Thursday, May 31, 2012

D&DNext: Playtest PDFs First Impressions

If you had trouble downloading the PDFs from the Wizards site, you're not alone. Let's call that a good thing, because it means lots of people were interested in taking a look.
I have adopted the battle cry of "Cautious Optimism!" for D&DNext (gawd, do I really have to call it that? How about D&DZero or Windows 7?) I want it to succeed. Mike Mearls is an earnest fellow, he really is. I believe he wants to make a great game and I'm going to hear him out.
So, the How to Play chapter. We learn that D&D is all in the mind, y'know, and that miniatures and "gridded surfaces" are just enhancements to the experience. Take that, two previous editions! It's like D&D is breaking up with its old girlfriend with us listening in on the line to prove it's never going back to her. 
Checks, attacks, and saves are presented as the core resolution mechanic, although if you had never played D&D before, you might wonder why they're not called checks, checks, and checks. They all work the same way: roll d20, add the relevant ability modifier plus whatever other bonuses are deemed relevant, and try to reach a DC that is determined by the relevant aspect of whatever you're climbing/hitting/shooting. When the DC is set by an opponent's check, we call that a contest. Did you like the 4e metaphor of saving throws as armor classes? Sucker.
Just when I'm thinking that skills have disappeared, I notice that they're mentioned on the first page as something that can confer a bonus to a check. Why, oh why? You have an elegant mechanic of just using the relative ability modifier and then you throw skills on top. Adventurers don't need skills. If they were good at using rope, they'd be cowboys.
OK, page 2 and no major new mechanics have been thrown at us, it's a good sign, and whaaaa? Advantage/Disadvantage. So in addition to bonuses/penalties to d20 check rolls, you have a parallel system where you roll 1d20 twice and either count the higher or lower of the two rolls depending on whether you have advantage or disadvantage. So instead of a magic item giving you +2 on saves against fire, let's say, it lets you roll your save twice and use the higher roll. This has all the marks of someone not being able to let go of a beloved mechanic they dreamed up, and yes, it's cool, but I'm not sold on why it's needed. I know what a +2 bonus is, but the mathematical advantage of having advantage is not as straightforward and god I hope someone did the math on this.
The next section re-re-re-re-introduces us to ability scores, which have not been changed to Muscle, Mojo, Zip, Chutzpah, Smarts, and Comeliness. The method of generating scores is not described, but I bet 4d6 drop the lowest would work great. We learn that Strength is how strong you are, and so on. I do like the idea that checks/saves are just a matter of picking the most relevant attribute and adding its modifier to the die roll. Nice and clean. 
Next, a workmanlike description of movement and perception. Noticing something is no longer a skill, it's just a Wisdom check. I always wondered what a Notice training class was like. And stealth is a Wis vs. Dex contest. Again, a clean feeling, like the game just got back from the dentist and can't stop rubbing its tongue against its polished teeth. These are the moments when the playtest document puts a stiff breeze in the optimism banner.
The combat chapter seems comfy and familiar, no major changes to the mechanic. I have very little to say about it other than its sleekness could really shorten combats. The only time I had a chance to talk to EGG, he made a remark to the effect that "I wanted a combat system that would make fights as short as possible, which of course is the goal, so you can get on to the interesting things." I'm with him there.
And then you find out that zero hit points doesn't mean you're dead, just mostly dead. This was a feature in 3e, too, and arguing against it is like questioning Nigel Tufnel why his amp has to go to eleven. Well, at least PCs don't get a zillion hit points at first level. What's that? They do?
Continued next time.



  1. Hmm... The only time I had a chance to talk to EGG, he made a remark to the effect that "I wanted a combat system that would make fights as short as possible, which of course is the goal, so you can get on to the interesting things." I'm with him there.

    It's funny because I like my combat systems to have a little meat, because for me combat is one of the "interesting things" to get on to.

    I feel totally different in video games, where I try to end combat ASAP. But tabletop, I love me a good combat. Probably why I moved on to Rolemaster and then GURPS - two systems not noted for skimpy combat rules.

    I like the clean approach of separating out check types depending on what they do. It'll save confusion later about who sets what DC, I expect.

  2. Not dying at 0 was also a feature of 2e and 1e (if you read the rules closely).

  3. My recollection is that In 2e, death came at zero hp, and death at -10 was presented as am optional rule ("Hovering on Death's Door"). Am I misremembering that?

  4. from my group's playtest, i'll say that combat is lean and plays seriously fast. the advantage/disadvantage mechanic works great, and is probably my favorite addition to the rules overall.

    skills are fine, they're just a situational bonus to an ability check. trained in find/remove traps = +3 to wisdom checks to search for traps, same +3 bonus to dexterity checks to disarm them. trained in open locks = +3 to dexterity checks to open locks, but could be +3 to a strength check to open the lock in a giant's castle where you can move the tumblers with your hand but they all weigh 50 lbs.

  5. My impression that I got from reading the rules was that the dis/advantage mechanic was mostly for combat use, to replace tiny constantly changing status bonuses. When you pick up a +1 sword, it's a couple of seconds to factor that permanent change into your recorded damage roll, and never worry about forgetting it. But to me it was (and is) a pain in my 4e games keeping track of all the temporary pluses and minuses (not all of which stack) in a given round of combat. The dis/advantage mechanic seems to replace all of those with a simplified mechanic that works out to something between a +2 to +5 depending on the particular roll, and the only thing to keep track of is whether you have advantage or a disadvantage or neither.

  6. It seems to me that the core design principle in 5E so far is avoiding the bonus and DC inflation of 3E and 4E. The advantage and disadvantage mechanics are mathematically very suited to this, because they do not change the overall range of potential values, they only skew the set one way or the other.

    It's actually a relatively old mechanic, that I first encountered in Philotomy's OD&D musings.

  7. I think the advantage/disadvantage are, so far, the very best and most elegant thing in the new rules. I dearly hope they don't remove it before publication, as it is so simple, makes sense, and cuts out so much fiddly rules bloat and "special case" nonsense from every previous edition that it is amazing no one thought of it sooner. It is a great, across the board, all-purpose system for making things easier or harder, and I quite like it!