Rivendell Books and Games, our local gaming store, hosted Free RPG Day, and everyone involved was tremendous! Pleasant, friendly and knowledgable people, GMs and players. D&D Next playtest sessions and Pathfinder games. And cool free and discounted RPG stuff! I grabbed the free heroic tier D&D module, Dead in the Eye, plus a discounted Waterfront Tavern full-color poster map.
And while the freebies were nice, the main event for me what I was most looking forward to all week: the D&D Next Playtest session!
The Story: Caves of Chaos
The party filled up right around 10am – six of us between my brother Dave, our friend Homer, myself and three other players. Everyone started picking their characters and towards the end, Dave, Homer and I ended up with characters and classes we love, so it all worked out! Dave played the halfling rogue, Homer played the dwarf fighter, and I of course was happy to play my first favorite class going back to the D&D Red Box days: the classic, armored, versatile cleric.
We began by circling around to back of the caves, finding our first whiff of danger in the screeching sound and towering form of an owlbear – which I thought was awesome! However, after some discussion and gentle suggestions from our GM Jon, we would leave the owlbear behind… for now. Trust me, I wanted nothing more than a true test and challenge for our D&D Next characters in combat, so I was pretty excited to go right at it. In the end though, it proved out to be cool foreshadowing.
Soon after, we snuck up on a sleeping ogre that had at first looked like a bear, making quick work of him. Then we dispatched a few patrols of goblins, all the while noting the great chunks of cheese and brandy we collected. It became something we sought for and asked for as we went – who needed real treasure, we wanted good food and drink!
Speaking of asking for things, that’s one thing I enjoyed during Caves of Chaos: it wasn’t just a hack and slash-fest. Though the motivations for being there in the first place weren’t very clear or enticing (stereotypical dungeon crawl), it was fun to “think outside the box” as Jon suggested at the top when talking about checks, skills and improvisation.
So that’s what we did as a group: propped up corpses of goblins to scare some hobgoblins, having a funny exchange with them as we hid on the stairs and watched their horrified reaction. Later, we would parlay with kobolds, kobold dragonshields, and their chief. In fact, seeing the knight-like dragonshields gave me the idea to “think outside the box” and demand what my Knight’s Station theme required: free lodging and food! Jon liked that creativity, so he asked me to roll my Charisma check for this feat of inspired diplomacy.
Now, unfortunately, the dice were not on my side during that exchange or for most of the adventure until the last few encounters. But that was fun as hell! Our group exchanged plenty of laughs and non-kill-’em-all ideas the entire adventure. It was great. Dave got all MacGyver with his rogue, and Homer did what he always did with his 4e warrior: just kill stuff with big weapons.
When our negotiations with the goblins and kobolds were done, and our stock of cheese and brandy spoils high, only the owlbear remained as a great capstone to the adventure. Between a trap set up by our rogue and a rain of spell fire and weapon swings, the massive beast finally went down. (By the way, Jon did one hell of an owlbear screech sound!)
My Impressions: D&D Next Rules & Feel
As I told everyone at the table after the game, and reiterated to Dave and Homer on the way back home, three things really hit me about D&D Next:
- The classes shined at their strengths
- The roleplaying/storytelling vs. rules/mechanics mix was more integrated and balanced
- Combat was fast
To the first point, I loved how fighters kicked ass (though I still say we should call them Warriors, as Fighters sounds silly). The damage our two dwarven fighters put out was insane. I also liked how ranged attacks, whether weapon or spell, were also useful and helpful. (After all, I am a big fan of the backup weapon!)
For example, my dwarf cleric, clearly hung over, only started to hit things when he started tossing goblin spears he had plundered. He didn’t start with a ranged weapon of any kind, which I found silly, so I quickly remedied that. Otherwise, my armored cleric felt like what he was supposed to be: versatile, slightly favoring melee. Just as the cleric of Pelor felt like a ranged spell-striking 4e laser cleric. Room for both in 5e!
Rounding out the party’s classes and roles, the elven wizard was knowledgeable and could easily find secret doors, always ready with a magic missile. And of all the clases, I think the rogue struck me as the most powerful. Between skill mastery (permanent Take 10) and constantly being able to hide and gain advantage, Dave played his sneaky rogue like a master adventurer. He was like a hybrid MacGyver-Ninja!
Flavor vs. Mechanics
The way character features like background, theme, and spells were written had a decidedly old school feel to them that more seamlessly blended flavor with rules. That made it much more enjoyable to read and improvise from. The lack of a great big skill list to stare out for ideas was nice too, with a shift more on creative and realistic actions vs. finding something on your sheet.
And like I said, our GM made sure anytime we went the road less traveled and improvised with trickery, traps, or diplomacy, we had a fair shake (i.e. at least a fair die roll) at it, including gaining advantage at the start of combat, for example, where it made sense.
Finally! Combat was quick and dirty – and fun! We each were given a miniature at the start, but we never used the battlegrid. And we didn’t really miss a beat, adjusting quickly. Far cry from the almost-requited miniatures of D&D 4e. That alone made it all feel less gamey and more like a novel or movie unfolding smoothly around us.
Less healing was available compared to 4e, but there was still enough, between the one brief rest we took and a couple of spells and potions. Rests didn’t dominate the game or make a jarring appearance after every single combat, which was nice. Things moved more quickly from scene to scene.
The return of the spells/day approach was easy to adjust to, and there wasn’t an overwhelming of choices to make either. I found myself holding onto my Crusader’s Strike spell for that owlbear fight at the end, not realizing until too late it lasted an hour. This reminded me of those spell buffs in prior editions that were a sort of “medium” duration, giving them value in multiple combats. In 4e, those didn’t really exist anymore – you had dailies, encounters, and at-wills, so the medium-term stuff just didn’t have a tactical home.
The coolest thing I learned about combat in D&D Next is how the focus is shifting away from accuracy bonuses and putting it more on hit point and damage scaling. That can only be a good thing! Remember the accuracy feats and always wanting that +1 more to hit in 4e? Yeah, boring but necessary. Looks like that may be no more!
Finally, I have to mention the new rule of Advantage/Disadvantage. 4e’s combat advantage has basically expanded, as I’m sure many of you have seen in the playtest downloads, so now we roll two d20′s when we have advantage in any situation, taking the highest result, and two d20′s taking the lowest result when we have disadvantage. Easy, fast, no need for a bunch of modifiers to figure out and track, I like it. Thumbs up, Faster Combat-approved!
More D&D Next Please!
We had a great time at our D&D Next Playtest session, and though we never got our hands on any cultists or undead I could turn (hey, every cleric should turn undead at least once at every session!), we all had a blast! Similar to the (quite awesome) Dragon Age tabletop RPG game system and world, it truly feels like a Best of D&D edition is happening right before our eyes, with our participation and feedback, and that’s awesome!
D&D Next has definitely struck that balance of flavor and crunch that I and Leonine Roar crave and advocate, and the pace and elegance of combat has increased tremendously. The classic and total D&D experience is well on its way back!
So what’s next? Hopefully detailed character creation rules! Stay tuned.