Sunday, 27 May 2012

D&D Next: some thoughts

Dominic Matte

I've finally managed to get my hands on a copy of the D&D Next playtest materials, and they're definitely interesting. Before collecting my thoughts on the rules as a whole, I'll just go through some points that caught my interest as I read through. This is pretty much just a random collection of things that crossed my mind as I read the documents. I'll put together something more organized and collected soon.

  • Slightly odd wording on the “how to roll X” descriptions. The rules describe a three-stage process: roll the die, apply bonuses and penalties, and announce the total. However, adding your ability modifier falls under “roll the die” for some reason. It would make more sense under “apply bonuses and penalties” for me. People really should read the rules properly, but I can see some players not adding their modifier.

  • No more dedicated skills. Everything is done through ability checks. Of course, this seems to be in name only. In previous editions, a character who wasn't trained in a skill simply made an ability check. You can still get skill bonuses from items, and you can still get training in skills through your class. Really all that's actually different here is that instead of saying “Make a Hide (or Stealth) check”, you say “Make a Dexterity check to hide”. I find it a bit of an odd change. In theory it seems to be intended to make the character sheet simpler by removing the skill section and only using the ability scores, but in reality you'll still need to look up your cumulative bonuses for specific actions. This is kind of neutral.

  • Advantage and disadvantage. This is interesting. When you have advantage you roll twice and take the higher result, and when you have disadvantage you roll twice and take the lower result (you only roll one additional die no matter how many times you gain advantage or disadvantage for the same roll). Throughout the document, advantage and disadvantage are used to simplify or replace some previously existing rules – for example, when you make a ranged attack while adjacent to an enemy, you don't provoke an attack of opportunity. Instead you have disadvantage for that attack. For the most part, advantage and disadvantage seem to be intended to replace some keywords, but mainly bonuses and penalties (like the +2 for combat advantage). The weird thing is that those bonuses haven't been entirely eliminated. When you attack an invisible opponent, you have disadvantage; but when you attack an enemy in cover, you take a -2 penalty. It's not quite consistent.

  • It seems that D&D Next is partially (mostly?) abandoning 4e's variability of primary ability scores by class. Strength is always used for melee attacks, Dex is always used for ranged attacks. Int, Wis, and Cha are used as the primary spellcasting ability for different classes. I liked the idea of a bard using his great charisma to pull off a devastating melee attack – it suggested that he's physically not strong, but he can distract or trick opponents into dropping their guard for a good strike. I guess it could be kind of hard to visualize how a warlock or battlemind used their Con to attack, but just because it's hard to visualize shouldn't necessarily mean it can't exist.

  • More frequent automatic successes. For example, when you do a running long jump, you jump a number of feet equal to your Strength score. It makes these abilities more reliable, but also eliminates the possibility of a very difficult but exceptional success.

  • This time around, the rules actually state that you have zero chance of success on certain actions unless you're specific in your descriptions. The example given is that if there's a key hidden in a bureau drawer, you have either zero or very little chance of finding the key if you simply say “I look around the room”. You have to specify that you're searching the bureau and its drawers.

  • Surprise is a little weird. Instead of having a round where one side can't act, anyone who's surprised takes a -20 penalty to initiative. Why is this weird? Because now it means I'll have to track negative initiative. It's still tied to Dex, so the first-level fighter's initiative roll will probably be somewhere between -20 and 0. It certainly helps ensure that the surprisers will go before the surprisees, but large negative numbers just seem weird somehow.

  • In combat, you get one action and one move. You can break up your movement and take your action partway through. Also, most things that were minor actions in 4e – drawing a weapon or pulling out a potion – now take no action and are simply done as part of your turn for free. I guess that means that the traditional Quick Draw feat will disappear. Anyways, your single action can be used to attack, cast a spell, do a coup de grace (which automatically reduces a helpless creature to 0 hit points now, unlike 4e's weird version), dodge (+4 to AC and Dex saves for a turn), help an ally (give them advantage), hide, take another move, or improvise something. Basically, anything that takes longer than drawing a weapon is your action. This helps simplify combat a lot – there's less to keep track of when you can do one thing and move on your turn. On the other hand, the rules also note that some abilities (especially at higher levels) tend to let you do multiple things with your one action, which is starting to get complicated again. For example, a high-level fighter can spend his action to make several attacks. As a side note, I foresee the Time Stop spell becoming something like “you gain 2 additional actions this turn”.

  • Weapon damage types are back – ie slashing, piercing, bludgeoning. I didn't really miss them in 4e, but I'll grant that they do make sense a lot of the time, especially with stuff like skeletons.

  • Resistance now simply halves damage, and vulnerability doubles it. Simpler, but interesting. Resistance is a lot less powerful than in 4e (since you'll almost always do some damage), and vulnerability is a much bigger weakness than in 4e (taking double 15 holy damage is much worse than vulnerable 5).

  • Hit points. Let me start off by saying UGH, hit dice, I HATE THEM. On the other hand, they're implemented pretty much as well as a randomizing factor in HP can be. Your starting hit points are your Con score plus a roll of your class' hit die. When you level up, you gain extra HP equal to your Con modifier plus a roll of your hit die. This means the random factor has less of an effect than in previous editions – your wizard won't start with 1 hit point and have to worry about stubbing his toe and dying, or being killed by an angry kitten. But even this amount of randomness is too much. Why, you ask? Balance, that's why. Two characters that are completely identical in every way can have different hit point totals, and that's not fair to the guy who rolled lower. In my games I may rule that you take the average of your hit die instead of rolling, because rolling is stupid and ruins balance.

  • Resting and healing. I saw some people rejoicing that D&D Next got rid of 4e's healing surges, but in fact, it really doesn't – it just reskins them. When you take a short rest, you can spend uses of a healer's kit to spend hit dice. For each hit die you spend, you roll the die and gain that many hit points, plus your Con modifier. When you take a long rest, you regain all your hit points and all your hit dice. So while it sounds different, you still have limited healing resources every adventuring day – it's just that now you're saying “spend a hit die” instead of “spend a healing surge”. The only real difference is that you have less total healing, for two reasons: healing a hit die isn't worth a quarter of your hit points, and the number of hit dice you have is equal to your level.

  • Conditions. Some were dropped, some were re-worded, and some were brought back into the game after being absent in 4e.
    • Frightened makes a reappearance, but seems like it could be exceptionally powerful, since you have to take every opportunity to move away from the source of fear, and you have disadvantage on checks and attacks. The necessary clarification is whether that means you spend your move and your action to move away. If you have to spend your action to move, then in theory you can't be making attacks, so why tell me I have disadvantage on attacks?
    • Invisible is going to need some fixing. Invisible creatures still cast shadows. What the hell is that. It makes sense under certain circumstances when “invisible” simply means “not visible”, but when you say a creature is invisible it conjures to mind the idea of that creature becoming completely transparent. And if light passes through you, how do you cast a shadow?
    • Intoxicated sounds fun – you have disadvantage on attacks and checks, but damage you take is reduced by 1d6 because of the reduced pain sensitivity.
    • Petrified is absent from the list, but I wonder if it will exist as a re-flavoured paralyzed condition.

  • Coins. You've got copper pieces, silver pieces (10 copper), gold pieces (10 silver), platinum pieces (10 gold), and electrum pieces worth... 5 silver. What? That's just weird, and messes with the math. Plus, I don't even know what electrum is. I can see this not being used in the vast majority of games simply because it throws things off.

  • At first glance, armour seems really weird. Each type of armour sets your base AC at a certain value, and then with light armour you add your Dex modifier, with medium half your Dex modifier, and with heavy you add nothing. It seems weird, but then you realize it's essentially the same thing as the old system where your AC is equal to 10 + the armour bonus. They've simply dropped the “10+” from the system so you don't have to worry about it. When you wear leather armour your AC is 12 + your Dex mod, or in other words, exactly what we're used to. AC totals are going to be different at first level than what I'm used to, though, since the higher bonuses are really expensive.
    • I won't know for sure until the character creation rules come out and we know how much gold you get to start, but it seems like a rogue will start with a higher AC than a fighter – chainmail costs 100gp for a 15 AC, and a heavy shield is still worth +2 for 15gp. The next heavy armour, banded, costs a whopping 500gp, which I'm guessing will be out of reach at first level. That means the level 1 fighter will have a 17 AC. The rogue, on the other hand, should easily be able to attain an 18 – a chain shirt costs 75gp and gives you an AC of 14 + your Dex modifier, which can easily be +4 at first level, unless the ability score rules have changed.
    • I'm actually not sure if there's a point to using medium armour at all, since it only adds half your Dex to AC. For 35gp you can buy ringmail that gives you an AC of 13 + half your Dex modifier, as well as giving you disadvantage for stealth checks... but for 10gp less you can pick up studded leather which gives you 13 + your entire Dex modifier, doesn't apply disadvantage for stealth, weighs less, and takes less time to don or remove. So why the hell would I ever want to buy ringmail?

  • In terms of weapons, the rules don't actually say what happens if you don't know how to use a given weapon. Since there seem to be no proficiency bonuses, I assume you have disadvantage for attacking with a weapon you can't use... but the rules don't say so anywhere. The most they say is “your class determines what weapons you can use”.
    • Weapon prices seem to be affected primarily by weight, which is interesting. The greataxe and greatsword are both two-handed slashing weapons that deal 1d12 damage. The only difference is that the 20gp greataxe weighs 20 pounds, and the 50gp greatsword weighs 15 pounds. The maul, which deals the same damage but in bludgeoning form, weighs more than the greataxe, and costs less. Interesting.
    • To start, there are only three weapons with special properties. The bastard sword deals 1d10 damage when used two-handed (instead of 1d8); you can load and fire a crossbow in the same action but you have disadvantage when you do; and you can use a lance one-handed while mounted. That's it. No high crit or defensive or anything.

  • The list of adventuring gear has been greatly expanded from the base lists in both 3e and 4e. There are a lot of items which have had standard, understood uses for a while, but now have those uses expressly written out as rules – for example, spreading ball bearings on the floor, spiking a door with a piton, or coating an area with lamp oil.
    • The entry for alchemist's fire seems to indicate that we've seen the last of ongoing damage in the 4e sense – a target hit by alchemist's fire takes fire damage every turn until it spends an action to put out the flames.

  • Spells!
    • Casting a spell takes your action for the turn. Alternately, some spells can be cast as rituals, and some can be cast as reactions. However, you can't cast a spell as a ritual unless you have an ability that allows you to do so. Casting a spell as a ritual takes longer, but means you don't have to prepare it ahead of time. Neat! However, some spells that I feel should be castable as rituals aren't able to be, like Comprehend Languages. Perhaps this is intended as balance, so that the wizard doesn't just take offensive spells and still be able to cast whatever he needs at any time.
    • Spells which have a duration measured in rounds are back. I'm pretty neutral about this.
    • Many spells have no components or special requirements other than that you can move your hands and speak. This is nice – you don't have to spend money just to use your class abilities.
    • Minor spells, or cantrips, are at-will spells that you can use as often as you want. I'm pleased to see that one of 4e's best changes was retained, so that your wizard can actually cast magic at all times and doesn't become an awful crossbowman halfway through the day.
    • Cure Light Wounds heals 1d8 + your ability modifier. This is crap. It's more or less effective depending on the target's class, ie, it helps a wizard more than a fighter, in terms of percentages. I'd prefer if it was based on the target's hit die.
    • Magic missile is auto-hit and deals 1d4+1 damage, but shoots more missiles the higher your level. This has nothing to do with spell slots, it's purely based on character level. Awesome!
    • Ray of Frost seems pretty powerful for an at-will. If you hit, the target's speed becomes 0 until your next turn, meaning it can't move at all. I'm not sure how this interacts with bonuses – ie, whether it applies before or after bonuses.
    • Shield blocks Magic Missile entirely. Interesting.
    • Sleep has been hugely nerfed – it only puts to sleep creatures with 10 hit points or less. I have a friend who'll be very disappointed.
    • Turn Undead mentions that it might blast weaker undead into ash, but presents no rules to do so, nor does it define what it means by “weaker undead”. The spell description only discusses preventing undead from moving or attacking.
    • Without having examined character sheets or class rules, a couple of the attack spells seem exceptionally powerful, but I assume they'll seem less so when I actually learn how often you can cast these spells.

      Well that's it for now. Next I'll post my thoughts on the bestiary and dungeon master's guidelines, which are a fair bit shorter.

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