This One Goes to… Ten
I love the title of Mike’s latest Legends and Lore post so much. D&D is such a formative experience for so many people that tying it to the larger pop culture arena seems like a huge win. I’ve written about this at length, and done it in Dungeon World, but the post name still made me smile.
Anyway, awesome joke aside, this post is all about the contents of the latest play test packet. There are some interesting changes here to be sure, but at this point it seems like it might be time to consider the packet as a whole again. With that in mind, I’m going to go on a readthrough tour of the latest playtest packet.
1. Read First
A nice little practical guide to what to read. A changelist too, which is more practical if you’re very familiar with previous versions. Nothing all that interesting, so I read the “Using This Material” section and plan my attack:
- How to Play
- Character Creation
- DM Guidelines
2. How to Play
I can’t read the first few lines without hearing Willy Wonka, but some written-by-commitee phrasing aside this starts off with a pretty decent coverage of the basics of D&D.
Of course this document is very early and unedited, but there are a lot of forward references (using terms not yet defined). Ability scores kind of come out of nowhere. This is a pretty pervasive problem in the docs as is, but not one they should worry about right now, so I won’t touch on it again.
Anyway, we’re on to the core of D&D:
- Say what you want to do
- DM responds, perhaps using one of these:
- Saving Throw
The doc then continues on to describe what each of those mechanics do. In short a check “is a test to see if your innate talent and training are enough to overcome a challenge.” An attack “is similar to a check, except that the die roll is not against a normal DC ” A saving throw “represents a desperate attempt to resist a spell, a trap, a poison, a disease, and similar threats.”
This is an interesting design decision: these three mechanics work in fundamentally the same way. Resolving each has the same steps:
- Roll the die
- Add bonuses and penalties
- Announce the total
- DM says what happens
The only practical difference between them is what modifiers can be applied: skills only apply to checks, attacks have all kinds of special modifiers. Other than how the DC is generated the exact same rules apply to all.
Except for how they scale. This is where it gets tricky (and I jump ahead in my reading order). From my reading—I totally could have missed something—your ability to make checks only increases if you get a skill to cover that check (or your skill increases), your ability to make saves doesn’t increase by default (unless the stat increases), and your ability to make attacks scales proportionally to your level.
The benefit to the three different mechanics is they they can parcel out bonuses and scaling differently for each. The down side is the added complexity and overhead. It’d be completely reasonable to streamline to only checks, like this: “A check is a test to see if you can overcome some difficulty, wether that difficulty is a locked door, an enemy’s armor, or a mind control spell you’re trying to resist.” In this hypothetical system everything is generalized, so you might end up making an attack where your Knowledge (Demons) skill is applied instead of your Attack skill (because a wizard might have a low attack, for example).
Is this the right solution? I don’t know, but it’s kind of a tempting path to explore. It encourages creativity and conversation between the DM and players, but maybe gives the DM fewer tools to work with—I’m not sure.
Getting back to our reading tour, next we hit advantage and disadvantage (pretty much unchanged) followed by a big page break before the next section. I mention this awkward page break not because it should be fixed now (too early for layout) but because when I first saw it I thought page three was the last page and closed the doc. When I thought this doc was three pages long I really, really loved it. While it glossed over the details of where bonuses and penalties came from, and some subsystems like HP, it was basically an RPG in three pages. Players, make your characters now. GM, figure out how to decide DCs. Then we’re ready to go.
Unfortunately that’s not the case. Next up we get 4 pages describing abilities. This is kind of boilerplate stuff, but it does have some forward-looking bits—Charisma as a magic ability is mentioned, for example, despite there being no Charisma-based magic classes in this doc.
The rest of the doc is handed over to three areas where more detail is needed (for some definition of “needed”): exploration, combat, and magic. After thinking that the entire game could fit in three pages, this is a bit of a letdown. We’ve got the standard minutiae here: units of time, distance, magic, and health.
The units of time are interesting, especially the first sentence of the entry for “days:” Days are usually tracked by counting the number of long rests adventurers take. This is an interesting approach. Instead of time firmly passing at it’s own pace, we track what the adventurers do and when they’ve done enough to fill up a day (measured by how often they rest) we mark it off the calendar. It’s a neat trick, but one that I worry is subject to misreading—does that mean if we don’t need to take a rest we can adventure for one eternal day? (Of course not, but, well, this is D&D—someone will try to read it that way. I don’t envy WotC’s task in writing this.)
We also hit one of my favorite nodes of oddness: a description of what being hidden means. This is something that only exists in RPGs and it blows my mind. We have several paragraphs dedicated to giving mathematical definitions of a plain english word that could serve just as well. It’s amazing, and while I’d argue it’s pointless cruft from a design perspective, WotC certainly has to include it for their audience.
In the same vein there’s an extended section on Noticing vs. Finding, which they equate to Wisdom vs. Intelligence: your Wisdom tells you how likely you are to notice something, but your Intelligence might help you find a thin outline of a door in an otherwise ordinary wall. Kudos to them for using cultural touchstones (Sherlock and Tarzan) as examples. At first I thought those particular choices were a little weak, erring on the side of classics instead of stuff younger people might really get, but now that I think about it we’ve got Sherlock in two TV series and a movie franchise, plus a Disney Tarzan, so maybe those are actually brilliant choices.
For a while we had something similar in Dungeon World, and my experience with it there is that if you have to spend that long describing how two things are different, they’re probably not different enough. With the legacy of D&D here (and so many built-in expectations) WotC is in a tough point, and this is a well-formed middle road. It allows them to use both Intelligence and Wisdom as overlapping things while still explaining that they don’t overlap.
Their other options are to make the two stats more distinct or to embrace the overlap. Making them more distinct risks a break with previous versions of D&D, but it would get rid of any confusion. Embracing the overlap, however, might be even more powerful in the framework they’ve established. If both Wisdom and Intelligence can be used to, say, find a hidden door then the player’s description of their actions is important—an intuitive approach might use wisdom while a deductive one would use intelligence. The cool thing here is that it makes player descriptions a requirement. If the player doesn’t describe what they’re doing we don’t know what to roll, so the game stops.
In the combat section we hit the surprise rules, which are mercifully common sense: if someone is surprised everyone else gets to act while they miss a round. Easy!
The “new” actions Disarm and Grab reinforce that this could really be a game entirely of roll vs DC—both use common sense and an opposed roll (i.e. roll vs. DC set by opponent’s roll) and have common sense results. With their emphases on the DM making judgement calls I’m not sure spelling this out is a benefit. If they have to be spelled out though, at leas they’re simple and easy to remember. An interesting thing to note is that grab and disarm scale more like saves than attacks—there’s no guarantee your ability to do either increases.
The combat section also includes the HP rules. This isn’t a topic they need to be concerned with now, but moving these rules to their own section might be beneficial, as it encourages the taking- and healing-of-damage as the situation demands, instead of a combat-sepcific mechanic.
The new experimental rules on healing are an interesting direction: both do away with Hit Dice. The second experiment is particularly interesting as it introduces the bloodied mechanic which actually adds a semi-long-term debility mechanic to D&D. D&D has usually only had two ways of damaging a character: the very temporary loss of HP and the permanent loss of ability scores (or HP, or whatever). Bloodied adds a middle ground where, if you fall below half your HP, going above half our HP is tougher—you can’t do it with a rest.
The problem that I see with the second experiment is the Refocus action, which allows you to make a Con check to regain HP (without the bloodied limit). It speaks to the goal of making dedicated healers non-essential, but it seems very mechanical. If I can really just focus on making myself better for 6 seconds and regain HP, why don’t I just do that non-stop outside of combat, negating the need for any other rest mechanic? Even if the mechanic is limited to in combat (which doesn’t make a lot of sense within the fiction of the game), why not just draw out combat so that everyone can make some more Refocus checks?
Both experiments are interesting, mostly for how they break some of the assumptions that we’ve seen in next so far. More, please!
In the spell area, concentration is back as a mechanic. Nothing surprising here for anyone who played 3rd edition.
And that wraps up How to Play. When I thought this doc had been trimmed to three pages I absolutely loved it. Reading through the entire thing less so—it’s still a solid game, but one that takes a considerable page count to describe. I’m now really considering how a 3-page How to Play doc would look…
3. Character Creation
On to the next doc in the recommended reading order: Character Creation. The quick summary of chargen:
- (Optional) Have a concept in mind
- Generate ability scores
- Choose a race
- Choose a class
- (Optional) Choose a background
- (Optional) Choose a specialty
- Assign ability scores
- Figure out combat numbers
- Finishing touches (equipment, description, alignment
Nothing too surprising here, though I wonder about the ordering a little. My first thought was that it went from most important to least important, but that doesn’t seem accurate (you only know your specific ability scores in step 7). Then I thought maybe it went chronologically—from your character’s earliest background to current class—but that isn’t the case either. Steps 3–6 pretty much flow from most general to most specific, but then 7 seems out of order.
Well, I’ve made a quick character, easy enough. Reading through an entire race or class writeup is a bit of a task (they’re very wordy) but the entire process was pretty painless.
The thing that stands out the most is the equipment for backgrounds. Each background that I looked at had at least one piece of equipment that was bursting with potential, like a bounty hunter with a “collection of ‘Wanted’ broadsheets.” Or a soldier with a “lucky charm, souvenir of a previous military campaign (a weapon taken from an enemy, a scar, a medal, or some similar item), rank insignia.” Stuff like that is pure gold for asking leading questions or integrating the DM’s knowledge of the world into the characters. It’s adventure hooks galore, basically.
As a player, I’d be ready to play now. That seems pretty accurate: I have a basic understanding of how the system works, a specific character made. There are some topics (like dice) that presume some gamer know-how, but that’s fine for a test doc—right now existing gamers are the audience.
4. DM Guidelines
Obligatory note you’ve probably heard before: I hate the term “guidelines.” It doesn’t really communicate what these are: DM tools, DM skills, DM rules, DM procedures—take your pick.
Anyway, on to the actual content. I’d like to imagine that the introductory paragraphs are inspired by recent games like They Became Flesh and the Adventure Burner for Burning Wheel that clearly state what the GM is here to do. According to D&D Next the golden rules of DMing are:
- You’re in charge
- “the DM’s power comes with responsibility”
I had to use an actual quote for the second one so you wouldn’t think I got lost and started reading Spider-Man instead.
The explanatory text on the second golden rule of DMing makes it much clearer what they’re getting at here: be impartial, don’t force your story on the players, challenge them. That’s some pretty good stuff, and I wish they spent more time on how those work and how you can do them, but as goals they’re pretty good.
The first point though I have some problems with. They begin on solid ground—the rules are a tool—but get a little weird. I’m not sure I agree that the DM is responsible for the game. The DM is responsible for the world, sure, and a good DM can make for a great game—but so can a good player. The DM has a myth of being more important to the game because their role isn’t redundant—if you have 3 good players and 1 crappy one the game is likely to still be pretty great. Since there’s usually only one DM they’re a single point of failure. You don’t usually see a game with one good DM and one mediocre one.
There are some games exploring the multi-GM space though. How We Came to Live Here and They Became Flesh both have multiple GMs responsible for different aspects of the world. It’s an amazing idea that makes the role of GM as flexible as that of the player.
Anyway, back to D&D Next. I’m not a fan of the first point, but it’s to be expected. Right now the Wizards of the Coast stance is that the rules aren’t at all involved in making your game awesome (as they repeated several times in the GenCon keynote). That’s not entirely false, people do make a game—but the rules play a role too. It’s also an interesting stance for a company that’s aiming to sell you new rules to take.
The DM doc is really the core of the game. So far we’ve covered what the DM does, the next session is when to roll dice. Again, I’m glad they deal with this so directly. A friend of mine used to routinely stump gamers by asking “when do you roll the dice?” about their favorite system. It’s not always an easy thing to answer, so it’s cool that D&D Next spells it out.
Even more interesting, the discussion of when to roll starts out with a weak version of “say yes or roll the dice.” They start out by saying you often don’t need to roll, and then give ridiculously lame examples like walking across a room. It’s worth mentioning that walking across a room doesn’t take a check, but what about running across a room? Running across a room full of caltrops? Running across a room full of caltrops while being chased by a mad slobbering orc?
The two questions that they give as guidance for when to call for a roll are:
- Is the action being taken so easy, so free of stress or conflict, or so appropriate to the situation that there should be no chance of failure?
- Is the action being taken so inappropriate or impossible that it would never work?
The first question is the interesting one. It calls on so many factors—ease, conflict, appropriateness—that it covers a huge amount of ground and is a little tough to parse. It judges fictional positioning (ease), narrative positioning (conflict), and compatibility with the DM’s wishes (appropriate) for a pretty weird mixture.
As we get to the guts of how to roll we hit the comment that attacks, checks, and saves are essentially the same thing. That’s an interesting thing to find here, especially since the DM is essentially a game designer too. Based on this (if I didn’t think through it too carefully) I’d hand out save bonuses for leveling up as freely as skill bonuses, which actually doesn’t appear to fit the model of the game. Likewise, a dedicated attack character’s attack bonus needs to actually rise slower than their skill bonus.
Not much has changed here, though the section on Engaging the Players is oddly backwards. Instead of calling for a roll when a player takes an action that causes it, you invite players to describe what they’re doing to make a check. Encourage people to describe stuff and give bonuses for it, unless it’s combat, then you shouldn’t mess with it.
After skills we get to some truly odd miscellaneous rules. Rounding down, creature sizes, illumination, and holding you breath are all covered in this section. I’m a little confused…
Anyway, the doc rounds out with Encounters and Rewards, the DM toolkit for making adventures. Considering this is a newer addition I was hoping for some inspiration, but there’s really nothing new here. Modulo some math, this could be right out of the 3E DMG, as far as I can tell.
Now, as a DM, I should know how to run the game. I’m not quite sure that’s true. They’re very good and clear about how to handle specific things, like making a combat encounter or calling for a check, but I think I’d be at a loss for what I’m actually going to do when I sit down at the table. One of the coolest elements of many games, notably Sorcerer, is giving the GM tools to get a game started. This is something that D&D lost along it’s evolution—Moldvay clearly said “start outside a dungeon.”
If I’ve got some very outspoken players, a lot of creativity, some knowledge from another game, or a published adventure, yeah, I’m probably ready to play.
The last stop on our reading tour is the bestiary. There’s not much of note here: the monsters are mercifully simple, fairly compact, a little boring to read, but so long as you focus on what’s actually happening in the game, not their spelled out attacks, they should work fine.
There are a few bits of greatness sprinkled in—the vrock has an ability that could really shape a fight. Most of the monsters though lack anything to describe them other than stats. I don’t actually know was an orog even is, but I know how fast it moves, it’s AC, and damage. I prefer these compact useful stat blocks, but some indication of what this monster actually is would be a boon.
So that’s what D&D Next looks like these days. It doesn’t do much to change my opinion—completely solid, but I can’t see anything so interesting that I’d really be excited to play. That may be a problem for WotC, since they’re driving so much of their design on player feedback. As players like me slowly lose interest their numbers will tend to skew higher, since only the people who like it enough to still play will respond. Since they’ve got dedicated polling folks I’m sure they’re on top of that, but it’s not a position I envy. As the tweaks become smaller the desire to pay attention diminishes, and with this game still a year or more away that could be trouble.
With this release schedule for playtests it actually feels a bit like D&D Next is already out. We’ve got a core book with four classes and a few adventures. We expect to see some class supplements soon, as well as more adventures and monsters. Sounds like the first year of life for a new D&D edition, but this one hasn’t even launched.
Product concerns aside, for their audience I think the D&D Next design team is doing a pretty great job. It doesn’t do much to excite me, but the serious rethinking that would get me excited might be too big a risk for a company like WotC to take at this point. Given the audience they want to reach, this is a solid start. Let’s see what the next year brings.