Thursday, October 25, 2012

D&DNext Playtest: Kobold Slaughter

Game Date: 10/19/2012
DM: Matt
Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, and Wizard: Bryan

It was just the two of us today, so we tried a bit of the playtest.  I DMed while Bryan played four characters.  In order to test the character creation, we started by building a fighter from scratch.  It wasn't difficult at all, though we did get a little bit confused when we tried to figure up his attack and damage bonuses (more on that later).  We used pregens for the other three characters.

I only ran him through the first cave (A) in the Caves of Chaos module.  Unfortunately it wasn't much of a challenge, and we didn't have time to try any of the more difficult caves.  A lot of the more interesting combat options never got used, simply because most of the enemies didn't take more than one hit to kill.  The Rogue never used his sneak attack, because it wasn't worth wasting a round to hide just to get a damage bonus on monsters who only had three hit points.  The Fighter never got to use his Expertise die, because his one combat maneuver, Glancing Blow, required him to miss after rolling ten or higher... and most of the enemies would get hit if he rolled a 10.

The Wizard did use two of his three prepared spells, once taking out a few kobolds with Burning Hands, and the other time taking out a large number of rats with Sleep.  The rest of the game he just used Magic Missile each round.  The Cleric used all of his healing spells over the course of the adventure, mostly on the Rogue, who went down to 0 twice during the adventure.  Even with the Rogue nearly dying, overall I didn't seem to give Bryan much trouble.  I wish I'd thrown in some orcs or something just to give him a real test.


I've been playing D&D for about 5 years now, but thanks to 4e's Character Builder, I've rarely built a character from scratch.  I've just never cared much for making a character by hand, because it takes too long and I always forget to add some bonuses from somewhere.  But I'd like to think that my aversion makes me that much more apt to recognize a simple creation system, and this one is not too bad.  I hope it stays this easy.

I love that you get a small stat bonus from your race and your class, instead of the old +2 from race only.  It makes sense to me that a trained warrior would pick up a stat boost from his training, regardless of his race.  And since you don't get as big a bonus from your race, maybe players won't worry so much about optimal race/class combinations.

I also really like the selection of backgrounds, especially since it includes roleplay-centric backgrounds like "Commoner" and "Artisan".  Those backgrounds probably won't be used as much by most of the players I know, but I'm very glad they're there.  I could easily see DMs setting up themed campaigns that require certain backgrounds, and since backgrounds are probably the least important part of character creation, the builds won't suffer that much.

Organization Rant
As mentioned up above, we did get a little confused when trying to figure up the Fighter's attack/damage bonus.  The problem is, I've only been playing since 4e.  Veteran players are used to flipping back and forth through a player's handbook to figure out where everything is.  Heck, some old-school gamers had to rummage through multiple books to get all the information they needed.  Meanwhile, the people who write the rules are used to writing for experienced gamers, and don't seem to have a clue how to clarify things for newbies. 

Exhibit A: Nearly every attack power in 4e says something like: "Attack: Strength Vs AC" or "Attack: Wisdom Vs Will".  Your actual attack bonus is more along the lines of, "Strength + weapon proficiency bonus + feat bonus + 1/2 level + magic weapon + etc etc etc VS AC."  So my earliest 4e characters ended up shortchanging themselves on their attack rolls.  I'd remember to add in some of those bonuses, but I'd always miss at least one somewhere (usually the weapon proficiency bonus.)  Until the premiere of the Character Builder, I always wondered why my characters hit so badly.  There is a section on the character sheet that expands on the math, but early on I assumed that was there to compute basic attacks rather than powers.

Anyway, the D&DNext playtest packet wasn't as confusing, but the information still wasn't always where we expected it to be.  We were pretty sure going in that our Fighter would have +6 to attack and +3 to damage, because his stats were very similar to the pregen Fighter.  We knew that you add your Strength to attack and damage, but we missed the chart (in each section of the "Classes" document) that listed the weapon training bonuses, so we couldn't figure out where the extra +3 attack was coming from.  We guessed it was some sort of proficiency bonus, but just couldn't find a way to prove it.

So, idiots that we are, we started at the beginning.  So we tried the "Character Creation" document, and it said (page 2):  Your melee attack modifier is your Strength modifier plus bonuses or penalties from other sources.  Okay, but what are those "other sources"?  The "How to Play" document (page 2) had an "Attacks" section, but it pretty much just defined attack rolls.  Then it promised: Additional rules for attacks and taking damage are provided in the “Combat” section.

So we went to the "Combat" section (page 10) where "Attack" is listed as an action you can take during battle.  Then it says:  See “Attack Basics” below for the rules that govern attacks.  So we headed over to "Attack Basics" (page 11), which went into more detail:  An attack roll looks like this: d20 + ability modifier + weapon or magic training (if any) + situational modifiers.  Yay, now we have mention of training... but what are the specific training bonuses?

Well, I remembered 4e listed proficiency bonuses on its equipment chart, so we tried the "Equipment" document next.  On page 5, each weapon category would say something along the lines of:  (Attack: Strength modifier).  This was even more confusing because elsewhere it told us you add Strength to both attack and damage for melee weapons, but now it was implying it was just for attack rolls.  For a minute we thought this meant we add Strength twice - once because you add it to all melee attacks (and damage), and once because Strength is used instead of a set proficiency bonus.

Eventually we did notice the nice big charts in the "Classes" document, but it felt like we'd been on a wild goose chase.  Here's a tip for the writers: have newbies look through your player's handbook, and put information in the places people look for it.  I realize this was mostly our own stupidity, and I'm not saying the writers weren't clear.  But it would have been nice if when it mentioned "weapon training" in the "How to Play" document, it had gone on to say something like, "A chart of training bonuses appears in the 'Classes' document."  Hopefully the final product will be user-friendly for those of us prone to confusion.

Vancian Rant
Bryan hasn't had much experience with spellcasters, so I had a little trouble explaining the part where Wizards have to prepare their spells in advance.  I compared them to 4e's Daily spells, but the "plan ahead" aspect still threw him for a loop.

Frankly, I despise the concept of Vancian memorization.  Just so we're on the same page, I mean where you memorize a certain number of spells a day, and those spells magically disappear from your memory as you cast them.  (Trivia time:  It's called "Vancian" after author Jack Vance, who used a similar magic system in his "Dying Earth" series.  The creators of D&D were Vance fans, and borrowed several of his ideas.)

I find it especially silly that you can memorize a spell multiple times, and you still forget it after you cast it that number of times.  It's like saying, "I memorized the Gettysburg Address three times, so I can only recite it three times before the next time I rest."  Okay, fine, with magic all things are possible.  But I still find it an odd way for magic to work.  Especially when you get to higher levels and it's like, "I can memorize two third-level spells, three second level spells, and four first level spells."

Now, I don't terribly mind the mechanical aspects of Vancian, I just hate the fluff.  Using the same mechanics, I don't mind it if you call it "preparing" the spell, assuming preparing means combining various ingredients (eye of newt, bat guano, etc) into specific amounts for later use.  I picture a "prepared spell" as a physical object, like a small pouch containing a precise combination of powders, ready to be ignited during combat. 

Of course, with that explanation, players will ask questions like, "Why don't unused spells carry over to the next day?  Why can't I take a week off adventuring and spend it preparing a bunch of spells for the next quest?"  Well, maybe these chemical combinations don't last long.  They have a 24-hour expiration date.  You might even offer to allow players to carry over unused spells for one additional day, but they run the risk of fizzling or backfiring. 

(Actually I really might try that sometime, it sounds fun.  When you cast a day-old prepared spell, roll a d20.  1-7 and the spell backfires dangerously, 8-13 and it just fizzles or does less damage, 14-20 and it behaves normally.  I could draw up something like a fumble chart.  Heck, something like that might be fun for all of 4e's Daily powers - even martial ones - that don't get used before an extended rest.  Hmmm...)

"But what if we're planning on doing a short exploration day?  If I get a few extra hours to prepare spells that morning, why can't I have more spells that day?"  Because, even though you're holding "prepared spells" as objects, they still require mental energy to cast, and you only have so much of that before you need rest.  "But what if I..."  You just can't, okay?  Some mechanics just aren't explainable in a 100% realistic way.  Not all rules are going to make sense.  But personally, I'd rather accept the logical inconsistencies that come with preparing spell components, than dealing with the idea that information is magically erased from your mind when you cast a spell.

...but I digress.  Long story short (too late) I would be very happy if the release version of 5e didn't mention memorization, and instead just referred to it as "preparing a spell".  But I won't hold my breath, as I know they're trying to please veterans as well as newbies.

Bottom Line
While we had fun, this session wasn't a true test of what the system.  Next time we'll probably start at a higher level and face some bigger challenges (and hopefully have more players - it wasn't easy on Bryan controlling a party of four when he didn't even know the rules yet).  Speaking of Bryan, overall he liked it.  He said it felt a lot more like AD&D than 4e, and even though he only played a little AD&D, it still made him feel pleasantly nostalgic.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Savage Worlds: The Wild Hunt

Game Date: 10/13/2012
DM: Rusty

The Players :
Bobby Thompson (Matt) - Runaway Runner
Morgan Stevens (Star) - Psychotic Psychic
R.H. Milsten (Cliff) - Paranoid Paranormalist

The Session:
Today we played a one-shot of Savage Worlds. This was my first time playing the system.

The story began with our characters on a bus, headed for Edinburgh, Wisconsin.  We each had our own reasons for being on this bus, and out of boredom we got to know each other.  This was done in the form of an "Interlude", a Savage Worlds mechanic which rewards roleplay.  In this interlude, Bobby introduced herself to the other two characters and tried to get them talking.  Both Morgan and RH kind of creeped her out for various reasons.

After a while the bus driver started having vehicle troubles.  We arrived at the tiny little town, and the bus pulled up to a mini-mart, where we did a little shopping.  Later, the driver told us that the bus couldn't be repaired tonight, and we would have to sleep on the bus.  Then he left to use the restroom, and never came back.  Soon the store kicked us out so they could close, and we noticed just how dark this town really was. 

Outside the mart, we tried knocking on the bathroom door, but there was no answer.  Luckily Morgan was good at picking locks.  Once she got the door open, we found that the bathroom was empty.  Having no place else to go, we returned to the bus.  Then we saw some shapes moving in the darkness, which turned out to be undead dogs.  One approached the bus door, the other tried to get in through one of the windows.

We spent a round or two fighting the dogs, when three undead humans emerged from the darkness as well.  RH fended them off at the doorway, while Morgan used her psychic abilities to attack from the distance.  Bobby, armed only with a switchblade, didn't contribute quite as much as the others.  Late in the battle, Morgan used an action card to make one of the dogs flee, and eventually we killed the rest of the monsters.  It was a difficult fight, and Bobby was at -3 wounds for the rest of the session.

We decided a building would be safer than the bus, so Morgan picked the mini-mart's lock and got us back inside.  We stocked up on whatever we could, including flashlights, food, guns, and ammo.  Then we hid in the back room for a while.  We rested a bit, which allowed RH and Morgan to recover some power points, but nobody could heal any damage.

After a while we heard something scratching at the back, and a crash as the front door was pushed open.  Two more undead dogs managed to chew a hole in the back door, as three zombies made their way through the store towards the back room.  Morgan blocked the doorway to the back, while RH and Bobby dealt with the dogs who were now sticking their heads through the hole in the back door.

Trapped like rats.
Morgan did a good job of rolling high numbers, often triggering the game's "exploding dice" feature (max die rolls allow for additional die rolls).  Bobby, meanwhile, kept rolling 1's and 2's.  During the fight, RH was bitten in the leg, which made him permanently lame.  Not wanting to waste a round reloading his shotgun, RH finished the dog off with the butt of his gun.

My standard rolls for pretty much the entire session.
We had a brief respite, until another wave of enemies came through the shop's front door.  It was four more undead and the boss, the "Huntsman", who had large antlers on his helmet.  At first it looked impossible to harm the Huntsman.  RH hit him with a powerful shotgun blast that ended up doing no damage.  But Morgan eventually took him out with an impressive series of exploding die rolls.  The Huntsman dissipated, not truly defeated but temporarily unable to maintain his corporal form.  But we still faced a few undead.

The Huntsman approaches.
One of the undead did some brain damage to Morgan, leaving her unconscious.  RH jammed his gun, and rolled double 1's trying to unjam it.  This caused the gun to backfire, taking him out of the fight as well.  It finally came down to Bobby and one undead, and it could have gone either way.  Bobby just barely managed to finish off her foe.  She tried to heal her friends, but without heal training she didn't have much luck.  She rolled double 1's while trying to fix Morgan, which only made things worse.

And that's how we left off:  The three of us injured and bleeding in the back room, alive for now but knowing we might not survive the night.  The Huntsman was still out there, and would probably reform within the next couple of hours.  I suggested that Bobby run out of town to find help (running was her only real specialty), and the DM ruled that she continued to run for a few hours, only to arrive at the same town again.

"Savage" is right.  Although nobody technically died during the session, it was a real bloodbath.  I liked the story a lot - it's the first time I've really played that kind of spooky/horror story in an RPG, and I'd like to do that again sometime.  It was the perfect October one-shot.  But the system itself would not be my first choice.

Things I liked:
The exploding dice was fun.  Even when it was being used on us by a monster, it was oddly fascinating to see just how many additional die rolls we were going to end up taking.

The Interludes were fun, even if I didn't really do well on mine.  Anything you can do to encourage roleplay is all right by me.  It makes the characters more real to me if I can see their personalities in action.

I liked how skills had us rolling different types of dice, instead of rolling a d20 and adding a bonus.  Note, I don't actually like it better than d20, I just like the novelty of doing it different. 

This isn't really about the system, but I thought it was a nice touch how all the pregens had unisex names, so you could play the male or female version of each.

Things I disliked:
When you take damage, you take a penalty to your die rolls.  So if you're wounded, the game gets harder.  I hate games that do that.  It's just like Monopoly, where the person to get an advantage early on often ends up keeping the other players down for the rest of the game.  Yes, it's more realistic, but I think it's pretty obvious by now I don't care for realism.  If you really need an in-game explanation for why your stats don't get worse as you get injured in D&D, I'd just chalk it up to adrenaline. 

The lack of healing was also a big issue.  If I'd known in advance how necessary having a medic is in the game, I definitely would have chosen a different pregen.  My character's one big skill was running, but I never really used it because I didn't want to abandon my teammates.  My fault picking a pregen based on their fluff rather than looking closely at their skills.

Things I'm on the fence about: 
You use standard playing cards for initiative.  It was interesting, and easy to track, but I don't know if I like the idea of mixing dice and cards.  It's just one too many things to bring to the table.

I also thought the wounds system was interesting.  While I didn't like the negative modifiers, I did think it was neat how the final blow would have you roll on an injury table.  I don't care for it in a high combat game, but I think it would be cool in a game that's mostly roleplay.

And that's really the bottom line for me.  I think I might enjoy Savage Worlds if I only had to slay a few monsters a day, rather than having to face a continuous onslaught of zombies.  It's probably unfair to judge it without having played a more combat-ready character, or without playing in a party that has a proper doctor, but from the little bit I've seen it looks like a pretty deadly system.  And that's never been my preference.