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.

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