Wednesday, September 19, 2012

D&DNext Playtest: August 2012 Update

I was going to wait I'd had a chance to run the newest playtest packet before I commented on it, but I just can't seem to get a game together.  Oh well, I can still give my impressions from what I've read in the packet itself.  Here's a rundown on some of the more significant changes in the August 2012 update:

Character Creation
The newest packet includes the ability to create your own character, rather than just using the pregens.  To do this, you roll up stats, then mix-and-match your race, class, background, and specialization.  It reminds me of one of those flip books, where you make different monsters by matching up heads, bodies, and legs.  I really hope they keep it this simple; it looks like it's going to be a lot faster rolling up characters in this edition.

The packet includes several backgrounds to flesh out your character.  Primarily this is a way of giving your character a set of skills bonuses, but some of them give you a few other random benefits as well.  Optimizers will pick the background that most  closely matches their class - Rogues will often pick the Thief background, Fighters will pick Soldier, etc.  But there's also some cool roleplay-related backgrounds as well, like Artisan or Commoner.  This really sets the tone for the system, in my opinion.  I never agreed with the critics who accused 4e of discouraging roleplay, but even so it looks like 5e is going to be better in that regard.

The "Themes" in the last playtest are now called "Specialties".  I really like where they're going with them.  Themed builds you used to put together yourself (such as two-weapon fighter or hard-to-kill damage sponge), you now just pick as a package and get the feats automatically as you level.  Since you no longer cherry-pick your own feats, you won't have powergamers finding magical combinations of feats that do infinite damage.  I'm sure the final product (or at least one of the later splat books) will have optional rules that let you pick your own feats, but for now it looks like you have to stick to an archetype.

While certain specialties are recommended for certain classes, so far it looks like any class can pick any specialty.  However, a couple of the feats did list prerequisites.  I wonder if this means you can still pick the specialty, but just don't gain the benefits of that feat.  I do hope they don't go overboard with the prerequisites, because I like this mix-and-match system.  I want the freedom to build quirky characters who are more interesting than useful.  If I want my Cleric to specialize in two-weapon fighting, don't judge me.  Not all campaigns are about having optimum stats.

They recently announced that 5e's multiclassing would be like it was in 3e, where every time you level you get to pick which class to level in.  This decision did not meet with universal acclaim.  Personally I think it's fine to have that system as an option, but I also think they should look into the specializations as a multiclass option as well. 

For example, they could make a specialization that grants non-magic classes one Wizard spell per level.  A Fighter could use that specialization to be a Fighter/Wizard.  Of course that Fighter would be sacrificing a more fighter-y specialization that could have given him better damage or more hit points, but multiclassing is always a trade-off. This version of multiclassing wouldn't be as 50/50 (or 33/33/33) as 3e's multiclassing; it would be more like "Fighter who dabbles in Wizard" than "Fighter/Wizard".  But that's okay with me.

Hit Points
Last time, people (myself included) complained that there wasn't enough healing.  To "fix" it, they lowered the max hit points of all characters, both PCs and monsters.  But they kept the healing rates the same, so you would end up healing a greater percentage.  Personally, I wasn't complaining about the amount healed so much as the number of times per day you can heal.  At first level you can only heal by resting once per day (using a healing kit, which I still think are an unnecessary complication), and 1st-level Clerics can only cast "Cure Light Wounds" twice a day (using spell slots they could have saved for other spells).  Still, that's just level 1.  It looks like by level 5 it all starts to seem more reasonable.

Last year I played a few sessions of Pathfinder before we switched our campaign to 4e.  One of our biggest gripes was Pathfinder's slow healing, which really slowed the game down.  But to be fair, it all depends on how much combat you're going to have in your campaign.  If your game is mostly fighting, then you're going to need access to a lot of healing just to keep the story moving.  But if your group tends to do things like scout ahead, avoid monsters, set traps, seal doors shut to control enemy movement, parlay, wear disguises, sneak into enemy kitchens and poison the food, or even avoid dungeons altogether in favor of business endeavors... then healing's not as much of an issue for you.

This version of the playtest also has variant rules for long rests.  The basic rules still have you healing to full, but it also has options for DMs who want to make healing a bit slower.   This is a good example of how the final product might treat optional rules, in their effort to please fans of every edition.

Surprise Rounds
Instead of the clunky system from the last playtest, where surprised characters got -20 to their initiative rolls, the new playtest treats surprise a bit more rationally.  Now you just roll initiative normally, and if you're surprised you can't act on your first turn.

Opportunity Attacks
In the last version of the playtest, they had not yet put in Opportunity Attacks.  They're back in this version, but a little bit different.  Instead of triggering when you leave a threatened square, now it triggers when you leave an opponent's reach.  So you can run circles around your enemy without provoking.  The downside is there's still no shift/five-foot-step.  Instead you can disengage, which lets you move 10 feet without provoking.  But that's an Action instead of a Move, so you can't attack and disengage on the same turn.  But you could disengage and still move further away, if all you're trying to do is escape.  (Note that some Fighters have a shift-like ability they can use once per round; see "Combat Expertise Die" below).

I'm not crazy about these OA rules, but I've never been a fan of OAs in the first place.  I like to keep rules as simple as possible, and avoid the ones that restrict your options.  I realize lack of OAs can make certain combat strategies too easy, but whatever rules are in effect for the players are also in effect for the monsters, so it's an even playing field.  In the movies, you often see the hero gliding through the battlefield, taking a swipe here and a slash there, deftly avoiding counterattacks while stabbing random opponents.  It's all very fluid and dynamic.  D&D, however, seems to think combat should be more robotic.  Walk up to target, roll d20s until it dies, walk up to next target, etc.

Yes, I understand the guy in the movie is probably a seasoned veteran, while my level 1 fighter shouldn't be as good at dancing her way through a battlefield.  But that just proves it can be done eventually.  So here's my suggestion:  Keep OAs like they were in 4e, but you get a +1 per level bonus to AC against them.  So a level 1 character might still have trouble jumping from enemy to enemy, but by level 10 you're so good at it that the DM might not even bother attempting the rolls.

Monster Format
This is more a presentation change than a mechanical one, but the bestiary in this version is much easier-to-read than in the last playtest.  This is a good sign; it means they're not just thinking about the crunch.

Fighter Expertise Die
The fighter now has several maneuvers it can use instead of just whacking away with his sword.  Depending on his level and his fighting style, he can spend an expertise die to perform extra actions like cleave, knockdown, shift, and so on.  Some actions require you roll the die, others don't, but either way you spend the die like it was a 4e Action Point.  You get your die back at the start of your next turn, so basically fighters can do one extra thing every turn.  The size and number of the dice goes up as you level.  It reminds me a little bit of the Stunts system in the Dragon Age RPG.

New Classes
The Sorcerer and Warlock were a late edition to the Playtest, and they're a good example of just how different the classes can get.  The Sorcerer uses a "Willpower point" system for casting instead of Vancian, and has more melee presence than the Wizard.  The Warlock's spellcasting is sort of similar to the Sorcerer, except it's INT-based and calls the points "favors".  Like the Wizard, both of these classes have some spells that don't cost anything, similar to 4e's At-Wills. 

Bottom Line
On the various boards I read, people are predicting Next is going to crash and burn.  I guess they just don't have faith in WOTC any more.  They're still catching flak for mistakes they made years ago.  A typical example:
I remember that just within ONE WEEK before the release of 4.0, WOTC announced in VERY terse terms that there was NO plan for a new edition and NO plans for researching a new edition and there was NOT going to be a new edition... and to drive the point home, I recall that they released either two or three new 3.5 supplements to show their "good faith."  Seven days later, there's a new edition.  This time they are giving the public notice.  To heck with them. I'm sticking with Paizo and Pathfinder. (source)
Talk about an Unreleasable Fanbase.  It's damned if you do, damned if you don't.  I see a company that has learned its lesson from past mistakes, but others will never forgive them.  Oh well, they're going to miss a lot of cool gaming sessions.

I'm not psychic or anything, but as a general trend-watcher, so far 5e reminds me of those reboots that ends up being big hits.  5e looks like the "Batman Begins" to 4e's "Batman and Robin".  The "Star Trek 2009" to 4e's "Star Trek Nemesis".  The "Mortal Kombat 9" to... well, you get the idea.  (And this comes from someone who really liked 4e.) 

It really looks like they're taking all the right steps this time.  Rather than surprising people out of the blue with the new edition's mechanics, this time they're having public playtests out the wazoo, and getting feedback after every step.  Heck, they even had us vote on whether Minotaurs have tails.  The end product is going to be something we all had a hand in making  So if you don't like the final version... it's your fault.  Actually, that would be a great new slogan:  "Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition... It's not our fault!"

WOTC thinks it will be two years before 5e is officially released.  Ouch!  So while I really like the direction they're going, there's a lot of time for things to change.  It's quite possible that the final product won't have any of the stuff I liked best about these early playtests.  Heck, there's already been a couple of changes that bothered me between the first playtest and this one.  I have to admit, a small part of me wants to sit out the playtests and wait until the final product is released, so I don't get attached to rules that get changed later.  But if everyone did that, the playtest would be pointless.  Besides, a much larger part of me wants to see and experience every single step of the development process.

Overall, I like what I'm seeing so far, and can't wait to see how it turns out.  It's going to be a long couple of years.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Books: The Tomb of Horrors

This is the third "Greyhawk Classics" novelization I have read, the other two being The Temple of Elemental Evil and Against the Giants.  Like the others, this is what I call "disposable fiction", but that's really not a bad thing.  In fact, I'm really starting to prefer the genre.  I don't have to commit myself to reading an entire series, I don't have to worry about anyone spoiling the ending for me, and I don't have to remember any of the characters' names after I'm done reading it.  Sure it's the literary equivalent of Cool Whip on a Honey Bun, but sometimes that's just what I'm in the mood for.  (Figuratively speaking.)

The writing style is just okay. Like the other Greyhawk Classics, there's nothing really memorable about the prose, but it gets the job done. I didn't see as many typos in this one as in Against the Giants, though I did see some missing punctuation here and there.  Some sentences were repetitive in a way that annoyed me. Such as: "Tears continued to roll down Kaerion's face, and he, powerless to stop it, let them fall unchallenged down his face." See, the problem with that kind of sentence is you never know if it was under-edited, or meant to sound artsy. Personally I would have eliminated the last three words, or maybe broken the whole thing up into two sentences. But then, I'm not a professional writer.

The main character is a former paladin, filled with self-loathing after his fall from grace.  The rest of the party consists of a pompous fighter, a venerable wizard, an elf ranger, a cleric of Heironeous, a multi-talented bard, and a gaggle of generic guards who serve as the book's red shirts.  Wait, you're going into one of the most trapped-filled dungeons ever devised without a rogue?  Luckily the bard has some decent rogue skills, and the wizard also keeps some appropriate spells prepared.

The ex-paladin's name is Kaerion. I'm not sure how the author intended it to be pronounced, though I'm wondering if it's an allusion to "carrion". But whenever I saw the name, I got a song stuck in my head: "Kaerion my wayward son... there'll be peas when you are done..." (True paladins always finish their peas.)  I suppose there's worse earworms; I should be thankful his name wasn't "Kallmemaybe." He was a pretty deep character, at least for this genre, with a tragic backstory gradually revealed over the course of the novel. If his character had been more shallow, the book probably would have been half the length. I've yet to play through the ToH module, but I'm guessing it must be fairly light on plot, since the book's author to felt the need to devote so many pages to characterization. But it works.

My favorite member of the party was the bard, Majandra. She was well-written and I could always relate to her motivations. Or maybe I just have a thing for red-haired, female, half-elf bards. Unfortunately, the rest of the group wasn't as fleshed-out.  Some characters were more developed than others, but few of them were much deeper than the description you'd see on a typical character sheet.  Well, one of my character sheets, anyway.

One thing Against the Giants was lacking was a decent villain. But Tomb of Horrors has an entire party of interesting baddies. We have an evil cleric, a monk (and his young apprentice), a rogue/assassin, a sorceress, a golem, and a small army of cultist minions (a.k.a. evil red shirts). The enemy party is what made this book interesting to me. The ToEE and AtG novels played out like D&D modules - the party learns of an evil, investigates the temple/dungeon/fortress, has a lot of fights, defeats a final boss, and saves the day. But in Tomb of Horrors, we follow two rival parties, both intent on facing the dungeon for different reasons.  This really makes the book more interesting, and I could easily see some readers rooting for the evil team.

It took the story a long time to get to the titular Tomb.  The party spent a large number of pages getting ready and even more time trudging through the swamp. It was an interesting journey, but I found myself wondering if the actual module also includes so much travel time, or if the author just couldn't find enough interesting things in the tomb itself to flesh out a full book.  If I remember correctly I had some similar criticisms about The Temple of Elemental Evil novelization.

But once they actually reached the tomb, I understood pretty quickly why it didn't take up more pages.  This type of dungeon might be fun as a D&D module, but as a book it would get kind of repetitive.  Constantly checking for and disabling traps does not make for an interesting read.  Still, the author managed to throw in just enough trap-wrangling to capture the feel of D&D without bogging down the story.  Fans of the module will appreciate all the gory deaths these traps cause.

I spotted a lot of the tropes you see in a typical D&D campaign.  Sometimes the characters were so genre savvy it almost broke the fourth wall.  For example, they used 10-foot poles to search for pit traps, which is something I've always heard about in classic D&D, but I'd never seen in a novel.  One of my favorite passages involved one character suggesting they all split up, and another explaining to him why you should never split the party.

For the most part, the action scenes are exciting and well done. However, there are times when the sequence of events doesn't seem to fit together right. Like when two things are happening at once, but one of the things should be taking a lot longer than the other. There's one scene in particular that really flaunts the "Talking is a Free Action" trope.  To paraphrase: "The monster is coming right at me! I only have seconds before it gets here! It's only inches away! Quick, throw me my sword! Hurry, it's almost upon me!" I'm exagerrating, but you get the idea. And not long afterwards, there's a death scene that takes the "Final Speech" trope to an almost humorous extreme. Sometimes I think reading tropes has ruined fiction for me.

The climax was predicable, and the falling action almost nonexistent, but I don't care.  The book has its flaws, but it's my favorite Greyhawk novel so far.  It's not real literature, but these books aren't meant to be true art. Let's face it, it's a novelization of a D&D module. Heck, that's probably lower on the totem pole than the comic book adaptations of movies based on video games. So I really appreciate that these authors worked as hard as they did, when they could have just transcribed the original module into a more book-like format and collected their paycheck.

Thumbs up.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dragon*Con 2012

Well, we finally did it.  We went to the DragonCon parade without actually going to DragonCon.  The last couple of times we went, we discussed whether the con itself was worth it, since most of our fun comes from taking pictures.  We just never got our money's worth out of the con itself.  We usually only attend one or two symposiums, and most of the members-only areas are so crowded they're just not fun.  So this year we decided up front, we were either going to spend a lot of money (like by getting our pictures taken with celebrities) or none at all.  Being fairly close to broke, we picked none at all.

Unfortunately, the freeloading potential wasn't as good as it used to be.  Most years, the hotel lobbies didn't check for badges.  Sure, you needed a badge to go into the vendor areas, symposiums, or other con event areas, but pretty much anybody could walk through the hotels.  I don't know if this was intentional or the security had just gotten lax, but we'd often mosey through the lobbies in the morning before finally buying our badges.  But this year, every possible hotel entrance (the more important hotels, anyway) was blocked by the con police, demanding badges or room keys to enter.  This is sad, because it's so hot, that a lot of the better costumed characters congregate in the hotel lobbies.  So I wasn't able to take as many cool pictures as I used to.  All my pictures were pretty much from the parade and the sidewalks.

It was a lot more crowded this year than last year.  I don't know if it means the con is getting more popular, or if it was just because there's so many events going on in Atlanta this weekend.  Usually we get to the parade an hour early, and have no problem finding a good spot on the curb to sit while the crowds form around us.  This time, we got there just as early as usual, but it was already standing room only all the way up and down the street.  Eventually we did manage to find a nice spot to sit, but it wasn't easy.  So now I wonder if I should start getting to the parade two hours early.  My back is not going to thank me for that.

So, is it worth going to DragonCon without buying passes?  Well, not as much as it used to be.  The only free thing is the parade, and you'll be spending so much time outside you're going to get very hot.  If you do go just for the parade, don't get a hotel room.  Instead, assuming you live close enough, just make a day trip of it.  Maybe try to find cheap overnight bus fare.  Or if you do get a hotel, make sure you also do some other touristy stuff in Atlanta like the aquarium or something, and make a full vacation of it.

Anyway, after going two years in a row, we're probably not going to go back for a few years.  This is not a reflection on the con itself; we'd just like to spend our vacation budget on other places for a while.  Next time we go to DragonCon, I want to save up so I can spend lots of money on stupid things.

I've got more pictures up on Facebook.