Friday, May 25, 2012

D&D Next: A Playtest Journal

With new playtest rules firmly in my hot little hands (well, on my iPad anyway, which was in my hot little hands), my group of gamers set out to try the new rules last night. We had a really good time, overall. Here's how the session went.

First off, there are five pre-generated characters for use in the playtest; generation rules are still a ways off. The pre-gens are as follows:

High Elf Wizard (Sage background, Magic-User theme)
Lightfoot Halfing Rogue (Commoner background, Lurker theme)
Mountain Dwarf Cleric (Knight background, Guardian theme)
Human Cleric (Priest background, Healer theme)
Hill Dwarf Fighter (Soldier background, Slayer theme)

Backgrounds offer skill bonuses, and themes offer feat selections - but they're optional, and the character sheets even state to drop them from the game if you want a more old-school gaming feel for your session. I like the way these are presented; the two clerics play very differently as a result of their divergent background and theme selections.

Each player fielded a different pre-gen and we dove right into the Caves of Chaos, running our way through the first kobold lair. I didn't even bother using a battle grid outside the first cave, where eight kobolds lay in wait. The dwarf fighter walked right up to the mouth of the cave and struck a torch, and was caught by surprise by the ambushing kobolds. I like that surprise is left entirely up to the GM - you simply decide who is and isn't caught off-guard and adjust initiative accordingly. The kobolds are pretty standard for D&D fare - nearly impossible to not kill in one hit, but with decent AC due to high Dex and an advantage mechanic that kicks in whenever they outnumber their foes, which was really cool.

They traded blows with the kobolds (I had the enemies break off in pairs and attack each of the four visible characters two at a time, since the halfling rogue immediately hid at the top of the initiative count) and combat lasted about three rounds. The dwarf cleric had an ability which allowed him to give disadvantage to an attacker going after an ally if he's adjacent to that ally, so he drew close to the elf wizard, who pretty much slung magic missiles the whole fight, and protected him. The human cleric did the same, sticking with the other casters and tossing radiant lances at kobolds, then healing when it was necessary. Once a single kobold was remaining, he tried to flee into the cave to alert his buddies - but the wizard went immediately after the kobold's double move (called hustling) and used ray of frost, which reduces a target's movement to zero for 1 round rather than dealing damage. The fighter made easy work of him. (My wife played the dwarf fighter and was rolling like crap last night - but the slayer theme gives her the ability to do a small amount of damage on any given attack even if she misses, which she enjoyed. At low levels this seems to give fighters a clear advantage and weigh most combats heavily in favor of the PCs, but I suspect that is a class ability which does not scale well with experience since it's based on ability modifiers.)

Inside, the fighter and rogue led the way (the halfing rogue can actually hide behind allies and then pop out and sneak attack, which I rather like; the rogue hid behind the dwarf fighter for most of the night) and walked right into a pit trap, but they both dodged it. Unfortunately, the trap noise drew out six more kobolds and a swarm of 18 rats led by a dire rat. The facing and space rules for tiny creatures seemed to indicate that a lot of them could occupy a very small amount of space, so I had them run into the area and attack about six at a time, chewing and biting at the human cleric who had moved into position behind the rogue. The elf wizard came up behind the human cleric and put his arms around the human's waist, fanning his fingers and casting burning hands, which eliminated ALL of the rats in one shot because they were so tightly packed in the corridor. Meanwhile, the kobolds were taking turns moving forward two at a time to attack with daggers while their buddies stayed back and threw spears (I had to kind of ad hoc their ranged attack bonuses, as the stats only gave their melee attack scores with weapons). The fighter and rogue took them out easily with greataxe and sling attacks, and the dwarf cleric moved in to heal the fighter who got hit by two criticals from kobolds - ouch.

The next chamber was described as having about 40 kobolds in it (sort of a restock pool for making the dungeon harder), but I ain't got that many miniatures. They wanted to go in guns blazing (I worked in a story hook about them being able to cash in kobold heads for a bounty in Threshold) so I let them fight ten more kobolds and then cow the rest into submission with Charisma checks once the warriors were gone. The lack of hard alignment rules allowed me to propose a moral dilemma about killing the remaining kobold women and children, and this ended up dividing the party - only the halfling and the elf were willing to engage in wholesale slaughter for profit.

The rogue got in the habit of wanting to check for traps every five feet after the pit trap was triggered, but the system covers this handily - the rogue's Skill Mastery ability basically made him unable to roll anything under a 16 on a Find Traps or Remove Lock roll, so unless the DC was higher than that, I could just tell him to move on (and this leg of the dungeon had no more traps anyway). That was a nice time saver.

The last major conflict was with three elite kobolds (what I assume are the equivalent of 3-4 HD monsters), five regular kobold grunts, and a kobold chieftain. This was over really fast, because the wizard blew his last burning hands spell when they rushed the group, and the melee hitters made short work of the chieftain.

All in all, the first leg felt VERY easy and they seem extremely resilient to damage with the exception of lucky crits. I'm hoping the next leg will be a bit more challenging. My dilemma as a GM right now is, do I keep running the Caves of Chaos (we've only done 6 out of about 64 rooms) or try to create my own scenario using the ruleset? I don't know if the feedback quality I give will be more useful using the provided scenario, or if they want people to go "off-script", as it were.

Also, I did notice a rules discrepancy that may have been due to a class or racial ability rather than a misprint - the rules list greataxes as dealing 1d12 damage, but my wife's dwarf fighter had 2d6 listed on her sheet for the same weapon. I wondered if perhaps that was some sort of racial benefit to boost minimum damage instead of an outright mistake, but I may be reading too much into that.

The system feels very flexible and open to GM fiat. The wizard came up with some creative spell applications, and I enjoyed being able to dictate the flavor of certain things myself - every time the priest killed a kobold with his radiant lance spell, for instance, I ruled that the positive energy overloaded the kobold and made him burst and pop like a firework, so there was no body left behind on which to collect a bounty. =] I do see many similarities to Castles & Crusades, especially in the ability-score-centric mechanics, and I really like that aspect of it. I also like that DCs don't have to scale and climb with PC level - the difficulty mechanic uses the same numerical spectrum across all levels of play, judging by the rules, and that's very helpful in my opinion. I really like the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, and the players seem to enjoy it too. I also like that you can split movement before and after an action without needing extra abilities like Shot on the Run or Spring Attack, and that there's no opportunity attacks baked in from the start.

Most of the players that I ran the game for last night have limited to moderate experience with 4E, and each of them said that they see how that edition has shaped this ruleset, but they each like the application of those game principles a lot better in Next than they did in 4E. I feel much the same way. A lot of what 4E introduced isn't going away - it's just now being presented in a way that feels better integrated into the traditional D&D style than the radical thematic departures 4E utilized.

So, as I say - first impressions are very strong. We're ready for more.