Wednesday, March 27, 2013

D&D Next March Playtest - The Rogue

The thing that jumps out at me most with this iteration of the Rogue is that it doesn't cater to a wide enough array of tastes.  The Rogue has traditionally occupied a wide spectrum, with near-uselessness in combat (but the only guy that got skills!) on one end, and an extremely deadly skirmisher (at the top tier of damage output) under a combat-parity paradigm at the other.  I had to check all the way back to the August 2012 packet for the last version of the Rogue that I remembered.  As unpolished as it was, the Thief vs Thug dynamic is what I'd assumed from the Rogue in Next.  The out-of-combat utility monkey AND the dirty tricks version of the Fighter, along with everything in between.

Rogue Schemes
The schemes still have the potential to bring back that spectrum into one class in the same game, but not if they're written as rigidly as they are in this packet.  Which is a tough line to walk, because this rigid structure is more foolproof in terms of game balance.  Every scheme gets two free skills, and then three bonus feats.  Unfortunately, like my problem with Fighters and maneuvers, the mess of a feats system in this current packet invariably affects the Rogue.  Many of these bonus feats are just more skills with a new name, and from a different resource pool.  It's unnecessary. 

Even more mind-boggling is the fact that skirmisher types have feat support in Next, but the Rogue doesn't get much of it for free.  Tumbling Movement is a start (2 schemes get that), but no Spring Attack?  I suppose one could make the argument that Spring Attack is a more powerful choice than the feats in the Expert category, but if that's the case then it just shows that the feat balance game has already failed.  Choices taken from the same pool of resources should be roughly comparable.  Otherwise you end up with the dreaded trap feats.  Those usually become more apparent after feat bloat has set in, but it's already a problem even with a relatively short list of feats in this playtest! 

Ultimately, this Rogue fails at providing me with what I want from a combat Rogue out of the box - a highly mobile skirmisher that can reliably pull off hit-and-run tactics.  Yes the Rogue needs this functionality if they plan on going into melee.  Otherwise their leather-armor-wearing, low HP butts are going to be toast. 

Finally, every scheme gives you a way to generate Advantage for yourself in combat.  There's Backstab, which gives it to you when you gang up on an enemy (when an ally is adjacent to the target), Isolated Strike does the opposite (no creatures hostile to the target adjacent), and finally Tumbling Strike (easily the worst of the bunch) gives you Advantage if you started your turn 20+ feet from the target. 

Backstab is the best option for a skirmisher playstyle (the enemy is deterred from chasing you down if your friend is threatening them with an opportunity attack), but the two schemes that best represent that playstyle mechanically (i.e. those with Tumbling Movement) don't get it.  Awesome, Spring Attack has just become a feat tax if that's how you want to play.  Isolated Strike will be the go-to option for your sniper Rogue; melee Rogues that go this route would do well to focus on enemies weaker than themselves.  Mopping up the riffraff that everyone else is content to save for later, after the real threats have been eliminated.  And Tumbling Strike just forces you into NOT focus firing.  And opens you up to the most opportunity attacks, to boot (sure, they're made with Disadvantage, but if you're provoking them every single turn they'll catch up to you pretty quickly).  It could be made much more viable by reducing the movement requirement down to 10 feet.  That way at least a Spring Attack Rogue stands a chance of avoiding OAs and possibly even attacking the same guy two turns in a row.

Sneak Attack
This just might be the most unintuitive, convoluted version of sneak attack I've ever read.  If you don't have Disadvantage already, you can apply your sneak attack damage by making the attack with Disadvantage.  Oooookay.  From a game balance perspective it actually works out somewhat well.  You'll only use Sneak Attack if you manage to snag Advantage, which will cancel out the Disadvantage.  So by using Backstab, Isolated Strike, and Tumbling Strike you're really applying your Sneak Attack damage (in a really roundabout way) as a normal attack, but the door's still open for using Sneak Attack if you can get Advantage in some other way.

Cool, easy to attain Sneak Attack damage, yeah?  Yeah!?  Sure, but the price you pay is that you're still pretty bad at combat.  If an ally has some way of giving you Advantage then great, you don't have to jump through your hoops to get Sneak Attack damage, but you're still less accurate than pretty much everyone else because they'll actually be USING that Advantage.  And since Advantage doesn't stack, even if you have it from multiple sources your Sneak Attack dice will always cancel it out.  In other words, YOU CAN NEVER USE ADVANTAGE AS A ROGUE.  Well, at least not if you're "spending" it to trigger sneak attack.  Doesn't quite fit the image of a guy who doesn't fight fair. 

And no, dealing a little more damage than the Fighter (maybe; if he's got a big weapon you might be about even with him) isn't worth giving up that accuracy.  Because the tradeoff SHOULD be that you're dealing more damage because you're much, much squishier.  If I'm playing a squishy character I better be getting something awfully cool in return.  Some people might be satisfied with "more skills!" (and admittedly I'll occasionally play such a character), but more often than not what they want is more offense.  The assassin archetype of the guy who can damn near one-hit kill guys he takes by surprise. 

Oh come on!  Giving up your next action AND a reaction to halve the damage of an enemy's attack?  This COULD have been that Feature-That-Compensates-For-Your-Squishiness, but alas, it's just a Bad Idea.  Especially if you're trying to fill that striker role your action should be among the best in the party for killing things faster, and killing things faster prevents those things from getting a turn in the first place. 

You're basically telling the monster that for the next turn, you might as well be a common housecat (unless they're still capable of one-shotting first level Wizards; then maybe the housecat is more dangerous).  You won't be attacking, and you can't even make an opportunity attack if they move away.

Now it does have its uses, situational though they may be.  A really big opponent trying to land a solid hit on your Wizard who wants to use any flavor of the Make Him Go Away spell is probably worth a use of Distract.  You weren't going to kill him anyways, but if you can keep the Wizard in the fight long enough for him to take the enemy out of the fight then the tide can be turned.  Assuming you happen to be standing next to the Wizard and in melee with a big, dangerous opponent, that is.  Situational is right. 

More likely you're just delaying the inevitable, with the number far from being in your favor.  Lets look at two rounds, assuming you're fighting an opponent of roughly equal strength (a duel, perhaps), where you both have the same average damage per round (DPR).  DPR is a calculation that accounts for average damage on a miss, hit, and crit.  It's not something that you'll ever see in-play; rather it's a value that stands in for all of the probabilities involved with attacking.  The following example can certainly be tipped in the Rogue's favor if his attack crits but the Enemy's second attack misses, but over the course of a large sample size those variances get smoothed out into something that looks a lot more like the DPR. 

Round 1:  Rogue attacks, deals DPR.
Round 1:  Enemy attacks, Rogue used Distract, Enemy deals half DPR.
Round 2:  Rogue sits there, because Distract takes away his action.
Round 2:  Enemy attacks, deals DPR.

Totals:  Rogue has dealt damage equal to DPR, Enemy has dealt damage equal to 1.5(DPR)

It gets even less favorable when you consider the limitation in tactical options.  If Rogue wants to run away he'll risk taking even more damage from an opportunity attack (even if he has Tumbling Movement there's still a chance that it might hit him).  But if Enemy wants to run away, he can do so freely. 

This does NOT compensate for the Rogue's squishiness.  This is something that you'll use when an Enemy crits you, and you hope that the dice gods impart less luck onto him next round because taking that risk is better than being unconscious on the ground.  But you'll probably end up that way anyways.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

D&D Next March Playtest - Exploration

I'll start off by referring you to this thread on, which inspired me to write about Exploration next.  It also inspired me to convert the rules to 13th Age, which highlights one of the mechanic's strengths - it's fairly edition-neutral.  My "conversion" was mostly condensing all of the information so that it would only take up a single page.  Really the only changes I made were:
  • replacing the Readiness DCs with the standard tier-based 13th Age DCs
  • adjusting the max distance per 1 day turn to better reflect my real-world experience as a backpacker (increasing mileage)
  • requiring an Int check for mapmaking to grant the navigator a -5 to the DC
  • clarifying Searching as an umbrella term for hunting, tracking, exploring, etc.
  • adding the option to make a Con OR Wis check when attempting multiple actions (depending on the nature of the second action)
  • and finally adding a d8 roll to determine random encounter difficult in lieu of a specific wandering monster chart (1-2 is an easy encounter, 7-8 is probably too tough to take on, and the rest is a balanced encounter). 
Obviously some of this is pure houseruling for personal preference; really as long as you translate the DCs to your system of choice you're good to go.  Fortunately the modifiers (for terrain and such) work just as well with 13th Age as they do for Next, but for some systems you may need to tweak those too.


It's tough for me to not reflexively compare these exploration rules with the Journey rules from The One Ring, which I purchased a little over a year ago.  Those rules are probably the most well-designed of any exploration mechanic that I've encountered in a tabletop RPG.  One of my favorite aspects of these rules is how well they balances light and heavy armor.  A character with a high Fatigue rating can be made Weary very quickly, and that results in a significant decrease in overall effectiveness.  In short, it definitely pays to travel light, with lighter armor having an edge unless you're defending a fortified location (and thus unlikely to accumulate travel Fatigue, and with ample opportunity to get bed rest). 

Unfortunately, there's really not a good way to replicate that in D&D.  Part of the reason why this works is that heavy armor in TOR just gives you more protection against Wounds, with most hits simply dealing Endurance damage.  Your stance also determines how hard you are to hit; a lightly armored character in defensive stance can be pretty hard to touch most of the time, even if he is susceptible to a lucky hit. 

In D&D your AC is just your AC, and based on whether you're expected to be in melee combat it's usually assumed to be a certain value.  Case in point is Barbarians, who don't wear heavy armor, instead having a class feature that buffs up their AC roughly to parity.  Tweaking with armor can throw combat assumptions really out of whack.  It's also tougher to emulate Weary as presented in TOR; ignoring low rolls out of a dice pool still allows a lucky character to function at full effectiveness, whereas numeric penalties don't accomplish this.  Instead of simply being less likely to succeed, your ceiling actually drops.

Finally, the hardships of the journey simply isn't a major focus of D&D.  TOR has those mechanics because it's a huge theme in Tolkien's works.  A huge theme in D&D is looting.  Fatigue would work inconsistently in such a system by punishing it early on, making it trivial once you grab yourself a Bag of Holding, and punishing those classes who need to wear heavy armor in order to be effective.

That said, while the existing mechanics don't offer any obvious suggestion for a Fatigue system, I wouldn't mind an optional module being offered as part of an "advanced" exploration package.


Despite these rules lacking my favorite feature from TOR, I do really like them.  One thing they do better than TOR is emphasize navigation in a more structured way.  The d4 roll is a simple and effective way of adjudicating how lost a party gets, and the tradeoffs of the different Travel Paces give the players a lot to consider.  Though I usually don't bother in my games, tracking Rations would be desirable to generate enough pressure to temp players into choosing faster paces.  Encounters that deplete rations (They got spoiled in a swamp!  Raccoons rifled through your packs at night!) likewise have more of an impact, perhaps being enough to completely change the goals of the PCs.  Even without Rations though, Wandering Monsters might be enough of an impetus to travel quickly, especially in dangerous areas.  The more quickly you cover a given distance, the fewer encounters you'll generate.

The granularity in the time scale is a nice touch, and feels like a logical expansion of the 6 second combat turn.  It provides enough structure for long-distance exploration to provide meaningful choice without being too stifling.  It's tough to wing it for things like travel pace, and usually my players will say something to the effect of "I'm going as fast as I reasonably can while still doing X."  Great, but without a baseline I'm forced to improvise, and the players usually try to tweak their wording to get more of a benefit or eliminate tradeoffs.  I think these exploration rules hit the sweet spot in codifying that baseline enough to generate predictable results and provide meaningful choices, all without being too crunchy to become unwieldy or to stifle flexibility. 

Finally, the very existence of these rules - the fact that space was dedicated to exploration - is a signal to players that it won't be a waste to invest in it, and more importantly gets them thinking about it ahead of time.  On the other side of the screen, because they're there, written down, DMs might be more likely to put some focus on exploration.  Sometimes "it takes you 3 days to get there" just isn't very satisfying.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

D&D Next March Playtest - The Barbarian

Thick Hide
I'll start with the simplest class feature, which takes inspiration from some of the 4E Primal classes (or at least the tougher, Con based builds).  Simply put, if you're not wearing armor you add both your Dex mod AND Con mod to AC.  This reinforces the flavor of the "wild" warrior by making being unarmored an attractive option.  It's as good a solution as any.

This is the bulk of what the Barbarian does, and there's some good and some bad with its implementation.  Not unexpectedly, there's a daily limit but since it starts at 2x/day it's somewhat forgiving.  You get Advantage with any use of Strength (attacks, ability checks, and saving throws), which models what's going on really well.  The accuracy boost is pretty huge here.  You also deal bonus damage, so you're hitting harder, too (as expected).  Finally, you gain Resistance to the weapon-based damage types (Piercing, Slashing, Bludgeoning), which at first blush seems awfully potent.  I would have expected a set damage reduction (DR) value (method for generating temporary hit points?  See comments) since that's easier to balance; with Resistance the more potent the attack, the bigger the effect is (the Barbarian ignores more total damage).  Which seems counter-intuitive unless your vision of Rage is an almost Hulk-like positive feedback loop (the more punishment he takes, the stronger he gets).

Clearly the benefits of Rage are pretty substantial.  When in a Rage the Barbarian is certainly looking like the most dangerous melee combatant in the party, which is as it should be.  Without play experience, though, it's really tough to judge whether Rage's drawbacks balance out this awesome power.

Obvious the first "check" on Rage is the daily limit, but there's more to it than that.  Your Rage ends when you fall unconscious (tough to do given the defensive buff!), or also if you can't attack for a turn (say, if some enemy restrains you).  While this might seem harsh I like the strategic element that it creates.  Maybe you shouldn't use Rage if you're fighting a spellcaster that's likely to hamper you enough to waste your Rage.  Or if you do, the whole party has its priorities shifted; do everything in your power to prevent the enemies from turning off your Barbarian.  Looks like it'd be fun to play!

But Rage also has a final drawback.  This one has some major tactical implications - you can't take reactions.  While this makes some sense (your fury is extremely focused on just wrecking stuff and you don't have the presence of mind to worry about tactical openings), it also kind of doesn't (aren't you so angry that you'll lash out at anything that moves?).  There are also mechanical consequences, the minor one being that offensive output might actually decrease in some situations (since you're not getting in opportunity attacks), but more of a concern is the fact that your stickiness is reduced to exactly zero.  It's extremely easy to simply walk away from this raging engine of destruction, and that just doesn't sit well with me.  This guy's dangerous.  If he has you pinned up against a wall, you should be screwed.

To sum up, I think Rage has a really solid foundation.  The main things I would change is to tone down the defensive benefits (DR instead of Resistance), and to compensate for that drop in potency to eliminate the "can't make reactions" drawback.  I'm not sure what a good value for that DR would be, though (and perhaps that would have to wait until the math is more finalized).  Con mod (but how would it scale)?  Equal to Rage Damage Bonus?  Con + Rage Damage bonus?  These are all pretty simple solutions that result in very different values, so it would really be a matter of looking at the math and picking whichever one "fits" best (a little less than Resistance on average opponents).  My gut says Rage Damage Bonus = DR, but without any playtesting that's really just a wild guess.

Reckless Attack
Another simple class feature that gives you a Rage-like boost (Advantage on your attack) essentially at-will, but with a heavy drawback (YOU grant Advantage).  I like it.  It's risky, but that's sort of the Barbarian's MO.  And it makes you feel like that crazy berserker warrior even when you've run out of Rages for the day.

Final Thoughts
I remember reading commentary after the first playtest packet with class was released (back in January, I believe) even though I didn't read through that packet myself.  The consensus was that the Barbarian was pretty overpowered compared with the Fighter, and most people advocated for powering up the Fighter.

I'm not sure if the balance issue has been fixed or not (this Barbarian does look like it probably has an edge over the Fighter), but at this stage of the game I'm not sure it matters that much.  The math can be refined later.  What I'm mostly concerned with during the playtest is whether or not the mechanics do a good job of representing the concepts, and whether or not they provide an interesting game experience.  Does this feel like a Barbarian, and how would tweaking things affect that?  I think mostly yes, it's a good representation of the Barbarian, who is all about the simple application of brute force. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

D&D Next March Playtest - The Fighter

Bonus Feats
No.  Hated this "class feature" in 3.x, and I still hate it.  It's made all the worse when feats vary so greatly in power level (as has always been the case in D&D), and as more supplements increase the power creep this "balancing" mechanism will only get further off-balance. 

The "basic" version of the game is also supposed to be designed with the idea that feats are optional.  So either the Fighter gets shafted by losing one of his class features, or the player who didn't want to deal with feats in the first place is forced to.

Another issue I have with this has been covered in my post on feats.  By only providing access to bonus feats from the Martial category what you're doing is giving Fighters a choice of maneuvers in this messy "maneuvers as feats" system.  The system ends up being "fake universal" (sure, anyone can buy into these maneuvers, but how many PCs will give up feats that are more on-theme for their given class?).  Or maybe a PC decides to buy into this whole system and chooses Trip Attack, but then a situation comes up where an enemy needs to be disarmed.  In a true universal maneuver system (where anyone can try anything plausible without having to pre-purchase the ability with character-building resources) this isn't a problem.  Giving the Fighter bonus feats is supposed to show that the Fighter is better at these types of things, but it really doesn't do much good.  A Fighter that doesn't choose Trip Attack (for example) is just as hopeless at tripping people as any other class, but if he takes it when he levels all of the sudden he becomes a tripping savant (see my argument in the feats post on why it makes sense to use it constantly once you buy it). 

It's a simple fix, really.  Put back the "anyone can attempt it" universal maneuver system, get rid of the "maneuvers" feats, and instead of bonus feats let the Fighter pick a maneuver to gain skill dice with.  Anyone could pull those types of tricks but the Fighter is still the best at it.

Expertise Dice
This mechanic has come a long way since the original packet that introduce Expertise Dice for the Fighter (which was the last time I'd really paid much attention to the playtest).  Conceptually I think I like this version better than the original, as it gives the Fighter interesting choices via an encounter-based resource system.  That said, it's really only appealing if that universal maneuver system is implemented.

With the old Expertise Dice being refreshed each round the Fighter had the option of doing something cool each turn.  Maneuvers would also provide that opportunity, with encounter-based Expertise Dice ramping it up even further.  Furthermore the options, while all mechanically very similar (Death Dealer options all add damage, Superior Defense options all provide AC boost) and thus easy to balance, are different enough to highlight different playstyles.  Granted the choices are pretty limited at this point, but that can be refined in the future.  As it stands if you're a shield user, for example, you'll probably choose Slam (because it's flat-out better than the universal Deep Wound), though some might go with Strike Command to emphasize the "Warlord-lite" theme.  All "shield builds" won't really be clones, though, because the shield-based Superior Defense option only works against ranged attacks.  Honestly all 4 choices are useful in very different situations, with the exception of Nimble Dodge basically being Parry+, but even that choice remains interesting because you'll need to swear off heavy armor for the ability to become more mobile. 

In-game you'll still have to make the tactical choice of using your "encounter power" for offense or defense on-the-fly regardless of your build choice.  While this sounds pretty simple (and largely it is), the Warlord-lite and the shield options both make things more interesting since you'll also need to determine which allies need your help.  While these class features are certainly no substitute for a full Warlord class, I really like what they add to the Fighter.  Because the best warrior having the option to be a tactical leader on the battlefield just makes good sense, even if he's spending most of his energy trying to cut down his opponents (unlike an actual Warlord, whose primary goal is to aid allies). 

When I first heard that Fighters were getting this I was extremely concerned.  Multiple attacks as a full round action was exactly what made 3.x combat so dull!  Anything that discourages movement is a bad idea.  I was happy to see that this wasn't the case for the Next Fighter.  Basically all it does is let you split any extra damage you'd normally gain from Deadly Strike across multiple opponents.  This is great for mowing through minions that will go down from a single damage die anyways and keeps the pace of battle quick as you level up.  Because part of reason for bounded accuracy is so that low-level monsters will always be a threat if they have great enough numbers.  Now as those numbers start to increase, so does the number of enemies you can attack without affecting the amount of total HP damage that you dish out.  Color me convinced!

Friday, March 22, 2013

D&D Next March Playtest - Feats

My Biggest Point of Contention
I want to start with this to get it out in the open.  I'm putting it first because I REALLY HATE IT, and I want it to be REALLY NOTICEABLE.  Maneuvers as feats.  No.  Just, no.  With a side of no.

What is the biggest strength of a tabletop roleplaying game?  This is something that was actually talked about BY THE DESIGNERS at the beginning of the playtest (I think in a podcast), and they were spot on.  That your character can do anything.  Instead of having computer code determine the outcome, there's a living, thinking person (the DM) who can adjudicate the rules.  Wasn't this the whole point of emphasizing ability checks?

So now when a PC says "I want to push a guy," a rules-lawyer type will have the rules to back up his answer of "no, you don't have that feat?!?!"

But here's the worst part.  Take Trip Attack, for example.  There's no drawback to using this, and no tactical choice that needs to be made in-play.  Once a PC has the feat it makes sense to use it EVERY SINGLE TURN.  How boring is that?  And how many fights do you see in movies or in novels where all a guy does is constantly try to trip his opponent over and over again?

Maneuvers should be universal options.  There should be enough of a drawback to not try to spam them every turn, but they should be useful enough to actually use when the situation calls for it.  Here's how I handle them in 13th Age, and I think such a system would benefit Next as well.  Make an appropriate skill check vs PD or MD (in Next I guess you'd use opposed checks which is more dice rolling).  If you fail, the target can make an opportunity attack against you.  If you succeed, you can attack and if you hit you do that cool thing you were trying to do (applied AFTER the attack).  Alternatively, if you want to play it safe just roll the skill check INSTEAD of attacking.  Success lets you do that cool thing (without having to hit with a follow-up attack), and you won't take an OA if you fail.

If the designers read this, I encourage them to steal the idea.  It'll make the game better.

What I Like
  • Combat Reflexes.  Makes melee characters more sticky.
  • Defensive Ward.  Simple countermagic is very cool.
  • Find Familiar.  Good to make it a feat, as some spellcasters want one and others don't.
  • Healing Initiate.  Cure Minor wounds is a little game-y since it can't heal past 3 total HP, but that keeps in check what is otherwise an at-will heal.  Think of it as just enough healing to keep you conscious and you're good conceptually. 
  • Heighten Spell.  Insurance for your big gun.  Might I add that these "metamagic feats" are SO much better than the convoluted mess in 3.x where you changed the spell's level.
  • Hold the Line.  If I'm interpreting this right, you can stop movement if an enemy in melee with you tries to move away (basically trading an opportunity attack for a movement stopper).  If that's the intent, then great!  We have sticky tanks!
  • Interposing Shield.  Great defender option, sort of like a mark.  Giving up your only reaction is a little pricey, though.
  • Martial Arts.  Monk-lite!
  • Polearm Training.  Reach weapons for everyone!  And enhanced opportunity attacks with them, to boot.
  • Purge Magic.  If this gives you Dispel Magic even if you're not a Wizard.  Which I think is the case here.  Heck, even if you ARE a Wizard you can have fun not needing to prepare it, plus this feat gives you multiple uses of it.
  • Restore Life.  Suck it Cleric!  I don't need you in my party!
  • Relentless.  Because it's fun when good things happen despite a miss.
  • Spring Attack.  Way to cater to the skirmisher fighting style.  Encouraging movement is good.
  • Taunt.  Ok, this "skill as feat" is actually kind of cool.  
  • Tumbling Movement.  Again, great skirmisher feat.
  • Weapon Mastery.  Hey-oh, it's a buff to weapons in general and not "choose this specific weapon to specialize in."  Good, because if my normally-melee Fighter needs to pull out the bow I don't want him to suck.
A lot of these are supporting certain fighting styles (defender, skirmisher) in a simple way even outside of the tactical rules module.  Which is good.  Combat should be more than "walk up to enemy and trade blows until one of you drops." 

What I Don't Like
  • Magic-like wording of Charming Presence.  Heck, its very existence.  In what ways can't this be handled by a simple CHA check?  If you want a feat to boost your ability to charm people then it should be "ignore situational penalties when you use the Charm skill," or better yet "gain Advantage when you use the Charm skill" (which would cancel any disadvantage anyways).
  • Open Locks, Disarm Traps, Pick Pockets, etc.  Wait a second, so what used to be skills are now feats?  Based on the wording they basically ARE skills, it's just that they use up your "feats" resources.  Sloppy, and unintuitive.  Plus this very much falls within the realm of My Biggest Point of Contention above.  What, so I can't attempt to pick your pocket with an ability check if I don't have this feat?
  •  Read Lips.  Huh?  Why can't this just be a Wisdom check?  A bit situational to be a skill, but even that would be preferable to a FEAT.

D&D Next March Playtest - The Paladin

While not perfect (this is a playtest, after all!), by and large the first two classes to debut in this packet (the Druid and Ranger) were well done.  Conceptually successful with a good mechanical scaffold.  I can't say the same about the Paladin.  The design is solid enough, but it just doesn't hit the concept strongly enough.

That's NOT My Warden!
First we'll tackle the 800 lb gorilla (or oak, or avatar of winter, etc.) in the room.  There's only the tiniest bit of resemblance to the original class here, with Nature's Wrath admittedly looking decent.  The problem is outside of casting Entangle this guy isn't sticky at all.  The Warden is supposed to be a black hole of nature-magic doom.  I'd rather Nature's Wrath restrain targets even if you had to give up the damage.

As for his other Channel Divinity options, Lay on Hands and Turn Undead?  Really?  So 2/3s of his options are identical to the Cavalier's?  That's not going to differentiate him at all!  ALL THREE Channel Divinities need to be adaptations of stuff that the Warden could do in 4E.  At least one of these should be inspired by his Daily "Form of ____" powers.  

A lot of that Warden flavor is easily achievable if the designers had simply made some custom spells to support the concept.  The Warden doesn't need this Cure Wounds and Bless nonsense, he needs to be able to buff himself (with a "Swift Action") in order to freeze guys in place when he hits them, or gain reach by growing tree limbs for arms, or lashing out with vines to pull fleeing enemies back toward him.  Otherwise yeah, he'll just be like any other Paladin with some nature-themed parlor tricks.  I think an entirely separate spell list for the different Oaths might work best.  Or a pared down general Paladin list, with 2 or 3 Oath-specific spells per spell level.  The Oaths simply don't play differently enough right now.

The Blackguard is in a little better shape than the Warden.  At least all of his Channel Divinities reinforce his theme.  Some of the same arguments still apply though, especially regarding the spell list.  Why should Cure Wounds be on the general list?  Isn't it a little schizophrenic for the Blackguard to have both Cure and Inflict Wounds?  His Blackguard-specific options are all good choices, but it'd be nice to have 2-3 per level so he's more likely to use Blackguard spells (and still get some variety) as opposed to general Paladin spells. 

Where's My Tank?
Of all the classes the Cavalier has the most justification for getting some kind of "tanking" mechanic.  Selfless knight-errant, protector of the innocent and all that.  Simply put, I want Divine Challenge.  This guy should be saying "face me, you coward, or feel the wrath of my gods!" and have the teeth to back it up.  Either damage the guy, debuff him, or both.  This might work best as a Cavalier-specific spell.  I mean, we're giving the Paladin spellcasting, why not use it to reinforce the archetype instead of just saying "hey, I have mini-Cleric functionality!" 

With this framework the Cavalier and Warden would both actually be able to dissuade enemies from attacking their squishy allies.  The Cavalier would be throwing around Divine Challenges while the Warden would be the black hole of nature magic that we've grown to love from 4E.  Now, I'm not expecting at-will Divine Challenge or quite the same degree of black-hole-ness as 4E.  Next is a different beast, with less emphasis on tactical combat.  PCs also simply have fewer resources in general.  That doesn't mean that the Next iterations of the classes can't do the same things, along the same themes, albeit in different ways, though.

Yeah, remember how I applauded the designers for not following the 3.x example and actually giving the classes their iconic abilities starting at 1st level (Druid Wild Shape, Ranger spellcasting)?  Well they failed here.  Honestly, the mount isn't even that mechanically significant.  A lot of people really like that mount, regardless of how situational it is, because it reinforces the fact that a Paladin is a Knight with divine backing.  He gets a divinely-gifted mount to ride into battle, and he's got a Druid or Ranger-like relationship with it. 

That feeling still comes across even if he gets a weaker version at level 1.  Something roughly comparable to a mundane horse, but with a minor Oath-specific ability.  At level 8 you can get the "upgraded" version (the stat blocks as presented). 

This is a contentious issue.  Personally I'm of the opinion that you should be able to pick whatever alignment you choose, if you even use alignment at all.  After all, each god has an alignment, and they're all over the map.  If you indicate a specific god, your alignment should line up with theirs. 

That said, mechanically speaking this version of the Paladin has some pretty easy-to-ignore alignment restrictions.  This is exemplified best by the fact that Detect Evil has been replaced by Divine Sense.  Instead of being able to detect a specific alignment (which never made much sense to me anyways; at best a person's alignment is an average of their actions and beliefs; what if an evil person is thinking good thoughts or doing good deeds when the Paladin used Detect Evil?), you can detect celestials, fiends, and undead.  Cool, that actually shows that you have a connection with the divine planes, and undead are unnatural (a mockery of the divine spark of life or somesuch), so that makes sense too. 

Paladins need to be tanky defender classes (except the Blackguard, he should just be really good at causing pain).  A lot of this functionality should be possible by re-working the Paladin spells.  They should be Paladin spells, not Cleric-lite, and each Oath should get options that strongly reinforce their theme.  Channel Divinity needs to be revisited for the Warden to really let him stand out.  Yeah, he's a Paladin build now and I don't necessarily mind if he'll be wearing heavy armor, using Divine Sense, etc., but the build is still conceptually more different from Cavaliers and Blackguards than those two are from each other.  If you're going to use the 4E name, pay homage to the class.  Finally, mounts should be a 1st level feature, and good job making alignment easily ignorable but still satisfying those who like alignment restrictions.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

D&D Next March Playtest - The Ranger

Fighting Style (NOT!)
Perhaps the most immediately noticeable thing about the Ranger is the absence of a feature that's been traditional for most incarnations of Rangers - a choice between wielding two melee weapons or focusing on archery (which usually involves making multiple ranged attacks).  Rangers have always been the multi-attackers.

The problem with that (a problem that the design team is well aware of) is that it's not enough of a schtick to justify a class.  It's just weapon choice.  It's a choice that any melee class should have the option of making (as 4E proved with its "Ranger clone" builds: the Tempest Fighter and Whirling Barbarian).  Plus there's the fact that it does absolutely nothing to replicate one of the most iconic rangers of all in fiction, Aragorn. 

I don't play a Ranger because I want to be "a Fighter, but with two weapons."  It's one of my favorite classes, and you could more accurately say that I deal with the fact that the choice is usually baked into the class.  No, I play a Ranger to be the guerilla-tactics, outdoorsy hunter guy.  To me subtle nature spells and animal companions are both more in line with how I view Rangers than weapon choice (though there are strong archery traditions to the archetype; it's the two-weapon fighting that I mostly don't get).  So bonus points for slaying that sacred cow.

Ah, Ranger spellcasting.  In 3.x it was so weak compared to a full caster that it might as well be ignored (though not to the egregious extent as the Ranger's half-strength animal companion that usually was ignored).  In 4E it simply didn't exist.  And yet, it's still something that makes sense to me. 

If you're going to have it, then YES you should get it at 1st level.  I'm a HUGE proponent of classes getting all of their main stuff right away.  People play different classes for different reasons, but it usually boils down to "I want to be able to do ______."  In 3.x I would always want to play a shapeshifter, and was always let down because we almost always played low level, and the Druid didn't get that yet.  There's always room to get better at what you do as you level, but the main components of your class's identity should be useable out of the box. 

As I hinted at before, the key to capturing the Ranger's feel is that their spells need to be SUBTLE.  They shouldn't give up much (if any) raw combat power just because they get spells, because they're not going around slinging spells during combat.  This spell list hits that mark perfectly.  With Animal Friendship and Cure Wounds you could replicate Aragorn's abilities fairly well, even if his "spellcasting" wasn't as overt as D&Ds.  And really, it's not something you have to (or should) play up as a Ranger.  Cast your spells with little to no fuss and act like nothing unusual happened.  Yours is a more humble spellcasting; you lack the flashiness (and raw power) of the Druid's.  If the flashiest spell you've got is Fog Cloud and Spike Growth, you're a well-designed caster-Ranger.

I also like that, aside from Barkskin, you're also not using your spells to buff yourself up for combat.  The 3.x Ranger was guilty of that.  No, the Ranger should have the same baseline competency as the other martial classes.  His spells are for utility.  Occasionally healing, but mostly "exploration" based.

Favored Enemy
I'll just come out and say it that this incarnation of Favored Enemy is probably my favorite thing in the whole packet.  This is coming from someone who normally HATES Favored Enemy mechanics.  For largely the reasons that were explained in the podcast that was aired when this packet was released.  The bonus is situational (what if the DM doesn't include those enemies?) and the result is that you're just a gimped Fighter most of the time, but when your moment comes to shine then the fight is usually anticlimactic because you can chew through it.  Which leads to the DM to not want to include those enemies, and it's just a vicious loop.

So why is this version better?  Well, it's applicable to a broad range of foes that have similar qualities to the one you specialize in, and the benefits are a lot more interesting than straight numerical bonuses.  They're tangible concepts that make you feel like you have an actual ability

Your first option is Brute Hunter, which means that you specialize in those monstrous humanoids that tend to fight in large groups.  You're the guerrilla warrior that can take a larger force by surprise and win.  This is very much my kind of Ranger.  All of options give you advantage on checks to recall lore on your type of enemy, which is expected and works well.  Then you get another 1st level feature, which for this option lets you keep your allies from being surprised (you're used to being on the lookout, and sneaking by even when there are many eyes watching out for YOU).  Then there's a 2nd level feature, and an 8th level feature.  At 2nd opportunity attacks made against you have disadvantage, allowing you to either retreat from a fight more easily or to move through a group to kill a priority target.  At 8th you get a double cleave that can be used with ranged attacks.  Yeah, you're very dangerous when outnumbered.

Next is the iconic Dragon Slayer.  Starting from 1st level you're immune to fear.  By 2nd you buff a subsequent attack when you hit a foe, dealing extra damage next round.  Chip away at those "bag of hit points" monsters (as dragons tend to be).  The capstone is Evasion, to protect you from things like Breath Weapons (half damage if you fail a Dex save, no damage if you pass even if you'd normally take half).  Fights against dragons will still be appropriately tough, you're just good at taking the heat.  You're more likely to not get burned to a crisp or run away.

Finally, we have Giant Killer.  At 1st level you can use your reaction to halve damage taken from Large+ creatures (nice!).  Your 2nd level ability is the same as Dragon Slayer's (I approve of avoiding redundancy when designing for similar concepts).  As a capstone you can avoid the reach that giants will inevitably have (but plenty of other creatures as well).  While outside of 5 ft melee attacks against you are made with disadvantage.  If threatening reach is a thing in Next, these guys will be great at punching through that first line of defense.

Deadly Strike
Though the wording is a little weird, I like that melee damage scales as you level by multiplying your base damage die.  It works better than gaining extra attacks (you reduce the total number of die rolls) or piling on static mods (as was the case in 4E, where your weapon's damage didn't matter all that much; made you wonder why you needed to roll a die to begin with).  It's also a great way of keeping the melee classes at parity.  It's no coincidence that the Druid's Dire Shape gives Wild Shape the same scaling ("why yes, we do acknowledge that you want to fight in melee, and here's how you keep up with Fighters"). 

Mostly it's a good sign that "this guy's better/worse at combat" isn't being used as a balancing point.  You're not a gimped Fighter just because you get Favored Enemies and Spellcasting, you're a warrior who gives up the Fighter's maneuvers in order to get those things.  You're both comparable as far as raw numbers are concerned, though, and that's what I want to see in a Ranger.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

D&D Next March Playtest - The Druid

Wild Shape
I'll start out by saying that I generally prefer at-will Wild Shape to Daily Wild Shape, even if you have daily uses of certain forms with an otherwise at-will Wild Shape.  That said, this version of Daily Wild Shape is much better designed than 3.x edition, and it's something that I could suck up and happily play a Druid.  Getting Wild Shape at first level is ESSENTIAL since that's such a huge part of the class's identity.  Most of the time if I play a Druid, it's because I want to play a shapeshifter.  While you only start out with one use per day, the Circle of the Moon (the circle that focuses on shapeshifting) grants you an extra use per day, and at second level you're already up to a baseline of 2 uses (3 with Circle of the Moon).  Considering the duration (level + Con mod HOURS) you can conceivably spend most of any day shapeshifted even at low levels.

Speaking of Circles, I actually really like that Druids have the option to either increase their spellcasting ability (with Circle of the Oak) or go with a bigger focus on Wild Shape (with the aforementioned Circle of the Moon).  In addition to an extra use of Wild Shape, Circle of the Moon gives you a small amount of healing when you revert back to your natural form and provides access to new forms.  These are the combat forms, so basically if you're not Circle of the Moon your Wild Shape is mostly for utility, as even your starting Shape of the Hound isn't very good in a fight (its advantages are a high speed and great senses).

The biggest problem for me is that even with Circle of the Moon your different forms don't scale.  So you start out with Shape of the Bear, but at 3rd level when you gain Shape of the Great Cat it doesn't make much sense to use the Bear anymore; the cat gets a lower base damage, but if you pounce you make two attacks, and if both hit you knock the target prone and bite them.  Both shapes get the same AC.  A better design would be to have a handful of different scaling forms that filled different niches.  So you'd have Shape of the Bear for when you want to be durable with decent damage (it would have higher AC, and perhaps some kind of damage reduction or temporary HP mechanic), and Shape of the Great Cat would give you mobility and spike damage.  You could even buff up Shape of the Hound with some sort of "pack attack" mechanic (low damage and AC, but it gives your allies Advantage as it harries the enemy).

Point being, part of the fun of having multiple forms that you can turn into is getting to make meaningful tactical decisions regarding which form you decide to take.  It's a bit dull if you have a highest-level form that becomes a no-brainer to use whenever a combat breaks out.

The utility forms (those available to all Druids) look good.  You've got all the basics covered; hound for speed and improving your senses, rodent for hiding and climbing, fish for swimming and breathing underwater, steed for even more speed and carrying capacity, and bird for flying.   You end up having access to all of your bag of tricks by 6th level, too (with the bird).  My only concern would be that perhaps 6th level is too early to have access to such a reliable form of flight (Circle of the Moon Druids can use Wild Shape 4x/day by that point).  Given that the duration of Wild Shape is so long and that even Circle of the Moon Druids will want to spend at least one battle in their natural form to sling spells around, most will be planning on using a utility form at least once each day.  Granted I LIKE that you can use Wild Shape often enough, early enough for these non-combat utility forms to see play (despite Wild Shape not being at-will); the issue is potentially how early you gain access to flight.  Consider that Circle of Oak Druids won't be using Wild Shape for fighting anyways, and you could easily run into situations where they're flying up to a safe perch and raining death on their enemies without fear of reprisal.

Finally, Shape of the Dire Beast needs a simple fix.  Size should not increase to Huge, at least not in all cases.  All of the Druid's combat-worthy forms are already Large sized, and by increasing them they can't fit through your standard door.  I mean, a lot of big cats would be at the small end of Large anyways, if not outright Medium, so it makes more sense to me for a dire version to be either solidly Large, or at the bigger end of Large, but NOT Huge.  Shape of the Dire Beast is what allows shapeshifter Druids to keep up with the scaling of the melee classes, and it doesn't make sense to deny them their basic functionality just because the DM set his adventure in cramped spaces.

Another concern I have is that you seem to give up more by going Circle of Oak.  I mean, you pretty much have no combat utility from Wild Shape (well, you certainly won't be keeping up with the melee classes), but Circle of the Moon Druids can still use spells to full effect.  It's just that Circle of Oak Druids get to recover expended spell slots (like the other "full casters") and they have a list of automatically prepared spells.

Cantrips are decent enough, though Druidcraft and Spare From Dying are notably missing.  Shillelagh is a solid enough melee option; you won't deal as much damage as the dedicated melee types, but the 10 foot reach is a nice perk.  Fire Seeds is pretty low damage but looks to be a good "finishing move" option, especially considering the fact that you get two low-damage attacks.  Faerie Fire is surprisingly nice; sure, you give up making an attack, but you can cause enemies in a pretty big area to grant Advantage.  This might see a lot of use.

At first level, Entangle was always one of my favorite spells, and it has some serious teeth.  Its area is pretty small, but the combination of decent damage and a solid mobility-debuff looks like great fun.  Thunderwave was also a happy surprise to see on the Druid's list.  Great area effect with the potential for pushing enemies off of cliffs.  These two offensive spells are likely to see a lot of use.  The utility and healing spells that round out the list are pretty much to be expected.

I won't go into much detail past this point, but incarnations of Web, Hold Person, and Flaming Sphere look nice; very well done.  Flame Blade is a neat "haha, I can deal solid melee damage plus I'm good if you come across any trolls!" option, and Heat Metal might not have the duration of previous incarnations, but the disarm if cast on a weapon vs disadvantage if cast on armor riders seem interesting enough.

The lack of Summon Nature's Ally is immediately noticeable; I assume they want to get a better handle on core mechanics before they muddy the waters with summoning (which is notorious for balance issues).

EDIT:  Added concerns about Shape of the Dire Beast.

D&D Next March Playtest Packet Review (TOC)

I haven't been keeping up with the D&D Next playtests all that closely.  Mostly it's because I have precious little game time, and I've been using that to play 13th Age and Edge of the Empire.  It's also partially that I lost interest early on when I disliked a lot of the updates, and class selection proceeded slow (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's tough to get excited when a lot of your favorite classes haven't been released yet).

Well, I figure with 3 shiny new classes (two of which, the Druid and Ranger, are among my favorites) it's time I examined the material more closely.  I'll be writing a series of posts, each on a different class or rules element, and this will be the table of contents so links to everything are in one place.  For now it will just be a rough outline, subject to change, and as I write each post I'll edit this one with its links.


Exploration Rules

Concluding Thoughts

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fire Sale at Pelgrane Press

In case you haven't heard yet, Chris Huth (the guy doing the 13th Age layout) has had his apartment catch fire.  He lost his layout files and all of their backups, which will push the release date for 13th Age back to late June.  Details are here

Proceeds from the Pelgrane Press online store will go toward getting him back on his feet, so if anyone is interested in buying anything from the site now would be a good time to do it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Icons in Action (2)

Overall tonight's session was pretty light on Icon usage.  I guess that just happens sometimes; it was a short session, and somewhat combat-heavy.  Each player rolled one 5 for Relationships at the start of the session, and there was an outstanding 5 and 6 from last session that hadn't been spent as well.  Complications are awesome and make perfect sense in some situations, but in others I find I struggle to come up with a good disadvantage.  Results of 5 can be, quite simply, more work to utilize in play (unless you're endowed with more improvisational creativity than I am). 

Icon Rolls/OUTs
Argus, our party's Fighter, wanted to copy down some ancient writing from a tapestry onto paper for later research.  The player simply asked if the standard adventurer's gear included paper.  Thinking it unlikely for any but a studious Wizard type, a Bard who likes to compose on the road, or a PC of any class that has an established personality/backstory that would justify carrying paper, I said probably not.  "But what happened to 'Always say Yes,'" you might ask?  Well, I happened to be struggling with coming up with any applications for these relationship rolls (as were my players), so I offered the player the following bargain:  if he spent a 5 for the Emperor that was still in play, he can be carrying around imperial stationary with an appropriate writing implement. 

The beauty of this suggestion is that it's so minor at the present time that I didn't feel the need to tack on a complication.  Easy on me, right?  Results of 5 could involve a complication, OR they could simply provide a lesser benefit than a 6 would.  But it's still open-ended.  How did Argus come by this imperial stationary?  His Relationship with the Emperor is conflicted, and his OUT is that he's the only person known to have insulted the Emperor to his face and lived to tell the tale.  Is it left over from a former position that he once held in the imperial military?  Or did he come by it later through illicit means?  Will it be possible to forge an official document later on, now that it's established that he carries imperial stationary?  Maybe a more significant benefit will come up later, and the possibility for future conflict is certainly there as well.  Point being, just because you need to come up with something on the spot for a relationship roll doesn't mean you have to come up with EVERYTHING on the spot.  And everyone knows sometimes minor details can end up having a big narrative impact later on. 

Turns out the best example of a surprising (and yet obvious, in hindsight) background application came from Argus as well.  After repeatedly breaking down several doors with axes (because when will a party consisting of a Cleric, Paladin, and Fighter decide to pick a lock?) and subsequently alerting those in the room, Argus decided to finally try to pick the final door in their path.  "Can I use Blacksmith?" he asked.  Lightbulb moment.  Hey, we have someone whose halfway decent at skulduggery!  A blacksmith just might know enough about the internal workings of locks to be able to have an advantage while picking them.  And an otherwise under-utilized background gets some screen time.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Highlighting Monster Abilities

Last night in my 13th Age session I made extensive use of Spoiler type monsters for the first time.  Specifically, an annoying flock of Harpies.  When I first read the Harpy stat block I thought "oh cool, Fiendish Song has an escalating series of effects for higher attack rolls!"  Then I realized that the chances of a single Harpy rolling a natural 16+ weren't necessarily very high if the thing only lasted 4 or 5 rounds.  This comes from a habit in other systems of using "debuffer" or "controller" type monsters as a single creature allied with (usually) some frontliners or skirmisher types.  But they usually got attacks that generated a given effect if they hit.  These Harpies usually just deal piddly damage until they get lucky enough to start messing with you.

I almost immediately decided to throw 4 Harpies into the encounter.  If Fiendish Song is getting rolled 4 times per round (often against multiple targets) then those extra effects for high rolls are bound to come up!  Ultimately I like to showcase the abilities that make a given monster unique, and in this case it's the ever-increasing nastiness of the song.  If those effects never go off it doesn't evoke the feeling of fighting Harpies nearly as strongly.

So use groups of monsters when they have difficult-to-trigger abilities.  This doesn't only go for Spoilers or Casters either.  The first time I used Lizardfolk (in my other group) I didn't use enough of them, and I rolled low.  The party had no idea how nasty it could be when a Lizardfolk lands a good enough blow to open its opponent up for a Bite attack, nor the carnage that ensues the round after the thing is able to clamp its jaws down onto you.  That's an important part of the Lizardfolk's fighting style in my mind, and evokes strong imagery.  Yeah they use weapons (albeit primitive ones), but those weapons are mainly for punching through their opponent's guard and getting into extreme close range so that it can use its natural weapons; a nasty vice-grip bite and a barrage of scratches once the foe is held down by the bite. 

Despite that being the Lizardfolk's schtick, I like that the combo is designed to come up infrequently in combat.  This allows the effects to be stronger than they otherwise would be, and it generates more drama.  Normally if the natural attack roll is high but not a crit it doesn't really matter; as long as you beat AC it's all the same.  This way it doesn't become monotonous or annoying.  On the contrary, it's memorable because it really challenges the PCs in an evocative way, and each subsequent die roll carries an added tension ("oh crap, I really hope he can't snap in close enough to bite me again!"). 

Grouping such enemies not only makes their abilities more likely to be triggered during a given fight, but it also creates more tactical opportunities.  Because Harpy talons are nastier when the target is affected by the song there's a synergy that's created and the other Harpies have a legitimate reason to focus-fire.  But that also creates an opportunity for the PCs because they need to swoop down to ground level to do so, making themselves vulnerable to melee attacks.  The tactical landscape changes for both sides.

Even the Lizardfolk present similar effects.  Focus-firing is always going to be a good idea if someone on your team has just landed a really big hit.  The Lizardfolk can all start mobbing the guy that's just been severely injured.  Because its random who becomes the target, players will also be less likely to feel "picked on."  Creating an incentive for the NPCs to move also increases the likelihood of the PCs getting opportunities to intercept or to bring specific talents into the spotlight (the Barbarian's Slayer, the Fighter's Threatening, and Paladin's Challenge all spring to mind). 

It can really be boiled down to the following:  tough triggers allow for more powerful effects, increasing numbers boosts the likelihood of those effects being triggered, and powerful effects tend to have a big impact on the tactical landscape (making fights more exciting and dynamic).  Fighting four Harpies and having players get Weakened a handful of times and Confused once during the battle is cooler than if the Harpies were able to just Hamper or Daze enemies more reliably (say, on a natural even hit). 

Social Combat

I just got done listening to the latest episode of the Order 66 Podcast - Social Engineering.  Jay Little was the guest speaker (I believe he's lead designer on Edge of the Empire) so you know you're getting good info.  Four main points were hit upon that I think bears repeating.

The first has to do with how social skills in Adversary stat blocks are handled.  A lot of them have ranks in the "influence skill group" (Charm, Coerce, Deceit, Leadership, and Negotiate), but generally speaking most players don't take too kindly to having NPCs roll checks like that since they influence the PC's response to the situation.  The solution is so obvious that I can't believe I didn't think of it before (especially since I'd considered Discipline and Cool to be kind of underplayed skills before now).  Basically, in most situations if the NPC is trying to Coerce, Deceive, or appeal to authority (Leadership) the GM should call upon the player to make a Discipline check (with difficulty equal to the NPCs ranks in the relevant skill).  Likewise the player would roll Cool if an NPC tries to Charm them or Negotiate with them.  This way the player is the one rolling the dice (actively participating), so they feel as though they're the one in control of the situation.  In other words, it puts the narrative spotlight on the heroes, which is perfect.

Second is something that I had thought of doing anyways, but it was nice to hear Jay Little himself suggest it.  That is to say, skill/ability pairings, as well as which skills oppose each other, are more suggestions than hard and fast rules.  If the Wookie wants to get in your face and flex those giant hairy arms he's free to make a Coerce check using Brawn instead of Willpower as the associated attribute.  Likewise sometimes it might make more sense for Negotiate to be opposed by the opponent's Negotiate instead of Cool.

Third, skill checks in Edge of the Empire generate a different narrative pace than binary skill checks in other systems.  That is to say, the scene is set up and actions are described in a D20 system (for example), and then the skill check comes in at the end to resolve how everything played out.  In Edge of the Empire, the skill check occupies the middle of a "scene."  There's a set-up with actions described, but after the dice are rolled there's more story.  What's more, those story elements are dependent not only on the die roll, but the approach taken (what skill is used).   Adjudication of success, failure, advantage, threat, triumph, and despair will potentially be very different depending on whether you used Coerce vs Charm, for example.  What skill you decide to use has more chances to affect the story going forward, often in multiple ways.

Finally, the most mind-blowing concept was the idea of social combat that works exactly the same as physical combat.  Because combat checks work exactly the same way as any other skill checks (unlike D20 systems where attacks, defenses, and skills all scale differently) this is absolutely possible.  You'd roll initiative as normal, but instead of working with Ranged Light, Ranged Heavy, Brawl, Melee, and Gunnery you'd use the influence skill group (Charm, Coerce, Deceit, Leadership, and Negotiate), and potentially other relevant skills based on the situation as "weapons."  Instead of inflicting wounds, successes (and potentially advantage) would deal strain.  The losers would be unlikely to pass out when exceeding their strain threshold, but it would represent the fact that they're pretty much spent.  If you want to get really creative you could even use your Willpower (as opposed to Brawn) as a "social Soak value," but without the equivalent of a base weapon damage this could potentially lead to really long, drawn out combats unless you come up with a system for assigning a base strain damage to your skill checks.  Personally while I think the Willpower = social Soak is a really cool concept, the added layer of complexity is probably not worth it.