Sunday, September 9, 2012

D&D Next Playtest Session 2: More Lessons Learned

When 4e came out, my initial impressions were very positive. As a DM, I loved the streamlined and simplified encounter building system, standardized math and general ease-of-use.

As I played it, some of the shiny edges came off on my hands.  Dissociated mechanics made gameplay less immersive, there was limited scope for the kind of homebrewing I'd traditionally done, and the system really encouraged min/maxing and system mastery.  I still found it to be a marked improvement over 3e, the fiddliest system of D&D ever invented, but it didn't exactly do what I wanted.

What it did do, though, is spoil a lot of other RPG systems for me.  The level of pain in the ass involved in setting up encounters is very high.  So high that I don't have TIME for it, so I can't play it, even in an online format.

D&D Next still has a LOOONG way to go on this score.  Sure, building encounters is pretty easy. In fact, I'm finding my 2e and 1e skills coming back to me pretty quickly.  It's just that I can't seem to make them HARD.  Or even challenging....  I've mentioned before that the monsters need work in D&D Next, and the second session really confirmed this to be true.  Even the major threat of chapter 3, the wight, went down in 1 round.  He did get out in front of his zombie screen, so maybe that's my fault, but between high to-hit bonuses, relatively low AC and middling HP, everything in Next is glass cannon territory right now.

In the second session we had 3 players and 5 characters - 2 pre-gens, the cleric and the rogue and 3 player-made.  2 fighters, one dwarf, one human, and an elf wizard.  The party finished Chapter 3, clearing the Town Center (I still hate that map, but I started them on it before I redeveloped the chapter, so I was stuck) and retrieving the crown of Blingdenstone.

That basically made the whole 3-hour session a straight dungeon-crawl in the very old school. Well, it was almost old-school.  It had traps and secret doors and skeletons and stirges and a big fight at the end.   It just missed one thing.

It wasn't dangerous.

Most monsters went down in 1 round of combat - 2 at the most.  So that wasn't great.  It felt a bit like playing Skyrim on Easy difficulty.  You still DO everything... you just don't get nervous about it.  At least I didn't.  Maybe that just meant that the players did a good job.  They certainly fell back on old-school habits fast.  Listening at doors.  Checking dead-end hallways for secrets, careful advances with lots of scouting.  Light and line of fire maintenance.  It felt really good, and the standardized check and difficulty mechanics meant the thief was effective where he needed to be.

So - the GOOD:

Great old-school feel.  System was simple to learn and use - easy to make adjustments and rulings on-the-fly.  Felt like there was a lot more flexibility for me as the DM and for the players to improvise.

Thief was useful where you would expect him to be, fighters awesome in brawls, wizard reliable for simple stuff and occasionally throwing big game-changing stuff.  The characters felt pitch-perfect, actually, I really liked that side of things.

The BAD:

Too easy.  Need to raise monster AC by 1-2 across the board, hp by at least 50%.  And add more monsters to encounters.  But the combat is really swingy.  Characters don't have too many HP, so they can go down fast - the wizard got 1-hit to 0 HP by a skeleton archer, but maybe that isn't a flaw - he did charge ahead to burning hands the room, so....

It just feels like the difference between a challenge and a TPK is a few rolls or a couple of mooks.  Again, maybe it's always been that way and I just didn't notice.  It felt - precarious.  I like to have a bit more flexibility as a DM to lay on the baddies and feel like the party has the resources to pull it out.

PC bonuses are too high.  Many PC's get +6 or so to hit, which is too much when the big boss (the wight) has AC 14 or so.  The characters rarely missed, so things went down very fast.  I don't want PC's to need to roll 18's to hit things, but rolling a 3 should be a miss - and with zombies, for example - it isn't.

Next session will include more of the stuff I developed myself.  I'm using a number of maps from the extremely excellent Cartographer's Guild, along with Maptool as a VTT, and it's working a treat.  Hopefully by now some others will have also used my Blingdenstone Enhanced stuff, and can tell me a bit more about how that ran.