Tag Archives: 5e

D&D 5e Basic Rules First Thoughts

The “free version” of the new fifth edition D&D rules are out – 110 pages of pdf, available at Wizards of the Coast.

My initial reaction is that I like it.  Background: I’ve played D&D from the original BECMI “Red Box” Basic through 1e AD&D, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, hated 4e, play Pathfinder. (Plus many other games of course).

Things I think it does right:

1. As a free PDF, it will really help draw in new/casual players. Game stores can have a couple copies laying around. You can forward a copy to a friend who has expressed interest in the game. It’s not as nice for future in-play use as the free hyperlinked SRD approach of Pathfinder, but it’ll be very accessible to new players.

2. The three pillars of adventure are listed as exploration, social interaction, and combat.  They list combat last and try hard in this PDF at least to not give it primary billing, which may result in less pure hack and slash than in the future. The Combat section itself is only 9 pages! (Obviously there’s rules affecting combat everywhere else, but that was nice.)

3. Clear call-outs to GM discretion.  GM describes, you say what you want to do, GM narrates the results. That gives me hope that we won’t see the return of the rules that cater to the over-legalistic players, which leads us to…

4. Light rules.  Now, we’ll see how much of this is because of the short format and how much they’ll run over this once the PHB is out, but this is pleasingly not all legalistic and rules heavy.  There’s already people fretting over the “Rules of Hidden Club” and other “rules as written” minutia as they have in past editions, even though the Basic rules say clearly “you know, GM discretion whether you can sneak up on someone, man.”  The spell descriptions take a couple steps back towards being sane in length, with type, casting time, range, components, and duration being the only “required fields.” I’ve written before on the relative sizes and bloat across the editions – using the Knock spell as a benchmark, this one is 132 words, shorter than 3.5e’s 206 words but longer than BECMI’s 122. Replacing 100 fiddly bonuses with advantage/disadvantage – seems fun, we’ll see how it works out (I imagine smart min-maxers will find a way to have enough advantage that it’ll always cancel out any disadvantage).

5. Inclusivity.  They totally even one-up Paizo on this, by openly saying in the Sex section “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is yours to decide.” It’s just a short statement saying “Yes, you all can play too, and play characters like that if you want.” If backed up with art and more diverse characters in stories, then maybe we’ll get more women, people of color, people of differing sexualities, etc. into gaming, which I think is fine and dandy.

6. Hits the high points that made D&D such a classic in the first place.  It doesn’t try to sell “some new thing we made up just for this edition” like Dragonborn, it is the big 4 classes and big 4 races. Not sure of the need for the subraces, especially the dwarven ones (“the hillbillies and the mountainbillies are fighting again,” said no one ever), but perhaps that’s more included just to show that it’s possible.

The negatives:

1. The art. First of all, there’s not any.  It’s not that we’re “entitled” to it and sure, “it’s free what do you expect” – but this is being put out to try to be a thread to draw people into the game, and it would benefit from a freaking cover with a picture on it. We all know that blog posts, articles, etc. of all descriptions convert readers a lot more when there’s media in them. Same goes for when you forward a PDF to an RPG-curious friend. Second of all, the one piece is in the back and it’s from the Basic set cover; I’ve seen some of the other cover art online. What’s with the art style, it all looks like you’re viewing it through static? It’s not like the pop-off-the-shelf Elmore stylized colors of the 1980s, and it looks like every other damn fantasy cover out there.  I think they’d be better served going a little more of a modern direction on it, some anime influence, at least some more vivid colors and lines.

2. They jacked with the PDF so you can’t cut and paste out of it.  Really, Wizards? That just makes me *want* to pull it up an Acrobat and fix that little problem and re-disseminate it.  I had to retype in even the small quotes in this review. Weak. [Edit: Apparently you can cut and paste out of the "printer friendly" version. Thanks waxeagle.]

But other than that, I like where they’re going with it.  If only there will be restraint such that the rules stay light (more content is fine – having more classes is great, having more rules for everyone to keep in mind and follow isn’t) then I’ll be tempted to use it because I am so tired of spending hours rules-wrangling on Pathfinder.

Theater of the Mind

With D&D Next coming out soon, I’ve seen some questions from newer gamers who only have experience with 4e and maybe 3.5e about how to make combat work without using a tactical map or grid and miniatures, sometimes referred to as “Theater of the Mind” combat because all the description and positioning is happening in the participants’ imagination and not on a game board.  So I thought I’d take a moment to explain Theater of the Mind combat and how to make it a successful technique.

 I run theater of the mind combat preferentially. I can’t always get away with it in 3.5/Pathfinder, but in Basic and 2e days I did this exclusively, and most other RPGs assume it as the default and only option. We are even doing this more in Pathfinder nowadays as we grow increasingly bored with tactical tabletop combat and how long it takes. D&D Next/5e is fairly similar to 2e in metaphor so I believe most of these techniques will port well.

Theater of the mind provides quicker and, frankly, more interesting combat scenes – but the primary risk that comes with it is players feeling hosed, that too much of the power is in the GM’s hands, and that they keep getting told “No” arbitrarily when they want to reach someone in combat or whatever. This is why D&D had been moving more and more to minis and defined rules in the name of “player empowerment.” And of course with more feats and powers that have ranges on them, it’s unclear how to adjudicate flanking, range, etc. without a tactical map to rely on. Here’s how to do theater of the mind combat without reducing player agency.

Put information in your players’ hands.

Be clear with your descriptions. For this to work, you have to be clear and the players have to pay attention, or else you get a lot of “Well I wouldn’t have charged if I had heard there was a chasm between us and then…” Describe the most important elements (obstacles, opponents, how those opponents are armed) and don’t be afraid to reiterate it each round. Similarly, players should be detailed and repeat themselves – “And then I use my move action to move 30′ away from the rest of the group so that if they decide to area effect us I’m farther away, right, you heard me right GM?”

Even if not using a tactical map, putting a quickie room sketch on a whiteboard or whatever can help a lot – in our Pathfinder games nowadays, “mapping” is just the GM continuing to draw the map on the whiteboard, and rather than use a tactical map we just refer to that and say “I run over near that altar thing…” If pressed we add some X’s and O’s, football play board style, to show relative force dispositions.

In general, give the players the benefit of the doubt. Be generous in your interpretations; they are badass adventurers and you can fairly assume they’re making badass decisions. You’ll want to be fair and have a clear “take-back” policy for the table in case of mishearing – but it’s OK to not be too generous there, as it will encourage people to pay attention.

Put decisions in your players’ hands.

Firstly, let the players have some discretionary input into the narration. I learned my lesson on this playing Feng Shui, where I learned if the PCs are fighting in a pizza parlor and someone wants to pick up a pizza cutter and slash someone, getting out of the way of that as the GM and letting them declare there’s a pizza cutter nearby and use it without getting all up in their business has a lot of upsides – players who add to the environment are invested in the environment. After playing Feng Shui I was so much better as a D&D DM. Let them riff off the environment, only vetoing clear abuse.

You also want to encourage players to explain both what they want to do and “why” – their intent and stakes. “I want to move 15 feet” tells no one anything. “I want to get into flanking around the orc leader with Jethro, and I’m willing to risk an AoO to get there,” for example. Similarly, you as the GM want to state options and stakes to them – “You can do that, but there’s a chance that you’ll fall in that pit.” Some quick negotiation and being very specific help here. “I want to swing on the chandelier, and I’m willing to risk a fall,” says the player, envisioning a max of 2d6 damage based on the room description they heard, but the GM is thinking 10d6… If you wait till after the slip and fall to have that discussion the player gets irate; if you set the stakes up front everyone’s on the same page.

Put outcomes in your players’ hands.

Put the outcome in the PC’s hands, ideally via a die roll from some attribute of their character. So if they want to know how many creatures they can catch in their Burning Hands spell, you could respond “Two, but you can roll Spellcraft (or Int, or whatever) to try to get three, with the downside that if you fumble you’ll burn one of your buddies in melee with them.” I use this in naval combat in our current Pathfinder game – when a PC fireballs the other ship, how the heck do I know where every one of the 30 enemy crewmen are? I say “Roll Spellcraft,” and based on the result is how many pirates got fried. We have generalized the assist mechanic to be “success at 10, and then +1 for every 5 above that,” and it’s easy to quickly map effects onto success margins in that manner.

Same thing with movement. I have all my players convert their movement into an actual “Move bonus”, +2 per 5′ of movement, so a 30′ move is a +12, for example. (Side rant, the conception of movement as fixed when everything else in the system is a variable is one of the greatest missed opportunities in D&D design and all the other games that blindly inherit their metaphor from it.) “I want to get around that orc and flank him with Billy!” “OK, roll Move. You’re not even inside the door yet and there’s a bunch of other orcs, so I’ll call that DC 20, fail means you get to melee but not in flank, fail by 5 means someone AoOs you on the way.”

I also used a house ruled Luck stat in 2e to help determine other elements like “Who’s standing on the trapdoor?” Because if a player is rolling for it and/or making risk/reward decisions, then they feel that the outcome is in their hands and not yours.

One last thought – make character options that a PC has paid for worth it. Some options are hard to quantify if not on a battlemat (like the Lunge feat from Pathfinder). As the GM, you basically want to keep stuff like that in mind and give them a benefit for it from time to time. If, for example, you’re telling people they can’t reach opponents a good bit in battle, and someone has the Lunge feat, turn it into “you reached them!” automatically once every combat when they plead “but… Lunge!” Basically whatever the option is allegedly for, let it do that.

D&D Next Might Be OGL?

In an ENWorld thread about their Amethyst Kickstarter, Chris Dias of DiasExMachina claims to have it “on good authority” that D&D Next/5e will be released under an open license, possibly the OGL.

If true this would be huge, and possibly bring D&D back into the living mainstream of gaming from the weird blind alley it’s been coursing down.  I’ve been reading the next playtest docs and it’s OK – but not OK enough for me to bother with if it’s not open with a SRD and third party support (especially for adventures). If it is actually open, and distinguishes itself enough from Pathfinder (ideally by being way more simple and D&D Basic like), then it might just have a place at my gaming table after all.

When I got my copy of Third Edition at Gen Con 2000, it was the Green Ronin Freeport module that was the first thing we ran, and their (and other 3pp’s) rapid adventure support after that was what kept us in avid 3e gaming goodness for quite a while. If Next can pull off the same thing, then it could light WotC’s D&D back up!

 

D&D Next Early Thoughts – It Works But It’s Boring

DD-Next-Image-660x499As I’m sure you know, the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, branded as “D&D Next,”  is in open playtest. I brought you stunning coverage of the 4e debacle and resulting edition wars, so surely I need to chime in here! Here’s my take on Next.

I liked and have played Basic, 1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, and Pathfinder in their turn. I hate 4e and eschew it. I said earlier what I’d like to see in 5e – moving back to a really stripped down core more at 2e levels of complexity. And it sounds like they’re doing that.

The D&D Next rules seem fine to me. I welcome a more light approach and removing a lot of the minmax frenzy from 3e+.  When 3e came out I was really excited and migrated from 2e but now in retrospect the rule bloat, christmas tree syndrome, legalism, and min-maxing made me sad and I like what I see in the D&D Next rules per se. Not everything is how I’d design it, but it’s well within the scope of “rules that will work for D&D.”

However, they are committing the cardinal sin of game design – it’s boring.

I can barely make myself read through the playtest packets. I think they’ve miscalculated badly in having no art, no layout, no fluff in there. I’m sure they’d say that’s by design (ignoring how much of a positive impact that had with the Pathfinder playtest – to this day Paizo makes sure to put all playtest docs through layout). But even without that, the text just has no voice.  It could – Savage Worlds, for example, presents a ruleset about the same size with some flair and savoir faire – but reading the Next playtests is like reading a really boring car manual.

Maybe that’ll all be in there when it launches – maybe.  Maybe Aleena the cleric gets whacked by Bargle again and gives us a hate hard-on for him and pulls us into the action. Maybe the art will be inspired and not just aping Pathfinder or using the current “I airbrushed this on my van” art style they seem to like. But even just the writing style does not say “Adventure!” to me, it says “Technical manual!”

Part of a playtest should be to whip up enthusiasm, but like many of my friends, I downloaded and eagerly read packet #1, I downloaded and skimmed #2, I downloaded and didn’t bother opening #3, I didn’t bother downloading #4 at all… It’s not the rules’ fault, and I’m sure if I playtested it my group of good roleplayers would have a grand old time. We know how to add “zazz” on top of any system you put before us.  But if I gave it to some 12 year olds who haven’t played an RPG before? Are they going to bother to finish reading even the reasonable and short page count? Will their imaginations be fired up by what they read – because mine’s not being?

Guys – lean doesn’t have to mean boring.  Someone at WotC, please force the Next design team into a room at gunpoint and tell them they can’t come out until they can tell you the most badass D&D story ever, and then make them write the rules around that story.

Why I’m Worried About The D&D Next Playtest

I’ve been participating in the D&D Next playtest. So far, I think what I’ve seen is OK.  But I’m not sure it’s totally valid.  Here’s why.

Playtesting a subset of a rule system is deceptive.  I thought the core mechanic in 4e was just fine, it was more all the junk they ladled on top of it that was a dealkiller.

One of the main things I want out of D&D Next is to make the core rules slimmer and simpler – more like Basic/Red Box or 2e than these 300, 400, 500+ page legal tomes we’re saddled with as Player’s Handbooks nowadays. Simplifying D&D is how you’ll get the next generation on board. The initial playtest packet *seems* nicely streamlined – but is that just because they’re only giving us a small subset?

I’m getting concerned about whether they’ll be showing enough restraint that Next won’t turn into the same bloated mess.  Already they are adding on more and more stuff to the core rules because ‘someone wanted it.’ I don’t believe we need a wizard and a sorcerer and a warlock in the core rules.  I believe we need a wizard, and the others can be added on in optional supplements later. Sure, someone wants them – someone wants everything.  That’s why design by committee is a Godawful way of doing things. “Next will be maximally inclusive” looks like it may be code for that. We have opportunity attacks back too, and fighter powers.  Nice frosting but not must haves.

I don’t mind adding things on – but not in the core rules.  Everyone feels entitled to have access to everything in the core rules. Everyone pretty much has to read and understand everything in the core rules. The core rules need to be the true core of the game – fighter, wizard, cleric, thief; dwarf, elf, halfling, human; exploration rules and some weapons and some spells, go. We had plenty of fun with just that from the Red Box. That’s Dungeons & Dragons.

Mike Mearls, pay attention – if you cannot make the Player’s Handbook no more than 128 pages long, you will have failed. Take all those two years with of “but we want this other thing too” comments and pack them the hell away for future product releases. (Naturally if you are putting DM info, magic items, monsters etc. into the book so it’s a core rulebook not just a player’s handbook you get a little slack here, but you probably shouldn’t do that.)

I already have a 500 page D&D game that works fine.  I’m not interested in another.  The only way you lure me away is with a leaner, finer machine. Do it.  Stop now and ship 5e if you can’t resist adding more junk back in.

All You Hit Points Belong To Us?

One of the most contentious topics out of the day-old D&D Next playtest is the rule that resting overnight gets you all your hit points back without fail.  There are multiple Wizards and ENWorld threads arguing about it already.

I think it’s a terrible idea.

The common arguments for it and their obvious refutations are:

1. Well, hit points are just luck and near misses and stuff! Why shouldn’t they all come back?

Because there’s no other mechanic for actually getting wounded.  If this were a game with “wound points and vitality points” or some other way of having a way to reflect persistent wounds while still regaining your “near miss points” that would be fine.  But there’s not.  And being wounded, persistently wounded, is not just realistic, it’s a major part of all fantasy fiction from Lancelot to Harry Dresden. Leaving that out is shitty from a storytelling point of view.

Besides, hit points have always been described that way and have always come back slowly, so saying it’s a necessary consequence is ignoring the mechanic’s history.

2. But it sucks to be injured when you’re headed out to adventure!

“I want my videogame character to be at max!”  I mean, I understand that from a certain gamist perspective. But this is the kind of player entitlement that leads to the kind of childproofed gaming that 4e got to with its rust monster. If you just want a big “I Win” button or have a 5 minute attention span, there’s other games to play.  RPGs allow you to be concerned about resource usage over the long haul, not just the 30 minutes.

3. In 3.x, isn’t it lame that everyone has to spend on wands of cure light wounds that just do this anyway?

No one has actually said this that I’ve seen but me, but this is the one valid argument that does occur to me.  Yes, it is lame to just pay thousands of gold to get disposables to do the same thing. But there’s probably a different fix to that problem than “here you go, heal up whenever you want!”.

 

D&D Next Playtest Readthrough: Eh, It’s OK

I’ve read through the D&D Next (aka 5e) playtest doc and my general opinion is… It’s OK.

Background: I have played D&D Basic (BECMI), AD&D 1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, and Pathfinder, but hated 4e at first play.  I like Pathfinder but it’s wearing on me due to the sheer mass of rules; I hanker for a more Basic/2e approach with less… junk.  I don’t really like the retro-clones because I don’t like retro for the sake of retro, I’d like modern and streamlined but just lighter. Anyone who can say with a straight face “Want to play a game with us? OK, read this 576 page book first” deserves a punch in the mouth.

The playtest rules say I can’t quote rules directly, but I can discuss them generally, so here goes.

The core rules are pretty D&D-like.  Interesting main points are:

  • Ability checks vs DCs replace skills and are used for saves. Good.
  • New thing: “Advantage” lets you roll 2d20 take best, “Disadvantage” is take lowest, this replaces the host of annoying little modifiers.  Good.
  • Individual initiative 3e style. Fine.
  • You can take an action and optionally move – so far the rules are gratifyingly free of the host of Magic: The Gathering-esque action types that invaded 3e+. Good.
  • Rests and semi-healing surges like 4e… You take a long rest and regain *all* of your hit points?  WTF? Bad.
  • Conditions like in 3e, which is on the line between helpfully streamlined and annoyingly legalistic. Fine.
  • Armor is simpler, AC, all/half/none of your DEX mod, and speed mod.  Good.
  • Weapons are about the same with lots of categories and bludgeoning/piercing/etc… Well, a little simpler I guess.  A weapon might be a “heavy” weapon doing 1d10 bludgeoning and having a couple “special” attributes like Reach; at least no weapon speeds and crit mods and all that.  Good.
  • There’s not the annoying “types” of bonus, but dangerously, the stacking rule is that only the same exact spell doesn’t stack, so we can look forward to super min-maxed stuff that 3e at least tried to mitigate somewhat with the “different e.g. enhancement bonuses don’t stack” thing. Good for sentence 1, bad for sentence 2.
  • Spells require either a hit roll or a save; more than 3.x require hit rolls using your spellcasting stat bonus. Some people hate this, I don’t know why, I used to do this in 2e as a house rule so that magic wasn’t 100% reliable. Heck, they should do it more (like for placing fireballs I used the usual grenade weapon rules and splash diagram). Good.
  • Spells do not appear to scale at all with level – not durations, not cure light hp healed, etc. Magic missile seems to be an odd exception. Maybe as a “sacred cow?”
  • The base rules as they put them out seem fine, but then again that’s what I thought about the basic mechanic of 4e in my 4e PHB readthrough. So I’m nervous.
  • The core rules as they printed them here seem to focus more on exploration than 4e, which was purely tactical combat, but that’s hard to tell from a 31 page draft.
  • The DM guidelines are fine if not innovative. It does put the DM back in the driver’s seat.
  • Since there’s no skills, DCs don’t scale as much, with a DC of 20 being “Extreme.” That’s very good. The swinginess of 3.5e “DC 40″ checks was lame. It also seems to stress flexibility and roleplay in how to go about making a check.  Good.

So that’s all pretty good, the only “Danger Will Robinson” moment is the thing where you heal up completely overnight automatically. Avoids the “CureLight Wounds wand” syndrome but isn’t very realistic, I’d like to see some persistent wounds on top of that maybe.

The Characters

Then I read the character sheets, which scared me a little more. A first level halfling rogue seems to have a lot of crap. Race and class and background and theme turn into like 11 specials to remember. I start seeing what are basically skills, just hardcoded, and feats. It seems like too much.  Although in the examples, background seems to only give skill bumps and themes give a feat. Maybe background *or* theme… Especially on the wizard the difference between the two is pretty thin and confusing. Themes are like 2e kits, kinda. But so are the backgrounds.

On the plus side, all the powers so far seem to make sense- the fighter’s powers aren’t weird pseudo arcane stuff like in 4e.

The Monsters

The monsters in the bestiary are OK, except for being a little too complex and legalistic full 3e stat block style – and with fixed hit points, but that might be just for the playtest.

I am concerned with the treatment of NPCs as monsters and not real characters 4e style, so for example there’s an evil cultist entry with three “types” as if they’re Left4Dead zombies as opposed to being real people – “What, there’s no such thing as a second level evil cleric?” I see more of this in the adventure, with arbitrary “specials” on the orcs and goblins.  And several of these powers (gnoll packlord, I’m looking at you ) go over the line to breaking simulation (no in game world justification, just “a power”). Meh.

The Adventure

Caves of Chaos.  A good choice as it is very nonlinear. I like the format for rooms that leads off with sensory input, very short boxed text, then gets to it.  Not just three 4 hour long setpiece battles like 4e does, but a proper module, looks like it’ll play like any other D&D at first glance.

The Summary

It’s like a simplified 3e, corrupted with only small 4e-isms.  The ongoing meme is that it’s somehow more like OSR stuff but I don’t see that – there’s a little simplification but not even down to 2e levels, let alone earlier levels. Removal of the obsessive focus on the tactical map is what’s making people say that, I guess. “It’s not pure 4e, so it must be OSR?” The simplification is welcome to my eyes.  I’m not sure if this quite reaches the level of being compelling, though. I worry especially from the character sheets that there’s a bunch more junk they just haven’t shown us yet that’ll take it to 3.5e levels of law degree gaming.

One of the big things that’ll sway me is if they go open.  I suspect they won’t just because even the playtest is laden with legalese junk. If they do, it might make it.  If they don’t, they won’t pull anyone from their current games of choice, is my prediction (and all my 4e/5e predictions are coming true with regularity now…).