Friday, June 28, 2013

Back to the Mox...and WotC


There’s no easy way to say this except to say it: I played WotC’s “D&D Next” last night.

Luke, one of my former-regular players at the Baranof, is moving back to the Midwest…not immediately, but within the next couple-few weeks…and I wanted to see him before he left and my schedule is pretty swamped all July.

[in fact, I hadn’t even planned on going out last night because my father is in town and Thursday was the only day that worked with HIS schedule to get together. However, I managed to finish dinner and get the family home by 9 allowing me a couple-three hours of “out” time]

So I headed back to the Mox Café where I haven’t gamed in a loooong-ass time. And I got to see some of the old boys (and girl) and take in a little gaming. And what they were running was D&D Next, WotC’s play-test shenanigans that is supposed to magically morph into 5th Edition.

*sigh* Where to start?

As is obvious from my posting, I did not spontaneously combust at the sight of a miniature-strewn battle map. Yes, I had fun (aka “a good time”)…though it certainly helped that I’d had a couple beers before showing up and a couple more thereafter. Was it enough fun that I’d play it again…?

*sigh* (again)… Hmmm…I’m having a hard time articulating at the moment. Maybe there isn’t a good place to “start” this “review” and I should just meander a bit. Yeah, let’s do that.

I actually signed up to be part of the D&D Next play-test a while back and was receiving regular email updates, though I haven’t for a few months now. Probably because I chose to “unsubscribe” and report WotC as “spam” in my gmail account. I just wasn’t very impressed with what they were doing. Duh…that’s why I decided to do the whole D&D Mine thing and why I wrote 5AK.

So because I haven’t “kept my hand in” with D&D Next, much of this was new to me. Well, “new” is probably not the most accurate term…but I’ll get to that in a moment. This was definitely my first opportunity to actually play-test DDN in any capacity…and my first time playing any WotC version of D&D since…well, probably since before 2005 (in all honesty, I don’t remember).

Ugh. I AM having a hard time with this. I’m trying to sum up the “gist” of the game in a couple sentences, in order to give my overall impression, after which I would write my usual “elaboration” but there are simply too many pithy phrases coming to mind. I guess I can just list them (in no particular order):

-        It’s a board game.
-        It’s less frustrating than DCC.
-        It’s D&D3 light.
-        Magic-users shoot lasers.
-        It’s the newly revised Revised Chainmail.
-        It’s not an RPG.
-        It’s a hot mess.

(note that any of these phrases could include the words “kind of” after the word “it’s” but I’m trying to be less wishy-washy in my prose)

Okay, let me describe the game play first; then I’ll talk about my thoughts on the thing.

Dan was acting as DM. It was a good sized group: six players, including myself. There was a halfling rogue (natch), an elven ranger, a human cleric, a wizard, and a paladin. I played a 2nd level dwarf fighter that was handed to me (someone else’s PC from the week prior). The characters appear to have been pre-gens created by the DDN people as I received a 1st level print-out that broke down how all my PC’s traits and feats worked, but then I also received a (hand-written) character sheet that included changes from prior adventures (including those from “leveling up”).

The adventure (which I entered in media res) was a large subterranean complex, the center of which was a svirfneblin (deep gnome) city that had apparently fallen on hard times. Us surface-worlders were down there looking for jobs and adventure and had several possible mission options. When I arrived at the table (late), I found the five already-present PCs having their asses handed to them by a pack of five orcs. Once I entered, we quickly mopped up (more on combat later) and looted the bodies for something like 12 silver pieces each (I contemptuously allowed the other party members to divvy my share amongst themselves…what the hell was 12sp to me? My character sheet said I was a “noble” and/or “knight”).

After healing ourselves nearly to full power using a short rest, the party decided to retreat back to (gnome) town…the reason being that we were running “low on spells.” After a long rest (these are technical terms with specific game mechanics) we* decided to enter the largest, most dangerous looking cavern on the board, to retrieve a lost gnomish crown for the local strongman/honcho type looking to legitimize his rule.

[*in this case “we” is more of the “royal we,” if you know what I mean]

The party encountered two zombie orcs that weren’t nearly as tough as the earlier live ones, and we quickly put them down. At that point, the group called it a night. From what I gathered, there had been an earlier confrontation with stirges that I had missed (and that the PCs found easy) and one with kobolds (also easy thanks to a “sleep” spell), but I’m not sure if those took place in the same game session (before I showed up) or in the week prior.

OKAY…so that’s what HAPPENED in the session which (if you’ll notice) isn’t a whole lot for two hours of game play (the length of time I was there). Half a fight against less than half a dozen orcs. Some recuperation. A (short) deliberation on objectives. A 2nd (extremely short) fight. Fini.

There was precious little that could be called “role-playing” that occurred at the table. The players had formed a definite opinion of their gnome warden employer (in short: “a dick, and we should try to double-cross him”), which I presumed was from previous interaction. Some inane war cries were bandied about in combat (that was my contribution). And…um…fini.

What the game really boiled down to was a table-top, skirmish level (i.e. small scale) combat game that has a context (i.e. “setting”) and a number of different and variable options for use in combat. In many ways, it’s no different from a small scale version of World of Warcraft, save that it’s turn based rather than real time (i.e. you can consider your actions without a velociraptor beating on you), and it involves moving miniatures on a board instead of pixels on a screen.

The rules were simple enough that it took me almost no time at all to jump in to the action. It’s just a “lite” version of DND3 with respect to movement and tactical maneuvering…and the whole thing about opportunity attacks and threatened areas are a “no-brainer” to an old hand at Blood Bowl with its movement and “tackle zones.” In fact, I don’t know why they bother giving movement and ranges in feet at all when the scale is always 5’ squares. Why not just say that my dwarf “moves five” and can throw his axe “four” (or 12 with a penalty)? Why bother saying the wizard’s laser blast is 30’ when you can just say “six” (i.e. “six squares”)?

Are the designers afraid that will make the game sound less “role-playey” and more like a board game? Um, designers? This IS a board game.

My PC had as much character as a playing piece in the Dungeon! boardgame…he just had more options on what to do. Julie, playing the elf ranger bless her heart, did NOTHING in the game except wait for her turn to come up in initiative order, at which time she’d roll a D20 to hit and (if successful) roll damage. That’s it. Oh, she used her “hunter’s mark” power as a swift action to give herself a bonus once or twice, but otherwise she exercised no creativity, contributed nothing to the imaginary game world …simply chose a target and rolled a D20 and then damage or not. When her turn came up. Once per round.

I didn’t take the time to ask her (and wouldn’t have wanted to look like a prat anyway), but I wanted to shout: “Is this fun? Are you really having fun? Are you getting anything out of this? And if so, what?”

There were some neat effects in the game that were still kind of dumb. The orcs had a racial trait called “relentless” that allowed them to continue attacking (and making opportunity attacks) one round after being mortally wounded. It’s kind of dumb simply because there seemed to be no rules for “over-killing” the creatures…if I mortally wound the orc and my three comrades continue to attack him, hacking off his arms and head, should it really be allowed an additional attack “just because?” If you want a tougher orc, why not just give it an extra wound…er…hit die…er…(sorry, I’m using terms from my own game which don’t really apply to DDN)…er, more hit points? I don’t really get it…in my opinion it would be a cooler trait for a PC than for a monster.

Rules-wise the game was very basic and very light-weight (though not in comparison to, say, B/X) Tactically, it’s simply about maneuvering efficiently through tackle zones and then “pulling the correct trigger” when it comes to your special abilities. The other players were dithering about what to do with the zombies shuffling towards us. I pointed out they were too slow to actually reach us so long as we kept moving and using ranged attacks. If this is D&D, then it’s “no-brainer” D&D.

And that’s why…even though it was fun and I had a good time and it was less frustrating (system-wise) than DCC…given a choice between playing D&D Next again and playing pretty much anything else, I’d probably pick the “else.” Probably. If it was another board game that had a high set-up time, maybe not. If it was an uber-crunchy RPG (like Champions) requiring hours of prep, probably not.

Then again, if my option was between D&D Next and Champions I’d probably opt to stay home…or watch a sporting event in the bar instead.

None of which, by the way, should be construed as a negative reflection on the players at the table. Most of my fun was in interacting and playing with the people around me. I singled out Julie not to point out Julie as a “bad role-player” or “boring person” but as an example of how the game does nothing to encourage role-playing…or anything…besides waiting for your turn. Other players had the same lack of “stuff going on.” Luke was doing the same thing with his thief…waiting for his turn to come so that he could roll a D20. He was in melee however (unlike the ranger) so had the extra “stuff” happening of taking damage every round. At least the wizard tactically (and cowardly) removed himself from combat when he felt he’d taken too much damage from orc arrows.

Of the group, the cleric, paladin, and fighter exhibited the most in-game effectiveness: the cleric had a variety of different effects he could do (both with spells and divine channeling), the paladin had group healing spells in addition to being a rock-hard bulwark, and the dwarf dealt a good deal of extra damage (which he was allowed to do because of his shit-ton of hit points). But the EFFECTIVENESS (or lack thereof) doesn’t mean the GAME was any more or less INTERESTING. Trying to puzzle out a sphinx’s riddle or figure out an alternative method of defeating a magical monster (that is immune to normal weapons)…these are interesting challenges. I don’t find it challenging to figure out how best to overcome a few beasties in a tactical skirmish. That’s nothing more than a jazzed up version of Space Hulk.

Now, I also said the game was a bit of a “hot mess.” What I mean is…well, it is in the play-testing stage still, but it feels like there’s been very little direction or over-sight to the design process.  Like either the designers don’t understand what they’re trying to build, or else they know but they’re so focused on minutia processes that they’re missing the Big Picture view. They’ve got a grab-bag of stuff from 1st and 3rd and 4th edition, and they’re trying to blend it and patch it and update it with a “twist” and yet streamline it at the same time. If there’s a head designer he’s got ADD or he’s completely out of his element. If there are multiple designers they may not be on the same page. If this game is being designed mainly from fan feedback through the DDN play-test process that would explain a lot…but explaining it doesn’t EXCUSE it.

All right, this is long enough. Pretty meandering and not very articulate, as I predicted…but I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings on the whole thing. Allow me to wax positive for a moment: hot mess or not, it’s NOT an un-fun game. It’s just not a role-playing game and it doesn’t feel much like “Dungeons & Dragons” to me (probably because it’s not really a role-playing game). It has the tropes of D&D…dwarves and elves and fighters and clerics and armor class and saves…but it doesn’t play like D&D. It plays like a souped-up boardgame. Which is a lot less than I had expected of this project.

Still, I was glad I bothered to go. It was nice to see "how the other side games" and the group was a very good one…tight, friendly, witty, and welcoming. They had a cool group dynamic, everyone got along well, and none of the ribbing was mean-spirited. Luke asked (as we were packing up) if I’d gotten enough for a “scathing blog review” and I suppose there IS a lot of negativity on display here. But I had a good time and it’s hard to be too scathing when such is the case.
: )

25 comments:

  1. Nice LONG review…kind of. I have to say, I am confused about your points. The biggest thing that confuses me is your constant insistence that DDN is “not a role-playing game.” How can you even tell? What makes any RPG a “role-playing” game? Isn’t that distinction a matter of the players actively “role-playing” the parts of their characters? Where in the mechanics of the rules of ANY game is that covered? Chutes & Ladders could be a “role-playing” game if you assign personalities to the playing pieces.

    I guess my point is, you don’t seem to be giving DDN a fair shake. And you clearly went into it with preconceived notions that colored your views from the moment you sat down. I don’t mean to be confrontational here, as this is your yard. I’m just making an observation that should be pointed out, considering the size of your readership. Unless all of the people who read your blog are dyed-in-the-wool Grognards who shun anything beyond the OSR movement, you could be doing a disservice to some who are genuinely interested in giving DDN a chance.

    And by the way, while I am on the Playtest list, and have all of the files to date, I have not played DDN myself. So, I am not coming at this from a defensive stance. Only as a casual observer who sees and an inconsistency in your logic.

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  2. I'm grateful that you tried D&D Next. As an AD&D guy who's played 4e, I found your insights about the play experience illuminating. I think it's cool that they're developing this version through playtests. I wonder where it will lead.

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  3. In fact, I don’t know why they bother giving movement and ranges in feet at all when the scale is always 5’ squares. Why not just say that my dwarf “moves five” and can throw his axe “four” (or 12 with a penalty)? Why bother saying the wizard’s laser blast is 30’ when you can just say “six” (i.e. “six squares”)?

    Because that's what 4e did and the 3.x players threw a huge bitchfit about it, and WOTC is trying to win them back from Pathfinder. In fact Next has a lot of 4e rules that have been given much clunkier jargon in an effort to disguise their origins for the benefit of 3.xers.

    Now, I also said the game was a bit of a “hot mess.” What I mean is…well, it is in the play-testing stage still, but it feels like there’s been very little direction or over-sight to the design process.  Like either the designers don’t understand what they’re trying to build, or else they know but they’re so focused on minutia processes that they’re missing the Big Picture view. They’ve got a grab-bag of stuff from 1st and 3rd and 4th edition, and they’re trying to blend it and patch it and update it with a “twist” and yet streamline it at the same time. If there’s a head designer he’s got ADD or he’s completely out of his element. If there are multiple designers they may not be on the same page. If this game is being designed mainly from fan feedback through the DDN play-test process that would explain a lot…but explaining it doesn’t EXCUSE it.

    You got that right, my man.

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  4. "as an example of how the game does nothing to encourage role-playing"
    D&D as a whole has never really encouraged role-playing other than to say players should do it.

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  5. @ Tom:

    Not sure how long you've been reading my blog. I have several posts specifically related to role-playing and why a tactical skirmish game like DDN or 4E is *not* an RPG. However, maybe I need to write a post to specifically address the issue.

    However, I did NOT step into the game with preconceived notions about what DDN was and was not. I sat down at the table, picked up the character sheet and was "off-n-running." None of the rules were so new or divergent from what I'd seen before to throw me for a loop. My analysis is based on what I experienced.

    In other words, I DID give DDN "a chance." My post is an observation of my feelings on the game in actual play with competent players who've had multiple sessions of the thing. I don't think that's a disservice to my readers...they're welcome to play it and form their own observations as well.

    @ Brian:

    Who knows. Maybe it's all just a pipe dream that allows the staff designers at WotC to justify their salaries. As long as the reprints continue to sell and rake in ca$h, I'm sure the Hasbro Overlords will allow them to futz around with this shit.

    @ Rachel:

    Ha! That makes sense. Thanks for the insight (I've never played, owned, or read 4E).

    @ Callin:

    I doubt I could say D&D "as a whole" encouraged role-playing but certain editions have definitely encouraged it, both explicitly (through examples) and implicitly (through rules).

    For example, check the example from Moldvay Basic that demonstrates alignment and negotiation between characters. Sister Rebecca uses character-derived motivation (alignment) as an in-game justification for passive-aggressive behavior (refusing to heal a fellow PC who has gone back on her word to helpless goblin prisoners).

    What's the real world reason (or metagame reason) for doing this? There is none...some might even call Sister Rebecca's player an ASSHOLE for acting like this instead of playing nice-nice "cooperative" play. This is role-playing, fella: matching your own behavior/actions to the motivations of an imaginary character. There are other examples throughout the early rule books.

    My DDN character sheet said my alignment was "neutral good" and unlike everything else on the sheet, had no explanation. It had zero impact on play, and was never a cause or effect of anything. I even asked if there was some mechanical game system associated with it? Nope. Just a throwaway bit of nothing (but one expected as a "trope" of D&D by long-time players). That's just stupid game design for the boardgame that is "D&D Next."

    Wow...these comments have gotten me a little riled up, and now I DO want to write some scathing remarks. I might have to do a new post on the subject.

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  6. I just looked at a playtest pack - wizards seem to be the simplest character in the version i saw - least amount of wierd powers and changes - monks shooting fire? sounds more like avatar. It does look simpler than some of last few versions. I sat in a club drawing a few weeks ago and watched a party move around a map and explore 4 rooms on 4 hours. My games do 40 rooms in same time and and have plenty of pc interactions, roleplaying moments and laughs. I did have a player quit a few years back because my game not visual enough. Which is pretty interesting criticism - I wonder if this is thinking behind many modern games? Battlemaps, adding card systems (that cost) when a table would do. Looking at my 81 basic ed they had most of the rules down in 30 pages. This wouldn't cover basic of characters in modern games. The more you cry the less I care has become a maxim i can use when looking at overblown products.

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  7. JB wrote: the game does nothing to encourage role-playing

    How do you see B/X doing more to encourage roleplaying though?

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    1. Okay, just read the other comments and realized that someone else seized on this exact comment. So, following up on your response to them, where you wrote: My DDN character sheet said my alignment was "neutral good" and unlike everything else on the sheet, had no explanation. It had zero impact on play, and was never a cause or effect of anything.

      I don't see how the 5E guidelines are any worse than those in B/X. The 5E character creation document has some language about what each alignment means, with about as much specificity or force as is contained in B/X. So I just don't think this criticism is valid.

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  8. The distances are in feet because the grid is optional. I suspect lots of people using the play test materials right now are using the grid though because they are used to 4E and perhaps playing in a converted "Encounters" game or such like.

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  9. @ Brendan:

    (and others)

    I promise, I WILL write a follow-up post to this, but right now I'm in the 10th inning of an M's game, and going on less than 4 hours sleep. I'll get to it sometime this weekend.

    Maybe my criticism will seem more valid when I focus on this single particular issue.

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  10. I have been running my own d&d mine drawing alot from B/X, Pathfinder and D&D next and from my own experience the measure in feet is helpful because I only use the grid about half of the time, mostly for cave interiors, and most of my outdoor encounters are theater of the mind and ranges in feet is handy. Sounds like a pretty dull session. I firmly believe that vibrant NPCs is the cornerstone of good roleplaying.

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  11. I suspect I would have exactly the same reaction. I felt like this after playing an early playtest packet.

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  12. I was in the playtest. Read through the initial packets. It tweaked my interest, but then the continued updates came and I lost interest. I can't for the RPing aspect of the D&D Next, but it lost my interest. As you mentioned, it seems all over the place to me. There are alternative systems that have come out recently or in the process of being released that just interest me more. That being said, I admit when D&D Next does come out I'll be buying a copy of the core books, like I did with 4th ed. But if you look on my shelf I didn't buy much else, their fake red box and the Monster Vault. I've recently been getting into Joseph Bloch's Adventure's Dark & Deep and already bought more add ons for that system than I did for 4th. So while the 5th edition will be of interest when it comes out, it's not right now and we'll see if it remains of interest after its release.

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  13. Thinking in terms of bottom lines, I can see maybe why a D&D with less role-playing could be more profitable.

    I do my hobby very cheaply. I buy books from Half-Price, on the rare occasion I actually buy a book. Most of the time, I homebrew and steal from the old-ass additions of stuff I do have. I have found that games that are less crunch and more interaction are even cheaper for me becuase I can just make more stuff up. If I need a picture, I got the internet. If I need setting material, I got Microsoft Word.

    However, here's what I think DDN might be going for. If you dont have a bunch of roleplaying, but you do have a bunch of crunch, the people who love crunch (who are not bad people) will still love the game. Alot fo crunch makes it harder to make sutff up yourself, and thus your more inclinded to go get an adventure that was generated for you, which costs money.

    More crunch also justifies game boards (money) and card mechanics (money) and minis (money).

    Spending fewer pages on roleplayign means DDN will be put out faster (time is money), with less overhead (more profit).

    Perhaps its just all about the $$$. OR maybe they are trying to go back to the very ancient days of D&D, when it was just another version of Stratego.

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  14. Canned playtests can feel like nothing but boardgames for many an RPG. The PCs aren't really those of the players, there are no expectations of long term goals, no future with tthe characters, the roleplaying is minimal at best in such a situation where the mechanics are on show. Even convention games can have that feel.
    When enemies are easy to kill, and folks don't really care about a characters future why not solve the situation with a fight?

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  15. Not sure how you could have expected any different. If you never read the rules, play someone else 's character, and the experienced players aren't making an effort at role-playing or story what could you expect?

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  16. Also I do want to see what else you think. Feel free to rant.

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  17. I fail to see how B/X, say, is more of a roleplaying than DDN, based on what you wrote. I have seen B/X and AD&D played EXACTLY like you report, i.e. a map, characters moving from encounter to encounter, fighting, occasional bickering between players etc. You mention that some characters where inactive waiting for their turn during a fight; well, that seems exactly the same thing that happens in B/X; what's a fighter going to do after he has attacked?
    RE: alignment, the DDN documents have more or less the same stuff written down about alignments as in Moldvay's booklet, and the example in the latter shows more that Sister Rebecca's player was actually USING those guidelines, but the players in your group weren't.
    Sorry to say this, but just reading your description it looks like you have some sort of bias.

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  18. I saw a video of the D&D Next designers who did a live-stream playtest of D&D Next, playing in the module A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity. They did not use minis or a battle-map and that I think is where you can make the distinction between a tactical miniatures board-game and a role-playing game. I think minis and battle-maps takes away something from the game. People are too focused on the battle-map and not the game itself. Something to be said about "theater of the mind".

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  19. From your description sound more like 4th edition than Next.... give a look at the playtest material there are good things in it. I think you fell into a group used to 4th edition using Next rules. I'am quite sure that if YOU were DMing it would have been much different.

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  20. Wow. You certainly have an opinion. Here's what I know as fact: You had a negative experience playing D&D Next because the DM was not very good, and you had at least one player who was just rolling dice.
    Sounds like you're blaming D&D Next, WoTC, and the Dev's for a bad game when the reality is, you played with a bad group.
    To say that Next is a boardgame, is like saying Monopoly is a dice rolling game. The truth is, you have the option to play with a grid and miniatures, or you can play without them. It all boils down to the gaming group. A lot of groups like the grid and many groups like playing without it. The groups the focus more on combat encounters probably use a grid, while the groups that focus on roleplaying probably does not.
    A roleplaying game is ultimately what is brought to the table as far as adventure, talent, and desire to roleplay.
    Interestingly enough, they have just announced that a roleplaying mechanic is being added to the game as an optional rule to encourage players to roleplay.
    I would encourage you to find a group that has more in common with your play style than the group you wrote about.
    Finally, before you rant about something you clearly know little about, my suggestion to you is to inform yourself on the subject. This way you won't sound like such an idiot.

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  21. @ Michael:

    I had an enjoyable time with the group...it was not the experience (i.e. the play of the gamete) that led to my negative comments. The rules we were play-testing (and the play-test adventure) offered no options for role-playing. The group is a good one...I have played with them before, and with different mechanics/editions had different results.

    I'd like to think I know more than a little about the subject of my rant having played most editions of D&D and owning all but the 4th Edition over the last 30+ years, in addition to doing deconstruction of the rules and game design as a passionate hobby for the last several (and having at least been involved with the initial play-testing of D&D Next). However, if I come off as an uninformed idiot, it's probably due to me not taking the time (or having the inclination) to do an in-depth critical analysis when it's so much easier to simply abstract my thoughts and impressions. Whatever, dude. I don't expect to please all the people all the time.

    I happen to know more than

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  22. I was an uninformed idiot too. I decided, about a year ago, that Next was horribly broken and beyond repair. I went out and bought the Pathfinder Core Rulebook determined to forget all about Next.
    My point is, the game is still in a playtest phase. Release of the game is probably a year away. It isn't finished and I was treating it like it was.
    It's been my experience that, roleplaying talent, and opportunity comes from the group, not the game. Third Edition had a few notes on roleplaying, but ultimately it's mostly a tactical combat simulator. 4e was the worst in that there were many notes on roleplaying which, could hardly be used because of the ridiculously long combat encounters. 4e was clearly a skirmish game.

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  23. I think you ARE coming off a bit too harsh. My impression is that you do know what youre talking about but I have to say youre wasting words on irrelevant stuff which makes these guys jump all over you. For instance, i understand why (some) people might argue with you about the alignment thing because you frame the argument poorly. The place where alignment is supported mechanically in B/X is not where you quoted, it's the reaction tables. You just got mad about it without so much explaining why its different. Just my opinion.

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