DnD Next – first playtest
I ran my first DnD Next playtest on Wednesday and thought I would share my experiences. DnD Next is what Wizards of the Coast is currently calling the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which it is currently available as part of an open playtest – all you need to do is pop along to www.DnDnext.com and sign up. I am not going to go into a lot of detail about the playtest materials at this point, or any of the other background or rumours about this edition, a google search will quickly bring you tons of info. I will say, I have been heading over to EN World for updates as they are really good at collating all nthe big news points. Now, on with the playtest…
There were six players, plus myself as DM. All the players were familiar with D&D 3.5 and 4th Edition, with some having played a lot of 3.5 and others a lot of 4th. A couple of players had played 2nd Ed D&D or Pathfinder. I have played a lot of 3.5, a tiny bit of 4th, and started back in the 90’s with Advanced D&D 2nd edition. I had put out a call for people in my local area that had signed up for the playtest, and ended up with a group of “pairs” – each person at the table had roleplayed with one other person at the table, but otherwise we were all meeting for the first time. This meant that everyone was potentially coming to the table with different experiences, expectations, house rules and the like. Everyone was keen to play.
The playtest packet has five pregenerated characters, a High Elf Wizard, Hill Dwarf Fighter, Lightfoot Halfling Rogue, Mountain Dwarf Cleric, and Human Cleric. All the character generation details and mechanical bonuses are “hidden” (this round of the playtest isn’t about character generation), but apparently “sub races” (Hill versus Mountain Dwarf, for example) have mechanical differences that change the way they feel. As we had six players we ran a second Dwarf Fighter, which turned out to be highly amusing – the Mountain Dwarf Cleric has the background “Knight”, and his player roleplayed him as being an arrogant elitist who considered the Hill Dwarves to be backwater, hillbilly cousins, which the other players took to and roleplayed the pants off!
Everyone was very excited about their characters. Everyone was surprised by how many hit points characters had, and liked the chance of survival it appeared to offer. The races and classes were skimmed over but appeared to be pretty much in line with other editions and didn’t offer any amazing surprises, with the exception of the Halfling who can hid behind creatures (including party members) larger than itself. The backgrounds were great “hooks” to guide roleplaying and characterisation (the Dwarf Cleric’s “Knight” being a good example). Each background offers bonuses to specific tasks (essentially 3rd Ed skill ranks or 4th ed Skill Training), but there is no description in the rules about what each is used to do. Luckily, most are self explanatory. The Themes were where the real excitement began. Each theme offers a special ability or Feat, as well as a little roleplaying guide on the way the character “adventures” (the things they like to do). The Fighter’s and Rogue’s themes inspired the most amazed gawks, as players saw the mechanical advantage they could offer in combat. I personally think most of the theme advantages are quite good, thought the Cleric of Pelor’s healing and the Wizard’s bonus minor spells are less “in your face”.
I had the players name their characters and fill out the descriptions, though in hindsight I should have spent some time going around the table having everyone “introduce” their characters with a little biographical info. Next time! I am going to give the character names so that I can refer to them with those rather than “Mountain Dwarf Cleric”, etc.
- Sabriel – High Elf Wizard
- Wanda – Lightfoot Halfling Rogue
- Godric – Human Cleric of Pelor
- Gilder – Hill Dwarf Fighter
- Bobb – Hill Dwarf Fighter
- Sir Brogar – Mountain Dwarf Cleric of Moradin
The following will have adventure spoilers.
Intro: As the adventure suggests, I warned the players that the adventure was not “balanced” for their characters and their might be encounters that were very easy and some that were very difficult. I also told them that many monsters were intelligent creatures and fighting was not the only option.
Maps: We played the entire adventure without a grid / map. The rules were written with ranges in feet and the expectation that a grid was not necessary, and I wanted to see how it played. All my 2nd Ed playing, and a large amount of my 3.5 experiences were played sitting on lounges without a map, and I liked the fact that this seemed possible in DnD Next. In the end I used miniatures on the table without a map to give a general idea of where characters were. It did work, thought I got the distinct impression that some players were struggling to visualise where they were and where they might go. It seemed most difficult for a couple of the players whose primary experience was with 4th Ed and at one point I stopped and talked through “tactical options” with one of the players to give them an idea of the sorts of things they could do. I think I would use a grid in complex combats with multiple combatants, but would not be cracking one out every encounter.
Set-up: I chose to use the “Looming War” set-up for the adventure, with the Lord of the borderland’s largest town (a personal friend of Sir Brogar) hiring the characters to investigate the story of a cultist that had recently turned himself in. I let the characters make “Gather Information” rolls (Charisma checks) before the adventure began to see what rumours they could gather about the region called the Caves of Chaos. They learnt that kobolds used to overrun the region, but had been beaten into submission by the arrival of other monsters. These details would prove to be important later! We then skipped straight to the start of the “adventure proper”, with the characters arriving at the entrance to the ravine.
Kobolds: I decided to begin with the kobold caves, as there were lots of “easy” monsters for the players to kill, a trap that would require some skill and thinking to overcome, and the potential for them to be ambushed and really beaten upon. I genuinely didn’t know how dangerous even this cave might turn out to be! The characters entered the ravine talking and making a lot of noise, alerting the kobolds to their presence. The kobolds waited and watched. The players succeeded at Wisdom checks to spot tracks leading to the kobold cave and even spotted the kobolds. Sir Brogar wanted to talk to them, but Bobb the hillbilly fighter raised his crossbow and fired, killing a kobold. Combat progressed for a couple of (very quick) turns, with the players only killing two kobolds, who in turn stood in the trees throwing spears and laughing at the “pathetic big folk”. When Sir Brogar advanced to within talking distance he demanded the kobolds “Give in, and we’ll spare you!” (or words to that effect). He wanted to intimidate them into submission, which I decided was going to be a hard Charisma check since they were engaged in combat and the kobolds thought they were rather pathetic. I put Sir Brogar at Disadvantage and set the DC at 16. Sir Brogar’s player rolled 2d20, and both beat the DC! The kobolds stopped, had a brief discussion amongst themselves and demanded the party “Go away!” After some negotiation the kobolds agreed to tell the party about a secret entrance to the goblin’s caves. The line of the night came out at this point, with Sir Brogar saying, “I trust the word of the kobolds.”
All the players really enjoyed this moment – it was really unlikely that the priest of Moradin was going to convince the kobolds to stop fighting, but the turn of events was surprising and fun. The Disadvantage die made the task tough, but not out of reach in the same way that setting the task at a ridiculously high DC might have.
The Secret Cave: The kobolds told the characters about a secret cave entrance hidden behind a thick copse of trees on the opposite side of the ravine. When the players investigated they noticed a path through the trees with lots of broken branches much larger than any goblin they had ever seen. The kobolds had sent them to the home of an ogre, though the payers did not yet know it (in the kobold’s defence, the cave did have a secret entrance to goblin’s caves!). The party continued moving and making a lot of noise, with both Hill Dwarf fighters arguing about a piece of gold. The characters found the cave and the rogue crept in, spotting the bear sleeping on a pile of leaves. She ambushed it, plunging daggers into its neck before realising it was already dead!
The characters laughed, then the ogre attacked! He barged out of the side cave, surprising the party. All the player characters suffered a -20 to their Initiative, which we didn’t have a problem with. In fact, when one of the players had a -13 Initiative it really hammered home how well behind everyone else he was! Sir Brogar took a solid hit from the ogre. Wanda tried to ambush the ogre (he had failed to notice her straddling the bear corpse), but even with an Advantage die she failed. Godric healed Sir Brogar (which insulted the Dwarf Cleric no-end!), and Sabriel kept popping around the side to launch burning hands or magic missile at the ogre. The ability to take an action at any point during a move was used to good effect during this combat, with Bobb, Gilder and Sir Brogar continually moving around each other to engage the ogre, protect the other party members and take advantage of Sir Brogar’s “Guardian” feat. Combat was very quick – like super fast, which meant no-one was left twiddling their thumbs for long periods. Sir Brogar’s Guardian ability was also amazingly useful, protecting the fighters from the ogres attacks, turn after turn.
The ogre was beaten down to a handful of hit points very quickly, so he ran back into the side cave, where the characters heard the sound of stone scraping on stone. As DM I liked the fact my monster could run away, rather than getting hacked to pieces as he tried to flee. When the characters followed, the ogre was nowhere in sight. They soon found the secret door he had used but decided to take a short rest instead of following. This was not because anyone needed healing (only Sir Brogar had suffered an injury), but because the Hill Dwarves wanted to drink the contents of the Ogre’s brandy keg, and count his treasure! While the pair squabbled over the last coin the ogre returned, this time with goblin reinforcements. I decided the two fighters were surprised, but the other characters were paying more attention. The ogre swung at Sir Brogar but failed to hit, then Sabriel cast sleep which took out most of the goblins (all but one failed their saving throw)! This gave the rest of the characters time to finish off the ogre and begin coup de grace-ing the sleeping goblins. I thought it was odd that players had to roll to hit a sleeping monster (even with advantage). I was also left scratching my head about whether a failed coup de grace roll should wake up a sleeping goblin – technically, the attack missed so no damage occurred, and a sleeping creature only wakes up if they suffer damage or are “shaken awake”. I ruled that a failed coup de grace was enough to disturb their sleep, just to give the poor goblins a fighting chance. In the end, it didn’t help, and the party smashed them!
We ended the evening there. We had played for about two-and-a-half hours, plus half an hour of intro to the playtest rules.
At the end, I canvassed the players about their experience. Everyone agreed that it “felt” like D&D, though some wondered whether this was because of the rules, or because of everyone’s investment in their characters and the general roleplaying that was happening at the table. I had wondered the same thing, but came to realise that the rules are so streamlined they just get out of the way and let you get on with the game. I had read through the rules a couple of times before play and did not need to refer to them at all until the final scene when I checked both the sleep spell and coup de grace rule. The only other thing I checked during play was the ogre’s entry in the bestiary. During play it was very easy to “eyeball” the DC of tasks, based on the info in the DM guidelines. Applying Advantage and Disadvantage was also very straightforward, and linked nicely with my “eyeballing”. I felt like I didn’t have to get the DC exactly right if Advantage or Disadvantage was also in play – I used either the lowest or highest DC for the “moderate”, “advanced” or “extreme” task based on my gut feeling, then let them roll two dice.
Here are some of the other things we talked about at the end:
Why it felt like D&D: Here are some of the comments I collected about why this new iteration “felt like D&D”. Allows you to concentrate on roleplaying. Wizards have magic missile. Kobolds are stupid. Fighters deal crazy damage. Third edition elements with old school dungeon exploration. Rolls maintained the same as other editions (skill checks, saves, attack rolls, etc). No cards.
Advantage / Disdavantage: Everyone loved this rule. No-one thought it was overpowered, and everyone enjoyed using the rule, even when they were at a disadvantage. In fact, this was the most talked about rule of the game, and the comments were universally positive. I had read a lot of forum posts over at the Wizards community that this rule could be unbalancing, but to be honest, it only came up about once each encounter. Players have to really work to get advantage, and should be rewarded when they do.
Spells: Everyone liked the fact wizards and clerics had at-will spells. The Cleric of Pelor player loved the fact they had a magic attack they could use every turn. The wizard used the magic missile a fair bit, and I began to feel an “auto hit” was powerful, particularly since the cleric’s Radiant Lance required an attack roll.
Fighters: The fighters had a great time roleplaying their characters, but one comment I got was they didn’t seem to have much to do in combat except swing at the enemy. They loved the Reaper ability, but also felt it could be a bit powerful. I think the reaper ability contributed to the fact the fighters didn’t do much except attack, as they were guaranteed to do damage if they chose to attack.
Rogue: There was some concern the rogues ambush ability might be a bit powerful (on paper), though it didn’t really come out during our play – the rogue missed with the only ambush attack she made.
Power Level: Players liked the survivability of their characters, but a couple said the characters felt “high powered” for first level.
Combat: Players generally liked the new combat. They felt it was much faster (we did three fights, plus exploration and a roleplaying scene in 2.5 hours). They all liked the movement / action system, feeling it was interesting and allowed you to move around and attempt different things. They didn’t mind not using a map, as it got their imagination working and also let them try different things. There were a couple of comments about not being able to properly visualise the environment, which I will bear the brunt of – it has been a long time since I ran D&D without a map, and in hindsight did not describe the scenes in anywhere near enough detail.
So, that was my experience. I am hoping to run another playtest soon. Have you read the DnD Next playtest docs, or been involved in a playtest? What are your thoughts?