Friday, April 12, 2013

Looking at the latest D&D Next Playtest Packet

I decided for various reasons to print out the latest playtest packet* and delve deep into it once more, perhaps even with an eye toward a new playtest run (maybe even as early as next week). Part of this is indirectly motivated by my recent dabbling in Basic/Expert D&D, ironically (an interest in contrasting the two); part of it is also motivated by stat-block fatigue from Pathfinder. 3rd edition stat blocks, even though I've gotten quite good at condensing them down to the relevant bits, still do that to me; I really liked 4E's methodology here.

Anyway, in reading through the latest playtest materials I was surprised to see that despite what everyone on says there does appear to be a pretty solid game coagulating within DDN's many pages. Even more surprising was realizing that a massive chunk of DDN feels to me like someone is trying to wed 4th edition design principles (minus the always-on-minis and map experience) to the 1st edition design aesthetic. They haven't exactly got it right, but they are actually much closer than they have been in years. In mechanical terms the playtest in its current condition is about as far from the ideation of simplicity and economy of design to be found in, say, Basic D&D as you can get....but in terms of modern systems that feel like D&D? It's scoring a lot of points with me, at least.

There are still several things bugging the hell out of me, though. I feel like I need to get a new playtest running with this latest ruleset to see just how problematic these concerns really are, though. Anyway, some observations on the new packet that I would like to see more in-game playtesting on:

Experience gain looks way too fast

I've been crunching the numbers on level advancement vs. the level rating and XP values of the monsters in the packet, comparing them to the DM advice section on encounter building, and something doesn't add up. Furthermore, it seems like the experience advancement as presented could lead to insanely fast level advancement. Granted, I'm used to medium and slow track Pathfinder advancement these days....but that was one of the problems 3rd edition had, too. Characters could outstrip a DM's scenarios by leveling too fast (and Pathfinder's altered XP gain mechanics only make that worse when you try to play fast experience advancement). On the surface it seems to me this will be a problem for DDN as presented, but I need to play around with it and see it in action for a few sessions. Also, I wonder if the XP gain is intentionally quick to insure more playtesters reach and experiment with higher level play. Then again, if that were intentional I would also hope they'd mention it in the packet.

Is the laser cleric still a problem?

My first playtests with DDN suggested that the laser cleric phenomenon was a real issue, but a lot of development on the cleric class, along with a larger variety of deity choices (with associated abilities) means that the cleric may not exhibit this problem (as often) anymore.

Paladins have eaten cavaliers, wardens and blackguards

Paladins now have three subtypes from which to choose, with the cavalier being the default paladin, the warden being a sort of wilderness paladin who killed the 4E warden and took his stuff, and the blackguard being a timid non-chaotic version of the anti-paladin (borrowing from the 4E blackguard, but this is a good thing). I'm disappointed that this suggests the warden from 4E won't get to be its own "thing," but maybe this one will feel similar. I liked that class.

Fighters are looking fun to play again

Proof is in the pudding, but on the surface they appear to be full of interesting things to do. There's a smidgeon of 4E's slayer in the design (still) but hopefully the overall changes won't make it feel like a static "guy who hits things." Need to see a few in action to be sure. The fighter exhibits what I mentioned earlier, about how DDN is a 4E revision in OSR sheep's clothing. It's clearly got a lineage stemming from 3rd and 4th, and bears little to no resemblance to anything a player from prior editions would recognize.

I See 4E Everywhere

Maybe its just me, maybe its just because DDN is a post-4E edition that can't escape the core descriptive approach to mechanics (even though it does a fantastic job of integrating the fluff, far better than 4E ever could have), but every mechanical description I read is written in that elegant and extremely precise "application language," for lack of a better term. It's stepped away from 4E in that you're not looking at endlessly repetitive stat blocks...but that core conceit, that the "thing you are doing" should have an explicit mechanical application which is clearly understood, seems to be a big operating point behind class abilities and spells. The opposite seems to be happening with skills and ability checks, however....and I'm not sure how I feel about that until I can get some more playtesting in.

Advantage/Disadvantage is more integrated

It appears on the surface to be better implemented and pops up in logical places now. Will have to see. I disliked it a lot in my first playtests, especially due to the lack of good guidelines on use.

The Monster Stat Blocks are Great

Despite the level and XP listings seeming to be off to me, the core stat blocks look to have taken the best lessons from 4E and carried them on, but with a firm integration into the pre-4E world of mapless design principles at play.

Attribute Limits

It's a "bounded accuracy" system, and they are trying to make it work, so I understand the principle behind limiting attributes to a max of 20...but at the same time I can't help but feel like this is a step back. The real problem is that attributes in the 1E/2E era were explicitly capped and their relationship in terms of modeling creature values was explicit in the design. The DDN methodology to take the open-ended approach of 3rd and 4th edition and arbitrarily cap it. This seems like a cheap workaround to me.

Skills still concern me

I don't like how they are handling skills at all. This is a shame, because they do seem to be trying to include more skills (or at least the same essential skill set from 3E), but the weird lack of real progression, the limited control over how one could advance in skills, some skills tie to feats in weird ways, and the customization for flavor limited to backgrounds (which are admittedly cool) are all problems to me. The pluses right now are that the DM section has some great and explicit guidelines on using skills and setting DCs, the backgrounds are a great idea, and it all might just work in a way I'm comfortable with, but once again: gotta playtest it and see.

The heritage of D&D is more than 1974-1978

Despite some perceptions, D&D is much more than just what it was in the 1970's. I'm accustomed to editions of the game which offer more, not less. So we're still missing things that cater to the "more, not less" mindset: to date no rules on other than the basic races have been seen, nor have we even gotten a hint that there will be rules for designing such. Multiclassing is being discussed in their Q&As, but what details I've seen suggest it will have a closer heritage to the 4th edition methodology and will steer away from the 3rd edition and earlier approaches. The practicality of a campaign style which does not depend on a dungeon-focused encounter design seems to be met within this system (4E failed miserably here) but the recovery mechanics are still in a state of flux.

There will be some edition of this game which, WotC is saying, will be the core "basic" edition but even the thing I'm looking at right now appears far too complex for anything that should have "basic" appended to it. If they did manage a stripped down version that got closer to the original basic edition, but which still catered to the "more, not less" mindset of 2nd edition and onward, I will be pretty happy.

Anyway, I'm going to see if my on/off Tuesday group would like to dive in next week. We shall see!

*For extra fun I had it bound with the Basic D&D cover (for the char gen section) and the Expert set cover (for the DM's section and bestiary), giving the playtest packet a deceptively retro exterior appearance!

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