Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Apprentices try D&D Next



So after a week of buildup we set up Saturday night to playtest D&D Next. I walked through some of the changes and they sorted out which characters they wanted to play. Only two of them were up for it so they took two characters each.

All Set!

Blaster took the two dwarves, a fighter and a cleric, while Red took the elf wizard and the halfling thief. I had a very old copy of KOTB for the map and some flavor. I also had a brand new set of dice to ensure we were free of any lingering luck issues or edition issues.

Test game = Test mini's - Thank you Heroquest & Warhammer Quest

The Apprentices wanted to start off moving through the forest between the keep and the caves as in our earlier Basic campaign it was full of spiders but it was a much shorter route. I explained that we weren't really worrying about the keep part or the traveling part tonight, we were going to jump right into the caves themselves - they were fine with that.

That's a Cave. Trust me.

With the dwarves in front and the others in the back our heroes choose to enter the goblin cave (well remembered by the Apprentices from earlier times). Around the corner they encounter a band of six goblins. Neither side is surprised so combat begins.

The goblins have shortbows that actually do more damage than their maces (1d6+1 vs. 1d6) so rather than suicidally charging ahead they stand and shoot, hitting both dwarves.

The halfling returns fire and kills one of the goblins while the dwarves charge forward. The cleric takes one down with a swing of his hammer (ah, old-school goblin hit points!) but the fighter misses. The wizard magic missiles one gobbo but does not drop him.

In the second round the goblins step back and fire - 17/18/19/19 - two shots each into the cleric and the fighter! The cleric drops (and Blaster is stunned) and the fighter is seriously wounded, though in response he slays one of the goblins with his axe in a single blow. A second magic missile finishes off another goblin while the halfling moves into a better position.

Round three and the goblins back up again, put 1 more shaft into the dwarf fighter and he drops beside his clerical companion - at this point Blaster fails a morale check, declares "this game sucks" and sits in his chair fuming. Red's elf wizard steps up and lets loose with burning hands and fries both of the remaining original goblins plus two more that had just come up from the nearest room! Meanwhile two more goblins have advanced down the opposite passage and the halfling steps out of the shadows and absolutely eviscerates one of them. Apprentice Red, in stark contrast to Blaster, is having a pretty good time!

By the sixth round the fight is over and due to a quirk in the healing rules the party retreats back outside the cave ravine to a safer wooded area to rest and recover.

So that's it - about 30 minutes of discussion and rules talk, about 30 minutes of maps, minis, combat and complaining, and about 30 minutes of deciding what to do with the rest of our evening. We ended up making Warhammer Fantasy characters and playing through a short combat with them, and after getting to use the critical charts in that game the boys are all fired up and I may have inadvertently walked into yet another campaign. Apparently one of their friends has played it before and another may be interested so we will see where this unexpected development leads.

Plans B, C, and D

So back to Next: What about it?

  • I like the speed of play - it was a lot like our Basic campaign sessions. This is the one area where 4E still rubs me a little raw - there are no short fights.
  • I like the general emphasis of the system - it is less rules-intensive than many previous version, but the unified mechanical approach makes for a smooth game in play too.
  • I like the Race/Class/Background/Theme approach to defining a character - that should be pretty flexible by the time it's ready to publish.
  • I like the way hiding and sneak attacking was handled - it's a lot easier to manage in play and makes 3E style sneak attacking / AD&D style backstabbing much simpler to pull off.
  • I did not like the healing & resting rules. Even with a freak roll like I had the party normally should be able to recover but the cleric was the only one with healing capability and he was the first one to drop. A Short Rest takes 5 minutes and allows you to recover hit points from your "hit dice" (aka healing surges) but only if you have 1 hit point or more. After going below zero, you can stabilize, but you are still considered to be below zero hit points and so you can't benefit from a short rest, or even a long rest! After 2d6 hours you recover 1 hit point, and at that point you could rest and start recovering and healing people. It makes characters very dependent on outside aid to prime the pump, but able to handle healing themselves once someone gets them above zero. If we're looking for less clerical-dependency and for more self-sufficiency then I think this must-be-at-1-or-more rule needs to go away.
Now the night before I had run another session in our current 4E campaign so it was fresh in my mind for comparison. I am still very happy with 4th and will likely be running it when Next is eventually published and beyond, but I can see Next becoming a faster and lighter alternative, maybe for a weeknight game. I'd certainly take it over 3.5/Pathfinder if it keeps going in the right direction, and it may finally close the door on my occasional bursts of nostalgic fervor that demand everyone roll up an AD&D character on goldenrod paper and start beating up hill giants. I think it has a lot of retro-conversion potential.

The closest comparison I can think of is Mongoose Traveller to Classic Traveller. LBB Traveller was good but the rules were scattered around and didn't always work well in practice. The Mongoose version took 25 years of gameplay and design and adjusted the original in many small ways and gave it a unified mechanical system that made it much smoother in play and opened the door for an explosion of support and a near rebirth of the old game. That is how this feels - like Basic or maybe even AD&D polished up by the experience of 4th Edition and making some deliberate choices about playability vs. realism. 
Like this, it feels a lot like the classic, but with some sensible improvements

I will also say this - without the mixed business success of 4th edition, I don't think we would be seeing this. Despite the "back to the dungeon" slogan, 3rd edition was a huge mechanical change over 2nd edition. Emboldened by the success of this, 4th was an even bigger change and seems to have been a step too far, despite my love of it. Burned by that, WOTC seems to be looking backward for inspiration and not just for dungeoneering as with 3E. I think this one may out-retro Pathfinder, and still have cleaner math.

So that's our first run. If I can talk them into it we will be trying it again but it may not be for a week or more with all of the schedule madness right now. I may experiment with whipping up another dungeon for them to use for that - perhaps a certain tower needs another clearing-out after being catapulted into rubble by the townspeople...

Note: There's a good article on the new approach here. Again, older school in feel but newer school in mechanics.

4 comments:

Jeremy said...

Ouch.

Barking Alien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barking Alien said...

Intriguing.

I may have to try this bugger out even though my interest in it is minimal as a game I am likely to play or run. I am always curious about adapting anything useful in a D&D style game to my homebrew version.

This sounds like it may have some neat ideas if nothing else.

Blacksteel said...

I think it probably fits better with your improv-heavy style - ability scores are the central feature of your character in play and there isn't a fixed skill list - the emphasis is much more on flexibility in play rather than balance and niche protection as we see with 3rd and 4th.

I saw some grousing online about characters being too tough - no one in this house feels that way.