Continuing my series of articles on the 5/24/2012 Pre-release open play-test for the Next D&D, this article details the specific major changes found in the new rules. I have played the game and written on the subject of the character classes, now I will turn my attention to rule changes, and try to suss out how they work, the intent behind them, and how they were perceived by our first impression playing the game.
It was surprising how many of the rules themselves felt familiar, almost as if they were taken word for word from the various editions published over my thirty year career as a DM for life. Ability scores and their modifiers, for instance, have remained unchaged since 3e, which were an improvement of previous editions by normalizing the bonuses across all scores. It was comforting to find many stable factors of the game, standing like pillars of strength propping up a venerable edifice. New rules (like the shocking advantage/disadvantage rules) really stand out like prized blooms amongst this comfortable garden.
An equally interesting subject is the rules that were LEFT OUT, which could be the subject of a future article. No opportunity attacks, no charging rules, and very lax movement rules in general lead this subject, as we were a group who chose to actually use a battlemat (specifically a flip-mat) while we played. Having invested hundreds if not thousands of dollars into minis, maps, and terrain may give me a certain desire to use — if not a grid — then at least an abstract representation on the table where some general measuring is possible, as well as an indication of where the characters and monsters stand in relation to each other.
Plus, I have discovered over thirty odd years of dming that every player wants a little plastic or metal figure to hold and call their own. Even me and my monsters. Watching a video called something like “I hit it with my axe: Playing D&D with Porn Stars” had the best use of miniatures and terrain. They didn’t worry about squares, but just piled their miniatures onto the table, using books or fake plastic trees or whatever they had to represent terrain. This rules system supports that type of play, and may even encourage it, but the movement rules need to be tightened up by eliminating some loopholes and other missing components. But enough of that, on to a page by page examination of the D&D Next Play-test booklet “How to Play”
Checks, Attacks, and Saving Throws
The three basic interactions with the game world involve using the ability scores, or their modifiers and rolling a d20 against set numbers. This is familiar, but there are some unique permutations of the basic core rule. Contests, for example, involve two (or more) opponents rolling against each other. Saving throws also follow this method, and here we have a huge rule. Instead of sving throws being determined by class, and modified by race and ability score, they are determined by ability modifier, and possibly modified by race, class, theme, or background. The check is made against a static DC. For example, a character might roll a dexterity check with a DC of 13 to take half damage from a flaming hands spell.
Ability scores and their modifiers are a core component of the game since the very beginning. The idea of rolling a d20 is just as sacrosanct, and the rules for making checks, contests, attacks, skill checks, and saving throws all keyed off the ability scores seems a natural and good progression of the game. If I had one area where I would like to see ability score interaction improved, I would like more chances to roll for or against the direct ability score itself, rather than always relying on the modifiers. Lets let our scores hang out in the sun to shine.
Advantage and Disadvantage
Arguably the biggest new innovation of the game is the idea of rolling 2d20 and taking the best or worst of the two rolls based on whether or not the roller has advantage or disadvantage. This is clearly an attempt to confer a bonus to a die roll without resulting in adding more +’s or -’s to the roll, and I like it. It seems awfully powerful though, coming from someone who watched an Avenger rarely miss from level 1 through 15 during a 4e campaign which had a similar mechanic.
During our short play-test, it was hard to find times to invoke the disadvantage rule, other than when it was specifically spelled out, such as by the shield blocking ability of the dwarven cleric. I tried to use it for flanking, but the wonky movement rules prevented anyone from being flanked or surrounded long enough for any sort of vantage. I lke the idea of alternatives to static bonuses, and especially my biggest pet peeve: bonus-creep, where you end up with being +30 or more to hit, versus armor class of something astronomical. That is ridiculous, and anything that prevents it is an improvement. I hope they also include the idea of exploding dice (d10s becoming d12s) or adding dice (like +1d4) rather than giving a static +4.
The scores themselves are ironically changed very little, considering how much weight rests on those six shoulders. Dexterity ow includes finesse weapons as well as ranged weapons they modify, and it also includes damage bonus. Constitution plays the main role in providing hit points to the stating character, but is otherwise unchanged. One huge (and disastrous) change is that when gaining a level, the character now rolls his hit die and uses that result OR the CON bonus, rather than adding CON bonus, as past editions did. This is a terrible idea but then the whole starting HP needs work. I am confident the publishers know this and that it will be fixed before release, or hopefully in a new round of playtest material.
For magic using classes, the ability score affects the to hit roll, but not damage (I wonder why,possibly because many spells do things other than damage.) In addition, the modifier determines the spell DC for saving throws against it. Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma are the three magical ability scores, while strength or dexterity are used for the physical attacks. No real surprises at all with ability scores other than their prevalence in the rest of the scheme of things.
This section covers time, movement, stealth and perception. Most of it is standard fare, and they break game time down into days (no years) hours, minutes, and rounds, which are defined as six seconds long. Movement rates are basically the same as they ever were, with 25-30 feet typical of most PC races. Difficult terrain costs an extra 5 feet of movement for every 5 feet moved. Typical.
Instead of running, or taking a “double move” instead players can hustle, where they spend their whole turn to do nothing but move, and their movement increases by double. So if you wanted to cross a 30 ft river of mud that is difficult terrain, it would take you two rounds, one one full round of hustling. Doing the hustle is for sure a gay (by gay I mean absurd and giddy, not homosexual) term and I hope they find an alternative word choice. Jumping. climbing, crawling, and swimming rules are also contained, but nothing about flying, burrowing or charging for that matter.
One big change, is that standing up merely takes 5 feet of movement, so if some one is knocked prone, they can stand up, still move most of their movement rate and do a standard action. Being knocked prone is not as dangerous as it once was. The movement rules are very simple and easy to follow, but I worry that without some specific changes, movement will cease to be important for the opposite reason it was important in 4e. In 5e, at this point, a character or monster can basically move anywhere they want with little cost and no threat. The lack of opportunity attacks, the ease of standing from prone, and the lack of any type of “threat radius” mean everyone can run circles around each other and it doesn’t matter. Movement needs work.
Stealth, hiding, and perception are discussed next. I think it is a great improvement to allow some one to just say “I’m hiding” and not even roll for it until some one tries to detect the hide. The benefits of being hidden are that you cannot be targeted and that you attack from hiding with advantage. I am not sure how this makes the rogues’ lurker theme work, since it also allows attacks from hiding to grant advantage. Some editing work needs to happen or lurkers need an improvement to their ambush skill, which seems to be standard for all attacks from stealth.
Perception is a wisdom skill check, little changed from past editions, other than the bit of advice that the player needs to specify where and how they are searching when they use the skill. A character cannot enter a room and make a perception check to find the secret door, they must state “I am checking the walls, looking for cracks or seams” or something like that, and if their is a secret door in the floor or ceiling, they will not find it regardless of the roll because of where they described the search. (OK on a natural 20 I might give it to them anyhow.)
Such a big heading, but so far the majority of the mechanics changes are subtle tweaks. One re-curring theme of this edition is the attempt to reduce and eliminate “modifier bloat” which I would describe as adding, subtracting, and adding more and more bonuses, until the importance of the bonus begins to outweigh the die roll itself. Not to mention it is annoying and many people are not very savvy at doing simple math quickly in their heads.
(Trust me, as an Encounters DM, I roughly estimate that 60% of the population needs their fingers or a calculator to add three or more to any number larger than ten. And I am not talking just about kids either, who were generally better at least at trying to do the math, rather than some old fogeys who will peer into their phone or watch calculator to add 1 to the 15 they just rolled. Don’t get me going on this one, I am glad what they have done.)
Advantage and disadvantage are one way to confer non plus or minus modifiers to the die roll. (Mathematically they are powerful indeed.[insert formula]) Another way they do this, is by having certain character features grant an “upgrade” to certain die rolls. For example, a warhammer goes from d8 to a d10 in the hands of a dwarf. This is an excellent, subtle way to confer boons, and bonuses without resorting to the ultimately out of fashion and unstylish die roll modifier.
Surprise is handled strangely, in that the DM just decides who is surprised and they subtract 20 from their initiative roll. Thus anyone with surprise should generally go first, but not get any kind of free round. Lame. The DM call is ok, but I still think surprise should have… well, an element of surprise to it. There should be a roll, and those who are surprised get caught flat footed for a moment while the surprisers get a FREE action, not merely the chance to go first. Please fix or do something.
Tanking a turn is written in a vague manner that suggests (and I am paraphrasing both for legal and comedic reasons) “On your turn you can take an action, oh and you can move too if you want.” Only the move rules are so open ended that it literally means one creature can run circles around another on their turn. They also eliminated the minor action in a very handwavey mystical sort of way. “Oh little things are just part of bigger things, like drawing a weapon is part of the attack.” Ok, well, this whole area needs fixing, and it seems like the most glaring issues are not NEW rules or mechanics, but simply MISSING rules and mechanics. For example, there is no way to charge. Huh? Since this article is about new mechanics, I had better skip this whole mess for another time.
When you shoot while engaged in melee, you have disadvantage. Cool. This rule needs to be expanded to say that while shooting into a melee, you also suffer disadvantage. It should also cover the casting of ranged and area affect spells (which it might, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. Personally I believe, and most editions of D&D back me up, that trying to launch an arrow into someone’s face needs to do more than grant disadvantage, it needs to provoke a free attack, just like casting a long complicated spell against some one across the room while a goblin is trying to stab you in the gut should provoke a free opportunity attack or whatever this edition wants to call it. Needs work.
Death saves are in, and they are aweseome. When you die you roll death saves on your (un-)turn. Fail one and you take a d6 of damage. Hell ya, get ready to die! I am imagining the descriptions of character’s life blood draining onto the stone floors of the dungeon like the drool dripping onto my keyboard just thinking about it. Good job with this one, and negative CON (plus level) as the death threshold seems fair, and survivability seems pretty high, considering all healing starts from 0.
Healing is a whole other issue that I don’t want to spend too much tie covering, because it is an acknowledged FUBAR part of the game that is going to change. The hilarity of the current systems is that it is an experiment in extremes. On the one hand, healing while in combat is so rare and costly, that an average first level party might only get a single 1d6 once per day healing spell. On the other hand everyone heals up to full at night and starts each day fresh. This rule flies in the face of the gritty lack of healing available in combat, and practically guarantees a five minute workday, plus it is so unrealistic that the rule is completely laughable. No wound ever takes more than a day to heal completely. No cleric can ever cast a heal spell without it lessening her usefulness to the party. The healing and hit point rules need work. Incidentally, characters also get a short rest, a mechanic similar to healing surge shorts rests in 4e, though it is only once per level per day, rather than the tons of times 4e allowed for. The short rest give a hit die roll plus CON modifier, and it is an ok mechanic.
The conditions are much like many of the latest editions, and the intoxicated condition is my favorite new mechanic, which gives an intoxicated creature disadvantage on attacks, but all damage is reduced by d6. Yay drunken brawls. They always go on longer than they should and there is why.
Equipment, Arms, and Armor
There is little unique or new in this section, but it is impressive for its inclusiveness. The section starts with armor and each type confers an armor class. It is a pretty standard list, with a few exceptional choices, such as banded, or dragon scale, and they are divided into light, medium, and heavy, with dexterity bonus provided in full, half, or none at all respectively. Full plate costs 1,500 gold pieces and is one of the best armors available, with an AC of 17. Strap on a large shield and boom, 19 AC, though no amount of dexterity will help you out, and your movement will be reduced by 5 feet per turn.
The top three armors for their weight class are mithral chain, ringing in at 15 AC + full DEX bonus; Dragon Scale, with AC 17 and half DEX, and finally the mighty 15,000 gold piece Adamantine Plate, with an AC of 18, but forget about dex bonus, you don’t need it.
The weapon list is a little light at 31 different killing tools, especially in ranged weaponry. It is divided and sub-divided into many categories, such as basic, finesse, martial, and heavy, to name the melee choices; Simple and complex are the ranged choices, and the heavy crossbow is the only complex ranged weapon at this time and the only bows are the sort and long bow. Finesse and ranged weapons use DEX bonus for bot the to hit roll as well as damage, just like strength with heavy melee weapons. Actually finesse weapons can be used by either ability of the character’s choice, so they are very versatile indeed, and include the dagger, staff, rapier scimitar and short sword. I completely disagree with the rapier making this list. Perhaps a sabre might be considered finesse, which isn’t included, and neither is the mighty falchion sword, nor tulwar, so the curved sword pickings are meagre, and ill-tough out. A scimitar should also do 18 damage, not the sabre-rattling 1d6 given here.
Leaving aside that I am appalled there is no Bohemian Ear Spoon, instead the pole arm list is reduced to a single choice: halberd. If you include the lance and longspear, that brings us to a grand total of three reach weapons in the game. And there are some other missing weapons on this list, like the broad sword, the javelin, and a few others but not too many of the classics. I am glad to do without the cheesy fantasy weapons (like spiked chain, double axe, etc) but I would like to see shuriken maybe, or even better would be a list of other weapons that fall under one category, like how the PHB First Edition did. In this case it might be Longsword (includes broad sword, katana) for example.
I am glad to see no weapon does more than 1d12 damage, and only three weapons (all 2 handers) do that much: greataxe, greatsword, and maul. In fact, the halberd is the only heavy two handed weapon that DOESN’T do d12 damage! I am just glad there are no great bows, or great other weapons, or those dumb one handed axes that did so much damage in previous editions. Weapons bloat is something I always hated, and it got to the point last edition that if it wasn’t a GREAT something, it wasn’t worth it. I think I had a rogue using a great dagger at one point.
Finally, the last of the equipment section ends with mundane adventuring gear, and here the game really shines. There are 83 items, and each one is unique and inspiring. Manacles, parchment, merchant’s scale, spyglass, tent, etc. Each item has its own description which are brief but flavorful, and may provide cles to the curious reader. The heading for heavy blanket mentions that while it is god for keeping out winter chills, it also quietens the sound of breaking glass. God stuff.
And so ends our journey through the newly released beta version of our favorite game, the “D&D Playtest: How to Play” guide released May 2012. There is one last section of the book, magic and spells, but I am going to save that for another day. I may bundle it with my reading of the DM book, since it is so brief. Anyway, hope the article was helpful, and please check my blog for further reading on this subject and many others.