Friday, June 22, 2012

It's D&D!

Dungeons & Dragons Next! It's happening; you can't stop it. They put it out for a public play-test; you can't stop that, either. So what is it? What's it doing here? And why should you care?

Well, if you're not a fan of D&D, or not a role-player, that last question is pretty simple. Just stop reading this post and pop-back on Monday when I talk more about 6th edition 40K. For those of you that are D&D/RPG fans (or you just like semi-literate ramblings), keep reading.

DISCLAIMER: Even though D&D Next is an open play test, play testers still had to click on some non-disclosure thingy. I don't know what the legality of me posting stuff on here, so I'm going to try and keep it pretty vague. I guess I could wade through the EULA or NDA or whatever it was that I clicked "Agree" to, but as you know, things like those are long. I may hungrily eat-up gaming rulebooks like they're Stephen King novels, but when it comes to legalese, I blank out. Therefore, I'm not going to read it, and just be vague. If the Hasbro/WotC black helicopters land in my front yard, I'll meet them at the door, cigarette dangling from my mouth, and say: "what took ya so long?"

If you can look closely, you can see a top-secret watermark.
It's called D&D Next. Why? I dunno. I think they're like me, and are sick of the edition wars people bother everyone with on the Internet and in game shops. Perhaps they're building it so that editions, themselves, become obsolete. Perhaps they're tapping into a gaming zen that the industry has been dreaming about since Gygax and Arneson emerged from the depths of Castle Greyhawk. Perhaps they're creating a game so perfect, and representative of the geist of role-playing that any product out there is compatible with D&D! Or perhaps it's a placeholder.

So what's changed? A lot, and a little. A lot, in that it's not 4th edition anymore, not even close. It's sad really; I thought 4th edition was an extremely elegant system, and the designers of it should all win awards, but I could see how it wouldn't be the cup of tea that D&Ders pour into vials to simulate potions of clarity. Instead, one could say that little has changed, because of the similarities this game has to BD&D and AD&D. They definitely turned back the clock and made the game very simple: no attacks of opportunity (AoO), no flanking bonuses, and the saving throws are all just ability checks. In fact, abilities play a bigger role in this version than in any version since BD&D. If you want to "use rope" there's no more "use rope" skill, instead you make a Dexterity (DEX) check. If you want to search a room, make a Wisdom (WIS) check, and add any bonuses you have for Perception. Combat had a neat little trick to make up for the lack of flanking: advantage and disadvantage. If you were in a situation where you have an advantage you roll 2d20 and choose the best; if you're in a situation where you might receive a disadvantage you roll 2d20 and select the lowest... Elegant!

I actually like this system for a couple reasons, the first being its simplicity. I've been playing a lot of Basic D&D lately, and I've really come to see the appeal of simple role-playing systems. You roll dice, you add/subtract modifiers, and you compare them to target numbers to work out success/failure. Right now, D&D Next does this very elegantly, and gives you something more to do than just hack and slash, though not to the extent that D&D4 did. There are some at-will type abilities going on here, but the Vancian system is back (Magic Missile is a 0-level spell, which means you can use it as much as you want), which has a love/hate situation with me.

The idea for D&D Next is that it can be expanded upon by adding modules, so that the game gets more complex. You want combat with miniatures on a battle grid? Just add those rules on. You want skills and feats? Go ahead. It's almost as if they're taking a beefed-up BD&D (but with races being separate from classes), and letting you spice it to taste to make it AD&D. For instance there were no skills but there were some skill-like abilities that certain classes possessed. The Clerics could recall lore about religion (Knowledge (Religion)), and the Rogue could find and disarm traps (Disable Device), and that was part of its class, rather than a skill that the character invested in.

This reminds me, actually, of the article I wrote on Dungeon World, where I talked about what makes a role-playing game "old school;" a solid division of class roles. D&D3 and Pathfinder can have characters branch off in different paths, almost making them homogeneous. BD&D, D&D4, and D&D Next have very specific roles for the characters: Rogues open things, and disable them, Fighters bash, Clerics heal, and Wizards blast. Some might think of this as constricting, and it might be, but it's also what the game used to be and where it came from. It appears that it might be going this way again.

Now, of course, the play test was just that: a play test. Who knows where it will go from here, or which parts of this play test we were supposed to play test. Perhaps they're only taking criticism on the characters, or the combat system, or perhaps everything in it. I have to say, one thing I thought was pretty underwhelming was the module they supplied to play test in: The Caves of Chaos. Older gamers may remember this as the main part of B2: Keep on the Borderlands, which I find a very hack-and-slash adventure where you pretty much work your way through the Monster Manual. I do appreciate that it was pretty much B2 word-for-word but with the updated monster stats.*

The aforementioned B2.
Overall, I liked it, and I'd like to see where it's going. I'm really loving Pathfinder right now, but I have to admit that I'm missing the D&D brand. This play test had classic races like Hill and Mountain Dwarfs, and Pelor and Moradin, and all that good D&D IP. I think a definite defining factor on my complete fandom for this edition is if they re-do the Greyhawk setting (I'm also a huge fan of Dark Sun, but Athas had its moment in D&D4).

I should also mention (before signing off) that if you want to contribute to the D&D Next play test, you should go here and sign up!


* I wanted to just mention that combats are lightning-quick in D&D Next. One complaint I have with D&D4 is that the combats are really long. Pathfinder has quick combats (and thus, so did D&D3) and I like that. I just didn't know where to mention this fact in the review.

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