Thursday, July 5, 2012

D&D Uber Playtest - pt. 4

This one's a long one. It follows from here.

Today, Megan and I – at Megan’s insistence -- moved ahead our playtest of D&D to 2012 and the next edition, or D&D Next. We picked up on day 17 of the campaign, with Megan’s 5 PCs having spent a week back in civilization so Mary the dwarf fighter could rest and be fully healed after her second near-death experience. During this time, their goblin and hobgoblin followers had wandered off.

The PCs returned to the ogre cave and used it to enter the goblin caves and continue exploring there. The first new room they hit was the communal chamber where most of the rest of the tribe had gathered. It was 5 vs. 22 and Megan was going in.
Ernil the elf magic-user had much (MUCH!) more spells now than in the previous edition and led off with Sleep, a very successful tactic in the packed room. Beau the halfling thief still wasn’t using any special abilities, but then, he was so good with his sling still that he didn’t seem to be needed for anything else.

As per the AD&D session, Mary and the two clerics continued to be the front line fighters. They mowed through the goblins like crazy, with even their minimum damage high enough to take the goblins down in one hit. One of the clerics had a feat/superpower that allowed them to put attackers attacking one of his adjacent allies at a disadvantage. Advantages and disadvantages are one of the new mechanics and I did not care for them at all, being way too powerful and unbalanced. Whereas, in AD&D, had this 4-to-1 odds fight been done to the death it would have surely been a TPK against the PCs, in this edition the super-PCs killed all 22 goblins with not one PC under half his or her starting hp.

Now, one reason for that was that I was initially wary about using goblin archers at the back of the room to fire into melee. I could not find any rules in the playtest material about dealing with this obvious situation. Instead, I waited for Megan to set a precedent by firing into melee, and then I did the same. Likewise, I could not find any rules about how long switching weapons takes. I at first assumed this would take a full round, until Megan set a precedent for requesting weapon changing and an attack in the same round.

One of the biggest weakness of the rules is the lack of morale rules. An Old School DM understands the importance of morale rules, though I think the AD&D “playtest” session aptly proved it as well. If all monsters are expected to fight to the death, then you have to upgrade PCs until they are powerful enough to fight all monsters to the death. Not to suggest that morale is the only factor that has lead to power inflation in the history of D&D, but its absence definitely makes power inflation more mandatory.

Related to that complaint, an Old School DM also understands that one of the important facets of what makes D&D the game of D&D is resource management. The PCs, no matter what level they are, are supposed to have limited resources in all things – spells, gold, hp, etc. Magic-Users in particular are supposed to enjoy resource management with their spells. This is not a punishment or even necessarily a weakness; this is part of the fun of playing D&D. But everything about these new editions spoils resource management.

At-will spells turn Clerics and Magic-Users into Fighters with different fluff (one of Megan’s clerics was soon casting Radiant Lance every round to fight with a better weapon).

Though Megan had not picked up during the AD&D session on the value of taking enemy armor back to the keep for resale, she could not ignore the increase in its value (half-price on chainmail went up from 37.5 to 50 gp) and was soon hauling armor back to the keep after every battle, whether she needed to go back and heal or not. And it was her PCs doing the hauling because the equipment purchase lists in the playtest packet somehow did not include any pack animals.

The big jump in starting hp for PCs meant that PCs were seldom in danger. Although I had initially balked at the idea of healing your HD back after 10 minutes of rest, this did not feel as unnatural as the healing surges in 4E. Because Megan started using short forays on the caves spaced one or two days apart between combats, the rest of the healing rules became superfluous. I do not entirely blame the new edition for this change in her play style, but if the playtest rules had included pack animals or rules for recruiting henchmen/hirelings, she could have set up camp closer to the caves like she did in the AD&D version.

The first battle I ran with the playtest PCs as-is. In subsequent battles, I allowed Megan to use the better armor her PCs had upgraded to in the AD&D session. The improvement in AC made some difference though, like in every edition of D&D, when fighting larger numbers, natural 20s on my side of the screen are always the biggest threat. If I had not rolled a few, her PCs would likely have left their battles with only scratches. Until the last one, but that description is coming.
Each battle confirmed my observations. On day 19, they made short work of the goblins in the storeroom, as well as the hobgoblins that came through the secret door afterward. On day 21, they took out the goblin chief and his six goblins before the PCs could take 1 point of damage. Clearly, only large-scale combats posed any kind of threat for these PCs, despite being 1st level.

Day 22 confirmed this as well when Megan decided to ignore the hobgoblin lair and try a new cave. Moving to Orc Lair C, her PCs quickly followed the sound of voices to the big community chamber there and faced most of the tribe at once. Megan hesitated at the site of 17 orcs (it could have been more, according to the room description, but that was all the miniatures I had sitting out), but decided to chance it. But the orcs were considerably tougher than goblins and it took most of her PCs two or even three hits to take them down. When reinforcement orcs showed up and cut off her escape, just as Mary the dwarf fighter went down from a combination of melee and missile attacks (poor Mary! It was always Mary), Megan’s mood soured and she called off the playtest.

But I’d seen enough anyways. Her PCs ended (not counting the orc battle) with rich rewards. Everyone was over halfway to second level after the goblin caves (plus ogre cave and some of the hobgoblin caves) were cleared. They had a party treasure pool of 950 gp, which they barely touched, as Megan planned to save up for more platemail armor, to upgrade the clerics. Platemail is incredibly expensive these days in the game. Heaven help the DM who's players choose to sell all the platemail they find and become obscenely rich!

The change in editions made no difference in regards to proficiences/skills – Megan was not interested in using them either way. Non-combat feats/themes did not interest her either. She used 4 out of 10 Magic-User spells (M-Us get 10 starting spells now instead of 1!!) and 4 out of 9 Cleric spells (9 between the two different clerics). She described the rules she ignored as “too complicated.” I can’t blame her. This is way too much for a starting player to be expected to understand. Earlier editions understood this and gave low-level PCs fewer starting abilities.
As mentioned before, she loved the guardian theme. She also loved the fighter’s slayer theme. That one – doing damage even if you missed – made no sense to me at all. She liked the lucky racial feature added to halflings. I liked it too because, instead of moving the halfling away from being Tolkeinesque, as has so often been done in succeeding editions of D&D, this ability is very much Tolkeinesque. She loved increased weapon damage – some weapons do twice as much damage now as they did in AD&D. All of these things she “loved to death”. I can understand the difficulty anyone writing a new edition of D&D faces, balancing the better understanding of game balance that older players have versus the infatuation with power inflation that new players are more likely to have.

Yes, I don't envy that at all...

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