Guest Spot – DnD Next Playtest Review

DnD Next Playtest Review
By Martin Tideswell

Tens of thousands of people around the world are playtesting the latest incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons. Journalist Martin Tideswell, a 29-year DnD veteran, and his friends in Stoke-on-Trent, England, are among them…

There are those who greet any new edition of their beloved game system with, at best, naked cynicism and, at worst, howls of disapproval. There’s good reason for this. Very often, a game manufacturer’s decision to revamp/refurbish/upgrade (take your pick) their most popular lines is motivated by profit rather than what is necessarily good for the game in question or their loyal customers. They are, when all is said and done, businesses who need to innovate to survive but it is a fine line that designers tread when launching new products. The truth is that nothing irks a seasoned gamer like system changes for the sake of it.

I speak from experience. I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1983 and have worked with every system – from the Basic and Expert rules through AD&D’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3.5 and 4th editions. Yes, I am one of those grognards who gets all misty-eyed when talking about T.H.A.C. 0 and can often be seen stroking a copy of the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and muttering the words: “my precious”. I take great pride in the fact that I still have my TSR dice bag and can still remember the company’s UK address in Cherry Hinton, Cambridge – years after it ceased to exist. Thus my relationship with its successor, Wizards of the Coast – guardians of the Dungeons & Dragons brand – hasn’t always been an easy one.

On the one hand, I am grateful to the company for helping to keep my hobby alive with funky online applications like Character Builder and the DnD Compendium as well as new product releases such as a range of miniatures which has greatly enhanced our roleplaying experience in recent years. On the other hand I don’t think I will ever quite forgive the powers-that-be for the 4th edition experiment which turned the daddy of all RPGs into a strategy game and alienated many of its loyal players.

It is well documented that 4th edition split DnD’s fanbase. You had people like myself who will continue to play DnD no matter what, irrespective of our misgivings, because – well, it’s DnD isn’t it? You also had people who said: “Hang on now just a minute… This isn’t roleplaying! Anyone for Pathfinder?”

Courtesy of the owner of this website, I was lucky enough to obtain tickets for the inaugural Gen Con address at Indy in August. It was a fascinating evening for a DnD nut like myself involving, as it did, a very public show of contrition and humility by senior Wizards of the Coast employees. They held their hands up and said, very publicly: “We got it wrong with 4th edition.” Better still, they acknowledged that the only way to regain the trust and respect of DnD’s core audience was to start over and involve as many people as possible in playtesting a new edition. Wizards calls it DnD Next. Others will call it 5th edition. I call it about bloody time.

The 4th edition of the game, which has captured the imaginations of generations of roleplayers, was fundamentally flawed from the start. It was clearly targeted at the MMORPG community and thus became a sort of strange hybrid – a doppelganger of a game system that wanted to be an RPG, but was actually part wargame where combat and ‘powers’ actually take centre stage. DnD is supposed to be a storytelling experience where all the players enhance the tale through their words and actions.

Instead, the truth is, those of us who have soldiered on playing 4th edition have done so  with heavy hearts – knowing that we spend most of our evenings leafing through seven pages of abilities and waiting for our turn through interminable battles. The monsters in 4th edition have stacks of hit points but do very little damage. The rules make it very hard for a character to actually die and very easy for a DM to become disillusioned.

I could go on… suffice to say 4th edition is a poor interpretation of what DnD was intended to be.

This explains why so many of our community fled to Pathfinder – an RPG which is faithful to the old 3.5 edition DnD system. But all is not lost. With the launch of playtesting for DnD Next, Wizards stated that the evolutionary process would take a couple of years and, crucially, instead of foisting a new edition on consumers they would be giving the game back to the people who matter – the players – by asking them what they want. This is a bold claim but one which, up ‘til now, the company appears to be honouring.

I’ve been impressed with the playtest packets to date simply because they have allowed my fellow gamers and I to have a crack at a very simple, stripped-back version of the roleplaying game we all love. It makes absolute sense to me for Wizards to revisit classics like the Isle of Dread – the sandbox setting for the second playtest – as they are quality games which make old ’uns like me feel all warm and fuzzy. More importantly, we’ve been given a version of the game which is far more true to how I believe Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson intended DnD to be played back in the late 1970s and early 80s.

I’ve DM’d and played the playtest and enjoyed both immensely. I don’t ask for much, really. I like the fact that my character can die. I like the fact that the fighter has twice as many hit points as the wizard. I like the fact that my wizard runs out of spells. These things add a vital degree of realism, for me. What’s more, I am not alone in having early favourable impressions of the new system. I play fortnightly with a large group comprising a mix of veteran and relatively inexperienced players and they all like the look of DnD Next.

My friend Anna is a librarian and mum-of-two who has been playing 4th edition for a little over 18 months and has known no other system. Thus she comes to the table for DnD Next with no preconceptions. These are Anna’s thoughts:

‘I am really enjoying the playtest.  I felt it isn’t so focused on the powers and abilities of each character, and so gives the players more opportunity to improvise.  It seems to me that the survival or otherwise of each character now depends more on the player and is not simply predetermined by the character sheet.  There is a real sense that one wrong move could seriously jeopardise a character’s survival, and this adds an element of risk which gives the game credibility. The playtest made me realise that 4th edition is somewhat overcomplicated.  During the playtest I really enjoyed watching how the other players responded to combat situations – something I feel I haven’t really had the opportunity to do before.  During a 4th edition session I seem to spend each round of initiative plotting my next character’s move, and missing many of the actions of my fellow players.  As a player of DnD Next I felt more involved in the storytelling of the game than in previous 4th edition adventures.’

Josh, a photography student, is another relative newcomer to DnD who likes what he sees of the new system – particularly a few of the new rules. He writes:

I find the playtest rules are significantly less time consuming than those we use in 4th edition. The advantage/disadvantage system also works out better in the new rules. The expertise dice are also a nice addition and the reduction in hit points also keeps players on their toes as characters now feel ‘kill-able’ whereas in 4th edition, the characters would struggle to die.’

Myles, a father-of-three and veteran gamer, is also a fan. He writes:

D&D next has put the roleplay back into the game. By simplifying the character it has made it much easier to remain aware of what your character can and can’t do without having to continually go back and reconsider your choices. Having a simpler sheet with basic skill stats allows you to interprete how skills play out more imaginatively. Subsequently the characters become more interesting because they are played as original characters and not cardboard cut-out warriors and magic users. Character Classes are well thought out. Speaking for myself, the Bounty Hunter is inspired. The flexibility of the rules allow me to play him as gritted mercenary or compassionate law-bringer – depending on the situation. The use of skills is fast and does not slow play in any way. The system is fast and has the feel of 1st, 2nd or 3rd editions. Formerly complex rules have been reconsidered and rewritten. I particularly like the advantage/disadvantage die role. The use of 2 D20s is excellent – easy to understand and use in any situation. The combat is fast, damage lethal and adds a palpable air of tension. I.e. in our last session a character was struck with a rock and almost died because of the blow. Excellent stuff.

I leave the final words to my friend Elton, a veteran but lapsed player…

I’ve been a lapsed player since 3rd edition and have recently played a few sessions of 4th which I found far too cumbersome. Its mechanics seem to get in the way of what I used to enjoy – namely roleplaying. I’ve played two sessions of the prototype 5th edition rules and enjoyed both immensely. The main positive for me was the stripped back feel to the rules which allowed for far quicker combat rounds and a sense that everything is happening at once. Another addition which worked well was the advantage/ disadvantage rule –particularly as this is used for monsters as well as PCs. Previously DMs have given a bonus/ penalty to your dice roll but I like the new method’s potential – providing it’s not over-used. I guess this is down to individual DMs.

The expertise dice also worked well. I hope that this is rolled out across the range of classes as otherwise it would seem to favour a select few. My one concern would be the critical hit damage. I agree in principal that a devastating blow is a devastating blow – whatever your character’s level and that this is realistic. However, I wonder whether a sliding scale may be more appropriate as I can foresee a disproportionate amount of low level characters failing to become mid or high level characters. All in all, though, I liked what I saw and if things continue along the same lines it could be the rules system that gets me playing again.’

The other players and DMs in our group who have dipped their toes into the water of DnD Next have come to the conclusion that they like the look and feel of the proposed system because it is simpler, faster and more in keeping with their vision of roleplaying game. Yes, it is early days. Yes, there is no guarantee that what we are playing now will bear any resemblance to the new products launched next year and in 2014. But it genuinely feels like the DnD R&D team at Wizards are having a damn good stab at giving us what I believe most of us want – which is to take the rolls out of roleplaying and give the power back to the players and DMs.

Fingers crossed.

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