If you’ve been following this blog for some time, it should hardly come as a surprise that over the past month, I’ve been busy looking into the newest installment in the Dungeons and Dragons regime; the aptly named “D&D Next” (or D&D 5th Edition, for those old schoolers out there – I know you’re reading along!)
What might be surprising is the fact that it took me so long actually getting my shit together and make some kind of statement about it, based on the few sessions we’ve had so far. The reason, however, is rather solid – We started playing around early July with the, back then, newest update of the rules (The 061413 edition) and managed to play one session and create characters. Then, a couple of weeks later, came the newest update/patching of the rules (080213) and boy did it bring around some changes. So you see, I didn’t really feel I could rightfully make a statement before at least having one session to try it out.
I still don’t feel right about providing such an early statement, but right enough to at least give you guys a careful opinion and overview of the current status of D&D Next. Following this entry, I hope to fire up more articles in which I describe our current campaign, along with the changes and issues we’ve run into along the way, sort of like I did with Carrion Crown. So for now, lean back and enjoy some ramblings from my side about the system, from a GM Perspective.
What I hoped D&D Next would bring…
While I love Pathfinder and in general consider myself a fan of the 3.X era, there were several issues in said systems that grinded my gears and didn’t feel properly fixed, or were ‘solved’ with too great of a cost in 4th edition. Knowing very little of what Next would bring, as a GM I hoped for the following elements:
1) Better scaling of Monsters Versus Players
Maybe it’s me and the people I play with, but I still haven’t encountered a group in which the players felt challenged, the closer and more beyond the moved to level 10. Even worse, either one or more would take immense joy grinding down the system to such a degree that just about every encounter became trivial to the degree that I had to spend extra time preparing the monsters to be stronger, the skill challenges to be bigger (if I bothered with skills at all) or simply relying on the old GM trick of “All monsters are just stronger when that guy hits them”. None of the options were really great. On top of that, I knew at the beginning of all campaigns that I had to make a choice of whether to allow expansion books or just the core. While expansions made it fun and with more build options, so did the repertoire of player tools grow, they would start having tricks that bypassed the core mechanics down to the degree that you had to utilize the same elements if the monsters weren’t to look like helpless idiots. I hoped Next would bring a system in which the danger associated with monsters and skill checks during the first four levels remained into the higher levels.
2) Let everyone feel important.
Following the first point, I’d love a system that actually made the players feel like they were a party and had to rely on each other for victory. A thing that sincerely annoyed me was having a group in which one or two players came with a build that could devastate anything, while the remaining two or three who just made something ‘they liked’ never made a difference. In other words; the total obliteration of the power builds, without making everything as boring and plain as in 4th edition.
A lot of 3.X was about avoiding dangerous stuff entirely. Spells instead of skills because they could do the same without chance of failure. Special abilities that made you immune to attacks of opportunity. Rings that made you immune to movement impairing effects. The list goes on. On the other side was the annoying “save or suck” abilities (which were, granted, better in Pathfinder) or effects that just made you practically useless. Effects should stack the odds, while still letting everyone have a chance.
4) Smooth encounter building
I understand that some of you love the number grinding and absolute control over your encounters, down to the last details. For me, it has always been tedious and frankly one of the huge factors keeping me from designing my own adventures. It’s not that the rules as such were complicated, but they never felt that smooth (although I’m saying this with a hindsight comparison, after I’ve tried the current system). What I hoped for was an encounter building system that was so smooth that the heroes were about to enter a room, and within a minute I could design an encounter on the fly, that could be challenging or trivial.
5) Fast combat and monster toys (even on higher levels)
Goes without saying. I hate long fights unless they’re special. The level 11 warrior who insists on resolving his six attacks one by one, the sorcerer casting Disintegrate with his bucket of dice and calculating it all, etc. all made it a living hell, unless you enforced timers or house rules. Something I hoped would be better in 4th edition, but alas…
6) Avoid the extremes.
The AC 37 alchemist/barbarian/fighter on level 11, the Warblade build with more than 100 damage per turn at the same stage and don’t even get me started on the creative clerics. The splat monsters draining people for 2D6 constitution per turn and whatever else shit people came up with. Again, I know there are people out there who’re into this crap (but again, I suppose you’re reading this for my opinion) – I wish that D&D Next would at least make an initial stand on whether it would allow this circus to go on, or try to succeed where 4th edition failed in terms of balance adjustments.
What D&D Next brought me…In general?
I’m not going into every tine detail about Next here; if you’re curious you can download the playtest package from Wizards and have a look yourself. That being said, what Next really brings to the table in my perspective, is a solid formula of something old and something new; it likely also borrowed something and I bet something is going to be blue. Veteran 3rd players will instantly see that Something Old in this sense is the core mechanics from 3.X in the terms of attributes and their respective ability modifiers just as you know it. They pretty much govern their same respective areas as they used to, only now, each of them are attached to a save of some kind, so that you’ll have to save with your STR mod for not getting crushed by a falling ceiling and with you CHA mod to avoid a compulsion effect and so on. In addition, whenever your character is trying out something which could go wrong, you simply set a DC as you know it (usually from 10-20) and roll off with the addition of whatever relevant attribute. Or to put it short, skills have been cut from the equation (for now).
Also, there’s a cap of 20 on every ability score.
In the current edition of the rules, skills are undergoing an overhaul, so every character is restricted to two areas of Lore (Knowledge) that provide a +10 bonus on rolls within their respective fields. These are pretty much as you know them, ranging from Religion to Magical and so on. The previous ruleset featured some interesting ideas with skills, that brought a D6 extra on any skill roll you were trained in. Maybe we’ll see a hybrid.
Other terms that will ring familiar to the veteran are “5 feet increments”, “Class Attack Bonus” and “Weapon Proficiencies” and “Spell Memorization”. Again, something old comes with something new. While the measurement system on the battle square is pretty much as you know it, the attack bonus for classes is much lower and slowly progressing and unless you dual wield weapons, it’s kind of hard to achieve more than two attacks during the first 10 levels, unless you’re a fighter. Casters get a bonus to hit with their aggressive spells as well from the advancing attack bonus, and basically every caster in the game now uses the old Sorcerer mechanic for memorizing spells, with the exception they can change their known spell every day, and have Level+1 spell prepared. It’s very smooth and certainly a nice fundamental rule.
A lot of spells have also been taken down a nudge, in terms of power, but can however be boosted by spending higher level spell slots. The classic level 3 fireball can thus blast for more damage if you’re willing to use a level 5 slot to cast it, for example. Many spells can also be cast as rituals, meaning you cast it for free but with a 10 minute cast time.
The decrease in power isn’t limited to spells. If you browse through the Bestiary, you’ll notice that the highest AC you’ll find is around 18; even the lowly lich and beholder face an AC 17 and for a lot of monsters it all goes down from there. In comparison, +2 to +7 is the variety you’ll see on most monsters who can usually only attack once or twice during a turn. Looking at the heroes, it’s just about impossible for anyone to start out with an AC above 18 and they will likely struggle to reach 19. AC 20 is the absolute maximum a hero can have in mundane equipment, which is very costly and certainly not going to happen in the first four or five levels.
At the core of the system lies the elegant mechanic of “Advantage versus Disadvantage”, meaning that if you ever make an attempt at a task in which the GM rules you have an advantage, you get to roll the D20 twice and use the best result. Vice versa applies. Initially, this seems way too simplistic to work, but you’ll be amazed at how huge an impact it can have on a battle. During our last session, the heroes knew they were facing a tough encounter of the undead, and the paladin blessed himself and the barbarian with “Protection from Evil”, meaning all zombies and skeletons rolled with Disadvantage against them. What would have been a very dangerous encounter for the heroes instead turned manageable and prevented four critical hits along the way.
Alternatively, having a buddy help you for Advantage when you try to stabilize a dying friend may make that final and crucial difference.
In terms of class?
I think most people will want to know what has happened to their preferred class, which ironically is the last thing I’ve checked up on. The wizard being my pet class, it’s still all about spells and lots of them. A thing that all classes have going for them now is the sub specialization; a pseudo prestige class system in which you have to specialize in a branch when you reach around level 3 to 5; which in the case of the wizard could be the evocation school, where you very early on get to shield your allies from your blasts, or the master of illusions or enchantments. The druid has the option to focus on shape changing and the fighter can dabble in the aggressive options of the Warrior or the defensive path of the Knight. The system is still in a very early stage in this regard, seeing as the Paladin for example only has one option for his oath at the current time, and the bard is still sadly lacking from the class family.
That being said, this is likely one of the Next elements I like the most. The diversity is interesting enough between the options, with only a couple being downright lackluster. I foresee that as usual, some will simply be much sexier than others, but this is definitely an area in which Wizards need to take all feedback they can get.
In terms of internal balance issues between classes, I frankly don’t feel qualified to make any conclusions, seeing as we’ve only played to level two and with just five of the classes. The nerfs from the recent update hit the druid and the paladin somewhat hard on level 2, while the wizard and barbarian especially are trudging along quite well. I’m quite certain that barbarian will remain the powerhouses they used to be, with barbarian rage being insanely good as it currently is. While some people have expressed displeasure with the fighter, he looks really promising with some of the new stuff he can get his hands on, and only time will tell how well the rogue in the party will do. With my party being currently at level 2, it is safe to say that they’ve needed every action they could possibly get so far, with some very close calls.
In terms of feats and races?
Races are pretty much as you know them, mechanic-wise. They all provide you with a stat bonus and usually some profession or the like. Feats, on the other hand, have seen some changes back and forth in the two updates we’ve played. Initially they were as the 3.X veterans will know them, attained at first and every third level for a bonus. Some of them were kind of overpowered in the previous update, but now they’ve had a huge overhaul. Instead, you can only gain feats when you would otherwise have a stat improvement (that usually means around level 4), when you forego the stats and instead pick a feat. To reflect this sacrifice, the feats have become a lot better, although I still feel they’re testing the mechanic now, compared to the internal power balance of the feats. One gives you Advantage on three rolls per day, whereas good, old Toughness now gives you +2 hp per level. I’m still not entirely sure which model is the best, but I’ll admit I’m kind of keen on the new one.
In terms of background?
One new, little feature is how backgrounds are no longer just something boring your players throw at you, but a package you can buy for some small bonus to your character. It’s sort of a glorified trait, meaning that if your character is a bounty hunter, you can find and claim bounties in every city. This can provide your GM with options for side quests or the like; or perhaps you were a priest or member of a guild for your craft, which could potentially help you out in a political situation. They aren’t grand, impressive advantages, but interesting enough to consider, and actually incorporate instead of just skimming through the boring texts of history players write.
In terms of what I expected?
1) Better scaling: It’s still very early to speculate on this, but from what I’ve read there is no doubt that things will settle down from what we were used to in 3.X, if not only because of the streamlined stats on monsters and players. The fact that the monster AC remains so low and their attack bonuses consistent should hopefully hit the spot where they still have a chance of hitting a well geared hero, while a full AC 20 would still mean a nasty monster would only hit around 25% of the time with its +5 bonus. This works the other way around, of course. What I’m curious to see is how this works damage wise. At the low levels we’re still seeing the syndrome of monsters dying extremely fast, but seeing as they do get more life as the levels go up and the damage output of the heroes remain static for certain periods, it could potentially mean longer and more challenging battles. I’ll have to get back to you on this one; but I’m hopeful.
2) Everyone is important: So far the system is a clear winner in this department, but it’s often so on the lower levels anyway. As said, every hand is needed when you only have 10 hit points.
3) Relative and Absolute: When looking at things such as status effects and various spells and buffs around, they add nicely on top of the fact that’s stated in Point 1). A lot of stuff is about advantage and disadvantage now, thus changing your odds without really screwing you over for failing. Although spells such as the Black Tentacles and Feeblemind can still be really devastating when used correctly. Other nasty effects usually allow multiple saves, or require the caster to concentrate, with the limit that a caster can only concentrate on one concentration spell at the time (well, duh). Classic spells such as Color Spray, Sleep and the like are still good, and Freedom of Movement, for example is still an instant 1 hour negation of everything denying movement. I suppose such elements need to be kept, but we’ll have to see whether they go overboard. I’ll bluntly admit that this is one of those areas that are truly hard to manage and balance, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
In terms of magic items, it’s worth noticing that these things have become much, much rarer than they used to. And even if a hero should get his hands on one as such, anything above a +1 sword is unheard of, unless it’s a special item with other abilities. This means that buying them and crafting for now is not an option, which sort of results in the interesting question what heroes actually need gold for, except resurrections?
4) Smooth Encounter Building: Absolutely this. As it is now, building encounters on the fly is very easy. It’s the usual Players X an amount determined by average party level XP from which you can shop creatures. I was able to make up an undead encounter pretty much on the fly and it was challenging as it was supposed to. While the bestiary is still rather limited, and making enemy spell casters is not also on the short side, I hope they stick with this one.
5) Fast combat with Monster Toys: There are some new and fun abilities for the monsters, for example the Zombies and their ability to roll a DC 5+damage dealt CON save whenever they would drop to 0. If they succeed, they instead go to 1, representing not being hit in the head or something. Thus it makes them really durable and true to their concept. Other monsters have more powerful abilities that follow the old model from 4th edition, in which they can recharge on a roll of, say, 5 or 6. I always liked this a lot in 4th so I can only approve of it now. In terms of combat speed we’re, as said still in the low end, but it’s really fast, and when I think of how only a few extra attacks will be added around the table, I’ll be optimistic enough to think it will stay like this for some time at least.
6) Avoid the extremes: Just covered; there is a nice cap on everything as it is.
In terms of overall? (TLDR)
I bet you jumped here right from the start. If not, sorry for some repetition.
I’ve read a couple of other reviews out there from angry enthusiasts, seeing a myriad of different points that haven’t been that popular with the crowd. Some of them have been downright disagreeing with me, others commenting on points I hardly believe are problematic, and of course a lot of the complaints are somewhat dated to previous versions of the rules. I suppose that’s really the thing about writing articles about this system, right? Once you read this there could easily have been a new update that totally destroyed everything I loved about it.
But let’s keep it realistic and to the current state – I’ll happily admit that I’m very optimistic about D&D Next and that this, with the proper fine tuning, could become my favorite edition so far. I love it how everything is smooth, how little space the rules take up and how easily everything flows once you get started. I love it how easy the monsters are to handle, how I know pretty much what to expect from my players and how we’re pretty much all still on the same page of power. If you asked me what I’d wish to see changed, I’d point out how the feats still need some reworking, whereas I didn’t find anything to be really wrong with the old approach to the Skills, in which you added a D6 to the trained rolls.
The package also comes with a couple of adventures for you to try out and they’re remarkably easy and fluid to execute, mostly because they’re just some encounters that so happen to be linked. They leave a lot up to you to flesh out, such as whether the dungeon should be kicking down the door, stealth, diplomacy or something else entirely, and well – it works. It really works because the system is still so fluid. I’m not sure whether this will be the new golden standard of prewritten scenarios, but I wouldn’t really complain about it.
I understand some of the criticism, of course, and I agree that for some people there might not really be that much new stuff in Next. People who appreciated the huge steps and changes included in 4th ed. will likely feel this as a step backwards to things that were abolished a long time ago. For me, it’s a step back to something that at its core had a great idea but needed a different form of execution. I also see the point when people point out that perhaps this system is not as fluid and simple as we’re lead to believe, once you take it into consideration that you get bonuses from your race, your subrace, your class, your subclass, your background, your feats and the fact that some of the equipment needs you to have proficiency in it to use. It can actually rank up rather quickly, which I suppose can be a detriment if the system’s goal is to be fluid and swift. Still, this seems like a relatively minor concern in the grand scheme of things.
While I’m still wondering how long it will be before the heroes lose all interest in gold, beyond what they need to raise their friends, I’m curious to see what the future holds for this system. I can already now say it looks way more promising than 4th edition ever did, and for me it’s very much about Wizard not dropping the ball now. While we likely have to wait some time before seeing anything definitive about it, I’m actually praying for only minor changes and corrections from here.
That and an awesome bard.
Let’s move on to the campaign journal.