Monday, January 30, 2012

My impressions on D&D Next

Well, it’s been an intense weekend! These days I’ve been too busy absorbing all that information about D&D Next and posting about it, with little time to stop and think how these changes will affect the game. Until now. In today’s post, I’m sharing my initial impressions on the new game – from my personal perspective as a 4E fan considering whether or not to switch editions when Next comes out.

4E features I need

To begin with, I originally had a list of must-have features that were key to my enjoyment of 4E, and I expected the new edition to keep. Given how much the designers like to emphasize the old school flavor and mechanics in D&D Next, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of modern concepts introduced in this last edition are making the cut – including most of my favorite ones!

Here is the feature list, with comments on how they are getting implemented:

  • Tactical gameplay – A battle map and lots of mechanics that care about movement and positioning. It seemed difficult to actually have this in a game that was also aimed at folks who hate minis and squares, but they are including it as an option – the so-called “tactical rules module”. So far, it looks good to me.
  • At-Will attacks – Variety of at-will attacks will be available to both casters and non-casters. It’s unclear whether you will have them by default, or you’ll need to spend feats for them, but that’s fair game. Also, martial at-wills seem to be stronger than those of casters, which seems like a good mechanical niche for these classes.
  • Complex non-magical characters – The ‘dumb fighter’ archetype will exist in the game, but will not be the only way to play that class. The devs have promised more complex martial maneuvers will be available for those interested.
  • Non-magical healing – Little is known about this issue at this point, but it looks like at least some warlord builds will be able to heal without resorting to wands, gods, or other sorts of magic. I’d also like to see a second wind rule and something like healing surges in 4E, but that is more dubious.
  • Easy DM preparation – From what we have been told, the new game will be as easy to prepare for the DM as 4E, if not more! Monsters don’t follow the same detailed rules as PCs, and can be created in 5 minutes.
  • All classes are viable – This is the weakest point of the new edition, in my opinion. Obviously it’s too early to tell, and I haven’t even read a single character sheet, but some of the stated design principles will make it very difficult to have all character classes remain at as close a power level as I’d like. With the use of Vancian magic and, more generally, the eschewing of a common class framework, class balance should be hard to implement but still not impossible. What worries me more is the notion that non-combat class abilities can compensate for combat deficiencies (and vice versa) – I’d be willing to accept small deviations (say, classes that are 20% more or less efficient at combat/non-combat encounters), but I’m afraid that we will end up seeing something far more exaggerated.

    New features I like

    Though keeping the cool parts of the previous edition is a great thing, I wouldn’t bother trying out a new game unless it brought something new to the table. So far, it looks like there are a few nice ideas there, but nothing that moves me to immediately pre-order the books:

  • Lower bonus scaling – Attacks and defenses will grow at a slower pace in the new edition. I think this will improve the game, as it will let me play with wider ranges of levels for players and monsters - previously it was pretty hard to have parties of different-level adventurers, or encounters where the monsters had more than 3 levels of difference with the party.
  • Monster longevity – Thanks to the previous point, monsters will have a much longer useful life than the ~5 levels they had in 4E. If we are to believe the initial hype, a humble orc will still be a relevant threat to high level adventurers (though you will need lots of them to fill an encounter!). Conversely, we can assume that a single high level monster can be dropped on a low level party without the game breaking. I think this should make encounter design even easier and more fun. We can also expect minions, elite monsters and solos to be partially or completely replaced by monsters of very high or very low levels, in this model.
  • Skill system – I am moderately optimistic about the skill system, from what we have seen so far. Relying more heavily on ability scores and having many simple checks succeed automatically sound like great ideas, to me. The open-ended skill list might end up too fiddly and full of highly specific bonuses, but the fact that you can ignore that module reduces the risk.
  • Flexible multiclass – Not that we know much about the actual multiclass rules, but the stated goals of making them easy and flexible are something I fully agree with.
  • Emphasis on exploration – You won’t often hear me criticizing 4E, but if there is one thing that game was terrible at, it was exploration. Since this happened outside of combat encounters, the risk was usually reduced to losing a healing surge or two, and there was little excitement or fun. I have been toying around with some house rules to address this, but I’m glad that having proper exploration mechanics is going to be a priority for D&D Next
  • Faster mechanics – This is not a stated goal, but a consequence of streamlining the game for fans of earlier editions. Many of the changes point towards a faster-paced game, which is something I approve of. The option to resolve less important fights quickly without resorting to a map is also an interesting one, as much as I enjoy the full-fledged tactical combat.
  • Priest class – This may be a minor detail, but there were comments about splitting the cleric into two divine spellcasting classes: the classic D&D armored cleric, and the priest, a divine caster and healer wearing robes and with less emphasis on weapon use. Oddly enough, the priest archetype, though barely supported on previous D&D editions, is the more iconic fantasy character, even on D&D fiction like the Dragonlance series – and one I personally prefer.

    Stuff I’m wary of

    Though my opinion of D&D Next is mostly favorable at this point, there are a few things that might spoil the game for me, depending on how they are implemented. They are the following:

  • Ability-boosting items I don’t like them, and I don’t think they contribute anything good for the game. I hope they kill them, or severely limit their effectiveness.
  • 3 Pillar balance : The three pillars of the game will be combat, roleplaying and exploration. A class may be more focused on one of these over the others. I think this is an error, and prefer to clearly separate combat and non-combat features.
  • Vancian magic balance : Having Vancian magic that is well balanced with other resource management systems is not impossible, but will require a lot of effort.
  • Rollling abilities by default : I shouldn’t be bothered by this, since the option to use point buy still exists. Nevertheless, I’m afraid that this as a default may make for a poor game experience for starting players.
  • Saving throws instead of attacking vs defenses : I loved attacking vs Fortitude, Reflex and Will in 4E, and don’t particularly enjoy the move back to saving throws. I’ll probably houserule this in my games to have attacker roll against static values.
  • Roleplaying to use different saving throws: This sounds like a good idea in theory, but can get old very soon. Unless there are heavy limitations on this, you’ll end up with bard players trying to justify using their Charisma based for every attack.
  • Return to the old cosmology : Again, I shouldn’t mind something that is easy to ignore in my games, but I really liked some aspects of 4E cosmology (like the feywild and other new planes), and I’d wish they were still supported.
  • Are combat roles dead? : This is speculation, but we have heard nothing about combat roles in the new edition. Knowing it is a very delicate issue with old school fans, chances are we won’t be seeing them, at least in an explicit way.


    I’m not sold yet, but I’m moderately interested. Let’s see how the playtest turns out.

    So, what do you think? Did you like the previews, or have you decided the new game is not for you?

    1. I have a number of intermixed feelings on what I've seen of D&D Next.

      - The reactionary, marketing-based design focus is disappointing. There is nothing intrinsically great about past ways of doing things, and "let's design a game that target demographic X will buy" almost always loses to "let's design a game made to produce awesome play experience Y". 4e is the only D&D that's had a coherent idea along the lines of the latter.

      - Along similar lines, "please all the people all the time" is a foolish goal. Especially when a huge chunk of all-the-people is quite happy with what they're playing already (Pathfinder, various OSR games) and couldn't care less if WotC imploded like a stuck balloon. This way of thinking is likely to create a bland mush of a game. I especially think they haven't given due thought to the idea of different players at the same table using radically different rulesets.

      - What specifics we've seen have me hopeful that I'll be able to build a 4e-like play experience using rules modules they've announced, though. The reboot would then be advantageous in its capacity to blow away cruft in classes, feats, magic items, and so forth.

      - Depending on what they do with OGL/GSL/???, there's some hope that a third party might do the cool things WotC's conservatism won't allow them to. See e.g. Sage La Torra's "Syntax Error" blog and its discussion of "playstyle modules".

    2. Saving throws instead of attacking vs defenses : I loved attacking vs Fortitude, Reflex and Will in 4E, and don’t particularly enjoy the move back to saving throws. I’ll probably houserule this in my games to have attacker roll against static values.

      Roleplaying to use different saving throws: This sounds like a good idea in theory, but can get old very soon. Unless there are heavy limitations on this, you’ll end up with bard players trying to justify using their Charisma based for every attack.

      These are two of my biggest concerns out of your last two posts as well. I really appreociated the way you broke down what WotC is saying.

      I love AC/F/R/W defenses and the way you get the better of 2 stats for the defense bonus. I just rolled a 4d6/drop low PC for a 4E game and have *3* sub 10 stats. By careful thought, stat placement and racial bonuses, I have a Minotaur Warlord that is competent and has no defense penalties. I can't do that if all 6 stats are defense scores.

    3. ...and you know, there's a missed opportunity if they go with saving throws instead of ability-scores-as-defenses. If carefully tuned, you could have the ability scores be the target numbers for those types of attack, making the score itself, as opposed to the modifier, *relevant* again!

    4. Heh. The idea of "ability score as DC" is VERY elegant, but I think it wouldn't work all that well if implemented. Since the average roll must be a 10, and the system must go all the way up to 18, you'd have a huge spread of defense values, making attacks way too swingy.

      That said, in an alternate universe, where ability scores could be decoupled from the 3d6 range... that would be an awesome system.

    5. muy interesante tu artículo.
      acudiré sin duda más veces aquí a enterarme de las novedades de D&D next en la medida que mi inglés me lo permita.

      un saludo

    6. I agree with much of what you posted on the blog. I am apprehensive about buying a whole new set of books after just four years! I felt they added powers/feats/themes too fast in their effort to keep new content coming. A 2009 rogue is much weaker than a 2012 rogue. I like having lots of options, but some were just too powerful.

      I also agree that I enjoy attacking NAD's (fort, reflex, will) and chosing attacks on which one we think is weakest. It adds an important strategy element to the game. I don't want to switch back to auto-spell damage, save-or-die, and "magic resistance." That was one of the worst parts of 3.Xe.

      I agree that I like the idea of the second wind and healing surges, but I thought they gave us too many surges with too few restrictions in 4e. Every new player I met rolled their eyes at so much healing. I hope they can fix this in the next edition.

      I agree that the scaling was messed up. It seems silly that a high level blob could have so few HP and such a high reflex defence. I can think of two suggestions to fix the scaling problem. Weapon/Impliment expertise feats should be a static +1, not +1 per tier; and magic weapons should only add damage bonus, not attack bonus.

      I hope they keep the impliment as a instrument of channelling magic, not just a spell storage device. The changes to magic users attacks, impliments, and at-wills were the best improvement in 4e, IMO.