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.