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.

10 Responses to “My first look at D&D Next”

  1. greywulf Says:

    That sounds EXCELLENT. Everything I hoped for, in fact.

    Thanks for…. not sharing.

    • bspauls Says:

      Hi Greywulf–

      Just curious–do you have a “go to” edition you play now?

      I’m finding that the most positive responses are from folks who are old school, like me.

      Die-hard 4e players seem more skeptical when I tell them about my experience with the playtest.

      Just wondering where you fall on the edition spectrum…


      • greywulf Says:

        I’m neutral in the Edition wars. My own group is enjoying playing 4e, and that’s the edition of the game which saved me from serious GM burnout after Third Edition. I love 3e but can cheerfully say I never want to go back to GMing it again. My personal favourite edition is the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, but convincing players to let me run it has been an uphill battle. The gamers around me seem to prefer editions with a little more structure to the rules, it seems:)

        So long as it says D&D on the cover (or not, in the case of Pathfinder) though, I’ll play it, and be happy.

      • bspauls Says:

        Thanks, Greywulf. I’m in the same boat.

        I started DMing 4e because I wanted to understand the new rules. If it weren’t for the simple prep in 4th edition, however, I couldn’t DM at all right now. The other reason I ended my 3.x campaign (besides the player issues I mention in my post) was that it just took way to much time to run well…

  2. jberc Says:

    I agree. Which is about all I can say since I am also subject to the NDA.

    I think I can add that the beauty of what we saw laid in it’s simplicity; that the game evoked a classic feel was doubtless largely due to our excellent DM…but I continue to feel that the best feature I saw that session was the re-empowerment of the Dungeon Master.

    All Hail the Chief.

  3. John Says:

    Excellent review. It’s nice that each of your players gravitated to a different portion of it. What that tells me is that the style of play will be mostly up to the group/DM, which is the way it should be, thus allowing different parties to play the game in different ways.

    • jberc Says:

      I think that a strong GM will always make a game better by the sheer force of their charisma (pun intended). There’s a mutual respect between the players and the GM…after all, everyone’s there for the same reason. As a player, I really felt that the DM was empowered to move the story exactly as he needed to.

  4. cklarock Says:

    Thanks for the review, NDA-bound though it was. As a new father, I’ve not touched a die in anger this past year, and have been blissfully ignorant of these “edition wars.” Sounds like I haven’t missed much.

    The other day, a friend mentioned 5e was in the works, and I’ve been up one side of the internet and down the other looking for posts such as this. I’m starting to feel a return of the pre-edition excitement that took over my life pretty thoroughly in the run up to 3rd edition (back on Eric Noah’s rumors page). At that time, similar to now, the existing edition had left me a bit jaded and my love-affair with the game was on the wane. 3e rekindled the fire and since then we’ve had some unforgettable games.

    I started with the white box, and my first D&D purchase was the blue box, so I love what I’m hearing about the return to the game’s roots as far as feel goes. I personally would not play older editions again, because there really is something to be said for the progression of game tech, but the soul of the old game? That’s the stuff, right there.

    I don’t know how much of it is nostalgia getting the better of me, but nothing sells me faster than a tip of the hat to the feel of the past . . . but with new mechanics.

    Can’t wait for my first 5e TPK. Sniff. Sniff.

    • bspauls Says:

      Thanks for your insightful comment, cklarock.

      I think fans of the classic game are going to be very pleased the basic rules WotC is putting together. Many elements from later editions will be available as modular options, but I am convinced that anyone who liked BECMI or 1e will find themselves in familiar territory with the default system.

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