You read it here first.
Roger at Roles, Rules and Rolls has a great post exposing the probabilities of the the Advantage/Disadvantage rules called D&D Next: (Dis)advantage. Go check it out for a succinct discussion of the bonus (and penalty), and why it’s different than a flat +/-3.
Tonight I ran another session of the D&D Playtest, picking up right where we left off last time, with the enemies of the party’s new goblin friend running off yelling “Bree-yark” and talking about getting “the Ogre”. The session was very surprising. Rather than give a blow-by-blow, I’ll give the short version: the party killed the Ogre, but were driven off by the goblin chieftain and his troupe–who actually chased the party halfway back to town.
Here’s what we learned:
- Magic Missile isn’t at all over-powered when you’re not fighting Kobolds.
- The “laser cleric” effect only happens if your cleric’s player can manage to hit.
- The Ogre can take out half the Fighter’s hit points in one hit.
- Advantage should probably be called “Huge F**king Advantage”.
- Being prone is brutal.
- The whole Hit Dice/Healing Surge thing is not as huge as I thought.
- These don’t feel like first level characters.
- Narrative creativity can come back to bite you in the ass.
Honestly, I was surprised I didn’t manage to drop a PC tonight. I was disappointed too, because I wanted to try out the Dying rules. I got the Dwarf down to 1 hit point, but the Cleric and Wizard saved her bacon. It felt pretty epic, actually. I planned to have the Ogre hit to subdue and tuck her into his sack for later, but he couldn’t get a swing in.
The players used all their tactical advantages. They threw a stone with a Light spell so they could loose arrows and spells into the goblin ranks. They used the hallway to bottle up the enemy and a Sleep spell to separate the Ogre from his allies. They used Ray of Frost to pin the Ogre down. And they were pretty canny with their movement too, darting in to hit and then running back to cover to deny the goblins one of their main advantages–lots of arrows.
I made two major tactical errors. The first was not realizing the Ogre had spears for throwing, so he spent a few rounds closing with the PCs, and when he was frozen in place by the Wizard, that bought the PCs precious rounds to maneuver and heal.
The second was when I had the PCs goblin buddy show up and order the five or so allies he’d rounded up from the tribe tackle the Ogre, who was “frozen in ice” as part of the Ray of Frost effect. I thought this was a really cool image: the wild-eyed Ogre, struggling to break free of the ice encasing him, rocked like a statue and toppled to the ground.
Naturally, the players used this against me. 🙂
On the Ogre’s turn, I narrated him throwing off the goblins and standing up, then running over to the delicious dwarf, mouth watering. The players successfully lobbied for a Strength check. Then, in a fit of soft-heartedness, I let myself be convinced that the goblins should have Advantage, because there were so many of them. (My reasoning was that they are Medium sized creatures, there are five of them, and the Ogre is only Large. I regret this line of reasoning now.)
Turns out that even a monster with 18 Strength has a tough time against Advantage. I wonder if I should have granted the Ogre Disadvantage instead? The players seemed to enjoy rooting (and rolling) for the goblins, who proceeded to hold the Ogre down for three rounds while the Fighter and the Cleric went to town on him, also with Advantage. They took him apart.
They players wisely decided to run, although the Wizard had a Burning Hands in reserve, so they might have actually prevailed. I think had we had our fourth player (the Rogue couldn’t make it) it would have been much less of a nail-biter. People have been saying that these characters are overpowered. They certainly are a hell of a lot more capable than B/X D&D characters. I’d rate them at about 4th level for B/X D&D. Probably about 2nd or 3rd for 3e D&D. I haven’t played a ton of 4e, but 4e characters seemed invulnerable at first level. The two players who have done a lot of 4e mentioned that 4e PCs “never run” and that they liked having to leg it home.
The Cleric player missed all night, so the complaints about his at-will attack were a non-issue for us. The Wizard’s magic missile, that seemed so infinitely deadly in the earlier fights, was also a bit of a non-issue. He couldn’t reliably kill a goblin with one shot, and since I had the cowardly goblins take cover between shooting, he didn’t have a lot of second chances.
Because I wanted to try out the Short Rest/Healing Surge/Hit Dice rules, the players humored me and bandaged up after losing the goblins in the forest (an opposed check, if you’re keeping track). The cleric, who was at 1 hit point, gained back a whopping 2 hit points. The fighter, who was also close to zero, managed to get herself up to half by spending a Hit Die and getting a Cure Light from the cleric. All in all, it didn’t seem too over powered. They certainly didn’t feel like they were in any position to return to the fight, especially with the goblins out in force. It felt more like insurance against bad luck on the way home.
On the other hand, it’s a little disappointing to me to know that they will rest up for a night back in town and be up to full everything. They’re averaging one cave per 24 hour period, and at this rate I’ll have to rename the dungeon “Caves of Law Abiding Beastmen and Corpses” in about a week. 🙂
I played 5e again last Friday. The players ambushed a couple of Orc couriers carrying a wriggling bundle from their lair to somewhere else in the ravine. Once again the advantage/disadvantage rules shone, as we dealt with long range slinging, a wizard’s familiar hiding in dense undergrowth, and the PCs attacking enemies on higher ground.
The halfling rogue started things off by sneaking up the side of the ravine to cut the orcs off, and then smashing the skull of the one carrying the bundle with a lethal sling stone. The rest of the party and their kobold scouts (see last post) burst from cover and laid down missile fire, wounding the remaining orc, who yelled an alarm and ran. Just before he ducked out of sight, the Wizard’s magic missile caught him, and that was all she wrote.
The dwarf fighter slit open the bundle to find–not the captive dwarf or halfling she was expecting–but a captive goblin. As orc patrols began coming out to investigate the noise, the party retreated to the kobold cave and conducted a whispered interrogation. It turned out that the captive goblin was the son of the recently killed goblin chieftain, betrayed by his uncle to the orcs. The party agreed to take him back to his home where he claimed to have allies.
Fortunately, the guards at the cave entrance were sympathetic, although they were put off by the appearance of an Elf and Dwarf with their would-be chief. Unfortunately, a second goblin patrol aligned with the new chieftain came around a corner and attacked. The party quickly drove them off, although the Wizard had some scary moments when he was hit in rapid succession with two spears. Then the Fighter stepped in and killified the aggressors. The allied goblins, freaked out by the situation, ran one way, while the hostile survivors went in the other direction, shouting for their friends to “bring the Ogre!”.
It was a quick session, but Caves of Chaos is still bringing the Old School, and the new rule system is continuing to make me happy as a DM, and my Wizard player even happier. The Fighter and Rogue players seem content with their characters too. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the Ogre–or whatever else they decide to do. This playtest is definitely pushing the “sandbox” angle of play.
And that brings me to the title of this post. After reading the play test documents, I wasn’t sure whether WotC was giving lip service to sandbox play or if they intended to make it a design priority. Well after reading this article, there’s no doubt in my mind that this edition of the game is intended to support the sandbox.
Check out this quote, where the designer is talking about the new way characters increase in power:
DCs do not scale automatically with level, and instead a DC is left to represent the fixed value of the difficulty of some task, not the difficulty of the task relative to level.
That sounds a little sandboxy, right, where there are set difficulties that players can choose to tackle in any order? Well check out these snippets from the rest of the article:
Getting better at something means actually getting better at something. Since target numbers (DCs for checks, AC, and so on) and monster accuracy don’t scale with level, gaining a +1 bonus means you are actually 5% better at succeeding at that task, not simply hitting some basic competence level.
Nonspecialized characters can more easily participate in many scenes. While it’s true that increases in accuracy are real and tangible, it also means that characters can achieve a basic level of competence just through how players assign their ability bonuses.
The DM’s monster roster expands, never contracts. Although low-level characters probably don’t stack up well against higher-level monsters, thanks to the high hit points and high damage numbers of those monsters… the lower-level monsters continue to be useful to the DM, just in greater numbers.
Bounded accuracy makes it easier to DM and easier to adjudicate improvised scenes. After a short period of DMing, DMs should gain a clear sense of how to assign DCs to various tasks.
It opens up new possibilities of encounter and adventure design. A 1st-level character might not fight the black dragon… But if they rally the town [guard]… and whittle the dragon down with dozens of attacks instead of only four or five, the possibilities grow.
It is easier for players and DMs to understand the relative strength and difficulty of things. Under the bounded accuracy system, a DM can describe a hobgoblin wearing chainmail, and, no matter what the level of the characters, a player can reasonably guess that the hobgoblin’s AC is around 15;
It’s good for verisimilitude. The bounded accuracy system lets us perpetually associate difficulty numbers with certain tasks based on what they are in the world, without the need to constantly escalate the story behind those tasks.
The items are definitely a nod to complaints that in other editions, nothing really changes, just the DCs get harder for the same activities. I think it’s also great news that even if you’re not super-specialized, you’ll still be able to play a role in the success of your party. One of my favorite things about B/X D&D is how level the playing field is, in terms of talking, improvising solutions, etc.
The bit about improvising and adventure design–that’s music to my ears. One of the main joys of running B/X is not having to worry about level appropriate challenges, “precious encounter” design, or other complexity. And the example of the party rallying a bunch of militia to drive off the big monster, that’s right out of the “Combat as War” handbook that’s the default mode of the OSR.
And finally, the verisimilitude, which could also be called “consistent reality” and making it easier for players and DMs to judge it, that’s a corner stone of any kind of sandbox. Players need information, so they can make informed choices and maximize their agency.
Like most of the nerdo-sphere, I signed up for the 5e D&D playtest (I ain’t calling it “D&D Next”, because then I’ll have to call the next edition “D&D Next 2”). And tonight I ran the adapted version of Caves of Chaos for some friends instead of painting miniatures.
Before I get into what I liked and didn’t like about the playtest, some bona fides. Everybody in the group has played or is still playing B/X D&D. One of the guys is an active player at Red Box Vancouver, one of the guys was a DM for RBV in the days when we had more players than we could handle, and two of the other players were not only active RBVers, but were with me when I ran Basic Fantasy way back in 2008 and first started on this whole retro-roleplaying thing.
Of the group, we’ve all played a metric ton of 3e. I’m not sure about the active RBVer, but me and the other DM dropped out of a 4e group after about 6 months and the other two players stayed in the 4e group for a few years–and they both still really like a lot about 4e. So we’re not all dyed in the wool OSR evangelists, but everyone is Old School Friendly at a bare minimum.
So… the playtest. We started our game right at the edge of the ravine, the halfling rogue (all characters are pre-gens) looked for and found a track leading to a cave hidden in the trees (no roll). He crept up to the cave, spied it out and was about to head back to the party when a gang of Kobolds threw a spear and dropped out of the trees to attack (he described peering at the cave entrance and trees for guards, but bombed a stat check to notice the hiding monsters).
The halfling won initiative and ran back to the party with the monsters in hot pursuit. He was narrowly missed by a rusty dagger hurled by one of the kobolds (ie dagger -2, hit him for 3 points of damage, but in 5e the text says that until you are below half hit points, you haven’t taken any physical damage). By then the rest of the party had come out of hiding.
The elf wizard fired, what else, magic missile (automatic hit, AD&D-style). The player, who is especially fond of playing Magic-Users in B/X, was thrilled that magic missiles are an unlimited “cantrip”. He was also pretty excited that wizards get three spells at first level, instead of the usual “Sleep or nothing” of 1st level B/X. The lead kobold dropped like a sack of potatoes. The wizard’s player was also very happy that 5e lets you split your move, so he could run within range, cast his spell, and withdraw to behind the safety of the fighting-types.
Next the dwarf fighter and human cleric attacked. The dwarf fighter fired his crossbow at a kobold, killing it. The cleric called on the power of Pelor and a radiant beam from heaven burned another kobold alive.
In subsequent rounds, the kobolds took a few hit points off the halfling before he was able to slip into the treeline and hide. Then he was able to dash out from cover and stab from behind, giving him “advantage”, which means you get to double your chances to hit. The dwarf went to town with his two-handed axe, and discovered that even when he misses, he does some damage with an ability called “close call”. The player seemed to like that a lot (she is a 4e fan and that mechanic is *very* 4e).
I don’t remember if the cleric used his radiant beam spell again–I think it may also be an unlimited orison, much like the wizard’s magic missile. I do remember that the wizard used his split move to go all Emperor Palpatine on some unlucky kobold (shocking grasp… total overkill, but a lot of fun).
In any case, the kobolds routed and were cut down as they ran, except for one that surrendered and was taken captive by the halfling. After much ridiculous roleplaying by yours truly, “Meepo” led the party into the cave where he promised to introduce them to the Kobold King.
Here’s where I should mention the “hook” for the adventure that I used, from a list of possible ways to interest the players in the dungeon. Although the adventure suggests several ways to introduce the dungeon, including the tried-and-true “there’s gold and monsters, what else do you need to know?”, I thought it would be more interesting if the players were tasked with opening diplomatic relations with the monsters, offering tribute from the nearby towns if they would leave off raiding.
Speaking of the adventure, it’s practically a love letter to the OSR. Not only is it an extremely faithful port of the Caves of Chaos, arguably the most influential dungeon ever written, but it specifically encourages sandbox play over plotted adventures, suggests parleying with monsters, the possibility of TPKs from reckless exploration, playing off factions against each other, etc. There’s also a lot of rules text devoted to the idea that the rules should get out of the way of running the game you want to play. The designers are definitely paying attention to the OSR blogs.
The players ended up sending the wizard’s familiar (a cat) to scout some of the kobold lair while they negotiated with the Kobold King, attended a meagre feast in their honor, impressed the yokels with a display of magic (Light + Mage Hand FTW!) and successfully negotiated an exchange of a promissory note for four scouts and the lowdown on “The Master”, some sort of necromancer who has united the tribes through fear of his power, plus information about a still simmering feud between two of the orc tribes that could be exploited.
It’s 1am and my kids are going to wake me up in six hours, so I’m going to end this with a couple of lists.
- Advantage/disadvantage rules: love this, along with…
- Helping rules: finally, a way to meaningfully help another character!
- Simple combat: splitting up your move made combat way more fluid, as did the absence of Opportunity Attacks and all that standard/minor/move/swift action hair-splitting.
- Stat checks: seemed like a nice compromise between old-school “roll under your stat” house rules and modern skill systems.
- I wasn’t keen on the Close Calls fighter “I missed but still did damage” power. But then again the whole “I hit but since hit points are abstract didn’t hit (or maybe I did)” design is a muddle (albeit a beloved muddle), so I could change my mind.
- Where are the Meatshields? No henchmen or hirelings. 😦
- No morale rules or reaction tables. The first seems like it would fit really well with the streamlined combat, the second with the emphasis on “interaction” as one of the three main pillars of play (Combat, Exploration and Interaction).
- No wandering monsters. Not much resource management yet.
I’m really curious to see how the at-will wizard/cleric cantrips/orisons will play out. The players seem to love it, but I wonder if I’ll miss the game of resource management that is the Magic-User in B/X. Ditto for hit points and healing, the characters have a ton of hit points at first level (equal their Constitution score and then some). They also have the ability to recover some hit points if they rest right after a fight, which looks a lot like healing surges from 4e, but also reminds me of the very common “bandage yourself for 1-3 hit points” house rule in OSR games. Only it’s more like 1-8 hit points.
I haven’t looked at the characters much, but they seem to have 3e/AD&D style stat inflation (ie 4d6 drop 1). The players seem excited to be so much hardier. I’m curious to see if that will translate into their being “fool-hardier” or just invincible.
Stay tuned. We continue the playtest next week. 🙂