As some of you out there might know, Wizards Of The Coast has been asking its fans to help with the playtesting of their new version of Dungeons and Dragons, tentatively codenamed, D&D Next. Aside from that terrible codename, this is a novel, and ultimately beneficial idea, since every D&D fan will at best have a new version that unites us all back together, and prevents further “edition wars”, and at worst will leave only ourselves to blame for this new edition being weird and broken. So it was with glee I looked forward to printing out the playtest packet, and giving it a go with my gaming group, to see how it works.
Half of us were D&D 3.0 veterans, and myself, although having played 3.0 before, was mostly familiar with 4.0. I often play as a DM (or Dungeon Master), as I find the amount of roles, people, and monsters to play lacking when playing as a Player Character. I enjoy hamming it up, making voices, reading flavor text, and surprising players with interesting twists, monsters and brutal, brutal death descriptions. I am not a power DM, as some are. I see no point in effortlessly dispatching PCs left and right, since I control the flow of the game, and killing them to me grants no rewards and feels hollow. The reward is seeing my players have fun, not watching them die horrible deaths I railroaded them into.
As funny as it is, this is not what I like to see as a DM.
So legally, I cannot discuss specifics, however I can describe the basic things I liked and disliked. Now that you know what kind of DM I am, it’ll help you understand when I say that so far, this version seems far more focused on enhancing story elements, blending flavor text and hard statistical information more fluidly, rather than simply having long, intimidating charts, tables and lists of numbers. The information presented in the monster manual, spellbook, character sheets and nearly everything else all make great efforts to give all flavor text actual meaning in terms of gameplay, and interaction. You can ignore it if you want, but that’d be counterproductive in my opinion, as this is one of the better blends I’ve seen in a rulebook for D&D, and nearly any RPG I’ve seen. After reading through the rules, adjusting to the newer combat systems, reading the new character builds, and quickly skimming through some classic monster archetypes, I gave it a shot, and had my group run through the sample dungeon they provided. The game packet said you could play it one of two ways, in the classic “Theater of the mind” style, and the newer, now standard, gridded mat & miniature style of gaming. Since the feel of the game seems much more old school, I decided it’d be appropriate to try it the old-fashioned way, entirely with pen and paper, dice, and imagination only.
The way it was meant to be.
My players chose their characters, a fighter, a cleric, and a wizard, all classic D&D roles that have been in the game since the very first version. We opened up with the three of them arriving in an Adventurers Guild, where many adventurers were waiting in line to acquire and/or renew their Adventuring License, ( I enjoy throwing weird anachronistic concepts in my games), where they met one of the Quest Masters of the Guild, named Master Debatoor, who took their formal request for an adventure. He pointed them in the direction of the line for License renewal, and they began to wait in line. I know some of you are thinking, how could this possibly be fun, but things like this CAN be fun in D&D and any RPG, it’s all in how you play it. For example, Master Debatoor (yes, that was his name), was an old british sounding man who tended to ramble and was rather dumb, and my players had a fun time playing tricks on him, and exploiting him horribly, which we’ll get to in a moment.
One of my players started a mild uprising of all the Holy Knights waiting in line, who began chanting “KNIGHTS! KNIGHTS! KNIGHTS!”, which led to guards approaching and the whole Guild being distracted, allowing the leader of the party, Skar Ballbreaker, Slayer of Giants, to pay off the attendant Licenser, who stamped out their new Licenses immediately onto metal plates, letting them skip the wait in line. They then took the quest from Master Debatoor, and haggled over the pay amount. In a particularly clever and probably lawful evil move, one of my players forced the Master to give him more pay, by offering a wager, that the poor, dumb Master accepted before hearing the full conditions. After accepting my player declared the wager to be a poison drinking contest, wherein the first one to die, loses. The player, being Skar Ballbreaker, Slayer of Giants, and a dwarf, had quite a resistance to poison, and this revelation of the nature of the contest, sealed the Masters’ fate, and he was forced to forfeit, giving up triple what the original pay of the quest was, being supplemented from his personal income. Not being able to afford this, the Master begged for some sort of debt, or payment plan. The player of Skar, being a car salesman in real life, used a strong charisma check to get the master to agree to a horrible payment plan, that would effectively make him pay 200 gold pieces a month for the rest of his life, with interest. The Master, accepting defeat and almost eternal debt, left the Guild hall weeping openly.
So on my players went, foraging through a forest until they found the dungeon. Upon entering they had three encounters with three different staples of the D&D monster canon, Kobolds, Orcs and Goblins. They managed to fairly easily cut through all of them, avoid most of the traps, and successfully find the magical artifact they were sent to retrieve. Along with some of the treasure and loot that the goblins had gathered, they found a pile of treasure that included a burlap sack of testicles, taken from their many victims. Being Skar Ballbreaker, he claimed this “ballsack” was his, and the other two players “Larry”, and “David” (I know.), scrounged the dead for weapons and more cash. They returned to the Guild, found Master Debatoor, and demanded payment. The poor Master, not having the full amount, begged for some kind of mercy, or a decrease in the wages he was in debt for. My players thought, and promptly decided to force the Master to consume the bag of testicles, bag and all, to reduce the debt by 50%. The Master did this, the entire time, weeping, retching, vomiting, and then being forced to eat that same vomit to “finish the deal.” Afterward, the players took all of The Masters money, as well as the allotted money allowed by the Guild Council given for the quest initially, and left him be.
Horrible story aside, the combat was fast, and moved along briskly, with no players spending a long amount of time mulling over possible decisions, or spending time thinking about what their best possible attack could be, or what power to use to boost other people’s attacks. In short, it was a refreshing breath of air from 4th edition, which works fine at lower levels, but anything higher than 10 and you literally start accumulating powers in the 10’s, all with myriad effects, and all with lots of stats to micromanage. Each player quickly knew what to do, how to do it, and rolled accordingly. Some of the new additions to combat, including the new rules for determining surprise, and damage/attack bonuses were very neat additions that I liked a lot. The main issues were not that the monsters seemed underpowered or weak, but that the melee character, seemed far more overpowered than the ranged, magical characters. Through 3 encounters, back to back, Skar (the fighter), took only 5 damage, and only got hit once. The other two players took a reasonable amount, and used the new healing mechanic after taking a short rest between leaving the dungeon and returning to the Guild. The healing mechanic itself seems fine, and works as well or better than the “healing surges” mechanic 4th had.
All in all, we had fun, the system was quick to learn, and despite some balance issues with character classes, the game seems to be heading into a positive direction. It feels a lot more like classic D&D, and avoids the thick stack of papers and stats your old 3.0 ed characters would turn into, and simultaneously avoids the “WoW board game lite” feel, that 4th ed can be like if not DMed properly. I got a kick out of managing everything in our imaginations entirely, and dug the new, but familiar combat system. D&D Next/5th edition/ whatever, still needs some major tweaks, but this is a great step forward.
Images: Wizards of the Coast