Considering the D&D Next Playtest in Light of the WotC Seminars
February 7, 2012
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)
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.
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…