D&D Next: You had me at “Pelor”

After braving the rings of fire, the digital quicksand, and the firewall of eternity, I managed to download a copy of the D&D Next playtest. Unpacking the zip file and looking over the files, I had to smile. There was the cleric of Pelor. And a cleric of Moradin. A high elf wizard. A dungeon called “Caves of Chaos”.

A strong wave of nostalgia hit me, bringing with it memories of cracking open an ancient Red Boxed set and finding a module called “B2 Keep of the Borderlands” inside. A thousand memories of my Greyhawk campaign came rushing forward, carrying names like Kalib, Scrappy, Merwyn, Tanevier, Obsidian Bay and the Cult of Death Undying.

And all that was without opening the PDFs.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing though. It makes it hard to be objective, and it can alienate those who don’t share that sense of history. As I began reading the PDFs on my iPad, I found myself almost willing the rules into shape — I want something fast, I want something light, but most importantly, I want something that fits my memories of D&D, tempered by 25 years of experience.

As of this morning I’ve read through the “How to Play” and “DM’s Advice” PDFs, the five sample characters, peeked at the monsters, and cracked open the included module, Caves of Chaos. I went into the playtest knowing that there would be only barebones rules, and that much of the meat would come later.

I also went in wanting a version of D&D that was leaner and faster. Pathfinder made notable strides in speeding up the 3.x d20 rules by getting rid of the convoluted grapple/trip/disarm rules in favor of Combat Maneuvers and replacing the equally awkward turning rules with a straightforward positive energy burst, but at the end of the day Pathfinder is still fundamentally D&D 3.x, with all its warts and complexity.

I wanted something that tore D&D down to its DNA, and then rebuilt it, not something that simply cloned the game from earlier iterations. I wanted a game that tackled the game’s rules minutia head on, rather than simply accepting it as the price of playing an RPG in 2012.

I can’t say the playtest rules are perfect, but I liked what I saw.

This is a game that’s learned from the excesses 3.x and 4.x’s excesses, and absorbed the less-is-more mantra of games like Dragon Age and Savage Worlds.

“You have me at a disadvantage, sir”

The advantage/disadvantage mechanic is a good example. The idea in a nutshell is that if you have the advantage in a task or fight (e.g. flanking someone), then you roll two dice and keep the better result, but if you’re at a disadvantage (a cleric just blinded you) then you do the same, but keep the worse result.

We saw a lot of this sort of mechanic (roll twice, keep the second result, roll twice, keep the better result) in our Star Wars:Saga Edition campaign, but it still struck me as a little odd when I read it in D&D. Why did we need this, when the old -2/+2 worked so well? But as I read through the rules, I realized just how much how much conditional math it gets rid of. Flanking? Advantage. Blinded? Disadvantaged. Invisible? Advantaged. It eliminates a whole class of “+2 for this, +2 for that” calculations and replaces it with a single mechanic that’s as easy as looking at the results of two dice plus your standard bonuses.

This could be a big deal — I can’t tell you how many times play has slowed to a crawl in D&D 3.x and 4.x as everyone went round the table adding up their myriad bonuses and penalties. I’m sure bonuses will still factor into the game — it’s D&D, so you’re not going to kill the math entirely — but streamlining these kinds of rules could have big speed benefits down the line.

Vancian magic … with benefits

I love playing wizards. From Basic D&D through 3rd Edition, it’s been my go-to class; the first one I look up in a book, the one I have to talk myself out of playing. At least until D&D 4th Edition came along.

I’m not going to rehash the battles fought over the 4E wizard, but suffice to say that it didn’t fit my vision of a versatile spellcaster, his spell book in a satchel at his hip, ink staining his fingertips, and the soft chink-chink of potion vials accompanying his footsteps. I understand the design principle of the 4E wizard, and the reasons for creating its power structure in lock step with other classes, and the logic behind getting rid of Vancian spell memorization. I know other people liked the class, even loved it … but it wasn’t for me.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the wizard I looked at first when opening the D&D PDFs, and reading over it I immediately though “this I can work with”.

I like Vancian magic. I like the idea that studious mage can cherry-pick the spells that best fit the adventure, taking offensive, crowd-pleasing fireball spells when fighting a band of orcs, or grabbing invisibility or phantasmal force when subtly is needed. Running out of spells never bothered me — the resource management part of wizardry always appealed to me — but I will say there was something incongruous about wizards having to resort to using crossbows and daggers when they cast their last magic missile.

And not everyone feels as I do — there are plenty who find the Vancian spell inventory to be unrealistic (“wait, the magic burned itself from my mind?”) and the lack of at-will spell abilities to be a psychic disconnect (“why am I using a crossbow when I’m the master of magic?”. This has been an issue as recently as our Pathfinder Second Darkness campaign, in which our party wizard had to resort to little more than harsh language after a few turns of combat.

D&D Next gives us a good compromise wizard. Vancian magic is back, allowing mages to once again carefully pick their day’s spells, but at the same time, low-level at-will powers remain in the form of beefed-up cantrips. The ubiquitous magic missile is now an at-will ability meaning that wizards will never again have to charge into the middle of battle with their daggers at their side (unless they really, really want to).

I think this will help with the “5 minute work day”, in which the wizard casts all his spell, and then the party is forced to retreat and rest. A big driver for this is always a spellcaster feeling useless after expending his or her crowd pleasers; as with 4E, the at-wills keep everyone in the game. That said, as long as you have things like daily powers (and spells are daily powers by another name) then you’re going to have an incentive to run and rest. I’ve seen it in 3E, 4E and Pathfinder, and I don’t think it’s going away. But if at-wills keep everyone in the fight for another encounter or two, then I think they’re worth keeping.

The thing I can’t speak to yet is how wizards will scale at high levels, or (perhaps more importantly) how other classes will scale relative to the wizard at high levels. Uber-powerful wizards overshadowing the rest of the party haven’t been a problem in our campaign, but I know it’s an issue for others. My hope is that the game is able to retain wizardly flexibility while keeping them roughly on par with their cohorts.

Skillful Encounters

It’s funny — for years, D&D didn’t have skills; non-weapon proficiencies were as good as it got. After 3rd Edition though, they’ve become an essential part of the game for my group, and not something people want to give up.

Skills in D&D Next have caused the most consternation among the long-time players in my group — there is a sizable contingent that loves the flexibility of ranks and skill points, and doesn’t want to give up things like Craft or Profession skills (and yes, we do use those).

Unfortunately the playtest materials don’t really do much to illuminate the role of skills in D&D Next.

The basic concept is straightforward enough: instead of D&D 3.x/4.x’s system of specific skills (Perception, Disable Device, Swimming) with skill ranks or set bonuses, all skill checks are actually ability checks.

Need to swim? Make a Strength check. Trying to evade a grapple? Strength or Dexterity. Trying to find a trap? Wisdom. Skills were always indirectly tied to attributes anyway — a perception check was just a Wisdom check with a skill bonus that represented particular training. The new system just cuts out the middleman.

Getting rid of the skill rank system has one huge benefit: it flattens the difficulty classes for skill checks. A DC 30 skill check used to be something that an optimized character in my group could hit by 5th or 6th level fairly easy, thanks to the Skill Focus feat, magical enhancements, and attribute bonuses. In D&D Next, a DC 30 check is legendary and (in theory) much harder to reach. Ditching the ranks and keeping bonus-granting magic items in check means it could even stay that way.

The end result is that while you will get better at skills, the different between a 2nd level rogue and a 15th level rogue won’t be nearly as large.

In theory. In practice … well, the thing I’m struggling with is what constitutes a “skill” in D&D Next. If you look at the character sheets, you can see that the characters do have skills — specific things like Diplomacy or Wilderness Lore that provide a bonus to Attribute checks in those area.

The playtest rules talk about diplomacy, lore, jumping, and a host of other things that used to be skills, but it doesn’t go into specifics of exactly when you use Wilderness Lore. I know the new edition is designed to be open ended, and I’m not looking for a comprehensive lists of does and don’ts for Wilderness Lore … but I would like some guidance. I’d also like to see how these skills can be acquired. We know that skills can come from backgrounds, which is a cool touch, but it’s also said that they can be bought independently. How does that work? What skills can I choose from? The playtest rules don’t answer those questions.

From what we’ve seen so far though, I’m cautiously optimistic. It seems like this is the first version of D&D in a long time (if at all) that would let you create a Conan-style barbarian: someone who’s primarily a melee fighter, but can hold his own sneaking into a temple to steal the Serpent God’s jewels. Previous editions would have forced me to take fighter-specific skills, and necessitated taking a level in rogue to acquire the sneaky capabilities I want.

With D&D Next, it could be as simple as a “fighter” class character with a Thievery background.

At the Caves of Chaos

The playtest drops us at the mouth of the dungeon that started it all: The Caves of Chaos. Oh, there were other modules, and other dungeons, but it was B2: Keep on the Borderlands that launched a hundred thousand pre-teen boys and girls on a quest to save the kingdom and slay the monsters lurking in the Caves of Chaos.

Here nostalgia returns in full force once again, and again, can get us into trouble. B2 is iconic, it brings back great memories … but it’s not the world’s greatest dungeon. It’s stocked with a half-dozen different humanoid tribes that have no good reason to be next to one another, and no plot to excuse it. The playtest offers several avenues to work around this, but the module remains the low-point in D&D story telling.

And yet … we don’t need it to be much more than a traditional hack-and-slash dungeon crawl. The playtest is about trying out the base mechanics, and it doesn’t get much more basic than taking on a tribe of man-eating gnolls.

My group has been debating what we want to run for our Gygax Day celebration this year. Looking at the blue-tinted map of the Caves of Chaos at the back of the D&D Next playtest packet, I think we may have found our answer.