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My brief experiences with D&D Next

21 August 2013

Growing up, I was not allowed to play D&D. I had friends who played, they were for perfectly normal and respectable people, but for various reasons, my parents decided I was not allowed to play.

Ultimately, that’s okay. I love my parents, they did a great job raising me, and if the price of being raised by my parents was being raised without things like D&D it was not too great price.

I did, however, go up watching my friends play. Or rather, I grew up with friends that I knew played and listened to them talk about it, and looked at their character sheets, etc.  I don’t think I ever sat in on a game.

Fast forward several years, and I’m an adult, married, have a few kids and I hear about the D&D Next play test. I was super excited, and saw this is an opportunity to start playing under brand new version of the system. I signed up, got the packet and like what I read. I had played computer RPGs, with the most recent one being an MMO. One of my frustrations with most computerized RPGs I played was being constrained to a relatively small set of pre-determined builds.  In games that did offer greater customization, generally only a small set of those customizations were viable in-game., and the end result was the same: you could only really play the characters the game-publishers envisioned. One of the things that had always drawn me in about table-top RPGs was the greater customizability of characters. I found this to be present in the D&D Next playtest, and I was excited about it.

The next problem was finding a group with him to play. I chatted around with my friends occasionally, but didn’t find anyone interested in playing so I patiently watched edition after edition of the play test be released, waiting for my opportunity to start playing.

We move to a new area and I found a couple of friends in the new area who had been long time D&D fans. One of the friends is willing to be the DM, so we all signed up for the play test and started the campaign. I created a rogue called Breeze. He was a Lightfoot halfling, he was an expert, and he was a spy.

He was mediocre in battle, but better as I learn to play him. He was more useful for the situations where no one else in the group have the skills to overcome an obstacle. That was exactly what I wanted. I like playing utility characters, and Breeze fit perfectly in that role. We had a good time.

Breeze's Rules for Conflict Resolution #1: Push it out a window

When he encountered a boss who was committing the classic blunder of surveying his domain from a second story window, Breeze took him out without a fight. Because that’s how Breeze rolled.

Just before we finish the campaign, new edition of the play test came out that had a very large changes to most of the classes including every class our group is playing. We decided to finish the campaign before changing our characters so we did. At the end of the campaign I took over as DM and didn’t take the opportunity to convert my rogue to the new system.

Everyone else converted their characters to the new playtest packet, and most of the group mentioned they felt the changes were somewhat restrictive. I paid attention, but it wasn’t until I needed to bring my rogue in to play with the party briefly that I realized just how significant the changes were for rogues. Over the course of a couple of playtest packets they’d done away with skill tricks entirely, and with the expertise dice that fueled them. Skill Tricks were something I enjoyed as part of the customization built into rogues. I liked picking which ones were most consistent with Breeze’s background, even if it didn’t maximize his combat utility. I saw the changes they had made to the Backgrounds, Specialties and Feats and decided I’d reserve judgement.

On the day we met and played with my rogue back in, the latest playtest packet was released. I was interested in seeing what changed, so I opened up the summary of changes, and noted that one of the first things they’d done was eliminate skills entirely.

Entirely.

There were no more skills. Instead, they’d baked pre-set skills into specialties and backgrounds, they’d made feats something you could take as an alternative to ability score increases at certain levels. I looked at how this would impact my rogue, and he would need to choose between one half of his skills and the other half. He’s a spy. Under the most current system he would either have to give up his assassin-like side, or his disarm-traps-disguies-himself-use-subterfuge side. He couldn’t have both.

I believed that this was just an extreme swing of the pendulum, and that in coming updates to the playtest packets some of the customizability would be restored, but I was starting to glimpse writing on the wall that didn’t sit well with me. I still decided to reserve final judgement on this, but was far less optimistic.

Then my fears were confirmed.  WotC released this article, stating that the public playtest was almost at a close and going forward the work would be focused on balancing the math, rather than changes to the form of the rules.

They had this to say, in summary (I’ll respond to each point as it comes):

So, what did we learn from the public playtest? In some cases you confirmed things, in others you dispelled some notions that had become lodged in R&D’s view of you.

  • You like simplicity. You want to jump into the game quickly, create characters, monsters, NPCs, and adventures with a minimum of fuss, and get down to the business of playing D&D.

Jump in and play quickly? I’m down. Create an adventure with a minimum of fuss? Absolutely. But when that leaves me to play a rogue cut out of the dough with one of a very small sets of cookie cutters (or any other class) and no ability to really customize him beyond pre-defined builds, I’m not interested. You might say, “well, it says right in the playtest packet you can, at the discretion of your DM, customize this essentially any way you wish,” and it does. I’ll address that in a minute. The point here, in my mind, is that the “easy, straight-forward” character creation must have an alternative, clearly defined means of acceptable customization as well. Skills, feats, skill tricks and maneuvers (not an exhaustive list) all helped with that. We had a nice list each and clear instructions that if we didn’t think the provided sets fit, we could choose x number of skills/feat/whatevers from the list, at the discretion of the DM.

In an effort to “simplify” things, WotC has gotten rid of most of the lists of things separate from their association with a larger concept, which effectively removes options from the player (again, more on this in a minute). I’m okay with providing some nice, really clear and simple pre-made builds for people to pick up, even providing highly-optimized ones and just start playing with, but it needs to come with a standard “or you can do this instead” built into the basic rules so that I can be reasonably certain my character will be portable.

  • You like that every class has the potential to contribute in most situations, but you’re OK with some classes being better at certain things if that fits the class’s image. You see balance on a larger, adventure-based or campaign-based scale.

No argument. I’m here. As a player I don’t want to be told by a group or a DM that I need to roll a certain class so the group can be successful, and as a DM I don’t ever want to have to tell a player to roll a different class, or race, or whatever just because the group must have one to succeed. If nothing else, designing with this in mind frees up the DM to think about the story and the experience, rather than the mechanics of what this specific group is classed to handle. That’s a good thing in my mind. This is something I think they’re doing reasonably well.

  • You want rules that make it easy to build adventures and encounters. You want to think about the story or your setting’s details, rather than fiddle with math.

Again, agreed, and my response is very similar to the previous point. This is a no-brainer for me. I don’t want to have to spend hours (or, really even 10 minutes) fiddling with an encounter, buffing or nerfing the mobs I put in there, to make sure that it is neither too easy nor too difficult for the group. There should be a good range here, and I (as a DM) should be surprised. My players ought to be able to do things in ways that make my planned encounters either much easier or much more difficult than I anticipated. I think the playtest is doing a good job of working in this direction, too.

  • You value flexibility in rules. You prefer an ability or a rule that’s easy to adapt or that leaves space for creative applications, rather than rigidly defined abilities.

Agreed, this reinforces that the rules are there to facilitate the story, the game play and the role-playing rather than limit what you can do. This, unfortunately, is the aspect in which they seem to have missed by a wide margin with the last 3 or 4 playtest packets. The rules and general scaffold have become less flexible with each new playtest. It feels like they’re mistaking ambiguity for flexibility. Another absolutely necessary function of the rules is to allow players and DMs to know what to expect when they sit down together. To a certain degree this should be true even if it is the very first time these people have sat down to game together. The rules should be clear enough, and robust enough, that 5 complete strangers who are familiar with the rules can sit down with characters they have rolled, pick from among them an appropriate DM and start playing without a lot of, “wait, can I do this?” or “no, you can’t do that.”

This brings me back to my beef with the character scaffolds above. So what there’s no standard rogue build that fits my rogue? I could talk my DM into letting me build custom backgrounds and specialties for my rogue, right? The basic rules have become so restrictive, so vague, and so unhelpful that in doing that there’s a strong likelihood I’d only be able to play that character with that specific group and that specific DM, and if I ever went on to play with someone else I wouldn’t have confidence that the new DM would allow the character.

I get attached to my characters. The character, his story and his development are one of the primary draws to RPGs for me. I don’t want to have to set aside my character forever just because a specific group disbands, nor do I want to have to “start over” every time I join a new group just because the rules aren’t robust enough to cover broad character customizations.

This is the thing that has been steadily lost in the last three to four playtest revisions. We’ve gotten more classes, but the classes have become more rigidly defined so that I can’t with any confidence expect to be able to play Breeze with another group.

  • You aren’t edition warriors. You want the game to support a variety play styles in equal measure. You’re not attached to any specific ways of doing things as long as the game works.

For me, points one and four closed the deal, it took away most of the benefits I found in table-top RPGs when compared with computer RPGs, and it added very little alternative value in their place. It makes me sad, because D&D is likely to remain the biggest kid on this particular block for quite a while, and certainly will remain the iconic table-top RPG in the minds of people in my generation, at least.

With the most recent playtest packet, it’s time for me to say farewell to D&D Next. I finally got to sit down and play D&D, and it was fun while it lasted, but it’s changed so much (change was expected, it was a playtest after all) in all the wrong ways (for me) that I’m going to need to find another system for my RPG time. I’ve already had Pathfinder recommended, and that’s what my current group is planning on trying next, though I’m certainly interested in any other recommendations people could provide for later play.

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