Saturday, June 9, 2012

I Play DnD Next

Due to scheduling issues, my group's usual Friday Adventures Dark and Deep game was cancelled, so a few of us got together to give the new DnD Next playtest rules a spin. One of the players in my game, whom readers might recognize from the comments here as "Hamlet", took the reins as DM.

As most folks are probably already aware, the playtest package comes with a version of the 1E classic adventure "Keep on the Borderlands", specifically detailing the Caves of Chaos. It had been many years since I'd cracked open that particular adventure, so although I knew the broad outlines (a bunch of caves with different sorts of humanoids in them), the details were sufficiently fuzzy in my mind that I was able to come at the adventure somewhat new.

I won't bore you with the details of what happened, because that's almost incidental to the point of our playing, which was to test the rules themselves.

Short version: I had a lot of fun, and could very easily see myself playing this version, if later iterations give somewhat the same play experience that we had last night. Bear in mind I have never played 3.x, and have only brief experience with 4E (enough to demonstrate to myself that I didn't like it).

It's absolutely the case that some things are different, mechanically. There is a general inflation of hit points, which seemed especially noticeable when playing a first-level character (I specifically wanted to try my hand at the pre-gen elf mage). However, this is balanced by an increase in the amount of damage that characters can dish out with their standard attacks. So in that sense, there is little difference (from my anecdotal experience) in the number of hits it takes to slay a particular character. For instance, my mage went down after two hits from a bugbear. In 1E, a single hit might have done it, but I don't think the difference especially compromised the experience for me.

One might ask what the point is of such hit point inflation if it affects both sides; isn't it like pinball inflation? Well, it does give a sort of cushion for another change, which at first read sounded like a real game-breaker, but in actual play turned out to work quite well in the context of the game. At-will cantrips.

These aren't the 1E cantrips you might be thinking of. Magic missile is one, for instance; so is ray of frost. However, in a game where a hobgoblin has 11 h.p., being able to zap it with a magic missile for 1d4+1 h.p. of damage doesn't seem (after one session, anyway) to imbalance the game too much. Ray of frost doesn't do any damage; it just slows the target for a turn, which seems to be the standard for most of the cantrips I saw. They're utility spells (like mage hand), but some of them have direct applicability in combat. I used my ray of frost to keep the bugbears from sounding the alarm by striking a gong, for instance (not by freezing the bugbear, but by freezing the gong so it wouldn't sound when struck). So they, much like the 1E cantrips, can reward creative use.

One mechanic I found particularly elegant was the advantage/disadvantage system. Rather than piling on lots of modifiers for various situations, it's possible to simply say that a PC or a monster has an advantage or a disadvantage. When rolling, one rolls 2d20 rather than 1d20. If you have an advantage, you take the higher of the two rolls; if you have a disadvantage, you take the lower. I haven't run the statistics, but it really seems like a help to a DM adjudicating things on the fly. That doesn't mean there aren't modifiers as well-- there are-- but I did find it a nice mechanic.

But what I liked most of all was the feel of the game. Perhaps it was the scenario, which was a conversion of one of the recognized classics of the early 1980's, written by Gygax himself. Perhaps it was the group, which was used to old school gaming, coming out of Adventures Dark and Deep, Labyrinth Lord, etc. But my impression of the rules was that they actively contributed to that feel, and I am very much looking forward to another playtest, and seeing the next iteration of the DnD Next rules.