Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Dungeons & Dragons Next Playtest Evaluation: A Point by Point breakdown

Dungeons & Dragons Next Playtest Evlauation: A Point by Point breakdown

There’s a lot of contention about how much or how little DDN borrows/mimics other editions of D&D, so I thought I’d entertain the idea that it is pillaging its elders’ corpses and demonstrate where this is (or isn’t) happening. I’ll point out the innovative and new bits as well as those which appear to have been culled from the last forty years of D&D:

Advantage/Disadvantage: Right off the bat the concept of advantage and disadvantage is introduced. Basically, when you’ve got advantage (due to a spell, action or other beneficial condition) you roll two D20s and keep the better of the two. The reverse is true for disadvantages. Now, obviously this concept has appeared in specific applications as a power of various sorts in 4th edition, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like it in any edition of D&D, and it only vaguely reminds me of similar mechanics from other RPGs. This is a neat concept, although those with a penchant for being mathy and probability driven say it’s got a weird spread or curve on the bonuses it will (on average) provide. Whatever….its genuinely innovative, and the idea behind it (cleaning up endless waves of meaningless modifiers laden with obtuse stacking rules and conditional issues) is admirable.

Ability Scores: obvious a staple of all editions, DDN uses the modifier mechanic introduced in 3rd edition and continued in 4th. However, abilities now double as all-purpose skill checks and saving throws. The saving throw based on attribute mechanic is new to D&D, but not to its erstwhile little cousin Castles & Crusades, which uses a similar concept with its SIEGE mechanic, albeit in slightly different execution.

Exploration: DDN has a nice overview of the basics of exploration in a dungeon or other dangerous environment. It outlines the basic methodology behind these actions, and discusses time increments. This is stuff that is fairly common to all editions of D&D, but DDN clearly derives from the more unifying mechanical approach of 3rd and 4th while eschewing any complex tables or charts (at least at this stage of the playtest) to provide variables for actions like stealth and spot checks.

Combat: this section is worth breaking down. To begin with, we have the combat sequence, which is fairly invariant through most editions of D&D until you get back to the days of yore when ranged attackers got an action before melee guys and so forth.

Combat Rounds: at 6 second increments this is 3rd edition and later.

Initiative: DDN encourages grouping like types of foes for one initiative. This has always been an option of convenience but is definitely old school.

Turns: Each turn you can take an action, make a move, skip your turn (or part of it), and occasionally engage in a reaction. Reactions are now something you line up…holding your action in 3rd edition parlance. Movement is a single action unto its own, but there are no “move equivalent” actions described, which suggests we’re back to thinking about movement from 1/2E days. However, movement still defaults to 5 foot increments, a decidedly 3/4 E approach. Finally, there are actions…

Actions: Moving to one action per turn is a major shift away from 4E methods, and while its sort of like 3rd, all the weird extra options like move-equivalent actions, swift actions, full-round actions and other delineations are now gone. I have a feeling that over time swift actions (or equivalent) may return, but who knows, we’ll see. Anyway, actions are back in a much more old school fashion now, including drinking a potion as an action, attacking, dodging, hustling (an extra move) and so forth. It’s much, much more old school now. Some things which had been codified in current editions are now back to being common-sense actions, such as readying an item, which is assumed to be something you can do while doing something else. So you can now ready a sword and then attack without having to expend an action. This is a different kind of “economy of action” than you see in 4th edition, which did a fantastic job with the move-minor-standard approach, but did so out of necessity, as an effort to clean up and repair the Gordian knot of time and action in 3rd edition.

Attacking: Here’s where it both looks sooooo familiar and also where DDN goes off the deep end from other editions (for the second time). You make your attack; you add your D20 roll to ability modifier, situational modifiers and a reference to weapon or magic training. That last part is what’s interesting, because unlike in every other edition of D&D, characters don’t get a “bth” or “bab” attack bonus. They have flat combat leveling, and only training can improve odds of hitting. This is seriously different from D&D up to now, and is diametrically opposed to the relative leveling approach of 4th, never mind the fact that it goes against the grain of prior editions in general.

Personally, I love this approach…it opens up a world of new possibilities and it suggests that telling more elaborate, interesting, and not inevitably god-like stories may, in fact, be possible in DDN. It’s going to be interesting to see if this idea can survive the beating it will receive in playtests.

Aside from that mechanic, the fumble and crit dice are just like 4E (and just like most house rules for 1st and 2nd). It looks like “threat” ranges are still gone, banished to Pathfinder. Unlike 4E however, all dice rolled in the attack are maxed out when you hit on a crit, not just the “normal dice.” So that includes sneak attacks, for example.

Resistance and Vulnerability: we’re back to 2E here, where being resistant halves damage and being vulnerable doubles it. I like.

Hit Points and Injury: here we get a medley of new, newish and old. Hit points are calculated at 1st level as Con plus hit die, which is cool….rolling hit dice are back again, yay. However, you have the 4E boost in hit points, something I like but which is decidedly 4Eish and favors a more “let level 1 characters live a little” approach to play that is not very old school friendly. It is, however, something I like, given I was trying to do stuff like this back in the 80’s to help make levels 1-3 more survivable for people anyway.

Death and Dying: Dying is a slight variant on the 4th edition death save mechanic, except negative HPs are back and you take 1D6 damage each time you fail a negative save. If you hit negative HP equal to your CON plus level, you’re dead. Make three stabilization rolls and you’re okay. This is new stuff, although modeled on 4E’s approach, which is easily one of my favorite mechanics for negative HP to date. The additions make it a bit grittier, which I like.

Nonlethal Damage: This is also new, and very elegant. Nonlethal damage and normal damage are now effectively the same; all nonlethal damage does is render a foe unconscious when they hit zero HPs, and does not put them on a death track. Cool. Also, not like any prior edition, where HPs as abstraction (emphasized in DDN) was never as explicit.

Healing: Here’s more weird new mechanics. Healing surges in 4E survive only to be polymorphed back into hit dice, and the total number of hit dice is a pool you can draw from per day to rest and recover. Unlike surges, these things need you in a state of rest with a healer’s kit. I like this concept, but must see it in action (will do so Wednesday).

There is also the long rest, which is more 4Eishness translated into DDN. An uninterrupted long rest requires 1 HP or more, but at the end of the night you have your expended hit dice and HPs back. So in one sense it’s just like 4E, but with the caveat that having 0 HPs means you are out for many hours before you can start recovery, and you can’t count “down and out time” as part of that recovery. Interesting. (I should clarify that I still don't like this, but we'll see how it works in play. Also, if they introduce a module plug in that adds wounds tracking, that might fix it for people who want grittier games. And as of yet haven't seen how diseases and lingering effects work yet).

Conditions: These look almost like they were ripped from 4E, but basically they are concise summaries of various conditions. Someone not familiar with 4E might assume that was all they did here, but in fact the conditions have been cleaned up and clarified a bit. Paralyzed, for example, is now a proper condition from the get-go. I was always annoyed at the idea that ghouls in 4E immobilized….as opposed to paralyzed, and that immobilization in 4E did not preclude attacking.

In any case, advantage/disadvantage weighs heavily on conditions, and since it doesn’t stack it often means multiple conditions won’t have as much of a devastating effect cumulatively as they might have had in older editions. A drunk, blind frightened old man will only have disadvantage collectively once, while accruing all the secondary effects. Either way, this approach does retain the elegance of easily followed conditions first presented in 4E.

Equipment: This section is the most conventional, but I like how armor class is now incorporating the “10+” of prior editions directly into the armor’s AC, rather than just providing an armor bonus. This section includes useful little rules, like time to don/doff armor, but it looks for the most part like all prior editions. There are some twists, however. For example, finesse weapons are now a class of weapon, and anyone wielding such a weapon can use Dex rather than Str with that weapon. No feat required.

Weapon damages seem to have shrunk a bit from when I last checked….great swords doing 1D12 slashing now, instead of 2D6.

Also, platinum has devalued again, back to its pre 4E 1 PP = 10 GP days.

Magic: Here’s where we get into interesting and weird territory. Spells aren’t just spells anymore, things that are spell-like (such as turn undead) from prior editions are now also treated as spells. The spell stat blocks are eviscerated in this document, in favor of a more descriptive breakdown. Spell components are back, big time, and I love their implementation. If the young punks running around screaming about having to dip into the old pouch for bat guano or whatever get their way and have this excised, I will be very disappointed. If you’re an old punk and think spell components are bad, just friggin’ ignore them, let me have my slightly more “earthy and interesting” magic, and you can get on with rolling your fireball dice.

Areas of Effect: it bears mentioning that they have gone out of their way to provide both a good visual, the framework for minis, and a fine way of representing or understanding spell effects purely narratively here. Clouds, cones, cylinders, lines of sight and spheres are all discussed in a manner consistent with good narrative play. Kudos.

Attacks with Spells: these don’t rely on Dex or Str, instead turning to keyed abilities ala 4E. So a wizard needs Int to properly attack with his spells. This is good; if they avoid the 4E fallacy of Int being good for hitting with swords and such, I’ll be happy.

Spell save DCs: 10 plus your relevant special ability modifier (i.e. Int for wizards). That’s it. Note the lack of escalating save values here. I wonder if wizards will have a “magical skill” to improve just as warriors are hinted at having a “weapon skill” improvement. It sort of suggests as much in the combat section, but not specifically here.

Rituals: they’re back from 4E, but not quite; there are now spells which can have layered effects, doubling as rituals. So Alarm, for example, can be cast normally and uses up a spell slot, or as a ritual which takes 10 minutes and requires no spell slot, but does expend ritual components. This is a particularly genius concept, and I absolutely love it. Love love love it. Unfortunately the vast majority of spells provided don’t have ritual versions (yet?) but in my opinion all of them should have the core effect and a ritual option.

At Will Minor Spells: A quick addendum. 4th edition "at will" magic is here, in the form of minor spells, called cantrips or orisons but which include things like magic missile. Will have to see how the playtesters like this. I am not opposed to at will magic, but I continue to wonder why D&D as a system eschews spellpoint mechanics, the obvious solution to proper spell management.

Okay, that was enough on the “How to Play” book. Thursday I’ll talk about the DM’s book.

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