Play testing D&D Next: A Follow-Up
Jason Vey, Play Unplugged, 8/14/12
Good morning, noble adventurers! Jason Vey, here, Play Unplugged’s “old school guru.” I’d like to follow up now that a few months have passed and everyone’s had a chance to soak in my earlier article on D&D Next play testing. Rather than a “playtest report” as my earlier article was, however, I’d like to use this time to discuss a few elements of the rules in particular which have been publicly revealed since my last article, and as such now are fair game for discussion.
It’s no secret by now that the adventure scenario we were given was a D&D Next iteration of what is certainly one of the most classic adventure modules of all time, Keep on the Borderlands, though the version we were given contains only the “Caves of Chaos” section of the module. As a side note, since what we have is quite literally the exact module with only a few changes to flavor text and updated stat blocks, I found myself wondering why they didn’t bother to give us the extra seven pages detailing the Keep itself and the surrounding areas. In our playtest sessions, I brought out the entire old module and we began working our way towards it. Of course, as of yet they haven’t actually gone into the Caves themselves, but this has allowed us to perhaps explore elements of the rules that some other groups haven’t. For example, in my earlier article I discussed how we did a lot of skill checks and social challenges. These are largely unnecessary in the combat-heavy caves, but in the Keep itself there’s a great deal of role playing and intrigue to be had, and my group made a deal of it…
…Which brings us to the mechanics. Two elements of the new system have been bandied about a great deal: these are the Advantage/Disadvantage system, and the return of Vancian magic. I’d like to discuss those two elements in this article.
We’ll begin with Advantage/Disadvantage. To be frank, my group really enjoyed this element of the game. What it does is provide a fast, smooth, elegant, and simple mechanic that replaces the slew of bonuses, penalties, situational modifiers, skill and feat modifiers, etc., that one once had to track in order to determine what your “to hit” bonus was. Now, it’s rather simple: if you have Advantage in a situation, you roll two dice instead of one, keeping the higher result. If you have Disadvantage, you roll two dice and keep the lower. The biggest concern we had about this was that the rules are fuzzy on determining who has which condition and when. For example, when the thief is picking the pockets of a tavern patron who is ravingly drunk, does the thief get Advantage to pull it off, does the patron get Disadvantage to notice, or both? In general, one party having Advantage or Disadvantage is going to play out similarly (that is, if the thief has Advantage, it’ll play out similarly in a statistical sense as if the patron has Disadvantage). However, if the answer is both, this skews probability pretty significantly.
Now one of the cool things about Advantage/Disadvantage is that it translates over into combat as well, with certain abilities, feats, etc., granting a character, monster, or their allies, one condition or the other. At first everyone felt that there should be degrees of Advantage/Disadvantage, allowing the rolling of multiple dice (say having Advantage X 2 allows rolling 3 dice and keeping one) but after fighting a combat with Gnolls wherein the leader was able to grant Advantage to his minions, it quickly became apparent (at least to me) that just having Advantage is pretty brutal in and of itself.
In the end, the Advantage/Disadvantage system is probably my favorite aspect of the new rules. Rather than feeling like a change for the sake of change (as many of the recent alterations to the D&D system have felt to me), Advantage/Disadvantage feels like something that maybe should’ve been there all along. It’s a great new abstraction in a game that historically has been built upon broad abstractions (Hit Points, anyone?)
Now, regarding Vancian magic. The D&D camp is sharply split on its return, with many fans of fourth edition claiming that it represents a step backwards and an effort to “cater to the old grognards.” There’s no doubt that Wizards of the Coast is making an effort to woo back some of their lost audience with this edition, but I don’t see it as being at the expense of fans of the new. Indeed, as I said in my earlier article, we have a number of the fourth edition of D&D fans in our playtest group and they all see quite a bit of 4E in the new rules system. What it seems to me that WotC is doing (and for the most part, the play testers over in the WotC community seem to agree) is cherry-picking all the best bits from the prior editions to build something brand new, yet ultimately very familiar to anyone who has ever played any edition of D&D.
Why did they bring back Vancian magic? They probably realized that in terms of Dungeons & Dragons, there are indeed some cows that are sacred to the majority of their audience. As much as they might love to chuck the six classic ability scores rated from 3-18 in favor of just using -3 to +3 ability scores, and maybe tweaking the abilities themselves, they might just realize that if they did so the game may no longer really be D&D, but a wholly original fantasy heartbreaker that carries the D&D name. This is just a theory, unsupported by anything WotC themselves have said, but based on my observation of the new rules and comments made over at the playtest community. It’s possible—just possible, mind you—that they realized removing Vancian magic in fourth edition was one of the things that had a rather large group of fans decrying the game as something other than D&D.
All that being said, there have always been some valid complaints against the “fire and forget” magic system. The biggest of these is that spell casters at low levels are rather useless. D&D Next has somewhat remedied that issue in two ways: first, they have made cantrips and orisons (zero level spells) castable at will. The second is that they’ve upped the power level of these spells. Magic Missile, for example, is now a cantrip, so wizards can deal 1d4+1 damage all day long without concern. Sure, some of the cantrips are a bit goofy, leading to the derisive term for one of the Cleric characters, the “laser cleric.” But still, this is a neat way to allow spellcasters to establish themselves early. There is some concern about wizards becoming the powerhouses of the game as they get up in level, like they have in some prior editions, but discussions are underway to determine what can be done to allow fighters to keep up with them. I personally am in favor of granting fighters a steadily increasing magic resistance as they go up in level, making them both scary and valuable to wizards. Just a thought.
We’re all still anxiously looking forward to the next round of playtests. Judging by some of the questions they’ve been asking on the forums, I expect it’s possible we might see a bit more about skills, feats, themes, and backgrounds on the next version (themes and backgrounds, by the way, are where skills and feats come from, and that’s about all we know). It’s possible we might even get a first crack at character generation rules, and wouldn’t that be quite the cool thing to dig into?
In any case, I’m still finding the rules fun to use and run, even after a few sessions and a few months gone. I hope WotC keeps on the same track, because there’s a lot of good stuff to be had, here. So, until then, hopefully this article has whet your appetite a bit more—I’ll try to do more as future iterations of the rules are released. Until then, game on!