Happy Bunny: "You suck and that's sad."

Happy Bunny shares my opinion of D&D Next.

Over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, I got together with a bunch of college friends to run another playtest of the next edition of D&D, which the publishers insist on calling “D&D Next.” My conclusion: their design skills are no better than their grammar. I wish I could have that weekend back. Although I didn’t think it possible, the next edition of D&D is going to be worse than the last one.

Read on for my rant about why “D&D Next” has jumped the shark. This is a big disappointment to me because the earlier versions of these rules, and the hype coming out of Wizards of the Coast, seemed so promising.

No Fun for the Dungeon Master

Based on what they’ve written in the company blogs, I really thought the D&D staff understood how central the Dungeon Master is to their business. The DM creates, narrates, and referees the story of the game, as well as playing all the supporting characters and opponents. (For those who haven’t played tabletop games: the DM does the job that a computer does in a computer game.) Very often, the DM is the player who organizes the gaming group in the first place. Without DMs, there are no tabletop games, and a good DM is the only thing that keeps players active in the tabletop hobby. From the company’s point of view, Dungeon Masters are volunteer sales representatives. Since the Dungeon Master is so important to D&D’s business (and continued existence of D&D as a tabletop game), it is very striking to me how little thought the design team has put into making the game easy and fun for the DM.

We played a first-level party on a first-level adventure. It’s a natural choice, since first level is where the game assumes people will start. It’s also a good indicator of how thoughtful the design team has been at selecting and blending the best of past editions. There was a big difference from Second Edition to Third, and an even bigger difference from Third to Fourth. In Fourth Edition D&D, first-level characters are actually as much fun as third-level characters! The version of D&D I played in January played, on my side of the DM’s screen, a whole lot like First and Second Edition AD&D. I do not mean that as a compliment.

The list of first-level monsters in the playtest packet is pretty short, but I don’t hold that against the designers: they’ve been working on other things. Though I would think, two years into the design process, that making good first-level monsters could have bubbled its way to the top of the priority list at some point. (They are probably spending more thought on whether their concept art is “iconic” enough, than on basic gameplay.) That short list of first-level monsters is full of old favorites: goblins, kobolds, fire beetles, giant centipedes. I knew I could work with that.

The problem, mainly, is that these first-level monsters are worth about 10 or 20 experience points each. A character needs hundreds of experience points to advance from Level 1 to Level 2. So, each character in the party needs to hack his way through a couple of dozen of these low-level monsters before moving on to anything else. So far, this is pretty familiar, and similar to editions 1-3.

The trouble is, low-level monsters deal a lot of damage, compared to what a low-level character can withstand. Most of the characters can survive one hit from Rodent of Unusual Size or similar beastie, but the second hit will likely put them hors de combat, as they say. These monsters also can’t take very much of a beating themselves, and very probably crumple like tissue paper when touched by a hero’s weapon. Again, this is familiar (though I would argue that Fourth Edition has shown us a better way, with everyone getting double-digit hit points to start). The implications are unfortunate. If the low-level varmints have equal numbers to the player-characters, the players win in approximately two rounds, assuming all combatants have about a 50% chance to hit. In that case, whether they even get their armor scuffed depends heavily on who gets to strike first. If the varmints outnumber the heroes two-to-one, the battle lasts three rounds and ends with the player-characters wounded to half their health. If the monsters outnumber the characters three to one, then forecasters predict a TPK on or about Round 4, or sooner if the monsters get to surround the party.

So the DM’s job in first-level combat is to push a pile of 10 kobolds around the table for a couple of rounds, plucking them off the battle mat as the players mow them down. Fewer than 10 kobolds prolongs the tedium over more battles. More than 10 kobolds kills off the characters, which would let me go do something more stimulating, like filling out income-tax forms. If I stick with it, I only have to run about 10 or 12 battles before the party can go up a level.

I ran games like that for 15 years of playing First and Second Edition D&D, when there were few other games on the market and they all played like that. Forgive me if I’m not bubbling with excitement to do it again. If that’s the experience they are offering the Dungeon Master, I’ll spend my free time running some other game.

We are now two years into the development of “D&D Next” and one year into the public playtest. If the design team hasn’t yet got around to making battles fun for the DM, when were they planning to start?

Dice Pools: Who Ordered This?

Everything I’ve read from Wizards of the Coast about the next edition of D&D has said its design goals are to blend together the best of all past editions and synthesize one game that supports multiple styles of play. Mike Mearls went on to say:

Complexity and individual experiences rest in the players’ hands. That experience is more important than the specifics of the math. In other words, if the math works but the game doesn’t feel like D&D, we’ve failed.

I’ve been playing D&D since original D&D, before there was a Player’s Handbook. I don’t ever remember players having things called “skill dice” or “martial dice.” These mechanics are brand-new in the playtest rules. It’s the “martial dice” that are more problematic to me, because they introduce an entirely new mechanic to the game: dice pools.

Dice pools exist in other tabletop games. Shadowrun comes to mind. The concept is that a player, by virtue of her character’s skills and powers, has a fixed budget of dice that she can roll at her discretion at various points in the game. These dice are generally used to enhance the character’s actions. The player decides how many dice to use for a given event, but once rolled, the dice are drawn from the pool. When the pool is empty, the player is out of discretionary dice until something happens to refresh the pool: the end of the battle, or the end of a round, or whatever.

I hate dice pools. One reason is that players need to learn and remember exactly what they can spend their dice on. Since the whole point of dice pools is to give players options and flexibility, the number of uses for the pool tends to grow as the rule set expands. This means players will end up searching for rules at the game table. That’s just annoying. If the rules are too complex for a player to keep in mind while playing, I regard that as a design failure.

Another, more minor, gripe I have about dice pools is that they’re an explicitly mechanical contrivance that draw the players out of the imaginary events. There is no way for a player to tell the DM how he wants to spend his dice pool without breaking character. I prefer a game where the players can imagine the action continuously and not be jolted out of it by explicitly talking about the rules (as opposed to the story).

If the new edition keeps dice pools, then to me it won’t feel like D&D. According to Mike Mearls’ own words, he will have failed. I’d be interested to know where the idea came from and who advocated it. I can only speculate: this Dilbert cartooon summarizes my suspicions.

Painful Character Creation

My playtest group consisted of four highly educated adults, each with over 20 years’ experience playing D&D and other tabletop games. We sat down together to read the rules and make characters. Three hours later, we pronounced ourselves not necessarily finished, but certainly done.

Three hours to make first-level characters is absurd. Even taking away one hour to read the rules (and I doubt players need to read that much), two hours is absurd.

The main reason for this is that the skill system, as present in the January version of the rules, was deeply flawed. Every character got four skills at character creation, and that was it. The players had better be happy with their choices because they were going to be stuck with them for their characters’ lifetimes. Last week, an updated version of the rules thankfully provided a way for characters to gain more skills as they advance in level. It still gives everyone four skills to start with.

Four skills is more than some character classes, like the fighter or wizard, probably need. It is far, far fewer than other classes, like the rogue (what we called a “thief” in the good old days), need. I would describe the essential functions of the rogue as encompassing at least five skills: Climb, Disable Device, Listen, Search, Sneak, and Spot. This is leaving aside fun and colorful options like Bluff, Disguise, and Sleight of Hand. So one of the things that really wrapped my players around the axle was how to compensate for the fact the rogue can’t do his traditional job. They ended up distributing the rogue’s responsibilities across the whole party, which involved a lot of negotiation to figure out who had to do what. This was no fun for the players to do while creating their characters, and it was even less fun for the rogue’s player once the game started.

Again, we are two years into the design process for this game. If they haven’t figured out something as basic as how to create a rogue that performs like a rogue from every other edition of D&D, then I can’t imagine what deadline they have in mind for release, and who is providing the adult supervision to make sure the design team is working effectively.

The other thing my players tripped over is the new idea of “backgrounds.” Unlike dice pools and skill dice, backgrounds are actually an idea that appeal to me. Every character gets to pick a background, such as “minstrel” or “bounty hunter,” that describes the character’s personal history up to the start of play. What’s nice about backgrounds is that they’re independent of character class: you can make a wizard minstrel or a cleric knight. The trouble with backgrounds is mostly implementation. Each background provides a “trait” (new game mechanics, again), which is a minor benefit that is meant to affect role-playing more than game mechanics. For example, the knight background grants high social status and knowledge of the feudal hierarchy. Fine. Each background also gives a default set of four skills, so the player doesn’t have to choose them individually. This is supposed to streamline character creation by providing a ready-made package of skills that fit the background and complement each other. There is a problem, though: those recommended sets of skills are not well thought out. Take, for example, the bounty hunter background. One of its skills is Use Rope — the lamest skill in the history of D&D, and one the designers inexplicably declined to kill. If you think a seasoned D&D player is going to burn one of the four skills he gets in his character’s career on Use Rope, you’ve got another thought coming. None of my players found the pre-generated backgrounds useful or interesting, so they wasted time pondering them before doing what they really wanted: creating their own backgrounds.

This brings me to an important point. If the game rules provide something, but it ultimately doesn’t work for the players, that is worse than never having tried. It wastes the players’ time. It also drives home the point that D&D products are not something one can accept as written, and that players should be circumspect about adopting (read, “buying”) them.

Combat

Of course, we tried out the combat system. I do not have much to say here. Aside from the fact that the DM’s job in low-level encounters is soul-crushing boredom (as I mentioned above), I noticed that attacks of opportunity had made a comeback. This was a big disappointment to me, because in my first playtest of this system, I had tried combat without attacks of opportunity and had more fun with D&D than I had in years. So the one real innovation in gameplay in this edition — which is really just going back to Second Edition, before attacks of opportunity had been invented — has been undone.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why the designers didn’t do the obvious thing that would please everyone: make attacks of opportunity optional, part of a set of advanced combat rules.

Conclusion: If I Wanted to Play Second Edition, I’d Buy It

Actual gameplay in “D&D Next” reminds me more of Second Edition than anything else. Well, Second Edition with the unwelcome addition of attacks of opportunity. The thing is, if I wanted to play something like Second Edition D&D, I already have that — or would have it, if I hadn’t literally quit D&D and thrown my Second Edition rule books in the garbage about two years before Third Edition came out.

I think the D&D design team understands what’s at stake with this next edition. The D&D community is factionalized between the players who prefer Third Edition and those who prefer Fourth, with a smaller faction of “old school” players who favor First or Second. This factionalization has hurt sales, to the point where the Pathfinder RPG, a competing game spun off from D&D 3.5, has started outselling D&D. They are forced to innovate in order to remain competitive. That’s good for customers and, I would argue, healthy for the hobby.

What I don’t think the D&D designers understand is what they need to achieve to succeed. In response to the new, competitive market climate, Wizards of the Coast wisely started selling PDFs of its voluminous back list, including every major past edition of D&D (even Basic!). This means D&D Next is competing not just with Pathfinder, but with every previous edition of D&D as well. It needs to be better than all of them, or else players will prefer one of the several alternatives. I would think, with all the surveys and market research and customer outreach (including conventions) that Wizards of the Coast can do, it should be pretty easy to figure out what was good and bad about each past edition and put together a new edition that incorporates the best of everything. So far, they have paid some lip service to that goal, but what I actually see in the playtest packet looks like Second Edition with a bunch of new, untried mechanics bolted on.