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My Thoughts on DnDNext after 1 Session

I got a chance to sit down with three friends of mine and run a playtest session of DnDNext. This is a review of the game after two read throughs and 1 session, using the playtest document released by Wizards of the Coast on 24 May 2012. In keeping with the requirements of the playtest agreement, I am not quoting any part of the documents outright. I am paraphrasing and placing my own interpretation upon the rules and stating that interpretation. That interpretation is my own and any mistakes are my own.

Pillars of the Game

After an initial read through of the document, I can see that the designers of this iteration of D&D are creating a foundation for the game that consists of three pillars. They are: Exploration, Combat, and Interaction. Exploration is the part if the game in which the PCs will be interacting with the environment. Combat is, of course, the part of the game where the PCs will be fighting things. Interaction is the part of the game where the PCs role-play with NPCs and each other. These three things are not mutually exclusive and are intermingled amongst themselves during a session. Also let me be clear that the text is not written in such a way as to imply that these are separate parts of the game to be segregated. Instead, it implies that these three pillars of the game are equally as important as each other.

Checks

The game runs on a very basic mechanic referred to as a check. A check is what you perform when you want to know if your PC succeeded in accomplishing the thing the PC was trying to do. Checks come in four flavors: 1) Versus a Difficulty Class (DC), 2) Contests, 3) Attacks, and 4) Saving Throws.

Versus a DC: Just as it sounds, a PC attempts to perform an action and rolls a d20 plus modifiers. The DM determines the target DC and if you match or exceed the DC, your PC succeeds in the task. This is the most basic way of handling the uncertainty in completing tasks and the DM is given advice/guidelines on how to assign a DC for a given task. The thing that struck me about checks in the playtest document that was not highlighted well in the past two editions of the game is that every check a PC will do maps directly back to an attribute. The first direction the DM is given regarding setting a DC is to pick an appropriate ability against which the PC will check. I like this emphasis because it gives the ability scores an extra bit of gravitas – they actually mean something. It is entirely possible, in fact encouraged by the DM guidelines, for a DM to let a PC auto-succeed if a PC’s attribute score is much higher than the DC to succeed at the task.

The DM Guideline sets out the categories of DCs in a straight-forward hierarchy. A task is placed into 1 of 6 categories: trivial, Moderate, Advanced, Extreme, Master, and Immortal. Basic description of these categories and suggested values for them are provided. They seem reasonable, but I have only played one session, so do not have a vast experience with how well they scale out.

Contests: Contests are just the DnDNext language for describing opposed checks. This is what happens when two creatures have opposing goals and attempt a task at the same time. Some examples: a PC is trying to hold a door shut against a mob of kobolds trying to get in, a PC and an NPC both grab for the magic wand that flew out of the evil wizard’s hand as he was struck down, or you are sneaking around a market square and don’t want the fruit vendor to see you. To resolve these checks, each involved creature rolls a d20 plus modifiers based on the ability in use and the higher roll succeeds in the action.

If there is a tie, conditions do not change. Notice that I did not say that if there is a tie, no-one wins, because in the case of the closed door trying to be held closed, no change means the door stays closed. So in my example above, the PC would ‘win’ the contest, even though there was a tie and, technically, conditions did not change. If the rolls were reversed and the PC was trying to open the door, the PC would have been on the ‘losing’ end of the tie. In most tie cases, though, no one wins – in the wand example above, neither the PC nor the NPC would grab the wand.

Attacks: This means just what you think it does. An attacker rolls a check that includes the PC’s attack bonus and compares it to the target’s AC. If the roll meets or exceeds the AC, then the attack hits and damage is determined. Notice that I only mention AC. Fortitude, reflex, and will are no longer in the game at this point.

Saving Throws: Saving throws are checks that are made as reactions to things happening to a PC. A poison trap is triggered and exposes the PC to poison gas, for example. Or perhaps a PC is touched by a mummy and has been exposed to mummy rot. These are things that happen to a PC and the saving throw is the PC’s attempt to resist whatever bad effect might be there. The effect has a DC and that is what the check is versus.

Note that it is possible to succeed on the check but still suffer some partial consequences of exposure. In other words, there may be multiple levels of exposure risk and how well you succeed on the check informs the DM as to how badly a PC is affected by the exposure. I didn’t gt to anything like this in my session, so I can’t really speak to how well this works, but the idea makes sense to me and seems easy enough to adjudicate.

Ability Scores

DnDNext uses the same six basic iconic D&D abilities that you are probably familiar with: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. I won’t belabor this review by describing them in detail. I will say, though, that this section of the rules gives a player tips on how to use their abilities and what abilities will be called on by the DM for use in different types of checks.

One interesting thing is the return of the term ‘Hit Dice’ to the game. It is introduced in two ways in DnDNext, the first is with respect to hit points (and Constitution, which is why I bring it up here) and the second is in regards to healing during rest (see Healing, below). Every class has a type of die that is rolled to determine gained hit points on a level up – this die is referred to as a PC’s hit dice. A PC’s hit dice and constitution determine a PC’s HP.

Skills

I haven’t talked about skills yet because, so far, they are basically absent from the ‘How to Play’ document. Stealth and Perception are talked about in some detail, but they are not described as skills that are trainable or taken as part of a skill-tree hierarchy or theme. They are talked about as something that every PC will have access to and will use at some point in their adventuring career. An individual PC’s prowess at stealth and perception is determined by that individual’s dexterity and wisdom, respectively.

Lest you faint at the thought of no skills, I will tell you that there are skills in the game. You have to look at the PC sheets to find them, but they are there, so let me sidetrack myself and talk about the character sheets for a moment.

Character Sheets – Each PC has four main foci: Race, Class, Background, and Theme. Class and Race are the traditional ones we have seen in fantasy role-playing since the early 80s and tell us the expected typical things about the PC. Backgrounds and Themes are optional bits of a PC and allow for more complexity.

Skills are attached to backgrounds. The sage background of the wizard PC, for example, has a set of lore skills attached to it. This makes sense because a scholarly sage would be expected to know lots of lore regarding various arcane or natural aspects of the world. These skills give a static bonus to a PC’s check and that check is still mapped back to the basic attribute score used for that particular activity (i.e. in the case of a lore check, intelligence would be the attribute checked against).

Feats are attached to themes. While I’m at it, I might as well answer the other big question: “Are there feats in DnDNext?” Yes and No. I see no feat tables or feat trees attached to progression or levels (so far, remember that we only see PCs of levels 1-3 in the playtest). However, there are feats, but they are wrapped up in the theme chosen by the PC. The themes in the playtest give one feat. Some of the feats seem pretty powerful to me, which leads me to believe that there will not be a giant glut of feats available at every level. That is just conjecture, of course, and I am probably totally wrong, but that is how it feels to me right now.

So back to Skills… They are there, but they are attached to backgrounds, give static bonuses (i.e. they don’t seem to scale with level, as far as I can tell), and they map back to attributes. Whether or not someone can attempt to do something that would, in previous editions, have need of a skill rank or training in that skill, is now determined by circumstances, your attributes, and whether the DM thinks you can accomplish the task. If you happen to have experience with a particular thing in your past (a.k.a. your background) then you are more likely to be able to succeed.

Advantage/Disadvantage

This is the main new mechanic introduced in the playtest. The idea is that sometimes you are in a superior position when trying to accomplish a task – perhaps it is because you have the high ground in a fight, or maybe you have a magical set of lockpicking tools, or you are wearing a cloak of cold resistance when that white dragon breathes at you. In all of those cases, you are more likely to succeed because of circumstances beyond raw skill. In those cases, in game terms, you have advantage. When you have advantage and are making a check, you roll 2d20 instead of 1d20 and you take the higher result of the two dice.

By the same logic, it is possible to have disadvantage in a situation. You are running across a bridge and the wooden planks start to break beneath you, or you step in quicksand while making an attack, or you are doing some research and the town you just entered had its library sacked two weeks ago. In all of those circumstances you are less likely to succeed because of circumstances beyond raw skill. In those cases, in game terms, you have disadvantage. When you have disadvantage and are making a check, you roll 2d20 instead of 1d20 and you take the lower result of the two dice.

A nice post HERE, by the Online DM, discusses the math of this new mechanic and how much it really can change the chances of success and failure. Hint: it has a large impact.

I like this new mechanic because it stops me from having to figure out what bonus I should give for a circumstance. I know it is just as easy to say “you get a +2 to your roll,” as suggested in 4e, for example, but sometimes a +2 seemed so paltry for the task at hand, and sometimes it was almost meaningless. With the Adv/Dis mechanic, it is exciting to roll two dice and see what happens. Everyone around the table knows that the PC is much more likely to succeed with advantage and fail with disadvantage.

Also, giving advantage is what a PC does when they help a party member (a.k.a. Aid Another) and makes it much more powerful to help your friend and at the same time makes it so that only one PC needs to help, since advantages don’t stack in practice (i.e. no matter how many advantages you have, you only roll 2d20). Whether or not a helper PC grants advantage is based upon that PC’s attribute score and what they are doing to help.

Combat

Combat is very streamlined. First, the DM determines if either side is surprised. If so, each creature on the surprised side takes a -20 to their initiative roll. All creatures take turns in battle based on their initiative roll, with higher going first. The combat is over when one side has been defeated (via death, total route, negotiation, or surrender).

In combat, each creature gets to move and can take one action. There is no more standard/move/minor designation, and a creature can break up their movement with an action in the middle if they so choose. Actions aren’t really codified, so you can do pretty much anything you want to try as part of your action in combat. Some types of actions suggested by the “How to Play” document are: attack, cast a spell, coup de grace, dodge, help, hide, hustle, ready an action, search, use an item, or improvise.

This hearkens back to the so-called old-school feel of combat. You can try to do pretty much anything you would like to try and it may or may not succeed. The absence of FORT/REF/WILL makes combat easy to adjudicate since you only have to roll an attack check vs an AC value. There are some special things that can be done that are codified (i.e. the guardian cleric can use a shield to give disadvantage to the attacker when a creature attacks an ally within 5 feet) but they are not an extremely predominant feature of this version of the playtest.

Healing

Healing is one of the other new things in the playtest. Along with Adv/Dis it is the thing probably most talked about so far. Other than magical healing, a PC can regain HP through resting. There are two types of rest, Short Rest and Long rest.

A short rest is about 10 minutes long – enough time to clean and wrap wounds and use a healer’s kit if you have one. A healer’s kit works like this: a PC expends one use of the kit and can roll 1 hit die and regain that many HP + your con modifier for that use of the kit. The maximum expenditures you can have per day is bound by the number of hit dice you have. That is, at first level, you can expend one use of a kit per day. You must take a long rest in order to regain the use of your hit dice for healing.

A long rest is an 8 hour period, of which you spend 6 hours doing nothing at all strenuous or taxing… that is, no reading, no talking, no standing, no watch patrol, no nothing but sleep and/or eat for 6 of the hours. The other two hours you can do all those other things. At the end of your long rest, you regain all lost HP and all expended hit dice. You are only allowed to take one long rest per 24 hour time frame.

Magic

Magic comes in two types in the playtest document (arcane and divine), though the text hints at psionic powers being a type of mind magic that may come into play later. Arcane magic is for wizards and divine magic is for clerics. Nothing new there.

This edition brings back Vancian magic… sort of. It is a bit of a hybrid system. Each type of magic comes in a major and minor form. The minor form for wizards are called cantrips and for clerics are called orisons. These minor spells are basically at-will spells, so they aren’t Vancian which, by definition, is “cast it and forget it.” These minor spells are not all that minor, either… some of them are damaging attack spells (magic missile, radiant lance).

The major spells are cast in a more Vancian style. So a cleric or wizard has a particular number of spells that they prepare each day. Each PC can prepare all of the spells that they know at the beginning of the day without assigning them to spell slots. However, when they cast the spells, they have to use a slot. When they have no more slots, they cannot cast any more prepared spells, but they can still cast minor spells.

For example, a first level cleric can prepare all three spells that the PC knows in the morning. Then, during the day of adventuring, if they need to use the same spell twice, they can. They just use it in the first spell slot when they need to. Later that day, they use it in their second spell slot. So in this way it is still not the old-school “cast it and forget it” but rather, a mix of always-available spells and harder-to-cast draining spells that they only have so much energy for during a single day (represented by spell slots).

The level of the spell slot matters to the power of some spells. You always have to use a slot of the same level or higher for a given spell (so no 3rd level spells prepped in a 1st level slot). However, it is possible to cast a lower level spell in a higher level slot and gain some potency of effect. The text states this is the case, but I don’t recall any of the descriptions describing that in the document.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that some spells can be cast as rituals. These do not use a spell slot, but take much longer to cast and may require some extra components. A PC has to have an ability or class feature that lets them cast spells as rituals. I don’t remember any of the pre-generated PCs having this ability.

Miscellaneous

Here are some random things that I haven’t mentioned yet that bear mentioning but not too much dialogue at this point.

Conditions: There is a list of 12 conditions that may affect a creature during the game – many of them provide advantages or disadvantages, so you can see how they are working that mechanic into the meat of the system.

Save or Die: At least one creature has an effect that amounts to a save of die mechanic. That is, the Medusa, whose gaze can turn you to stone if you meet her eyes and fail a saving throw. Some people don’t like this. I don’t mind it.

Electrum Pieces: Another one that I have heard people complain about. For me, if it makes a few groups happy and improves their game, and it doesn’t hurt anyone else’s game, then why not have EP back in the game. Lot’s of people think they are sill and ridiculous (along with a 10-foot pole), but I don’t mind them. This is the sort of thing you can ignore freely if you so choose.

Tone and Wording: so one of the things about a playtest document is that you have to ignore typos, bland formatting, lack of art, and missing pieces, because you know that stuff will be added in later. But what you can pay attention to is the tone and wording of the text. The tone here is very much a ‘make the game work for you’ and ‘accentuate the fun without a heavy rule-set’ style. I like the way it is written. I can tell that they are going for a less academic tone and a more friendly, ‘let’s sit down and I’ll show you a game’ style. I like it and I hope they keep it. It is very much anti-rules-lawyer in tone. Oh, and remember the three pillars of the game I talked about at the beginning? I like that approach too.

Notes on the First Session

Okay – so that is my analysis of the rules. Let me give you some insight and my thoughts based on the playtest I ran. I will also throw in some comments from my players.

Gridless: All three of the players were 4e fans and enjoyed grid-based tactical combat in their RPG. One of them stated that he isn’t much of a ‘theater of the mind’ type player and that it was hard for him to envision and keep track of everything going on in a battle. This was problematic for him, but he adjusted – it just isn’t something he is used to. The second player doesn’t like the system – he is a very big fan of 4e and like minis and tactical grids, so this didn’t do it for him at all. He has payed many editions and he was happy when 3.x and 4e went to gridded combat. The third player said he really enjoyed it and that he felt free to experiment and do crazy things that he never would in 4e. He is new to RPGs and, while he really likes 4e and minis based combat, he thought the session was very fun.

Magic Slots and Casting Prepared Spells: When mentioned that the magic system is going more Vancian, the player who was playing a cleric sighed. He really didn’t like the sound of that, but he was a good sport and played a spell casting PC during the session. As it turns out, he likes the magic system. He doesn’t like the idea of slots – “Why not just say how many spells per day you can cast and leave it at that?” He asks. I told him that supposedly the slot you use matters later, at higher levels, when a spell can get more powerful if used in a higher slot. He liked the way the divine magic worked in play, but he is still skeptical of the slot concept and how it works (or doesn’t, in his opinion). None of the players picked a wizard to play, so I can’t really say how well it works with arcane magic, but in the first session, the magic system seemed to be a nice integration of Vancian + 4e style at-will.

Advantages & Disadvantages: I really like this new mechanic. I do think that lost of advice is going to have to be given to DMs with respect to how often to give out advantages and disadvantages. It can be a powerful wrench in the PC toolbox, but I think it can become overpowered – more sessions are needed for me to fully explore how I feel about this particular mechanic. For now, I like it.

Combat Length: Combat was very fast. I had 3 PCs and the first combat was with 9 orcs. It lasted 20 minutes and took place partly in the first room in a cave and partly outside. It was fast and easy to understand.

Skill Mastery: The rogue has a class feature, called Skill Mastery, that dictates that the minimum roll they can get on a d20 when performing a check in a skill they are trained in (ignore, for a moment, that skill training doesn’t exist in this document) is a 10. So if they roll less than 10, the basically take 10 and add their modifiers. Remember that having a skill (i.e. training) gives a +3 static bonus and then the PC gets to add their ability mod to the roll. If their mod is also +3, that basically gives the rogue a minimum roll of 16 on all open locks, find/remove traps, and stealth checks. That seemed really powerful in play for stealth. Stealth gives the rogue advantage. When a rogue hits on an attack on which they have advantage they do an extra 1d6 damage. That is a very powerful sneak attack.

Complexity: I keep hearing comments that the character sheets are nice and simple. Well… maybe it doesn’t look like it, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty reading these character sheets, there is a ton of information on there that isn’t covered in the main rules. I know that is most likely a playtest format issue, but it was surprising to me. I felt like I read things in the wrong order. I recommend reading the How to Play and then the character sheets, and then the DM Guidelines, and then the bestiary and adventure. I made the mistake of printing out the PC sheets last and reading them last and saying “holy crap, this is more complex than the other stuff makes it seem!”

How Does It Feel In Play?

Speaking of PC sheets – that is where I believe you will see much of the 3.x and 4e feel of the game get enmeshed into the system. The other documents are all very close to a 1e feel, but when you add in the PC sheet info, it brings it into a 2e/3e hybrid with snippets of 4e in there. At least, that is how it felt in play.

I think that character generation is where we will see most of the complexity in the system and that just isn’t available in this playtest. I also think that we will need to see a lot more of the optional modules that will fit on top of the core system to see the game play in all the different styles of D&D.

Overall, I don’t think 2 read throughs and 1 session of play is enough to get a good idea of how the system works. There are just so many things we didn’t get to use or experience. I will be running another game this Friday, for a different group of players – a larger group, actually, and I think we will get to more stuff. I’ll post again after that session and give some specific thoughts and suggestions.

About

DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

8 Responses to “My Thoughts on DnDNext after 1 Session”

  • Well what haven’t you covered in this article. You have covered the game in an easily understood way. Great write up Sam.

    We got a chance to playtest on Sunday night. I played the Rogue. I happened to forget the basic of take 10 on trained skills. But once I was reminded it was a great help and not over worked.

    Dis/advantage worked incredibly well for us. Asking the GM and hopefully it going in your favour is a fun addition. This mechanic must stay. A good GM will stop potential abuse.

    Combat was fast paced and fluid with everyone trying not to get hurt. Myself especially.

    A 10′ pole was a fun additional extra that I wanted to add to the play from the start because of a conversation on twitter about people hating the fact it was back. It came in very handy at least twice in our first but very short game.

    Great read look forward to your second game review.

  • Thanks for the detailed impressions!

    I will be running it sometime this week but so far after my read through I have similar thoughts.

    I do like most of what I read though.

  • Best playest column I’ve yet read on the game. Thanks for that. It seems 5e is moving closer to a lot of other games I play.

  • Nice work. Really nice work. I was going to attempt my own summary but once I read yours I realized there was no reason (that’s what attributed links are for).

  • Advantage/Disadvantage: In 4e, modifiers were usually +/-2 for minor mods and +/-5 for major mods. Not that hard to decide between. Max(2d20) is a variable bonus – +1 to +5, depending on what they need. I like a little more control and options. I’ve looked over the probabilities and how +5/+2/-2/-5 affects them in different cases and I like the flat modifiers better.

  • You make a fair point. For me it isn’t really about the bonus though, or how extreme or flat it would be – instead, it is about the fact that I don’t have to look through guidelines or tables or charts to determine how much a bonus should be, I don’t have to consult books or try to remember what I did “last time” so that I stay consistent… all I have to do is decide whether a player’s idea gives the PC advantage, disadvantage, or neither… then the dice do the work. It is much easier to make that decision quickly and consistently.

  • Thanks for the link to my Advantage math post!

    Also, you bring up a great point about the effect of helping an ally in D&D Next. I hadn’t really reflected on the fact that “multiple assists” are now redundant, which makes me happy. I’m always annoyed in 4e when a player wants to make an Arcana check to decipher some runes and four other players shout “I assist!” It’s hard to imagine the characters not getting in each other’s way. This system fixes that problem (although the effect is like having 2+ PCs assisting in 4e).

  • Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn’t find a contact email for you.

    A while ago I put out an ebook of my writing, called ‘The New Death and others’. It’s mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard’s King Kull story ‘The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune’ and HP Lovecraft’s ‘Under the Pyramids’.

    I was wondering if you’d be interested in doing a review on your blog (either a normal book review, or a review of its suitability as gaming inspiration).

    If so, please let me know your email, and what file format is easiest for you, and I’ll send you a free copy. You can email me (news@apolitical.info) or reply to this thread.

    You can download a sample from Smashwords:

    http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/92126

    I’ll also link to your review from my blog.

    Yours,
    James.