The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Results from D&DNext
The next iteration of D&D is focusing on a desire to please all players of all editions. Meanwhile, the play test of the core rules, which is currently under way, is focused on bringing back the feel of the game’s earliest editions. I must say the game designers are doing an admirable job at achieving this second goal, but not so much at the first—at least not yet.
You can see it in the forums: the negative comments and naysayers; their cries are already beginning to build.
“It won’t work,” they say, “D&DNext can’t please everyone, and the designers are hanging my favorite edition out to dry!”
Well, that may well prove to be true, but the naysayers shouldn’t actually say this until the final product rolls out the door; they haven’t even given the designers a chance yet. What these naysayers fail to realize is that WOC has not attempted to incorporate the feel of 3rd and 4th edition D&D, at least not very much—yet. That is going to come later.
The system being worked on right now is only the core rules. As such, those rules are meant to cater to people who prefer older, simplified versions of D&D. The flavor of the old-school game is definitely there. Now if WOC can do the same for each of the other editions in later coming modules, wouldn’t everyone be happy? I think so.
I, too, am still wondering how they are going to do this and if it is even possible, but I am at least willing to give them a chance to try, and I encourage others to do the same. So stop griping and instead focus efforts on trying to provide useful feedback to WOC and information to the designers that can be used to obtain their current goals, which is to recreate the feel and simplicity of the earliest editions of D&D and do so in a way that will make it possible to add on later modules that will recreate the feel other players are seeking. If everyone puts their emotions and worries aside, I think we can at least agree that WOC has succeeded for the most part at this goal with several kinks left to work out, but that’s why the game is in test mode, right?
Now, moving on from the editions-war to the actual purpose of this article, which is to focus on my personal reviews of the first play tests and survey and where WOC should go from here. As for the core rules, I have many things I like, some I don’t, and a few ideas—well—that I detest. With that in mind, I would like to categorize my comments into the headings “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
The core rules have definitely succeeded in evoking the feel of the oldest editions of D&D. Like many others, I’ve also fallen in love with the new mechanics for advantage and disadvantage. It almost feels like those rules should have been part of D&D all along. Rolling an extra 20-die when you have advantage or disadvantage is brilliant. You get to keep the best of two rolls in the one case, and in the other you have to take the worst result. The simplicity and speediness of this method and the speed of battles were A+ in my book. I was amazed to find that I could complete two battles, exploration, and include role-playing between PCs, all in one hour. I also liked the simplicity and consistency of how skill checks and saves, contests, abilities, and attacks all worked. By doing this, the game became much easier to learn and run. I also like the open-endedness of how the dungeon master is allowed to interpret tasks, so DMs get to decide the difficulty class (DC) of tasks and what abilities they fall under. Even better, I like not having to reference a skill list. That is refreshing. (Really, why is a skill list even necessary)? All tasks now fall under whatever ability the DM thinks is best and the players then make their rolls, adding applicable bonuses they might have, such as training for certain tasks and racial modifiers, and the only “skills” anyone has to remember are those special training bonuses.
Not having to deal with opportunity attacks and other record-keeping conditions during combat was also refreshing. It made the game quicker and much less complicated.
Oh, and one last thing: I definitely liked being able to play without miniatures and a battle mat. I didn’t miss that at all.
All this adds up to one thing: for those times I want to run a quick, simple, pick-up game of D&D this set of rules will do just fine.
Although it has been the default system for several previous editions of D&D, I still don’t like the proposed critical hits mechanics. D&DNext is finally providing an opportunity to nix this stale mechanic, so I hope designers will do it. I don’t mind a natural 1 resulting in an automatic miss or a natural 20 resulting in an automatic hit, but having a natural 20 result in a critical hit with maximum damage is a terrible idea. Why? Because the chances of obtaining a critical hit, as a percentage of the hits you make, increases as the to-hit number increases. For example, a PC who needs a 19 to hit will get a critical hit 50% of the time on a hit (every time they roll a 20, but not when they roll a 19). By contrast, a PC who needs only a 9 to hit will obtain a critical hit only 8.3% of the time when they hit. Honestly, I prefer an alternative house rule I came up with for 4th edition in which players roll an additional 12-die with their attack die to determine critical hits. I know, I know, this system may not work with D&DNext because it is already looking to use an extra 20-die for its new advantage/disadvantage mechanics and this would mean rolling even another die on an attack, but still it’s worth looking into. And no matter what I think, designers need to come up with something that is simple and less screwy.
My next complaint is that I think the surprise mechanics for D&DNext are not robust enough yet, or they lack clarity. Either way, they are bad. In the rules of the surprise section, for instance, a -20 penalty to initiative is the only drawback listed. That is fine, but I also think it should result in some other effect, like giving a surprised individual disadvantage on attacks for that round and/or granting enemies advantage against him when attacked. I did find an obscure reference in the advantage/disadvantage rules that could possibly make this point a moot one, for it briefly states that attackers in some situations can be granted advantage against surprised victims. But if that is the case, it definitely needs to be listed more clearly in the actual surprise rules under the section labeled “effect of surprise.”
Now for the ugly.
For one, I didn’t care for the healing and hit dice mechanics. They just felt too awkward and way too randomized and swingy for my tastes. Maybe if the designers make healing a default number instead of rolling a die that would help. I also didn’t like the rule for long rests in which PCs automatically heal to full hit points and regain all healing hit dice. It’s a fantasy game, I know, but I still expect some realism when it comes to implementing natural healing: to heal all your hit points and wounds in one day just doesn’t sit well with me. If a PC is healed by magic, fine, but when healed by resting a player character with a serious injury should suffer some sort of long-lasting residual damage for at least a week.
Secondly, I didn’t like how the play-test material dealt with dying and death. The system for dying seems overly complicated and utilizes unnecessary die rolls. In this case I think the game should just adopt, more or less, the existing rules from fourth edition. The excitement and simplicity of those rules are great. By that, I mean having PCs who are at a negative hit point total roll death saves each turn until they either die by failing three saves or they become successfully stabilized by a healing check or magical healing.
As for the dying mechanics currently being used in the play-test rules, I particularly don’t like having to roll for damage once a character is already dying: I think that is unnecessary and death saves are enough. I also don’t like the rules for automatically becoming stabilized if you make three saves (in essence the play-test rules are attempting to turn what used to be death saves into life saves). I think these “life saves” make it too easy for a PC to become stabilized without medical assistance. It should at least require a healing check or a healing power by another PC to stabilize a dying PC. As for the rule in which a character dies if he exceeds his constitution score as a negative value, I think that is okay, but I don’t see a need to add a character’s level to that total. It just makes the game unnecessarily complicated and increases the difficulty in killing off a high-level character.
The above complaints were the only mechanics in the play-test survey that I disliked. However, there were also other parts of the rules I disliked that are apparently not under the microscope right now, at least according to the survey. I would like to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.
The idea of providing a benefit to intoxication as listed under the section for conditions is a good one, but I think rolling a six-die every time that person is hit to see how much less damage they take is an unnecessary complication that will only serve to slow the game down. A better solution is to simply apply three points of damage reduction or to just cut damage in half or something.
As for armor class, I think the values of various types of armor are currently a little out of whack. For instance, a chainmail shirt provides an AC of 14 + Dex rating, but if that is so why would anyone want to wear a full set of chainmail armor when a full suit only has an AC of 15 with no Dex bonus and takes five minutes to put on as opposed to one minute? Even worse, why would anyone want to wear ringmail, which has AC13 + half your Dex modifier and takes five minutes to put on, when studded leather is cheaper and can be donned in one minute and provides an AC of 13 + Dex modifier? It seems to me that heavier armors should provide more AC than lighter ones, even if a PC wearing those lighter armors has a high Dex bonus.
Words about the Play Test
That said, I did want to say something else about my first play session. It didn’t start off well, primarily because I didn’t prepare for it much and I decided to wing it using one of the provided story hooks (Under Evil’s Thumb). As a result my game started off forced, like I was giving the PCs an excuse to go to the Caves of Chaos. Anyway, once they got there and started exploring the kobold’s lair it definitely got better. The PCs easily and quickly fought off a kobold ambush at the cave mouth, taking only a few hits from the initial surprise attack. They then entered the cave mouth and lit up a torch. Stepping forward, they saw another group of kobold’s cowering around the corner in an alcove waiting for them in another obvious attempt to ambush them again. This time, only a few PCs were surprised. Those PCs that weren’t charged toward them only to be stopped by a pit trap the kobolds had set in the passage. One fell in and the other made his save, precariously noticing the pit at the last second, teetering at the edge.
The PCs then had a flurry of daggers thrown at them from over the pit as one of the PCs held up the lid of the pit trap to let their comrade climb out. The wizard and rogue took down two kobolds with distance attacks. That was when they first noticed a squeaking, swarming horde of rats spilling out of the left-hand tunnel, obviously attracted to the sounds of battle and the trap being activated. Two of the PCs then jumped across the pit and engaged the kobolds in melee. Between their attacks and the wizards magic missiles and the rogue’s attacks they quickly dispatched the remaining kobolds in one round. The rats were then halfway down the tunnel and likely to reach them the next round. Luckily, the PCs had won initiative.
That’s when my 10-year-old son came up with a brilliant plan of picking up a kobold body and throwing it to the rats! Rewarding his creativity, I told him the ravenous rats stopped to consume the body, but would likely eat through it in five minutes. He then came up with the idea of placing the rest of the kobold bodies into the pit trap and waiting for the rats to go down into it to consume them while the lid of the trap was held open with a piece of planking they found in the kobold’s alcove (the kobolds had stored a bunch of planks there to use to safely cross the pit whenever they needed to). When the rats swarmed into the pit, the PCs dropped the trap’s lid and placed all the planks on top to help keep it shut.
That was the end of session one.
In retrospect, I kind of wish WOC would have picked a module that was a bit more fleshed out and solidified for the first play test because I was in such a hurry to try out the game. That, or I wish I would have taken the time to create a more creative entry point to the adventure. Other than that, though, I was pleased with many of the game mechanics of the play test. We did have a few uncertainties come up. One time I had an instance when it seemed like two abilities (strength and dexterity) should apply to the DC of the task a player character was attempting, so I had the player blend both ability modifiers together and divide it by two (rounded down) to come up with an in between modifier for the attempt. That worked fine. Lastly, I was unclear how to apply advantage for the kobolds whenever they outnumbered the PCs as outlined in the monster stats. I couldn’t tell if the rule was supposed to be as simple and basic as always giving them advantage when they outnumber the PCs in melee and at a distance, seen and unseen. To give them advantage in all these situations seemed a little weird to me. Was I only supposed to give it to them if they swarmed the PCs in melee? What if the PCs have as many people as the kobolds, but three kobolds manage to swarm a single PC? In the end, I made judgment calls for each situation as it arose.
What about you? How did your play session go, and what did you think about the adventure and its survey, and what rules would you change?