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.

D&D Next Playtest – Character Generation

As promised, the blog is steering away from Pathfinder for the time being to dwell on the D&D Next Playtest. I ran an aborted attempt at the Caves of Chaos back in May, but this time I’m taking a more serious stab at it. I recently ran the first session of a short campaign designed to get the PCs from 1st to 5th level. I’m not using any of the published adventures, instead setting the game in an amateurish mash-up of Mystara and Greyhawk (apologies to anyone who has any affection for those settings).

I’ve thought a little about how best to present these blog-posts. I have a great deal to say, but there doesn’t seem much mileage in posting something 20,000 words long to a blog. So I’m going to split things up a bit. This post deal with character generation; the next post will focus on how the first session went, and then I’ve got some other more thematic posts up my sleeve. The second playtest session will be on 26 September, so hopefully I’ll have a few posts under my belt by then.

All these comments are based on the second playtest packet released by Wizards of the Coast on 17 August 2012.


On the whole, I like the character generation process. It is simple, quick and intuitive. I think it’s fair to say that Neil sat down fairly blind to the system but had a functional fighter up and running in about 45 minutes. The combination of Race, Class, Background and Speciality seem to come together very well for new players. I also think that experienced players would like the freedom to be able to dispense with Background and Speciality and select their own skills and feats accordingly.  Taking things in order from the playtest packet:

Determining Ability Scores

Three out of the four players decided to go old-school and roll 4d6 and drop the lowest die, assigning stats as they wished. Neil grumbled about this, due to his amazing lack of dice rolling skill and sure enough, the elf he generated had obviously been repeatedly dropped on its head as a baby. Taking pity on him, I let me use the standard array (15, 13, 14, 12, 10, 8)  instead.

Herein lies a bit of a problem. D&D Next is a system that is incredibly reliant on ability scores. Skills, base attack bonuses and the like are proportionately much less important to a character. The in-game explanation is that a character’s ability scores represent both inate ability and training. However, it boils down to the fact that a fighter with a high strength and little skill is going to be a better at using a sword than a highly-skilled character with low strength.

I don’t like that at all, but I don’t want to get into a dicussion about the short-comings of the skill system here. My point is that if D&D Next is going to put ability scores front and centre like this, then there needs to be an equitable method of creating those scores. Rolling dice can’t be the default, as its dependence on luck is inherently unfair. There is simply too large a discrepancy between player characters.

A point-buy system similar to 4e or Pathfinder is probably the way to go here. DMs should have the option the use different methods of determining ability scores if they wish: but don’t make that the core assumption.

My second issue with the ability scores is a similar issue to one I have with Pathfinder. High ability scores make characters disproportionately good at everything at first level. Starting characters with very high ability scores find it very easy to punch above their weight. I don’t really want to see a starting character with an ability score of 20, but I got one on the shape of Marc’s warlock. It will be interesting to see how that pans out once we have a few more fights under our collective belts.

A score of 20 is the highest a player character is permitted regardless of race or level. Although I appreciate that much flatter power cure in D&D Next requires bonuses not to rise above a certain point, this strikes me as terribly artificial. PCs have various ways and means to increase their ability scores as they advance in level. Let them. Just set the bar lower for first level characters.

Race

A lot of work has been put into these races: not just in terms of the mechanics, but also in terms of the description and story-related material. This is head and shoulders above the “Play this race if you want to be…” boxes that appear in the fourth edition books. I’m grateful that Wizards has realised that D&D players should be treated as intelligent readers who have moved on from Floppy Phonics.

The new mechanics are also highly flavourful. I’m really pleased to see the return of the sub-races, as it adds a degree of needed variety. Elves, Dwarves and Halflings really feel like Elves, Dwarves and Halflings… both in how they have been traditionally portrayed in D&D over the years, and also in the wider Tolkien-esque sense of the races. The intrinsic racial characteristics we’ve seen in the past have been turned up to 11, which not only makes the mechanics simpler, but also gives the player an awesome trait they can hang their character on.

Elves now have immuuity to sleep and charm; dwarves have immunity to poison. The rules don’t pussyfoot around with trifling bonuses to this and that – which I am grateful for. The dwarf’s immunities led to a quick discussion among the group on the ramifications of poison immunity to a society. Is dwarven food inherently poisonous to other races? Do they use arsenic instead of salt because it tastes better? Surely Dwarven cuisine is something to be feared! A little extrapolation, and suddenly we’re distancing dwarves from other races. We’re making them less human, and better defined. It’s little things like this that get you imagination firing – something that was sadly lacking from 4e.

Elves enjoy Advantage with all Perception-related checks. I think that’s appropriate in principle. The only issue I have with it is that because of the flatter progression of characters, and the low DCs, the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic is pretty powerful. In practice in the sessions I’ve run elves never fail perception checks. Which is all right if you’re playing Legolas, but surely not all elves need to be played that way.

The Stout halfling’s Fearless ability should be singled out for praise. It has a wonderful “Pull-yourself-together-Samwise-Gamgee,-Master-Frodo-needs-you-and-no-mistake” feel to it. I like that.

Also, I like mechanic for increasing the hit dice of weapons. However, I’m not convinced that increasing 1d12 to 2d6 for dwarven axes is a good deal. Marc assures me it’s mathematically sound, but it nags at me. Sure the dwarf will do more average damage with his axe, but he’ll have less chance of doing maximum damage than an non-dwarf using the same weapon. That strikes me as wrong. Why not increase the die from 1d12 to 2d8? That would suit me better.

And finally: humans. We’re definitely following on from the third edition convention that humans are both the blandest and most desirable PC race – at least from a mechanical perspective. They get +1 to every ability score except for the one which they get +2 in. That’s a massive, massive advantage in D&D Next. Just look at the rules as you’ll see how massive. When Marc generated his character, all the naked die rolls were odd. Make the character human gave him +1 to absolutely everything. Fortunately, I don’t think this mechanical advatantage overshadows the flavour of the other races. So I only have one human at the table.

Classes

I don’t want to go too much into the mechanics of each class here. It seems more appropriate to discuss them in play. Therefore, I’ll just give a quick overview of each one as they appear to me on paper.

Clerics

What I’m looking for in a cleric is a class that is versatile enough to represent the followers of numerous different gods. I want my cleric of the God of Fire to be completely different to my cleric of the God of Trade: different abilities, different spells and different skills. The very best example of this in published D&D are the Clerics of Specific Mythoi from 2nd edition. Second edition enjoyed all cleric spells being divided into Spheres, and each cleric having access to a limited number of different Spheres. Combine this with unique and flavourful powers at different levels, and two clerics who worshipped different gods didn’t even ressemble the same class. This is what I want to see captured in D&D Next.

The cleric isn’t quite there yet. The Domains are promising, but they are not creating quite the divergence between clerics of different gods that I would like to see. I approve of Channel Divinity, and I definitely like the fact that Turn Undead is now a spell and not something common to all clerics. Improvements to the cleric would generally come from improvements to the description, presentation and classification of spells (which I’ll come to below).

However, none of my players even considered playing a cleric. James had played one back in May so maybe he just didn’t want to repeat himself… but no-one else seemed at all inclined. There’s nothing that makes the cleric more mechanically undesirable than any other class, so is this  a prejudice against clerics themselves? I don’t think a party needs a cleric at all: the healing in D&D Next is well handled, and as long as a party has a healing kit or some potions they should be fine. There’s no need for a healing class like the 4e Warlord. But it does raise an interesting point: how does Wizards of the Coast make the cleric sexy again?

Fighter

The big news here is the inclusion of Combat Superiority: the die the fighter gets that he can use the inflict extra damage, mitigate damage, and perform some interesting combat manoeuvres. The fighter selects a fighting style, and that lists the combat manoeuvres that the fighter will master as he gains levels. On paper I thought this was fantastic, and during the session I thought it was fantastic too.

I have two slight comments/worries about the system. Firstly, there needs to be more freedom of choice. Fighting Styles should be suggestions and not straight-jackets. If I want my fighter to have Protect, Precise Shot and Cleave then I should. Secondly, I’m concerned about other characters trying out the fighter’s signature manoeuvres.

At the moment, there are no rules in the game for what third edition would refer to as “actions in combat”. There are no rules for pushing, tripping, barging, throwing or even grappling (despite it being mentioned elsewhere in the rules). Now I know that of lot of these manoeuvres would need rewriting from their 3rd or 4th edition versions to work in a game sans battle grid. But they still need to be there.

Push, Tumble and Knock Down are among the fighter’s repetoire of combat manouevres. Arguably anyone can attempt to do those things, not just a fighter. The Combat Superiority mechanic makes the fighter better at it, and more likely to succeed, but naked common sense says that even a wizard can try to push an orc over. At the moment this aspect of the game is too woolly and needs firming up.

Rogue

Quite a few issues here. Skill Mastery is simply too good. “When you determine the bonus for each of your skills, you use your associated ability modifier, or +3, whichever is higher”. Why? Because some people moaned that a rogue needed to be stealthy to sneak about, but also wise to spot traps. Well, boo hoo. Even rogues can be bad at things! Any character is as much defined by what they can’t do as what they can. And by assuming all ability score modifiers are +3 and then layering on a Take 10 ability (rising to Take 11 at level five), you’re simply making the character too good across the board.

This is one of the problems of making the ability score count for more than skill ranks. In third edition a character could work to overcome the drawback of a poor ability score in some skills. In D&D Next (or 4e) that’s never really possible.

The Rogue Scheme grants a number of abilities (fine) but also gives the Rogue a second background. What’s the point in that? If you want to give the rogue more skills then simply give him more skills. Don’t use the background rules to do it, especially when backgrounds might be optional to all other classes. Plus Thief and Thug are already backgrounds. So any rogue that takes the Thief background also gets Thug, and any rogue that takes Thug also gets Thief… making most rogues functionally identical.

Sneak Attack does too much damage. If you have an NPC rogue with this ability, he will be able to kill a PC of the same level with one blow. And don’t tell me that I shouldn’t be using PC character creation rules to invent adversaries for the party. Of course I want to do this. As do many GMs. Separating PCs and NPCs/Monsters into different rules was the worse thing about 4e and made it impossible for me to run the game. I can’t be alone in this. A third edition rogue gets +1d6 sneak attack every other level. Why is it 1d6 + 1d6/level in D&D Next. That’s an enormous increase in potency.

The Knack ability doesn’t make any sense at all. “Twice per day you can give yourself advantage on one check”. How? Why? It’s an ability that can’t be explained in the real world. And I don’t want to hear that the rogue picks his moment to strike and only gets a couple of opportunities each day: that’s a load of old rubbish. This is the reason the martial powers made zero sense in 4e. The text says you smack your foe on the head to daze him. You can only do that once per day because…. because… well actually there’s no reason at all except for “game balance” which is a pretty poor reason.

Knack is just like that. It can’t be explained from a story perspective, and everything must be explained from a story perspective.  Why not simply have Knack introduce new ways in which a rogue can set up Advantage, and then it’s up to the player to try and take advantage of those options whenever he can? It makes much more sense. This stops the rogue being able to automatically turn Sneak Attack on twice per day, like a TV remote with faulty batteries.

Wizard

No wizard in the party this time either, but I think that stems more from a desire to try out the warlock or the sorcerer. I’ve not much to say except to point out how much I like the idea for rituals. Vancian casting actually makes sense. It normally takes minutes to cast a spell. A wizard can “pre-cast” magic and hold it in his mind, but he can only hold a certain number of such spells per day, or at any one time. Of course, that understanding would mean that all spells would require a ritual version.

Sorcerer

New blood! I do like the new sorcerer. He seems properly different from the wizard, and the Sorcerous Origin provides a series of abilities that will differentiate sorcerers from one another. Of course, we only have one to look at right now: the Draconic Heritage. I love the spell point system for casting magic, and also like the fact that the more Willpower you spend the more likely you are to lose control, and your sorcerous aspect is to assert itself.

So although you can activate spells and draconic powers by spending Willpower, you get natty draconic abilities for free each day as your willpower diminishes. So once you’ve spent 3 willpower you get claws, once you’ve spent 10 you get scales and so it. This creates an interesting dichotomy in the character in that you’re a half spellcaster and half warrior quite literally: a spellcaster in the morning, and a warrior in the afternoon.

My one observation is that in campaigns with less combat (like many of mine) it’s possible that some days the sorcerer may never get to the point at which his draconic heritage manifests. Which is a shame if it means a whole suite of abilities is always unavailable to the character.

Warlock

This looks excellent. The Warlock pact gives you specific powers at certain levels. The first thing I thought when I read it was why not develop the cleric along similar lines? I like it that warlock invocations are separate from the normal spell list, but I then ask why wizards, sorcerers and clerics are sharing the same list. A greater separation of spell lists (either by class or power source) would help to differentiate the other spellcasters as well as the warlock.

Eldritch blast seems very powerful. More so even than the rogue’s sneak attack at low levels – although it looks as though Sneak Attack over takes it by level four. The other invocations are solid, and I like the way that simply knowing a spell granted by the patron changes the warlock in some way. Where were all these good ideas in 4e?

The rules for favours is interesting. Warlocks are effectively limited to two spells and/or patron abilties per encounter (they are restored by a short rest). There’s no indication that the number of available favours increase as the warlock gains levels, and this might be the one thing that saves the wizard from always being in the warlock’s shadow, expecially as the walock also (rightly) has access to ritual magic.

Backgrounds

My feelings to backgrounds are mixed. I’ve always asked players to give me backgrounds for their characters and I’ve been lucky enough to have players that have always wanted to create a rich back story for their characters. From those backgrounds we’ve worked together to create important allies, enemies and story threads that can be woven into the wider campaign. I know there are some D&D groups that don’t do this, and I guess that Backgrounds provide a novel way to flesh out a character for those players. Otherwise, I think they’re a bit of a waste of time.

I actively dislike most of the traits that are listed. Here’s what it says for the thug: “No matter where you go, people are afraid of you due to your connections to the dangerous criminal underworld or your history of violence. When you are in a place of civilization, you can get away with minor criminal offenses, such as refusing to pay for food at the tavern or breaking down doors at a local shop, since most people will not report your activity to the authorities.”

Or the one for the sage: “When you attempt to learn or recall a piece of lore, if you do not know that information, you always know where and from whom you can obtain that information. Usually, this information comes from a library, scriptorium, university, or a sage or other learned person or creature.”

I can’t see abilities such as these fitting into the campaigns I run. Each action must have consequences. If a player decides to stiff the innkeeper then it’s up to me decide whether the innkeeper is the sort of man who would have an issue with it. If the players wants to hammer home his point then let him make an Intimidate check (which would presumably be fairly high with his character concept). Obtaining lore and other information is crucial to any game I’ve ever run. Giving anyone with the sage background carte blanche to find out anything is ridiculous.

The trouble is that once these points are enshrined in a rulebook they become very hard to avoid.  A player might point to that fact that he has a trait that says he has contacts that find out any fact for him. It’s only a matter of time before one of them delivers him Orcus’s true name, so it might as well be something that’s done between sessions. Worse: backgrounds may limit player creativity. Rather than coming up with something truly original, the player just looks through a list of pregenerated choices and picks one that has the most advantageous mechanical benefits.

What I do like is that the new system divorces skills from character classes. There’s no reason why a fighter can’t be skilled in Religion and Perception, or a Wizard can’t be a great swimmer. This is a good decision. However, if I were to GM a proper campaign with these rules, I think I’d just instruct the players to choose three skills and come up with their own character background. I wouldn’t touch the background traits at all in their current form. They’re too limiting.

During  character generation Malcolm felt that characters didn’t get enough skills. This was a universally agreed on point, as was the fact that the skill system itself is largely rubbish. I won’t dwell on this here because I have a nice tirade on fifth edition skills to post at a later date. However, three skills for one character is clearly not enough. The skill list needs to be longer, and characters need more versatility. Third edition had a great skill system, fourth edition did not.

In D&D Next, Backgrounds are optional: therefore skills are optional. If skills are going to be an optional part of the game anyway, then you might as well make an attempt to create something a little more meaningful for the people who want to use them. The third edition skill system should be their base model.

Specialities

Okay, so Specialities are effectively feat-trees telling players what feats they should be choosing at levels 1, 3, 6, 9 and every three levels thereafter. There’s nothing more to them than that. They are a shorthand approach to character generation. You don’t need to wade through a hundred sourcebooks looking for the perfect feat: just pick a speciality at character generation and the job is done.

Of course, I would expect to be able to ignore this restriction and tell players that they get a feat at levels 1, 3 and 6 and they can choose any feat for which they qualify. I haven’t done that for the playtest, but it is probably the way I’d handle a proper campaign.

Looking at the feats themselves, it’s worth point out that an effort has been made to make each feat unique, desirable and cool. All of the boring and bland mechanical benefits (+1 to hit with weapon X, +1 to AC when the moon is full, your special ability does +1d6 extra damage etc.) from 4e is gone. These feats are even more outlandish than third edition, just look at the necromancer speciality for examples. But I think I like this. D&D Next makes feats awesome again. It’s about time.

Now the party of four that we wound up with at the end of the process had two Survivors… so I think it’s worth noting that the Toughness feat is pretty desirable in its current form.

Magic and Spells

Just a quick note on this.  The arcane triumverate (Wizard/Warlock/Sorcerer) present three different magic systems. The other spellcaster in the game (the Cleric) shares the same magic system as the Wizard – more or less. The cleric is a little more versatile. If this is the way the game is going, then I think I could get on board. Yes, I could run this as a campaign without changing the magic rules.

I think I’d prefer an official option that allows me to use a different spell system for Wizards and Clerics, but if that doesn’t materialise I think I would be happy with the actual casting mechanics in my game world (no, not Iourn).

What I’m not happy with is the spell list. The spells need greater classification. Let’s see spell lists for individual classes or for the wider ‘power sources’: i.e. Arcane spells, and Divine spells. Let’s see a cleric’s spells subdivivded into Spheres. Let’s see descriptors. All these things make it easier to manipulate and reference magic.

The wordier presentation of the spells is 10,000% better than the boring descriptions in the 4e books. However, I would like to see a little more scaling in terms of spell-power. I’d likely to see more spells that last for 1 round per level, or inflict 1d6 damage per level rather than inflicting a set amount of damage, or lasting until “the end of your next turn”. I want things with a good beefy duration, and spells that continue to improve for at least five levels over their minimum caster level.

There’s been a lot of talk about making fighters feel like fighters. Well, wizards have to feel like wizards too.

Wounds and Healing

The last thing we decided during character generation was which healing variant we’d use. The group felt that getting all your hit points back after a long rest was unrealistic, so they opted for the “Slower Hit Point recovery” variant. This was quite a brave decision with no cleric in the party, but we all agreed it was the way to go. Generally, we like the Hit Dice mechanic for healing, so this seemed to be the best option.

The Final Party

After all of that, these were the four PCs that were created:

  • 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

Next time, we’ll look at how the first session went.

A Change in Focus

Hello all. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve gone about as far as I want to at present with the third edition/Pathfinder rules that we’re using for the Iourn games. There’s a lot of consolidation and rewriting ahead of me, but I intend to make that work available over at Iourn.com when it’s ready. In the meantime I’m looking at a slight change in focus for the blog posts.

I’m going to be running a series of playtest sessions for D&D 5th Edition (aka D&D Next) over the coming weeks. I’m hoping to use this blog to post summaries of each session, and my experience in managing the new rules as a GM. And obviously, I invite comment and discussion on the posts from anyone with a mind to do so.

I ran a D&D Next session back in May from the first Playtest Package. I think it’s fair to say that our general opinion was of a game that was better than 4th Edition, but one that seemed to have a few dodgy mechanics. It was very hard to judge the game in a meaningful fashion without any rules for character generation.

The second playtest packet released last week (and still available) is a much more comprehensive affair, and deserves to be taken a little more seriously. I’ve stitched together a basic campaign setting from old bits of Mystara and Greyhawk and written an adventure that should take the PCs from 1st to 5th level. The game will run for several sessions, although I doubt that it’ll be weekly as we all have to juggle it around other commitments.

So: the first of the playtest sessions takes place on 29th August, and I should have something up on the blog about it shortly after that date.