D&D Next Playtest – Session 1

With the second D&D Next playtest session just a week away, it’s time to have a look at the first. If you recall from the last post on character generation, this is the motley crew of adventurers I have on my hands:

  • James: “Renko Silverbeard” – hill dwarf sorcerer, bounty hunter background, survivor speciality
  • Malcolm: “Adric Hummerstone” – hill dwarf rogue, charlatan and thug backgrounds, jack-of-all trades speciality
  • Marc: “Lord Wilhelm Cryton” – human warlock, noble background, necromancer speciality
  • Neil: “Erannis” – high elf fighter (slayer), bounty hunter background, survivor speciality

Without further ado, here is the synopsis of the session from 29 August 2012:

The barony of Penhaligon is on the verge of much strife. Since his rescue from the Caves of Chaos five years ago, the Honorable Percival Penhaligon has made no secret of his desire to be baron and wrest control of the land from his elder sister, Arteris. Recently he has gained some political support, and there are also rumours of Percival courting darker allies. There are those who link a growth in the cult of Tharizdum with Percival’s aggrandisement. Civil war seems all but inevitable.

The party are summoned to a clandestine meeting at the Red Raven tavern in the river district of Penhaligon. Upon arriving they discover the mark of Tharizdum has been scratched into the door of the tavern, although Erannis points out that an effort has been made to sand it away. They enter to discover the tavern deserted save for an out-of-work bard, her dwarven minder and the innkeeper Tom. Between them the bard and the innkeeper tell tales of the foul events that have become commonplace in the town over the last few weeks. A flower-girl was recovered from the river only yesterday with the mark of Tharizdum scrawled on her back, and Tom is very suspicious that all cats and dogs have disappeared from the town.

Upon hearing a noise downstairs, Adric fears betrayal and punches Tom in the face. Renko is quick to calm things down (using a charm person spell) and the party are soon in the cellar meeting with their mysterious patron: Baroness Arteris Penhaligon. She tells the party that years ago her father, Pevarry, defeated a dragon that was terrorising the northlands. Rather than kill the dragon, Pevarry extracted a promise from it. In return for its life, the dragon promised to help Penhaligon in its time of need. The baroness wants the party to take a token and find this dragon (named Red Shemeska) and convince it to make good on its oath. The only problem is that her brother has also sent agents to court the dragon. It’s essential the party get there first and deny Percival this terrible prize.

Despite being a rainy Autumn night, the PCs leave immediately. They ride all night and come to rest at a waystation around dawn. Here they meet other travellers just starting their day’s journey. They are fleeing Penhaligon before war breaks out.

The party settles down to rest, and all is uneventful until the Renko’s watch around midday. He sees a figure climbing over the back wall of the waystation, undoubtedly with larceny in mind. He shoots him with a ray of frost. The would-be thief is flash-frozen and totters back down the far side of the wall. Renko hears him shatter. The noise awakes Erannis. Renko tells him to stay in camp while he goes and checks out the body. However, Renko is ambushed by a club-wielding maniac and rendered unconscious. Erannis awakens Adric and Cryton and runs to help his friend.

Before Erannis can engage the club wielder he is attacked by two trained dire rats. Fortunately, his martial training keeps the monters at bay. Cryton become ethereal and steps through the wall of the waystation, quickly ripping the souls from the bodies of those who fall to Erannis’s longsword. Adric creeps up behind the leader with the club, but is seen and therefore does not land a telling blow. Reinforcements arrive from the woods and the battle looks all but lost when Adric falls.

Fortunately, Cryton’s spectral appearance unnerves the assailants and they do not attack him directly. This enables him to bring down the leader with his eldritch blast. With two of their number, their leader and both rats dead the remaining brigands flee into the woods. Erannis then unfastens his healing kit and does what he can to revive the two dwarves.

General Thoughts

As the first session of an extended adventure, we devoted a fair amount of time to character generation and exposition. The result of this is that we only had time for one combat encounter. That would be absolutely fine in a regular campaign, but it’s a shame that we got to so little of the business-end of the system in this playtest session. The next session should have a lot more sword-swinging and spell-tossing. Promise.

I’ll write more in a separate post about encounter building and design. Suffice to say that for the purposes of this adventure, I’ve planned out all the encounters in advance and balanced them against the number of PCs in the party, and the level I think they’ll be when they reach that point in the story. This worked against me in the first session, as I had four PCs and not five as I’d originally thought. The encounter was therefore a little harder than it probably should have been – and not helped by the tactics the PCs employed.

However, what I will say is that this felt like D&D. This really felt like D&D. It took me back to running the second edition game. I’m not sure I can put my finger on quite what is, but D&D Next seems to have that indefinable something that 4e lacked. At least for me!

Skills and Checks

I’m going to keep mentioning this. The skills system that exists in the game is inadequate. PCs don’t have enough skills, and there isn’t sufficient differentiation between low-skilled characters and highly skilled characters. Also for my money, the ability score plays too large a role when making checks. This is the one thing in D&D Next I really hate.

Now it’s not all bad news. The skill list has been extended. There are 25 listed skills in the playtest packet compared to only 17 in fourth edition. It’s a step in the right direction, but the skills still need more breadth. After all there currently aren’t any skills in Acrobatics, Athletics, Climb, Ride or Swim. I’d like to see those added to the list.

I am very pleased to see all the Lore skills listed there. During the course of the first session we used Societal Lore and Heraldic Lore. A nice strong skill list is required. The game suffers from not having one, yet.

Also: what’s wrong with “Perception” as the name of a skill? Calling it “Spot” is terribly misleading. In real life (and in most roleplaying games) you do not expect to spot something with your ears. If you’re having one skill to encompass all senses – which is probably a good idea – then a more general term such as Perception is far better. Certainly, I was calling the skill Perception all the way through the playtest, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone there.

The last thing I’ll say regarding checks is about the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. It’s one of those things you think should work well in principle, but doesn’t seem to live up to its promise in practice. The way that it seems to working at present is that Advantage is pretty much a guaranteed success. The very term “Advantage” tells me that it should give players an edge – it should be comparable to the floating +2 bonus that GMs could award in 3rd edition and 4th edition. However, guaranteeing success goes far beyond an ‘edge’. Does more work need to be done on this?

Healing

There are two rest durations in D&D Next. The short rest lasts 10 minutes, and the long rest lasts for 8 hours. You can’t do anything strenuous during these periods to take advantage of the benefits conferred by resting. As far as healing concerned, the base rules state this:

Certain abilities and items, such as a healer’s kit, allow you to spend one or more of your Hit Dice during a short rest, up to your maximum number of Hit Dice. For each Hit Die you spend in this way, roll the die and add to it your Constitution modifier. You regain hit points equal to the total. You can decide to spend additional Hit Dice after each roll. Once you have spent all your Hit Dice, you must take a long rest to regain them. You must have at least 1 hit point to take a long rest. At the end of the rest, you regain all your hit points and Hit Dice. You cannot take more than one long rest in a 24- hour period.

For us as a group that smacked a little too much like fourth edition. The characters were a little too superhuman for our liking. The rules recognise that this form of healing may not be everyone’s cup of tea and gives the GM three options that further limits or rations the supply of healing. As a group we felt that regaining all hit points with a long rest was our largest bone of contention, so we opted for the “Slower Hit Point Recovery” option. That’s defined in the rules thusly:

At the end of a long rest, you regain no hit points, but you do regain all your Hit Dice and can spend any number of them without using a healer’s kit.

In hindsight, we didn’t quite use this variant. We ruled that you still needed to use a healer’s kit in order to use your hit dice. This was a genuine mistake on my part when I read the variant rule, but it’s a mistake I’m glad I made. I really like the concept of the healer’s kit. It actually gives a justifiable in-game reason for the excessive healing. A character pops open his healer’s kit and takes out a few alchemical poultices, and some foul-smelling medicinal concoction…. It also makes sense that a character can only benefit from such healing so much in the space of one day.

On the whole, I’m very happy with that. I think I could run a campaign with those rules for healing.

Of course, on top of all the healer’s kit/hit dice healing is magical healing. Or it would be if this party had any access to it. There is no cleric in the party, and none of the PCs bothered to obtain any healing potions before commencing the adventure. An oversight perhaps, but a welcome one as it enables us to see how the game functions with no healing magic at all.

In the one combat (which I’ll get to in a moment) two PCs were taken down by the bad guys. Renko before he could do anything at all. With only healer’s kits to hand, Renko had no choice but to stay out of the fight. If there was a cleric in the party, or if one of the other PCs could have got to him and administered a healing potion, then Renko could have been on his feet again.

As a GM, I think I’m happy with that level of healing but we’ll have to see how it goes. At the end of the session, after the PCs were victorious, both Renko and Adric were revived and they spent all their hit dice to restore their hit points. They are both close to maximum hit points now… but it’s only just the beginning of the adventuring day. More encounters are to come and neither can benefit from any more non-magical healing until after their next long rest.

This will make the rest of the day very interesting for the two dwarves.

The Encounter

It’s probably fair to say that this wasn’t the party’s finest hour. Assaulting the enemy one at a time is a tactic usually reserved for henchmen in a Bond movie, not a savvy group of adventurers. If we allow metagaming to enter our minds, I sure that Renko would have thought that his 20 hit points would have made him fairly resilient to any level-appropriate threat. At least for a round or two. Seems like a fair assumption. I was pretty surprised when the villain who burst out of the bushes downed him in one blow.

The problem was that this villain (whose name was Sarn) was not a monster from Bestiary. He was a second level human rogue, built with exactly the same rules as the PCs. A second level villain is within the bounds of acceptability for a 1st level party, and in fact this was only an Average encounter for a party of five – which made it somewhere between Average and Hard for a party of four.

The ease in which Sarn took Renko down started alarm bells ringing for me. Not because Sarn could kill off the entire party (although he probably could), but because it highlighted a discrepancy in the rules: PCs and Monsters are not equal. It’s not as blatant as in fourth edition: on paper they look equal. The Bestiary-built opponents (the dire rates and the human commoners who were acting as brigands for this encounter) have an armour class and a hit point total that is comparable to the PCs. The difference comes in how often the PCs hit, and how much damage they do.

PCs tend to have higher ability scores than Monsters of the same level. They also deal more damage. Looking at the opponents the party faced: the commoners had +0 to hit, and did 1d4 damage; the dire rats had +2 to hit and did 1d6+2 damage; Sarn had +6 to hit and did 1d8+4 damage (with an extra 3d6 if he had advantage). 1d8 + 3d6 + 4 is a lot of damage, and far too much for a 1st level character of any class to absorb. When you take into account that attack is delivered with Advantage, then such an attack is unlikely to ever miss.

And it’s not just sneak attack that seems overpowered in this way. The warlock’s eldritch blast inflicts 3d6 damage flat at 1st level. An average of 11 points of damage. Also enough to bring down most 1st level player characters. Now, I guess this might be a low-level problem. 1st level PCs are always a bit binary in D&D. It might be something that evens out by level 3 or 4. If it doesn’t…

A lack of verisimilitude would kill D&D Next for me. For me to able to invent a campaign setting, and write adventures using this rules-set I need to have a consistant world. I need my PCs and my NPCs (and my Monsters) to use the same rules and the same conventions. NPCs don’t need to be as complex as PCs - their abilities, feats and skills could be thinned out for sake of brevity – but they need to work the same way. This is the tremendous strength of third edition and Pathfinder. If D&D Next doesn’t have it, then I can’t see myself using it as a system of choice.

So, Renko is taken down by Sarn. Poor Renko. Let’s move on.

The elven fighter Erannis then runs around the side of the waystation and is attacked by two dire rats. I feared that Erannis would have been completely torn apart (and so did Neil, I think)… but this is where the fighter’s Combat Superiority came into play. And it worked wonderfully.

Never before in D&D have fighters really seemed like the masters of melee to me. They were all about damage. You couldn’t have a complex duel between two master swordsmen because the D&D rules didn’t work that way. Whoever won initiative would probably win the battle, it was all about number of attacks and how much damage you can do. Combat Superiority changes that. As Erannis desperately spent his expertise die to reduce the damage inflicted by the dire rats, I could really imagine him parrying the little bleeders. This simple mechanic gives the fighter so much versatility… and it reflects the core theme of the character class.

As Erannis was dealing with the rats, Adric tried to get the drop on Sarn and give him a taste of his own medicine.  Now as it happened I rolled very high for Sarn’s Perception check (sorry, ‘Spot’ check) and so Adric’s successful hit wasn’t a sneak attack. If it had been Sarn would probably have been killed. As it was he was still on his feet and his return attack was enough to take Adric down. Now as a large bunch of thugs and Sarn headed over to attack Erannis, things were looking pretty bleak. And as a GM, I was worried that I was on the verge of killing the entire party.

Enter the warlock. Now, Cryton is the least physically adept of the party. I think he has about 6 hit points max. A butterfly’s sneeze is probably strong enough to fracture his tibia. However, he has some incredibly potent magical powers that let him punch far above his weight.

The warlock invocation Ethereal Stride allowed Cryton to walk through the solid wall and appear on the other side as an indistinct ghostly figure. As he’s also a necromancer, Cryton has the Aura of Souls ability that lets him snatch the soul of a recently dead creature and turn it into a spirit that floats next to him. He can then destroy that spirit to give him advantage on an attack roll with a necromancy spell.

Now, I have to confess to being a little kind here. Because of Cryton’s spectral appearance and the fact that he had apparently ripped the soul from a dead body, I ruled that the remaining brigands would prefer to gang up on Erannis than attack him. If I hadn’t ruled in that way, both Erannis and Cryton would surely have died. I also allowed Cryton to use his Aura of Souls power to fuel eldritch blast. That shouldn’t have worked as eldritch blast is not a necromancy spell.

I’ll have to decide how I rule on that in the future. It certainly seems (from the way it is written) that Aura of Souls only provides a benefit to wizards, clerics and sorcerers who can cast necromancy spells, and not to warlocks. The third level ability of the necromancer Speciality, Animate Servant definitely does work for warlocks so being a necromancer isn’t entirely useless.

In any case it was a bit of touch and go. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Sarn missed Erannis when he engaged him in combat (a highly unlikely turn of events) then the elf would have been killed in that round. As it was he was still standing when Cryton killed Sarn, and it seemed appropriate to have the remainder of the rabble flee. The PCs really only won the day through the skin of their teeth.

So what lessons am I to learn from this combat?

As the rules stand, I should be wary about using foes generated with the PC rules. I have to say that Sarn is not the last such adversary I have planned in this adventure, so it will be interesting in seeing how future encounters pan out.

Secondly, I should read the ‘death and dying’ rules again as I completely forgot all about death saving throws for Renko and Adric.

Thirdly, I need to decide what happens with Aura of Souls as it seems quite useless for a warlock as it’s written. I also need to properly get my head around how it works. Technically it’s an action to use use this ability, which means you can’t wrench a soul from a body and cast a spell to take advantage of it in the same round. The upshot of this was is that Cryton was more impressive in the combat than he probably should have been – but that’s my fault. It’s a learning curve for all of us.

The Bottom Line

I really enjoyed running the session. There was roleplaying, there was combats, there were laughs… and unlike fourth edition the rules weren’t getting in the way of me telling a story. I like D&D Next a lot. I’d certainly use it over 4e, but I don’t think I’d use it over Pathfinder. I would like a clean break from third edition for my next campaign though, so I’m hoping that that problems are addressed.

I am really looking forward to running this again. And I’m determined to keep Renko standing for at least one round so I can see what the sorcerer is capable of.

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2 Comments

  1. Neil says:

    I’ve just read this and I have some comments:

    Why didn’t you just reduce the numbers of the enemy, you knew you had 4 not 5 PCs?

    Erannis did surprisingly well and I don’t think he would have gone down easily (high HP and difficult to hit if parrying). He had most of his HP at the end if I recall correctly.

    How did you expect the fight to go? I don’t think it would go much different 9 times out of 10. James saw a lone thief and, understandably, thought he could take him. He did but the guy fell on the otherside of the wall. James investigated and was ambushed by Sarn who took him down with one blow! James had no opportunity to raise the alarm. Erannis awoke and quickly investigated the noise which woke him. He was immediately attacked by two enemies and had no way of raising the alarm. Aldric tried to sneak attack Sarn, it was only because of your high roll that he failed to take him down. Chryton stood back as all good wizards should and did what you would expect. I fail to see what else we could have done. Why would we wake the others up? There was no reason; we had no reason to expect a large party of thugs would attack us, James’ assumption of a single foe was reasonable.

    I agree with your comments about the fighter; was very evocative and the class felt different and effective, miles better than 4E!

    Reply
  2. I think I would have reduced the numbers of foes in the encounter if it had been a “Difficult” encounter.

    D&D Next divide encounters into Easy, Average and Difficult based upon a party’s average experience level. According to the rules Sarn, six thugs and two dire rats was an average encounter for a party of five. Based on the raw maths it should still have been doable for a party of four. Although a more significant challenge, it still wasn’t techincally “Difficult”. I figured I’d let it stand and see what happened.

    There were a number of variables in the fight. The robber could have climbed down into camp without being seen. When James killed him, he could have fallen into camp and not behind the tower. Renko could have waited and advanced around the tower with other party members rather than on his own. He could have waited. Renko wasn’t actually surprised by Sarn, but he didn’t beat Sarn’s initiative in the fight. If he had then things could have turned out very differently.

    The bottom line is that I wasn’t expecting Sarn to be that good. I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting it as I had his stats in front of me. I guess I placed too much trust in the assumption that a 2nd level character would be a fair foil for a 1st level party. I assumed that I could use characters generated with the PC rules interchangeably with monsters.

    Nothing James did was unreasonable or unexpected. We both got a bit caught out by the way the system currently works.

    But as you say: two big thumbs up for the fighter!

    Reply

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