Almost a Month into the Playtest

Last night, the group of intrepid playtesters over at Mage’s Realm braved the farthest (and by far most extensive) cave in that cursed ravine.  We chose to send them in at third level, to ensure that all of the abilities got a good workout.  The heroes have taken the habit of crossing the caves in the middle of the day, to lower the chances of ambush by the tribes lurking in the outer caves (those tribes are now well-known to not only despise the sun, but to avoid venturing out in daylight if they can.)  Their efforts had been rewarded so far, with only a few unfortunate sentries and guards watching their passing from the shadows of their lairs and undoubtedly plotting revenge against the heroes’ trespasses once the hated sun had set for the day.

One such denizen, the Ogre doesn’t mind the sun so much, and on this venture into the ravine, he emerged from his cave to extort his own brand of “toll” from the heroes.  What transpired was a fun few minutes of banter with a greedy, but none-too-bright Ogre, and an exploration of the game mechanics as applied to social challenges.  The Halfling Rogue drew upon his knowledge of Folklore to learn that Ogres are greedy creatures, but thick-headed.  This comes as no surprise to the players, but framing the information in the context of folklore meant that the Rogue’s knowledge comes from stories and tales of how Halflings outwitted and tricked Ogres to overcome them, rather than simply fighting them.  Which led to the Dwarf Cleric of Moradin playing on that Ogre Greed to negotiate an “understanding”, the party would rid the Ogre of some pesky problems, like the undead lurking in the cave and return the “best” loot found therein.  Diplomacy and Charisma played a big part, and in retrospect, it should have been an excellent application of Advantage, but that opportunity slipped our collective minds.

With the Ogre satisfied, the party ventured toward their objective.  The Cleric’s ability to Turn Undead coupled with the D8 slingstone damage from the Halflings (or as I call them “Halfling Cruise Missiles”) made quick work of the Skeletons.  Against the Zombies, the Cleric’s Battle Hymn and Divine Smite really laid terrible waste to the undead shambling masses.  And the Fighter, after some shaky dice rolls early in the evening, truly started to cause mayhem when his dice caught up with him against the cultists.  Cleave is a powerful synergistic ability when coupled with the increased damage and the Reaper power that the fighter enjoys at third level.

I’ve been running the playtest for nearly a month now at Mage’s Realm.  So far the playtest is being very well received.  There are some smoothing out points to be made (REACTIONS, I’m looking at you), and the pregen characters have shown both their flexibilities, and some of their limitations (I’m still not pleased with how the Cleric of Pelor plays out).  All in all, we’re really looking forward tot he next round of playtest rules.  Character Creation especially, and a wider variety of abilities, spells, and powers to introduce into the system.

One final note to the Powers That Be who are making design choices over at Wizards.  Please expand the variety of spells that have ritual components.  We’re eager to test all aspects of spellcasting in game play, the at will minor spells and the memorized first and second level spells are working well, but having only Alarm as a ritual is proving to be limiting with regards to how rituals are applied in game.  We need more variety to really thoroughly test the spellcasting system and discover if the spellcasters in this edition of the game are truly “nerfed” or overpowered.  So, more spells and spell abilities please.

The DM Doom Pool

For Father’s Day, I got my hands on a copy of the Marvel Heroic Role Playing Game.  And I’ve been Digging my way through it.  There are a few concepts presented in the game that could and SHOULD be applied to D&D Next.  I’m not necessarily talking about lifting rules here, just applying a good design concept to the new game.

The GM in Marvel Heroic works with the players in each scene by trading and earning Plot Points back and forth (I am grossly oversimplifying the Cortex mechanic here).  Players can influence the scene (assumedly) for the benefit of their characters, and the GM can add levels of difficulty to add challenge and balance to the encounter.  When the GM exercises this ability, the Players “Plot Pool” grows and in some cases the Players earn a small amount of experience.  Conversely, when the player’s use their plot pool, the GM’s “Doom Pool” likewise grows.  (If it is wrong to love the term DOOM POOL, I never want to be right).

This requires DMs to become more than simple rules arbiters and adventure narrators.  DM’s have to learn to engage with the players, to flex the adventure and the encounter. DM’s must learn to provide more than what a computer can.  The Caves of Chaos is an adventure that encourages this style of DMing  (Ravenloft is another prime example).  The Caves as written exposes the players to a variety of means to engage each encounter.  Traps, ambushes, reinforcements, and negotiations just to name a few.  What I’m suggesting here is that the mechanics of the game encourage further interaction between the GM and the players on this level.

The mechanic that I particularly like with the “Plot/Doom Pool” is that when one party (Players or DM) use the pool, the other party increases it’s own pool size by a like amount.  So, if the DM spends Doom Pool points like water, he is slowly giving control of the game over to the players.  Likewise, if the Players rely too heavily on their own Plot Pool, they can watch the Doom Pool grow, and understand that they’re making a future challenge that more difficult.

Pelorans and Moradinites

With this initial playtest, the D&D Next designers gave us two different clerics, to help illustrate the flexibility of the Domain System.  After playing both clerics several times  I’m coming to the conclusion that the Cleric of Moradin, designed to reflect the classic early example of a Cleric with Armor, Shield, Warhammer and Divine Spells is playing as it intended.  But the Cleric of Pelor, intended to be a more Mystic-themed, spell reliant cleric is lacking.

Pelor’s Cleric is simply lacking in the ability to cast enough spells to make the intended build worthwhile.  When compared to the Wizard, the Cleric of Pelor has a very limited selection of abilities.  In the end, he simply ends up using Radiant Lance repeatedly, which quickly becomes monotonous.  What the Mystic Cleric needs is a greater selection of Orisons, at least 4 (the Wizard has 6 to choose from) and an extra first level spell at Levels one and two.  In exchange, the Mystic Cleric would be restricted to only Light Armors and simple weapons.

Channelling Divinity needs to be expanded as well, beyond simply Turning Undead (which is a GOOD Channelling option, and should be kept as the playtest moves forward.)

I think what should be done ultimately, is to branch the Mystic Cleric “build” off into it’s own subclass of cleric, with a spell progression comperable to the Wizard, and perhaps extra daily uses of Channel Divinity.  Armor and fighting skills would be more restricted when compared to the Moradinite Cleric.

Travelling with RPGs

I’m a Traveller Gamer from way back.  My Little Black Books are over 25 years old, and I own most published editions of the rules, and was once-up0n-a-time very involved in the online Traveller community.  For those of you unfamiliar with Traveller, it is one of the earliest, if not the earliest Science Fiction Role-Playing Game published.  Traveller has been around since 1977, and it’s basic campaign, the Third Imperium has gone through a long evolution, some of which was met with a great deal of controversy.  (Mention the Rebellion or Virus in some internet communities, and you could ignite an interstellar incident.)  In fact, Marc Miller is promoting a Kickstarter to produce the Fifth edition of the game.

Traveller has gone dormant several times over 30 plus years of history, the IP and Licenses have been held by many companies.  Some have been more successful in promoting the game than others, but I’ll leave the details to the various champions of the editions.  But what holds my interest in the game is it’s sheer resiliency.  Traveller is a survivor and is super-adaptable.  I’ve played in Traveller Games set in the Third Imperium, in the Long Night, and in home-brewed campaigns which reflect the GM’s own vision of the future.  I’ve played using the Classic Traveller rules, the d20 variant, even HERO System and GURPS Traveller.  Even though a HERO Traveller game set in a Universe adapted from Larry Niven’s Known Space setting is about as far as we can get from Classic Traveller set in the Spinward Marches of the Third Imperium, both campaigns still feel like Traveller games.

Much like my other RPG passion, the HERO System, Traveller has benefited greatly from the rise of the Internet.  Gamers have always been computer-savvy, and Traveller players are even more-so than most.  Even in the aftermath of GDW’s collapse in 1996, Traveller players were able to use the internet to connect with each other and designers and keep the game alive, furthermore, the steady interest in Traveller allowed it’s IP to propagate throughout the tabletop market.

Along with the D&D Next Playtest, I’ll be sharing some tales from my experiences in Traveller.  It’s a long story, going back to the mid-80s, and my high-school games with my close friend Chuck, and the BEST Science-Fiction campaign I played in as a youth.  I still use my Aslan Mercenary Stei’awtliyrl as my handle on the Traveller Message boards.

So, for those of you familiar with Traveller, I present you My Traveller Universe:  First in GEEK CODE!

tc+ mgt tm t20++ t4- th ru+ ge+ 3i c jt au- ls pi+ ta he+ kk- hi+ as++ va++ dr+ so+ zh+ vi+

SuperPheemy’s Traveller Universe:

I set my TU in the Hard Times Era following the Rebellion, but before VIRUS sends most of Charted Space into a full-blown collapse.  In this era, the Third Imperium has suffered a multi-sided civil war for years, and the principal factions have nearly exhausted themselves.  Central authority and control has retreated to zones around faction strongholds less than a sector in area, and in some cases, only a couple of Subsectors.  Escalations of War has resulted in large sections of Imperial space being reduced to a virtual no-mans’-land, open to piracy and anarchy.  The issue over who will rule the Imperium, or even if the Imperium will survive is still unresolved, but no faction has the resources to conduct grand, sweeping strategic military operations anymore.  The War has ground to a ugly, dirty thing conducted by raiders, and spies, and mercenaries.

Megacorporations have filled in some of the gaps left by the ravages of war, but the Economy is in a shambles, and the freighter convoys are prime targets for local Warlords and Faction Admirals alike.  News is almost as valuable as materials, and an independent crew with a jump-capable ship can earn (or steal) a good living playing in the grey areas between warring factions, corporate ambitions, and local systems desperate for goods and information.

Playing the Playtest

I’ve run the Playest game twice since last Monday.  Once with a random group of strangers at the Mage’s Ralm game store, and again at home with some of my regular players.  In both games the playtest went very well, and the game ran smoothly, more or less.  The characters presented worked quite well together, and the Caves of Chaos proved to be an intriguing and fun challenge to run.  So, I am presenting my initial thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

The Good:

Advantage and Disadvantage worked amazingly well in my playtests.  The new rule was easily applied, and intuitive.  I use it every time I’d give a character a +3 bonus or a -3 penalty (or so) in other d20 games.  The statistical math comes out closer to a +5 or -5 adjustment, by the nature of the mechanic, but that doesn’t matter so much with regards to game play.

Wizards’ spell casting strikes a nice balance between classic “Vancian” Memorize-and-expend casting, and at-will spellcasting.  The Wizard character now feels like when presented with a problem, they would come up with a magical solution.  The ritual rules, give the wizard even more flexibility, while remaining balanced.

The most “no brainer” choice that worked has been maintaining the d20 mechanic throughout the game.  I mention this because I’ve read a lot of criticism revolving around how this playtest is “just like 1st or 2nd edition”, and having grown up gaming on 1st edition, I can say that the d20 mechanic is much superior to those sets of rules.

I really like the way skills are divorced from ability scores and wedded to circumstance.   This allows both the players and DM a great deal of flexibility around how to engage a challenge.  Players are encouraged to be creative in solving challenges during the game.

I like how Saves are keyed to ability scores now.  Again, this gives more general, flexible options to the DM on how to challenge Players.  It helps to eliminate the “dump stat” as well as the “must have” stat.  Not completely, Constitution remains an ability that really cannot be lower than 12 (it ties into too many survival-based checks and calculations to go any lower.  Unhealthy people shouldn’t be adventurers I suppose.)

The Bad

Reactions are poorly defined in the rules as written.  It becomes unclear what happens if a character has already taken their  action, or when a character chooses to use an optional ability as a reaction.  The rules lean towards keeping characters towards taking one and only one action per round, but reactions throw a wrench in that machine.

So far, my solution that I’m using is that a character can use a reaction if she has not taken an action during the round.  If the character has a Readied Action that has not triggered yet, then she may still use a reaction, forfeiting the Readied Action for that round.

This leads to Readied Actions, which I am really disappointed with.  readied actions rely on defining a trigger and an action.  Like “I shoot the first Orc that comes around the corner with my Crossbow!”.  Thus, when the Orc comes around the corner, the character gets a Crossbow attack before the Orc gets any further actions.  This becomes a problem, when the trigger doesn’t occur.  The character effectively loses their round.  Which is logical and fair, but takes away from fun and discourages the use of readied actions.  After all, it is more fun for players to do something with their characters than risk the possibility of their character doing nothing for a round.

My solution is that when a character readies an action, the player defines a trigger and an action, as the rules prescribe.  Until the readied action triggers, the character enjoys a +4 AC Bonus, as if they had chosen to dodge during the turn.  Once the readied action is complete, the dodge bonus goes away.  Furthermore, if the readied action does not trigger, the character can take an action at the end of the round.  In the case where two or more characters have readied actions that fail to trigger, they take their end-of-round actions in initiative order.

I have a minor issue with Surprise Initiative.  I don’t like having huge bonuses and penalties in game anyway, and I see an opportunity here for an application of the Advantage/ Disadvantage mechanic.  Instead of inflicting the surprised party with a -20 penalty, the surprised party suffers Disadvantage on their initiative check, and the surprising party enjoys Advantage on their initiative check.  This works very elegantly in situations where there is more than two sides in a surprise situation.  Because Advantage and Disadvantage cancel each other out, any party who are both surprising one party and are surprised by another gets no bonus or penalty to their initiative.

For example:  A party of adventurers is laying an ambush for a band of Orcs coming up the trail.  Unknown to the adventurers, they are setting their ambush in the territory of an Owlbear.  The Owlbear arrives about the same time the Orcs do.  The Owlbear surprises the Adventurers and the Adventurers surprise the Orcs.  Initiative would work as follows:

The Owlbear has advantage on Initiative, because it surprised the Adventurers.

The Adventurers has no advantage or disadvantage on Initiative because they have surprised the Orcs and are surprised by the Owlbear.

The Orcs are at disadvantage on Initiative because they are surprised by the Adventurers.

If I have a similar group of players tonight, I’ll apply another house-rule to Heavy Armor, awarding Damage Reduction in addition to the high AC bonus.  1 point for Chainmail, 2 for Banded, 3 for Plate, and 4 for Adamantite.

I’ll let you all know how these adjustments work in my next post 😀

The D&D Next Playtest rules

(Editor’s Note:  I was suckered into a practical joke played by a friend of mine.  Led to a couple of hours of talking to WotC folks about how to revise my original post, despite not really needing to.   Now that all of that is out of the way…  I’m re-posting the text in it’s original version.  Thanks Harold, I’ll have my revenge and it will be sweet!)

I’ve spent the weekend reviewing and reading the playtest documents for the new D&D edition.  I’m seeing some good things, establishing and presenting the classic and most basic races and classes to build on is a great start.  Using the Caves of Chaos from Keep on the Borderlands as the adventure is an excellent choice.  It’s open ended and allows for multiple excursions with extensive flexibility and replay potential.

The races presented are Human, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling.  Studying the character sheets provided, the race choice provides the expected abilities and bonuses that are common to Dungeons and Dragons.  Elves enjoy keen senses, low-light vision, and a resistance to being magical charm and sleep effects.  Humans receive an ability score bonus.  Dwarves are resilient and skilled with stonework.  Halflings are stealthy and lucky.  I appreciate this approach since the way the races are presented compliment how these races have been presented in previous editions of the game.  Exciting and new options can come as the playtest progresses.

I am very happy to see a return of the classic character classes.  The characters presented really reflect the classic D&D party of adventurers, well-rounded and complimentary.  At this stage, the characters are pregenerated, but the concept of what each class does is pretty clear.  At this stage, it feels like the roles, which evolved from fantasy role playing into the tactics of massively multiplayer online games, has been pulled back towards their origins in the days of first and second edition AD&D.  Fighters focus on fighting with weapons in armor, taking and dealing damage.  Wizards use magic to support the party as a whole.  Rogues apply skill and expertise to overcome obstacles resistant to a direct approach.  Clerics channel the power of the gods to enhance the abilities of their companions, whether it is healing them, or improving their skills and abilities.  In addition, Clerics are being designed to be particularly effective against the Undead.

The rules are rough however.  They work, but lack internal consistency.  They seem to be more of a collection of rules ideas than a cohesive design.  The d20 mechanic is used as expected, and I can read where inspiration was pulled from nearly every published edition of D&D, but they haven’t been made to play nice with each other. Going forward I’d like to see the game develop a consistent internal framework to hang the game off of.  Such a consistent framework could demand development of a very complex system to distill down into a simple presentation at the core level.

The Armor and Shield chart makes for a good example of this.  The concept is sound and solid, but, Light Armors such as Leather allow characters to take full advantage of their Dexterity bonus while Heavy Armor like Plate armor prohibit characters from taking advantage of their Dexterity bonus.  A third Category of armor, Medium only allows characters to take partial advantage of their Dexterity bonus, dividing the modifier by 2 and rounding down before applying it.

It is that medium category which gives me issue.  it is actually more expensive and worse for a character with an above average Dexterity (a modifier of +2 to +3) to spend the extra money for medium armor.  By the way the rule is read, the halved bonus would round down to a +1, and result in a lower Armor Class than when wearing the lighter armor.  This makes the medium armor category less attractive than either Light or Heavy.  I propose, instead of applying “Full” and “Half” Dexterity bonuses, Armor should have a “Maximum Dexterity Bonus” that similarly limits the dexterity synergy of medium armor, but simplifies the ability modifier concept.  Light Armor could have a Max Dex Bonus of +5, Medium Armor +3 and Heavy Armor +1.

On the subject of armor, I also propose that the Heavy Armor category allow characters to resist damage on a hit.  The Damage Resistance rule as written is too great for this purpose, as letting a character take half damage would make Heavy Armor far too effective. Instead, Heavy Armor should have a reduce damage as a value for each “tier” of armor.  Successful attacks will always do a minimum of 1 hit point of damage regardless of the armor’s effectiveness and the damage rolled.

Thus, according to this proposal, Chainmail would give an Armor Class of 15, a Max Dexterity bonus of +1, and offer 1 Point of Damage Reduction.  Banded would give an Armor Class of 16 a Max Dex bonus of +1 and 2 Points of Damage Reduction, and Plate armor would give Armor Class 17 a Max Dex Bonus of +1 and 3 Points of Damage Reduction.  Heavy Armor would still inflict a 5 foot movement penalty, and would remain expensive.

When I start running the playtest on Thursday, I’ll be using the Rules as Written to start with.  And, of course offer my thoughts and opinions here afterwards.

Guilds of Aerjenvii

Over the past 100 years among the Kingdoms of the Sovereign Sea, mercantile Guilds have grown in wealth and power until they were equal in state to all but the Princes themselves.  As their wealth expanded, the influence of the Guilds among artisans and craftsmen has grown into control of those professions across cities and kingdoms.  The most powerful guilds rule their domains from the Free City of Aerjenvii.  Their influence has returned the ancient city to glory as the richest, and mightiest realm in the known world.

In addition to the wealth the Guilds generate through their varied industries, most of the great noble families have also invested their own fortunes in them.  As a result, the Guilds can field small armies of their own, and their fleets can become mighty navies.  Guilds have also institutionalized their own Arcane universities, ensuring a steady population of mages and sorcerers to employ as Artificers, Alchemists, Diviners, and Spellcasters.

Though there are dozens, if not hundreds of minor guilds, and yet more traditional craft and trade guilds among the Kingdoms.  But these Great Guilds in Aerjenvii are like countries themselves.  Domains without land whose influences cross borders and enter cities and courts with as much ease as High Priests of the most powerful Gods.  Their Counselors and Ministers are as wealthy and powerful as any High Lord.  Even the cultural divisions of race vanish under the sigils of the Great Guilds.  Firstborn Elves along with Deepborn Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes and even Hobgoblins and Orcs rise to high positions within the hierarchy of the Great Guilds, commanding wealth and power far beyond what they could ever dream of among the traditional seats of power.

Over this last century, seven Great Guilds have grown to supremacy in Aerjenvii.  They jockey with one another constantly for advantage while simultaneously working together to protect their collective position and power.  Together they control a third of the governance of the Free City, along with Prince Axylfahs and the Firstborn Lords.

The Khalifa Guild began as a cartel of Spice Traders discovering and brokering routes into the realms far north of Zjinn.  They have turned their business success into political power, not only as envoys to the far realms, but as lords among both the Zjinn Kindgoms and the Eastern Thrones.

The Vaddizhel Guild is the youngest of the Great Guilds, and the most controversial.  The Vaddizhel started out as an expedition across the Sovereign Sea to find lost treasures in the Zhayytaa Eyn’Qaaraq – the Wasteland of Devils.  Instead of plundering ancient ruins of treasures, the expedition opened the first trade route with the Hobgoblin dominated Kharzian Empire through the port of Khaarn Mouth.

Mithril Glove
The Mithril Glove Guild was originally a Dwarven mining and trading Guild from the Dvargzolv Mountains.  As miners, the Mithril Glove continue to control the deepest and richest mineral veins beneath the Dvargzolv.  The Mithril Glove has also grown into the mercenary and engineering fields.  Of all the Great Guilds, the Mithril Glove is the least invested in sea travel and fleets.

The Byrezen Guild was the first of the Great Guilds the Firstborn involved themselves with.  With the Firstborn, the mystic power of the Byrezen skyrocketed.  It is Byrezen Guild which still leads the known world in the craft of Artifice and Guild Wizardry.

Gold Sails
The Gold Sails Guild made a fortune on the sea-routes on the Sovereign Sea.  Through their large trading fleets, divination magic and deep coffers, ships of the Gold Sails are common everywhere.  Even in land-locked towns, caravans bearing the sigil of the Gold Sails bring goods and products from around the world.

Storm and Spear
The Storm and Spear Guild started as a Mercenary Regiment selling to the highest bidder.  In this age, where no High Sovereign can unify the land, the Storm and Spear made fortunes fighting the petty wars of petty lords.  The Storm and Spear has long since grown beyond warmongering and mercenary contracts, their forges deliver steel crafts to Lords, cities, and townsfolk alike.

Manor of the Hound
Once, the Manor of the Hound was a thieves’ guild in Westport.  Smugglers, and extortionists and spies, the Manor distinguished itself among the Eastern Thrones during the Tarosian Channel War.  The Guildmasters used the good fortune and access earned among the Princes to turn their business to legitimate ends.  The Manor of the Hound’s primary commodity has been and remains information.  The Guild maintains its fortune brokering contracts and adjudicating conflicts between powerful interests.