Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Stop, Drop, and Gnoll: My Encounter with D&D Next

This game was designed under the assumption that all players are dickheads. No other mode of play is conceivable under its framework.

There were Castles & Crusades books on the table, a section of the Next playtest in hardcopy, amd the rest of the rules on the DM’s laptop. We were mostly all new players dropping in to somebody else’s campaign. We’d all leveled up, so we were figuring out our new options and abilities for an hour or so before starting. Previous campaign activity indicated that we had to quickly travel to Town A in order to prevent a guy that could teleport to hell from stealing the next artifact .

Encounter 1: We saw birds in the distance circling over something. We chose to investigate because we suspected a battle had occurred there. Four birds came towards us… but they turned out to be pterodactyls! I cast Cause Fear on the lead bird… so he just attacked someone else in the party. The druid cast Animal Friend on another. I was expecting it to be a lot harder to take these things down, but it didn’t seem to take much ranged combat power to ground them. Then we saw more flying things coming… but they had arms, too. I was sure it was demons from hell… but it turned out to be harpies. They charmed a couple of the player characters, but we hacked and slashed them. Examining the area they were circling revealed a trail to their lair…. They had 2,200 copper pieces! Very heavy….

Encounter 2: Our pterodactyl scout warned us that the road was blocked, but we couldn’t understand him well enough to know by what. We decided to weave a basket, put the gnome in it, and have the pterodactyl carry it to the road block. Something crept up on us while we wove, but we couldn’t figure out what it was. Animal Handling rolls and very narrow strength check later and the gnome was aloft. He came back and told us the road was blocked by  a gazillion spider webs. We were picturing thousands of spiders… so many, we were debating burning down the whole forest. We eventually decided to go around. (The DM broke in at this point to warn us that we’d just bypassed what would have been enough experience points to allow us to be at level three in time for a key encounter.)

Encounter 3: We find our pterodactyl friend… turned to stone! The ranger stumbles onto a dude in leaves. She tried to talk to him, but it was an unfriendly druid that sicced his cockatrice buddy on us. Just the scream of the thing put us on edge. Dude in leaves turned out to be a druid, so our druid talked to him in druid talk and they called off the fight. If our druid could beat their druid in single combat we could pass unmolested. They burned through their spells and it ended in with a D20 rolling contest that was identical to Ultima II and other simplified “old school” combats. Our guy won, so we moved on. (The DM again made a remark about passing up valuable experience points.)

Encounter 4: Something was following us through the woods, but the ranger couldn’t figure out what. We decided to move quickly because there didn’t seem to be anything else we could reasonably do– if they fought us, we’d just have to fight. Suddenly, half the party (including me) had taken a good chunk of damage. Wolves were coming right at us and gnolls were targeting us with ranged weapons! Our ranger and thief disappeared into the shadows, our druid Thunderstriked the wolves, and the illusionist Prismatic Sprayed the gnolls. The druid rolled max damage and the wolves were splattered. The gnolls were stunned for two turns while we pounded on them some more. The thief had a chance to back stab them all and did hideous damage due to some sort of two-weapon feat thing. They didn’t know what hit them.

This is not a review. This is an arbitrary reaction to how one dude ran his game. Your mileage may vary.

  • Every character could roll up to two of their hit dice for free healing. This was called “catching your breath.” Given that we were only doing one encounter a day, this meant that the cleric never had to cast cure light wounds… and there was essentially no resource penalty for taking damage in combat.
  • All of the spellcasters were reduced to being glorified Magic Missile tossers. Sure, the special effects were different, but it all boiled down to the same thing: an automatic hit with varying ranges, damage dice, and areas of effect. This was very disappointing to me– one of many ways in which the classes are only cosmetically different from each other.
  • Instead of +/-1 to-hit for short/medium/long range, you just have short and long range here. For long range, you roll 2d20 and take the lower die. This is a cute mechanic, but as long as I could toss Cause Light Wounds or whatever every freaking round as a second level character for every freaking combat, there was no reason for me to ever depend on a long ranged sling attack.
  • The skills! We made scads of percentile rolls for skill and attribute checks. These were all like 60% chances (I think) with minor bonuses due to attributes. There were Adventure Points that we could choose to spend to improve our odds and that were only lost if the roll was successful. The only thing worse than having to make so many of these #^&*$# rolls was spending a point when your roll was so good that you wouldn’t have needed to spend an Adventure Point anyway. These mechanics (to me) added nothing to the game experience, took a lot of time, slowed play to a crawl, and could be managed into irrelevance by the application of the Adventure Point thing. I usually hate the whole “everybody roll to see if something is noticed” deal anyway, but present day DM’s seem to all do it, so I’m in the minority here. A bog standard d6 roll would be better than all of this crap because it’d keep things moving and you’d only have to look for the odd one or two showing up. No calculations…! (Plus, there’s so many d6 checks in old school D&D, you wouldn’t always know what you were rolling for….)
  • The thief’s backstab with two weapons was uber-powerful. This was roll 2d20 and take the higher number to-hit and double damage. The thief player complained about its silliness after the game and I had to agree, though in-game I was glad to just see bad guys getting dropped.
  • Max damage is done on natural twenties and… DX bonuses are added to ranged damage?! What the heck?! I guess the designers just can’t bear to have people feel bad when they don’t get an equivalent to the fighter’s strength bonus for every freaking roll in the game?!
  • We were rolling for initiative only when it mattered. It’d only be in cases were both combatants scored a hit, for example. I liked that the designers were trying to eliminate some useless rolls, but I still found it cumbersome and it seemed to break up the tempo of the combats. A DM friend of mine that was also playing disagreed with me on that. He likes individual initiative in general– probably because he started out on the Holmes edition. So meh.
  • It’s been said repeatedly, but new school rules eliminate the need for any kind of resource tracking. And by resource, I mean hit points and spell slots, not torches and rations. You have so many ways to get hit points back and so many things you can do with your spell slots that no individual decision has any consequence beyond the right now. Couple this with “xp for monster killing” and you end up with My Precious Encounter™. The combats are the end all be all of the game, the overarching adventure narrative ceases to be the point because the metagame takes over, and common sense strategies for play become stupidly silly when applied in this context. This may be fun for somebody somewhere… but this is not D&D.
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12 responses to “Stop, Drop, and Gnoll: My Encounter with D&D Next

  1. Jason Packer March 31, 2014 at 8:23 am

    Your homework is to acquire the last playtest package of D&D Next, and read through it yourself. I don’t insist that you run a game, but compare the rules to the experience you had, and see if the problem is that the rules really are that bad, or the more common and likely situation that no rule set survives five minutes in play with some DMs.

    • jeffro March 31, 2014 at 8:31 am

      Ah, there’s just too much other stuff to write about– for instance, I’m more concerned with wrapping my head around the implications of this session vis a vis adventure design. Besides, that playtest package is about to be voided, too, so a “fair” analysis is far from being worth the time it’d take to make it.

      • Jason Packer March 31, 2014 at 8:46 am

        You needn’t write about it at length, but for your own sanity, it might be nice to know the truth behind your discontent.

        [Jeffro: You don’t seem to understand that investigating this further would cost me SAN points that I can’t spare. I can have a short story or adventure draft for the same amount of effort.]

  2. Radpert March 31, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Thanks for playing and your reaction, Jeff. I was trying to tell you all not to worry about XP, but I’ve noted that my assurance sounded more like a threat. I want to convey a more accurate impression of DnDNext. Beginning with your second point, about half of DnDNext spells do damage even if you make your save. There is kind of an arms race where players of various martial concepts complain because all they get is multiple attacks & massive damage, but this nerdrage goes back to Fourth Edition D & D where more than just fighters are doing half damage on a miss. We did have a good laugh over that and the portrayal of damage as becoming increasingly winded as you narrowly escape getting hit! Getting a lot of people up to speed, I apparently failed to convey the difference between the cantrips, which are unlimited, and numbered-level spells, which do have a spells-per-day limit. There are caveats to that, but it is basically the same as what a lot of us did back in the day when we houseruled that you could cast any of your spells with any of your slots of that level.

    I was using DnDNext skills, but the mechanics of the rolls are my invention. People do need to hide & notice things occasionally, and I think it’ll go over better when I give them a character sheet with the skills on it! This is the third DnDNext campaign I’ve run, and I eventually couldn’t afford to print a new set of manuals every time they completely changed the playtest rules. I have been letting players use Castles & Crusades characters with DnDNext mechanics, resulting in cognitive dissonance like “rogues” having old-school double damage with new-school “advantage” on attack rolls. DnDNext is also exactly like Third and Fourth Editions in the everybody roll for your turn and do-I-get-an-opportunity-attack departments. I think there’s less decision paralysis my way, and I’ll take your perspective on initiative under consideration.

    • jeffro March 31, 2014 at 11:57 am

      On that initiative thing– I would just let the guy with the higher Dexterity go first… and give ties to the player. But that’s just me. Thanks for the game!

      Thanks also for not taking umbrage at my clinical evisceration of every nuance of your gamemastering! I’ve said it elsewhere, but this type of post is a dick move on my part by definition.

      • Radpert March 31, 2014 at 2:49 pm

        I’m only DMing ’cause I can’t find a D & D group to play anything but Fourth Edition with. I’m OK with powers that only recharge after a short nap, and targeting based on Charisma–Charisma?–but I spend more time reading my list of powers than listening to the DM, and the sameness of everything and wonky terminology get on my nerves. I love AD&D but running it is too complicated for little ol’ me, I was already signed up to evaluate the playtest, and now I’ve transitioned from reporting what I don’t like to knowing what I don’t like about it, so I can insert crap like my freeform but precise skill system.

        Most of my players prefer Third Edition but I am disenchanted with that since I found out I have to buy 18 books to have an effective character, and I was holding back the particulars of my gripe about going in initiative order. This particular mechanic was devised as a convincing replacement for the high overhead of segmented movement, and besides not being needed for theatre-of-the-mind style play, it requires nonsensical adjustments like the attack of opportunity (a supposedly limiting factor on slash-and-dash attacks such as we discussed) and being able to surround an opponent with only two miniature figures (fortunately, “flanking” has not figured in Fifth Edition so far). If you use the DEX order, as you suggest but my players prefer to all shout at me at once, and just nudge it with the occasional initiative roll on watershed boundaries, you can get rid of such paradoxical situations, speed shit up to a ridiculous degree, and as an added bonus 3E (and hopefully 4E as well) players eventually get out of the habit of analyzing every tactical nuance during a battle, and learn (or relearn how) to think strategically. You were there, have you seen people actually thinking about what their characters were doing since AD&D days? That’s a rhetorical question, I know the answer is yes but the more freedom roleplayers have, as it says on the right side of Doug’s chart above your article, the more they ignore loopholes and play the game.

  3. JSpace April 1, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Yikes. I just don’t identify with this kind of gaming. I mean, I can’t stand it when Pathfinder and D&D 3 & 4 vets first stare at their character sheets and then start talking to each other, like there’s some special move or cheat code on there to help them “win” the encounter. Not in my campaign dude. You know, D&D5 seems to be just another fantasy tire-pumper. Ugh. No thanks.

    • jeffro April 1, 2014 at 12:09 pm

      I can’t say that there are too many rpgs made since the mid eighties that I’d be willing to really invest in.

    • Radpert April 1, 2014 at 8:49 pm

      The session before, I had just 2 Third Edition gamers & no character sheets. One of them looked up some spells on my computer, the other ran the characters with weapons, and they did just fine. What am I missing?

      • jeffro April 2, 2014 at 8:11 am

        @Radpert — I think your loose “theater of the mind” approach eliminated the sort of chess-like combat puzzle mentality that JSpace is referring to.

  4. JSpace April 2, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    My comment wasn’t really about the specific session described. I was just thinking about the current game in general (D&D). In particular how uncomfortably close it is to Champions. Hours spent creating and optimizing characters. Non-stop dice-rolling and combat (is there a reaction table in D&D5? Morale? Surprise?). Big bad evil guys (when did thieving tomb raiders become the Justice League?). Some of the events that transpired seemed similar to that. Sort of a super heroic fantasy video game, where you need to be a certain level to beat the final boss. Not exactly B/X D&D, but I could be wrong.

    • Radpert April 3, 2014 at 7:20 pm

      I have been driven to distraction time and time again waiting for players to take their move. At the same time, I respect their impatience with older editions’ hit-it-with-your-sword-again dynamic. The developers of Fifth Edition, or DnDNext as it is called in the playtest, distinguish among interaction, exploration and combat activities in the game. I am unabashedly in the murder-hobo camp, so my game is light in interaction. There are rich rules for it, however, under both development and discussion with the D & D community.

      This morning I posted a distillation of my experiences with different editions of Dungeons & Dragons at http://todrhirsch.livejournal.com (then I did some work–my job is awesome). The Fourth Edition groups I mention cover all three bases–the first loved to roleplay their characters’ personalities, another traveled the game world to gain fame through their heroic accomplishments, and the guys I play with now are great hack-and-slashers–lacking our preconceptions, they still made the game their own. I greatly enjoy the exploration aspect of adventuring, and the two articles before that may give you a better idea of how I present it in my game than the example here. Jeff, I promise you an environment of more than just trees next time you play with me!

      Every edition of D & D I ever played had some way of customizing your character–until I got culture shock trying Moldvay, and dabbling in Holmes–but even they have varying weapon damage as a optional rule. In AD&D I always used a spear because they did double damage to a charging creature, then that edition’s Unearthed Arcana came out and I was in weapon selection heaven. Second Edition upped the stakes with nonweapon proficiencies, and as in the new edition much of your customization took place after first level, which helps keep character generation time down. Weapons have been getting steadily less distinctive as Third introduced feats and Fourth premiered powers channeled through weapons and other implements–though it seems little of this flavor will remain in Fifth Edition. There are many players pulling on what weapons should do, which is perhaps why they have been left in their “nerfed” form, but most who try it will have to compromise on something, much as I have to houserule initiative. DnDNext has the onus of reminding anyone who hates a particular edition of something about that edition. That’s what you get for trying to please everyone. Anyway, I run it because, after getting confused from AD&D while trying to run Third Edition, I want to get as used to this as I can before the real game comes out at GenCon.

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