So. I finally got to play the playtest version of D&D Next. I just had time for a single session, and the rules are still at a very early and incomplete state, but I could conclude the following:
- We all had a lot of fun.
- This is my second favourite D&D (or RPG, for that matter) ruleset of all time - but 4E remains the best, in my opinion. I expect to try out the new game, and maybe play it alongside 4E, but not to replace 4E altogether.
- That said, this has given me many ideas to improve 4E...
It’s the combat, stupid
If I have to point to one reason that prevents D&D Next from becoming my game of choice, it is the fact that I don’t find its combat system as appealing as that of 4E. Simply put, 4E offers the most engaging, deep, and balanced tactical combat experience of any game I have played. This is not to say that the new system is bad at all - on the contrary, I have been impressed by its speed, its simple elegance and, yes, its balance. Again, this is an early version with only a fraction of the content of the final game, but I can see a solid foundation, and an excellent implementation of mechanics that I had previously dismissed as outdated and clunky, like Vancian magic.
I cannot emphasize this enough: I now believe Vancian magic can work. I don’t necessarily prefer it to an encounter/daily power system, but with enough checks and balances and a well polished spell list, it can be fun to play, without completely overshadowing mundane characters. And the playtest rules get it just right. At-will spells let wizards and clerics forget any nonsense about crossbows. Damaging spells are in line with martial attacks. Non-damaging spells are kept in check by target hit points, so they are actually comparable to the damage-based ones. And non-combat magic works with the skill system (more on that below), rather than against it. Overall, I’d say that this magic system is fundamentally sound, and has the potential to work quite well.
But, ultimately, the combat paradigm of D&D Next is radically different to that of 4E, and loses what I enjoyed the most about its predecessor. Rather than positioning and teamwork, combats in the new edition emphasize resource management, pre-combat preparation and improvisation - which are very respectable goals, mind you, and provided us with a lot of fun this weekend... but eventually, they are not what I am really interested in.
Over the course of our first session, the PCs slayed no less than thirty goblins and one troll, which is quite an impressive feat considering that the party consisted on 4 level 1 adventurers, there was no short rest between these encounters (though not for lack of trying!), and our gaming group has never managed to pull off more than a single 4E combat encounter in that period of time. A great advantage of the new system is that it allowed us to play without a map, with very little bookkeeping, and in highly challenging circumstances (since I was DMing while taking care of my two baby girls, one of them in my arms), and we could even keep playing through dinner (which is usually a showstopper for our 4E sessions). There is a cost to that, though.
In about thirty rounds of combat, the fighter player only used a single maneuver: basic attack, alternating between axe and javelin. Ditto for the rogue, though he at least tried to hide a couple of times. The clerics didn’t have it much better, with a couple of spells spicing up the spam of hammer and laser at-will, respectively. Still, there was a lot of back and forth, and the characters kept moving around the map, from one group of goblins to the other, and some basic tactics were involved. It was simple, fast, and fun. And yet, I couldn’t help missing the myriad of options, tricks, combinations and other subtleties of 4E.
That said, it was not bad, by any means. I’m far from an expert on classic D&D experiences, having started the game with 3.0 (and Baldur’s Gate, if that counts). But, for what it’s worth, I much prefer combat in D&D Next to that of any pre-4E edition. The game is simple, not just from lack of options, but also because needless complexity has been carefully removed. Rules and spell descriptions may be missing the textbook clarity of 4E, but they are well written, with few loopholes or room for ambiguity. First level characters are competent, without reaching the super-heroic status of 4E adventurers, and both casters and non-casters coexist without overshadowing each other. Players felt threatened at all times, and fights were tense but never hopeless (which is a sweet spot that not even 4E could often get to).
I remain curious, and mildly hopeful, about the announced tactical combat module, which is expected to 4E-ify combat encounters to some degree. But you can only add so much complexity before turning it into a completely different game, and I suspect that, at best, this module will let us get halfway between the current version of D&D Next and 4E.
Wait, is there still game after combat?
Judging only by the previous section, one might think that the best decision for our group is to give up on the new game and go back to our good old world of squares, shifts, and +1 modifiers. However, it turns out that there is one aspect of the game where D&D Next is genuinely better than my beloved Fourth Edition. And it’s what happens after the goblins are dead and the dust is settled.
D&D Next designers have said that, for this edition, they are looking at the game as having three basic pillars: Combat, Roleplaying, and Exploration. As a die-hard 4E fan, I’ll let you in on a little secret: that edition sucked at exploration.
The problem for exploring in 4E does not lie, as one would expect, in the skill system or the way character interactions are handled (though skill challenges remain hopelessly flawed, to this day). No, the responsible for killing exploration is none other than the Short Rest. Short rests were introduced in 4E as a convenient method to separate combat encounters and ensure that they could start each fight with a full load of encounter powers and hit points. The problem is, they turned out too effective. For all their awesomeness (and don’t get me wrong, they ARE awesome!), 4E combats are isolated, self-contained events, not unlike a football match or an episode of the Simpsons. You load a fancy map, take out a bunch of monsters, and five turns later, it’s all over and you can take a break to go back to your previous status (give or take a couple of healing surges or daily powers). And this pretty much makes any kind of compelling exploration impossible.
A basic premise of 4E is that, if you are not in immediate danger, you can take a break of a couple of minutes and go back to normal (or almost). Ambushed by kobolds? Doesn’t matter, if they don’t kill you, you will recover after a short rest. The same applies for any random trap in the dungeon or, god forbid, a random monster. Every combat needs to be a full featured team vs team (or team vs solo) fight, because anything less fails to present a credible threat - or any kind of attrition.
By contrast, encounters in D&D Next are much more fluid. Short rests are much weaker and limited, and take more time, so you just go from one fight to the next. Adventurers need to actively seek some safe place to take a breath. Combatants run away and pursue, reinforcements arrive, and this is not a result of pre-scripted events, but a natural consequence of the rules and environment. Encounters are fast and cheap to generate, so letting the adventurers defeat entire fights with a bit of exploration and ingenuity doesn’t seem such a bad idea.
At this point, I have a confession to make. In the 4E campaign I DM (which consists mostly of single-combat sessions, remember), I tend to err towards railroading my players a bit, or at least to decide beforehand where they will go on a session - usually by discussing it at the end of a previous session, or by an e-mail poll. The reason? I have found that I can only deliver really enjoyable combat encounters with some previous preparation, and that is not really possible if we go all freeform or sandbox-y. Not in our available timeframes, at least.
On the other hand, I have a 4E story to tell as a counterpoint. I may have mentioned this on a previous post, so forgive me if I am repeating myself. Some time ago, we were wandering around a dungeon when we encountered - a Dragon! Surprising, I know. Anyway, this was a white dragon who, rather than attacking us from the get go, decided to chat a bit. For some entertainment before a meal, I guess. Anyway, what followed was a convoluted, hilarious conversation where the adventurers ended up convincing the dragon not to kill them, and maybe even help them a bit, with no real loss on their part. The encounter was defeated in an awesome, original way. But we all felt terrible!
You see, I had spent some time tweaking the monster rules to come up with a really challenging solo. And the group knew it - they were looking forward to the fight. So we ended up closing the adventure for the day, and then started a completely different one shot game where a group of adventurers unrelated to the previous one (but with suspiciously similar sheets) happened to come across a white dragon in cool cave (did I mention there was a poster map, too?) and beat the crap out of it. The moral of the story, I guess, is: exploration is cool, but we don’t want to miss a cool 4E combat because of it.
Anyway, and to go back on track: exploration on D&D Next can be lots of fun, and is in my opinion one of of the major pulls of the game. This is possible due to a fast combat system where individual encounters are expendable, and a rest system that doesn’t automatically clean the slate after every couple of minutes. Implementing such a thing in 4E would involve fairly major system changes, but could add a whole new dimension to the game - and this is something I intend to experiment with, at some point in the future.