Thursday, June 7, 2012

After Action Report! my first Dungeons & Dragons Next Playtest

D&D Next Playtest Observations:

Group Composition: five players, all versed in modern gaming, but all with a long history of multiple editions, mostly. Two are big Pathfinder fans, one is a 3.5 fan, and two are 4E fans. The 4E fans can and do play other games, though; the other three will not play 4E. As DM, I regularly run Pathfinder, dislike 3.5 (ergo, I tolerate Pathfinder for the sake of my players…but more on that later), and I enjoy 4E, albeit with the caveat that I wish it was flexible enough to handle non grid/minis combat.

The group was also not my “usual gang.” Many of my regulars were out this week, but I had two relatively new guests (guys I knew but have gamed little or none with) and one old cohort who I used to play with back when I had free Fridays.

Scenario: I did not use the Caves of Chaos, writing up my own adventure. The reason for this was fourfold:

1. I ran Caves of Chaos as a kid extensively, and while D&D is one hobby I’ve carried with me for over three decades, the reality of that module is that I will always remember it as a 9-10 year old. Efforts at running it later in life have always fallen flat because my nostalgic memories of the scenario are tinged with “young kid” glasses.

2. The map was printing out awfully for me. I’m diabetic, and have always had near sightedness; trying to read the little blue numbers was giving me a migraine. Even on PDF it was a pain.

3. Everyone else’s adventures have focused on orcs and goblins and such. I wanted this module to add in some less frequently encountered beasties, such as the undead, gnolls and gray ooze.

4. The Caves of Chaos module struck me as less of an effort at a tight scenario design to test the rules and more of a demonstration that this version of the game can handle retro modules. I see no problem with testing the rules with a different scenario design, to see if “anything breaks” as a result of differing circumstances, orders of encounters and such.

So, now for some observations on the experience:

Advantage/Disadvantage: the overall reception to this was positive. People liked it. There was also an observation of intentional “cleansing” of the “mathiness” of the system, which no one especially commented on but the general feeling ultimately was that there was just less going on, mechanically. As DM I had a different experience with the A/D mechanic: I liked it when it happened, but it seemed like the only person regularly getting to use it was the rogue. I felt a few situations called for awarding it, but this mechanic really felt like something that should have had a few more “triggers” or conditionals built in to help the DM adjudicate when it should work. As it was, I was surprised to see that the fighter, for example, almost never triggered it, nor did the spell casters. Part of this might have been players not putting enough extra effort in to warrant A/D awards, but the other part was uncertainty on my part on how often it really should be in play. Ultimately, it felt like a mechanical deviance that would have fit better with a more 4E-styled approach that allowed for a range of control options on the player side to trigger it.

The Halfling Rogue: This character was far and away the best DPSer until we determined that his stealth checks could (and should) be at an action cost. This was an error on my part; we talked about another playtest experience I had read about that said the action cost for stealthing meant the rogue only got to “pop out” of cover every other round to attack. The thing is, the rogue as played by this player was devastatingly effective despite this issue, because he took advantage of cover and his insanely badass sling to just whale on enemies nearby. It was funky. The player did immediately question where all the skills were. I pointed people to the lists in their schemes, themes and backgrounds….but more on that in a bit.

The Dwarven Cleric: The player for this character summed it up best, “this is a character that does a fantastic job at what it is designed to do, which is to serve as a support role for everyone else at the expense of being able to actually DO anything interesting for the player.” I summed it up as: this is a great NPC henchman that someone will be forced to play.

The Human Cleric: If you’ve ever seen the Mitchell & Webb Show, the human cleric was effectively Angel Summoner to the dwarf cleric’s BMX Bandit. Seriously….both were useful in their ways, but the raw firepower of the human cleric was impressive. He was nuking with regularity, and he could still pull off healing stunts (out of combat, or with options). He could be blasting with his radiant laser ability while managing his floating holy weapon. He could, twice per day, effectively call upon the Ark of the Covenant to go all nazi-melting on his enemies. He was the most effective class in the group.

The Dwarven Fighter: The dwarf fighter’s player got there a little late but waded right in. The dwarf fighter was simple but effective. His slayer damage bonus was weird. We couldn’t find anything in the rules that prevented him from using it in ranged combat to deal damage with his Dex modifier. Anyone know if this would be correct? After a while, the “always dealing damage bonus” felt less like a useful trait that added to the class and more like a patch fix for people claiming the fighter wasn’t useful. I’d have much rather seen some sort of A/D affecting mechanic that allowed for an extra action, a cleave (3.5 style), or some other trait. That said, the player who ran it is more used to wizards but he had a good time, even though in the end he died after the orc chieftain downed him and then tossed his body into the pool filled with a gray ooze. He was the only fatality of the night.

The Elven Wizard: The player played him well, took advantage of mage hand often, got off a few burning hands events, and in the end he still spent 90% of his time casting magic missile and wondering why his big shtick at level three was a cat. When they found old casks of wine he got stinking drunk as the game actively encourages all wizards to be boozehounds, since you can cast magic missile without disadvantage from being drunk while gaining the damage resistance. It’s borked (more below on that).

Roles: everyone felt that the “role” of their character was buried in their sheets, sort of hard coded in but in a subtle way. The dwarven cleric noticed this the most. The rogue was a serious DPR (striker in the 4E parlance), the wizard was a toolkitter, the other cleric was a weird amalgamation of striker and sideline healer, and the fighter was a damage dealing meat shield.

Intoxication: What the hell is up with this mechanical effect? Who thought this wasn’t highly abusable? WotC needs to rethink intoxication. Right now it can be abused by anyone for who disadvantage isn’t a severe impairment to basically gain 1D6 damage resistance. It offers to stat penalties to wisdom or intelligence….it might make more sense to drop the resistance and grant a temporary Con boost instead. We all know what it’s like to be drunk in the real world, and this is not modeling the realities of intoxication well. Unless it was written by a sixteen-year-old’s view on intoxication, in which case, carry on, I guess.

The Problem with the Action Economy of DDN: The move plus action mechanic took a little getting used to for my players, as they were either used to the convoluted 3rd edition approach (move, move equivalent, full move, full round, standard action, swift action, free action, etc.) or the 4E players who were comfortable with the Move-Minor-Standard methodology of that edition. Going to a system of one move and one action, with the move being inviolate in its own right was funky. The idea of reactions slowly seeped in as well, as people realized reactions/readying actions had replaced opportunity attacks, basically.

On the one hand it sped up combat. People were doing basically one thing and then moving on. On the other hand people were very often doing the same thing, over and over again. This was observed by just about everyone at the table. The two 4E players were running the clerics and so there was less of an observation about that except for the fact that they both were aware that once they popped turn undead they were pretty much stuck turning undead for the duration; at one point the dwarven cleric stopped turning and charged in because he was getting tired of doing nothing.

In one sense it’s not like older editions didn’t sometimes have a similar phenomenon, I guess. On the other hand, it felt “accented” here because so much of the 5th edition playtest was basically a core of 4E mechanics wrapped in a bacon skin of 3.5 retcons, all promptly jammed onto a 1st/2nd edition plate.

Here’s a theory I have: at-wills are counter-intuitive to old school or traditional methodology. I doubt anyone who is big on the OSR would disagree. The reasoning is pretty straight-forward: when you have a limited pool of resources you will manage it. When you have an unlimited pool of resources, you will use it by default. DDN creates a problem for both the clerics and the wizard in that it offers them a limited pool and an unlimited pool of resources. Players will end up doing one of two things: using up their good stuff in short order (when it seems the need is there) and then spending the rest of the session spamming the same free spells over and over again, or the more thoughtful player will hoard the limited resources, relying on the free stuff instead. Either way creates a problem, because you’re either self limiting your options to avoid squandering the good stuff, or you’re using it up and then spending the rest of the session spamming the same spells over and over.

More than that, the “always effective” effects are even worse. The wizard ALWAYS hits with magic missile. This wasn’t a big deal when magic missile was something you did a few times per day. Now it’s a persistent effect. The joke was that the wizard was slowly depopulating the local rabbit and squirrel population with magic missile, then stuffing them in a pouch for dinner. This is not a problem unique to DDN of course; 4th edition had the exact same issue, although it did a better job of handling it. Without limited resources for such things, you might as well tell the archers in the group they have unlimited arrows, or the fighter that even if he misses, he hits. Oh, wait….

Hit Points: At the start of play I was going into the playtest thinking that the extra hit points of the PCs was a good thing, and I had no opinion on the hit points of monsters or the damage outputs of weapons and attacks. By the end of the session I felt that the inflated hit point totals were excessive for an old school approach, the math seemed borked for a newer approach, combat still felt too long despite the fact that it wasn’t simply because my old-school instincts were expecting people to drop sooner or later and they weren’t. A few close calls, yeah, but we didn’t see a 0 HP reduction until the very end when the dwarf fighter got unlucky fighting the orc chieftain at the end.

Given that I was running a home-made scenario one could argue I was throwing weak encounters at them, but I wasn’t sure about this. After all, if I was picking encounters that I know would pose a threat to 4E characters, or which were almost guaranteed deadly to 1E characters, surely there’d be a happy middle, right? As the elf wizard’s player put it, his 1st level 5E wizard had enough immediate firepower to kill a 5th level 1st edition wizard. Anyway, the encounters of the night, for your own reference, included in order:

1. A kobold merchant and his burro with 6 more kobolds hidden nearby (this ended up a friendly encounter when the players convinced the kobold they had no valuable items, which was true)

2. 5 gnolls looking to raid the party’s camp at night

3. 9 zombies around the entrance to the tomb

4. A hoard of 12 dire rats

5. A slew of ten gold-plated ruby-eyed animated skeletons

6. A gang of 4 cultists, 2 mid-level cultists, an orc chieftain turned into a wight and the wight who did it.

So all in all six main encounters, five with combat. The risk level was relatively low, even right up until the end. The damage output of monsters was too low. The player damage output was noticeably higher, but not consistently. Honestly, it felt like we had regressed to the problem that 4E had on first release with high PC damage outputs/absorption and monsters that just seemed kind of ineffective. Speaking of which…

Monsters: I love the monster stat block sizes and look, and I love the fluffy details. However, the monsters really do need an “effects” facelift. There wasn’t enough going on with them, and in this post Monster Vault universe of D&D monsters really do need a few more interesting mechanical tricks to spice it up. The most exciting moments of combat included one moment where a cultist used command on the rogue to get him to “swim,” and the rogue jumped into the nearby pool containing an as-yet undiscovered gray ooze (he lived), and when the wight landed a blow with enervation, which was what I would call an “interesting but not terribly meaningful effect” in the context of a one night session. The gray ooze was the most interesting creature in my opinion. There was a possibility of a grelatinous cube encounter, but I skipped it in favor of ending the game sooner (the FLGS was about to close), but I was keen to see it in action as well.

Anyway, monsters need more “shticks” to pull off. This is something that 4E has indelibly stamped on the game, and it cannot be undone. It just doesn’t feel right without it.

Skills, Or Absence Of: SO we have these skills that offer conditional modifiers, which are arbitrarily assigned by theme or background. That’s okay, I suppose. I went into the session thinking it was kinda cool, eager to see how it worked. I exited the session completely nonplussed, and desperately hoping this concept gets scrapped in favor of a real, mechanically robust skill system again that allows for some choice and flexibility.

The Attributes as Saves and Skills: I’ve been running a lot of Castles & Crusades lately, so this might be clouding my perception a bit, but for whatever reason I feel that C&C’s SIEGE mechanic which uses attributes as skills and saves does this better right now than DDN, and in trying to figure out why, I thought of the following:

First, C&C is extremely flexible in that you can run it with no skills other than those coded into the classes. Your class, in a sense, becomes your skill, in that if you think whatever you’re trying is something a fighter, wizard or ranger should be good at, then it counts. That said, you can graft skills onto C&C with ease, either using the secondary skills of the CKG, the alternate skills of Castle Zagyg, or your own homebrew. Hell, you can jam the entire 2nd or 3rd edition skill system into C&C with minimal fuss.

C&C rewards players for thinking creatively by not binding them to a list. This is key because, as I see it, you should either have a robust list of skills or none at all. Anything in between is going to feel sort of half-assed. DDN sort of feels half-assed right now. Want to pick pockets? It’s a Dex check, I guess. You don’t have that skill apparently (at least at 1st to 3rd level) but the DM can adjudicate it as an opposed roll. That said, can only the thief try it, or can everyone else as well? Apparently anyone can, since it’s not on the thief’s list and it’s not otherwise explicitly described in the system. The DM would have to arbitrarily rule it’s a class-specific ability.

C&C is not using bounded progression, either, so even without a skill system it creates a sense of “things I can do but am not good at (because I don’t have a prime in that stat and its not something my class normally does), things I can do and am pretty good at due to natural talent (because I have a prime in that stat, regardless of whether the action in question relates to my class), and things I kick ass at (because I have prime and its class relevant).” That’s three levels of variation, and they are further enhanced by level bonuses to skills. DDN, however, is operating on a flat range, and in actual play, thinking about it, I realized that it would, over time, start to feel really, really “flat.” Which gets me to….

Bounded Progression: DDN is using the “bounded progression” concept, or whatever they are calling it. This idea sounded really neat to me on reading it, but in the course of play I realized that if these characters don’t show some measurable progress over time, it’s going to get old quickly. Non-class-based systems have progression, it’s just modulated more heavily by player choice or campaign circumstance. The key advantage of a leveling/class mechanic is many of those choices get hard-coded in for the player, are part of the perk of reaching each plateau of experience. It’s not as realistic, but it is fun and rewarding. I will reserve judgement until I see more, but I can say that if the numeric values over time don’t change much, this game may not have as much “oomph” as prior editions. I could see myself getting tired of the same rolls over and over again after a few months. Still, must see more of the full rules and level advancement before I can say much more about it.

Saves: In C&C saving throws are keyed on attributes and effectively work exactly like skills. You can delineate and mark them out by listing the saves by type and then precalculating your TN (target number) if you like, which helps saves to stand out. In DDN, it’s technically much simpler, just being a D20 plus your relevant modifier, and maybe some bonus or advantage/disadvantage, but most of the time you do not have a lot to worry about, apparently.

I hate to say it, but this felt too damned simple to me. I am stunned that C&C actually feels “more complex” or at least gives me more variables and ranges to save calculations. This is weird.

Also, and again, I hate to say it, but I missed fortitude, reflex and will. They were interesting as defenses or saves because they could advance on their own track. The bounded progression limit would affect them to, and does it right here, with all three being subsumed into the six core attributes.

I should note that I did like the idea that if your attribute score is better than the save or skill check DC then as a rule of thumb success should be automatic.

In actual play, we noticed something: saves didn’t crop up nearly as often as one might expect. This was at least partially due to the fact that on those occasions when saves were being made it was me rolling the dice again. The 4E methodology was interesting in that by making saves defenses, it put the success/failure roll factor in the hands of the player, thus the player got to determine or participate in that process more. Here we’re back to the DM rolling to see if the monsters resist or evade or not. “Let the players make the roll” was a very important element in 4E, I felt; it was a way of empowering the player a bit and making the process more engaging without otherwise affecting gameplay, and also reducing the DM’s workload. That’s not something I want to see go away.

Turn Undead: this ability, treated as a spell, was basically a way of tying up both clerics so they were otherwise doing nothing except keeping it on. I think the old school approach of “activate once, effect continues for a while” was a better deal. All this did was take the clerics out of the fight for multiple rounds until they said “screw it,” turned it off and waded back in. Furthermore, it was weird in actual play, because all it seems to do is repell the undead from the cleric’s sphere of effect….I effectively ruled the undead would hang around the periphery of the cleric’s area and attack his unprotected allies instead. The old 1st/2nd edition approach of cowering undead or fleeing undead who were so affected for X number of rounds was easier to adjudicate, less costly and more effective.

Move Actions: people felt this should have been exchangeable in some way, but precisely how under the system as presented was unclear.

Bull Rush/Charges: The absence of rules for this was noticed and sorely missed. At one point the dwarven cleric tried to rush a cultists and knock him into the pool with the gray ooze. I treated that as a Str contest between the two, which was easy enough, but the actual act of charging an opponent and attacking (for a meaningful effect different from simply moving 30 feet and swinging) was still missed.

Grappling: no rules at all for it, but clearly this could and should work as a contested strength check.

Action Points: call them what you will, but everyone missed these. The Pathfinder guys missed the hero points from APG, the 4E guys missed action points, and the 3.5 guy could have cared less.

The Hit Dice Mechanic: This was the least offensive of all the things I thought would be offensive. In fact, it was the opposite. It’s still a slight boost, with a random element, and got put to good use during the one rest everyone engaged in, but the net effect of hit dice was nothing at all like the surge mechanic of 4E. My 4E players both indicated they preferred healing surges ala 4th, but conceded that the reason it was no longer here in such a fashion was (obviously to them) because of how mucked up surges had become and how much they could be abused in 4E. That said, the fundamental nature of 5th action economy really prevents surges from manifesting here in a meaningful way.

I was also not bothered by the “extended rest heals all” mechanic. The only thing that bothered me was how everything had too many hit points for what they needed. If DDN is really going to operate on bounded progression, it needs to apply that logic to everything, hit points and damage outputs included.

Dying: The death saves were exciting when they kicked in; everyone agreed this was a grittier reinterpretation/inversion of the 4E approach.

Rituals: No one starts with alarm, oddly, so I didn’t get to see the one spell with a ritual option in actual play. I still think the ritual concept as presented in DDN is a very cool idea.

Spells in General: All of the spells felt, to me, like they took the 4E version of such, reskinned it, and got rid of the text block, then wrote it up for a touchy-feely narrative effect.

Adjudicating the Game without a Map and Minis: I still ended up sketching out details. I don’t know if it was just me and my middle-aged brain, the lack of sleep from a long day, or some other factor, but DDN still felt like it had too many positional elements, or at least like it needed them. It could have been the fact that I had a group of players who were all more used to positional relevance. The end result was a headache for me and I lost track of things during the final encounter; the game and players were still expecting me to have a good take on spatial relations. It was nothing like the old days of 2nd edition when I could run elaborate combats without anything more than a rough map. I may go back and play some more 2E to see if this is something specific to my old comfort zone with the game, or a reflection of being too conditioned by the current editions (3rd/4th/ PF) getting in the way of that old school vibe. Given that I haven’t by and large had the same issue in my recent Pathfinder games, I think it has to do with the fact that DDN is using a different action economy, but there’s implied spacing/relations that are being dragged in from 4E that still loom up and cause issues.

Ultimately, I suspect that DDN as written would be easier to adjudicate with a map and minis, moreso than 3rd edition….but of course unlike 4th it doesn’t absolutely need them, it’s just so close to 4th in many ways that you sort of want them there.

Overall Experience: by and large my players had fun. The 4E guy who came in hostile to the game felt it had merit. The group as a whole had fun, but honestly anyone can make a pig look good with enough makeup and clothes so I’m going to toot my own horn for a sec and say that because I ran a homemade module, and because it was run by an experienced DM that the game was going to be reasonably fun. That said, everyone had some observations about the strengths and weaknesses of the game. As DM, however, I can only speak for myself. My final thoughts are as follows:

This is a fantasy heartbreaker. It’s changing mechanics that work better and more effectively in prior editions, and feels to me like change for the sake of change. I think that this version has stripped recent (3rd/4th edition) features out that really should be there if you’re going to keep all the other features that it borrows/modifies from those same editions. I would equate this to being like a Lamborghini car that someone just applied wooden side boards to, attached a horse to the front, and called it a horse-drawn carriage.

How to fix this? My suggestions:

Bring back the Move-Minor-Standard: This is an excellent action economy and it is built from the ground up to keep players engaged on multiple levels. You can and should be able to use this even without the power mechanics of 4E. Hell, you can and should plug this action mechanic into 3rd edition to fix about 50% of all the problems I have with that edition in one shot!

Clean up Hit Points and Damage Expressions: it’s all over the place right now, and it just feels off. Bring back hit dice and levels for monsters too. To do this right, I think scaling hit points and damage expressions down to pre 3E days would be the best fit for DDN. Players have too many hit points, something I thought I’d never say about this, under the rules as presented. If you don’t do this, then utilize all damage expressions on a static (bounded) level scaled for 1st to 3rd level 4E, but regardless, do something about it….the current system is weird and swingy, and we either need to recapture that old school feel or retain that clean and smooth sweet spot from 4E.

Bring Back Proper Saves and Real Skills: I like minimalism, but only when it works well. I did not feel that these worked well at all as presented in DDN. I can already tell I will miss customizable and detailed skills, and the lack of a distinct save mechanic (or defense mechanic) was needless “reduction for its own sake.” Even old school systems still have a distinct, delineated save mechanic. If you don’t bring it back, at least look at how C&C does it and consider something similar. When a lite system like C&C offers better and harder rules of thumb for the CK than your system does for the DM, then you have issues.

Think Carefully about Bounded Progression: On the one hand, I like the principle of such a design. On the other hand, D&D has a legacy tradition of class and level based advancement. For this to work, it still needs to make class and level advancement meaningful, and the game needs to feel different over time. Sure, 4E’s scaled advancement was an illusion of sorts, and it meant that there was a fundamental difference between each tier that meant that for optimal play everyone should be no more than a level apart from one another, but it provided a very satisfactory illusion of advancement. Older editions handled this rather well, too, providing plenty of level-based progression, a sense you were getting more powerful, and managing to pull it off in only 9-12 levels on average. If you want to capture that feel but retain leveling in a meaningful way, I’d try to figure out the power spread of 1st/2nd edition and then stretch it over the 20 or 30 levels of advancement you want in DDN. Alternatively, stop worrying so much about bounded leveling, go back to something more conventional for D&D, but offer a better and easier suite of tools for the DM to level up foes and threats with minimal effort.

1 comment:

  1. I think another way of looking at the DDN playtest results for me is: I can safely say I am even more excited about Runequest 6 and Magic World coming out. Three robust BRP-based fantasy systems, all coterminout and available? Why it only seems like ten years ago that trying to even find a print copy of Stormbringer or RQ3 was an endeavor.