Quick play of D&D Next

Friday night the usual suspects got around the big table and played the recent version of D&D Next play-test. So here are some badly thought through opinions on the game thus far:

  • It has changed more than I expected, and the changes are good. It is still D&D which is a good thing. I’m very keen to see and play more.
  • I still dislike levels and hit points, but there is no changing that. We had a good banter about why epic feels epic, and the D&D experience still comes built in with boom factor. So I’m kind of glad that hit points and levels are there, as it keeps essentially what I thought was the game, as they game.
  • I really like the way the Attack bonus for fighters is not 1/level. That makes it seem like their bonus to attack will not be so crazy at high level as to make others look silly, but they have an edge. Paladins, Barbarians and such are scales with them, which makes perfect sense. I think the Wizard’s scaling was missing in the pdf, which is hopefully an omission.
  • I don’t know how the table-top gamers will feel about the changes, as a mini-board is not really needed anymore. 4th ed had a lot of tactical edges which are gone from this play-test. I don’t miss them, but some people might. At some points a grid or minis would have been useful, but we got the job done quickly and clearly through conversation and hand drawn stuff.
  • How in hell are multi-class and class changes going to be handled in this version of the game? Looking forward to that cludge.
  • If you make a Cleric then choose your “always avail” power carefully. You will still be required to heal a lot in this version, so playing a cleric is still “that guy”. I played mine incorrectly in the playtest, but not wrongly enough to make me feel Clerics were anything interesting to me. I don’t enjoy healing. Scratch the class from the PHB in my version. If I’d made up a Cleric of the Reaper, which I almost did, then our party would have owned face – they deal huge damage, but are crappy healers. Now a Paladin maybe a different story.
  • Fighters are great. The new dice mechanics for special powers is empowering without being overpowered.
  • Monks look darn good at high levels – like getting straight 20s in all low stats at level 20. Heh, paragon games?
  • Wizards look the same, but I think our Wizard was playing it wrong too – my read is that a Wizard should always have one 1st level spell to use, and perhaps the Wizard should take a boom spell. Being left with cantrips is silly. It would be like leaving the two weapon fighter with a dagger. Or if he was playing it right and a Wizard can only cast x spells per day, with no default fallback, then scratch Wizard too.
  • I’m not sure a Rogue selection of advantages is handy in terms of having broad attack options, but would need to see how it played. A Rogue reads like it either operates alone, or as a team player, not both.
  • The rules are clear and fair thus far, and simple. It will be interesting to read what the advanced rules add in terms of complexity vs story.
  • The Backgrounds, specialties, and such are a great feature. In fact it is so good it should be added into most games in some manner or another.

More later, when I get another shot at the system. The guy in the pic below better have good fire resistance or a great insurance policy to cover incineration.

dragon attacks castle, poor defender

Thoughts after listening to the dnd next podcast

Wizards of the Coast

I recently listened to the DnD podcast from Wizards of the Coast, which was released around the same time as the dnd Next playtest (around 24 May) was made available online to the public.

Some observations:

  1. They have a ton of work to do, but are loving it. The game has been in development for over a year. That probably means in a closed/secret playtest for all that time.
  2. Wizards are looking forward to the community feedback, and anticipating a lot of positive reaction from their work. I’m dubious about this, and think that the real story is that they are going forward with a positive and strong presence, as anything else would be counterproductive. The devs would have to expect push back from parts of the community.
  3. The playtest is a staged release of content and rules, where month by month new material will be released. This so that feedback can be elicited in a series of smaller segments, rather than a huge chunk of rules.
As a primer on what feedback the devs expect it was actually useful to hear. A cynical person might say this was standard marketing fluff, but as I am an equally cynical person I’d counter that to say that Wizards could have done far less in this process. The energy in rhetoric alone has been substantial, and at some point it is the same amount of work to actually listen to feedback as appear to do so.
The point was made about giving descriptive feedback in terms of good and bad features/aspects, but also that they wish the reviewers to be unforgiving and straight to the point in giving negative feedback. The speakers made a point to ask for bad feedback. That takes some guts.

What was most valuable in the podcast was point one – knowing that they are going to come out of the gate all guns blazing. That is the dedication they need for Next to get up as a product.

I think it would be a shame for RPGs if DnD-5e was a whimper, and would impact the hobbie substantially because of how much of a hook DnD is for rpgs in general. Dnd was the gateway game which started me on roleplaying, and despite years of effort, new systems, and all sorts of considerations – it still has a place, and may still provide a source of entertainment. One of the podcasters (I can’t recall which now) really did seem honest in their enthusiasm for the product. Bravo.

I still stand by the idea that dnd should be given a fair play, and also expect it to not be my style of game. Yes, that is a healthy contradiction, and a stance which could change given play. The introduction of “backgrounds” and “side features” into the character generation is a first for dnd, and something which is a huge positive. If they added a sample of small negative quirks then they’re really getting into a style of game that I could accept.

I’m watching with reserved interest.

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If DnD Next was branded as a new game, would it sell better?

two-hundred & twelve

I had a thought about the debate on DnD Next, and how the version wars are puttering along. What would happen if the same mechanic ruleset was released by somebody else? Is it disliked because of a fear of change, or an inclination of disinterest?

Pathfinder took a variation and made it popular. Could be that they fixed a lot of frustration, and did so without the yoke of owning the product. The same action by the owner might not have been as popular when Pathfinder was released. We now see Pathfinder further tweaking their rules, and getting a mixed bag of acceptance feedback. Coincidence?

DnD 4e went to a new place mechanically with the highly tactical play, and I think it would have been hailed as an innovation if it wasn’t meant to replace older versions of the dnd brand. Meaning as a new game it was very clever and innovative, as dnd a segment of the community hated it.

The same things feels true about 5e – that a third party could release the “Next” rule-set as an indie mod, and probably get a better reaction than dnd’s publishers. Why? Less extremes to worry about. You’d get everyone who wants to test it happily trying, and all the core rules fans ignoring it. The edition war would not start because it would not be an official edition.

If you hold that position as plausible, then it is kind of sad. A new rule-set should be evaluated without that prejudice. Like it or hate it, it should be given the opportunity to be played properly. An rpg is not removing the rulebooks from our shelves, so that if an old edition is a favourite, then it can continue to be played.

Just a thought.

An aside about the DnD edition rants and wars


The ruleset has always been trivial when compared to the influence the playstyle the team brings to the table has on gameplay. A bunch of tabletop war-gamers could railroad 1st ed just as well as a bunch of roleplayers could chatter happily in 4th ed.

I made this comment on an article over at GeekoSystem about getting into the dnd playtest. Its not that I don’t respect the debate, or even that the ruleset affects the players – I just feel that getting hung up on the mechanic resolutions is a detractor to why I roleplay. I ply rpgs for entertainment, and that entertainment is based around acting in character; the mechanics are secondary. Continue reading

dnd 5e is in development – quick thoughts

Well its happening again, that wonderful and monstrous creation called Dungeons and Dragons is being re-vamped again, to 5th edition. I feel old just reading that.

What does this mean:

  • the game devs have a huge job to do, but the factory has experience in this. They deserve the opportunity to do it well.
  • the internet will broil with opinions of what should be done, what the target audience should be, and what sucked (see below). Expect a snow storm made of razor wire and badger leavings when these conflicting neck-beards meet in the forums to fight it out. I won’t be reading most of it, as it will be similar to what has gone before.
  • the ramblings and conversations in public will help steer the game devs, but the game devs already have a mandate in mind. They would not start this without already having a destination in mind, and changes needed.
  • the product needs to stay profitable, so expect what ever they develop to be a product, not a dream project of love. That means new books on the same fluff, and probably great artwork. These guys have families and mortgages too.
  • expect that some of your favourite aspects of the game will change, and get used to having an open mind during the journey. Or if you can’t do that then please stay silent – the community needs more radicals screaming as much as it needs more competition from computer games. Not at all. Continue reading

When is the right time for a new edition?

It happens in all industries, sooner or later the creators of something good revise what they’ve created and re-release it. It makes sense – you have a readership, the products have been sold, and you’re looking to maintain a customer base and a revenue stream. Like a shark, you need to keep moving forward, or you’re dead.

But the detail is hard, it may frustrate the consumers, especially as the game ages. DnD in particular has had so many revisions that it cannot have a “core” player base anymore, it has a variety of community cells, each who value a different flavour of what was once mainstream and current system. The Pathfinder success indicates that there is a huge population of people who didn’t think the dnd 4e change was good. They buy the Pathfinder (dnd 3.75e as its sometimes called) because it has most of dnd 3.5 in it, with fixes and tweaks. I know other gamers who loved what dnd 5e did for the game, and think it was one of the best systems developed. In fact a very astute friend said that if the same mechanical system was published without the DnD label, it would have probably been hailed as a revolution in an RPG system; and I think he’s right.

Assume for a moment that the offerings in the market are actually worth buying for some segment of the community (I don’t want to get into a holy war on editions, or to suggest what may or may not be effective as a product). Instead I’m interested in looking for parallels between different entertainment types, and what they might have in terms of long tails through version or release updates.

D&D: Lets take the range of debates, anger, and speculation about dnd5e that is around. If you scratch an RPG nerd you’ll find that they have been exposed to and have an opinion of dnd. Some love it, some wax lyrically about the past, and others love the current incarnations. Trying to estimate when the largest proportion of the audience are ready for a new edition, without killing current books or alienating the market is nigh on impossible.

Everyone has a different appetite and curve for roleplaying product consumption too, and predicting it is harsh. Some groups only ever use the core rules, others use every bloody optional book printed, and make further changes. In the early days it seemed that d&d 2e lasted a very long time, and 3e seemed to last a lot less; regardless of the truth, that is how it felt to me. The designers and owners of the IP can watch blogs, news, and purchasing to get their measure of the curves, but in the end sometimes you’ll be refreshing a product that is already dead (Traveller d20) or changing something that was not ready to be changed yet (a product escapes me, but then maybe that is because I’ve stopped watching products).

The long tail for DnD is already here, with miniatures, supplements, and such all still being produced. As the biggest game in the RPG scene it has a vary large gravity for sales, but also a huge body to move. The long tail for the game is something that I almost ignore – if I can’t play the game with the core rules, then I won’t play. As a long tail potential customer, I’m one of the hardest sells that they have.

Another of my favourite systems suffers a similar fate, except it has a far smaller player population, that of Ars Magica. It is at best a niche game, played by a devout community, and I think Atlas Games (the publishers) know that. Atlas do an outstanding job of creating new content and source material, but have not yet broken any major fundamentals in the current edition. The current books are darn expensive for an aussie to buy, and are still tempting. That said, its the 5th edition now, and that is a lot of change for a small community to absorb. It can be seen openly in the forums and web pages that many players are still using the 4th edition, especially as Atlas gave away a free version of the 4th edition rue-set as a pdf.

When we discovered Ars Magica it was mid way through the 3rd edition, and the books ranged from out of print to brand new. The feel was very gritty dark (Vampire/Whitewolf style) and I loved it. The 4th edition changed major aspects of the game, and the 5th ha further refined it. I am still a fan of many of the styles presented in the 3rd edition – something about the way the demonic and angelic aspects were handled really resonated to me. The rule-set is far better now. Combat makes a bit more sense, and the book keeping side of the game has been highly simplified and stylised.

Was it the right time? It seemed to be. I remember it being early, and not being ready, but then I can also understand that 4th had been out for a very long time, and some of the changes in 5th edition would never have meshed with the 4th edition rules. So overall, yup – it was good.

Should they be thinking about a 6th edition within a year? No, I hope not. The material being covered is still being consumed, and they have a ways to go to cover the range of source material needed. Atlas have many products, and thankfully this means that the ArsM material is produced steadily and consistently. I’m not sure what  6th edition would bring either, as the generations are improving and refining, rather than radically altering the system. Should they stop altogether on new edition thoughts? Nope – perhaps 2013 might be a great year – and the value offering of such a book would need to be high to gain uptake.

The long tail for Ars is both the source books and the peripheral products created by others. The Sub Rosa magazine is excellent from what I’ve seen, and I’m thinking of grabbing a few to really see what the quality is like. Long tail seems to mean repeat book/pdf buyer in this case – Ars suffers from the cost of the print run making the books out of print very quickly. This means that some material is only ever going to be available now as Pdf, and that is both an economic reality, and a shame.

Most game software suffers a similar fate. You see a single purchase box with a hefty fee, followed by either nothing (GuildWars), a subscription fee (WoW), or you just start with a cost per month and create revenue via transactions. After a range of time from 1 week to 12 months most people who were going to buy the product, have done so, and you’ve got to offer something new to them to keep the revenue stream open.

The pen and paper RPGs don’t have a micro-transaction style yet. Perhaps there is a revenue model there which is serviceable too. I didn’t take to DDI at all, and would shy away from anything that professed value without demonstrative substance. I’d consider modules via Pdf as a way of generating revenue, but you need to move a very high volume of sales to do that, and you’re fighting some seriously high piracy levels, and consumer resistance in the RPG market. Which RPG player is not literate enough to use a bit torrent client to find shared versions? Not many I’d guess. That kind of kills the long tail very quickly.

So the creators either produce or perish. The right time for a new edition might be when the customers want it, but will certainly be when the creators need it. Is that bad? Maybe, but I’d rather they tried to continue to develop material, than close up shop.