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Old is New Again: First Playtest of D&DNext

Cue theme music.

Flash images of squat-bodied, muscle-bound figures dressed in semi-medieval armor, swinging hammers and axes; tall, slender, pointy-eared figures clad in swirling robes and cloaks wielding staves and daggers; child-like figures in dark clothing sneaking around behind the others, occasionally letting fly a stone from a sling; and in the midst of it all, a balding, dumpy human dressed in chainmail crying out, “For the love of Pelor, be healed!” Around these images are those of goblins and ogres and sundry monsters intent on destroying our heroes.

Voice-over: “The Caverns of Chaos. The edge of a vast frontier. These are the adventures of a group of heroes destined to—”

Oh, to hell with it.

The first (and maybe last, but hopefully not) playtest of D&DNext for my group went over about as well as the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation did for a large number of fans of the Original Series. They all looked at the rules and reacted with the same vituperation as if their favorite childhood show had been run through the old Hollywood slice-n-dice and regurgitated as something that, while supposedly in the same setting as the original, isn’t the same.

However, in this case, D&DNext looks all too much like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D).

Not that that’s a bad thing, but the general thinking in the group was “If we wanted to play AD&D, we’d play AD&D.” And in our case, we’re not interested in playing AD&D.

That aside, how does it play?

As this was a Wizards of the Coast generated playtest, we used pre-generated characters. Pick one and go. Things got off to a bad start when everyone was looking at character sheets and saying things like, “Where’s our powers?” “What happened to healing surges?” “How do we heal?” and so on.* Characters are divvied and we begin.

Well, everything pretty much revolves around the character’s attributes. Need to climb a cliff? Make a Strength check.  Need to pick a pocket? Make a Dexterity check opposed by the target’s Wisdom check. There are no skills per se. A character’s Background and/or Theme might provide a bonus to a small handful of skill checks (Persuasion, Stealth, Survival, and such). But those who disliked Third (and Fourth) Edition D&D with its list of skills will be pleased at their removal. Making a check against the attribute works and is fairly straightforward: describe what you want to do and the Game Master (GM) determines what attribute is used and if you even have to roll the dice. In other words, if your Strength 18 fighter wants to climb a trellis, he can do so without your picking up the dice since that’s such an insignificant task. The Strength 8 wizard though might need to make a check with a Difficulty of 11 (or so) because that’s not something he’d be doing every day. **

And checks are made with the now-standard roll a d20 and add/subtract any modifiers and compare the result to a Difficulty Class (DC) assigned by the GM. Granted, this mechanic has been around only since 3rd edition, but a couple of comments were made along the lines of “Why didn’t they go ahead and bring back THAC0?”***

Gone are Fortitude, Reflex, and Will defenses, which will likely make even more “old school” grognards happy. The only “attribute” other than those listed above is Armor Class, which is based on Dexterity modifier (or half that if wearing medium weight armor such as ?) and a bonus provided by armor. This is the target number to equal or exceed with an attack roll.

The classes provided are a dwarf fighter, Halfling rogue, elf wizard, human cleric of Pelinor, and dwarven priest of Moradin. The former cleric is the traditional healer, having access to healing potions and more healing spells, while the latter is garbed in heavy armor and fills more of a holy defender-type role in the party. He has one healing spell but also has the ability to interpose his shield if a nearby ally is attacked thus warding off the blow. In fact, each of the classes has one or two little gimmicks which make [what does it make?]: the Pelinor priest has the healer package which allows him to create potions, antitoxins and such during short rests; the dwarf priest has the shielding ability (which we forgot to use in our test), the fighter has an ability which allows him to deal damage equal to his strength modifier on a miss, and so on. So the classes themselves are interesting the way they are presented.

As for starting hit points, while characters aren’t as fragile as they were in AD&D neither are they as hardy as they were in 4th edition. Each begins with a hit points equal to the average of a given hit die (d4 for wizard, d10 for fighter, back to the 3rd edition and earlier days) and their constitution score, so these scores fell in the 16-20 hp range. And each character has hit dice equal to their level (so one at first level) which are used for healing purposes.

Get hit in combat? Forget healing surges as those are gone as well. Healing comes from potion, cure light wounds spell (which is determined by a die roll), or healer’s kit which allows that hit die to be—you guessed it—rolled to regain lost wounds. Roll a 1? Too bad for you. This is one mechanic we thought could have stayed out as more than half of the group wound up rolling 1s to heal characters during a short rest between fights.

And Vancian magic has returned. Gone are the days of 4e at-will, encounter, and daily spells. True, the at-wills are kept, so the wizard can cast magic missile all day long and the priest has access to detect magic without spending a spell slot (plus a few other minor spells), but anything else is a daily and starting characters have a whopping two spells in their utility belt. Spend them wisely or be forced to wait for twenty-four hours to regian those spells. As it stood, the dwarven cleric wound up spending both uses of his one healing spell after the first battle and was stuck for the remainder of the day without. Isn’t the one combat workday just wonderful?

One neat thing added is the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. If your rogue takes the time to hide from the bad guys, she can then sneak up on them and attack from advantage which means roll two d20 and take the higher result. If a bunch of kobolds overwhelm a party of adventurers, the kobolds have advantage and each one of the them rolls 2d20 to attack, taking the better result. On the flip side, if your fighter is covering his eyes while trying to fight the medusa, he is effectively blind and at disadvantage. Roll 2d20 and take the lower result as his attack. This mechanic was intriguing. Nothing new, however, as the Avenger in 4e D&D rolls 2d20 and takes the better result, but it’s an interesting use beyond that particular class.****

Other things include no longer needing a feat in order to move, attack, then move again. Movement can be broken during your character’s turn. On that note, a character has a move action and can perform one other action during the turn: attack, use a skill such as hide, cast a spell, dodge, move again, and so on. No more attacking out of turn. If you decide to ready an attack and follow through, you have used your action for the turn. The current rules do not make use of opportunity attacks or multi-attacks (though there is indication that higher level characters will be able to perform more actions during a turn).

After a grueling three hours’ playtime (and only hitting three encounters which seems to be typical for my group) we threw in the towel, rather, I did. The others were complaining about the lack of mechanics for setting up flanking and various other “kewl” things that could be done in 3rd and 4th editions and having to fall back on, “I roll; I hit,”***** and various other things about the system as is . . . despite the fact that the very first thing I told them was, “This is not a complete system. This just gives the skeletal basics of the combat and task resolution mechanics for the game.” And that was all I tested. Some folks on the Wizards of the Coast forums have said they’d run complete campaigns, using just the rules in the playtest. A short campaign, perhaps as the characters provided have information up to third level only. Anything beyond that and you’re making things up.******


*My group has been playing 4th edition D&D for quite awhile and we’ve come to like it. However, when we first began years ago, we hated it as much as this current iteration. I recall the GM of that game piling his gear together and walking out on us.

**Not that this approach is all that new. Most games have for years been giving advice on not rolling the dice unless necessary yet this seems to be the first time some people have come across it, and it might be the first time in print for a Dungeons and Dragons project though on that account, I could be wrong.

***To Hit Armor Class 0, which is this rather arcane mathematical formula used in AD&D and 2nd edition which many mathophiles seem to adore. At one time I could tell you the formula and could likely find it with a quick Internet search, but I really don’t want to.

****We had a discussion after the test about the efficacy of the 2d20 mechanic vs. a flat +2/-2 bonus to the die roll as each time we’d rolled, the spread wound up being only a few points (say, rolling a 12 and a 15 on the dice) which is about the same. Bartoneus  over at Critical-hits has an interesting article on the statistics of just that comparison.

*****In all the years I’ve played, seldom have I run across a group that does the “theatre of the mind” business, leaving everything to the description by the GM and players combined. We’ve always been more miniature-on-a-battlemat oriented. However,  Greywulf’s Lair details a few playtests he’s had using the theatre of the mind approach as well as the battlemat approach  both if which are fun reads and show that for some groups, this version of the rules works.

******Or filling-in-the-gaps as Vanir at Critical-Hits pointed out in a recent column.


2 responses »

  1. Glad you wrote this. I had a bunch of questions. Got some of them answered and now I know to just keep walking. This year seems to be what was old is new again with a twist. Next year it will be back to what didn’t work and so on. Be nice if they would just pick a system of their own and stick with it.


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