Many apologies for the intermittent and off schedule posts. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m rather involved in Cleveland theatre, and am currently part of a cast devising an original play. That involves acting, rehearsing, writing lines, memorizing those lines, revising those lines…you get the idea. Thus the brunt of my writing time has gone to that, and poor Save vs. Weekend has become second banana. But fear not! I have neither lost interest nor resolve to keep this blog afloat. That said for the next few weeks posts will be at zany times, and likely only once a week.
Due to my time constraints and in the interest of contributing to the D&D community, I thought I’d sidestep the expected weekly encounter write-up (insert obligatory chiding of my breaking from the Blog’s intention) to instead discuss a bit about how things have been going with the sporadic D&D 5th/Next playtest games I’ve been running.
The last game was run with 5 total players, using a self written adventure (2 combats, a puzzle, a potential hazard, and lots of random tables) all while the old school Dungeons and Dragons cartoon played in the background and DMDJ set the mood.
So, my bullet-point observations about 5th Edition / D&D Next:
Easy to Pick Up – My last session included three (THREE!) players who were completely alien to the tabletop roleplaying experience. So new to it, that I had to remind myself to explain the “little things” to them – like what 2d8 means in terms of those little plastic dice. Even then, among the two experienced players at the table, only one had played using the 5th Edition rules and not at all extensively. Given that lack of knowledge base, I found that character creation went very smoothly. Focusing the game more on the attributes gave new players a very easy, understandable touchstone to work from. They knew what things their characters were best at, and what things they should leave to other party members if possible.
Backgrounds and Specialties were extremely helpful for this process. I didn’t need to explain an exhaustive list of abilities and skills – the names were all the players need to know what they wanted to be. “Artisan? Oh yeah, that sounds cool. Can I be a painter?” “Archer is an option? Yeah, I definitely want to use a bow since my strength is, like, nothing.” Quick, simple, and easy to understand and roleplay.
That all said: I’d ultimately like to see a list of feat for those who feel a little too confined by the Specialties and want a little more flexibility in describing their character.
Less Stringent Spells = More Fun – I think the new spell formatting really got to shine in this session. You all know I love 4th Edition with a grandmotherly warmth, but power descriptions are very precise and focused – which isn’t a bad thing. The problem is that it tends to force your mind to think solely in terms of what the spell can do statistically, and ignore its implications and interactions with the world.
To new players, having a paragraph that described the spell, and a paragraph that explained the nitty gritty was invaluable. Combat spells were easy for them to learn “Oh, so this text at the bottom says, I roll these dice and that’s fire damage and I get everyone in a 15 foot cone, cool.” The descriptive paragraphs got them thinking of their spells in precisely the right way – trying to come up with clever, out-of-the-box applications. I admit that I hand-waved some rules to make their ideas work*, but isn’t that the point?
I think an inherent and hard to pin down problem in 4th Edition is the accidental psychological paralysis it puts on DMs and players. Seeing all those neat, clean, precise rules makes you think they need to be followed to the letter or else you are “doing it wrong.” Of course that’s false, but our brains work in funny ways. I’ve run into that problem less and less while running 5th ed games.
*[I suppose using Command and saying “Reveal” was not intended to force Orc Warlords to admit useful or embarrassing secrets, but the players loved it. I also maybe give Mage Hand to much credit; but when a players uses it to pour out flammable liquid onto burning opponents or shove its spectral fingers into the mouth of an arguing party member to end a discussion – only a monster would let rules nay-say!]
Solving Not Just Rolling – A thought related to that aside: The new mechanics seem to encourage a “problem solving” route just as much as they encourage a “gameplay” route. And yes, that narration oriented approach is a thing very subject to the DM’s handling of the game (Ahem! DMG pg. 42!!), and it can certainly exist in 4th ed (I try to steer my games in that direction as much as possible.) But the emphasis on skills/skill challenges and feats can sometimes get in the way of that free-form problem solving approach to complications – making mechanical choices more appealing than a clever or logical idea.
Monsters and Low Hit Points: Feast or Famine – Maybe it was my fault for throwing orcs in as the primary combat antagonist. To be fair, the PCs were 2nd level (due to my concerns about PC fragility), so it wasn’t an unreasonable monster choice, but the orcs sit in a strange place of high damage, and not quite high enough Hit Points. Nearly all the orcs went down with a single blow. Having the “Relentless” trait kept them hanging around a bit longer, so they fit their role better in this iteration of the playtest than the previous, but they still seemed oddly fragile. On the other hand, the inclusion of the great axe as their main weapon made them incredibly potent – especially against weaker PCs. I think this is meant well; a single d# of damage should be threatening, but not overwhelming if the DM lands a single lucky roll. At this point in the game’s life I think there’s an imbalance somewhere. Mind you, I haven’t played with that wide a range of the monsters to choose from.
Still it seemed I was either dropping players or they were dropping monsters all at once, with rarely anything in between. While my goal wasn’t to replicate the feel of 4th ed combat, I think 5th ed’s battle and gameplay in general is speedy enough due to action-economy that having a lot super-low HP monsters isn’t always necessary.
I agree with the logic in lowering Hit Points across the board (to improve the significance of magical healing), but I think this move made 1st level PCs too fragile. One thing I loved about our current edition of D&D is that 1st level wasn’t a terrified rush to earn experience points enough that you could snag that extra Hit Die and survive the lucky crit you would occasionally absorb. Of course, you want plenty of room to grow, but starting between 10-25 Hit Points gives some good breathing room for characters and encourages them to take risks right off the bat, without anticipating total and utter failure.
The Fighter is Awesome – I had two players each playing very different Fighters: a “Dwarven Defender” type, and a staff wielding, light armor clad amazon huntress. Both were effective and unique and made good use of combat maneuvers to both set their characters apart and contribute to the “game” aspects of play. I was very happy with how the Fighter is shaping up.
Follow My Lead – I saw fit to give the PCs a couple followers during an appropriate moment of the game. I think the way monster stat blocks are laid out, and the system itself, less dependent on the troublesome effects of level creep, makes integrating a handful of followers and easy and not too unbalancing prospect.
Magic Items are Special and Interesting – The document covering magic items was still pretty hot off the PDF presses when we played, and I hadn’t had too much time to look it over before tossing some of its contents in. I’m pleased to see that many items have peculiar quirks (the demands of the “Oathbow” made sure our archer held off on its devastating power until she was sure she could take down her target) and value outside of their obvious applications in combat. I know it’s early yet, but this is the way to go. I enjoyed that 4th edition offered a wide range of magic items, but so few of them had any real appeal – I think giving items a lot of character and “extracurricular” capabilities can make even statistically sub-par treasures worth having.
3D Terrain Fosters Creative Thinking – This isn’t strictly a 5th edition related note, but it’s worth mentioning since I’m giving an after action report. This was one of the first times I busted out my 3D terrain pieces provided in the Harrowing Halls map tile pack. I found my players using the tables and stairs in thoughtful ways, and I think having those pieces there – rather than just an image of a table on a tile or the mention of one in a description – really fostered that kind of thinking. Sure, you might think of using a table as cover even if there wasn’t a table miniature, but it’s easier to overlook that possibility if the environment isn’t emphasized. 3D terrain is just one way to do this, of course. A very descriptive and thorough DM can do just as well, but I’ll make the case for my silly props enhancing play and inspiring characters (Ha! Take that you graph-paper loving grognards!)
In general my comments are positive but bear in mind this is just the results of a single session, and it went well, meaning we had fun, and that my impression of any flaws in the system are probably negated by that. Also, our pizza was late, and thus free…who can be in a bad mood when THAT happens!