a comment by The Chatty DM over at Critical Hits (who also played the paladin, but in a different playtest group) I realized that “Knight” had, in fact, been my character’s theme.

On the one had, I wish that the character sheet would have been better laid-out, so that I would have more clearly understood where the mechanics were coming from. On the other hand, not knowing that “Knight” was my theme didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game session one bit. Nor did it affect my ability to contribute to the adventure. I had one non-combat related skill that was tied to my theme, and I did call upon it during play.

I was armed with a sword, wore scale mail, and carried various and sundry adventuring items, with a few silver pieces left over (the silver standard is here at last–William Jennings Bryan would be proud…)

Stat wise, my character sheet featured the big six ability scores, as well as HP and AC. Saving throws and other defenses were gone. As Monte explained in the Skills and Abilities seminar, saves are now rolled based on your ability scores.

Skills provided situational bonuses to checks that were also based on ability scores. As Bruce Cordell and Monte discussed in the same seminar, the D&D Next skill system is currently open-ended. Rolling to use any skill is always resolved as an ability check. The skill itself simply provides a bonus to that particular ability check in a specific situation.

In the example Bruce uses, you may get a bonus to Dex checks based on a high ability score. You would use this for any dexterity-based tasks. Let’s say you have a skill, however, that gives you an additional bonus for sneaking around. Whenever you decide to be sneaky, you would still roll a Dex check (it’s a dexterity-based task,) but in addition to your standard Dex bonus, you would also add your sneaky bonus.

Structuring skills in this way lets the designers create class features with any flavor they want–because ultimately they are only worried about what sort of bonus the feature will give to the relevant ability check.

It’s a fairly elegant solution, and it played-out well when my paladin decided to use a Charisma check to gather intelligence from a tribe of kobolds about the other denizens of the Caves of Chaos. When our party decided to bargain with the ogre, however (see below) the warlord stepped in, because he had a skill that gave him a bump in that particular situation, while I was just rolling a straight Charisma check.

One element of the new system that was apparent right away was the DM/player core mechanic Monte talks about in the Edition for All Editions seminar. As he puts it, “player says ‘I want to X’ and DM responds.” Our Dungeon Master (Dave TheGame from Critical Hits,) made it clear that we could try to do anything we wanted, and that he wasn’t going to be rolling unless it was absolutely necessary. This was not because he is a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants DM (although he may be) but because the system is built to maximize DM discretion and to minimize rolling for the use of basic character abilities.

A great example of this was our rogue. When we arrived at the Caves, the rogue decided to go exploring along the rim of the ravine. This entailed climbing the walls, moving silently, and staying hidden from any residents we didn’t want to meet right away. The rogue explored the entire area and reported back to the party–and he didn’t roll once. Although this may seem like a simple case of DM fiat, it wasn’t. The player running the rogue had already participated in a previous playtest session. When it came time to do his thing, he didn’t even bother looking to Dave for confirmation–he simply announced confidently to the party that he had the reconnoitering under control. Then he proceeded to make it happen. It ran smoothly, effortlessly, and I would say better than I have seen it run in any other edition I have played.

A similar situation occurred when we paid a visit to a cave complex full of orcs. We had hired the local ogre to help us out (my paladin allowed the cleric to convince him that if we enlisted the help of the ogre, we might be able to turn him from his wicked ways.) As we approached the closed wooden door barring the way to the chambers of the orc chieftain, I turned to the ogre to ask him to do the honors. I was stopped in my request by our half-orc barbarian, who said with a knowing smile “I’ve got this.” He then turned to the DM and stated “I kick in the door.” Now, this player had also participated in previous playtest sessions–so he knew the ropes. Dave simply acknowledged that the door gave way with a splintering crash, and we were into the final combat of the game session.

We had two fights during the playtest, and both were fast-paced and interesting. The martial characters stuck to the front lines, while the rogue attacked from around a corner. The wizard made frequent use of the “javelin of fire” at-will magic feat (discussed by Rob Schwalb in the Skills and Ability Scores seminar) but she also had carefully chosen her spells for the day, and deployed them where they would do the most good. I felt the mechanic of the attacker (our wizard) setting the DC for the defender added tension to the fight, and differentiated her attacks nicely from standard melee or ranged attacks.

In the seminars, Monte talks about giving extra abilities to monsters, and I think this is a place where the designers have really taken a cue from 4e. In one of our combats, my paladin suddenly found himself in a specific tactical situation, and Dave revealed that this triggered certain bonuses on the part of the monsters we were fighting. As a DM, I have really enjoyed the wide variation of powers exhibited by well designed monsters in 4e. I was pleased to see that some of this design philosophy seems to have made it into the prototype for D&D Next.

The combat we played was almost completely narrative. Dave used a battlemat, but only for the most basic of positioning. I asked him about running more tactical combats, and he said that he thought the rules for that weren’t ready yet.

As I explained in my previous post, our party did not fair well in the adventure as a whole. WotC stated in the seminars that “surviving at low levels and beyond is something that players will be careful of if they’re doing more dangerous tasks.” Our party ran headlong into this when we decided to take on one of the higher-level caves without adequately assessing the threat. None of the players resented the near-TPK–not only was this just a playtest, but we were all aware that we had decided to leap before we looked…

As you can see from this summary, our group got a chance to engage in all three of the elements Mike Mearls discusses in the Editions for all Editions seminar: roleplaying, combat and exploration. The playtest gave me a good grasp of how all three work in D&D Next. I can hardly wait to try it from the other side of the screen…

My first look at D&D Next

January 30, 2012

I guarantee–when I woke up on January 9, I had absolutely no intention of making a 20 hour round-trip to attend the “D&D Experience” convention in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

By the next day, I had purchased my ticket to the convention, and was in the midst of planning the road-trip with Joe and Lauren, a couple of friends from my gaming group.

That’s how quickly things can change when you receive unexpected news.

There I was, at a little after 7:00 in the morning, sitting on my couch and reading EN World on my iPad. I was keeping up with the latest in a seemingly endless series of threads speculating on the imminent release of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I admit–until this particular morning, I was firmly in the camp which believed that any 5e announcement was at least a year or two away.

For some reason, on this day, I was a little more credulous. “I still don’t think WotC will announce so early,” I thought to myself as I finished the thread, “but with my luck, what will probably happen is that one of these mornings I will open up EN World, and right there will be a new thread that says ‘5e is here!’ That will put an end to all this speculation.”

Then my eyes dropped to the title of the very next thread: “5e pre-announced?

And pre-announced in a big, big way–with articles in the New York Times and Forbes. It wasn’t long before I was posting an alert to my players via Obsidian Portal.

Let me give you some background on my group. When I decided to DM 4e, I put an announcement on MeetUp, looking for players. I was still smarting from a very negative experience with my previous 3.x campaign. As is typical in our hobby, several players in that group had started gaming when they were about 13. The problem was that a couple of them still gamed like they were 13. If I was going to run another group, I didn’t want to deal with ego trips, one-upsmanship, rules lawyering, inconsistent attendance, and other bad habits that most of us have outgrown over the years.

As a result, in addition to the basic details of what, when, and where, my MeetUp invitation included the following criterion:

Players must be mature, respectful of others, interested in having fun in a group setting, and able to commit to an on-going, semi-monthly campaign

I credit this single line with bringing together the best group with which it has been my privilege to play in over 30 years of gaming. Each of them is committed, imaginative, insightful–and a wonderful person. I am grateful and humbled when they take time out of their busy schedules to play my favorite game with me.

I knew, when I extended an invitation to drive 600 miles to Ft. Wayne, that I would get some takers.

More than that, I knew that each of us would go with an open mind, ready to give careful consideration to the specific changes WotC is contemplating for D&D Next. We have players in our group who may prefer elements of Pathfinder, or 3.x, or 2e, or 1e, but this has never risen to the level of an “edition war.” I don’t think we’re alone–I think this is the standard for most gaming groups. I am convinced “edition wars” are a phenomenon of the mostly-anonymous nature of the Internet. When you have to defend your opinion to your friend, who is right there with you in the same room, you tend to remember your manners and give his or her position a fair hearing. The end result is that most groups–ours included–realize that all systems have strengths and weaknesses. There is no such thing as the “perfect” edition of D&D, and none of us who headed to Ft. Wayne this past weekend expected that we would find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We did hope to find the framework of a system that could be really, really good–and we weren’t disappointed.

Of course, you know by now that I can’t tell you anything specific about the races, classes, mechanics or other content of the D&D Next playtest. The NDA we signed prohibits any of us from sharing this information. Coming from the tech industry, I’m very comfortable with NDAs–I firmly believe in a creator’s right to control the public release of information about a product that is still in development. I don’t think the primary purpose of WotC’s NDA is to prevent copyright infringement, or to provide leverage against over-enthusiastic bloggers like me. I think it’s purpose is to minimize needless public strife over specific rules content that may or may not survive into the public Beta. In my opinion, this helps everyone, because it allows us to concentrate on what does make it into the Beta–i.e., the stuff that really might become part of the new game.

So if I can’t give you anything specific, what can I tell you?

First, the prototype of D&D Next absolutely captures the feel of classic D&D. Since I started with the Moldvay Basic Set in 1980, to me the game felt very much like Basic D&D–but there were elements which I knew would resonate with someone for whom 1e was the baseline. Talking with one of my traveling companions, who had played mostly 3.x, I found that he had gravitated to parts of the new system that evoked the feel of 3rd edition.

We had the unexpected honor of sitting in on a game run by Dave Chalker of Critical Hits. Dave did a great job–he has a very laid-back, flexible style, and the game fit perfectly with this approach. We could see enough of the moving parts peeking out through the story, however, that I have no doubt the system would run just as smoothly in the hands of a DM who likes to spend time focusing on the “fiddly bits.”

It’s no secret that the adventure used for the playtest was “The Caves of Chaos.” Dave really spiced it up when one of our  characters wanted to do some research in the library of the local keep, before we headed out to the Caves themselves. Needing someone to play the librarian, Dave flagged down Mike Mearls–who gave a fantastic impromptu performance as an elderly scholar with a touch of OCD. While lecturing our companion on the history and politics of the various tribes inhabiting the Caves, Mike’s librarian insisted that his listener keep sweeping up the mud she had tracked into the library on her “adventurer boots.”

When we finally arrived at the Caves, we had plenty of opportunity for exploration, roleplaying and combat–the three elements that Mike and Monte Cook highlighted in the “Edition for All Editions” seminar on Thursday. Every character got a chance to shine, and when our group got into trouble, it was due to the time-honored D&D error of over-estimating our capabilities. An after-action review identified key points where we could have made different decisions–which might have caused the scenario to turn out better…

And that, right there, is why I feel the current manifestation of D&D Next nails the feel of classic D&D. My friends and I were on the edge of our seats during the whole adventure. At no point did we feel like “we’ve got this in the bag,” but we didn’t feel like we were in over our heads, either–right up until the point where it all went pear-shaped. And when things did go south, no one felt that it was because the cards were stacked against us (that’s a figure of speech–I am unable to confirm or deny whether actual cards played any role in the playtest.) We could look back and see very clearly where we had gone wrong–and it was us, the players and our characters, not the rules or the DM.

Coming out of the B/X and 1e eras, this is really the essence of D&D for me. A skillful Dungeon Master offers the players a challenging scenario, with the potential for both serious consequences and significant reward. It is up to the players to decide when, where and how they tackle the challenge. If they succeed, it’s on to bigger and better things. If they fail, then they learn from their mistakes and perhaps take another crack at it on a different day. Either way, the fun of the game lies primarily in the story the players and the DM build together–not in whether the players prevail in any given situation.

So was the D&D Next playtest worth a 1200 mile drive? I visited with Joe and Lauren following the event. We all agreed that we got to do everything we set out to do when we decided on this crazy plan. We got a first look at the next version of D&D. We really liked what we saw. We are eagerly anticipating the D&D Next public Beta. And we can’t wait to bring our experiences back to our gaming group.

Unfortunately we are all still under NDA. Diplomacy and Intimidate rolls notwithstanding.

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