A Taste of What is to Come
At PAX East, I had the dubious privilege of playtesting D&D's next edition, cleverly titled "D&D Next." Ostensibly, one day soon, Wizards of the Coast will realize (or has realized, but is just being stubborn) how absolutely silly a name this is for a variety of reasons. But for now, that is the appellation we are saddled with. Not only, once D&D 6e inevitably comes out, will this name, should it stay, feel as anachronistic as that really sweet-at-the-time Staind tattoo that your shitbird friend has, but it so inaccurately reflects the sentiment and feeling of this latest version of D&D as to boggle the mind. This sort of decision making has set the tone for the entire process. The tone is set.
Edition Wars Declarations and Caveats
And now as any good discussion of D&D must contain, the caveats and declarations: Firstly, I am a 4e kid. Despite fervent childhood aspirations to actually play Dungeons and Dragons, the closest I ever came to manifesting them was a couple of games of Hero Quest with my loving but completely-not-into-it father. I finally had the werewithal and the lack of shame to start playing D&D in my mid 20s, and the edition to play was 4e. I love this version, and I think there are good reasons for that, but I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that everyone has "their" version of D&D. Additionally, I'm basing this opinion on, essentially, one playtest and a perusal of the material made available (which is changing in inexplicable ways all the time.)
Myself, Derek and Mikey C sat down with a couple other dudes to try D&D Next. All of us, to a man, 4e kids or blank slate D&D Noobs. We essentially were flying blind. "Wow us, WOTC!," we said.
An immediate adjustment was needed; We were informed by a very affable, cooperative (He allowed us to rename the main villain to Bub Rub) and seemingly competent Dungeon Master (who, self admittedly, did not have a ton of experience with Next) that the helpful minis and grids that we had clung to were gone. We were in a dangerous place known as "The Theatre of the Mind." Wow, that's different...I wonder how combat is going to work? (Spoiler alert: Shitty.) Well, let's exercise them brain muscles.
Now let's examine these character sheets. Hmmm, this is...short. One page? Well, I'm a dwarf fighter. That should be fun. Let's kick some fucking doors in and get this adventure moving. I was glad to get this character because it meant that, in many ways, I could control the pace of our adventure, and ensure that we delved deep and didn't durdle about. Oh, what a naive fool I was.
Examining my powers, I discovered that the list was quite short. Although my stats and modifiers were essentially familiar to anyone who had ever looked at a character sheet, my abilities were...sparse. Verisimilitude considerations aside, I was rather disappointed to discover that in regards to combat my dwarf could essentially do one thing: Swing his axe at someone. In regards to special powers, I had the ability to expend additional d6 to either parry blows or add extra damage. How overwhelmingly thrilling. Besides that I had some "Dwarves know stuff about rocks and digging" ability ostensibly used for exploration.
In any case, there is still much to be hopeful about. After all, this play test is probably going to be action packed, and show off all the new mechanics. Everyone will have their chance to shine, and everything will become clear in time. What is our adventure? Oh, a repurposed 1e adventure called "Danger at Dark Shelf Quarry"?
(Reaction after the break)
Our merry band starts off as most D&D adventures do, after some clumsy fumbling about in town, we receive our exposition download from the mayor and assorted and sundry townsfolk and off to the mines we go to investigate the strange happenings. One of our party knows of a locked secret shaft into the mine. Located in a clearing, overlooked by a watchtower. As good an opportunity as our sneaky halfing thief could ever ask for to sneak about and pick a lock. After about 10 minutes of futility (despite excellent rolls) the mage comes out to lend a hand, ingeniously casting some sort of illusion to block the line of sight from the tower. The tension is palpable. Will the illusion hold? Will arrows rain down upon us causing certain death (or, more likely, profound inconvenience)?
The illusion holds, as does the lock. My dwarf's patience does not. Fuck it, let's do something. I send my dwarf striding out into the clearing like he owns the place. Chainmail clanking, glittering in the sun like a beacon to attract fucks, since I had no more to give at the time. I then smash the hatch open loudly. No reaction from the tower.
"HA, HA, STUPID ADVENTURERS!", says the hateful shitbird who designed this boondoggle, voice echoing from the past. "There was no one in the tower! You were never at any risk at all! Your halfling was a fool to think he might be important to this adventure, and to think that he might have fun!"
Sweet adventure, bro.
Next, an encounter with two guards. Our path forward was unclear, and, being a dwarf and a jerk, I decided to reveal myself to them, claim to be a contractor inspecting the mine and see what happened. Immediately, I come to realize that this is a different game of D&D. My bluff checks failing, the wizard hastily casts "Sleep" on the two guards from around the corner. They collapse. Combat avoided. Encounter over. Hmm, that must be what this theater of the mind stuff is all about. Pretty cool (for me and the wizard..sucks to be you, Ranger.)
You have just experienced the zenith of our adventure. Ending/avoiding a combat with one lame spell and some cheeky role playing. Be warned, from here on thar won't be dragons.
What followed was a laborious and cumbersome dumbfest of arbitrary binary decision making, as we explored cavern after cavern of essentially nothing but rocks.
"But wait!", says the astute reader, remembering that I had that sweet dungeon exploring ability about rocks. "Surely, your 'know shit about rocks' ability could guide you to less arbitrary, more meaningful decisions. That must be why they put you and the other dwarf Paladin [I never mentioned him, how did you know that????] in the adventure!"
Well, dear reader, what you says makes perfect sense. Which is why it apparently had no fucking place in this circus of ennui and terrible trying to pass itself off as an adventure. My "Know Shit about Rocks" ability told me such interesting facts as "this stone has been cut long ago," and "sounds like they're mining iron and quartz."
At this point, we come across some more NPCs, probably miners, marching down the hallway we are in. The party gets scared and attempts to hide. The other dwarf, whom you all know as Derek, king of hilarity and decision making, is backed against a corner, no where to go. Tension again! My heart soars! Not only that, but, indeed, a chance for combat. He steps out from the shadows, revealing himself and striking a heroic, and fearsome, if short in stature, pose.
And all the tension is immediately deflated, like a backfiring piss bomb balloon, as the miners walk right past, completely ignoring him. And we're just left there, covered in the aforementioned hateful shitbird's piss, wondering when we're going to get to the fun fucking part of the game.
I really should save the excretionary metaphors for our next highlight, though. You see, we finally came upon something interesting. A hole in a floor. There's a foul smell about. (Can they be raising undead?!??!) There is fungus everywhere, making it slippery. (Oooh, dangerous terrain! Sounds like an interesting encounter....) What could possibly be down inside? After some careful peeking, and frustrating attempts to light up coins and drop them down, what do we do? Why, lower the dwarf, with his low light vision, down to check it out, brave heroic soul he is. Fuck it, I'm game.
And that is how I discovered that we just spent 15 minutes carefully exploring the latrine.
Eventually, at the end of our playtest session, having looked at all sorts of interesting geological bullshit and places to poop for the majority of our session, I kick in a door and we get to fight a bugbear guard. Hooray!
What followed was the most amorphous, boring, and nonsensical combat I could have possibly imagined. First off, Theater of the Mind really breaks down when you have to keep track of where everyone is standing because positioning, in fact, matters. "I'm five feet from that guy? Right?" "No, you're across the room, but the guy behind you stabs you in the back." Instead, what we had was neither fish nor fowl.
"But think of all the cool things you could do when you're no longer constrained by a battle grid, and minis!" The hopeful nerd in my heart exclaimed, not yet beaten into fairy dust by the grim machinations of the villainous shitbird.
Oh yes, like the aforementioned "Swing my fucking axe into an imaginary bag of hitpoints, harf harf harf." What a tremendous thrill.
Mechanically, the theme continued. Gone was the comforting d20 system of 4e. It made sense; you roll to see if you hit, and then you roll your damage. This was replaced with a frankenfucker of jumbled rules and mechanics that were about as arbitrary as the rest of this adventure had been thus far. Sometimes the wizard got to roll to hit. Sometimes he would cast a spell that auto hits, and the monster has to roll to save. And I'm just sitting here
Eventually, we ran out of time, and left the mine, unsatisfied and needing to take a shower.
So whither come this? Seemingly, it has something to do with the designers of this game finding something incredibly interesting up their own assholes, investigating thoroughly, and getting stuck like a dwarf down a latrine. Somewhere in hell, a shitbird is smiling.
The irony of D&D "Next" is that it is not "Next" at all. It is, at best, a reactionary pile of moving garbage designed to please fans of older D&D Systems while somehow miraculously failing to capture even an ounce of whatever made them great. "Something for everyone" they joyfully exclaim. Only if "everyone" is a hobo desperately rummaging for banana peels, a new cardboard box, and something to gain him an advantage in his next bumfight appearance.
|D&D Next, pictured with its designers|
"Bang Bang, you're dead!"
"Nu uh. I was wearing my bullet proof vest, and you missed anyway."
"No I didn't, and I have armor piercing bullets." (What I wouldn't have given for armor piercing bullets when I was playing this monstrosity.)
Sure, some of the unfun was the adventure itself. But who selected it? Certainly not me. The inability to highlight key mechanics (if there are any), the tedious dungeon design, as well as the tertiary silly arbitrary nonsense are all reflective of the bigger picture of mechanical and systemic "design." This nightmare adventure was merely a microcosm. It was a symptom of the worst of all birdflus. The shitbirdflu.
D&D 4e may have had problems. It could use tweaks. It could be built upon. But as to the job of providing a ruleset that everyone can agree on to resolve conflicts, it hit it out of the park. It was fun, it was grokable, it was crunchy, it was varied. So why tear it all down? I don't know. I'm not an idiotic shitbird. I do know that I'll be sticking with 4e unless this changes vastly.
I was hoping for something that did build upon the great system that was 4e. Maybe we got rid of some the feat bloat. Maybe stats were simplified. Certainly, some cool new powers or new takes on classes. Instead, we got this amorphous pile of poorly thought out, and thoroughly unfun nebulous, writhing, garbage. Thanks a ton. I'm going to take a shower, put on one of those weird breathing masks, and try not to kill anyone (I guess I can follow my character's example on that front).
Now, to cleanse your soul, I present to you "How D&D Should Be" also known as Prehistoric Dogs by Red Fang.