Monday, June 25, 2012

D&D Next: Thoughts on the first beta

This is the second in a series of posts about D&D Next, the forthcoming new set of rules for Dungeons and Dragons. In the first post, I discussed why I expect D&D Next to look a lot like Third Edition. Today's covers my take on the first set of beta rules.

The first D&D Next beta has been live for about a month, and while I haven't gotten a chance to fully playtest it yet, I have read through the rules a few times. Most of it clearly isn't in a finalized, playable form yet, but a few elements of the rules jumped out as particularly encouraging, worrisome, or simply intriguing.

Best rule change: Ability scores, skills, and saves

The six ability scores (Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) are a cornerstone of D&D, and it's tough to imagine any version of the game without them. In 3E and 4E, basically every number on a character sheet was derived, in part, from an ability score, but the emphasis was on the derived stats rather than the root scores. So there was often a sense of "shoehorning" a desired action into a skill: "I want to take a running jump across the chasm and grab onto the rope... is that Acrobatics or Athletics?" "I know you said you wanted to use Diplomacy on the nobles, but that came across as more of an Intimidate."

In D&D Next, or at least in this iteration of it, that shoehorning appears to be gone. There's no such thing as a "skill check" anymore, just an ability check; a skill is now a special attribute that might give small situational bonuses to ability checks or allow the use of certain skills for unusual applications. It becomes up to the players and DM to decide what abilities are "appropriate" to roll in a given check.

Saves are a curious part of D&D in that they've been a part of virtually every edition but did something completely different in each. Most recently, they were yet another derived stat representing reactive defenses in 3E and a much more narrow mechanism for ending ongoing effects in 4E. D&D Next (unsurprisingly) more closely mirrors the 3E approach, but instead of deriving a save from some of the ability score, saves exist in base form for every ability score. This instantly re-balances the ability scores--Dex and Con were far and away the two most "powerful" scores in 3E, not the least because they supported Reflex and Fortitude saves.

Both of these new rules have an interesting and subtle implication: unless ability scores grow substantially with level (which seems unlikely), skills and saves won't change substantially over a character's career either. That implies simpler math and a reduced sense of compartmentalizing the game based on level, two changes that have the game headed squarely in the right direction.

Best rule change, honorable mention: Hit dice

At first, I assumed the return of hit dice meant the return of rolling HP at every level, which would have been maddening. Hit dice used in that way suck. It's possibly the worst mechanic of any roleplaying game ever, randomness for the sake of randomness, and a surefire way to unbalance two otherwise identical characters. (Remember all the house rules for determining HP in 3E? There was a reason for them.)

My fears were completely allayed, though, upon seeing that new hit dice would be used to represent innate ability to heal. They're more organic than the bizarre "healing surge" mechanic in 4E but still accomplish the goal of reducing the party's need for a dedicated healer.

Worst rule change, facetious version: Electrum pieces

Electrum pieces (EP) were last part of D&D in Second Edition, meaning they haven't been part of the game at any point this century. They're an archaic monetary unit, apparently worth 5 silver or 1/2 gold, which is cute because electrum is an alloy of silver and gold. The real question: how does adding them back into the game make it more fun? Did someone at Wizards think it was much more satisfying to have 14 electrum than 10 silver and 2 gold?

Worst rule change, actual version: "Vancian" spellcasting

Spellcasting in old versions of D&D was divided into a number of mostly arbitrary "levels" (which, naturally, did not map to character level). It was confusing and inconsistent: the same spell might be 7th level for a druid (meaning he could cast it at 13th level) but 9th level for a wizard and sorcerer (who could then cast it at 17th and 18th level). A direct quote from the 4E design/development process was "that doesn't make any sense; why can't you cast 9th level spells at 9th level?" And among players, the opinions of so-called "Vancian" spellcasting (named in honor of author Jack Vance, whose fantasy works inspired the system) ranged from ambivalent to despised.

So who was in such a hurry to resurrect it? About the best anyone ever said about Vancian spellcasting was that it was D&D tradition and that you got used to it... but nobody really seemed enthusiastic about it. There's a bit of silver lining here: there now appear to be seven spell levels, not nine, which might cut down the complexity a bit; and most spellcasters can now do things at will, eliminating the "well, guess I'm useless for the rest of the day" problem that 3E wizards often ran into. But it's still unclear why we needed it back in the same in the first place.

Most intriguing new rule: Advantage and disadvantage

While looking at D&D Next through a 3E lens has proven insightful so far, here's a rule that came out of left field as much as it did from 4E. Briefly, if you have advantage on a check, you roll two dice and take the better one; if you have disadvantage, you roll two dice and take the worse. It's easy to trace its name--4E created the catch-all category of "combat advantage" to represent generic bonuses in combat--and even its provenance; a number of powers allow you to roll two dice and take the better result. But nowhere in D&D (at least in recent D&D) has a rule ever forced you to take the lower of two rolls.

When a roll is very likely to succeed anyway (say you only fail on a 1, or you're 95% to succeed), advantage makes failure vanishing unlikely (99.75% to succeed). When a roll is very likely to fail (needing a 20, or 5%), advantage only makes success a bit more likely (9.75%). It's in the middle where the big swings happen: advantage turns a coin flip into a 75% chance of success while disadvantage turns it into 25%. But it's easy to calculate probability and speculate; it'll be fascinating to see how the mechanic plays out in practice.

Two more things on (dis)advantage: it seems more loose than most mechanics in older editions, allowing the DM to rule broadly if advantage or disadvantage seems appropriate. And, like one of the developers pointed out, these conditions are easy to "retroactively" apply: if you forgot you had advantage on a given roll and failed it, just roll again!

Where did that rule go?: Flanking and positioning

Another mainstay of D&D has long been physical positioning on the battlefield, allowing maneuvers like flanking to gain combat advantage or performing attacks of opportunity if an enemy ran past you. One of the many emphases of Next is to eliminate the presumption that every battle will take place on a mat or with a physical illustration. It's a neat idea to again simplify battle, but it does eliminate a part of the game that plenty of games really enjoy. This first beta came with a caveat that certain rules and concepts were intentionally left out to see how their absence changed the complexion of the game. Of course, it remains to be seen how this game will play in practice, but getting rid of flanking, attacks of opportunity, and related tactical maneuvers does seem like it would change the complexion a lot.

Check back throughout the playtest for my reaction to each beta iteration, hopefully including some playtests of our own eventually. And ff anyone has gotten a chance to do a more legitimate playtest of this version, we'd love to hear about your game! Does my assessment fit with what you experienced?