D&D Next: Final Playtest Packet Review

Shortly after the final D&D Next Playtest Pack was released, a friend of mine chided me for forming opinions on D&D Next without giving the final packet a thorough read-through. As a result, I used my travel time to-and-from a wedding as an opportunity to read through the packet and do my best to analyze it. While it is obviously not the final product, I hope that the system laid out in this packet will bear some resemblance to the final product; if not, then forming opinions on it is an exercise in futility. For my analysis, I am focusing on game elements that I found promising enough to include in Gold & Glory, so that I will have something concrete to compare D&D Next to. Each section will have four elements:

Background: A brief description of the mechanic and why I thought it was interesting & valuable enough to include in Gold & Glory

D&D Next: How D&D Next utilizes the mechanic

Gold & Glory: How Gold & Glory utilizes (or will utilize) the mechanic

Analysis: A paragraph in which I highlight the differences between D&D Next‘s usage and Gold & Glory‘s usage, and the strengths and weaknesses that those differences represent.

 

(1) Advantage / Disadvantage (“AD/DA”)

Background: A system for representing situational bonuses or penalties at attempting various tasks. If you have a situational bonus you roll two dice and choose the highest value; if you have a situational penalty you roll two dice and choose the lowest value. There is some interaction between Advantages and Disadvantages when both are present in a given situation. I saw this mechanic as a way to get away from the “bonus calculus” that D&D has acquired since 3rd Edition in which so many different game elements can affect a given action that Players have to spend a lot of time keeping track of their net modifier on a task, even when the task is routine!

D&D Next: You either have Advantage, Disadvantage, or Neither on any given roll. If there is some Advantage and Disadvantage present in any situation (even if in unequal quantities) then Neither is used. Degree of Advantage or Disadvantage is irrelevant; you will only roll up to 2 dice based on this mechanic. Some other mechanics (e.g. the Lucky Feat) permit the AD/DA effect without interacting with the AD/DA mechanic and others (e.g. the Bless spell) which provide situational bonuses that are not AD/DA.

Gold & Glory: All situational or temporary bonuses are expressed as Advantage or Disadvantage. AD/DA stacks in combat up to 3 dice (i.e. “double advantage” or “double disadvantage”) while in Skill Checks it can go as high as +/- 6 dice, due to the central roll that AD/DA plays in the Gold & Glory Skill system. Additionally, contested Skill Checks (e.g. arm-wrestling, holding a door closed) are resolved by subtracting each side’s Advantages from the other and letting the one with net Advantage roll with a Difficulty Class (“DC”) equal to 10 + the opponent’s Skill Bonus. No mechanic will give AD/DA -like effects without being AD/DA.

Analysis: D&D Next‘s approach provides easy resolution of AD/DA state in combat compared to Gold & Glory‘s approach, but it retains the plethora of situational bonuses that it was meant to replace. Additionally, D&D Next includes ways to get AD/DA-like effects without interacting with the AD/DA system – a classic recipe for confusion, particularly as D&D Next introduces new Feats, Classes and Spells with each new expansion. One concern with Gold & Glory‘s approach is that the AD/DA mechanic has a strong statistical effect on dice rolls, particularly when stacked, which could result in “statistically certain hits & misses” – this, presumably, is why AD/DA in D&D Next does not stack. But, without cautious restraint in granting AD/DA, you can end up with humorous results such as the following: a Blind, Frightened, Intoxicated, Prone and Restrained Raging Barbarian targeting an Invisible, Dodging opponent has as good a chance of hitting as a standing and sober Fighter with Advantage despite there being a 5 Disadvantage gap between the two. Likewise, the most skilled bladesman with countless sources of Advantage has none against a Peasant who is Dodging.

 

(2) Legendary & Lair

Background: A system for creating monsters capable of challenging a party of adventurers by themselves. The Legendary mechanic allowed you to give monsters additional actions each Round that could be used for extra attacks, extra movement, avoiding bad effects and the like. The Lair mechanic permitted Legendary Monsters to affect the party while the Monster wasn’t even in the same room and made fights with Legendary Monsters in their Lairs particularly dangerous. I appreciated the extension of the collective wisdom on building Solo Monsters in 4th Edition D&D and the Lair mechanic provided a simple structure for enhancing the dangerousness of certain monsters, not to mention a way to model dungeon-wide defenses.

D&D Next: I cannot find any mention of the Legendary or Lair mechanics in the latest playtest packet, so I will refer to the Legends & Lore post which first (and last?) mentioned it. The Legendary mechanic explicitly lets Legendary Creatures “Ignore Your Silly Action Economy” by granting them extra “actions” which are either actual actions (e.g. attacks, movement) or can be spent as points to regain limited resources possessed by the Legendary Creature (e.g. Breath Attacks for Dragons). The Lair mechanic is half fluff (e.g. water sources become fouled within 5 miles of a Legendary Black Dragon lair) and half combat resources. Lair Actions include one terrain attack per turn (e.g. surge of water to knock down opponents) and extra options that Legendary Actions can be spent on. Lair Actions can only be used while the Legendary Creature is in the Lair and in the same room as the targets.

Gold & Glory: I divided up Legendary & Lair into a mechanic to be applied to “Solo” Monsters (“Boss Template”) and one to be used more generally in Dungeon construction (“Lair Master”). The Boss Template is a way to upgrade any opponent into a force capable of dealing with a full party of adventurers: The Boss gets a number of “Boss Points” per Round which can be expended to gain Saves against certain effects, additional attacks, and the like. The basic template is a quick-and-dirty way to upgrade an existing monster into something that can be fought on its own; the mechanic can be modified by DMs to make their own Bosses distinctive. The Lair Master mechanic may include “fluff effects” (e.g. despoiling water, turning unsanctified dead into zombies) that extend outside the Lair proper, but mostly is used as a way to help DMs make Lairs which can defend themselves: alarms, patrols, carnivorous plants and the like. This is another quick-and-dirty template that can upgrade a simple Dungeon into a Wizard’s Tower and provide tools for DMs to create Monsters that really leave a mark on the lair around them. The Lair Master can directly control the Lair around him in combat as well, but I keep the Lair & Boss Mechanics separate.

Analysis: In truth, I have just taken the D&D Next mechanics and developed them along logical lines. The primary difference between the two is one of philosophy: D&D Next reserves the Legendary Mechanic for “monsters whose very nature is tied to the fabric of the cosmos” whereas Gold & Glory permits the DM to use the Boss Template on anything from the local crime boss to a dragon emperor. As I said before, the Legendary mechanic derives from 4e Solo design and I see no reason to prevent low-level parties from benefiting from encounters that use it. Additionally, Gold & Glory uses the Lair mechanic to influence the feel of the entire Dungeon, not simply the room where the Lair Master happens to be. The Legends & Lore article does grant Legendary Creatures “Regional Effects” but they are more focused on atmosphere rather than mechanics. Where D&D Next has “[s]hadowy mist lightly obscures the land within 5 miles” of a Legendary Black Dragon’s Lair, Gold & Glory would reduce the intensity of all light sources within the Lair by one step (e.g. Bright to Dim, Dim to None) so that the Players can feel the difference between the periphery of a Lair and entering its heart.

 

(3) Exploration Tasks

Background: A system for abstracting the various tasks that a party might do while exploring a place. Each Player can choose a Task for his character to perform while moving about a potentially hostile environment which will contribute to the success and safety of the party as a whole. This is separate from normal skill usage, but may call for a skill check. Since D&D should be as much a Dungeon Exploration Game as a Dragon Fighting Game, I felt it could use some sort of Exploration sub-system and this Task system (and the attendant mechanics) looked like a good start.

D&D Next: Each minute of Dungeon exploration is abstracted as a “Dungeon Turn” in which the Party moves at a given pace (Fast, Moderate or Slow) which impacts their Readiness DC in case of ambush. Unless moving at Fast Pace, each member of the Party may undertake 1 of 3 Tasks (Sneak, Keep Watch, Make a Map). Having multiple people perform the same Task ranges from being very helpful (Keep Watch) to useless (Sneak). Additionally there is a Random Encounter mechanic. The playtest also includes a similar mechanic for “Wilderness Adventuring” which is more complex and explicitly optional.

Gold & Glory: I use the Dungeon Turn as described above with paces but no Readiness DC – mainly because I’m still working on a better way to handle Surprise. Gold & Glory gives more Task options (Scout, Rearguard, Make a Map, Dungeoneer, Be Alert) with explicit rules for multiple PCs performing the same Task. “Random Encounters” are adjudicated by a separate Dungeon Security mechanic and the Scout Task can be used to identify or avoid patrols. Since Gold & Glory‘s base rules are only for Dungeon Crawling, I don’t have a Wilderness Adventuring system.

Analysis: Of all the mechanics I found interesting in D&D Next, the Exploration Tasks are the closest to how I would like to run things in Gold & Glory. That said, D&D Next has included some mechanics I don’t think are actually helpful in a modern Dungeon Crawl (e.g. Random Encounters) and has oversimplified some elements that are important (e.g. Sneak permits a Thief leading a cadre of mounted knights to be as stealthy as if he were alone). Additionally, D&D Next sells the Exploration Tasks mechanic short by only having 3 Tasks of which 2 can reasonably be “owned” by specialists. Surely nobody wants every party to consist of one Sneaking Thief, one Watchful Elf and two other guys making maps?

 

Conclusion

The good news is that there are a lot of novel ideas in D&D Next for anyone looking for a new and different sort of Heroic Fantasy system. While much of the base mechanics undeniably echo the design of 3rd Edition D&D there is enough in D&D Next to distinguish it from its most likely competitor – Paizo’s Pathfinder. I certainly see a lot of room for improvement and expansion within these novel mechanics but, as there is yet no date for D&D Next‘s release, there is plenty of time for the design team to expand either along the lines I envision for Gold & Glory or along their own path. I think the biggest failing of D&D Next at the moment is its failure to make the most out of the Advantage/Disadvantage (“AD/DA”) mechanic. Leaving it as a marginal combat mechanic when AD/DA could bring the benefits of Dice Pools into traditional problem areas for the d20 system is a glaring oversight and one I don’t expect to be fixed even by D&D Next‘s release. The final Playtest packet’s skill system basically follows the logic of 3rd Edition and to convert it along the lines of Gold & Glory would require an overhaul of core mechanics which, presumably, D&D Next will not be doing after having released their final playtest packet.

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