Thursday, May 31, 2012

D&D Next Pregens (Round 1)

Lightfoot Halfling Rogue
Halfling traits allow you to hide behind creatures larger than you, and to re-roll something twice per day.  I find the hiding thing to be a bit silly, but whatever.  This Rogue has the Commoner background (backgrounds determine skills) which allows you to choose a common profession, gaining knowledge and contacts relevant to your trade.  You also gain the skills Animal Handling, Commerce, and Folklore (as you can see, the skills are very open-ended and almost resemble Traits in The One Ring).  Training in a skill gives you a +3 bonus to any relevant attribute check. 

Rogue builds are known as "schemes," and this guy is a Thief.  This seems to be a heavily skill-based scheme, with less of an emphasis on combat.  You can hide while only lightly obscured (or with only a quarter cover), you gain knowledge of Thieves' Cant, and you have training in Open Locks, Find/Remove Traps, and Stealth.  Aside from your scheme, a Rogue also has Skill Mastery, which lets you take 10 if you roll lower than that with a trained skill.  One bug related to this is that the Rogue pregen is just 1 away from auto-succeeding at finding any trap in the sample adventure.  Given that perception is a Wisdom roll, and this Rogue has a Wisdom of 8, that's very problematic.  Unless adjusted, most Rogues will earn too many auto-successes.  Finally, Rogues get free Thieves Tools and, of course, the ability to Sneak Attack.  For the 3 levels provided, Sneak Attack scales by 1D6/level.  That could get messy.  Additionally, while it's not worth spending your action to Hide just for Sneak Attack at level 1, by level 3 it becomes a more viable tactic.  That's my biggest sticking point with this Rogue; a signature ability varies in its viability based on level. 

The Rogue's theme is Lurker, which gives him various perks while hiding.  Themes are really just pre-selected feats, and the designers talk about them as defining how you do your job.  In broad terms, class is your combat abilities (and sometimes a few extras), background gives you skills, and theme is your style (how you use your abilities). 

Hill Dwarf Fighter
I've seen a lot of complaints about this Fighter being too simple.  The designers assure us that a more tactical 4E-style Fighter is forthcoming, and I don't lament that they decided to test drive the core rules with the simple version.  They need to get the simple Fighter balanced and polished before they can design something more complicated, after all. 

Hill Dwarves apparently get a boost to their Hit Die size, racial weapon affinities take the form of moving the damage die one step up, and Dwarves also get a list of other nifty racial traits (immunity to poison, low light vision, no speed penalty for being encumbered, and the ability to identify stonework and not get lost underground).

The Fighter's background is Soldier, and this lets him perform strenuous physical activity twice as long as normal.  This is things like forced marches, holding your breath, etc.  The trained skills that he gets are Intimidate, Perception, and Survival.  These are a nice set of skills!  I love how base skills are divorced from class now; no more being a second-class skill user just because you're a Fighter. 

Simply put, Fighters have good armor, good weapon proficiencies, deal the most damage, and are tough.  That's all this simple Fighter is, really, is class-based "better numbers."  His theme (Slayer) provides a little more variety, however.  The Reaper feat lets him deal Str mod damage even on a miss, and at 3rd level he gets Cleave, which lets you make another melee attack when you kill something.  Nice!  Oh yeah, and at 2nd level he gets something called Fighter's Surge, which is basically a twice per day action point. 

Depending on what kind of guidance DMs are given on how to adjudicate improvised actions even the simple Fighter has the potential to be fairly interesting.  Specifically, I don't think it would be a stretch to allow players to tack improvised actions onto their attacks (push enemies back, knock them prone, etc.) to "create" 4E style powers on the fly.  Possible drawbacks might include a penalty to the attack, attacking with disadvantage, granting advantage to your opponents, or sacrificing some of your damage. 

Human Cleric of Pelor
Humans appear to get bonuses in all of their attributes, and not much else.  Interesting.  This guy's background is priest, and that gives him free services when in a temple to his god.  He also gains Diplomacy, Insight, Religious Lore, and Wilderness Lore as trained skills. 

Clerics are kind of what you'd expect; they get a decent Hit Die, can wear good armor, get decent weapon selection, and they cast spells.  They seem to get fewer spells than the Wizard, but can cast from a list of chosen spells spontaneously!!!  I really hope that the Druid gets to do this as well.  This Cleric gets Radiant Lance as his at-will spell (basically a big laser), as well as Detect Magic.  He can also cast Cure Light Wounds, Spiritual Hammer, and Searing Light (a bigger laser).  Clerics can also use Channel Divinity 4x/day, but you only start out with Turn Undead.  You can channel other stuff as you level. 

This pregen has the Healer theme, and it really turns him into a healbot.  Your start with the Herbalism feat, which is basically "make antitoxin, healing potions, and healing kits for half price!"  I can't say that I like this, as it hearkens back to the "spend gold for healing!" logic of 3rd edition (can we say "Wand of Cure Light  Wounds?").  At 3rd level you maximize healing dice.  Sick. 

Mountain Dwarf Cleric of Moradin
Same traits as the Hill Dwarf, except I'm presuming the stat bonus is different.  Also, it appears to get +1 to AC instead of a Hit Die increase, and its racial affinity is for hammers, not axes.  Ok, cool. 

This guy's background is Knight (can we say "Paladin?"), which gives you social perks when around nobility or others who recognize your station.  You also gain training in Animal Handling, Diplomacy, Heraldic Lore, and Religious Lore. 

The reason why 2 Cleric pregens were chosen was to highlight how your god can alter the playstyle of the class.  Indeed!  Whereas the Cleric of Pelor is a "zappy, zappy laser, oh you're hurt here's a heal spellcaster" this guy's very much an in-your-face warrior who buffs himself with his divine magic.  His only at-will is Death Ward (which lets you stabilize your dying friends), and his prepared spells are Crusader's Strike (my hammer does more damage!), Divine Favor (buff those attacks!), and Healing Word (I'll heal you just a little bit as I'm smacking someone in the face).  Again, he can choose to cast any of these spontaneously (but only 2x/day). 

This PC has the most interesting Theme of the bunch, since as a Guardian he's kind of a defender.  At 1st level you can use your reaction to give an attacker disadvantage when they attack an adjacent ally (you partially block it with your shield).  At third level you say "you shall not pass!" to creatures your size or smaller, and they stop their movement when they enter your reach.  Still not quite as functional as a 4E defender's mark + punishment, so we'll see how this develops. 

High Elf Wizard
I'm sure the Elf gets some "hidden" stuff not directly stated on the character sheet (like the die increases of the Dwarves), but I don't know what they are.  They do get their immunity to charm and sleep, auto-advantage to listen/search/notice, and low light vision. 

The Sage background is thematic, and its Researcher trait allows you to know where to find a piece of information even if you fail a Lore check.  Trained skills are Forbidden Lore, Magical Lore, Natural Lore, and Religious Lore.  Forbidden Lore sure looks interesting (if situational)!

So casting restrictions are back.  As in, you can't cast spells while wearing any type of armor, and when you take damage you have to make a Con check if you try to cast a non at-will spell.  If you fail the action is wasted (but the spell isn't used).  Wizards also have to prepare the exact spell that they want to use from their spellbook (didn't prepare Burning Hands, can't use it).  Yeah, I like the Cleric's magic better.  This Wizard does get a lot of spells, though.  And his prepared spells do seem to be a good deal better than the Cleric's.  Burning Hands, Comprehend Languages, Shield, and Sleep are your 1st level spells, and your at-wills (minor spells) are Detect Magic, Light, Mage Hand, Magic Missile, Ray of Frost, and Shocking Grasp.  Ray of Frost does no damage but reduces speed to 0, which is interesting (you need to make a ranged attack to hit - oh, and a ranged attack with magic means you use your Int vs AC, so no need to have a decent Dex score just to hit stuff). 

Two of those minor spells come from the Wizard's theme, Magic User.  At 3rd level you get a familiar (which you can use touch spells with, hello Shocking Grasp!).  Familiars are more like their 4E incarnations, in that they don't die permanently and you don't have to worry about Con loss.

D&D Next Initial Impressions

So the playtest is out, I've had time to digest the material, and I even played a short session with some non-gamer friends.  Below are my commentary on various elements (note that this is based on the May 24th Playtest Packet).

The Core and Skills
The core system is really solid.  Its strengths are simplicity, mechanical consistency, and (mostly) transparent math.  I'm also a big fan of the flexibility.  Essentially, all d20 rolls are either attribute checks or variants thereof.  Even saving throws fall under their purview; there is a saving throw for each attribute, depending on the specific effect (for example, if something is best resisted or avoided by the use of intellect, you'd make an Int save).  Since everything boils down to attribute checks, improvising actions is more intuitive.  Because of clunkier math, in previous editions it often wasn't mechanically advantageous to "resort to" attribute checks, but in Next it actually works.  Skills are an add-on to this system rather than a separate subsystem unto themselves.  The open-endedness of skills also caters to improvisation really well, and rewards creativity with mechanical advantages.  One of the big keys here is NOT tying a skill with a specific attribute.  Finally, one of the major design goals is to support virtually any style of play via modularity.  You could run a 1st Ed style game, a 4E style game, etc. but (presumably) without the quirks and bugs of those editions. 

Gridless Combat
It's not inherently better or worse, but it is a specific tool in a DM's toolbox.  One of 4E's big weaknesses is that it's extremely difficult to run combats gridless.  While tactical depth is a huge strength of the system, from the scale of the adventure it's inflexible in that the system pushes DMs toward big set piece battles almost exclusively.  If Next is able to replicate 4E's tactical depth (or near enough) for big set piece battles but allow for simple gridless skirmishes using the same rules then it'll be a huge win. 

The idea here is an extension of situational modifiers like combat advantage.  Instead of adding a +2 or a +4 to your roll, you get to roll 2 D20s and take the best result (if you have advantage) or the worst result (if you have disadvantage).  While it's admittedly more difficult to simulate degrees of advantage using this system it does offer the tactile pleasure of rolling more dice, requires less math/bookkeeping, and is easier to apply after-the-fact.  Besides, it's not like modifiers are completely gone (for example, half cover still provides +2 to AC and Dex saves, whereas three quarters cover provides +5 to AC and Dex saves).

One of the big weaknesses of this playtest in my opinion is that Opportunity Attacks (OAs) are not in the core rules.  Combined with the fact that you can split up your movement (move 10 feet, attack, move 20 feet), and it's really easy to ignore the beefy melee guys and bash on the squishies.  Which realistically doesn't make sense.  A guy with a sword (who knows how to use it effectively) isn't going to let you traipse on by to beat up his friend.  A common complaint regarding OAs is that they slow down combat.  Quick combat is nice and all, but there needs to be something in place to give enemies a reason for fighting the Fighter.  Personally I don't think that OAs suck up too much time (indeed, if a lot of extra attacks are rolled they could end a combat quicker), but there are also a few alternative systems.  One is that enemies who walk past a melee guy attack with disadvantage.  Another is that to get past you need to roll a Dex contest (opposed Dex checks).  Finally, something that Mike Mearls (lead designer) proposed in a live chat is that if you want to disengage you can give up your action (attack) to do so, and if you opt not to do that only then will your opponent get a free swing (in other words, it's standard OA rules but they can be avoided for the price of an action).

It's Vancian, but so far not so bad.  The spells are more balanced than in previous incarnations, with many of the deadliest and/or most debilitating effects having HP thresholds (i.e. sleep cuts movement in half, but only creatures with 10 HP or less need to make a Wis save or fall unconscious).  Casters also have at-will spells so they aren't stuck shooting crossbows or throwing daggers when they run out of spells.  The number of spells is also reigned in (as is spell scaling).  This will not only maintain better balance, but reduce bookkeeping.  Consider me cautiously optimistic, but fearful of eventual power creep.

Healing and Resting
You can heal yourself non-magically, rolling your HD to regain health each day.  I don't think it provides enough self-healing (at least not compared with healing surges), so dependency on magical healing and/or magic items is likely to be high.  I'll need to see how it plays out over the long term before I pass judgement on it, but so far I'm not liking it.  

The designers admit that they've spent the least time working on monsters, and it definitely shows.  It's a far cry from 4E's concise, functional stat blocks.  Monsters lack variety (there's not much difference between a kobold and goblin except AC, HP, and attack values), and those that do get some neat toys (casters) use the PC spell list, which is STUPID.  I want everything I need to run a monster contained in its stat block; I do NOT want to have to cross reference several spells on different pages of a player's book.  Finally, in the sample adventure the condensed monster stats omit the monster's attribute scores/modifiers.  Given how important attributes are in the core rules this decision completely lacks any semblance of logic. 

Caves of Chaos
This updated version of a classic adventure module is what we're given in the first playtest.  I won't go into details, but I really like the sandbox nature of the adventure.  Even the layout of the map resists railroading.  Also making a comeback is the notion that not everything you encounter is wise to fight.  Specific instructions on having monsters call for reinforcements is provided, so players who make foolish decisions could end up way over their heads really quickly (whereas clever players will benefit from making wise decisions).

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

D&D Next Playtest Tomorrow!

My reactions to various details over the course of these several months has been very hit-or-miss.  I'm excited to actually get my hands on some mechanics so that I can judge for myself.  Lately I've liked what I've heard, so I'm really optimistic about this. 

Oddly, one thing I'm looking forward to is the simple, bare-bones "core" that lies at the center of 5E's modular design.  Several weeks ago I got a request for a quick game with a mix of new and very inexperienced players, and I just didn't have the energy (or inclination) to work up some pre-gens and design something with 4E, not to mention that I didn't have my battlemat, markers, minis, tokens, condition tracking paperclips, and power cards with me.  I would have run The One Ring (since it's a simpler game with faster character generation), but it caters to a very specific tone and setting (obviously, being set in Middle Earth) and that wasn't quite what I would have gone for.  To sum it up, I never ran the game and wished I had a really simple system that would have made it easier. 

I've looked at some 1st and 2nd edition stuff, as well as D20 Microlight and some of the retro-clones, and they all have some combination of out-dated, clunky mechanics, rules that I'm not familiar with, and balance issues, among other things.  Looking at it from this angle, it would be phenomenal if I could run a simplified game for a new group with the same rules (familiarity is key when GMing) that I use for my regularly gaming groups minus any tactical/complex modules.  I think that's when the major strength of having a single, modular system really hit me. 

In any case, I'm sure I'll have more to post come tomorrow (depending on what type of agreement WotC makes you sign before accessing the playtest materials).