Thursday, May 31, 2012

D&D Next Annoatations: How To Play

 Hey, what's up? I know, I've been missing. A quick rundown: these Next annotations are taking a long time because I want to be thorough, and as such I'm going to post them as I finish documents. This is the big one, the How to Play. In the past week, we didn't get a chance to play this, but we DID play Fiasco, and I'm writing up the AP report. I bought Binding of Isaac: Wrath of the Lamb and it's wonderful, review soon-ish. I HAVEN'T had a chance to see any of the movies we planned to go to, but still are planning to go. Midsummer Songaday also starts tomorrow! Okay, that's enough catch-up, to the annotations!

So. Here it is, the D&D Next playtest document. Time to see how it measures up to expectations, goals, and previous editions.

*Maybe an hour later* Ummmm.....I don't have a lot of experience with 2e or 1e, basically looks a lot like 3e. A lot. I'll go through it anyway, but Wizards, there was a good raving horde concerned that you were gonna try to sweep 4e under the rug, and it looks a lot like that's happened quite a bit. I hope that opens up when we see the modules really appearing.

Okay, so if you don't have the playtest yourself, well, go get it. But in case you don't want to, the playtest came in a .zip file (D&D Next Playtest containing a pdf Letter from Mike Mearls explaining the situation and two folders containing the files (one with Mac files, the other with normal pdfs). There are nine files:
* Bestiary (34 Pages)
* Caves of Chaos (the Adventure in the packet) (29 Pages)
* 5 Pregen Characters (2 Pages each)
* DM Guidelines (9 Pages)
* How to Play (31 Pages)
So let's start with the logical point: The adventure! No, the How to Play.

I sure hope it doesn't violate the playtest agreement to do all of this, since I'm not actually putting the rules here aside from the rare quote. I don't believe I am, but I may have misinterpreted. NOTE TO WIZARDS: IF I CAN'T DO THIS LET ME KNOW AND I WILL REMOVE IT.
Also a note, I AM aware that Legends & Lore has been giving some rationales for choices - I'm very intentionally not looking at them until I complete all of the annotations, then I'll go back and talk about how L&L's explanations affect things for me. So if you see something that's already explained, hold your horses.
How To Play:
* Page 1 covers the extreme basics first. What is D&D, what  you need to play, etc. Honestly, this is kinda superfluous seeing as almost zero new-to-D&D folks are going to start with the damn incomplete playtest. I guess it's nice to know how they want to describe themselves though, gives a bit of an insight into what they're going for, but honestly its nothing we haven't seen before. However: "Feel free to use whatever visual aids enhance your enjoyment of the game -  miniatures, gridded surfaces such as Dungeon Tiles, and the like - or use none at all." So it is explicitly NOT requiring minis. Gonna need to keep that in mind.
* It then starts in with a section titled Basic Rules. The first one is, of course, the central mechanic - Checks. Checks are exactly hat they've always been. D20+relevant ability mod+bonuses/penalties, compare to a DC. Contests are two folks rolling and comparing. Nothing to see here.
* Attacks... Attack rolls vs. AC, doesn't seem to have the other defenses from 4e.
* Saving Throws! We have CHANGE from the basic 3e form! Saves are like they used to be in that they add a stat and go vs. a DC. However, there's been some evolution from then - there aren't Fort, Ref, or Will saves, but instead the ability is determined by the DM whenever a save is called. I definitely like the change. It's much more freeing for effects to be able to use the most appropriate ability (a change reminiscent of Dungeon World's Beta modification of Defy Danger), and it doesn't require use to keep track of it on the sheet. If they need to mimic the additional save bonuses of old (pretty unneccesary from where I'm sitting) they can give class features like "When you make a saving throw using your Constitution, take +2 on the roll." A bit clumsier, but it really shouldn't matter that much.
* Advantage/Disadvantage. This is an entirely new thing that seems to be a replacement for flanking and combat advantage. The way it works is that when you make a d20 roll with either of them, you instead roll 2d20. If you had advantage, you take the higher roll. If you had disadvantage, the lower. You can't stack multiple advantages to get multiple dice. Having both cancels them out.
Honestly, I like the mechanic, and I like it as an idea. However, I DON'T like it as a total replacement of flanking or combat advantage. +2 to hit from flanking is an important thing to me. Thinking about it though, flanking is pretty hard to represent without the grid, so maybe this is actually for the best. It DEFINITELY should reference in the rules that flanking provides advantage if they do (especially if there's a rogue around - I checked ahead and sneak attack DOES trigger off advantage). An interesting difference is that you can have advantage for a save too, which is kinda cool. Also disadvantage is new entirely and is pretty neat. I'm worried that at high levels things you'll have so many ways to attain advantage and the monsters will have so many ways to impose disadvantage that they'll just always be cancelling out.
I really hope this doesn't replace the circumstance bonus as well.
* Okay, we are now off of Basic Rules and onto Ability Scores! Again, 10/11 is an average person, 18 is a normal person's maximum, adventurers can go higher, yadda yadda yadda we've been here before. Each ability score is gone through individually, with a section detailing some sample checks for that ability, some instances when you would save with that ability, and whatever the ability does uniquely. And in case you were wondering, the ability scores are still the standard six (and are back in StrDexConIntWisCha order!).
* Strength. Standard enough. Strength's uniques are most melee attacks and Carrying Capacity, which I will be playing without (because fuck carrying capacity, especially with phrases like "To determine how many pounds you can carry unencumbered, multiply your Strength score by 10." Damn 10 makes for big numbers, and I'm not touching lift and drag weights. Thanks DW for making a way better system).
* Dexterity. Dex's uniques are most ranged attacks, plus finesse weapons, an influence on AC, and initiative (still d20+dex mod).
* Constitution's unique is just HP. It doesn't talk about advancing HP elsewhere, so it goes here. Okay, so starting HP is equal to your score (not mod) plus a dice determined by class (your Hit Die). Because we like strong heroes, I'll probably maximize it at 1st level for my group (though just first level). This is pretty standard, and not far off of 4e's HP, providing strong heroes with lots of starting HP. At each level though, you roll your Hit Die and then compare it to your Constitution modifier and add the higher of them to your max HP. I'll say this right out: I REALLY like this. It allows for that element of randomization but prevents your fighter from ending up laying on the floor due to a bunch of lame HP rolls, while still letting the more fragile classes able to keep their fragility. This is a smart mechanic if you're going to scale HP (DW has convinced me otherwise of its importance, but that's not the issue at hand).
* Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma. All three of these have "Magic Ability" as a unique, meaning that they're used as a casting stat by some class. Unfortunately, no Charisma casting classes are currently released. Nothing special here.
* Now that we're done with the ability scores, it goes to the Exploration section. This section describes, Time, Movement, Stealth, and Perception.
* Time is, at any given point, measured by one of four units: days, hours, minutes, or rounds. Days are used to measure large events, keep track of the universe, or be the unit acted on for long journeys or long rests. Hours are good for a measuring time between rests, lengths of things like rituals or research, or short travel. Minutes are good for small tasks, but are best for travel. Rounds are small scale, each lasting ~6 seconds. The round is the basic unit in combat. Nothing here is new, but I don't expect it to be.
* Movement is measured with a speed value. It looks like we're back in 5 foot units, not squares. Works for me, squares are an easier number but fall apart entirely without the grid. Plus feet are more grounded in the fiction. Difficult terrain is no different, walking is normal, jumping is pretty simple, as is climbing, swimming, and crawling. They should clarify how things interact a bit - if I crawl 5' on difficult terrain, is it 10', 15', or 20' cost? I could justify any of them. Standing up is a PART of a move action, so you can just stand up and then move a bunch. Just standing up and not moving is still the move action though. I guess this works, but it feels off to me.
* Stealth! Oh boy. Well, it's all in one Dex check, including the equivalent of both a Hide and a Move Silently check. Basically it's all quite simple. Guess that's good.
* Perception. Ugh, tying it to Wisdom has always bugged the hell out of me. Discern Realities made a lot of sense to me (as it was about interpreting what you see, not what is actually there), but directly using Wis for Spot/Listen equivalents irks me. Whatever, that's not what's at hand. For the "Spotting a Hidden Object" section, the advice makes sense, but the questionability of range has always been an issue. How specific do I have to be to search the right place? If I say "I search about the furniture" is it possible to find the key in the example? Would the DC just be higher? If I say I'm searching the whole room and roll a natural 20, can I find the key? If I specify that I'm lifting up the clothes on top of the bureau do I auto-succeed? Some advice about the extreme subjectivity of this "range" could really help. Maybe you have advice about this in the DM guidelines though.
* The other strange case is retries, rolling in the open, and groups. You should mention that, if they do not succeed, they cannot retry the same search over and over, otherwise this game gets boring. Since the player is making this roll, how should you differentiate between "I know I rolled low so something could be here" and "Nothing is here." Thirdly, if Abby the cleric rolls perception and finds nothing (either through "I know I rolled low" or simply a high DC) then can Bob the fighter try the same perception? And if he fails, what about Chris the wizard? Allowing the whole party to take a shot at something could easily result in stuff grinding to a halt whenever it comes time to look around.
* I definitely might modify this slightly for my game though. Not enough to hurt the viability as a playtest, of course, but this: "If there's something to find in the room, set a general difficulty for how hard it should be to find it. The player rolls and, on a success, you reveal what they found. The finding player then narrates the steps and path they took to find it." Note that this does a couple things: 1) The "Range" issue is gone since they're picking how to do it - the key is not to specify that the key is under the clothers on top of the bureau but instead that there's a key in the room hidden well enough to have X difficulty. 2) Gives the player individual buy-in to the world since they're involved in making it. 3) Well, it's easier on the DM in my opinion since you don't need to come up with all the clever stuff on your own. It's an easy modification rooted in collaborative-playing style, but it shouldn't really interfere with the viability of my session as a playtest of the rules.
*COMBAT: Here we go. I'm saddened that combat is still such a "different" part of the game. I don't know if I've talked about it here but I DEFINITELY have on the Wizards columns' comments. One of the things I think really contributes to the strange balance between combat and non-combat (with combat being heavily havored in D&D) is the requirement that you basically go into a separate "combat mode." Since the game is formed of "combat mode" and "everything else mode," no individual non-combat piece will get attention in comparison to combat. Of course, other things drive this (combat being the only concrete source of XP is another, with non-combat XP left entirely to GM control - this is why I really like games like Lady Blackbird or DW, because XP is tied to player actions, not bundled into certain enemies). Anyway, even if I dislike the procedure of going into combat, that's what we're stuck with, so let's see how it works. I'll think of it both in gridded and gridless terms since it needs to operate in both.
* Well, the basic sequence is basic enough. I know how round works. Hey, no surprise round! That's neat, just a huge initiative penalty is pretty cool. Also nice that there's no complicated stuff about determining it, just common sense.
* Initiative isn't anything special. At all. Now, I'm familiar with this a lot, so we'll run with it for a little bit since it's what's here, but this MAY be something we shift. We'd be shifting it NOT because we have a problem with this so much as it's just a bit boring to us since we've done it before. We'd been thinking of transplanting the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying initiative system into a game, and it slots in really easily here, so maybe! Not the first session for sure though, give the thing it's own shape.
* Taking a turn...oh that's deceptive. One action, oh but you can also move. Why not just give us Standard and Move actions like usual? Skipping...WAIT WAIT WAIT where's Delay? You removed it!? Okay, I'm thinking the Marvel initiative will probably come in pretty quick then. As for Reactions, can you PLEASE put a checkbox for "Reacted?" on the character sheets? I always lose track of if I've reacted yet and since I only get one, forgetting could overpower me. I know I could just add one myself, but I think it would be a helpful addition for people.
* Actions in Combat: now lacking in "Delay!" Good to see Coup de Grace back in proper order instead of the lame 4e version, and Dodge is decent. I LOVE that Help doesn't need a separate check to see if you can help. Hustle is a double move, Improvise is excellent, Readying an Action is simple (and I have more to say in a moment), and Using an Item is nice and broad. It's especially nice that a lot of crap little stuff that normally needed Minor Actions before are just assumed to happen. I guess technically you can use Ready as a blunt instrument to delay (since it's the only thing to shift initiative order) but that's bludgeoning through the issue, not solving it.
* I mentioned Readying as something I wanted to expand upon. I think there's an innate issue with the usual readying procedures in that the GM will likely have a subconscious bias about it. They know about the ready - you told them. That means that for it to trigger, they have to intentionally trigger it, and the reverse is true as well - if they don't want to be hit by it, they can just avoid the trigger. This is simply an issue with the fact that all actions go through the GM. My solution (experimental as it is, and I'm not saying to put this in the rules necessarily, it's just musing) is to cut the GM out. When you declare that you're readying an action, write it down on a small piece of paper (an index card, post-it, ripped off corner, etc.) and pass it to the player to your right (if the GM is on your right skip him). Tell the GM you're readying an action, but do NOT tell him what it was. When the trigger happens, reveal it and take the action. You can either set it up so that you can announce it or so that it has to be the person you passed it to has to announce it for you (removes any making stuff up or changing it, but you have to trust them to remember it). The reason for passing is so that the DM knows that you haven't cheated and changed the readied action. This way, the GM doesn't know what the action is and can't act in response to it, but you can't cheat it. Plus, if the latter route is taken it makes characters pay attention for the sake of others too, which kinda amps up the team thing. Not saying to include this in the real game, I just want to mess with it a bit.
* The basics of attacking remains unchanged. This is probably the place to link to Sage  Latorra's review of the playtest where he talked extensively about his issue (and one me and my group heartily agree with) with the D&D rolls in general, and that's that on a failed roll, simply nothing happens.  Here, I'll paste the relevant text:
"Ultimately my biggest complaint with the rules is one that’s so central I wonder if it’s been analyzed at all. I feel like the     design team may have been so busy looking back over D&D’s history that they haven’t thought about other games and their     innovations, in particular the single easiest thing to improve a game: consequences for rolls. This is a problem more or     less inherited right down through d20's core mechanic, and I think you only see it as a problem once you’re played     something that ‘fixes’ it.

    Just like d20, by default all rolls come down to succeed and something happens or fail and nothing happens. That means     that, particularly in tough situations, the most likely outcome on the dice is “nothing happens.” You try to pick the lock and     roll a 4 for a total of 10, so nothing happens. You attack the orc but miss, nothing happens.

    At least in combat there’s a bit of an opportunity cost: nothing happens immediately, but the orc will do something that it     might not have done had you hit. But it takes GM skill to realize that failing to pick a lock has consequences too: time,     danger, resources, or maybe all three."
But what he says at the end of the first paragraph is totally true, you only see this once you've seen otherwise. He goes on to explain more (and where the DM Guidelines SORT OF try to improve it, but I'll talk about that when I get to those annotations). Other than this missed opportunity - because that's what it is more than a real problem - the rules are fine enough. Crits don't have confirmation rolls, thank goodness.
* Cover. Hmm. I've never really paid much attention to cover, but I might. The rules are simple at least.
* Unseen targets. I have an issue: ..."by hiding, casting Invisibility, or lurking in darkness." Um, guys? Invisibility is not a spell contained in this book. Referencing things you haven't given us? Not cool. Either give us a rudimentary Invisibility spell or remove the reference until we gt it. Otherwise I'm satisfied with this means of targetting, though I think disadvantage may be a bit too generous to the attacker in a lot of cases, especially if they know where the creature is "because of a noise it made." That's disadvantage -2 to me. Whatever though.
* I have a dislike for running invisible stuff on gridmaps. See, I don't want to try to keep their location memorized, so I still have them on the page. Unfortunately, whether it's a player or a monster, I run into the same issue as with readied actions - we have to either pretend we don't know and intentionally avoid it or take advantage of the knowledge. There's no solution I can think of like the Readied one though. Oh well, I'm not gridded for the time being but thought I'd mention it.
* I understand keeping Max Damage for crits, but I don't LIKE it. I really liked having double damage, it made things feel satisfying.
* Damage type is fine by me, and nice that slashing or piercing are the same as fire or cold. Would like to see some reference to what happens when something is multiple damage types - it doesn't occur in the book so I'm glad it's not here yet, but you WILL have flaming swords eventually so you'll need to be prepared. Speaking of that, I don't see ANY magic items here...
* Surprised to see Resistance and Vulnerability switched back to multipliers when crit was kept at Max Damage. Not good or bad, just surprised.
* DYING. Well. I'm amazed. You've managed to make characters even MORE survivable than 4e. Guys, unless monsters are curb-stomping unconscious heroes, people are never going to die. Death Saving Throws as DC 10 Con saves? A dude with 14 Con needs an 8(!) to succeed. 3 successes and you stabilize? Failure only does 1d6 damage? Against said 14 Con character, even at lvl 1 you need to fail 3 times and roll higher than a 5 every time. Hell, against a level 1 guy with 8 Constitution, two above average rolls of 4 still won't kill him! I mean, I'm not necessarilly complaining if this is the goal of the system so that heroes never die. But it says a LOT about your approach to the game. Also, this will alienate 1e players by a mile, they're used to their characters dying.
* Oh! About Stabilized, you should mention that should you be stabilized and take additional damage (from a curb-stomp) you cease to be stabilized and reset your Death Saving Throw counter at 0.
* I will be taking the 4e approach to nonlethal damage, actually. Basically, if you reduce them to 0 HP, you choose how they're defeated - you can kill them or declare that the attack was nonlethal, you don't need to say so beforehand.
* I think that short rest healing may provide too little. If you're sticking with this, everyone is going to carry 10 healer's kits at all times. We simply don't have enough spell per day to do so - you only have 2 each on the clerics, and they don't heal very much. At least Long Rests (lame name - go back to Extended Rest in my opinion) full heal. You may have brought back the five minute workday by accident with those cleric spells/day.
* Conditions are back. They're simple enough. I LOVE that you reference that they're only a starting point though, very important. Bold it or something.
* Disadvantage may be too small of a penalty for Blinded, that's pretty crippling in a fight.
* Why does Intoxicated reduce damage? Their flesh isn't getting any harder, and the "feel-no-pain" really shouldn't help that much. If you want them to have a benefit, give 'em +1 AC for moving all unpredictably or something. Don't think it should give any bonus at all though.
* Why have paralyzed? It's fundamentally similar? Why not mention that unconscious can easily be reskinned to paralyzed? The onyl difference is that a paralyzed creature percieves its surroundings, which could definitely fall into the "modify to the situation" clause. You even have a note next to Restrained, so you could put a similar note on Unconscious that "Paralysis is like Unconscious but the victim can percieve its surroundings."
* I see a lack of a "Dazed" condition where the target can only move or act, not both. This was a fairly common condition in 4e, one of the most common along with slowed and immobilized, so I'm confused at its absence.
* Onto equipment. Coinage...Electrum? We really needed another sub-Gold currency? We'd recieve some while first level and never look at it again! I never touch anything less than 1 gp. If I must, I tell the group with decimals, but I don't think that's ever actually come up.
* I like the line: "the value of magic is far beyond simple gold." That's pretty cool. Don't know how it affects the game economy, especially if magic items can be bought eventually, but it's a cool sentiment.
* I REALLY like how AC is simply tied right into your armor. VERY nice. You should mention (or put on the table) armorless or Cloth, since it provides 10+Dex modifier based on the Wizard sheet. It's a situation that DOES come up, and will need to have a ruling. Disadvantage for stealthing in big armor is a great idea, as is nonproficiency. I don't care about getting into or out of armor personally.
* Weaponry makes sense. I like Light, it's basically just a narrative tag which is cool. I like how Improvised Weapons are actually a viable option now. I kinda recommend dropping the two handed one to 1d8 though or anyone without Martial training is gonna just carry around a two-handed improvised weapon (and even most with Martial training will do so as well). Seriously, swinging a chair is stronger than swinging a warhammer right now.
* Hmm. Explicitly mentioning Silver already? Only the Wight in the Bestiary is actually specially affected by it, should have given us a werewolf or devil or something to make it more than a one-trick pony in this packet.
* I LOVE that the special weapons are the only ones described in a separate way. Also, this is probably the best rendition of the Bastard Sword I've seen yet, so great job.
* Not so sure about Complex Missile Weapons using Strength right now, the Heavy Crossbow is still more Dex-based. I could get it for like a Composite Longbow, but crossbows still don't need strength to power their firing, just the reloading.
*Aaaand you went back to full lists for gear. How long does it take to set a Hunting Trap? If you can do it instantly, that's the new Tanglefoot Bag.
* Ah, the 10-foot pole. Incredibly effective, plus going by the current improvised weapon rules it's a 1d10 that would have Reach, with no training necessary (since it'd be like a quarterstaff)? Yes please. Oh, and it only costs 2 sp!
* Spellcasting time!
* Aww, you're going back on yourself! "Some situations make spellcasting a tricky proposition. For example, if you stand on the deck of a storm-tossed ship, a crashing wave might wash over you just as you attempt to cast a spell. In such a case, the DM might ask you to make a Constitution check to block out the distraction and complete the spell." This is the perfect place to remove an interrupting roll like that to give them disadvantage! I'm also going to rule that since you need to chant for spells, you cast at disadvantage while deafened, that sounds neat.
* Spells have casting times and thus can't usually just spontaneously react, but can you ready them still?
* While I love it being there, you're gonna screw yourself with the Stacking line as you make more and more spells over the course of the edition. Careful there guys.
* Minors are at-wills. Nice.
* Are there any rituals here? Oh wait yes, there's Alarm. It's seriously the only one right now? Whatever. Just get me my Raise Dead soon please, I'm gonna need it.
* And I've been avoiding the elephant in the room, the lack of division between Arcane and Divine spells. Tell me guys, is this because the spells have already been selected and assigned to characters, or is the wall really gone? It would be really interesting if it was gone. If it is, what's the big difference between Wizards and Clerics? Need details! I'm inclined to think it IS removed since you came up with Minor Spells instead of straight-up naming them cantrips and orisons.
* Battle Psalm? Really? Damn bards.
* Cure Light Wounds heals a greater amount of health now, and is balanced by Healing Word nicely. We still can't cast it often enough.
* Magic Missile is pretty much a direct transplant from 3.5e, except now as a Minor Spell it's genuinelly really good. The staple of the Wizard.
* Ray of Frost is USEFUL for once. This is a good use of it, a great challenger to Magic Missile on many turns.
* Radiant Lance too will be a hard choice against Magic Missile or Ray of Frost in a turn if the A/D wall is gone.
* Shield being cover is a nice version. Suprised only Shield of Faith and not this can be reaction-cast.
* Sleep has been handled quite well, and the threshold idea that bounced around in Legends & Lore is obvious. Thing is, I'm still not entirely convinced by this method. I'm much more convinced by 4e's "progressive model" (as I called it in that discussion, it was opposed by this one, the "threshold model" and the "Save or Die model") for things like falling asleep or petrification since they're gradual processes, not one-step happenings, plus it allows the effect to be relevant throughout the whole battle. As it is, Sleep is basically doing 10 damage if theyre under 10 HP, provided they fail the save. It's better than an overpowered "Save or be unconscious and awaiting my coup de grace," but I'm still not convinced by the threshold model for sleep powers. The progressive model of SoD, along with Aftereffects, are some of the coolest, simplest, most port-able innovations to come out of 4e, and I'm saddened to see them left off to the side. Of course, I know the handling of SoD is a very tough issue, but consider it.
* Woah, Turn Undead is a spell? A Wizard with a holy symbol could theoretically cast it? Barring that, a Druid or Ranger or other non-Cleric divine class could do it? I saw in the character sheets that Clerics can use it without preparing a few times per day, is that how they're getting preferential treatment of it? Very intriguing move there.

Wait, that's the last page of the How to Play! By the way, for reference, I started writing this the day it came out, so the 24th, and right now when I'm finishing it's 3am on the 31st. This is a lot of stuff! So here's a verdict on the How to Play before I keep moving on:
There simply isn't enough innovation here - it looks a lot like a stripped-down 3.5e. The places you do innovate are usually really good (such as the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic, which simply continues to grow on me), but you simply don't do enough of it. I'm really hoping that if this is meant to be the very core ruleset standard to all games that modules then build on top of that the modules will bring all sorts of interesting NEW things into the game. That said, if this is the very basic core common to all games, it's still too rules-y. I don't intend to go around pushing rules-light on people, but for a simple, quick story-gaming type experience a player would need to subtract from the very core, which is bizarre. It would really help if you clarified exactly how this document is planned to fit into the final moduled system of rules.

Already started in on the DM Guidelines. I'll keep going and catch up with you later! Look out for that Fiasco AP, the Wrath of the Lamb review, and any movie reviews! Art of the Pantheon will be resuming regular updates when I've gotten through this backlog of stuff. See you tomorrow with the first song!
(No schedule because it's in a bit of flux)

End Recording,

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