DnD Next Playtest Report 1 of 2

Last night, four players and one DM went through the Next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons (#DnDNext) public playtest.

All were familiar with D&D.

Characters chosen were cleric (moradin), fighter, rogue, wizard. Adventure was the one included: Caves of Chaos.

Disappointing

The result of the playtest can be summed up in that word. There was one principal reason for this.

We found the rules (and what flavor there was to be gleaned), to have noticably backslid to the philosphy of previous editions that were needlessly harsh on PCs. We felt that this was a retrograde and not, at all, an advance. 

Inexplicables

There were things in the playtest document that made no sense. I can't remember them all, but here is a gaggle:

Why are the club and mace identical, but the mace is horrifically more expensive and heavier?

A joking quasi-truism of D&D has been that whoever is wearing the heaviest armor in the party has the lowest armor class. From the playtest document, if you have a 16 Dexterity, and you're wearing a chain shirt, you lose armor class by donning chain mail. This is because "medium" armors only allow half your Dexterity bonus, and "heavy" armors allow none.

Speaking of armor: Why is there a random number of minutes to remove heavy armor—but a set number of minutes to don all types of armor? Is it some kind of joke?

The dwarf could tell us about stonework—but only if it was underground. This instantly led to this statement/question, from the player: "So, if I wanted to know about a dwarven statue, I'd have to drag it underground, then I could know all about it?" Rules as written, yes.

The 9:01 work day is in full effect

This was actually the most profoundly disappointing item of the entire evening, when we realized that after a single fight the entire party was sidelined to spend an inordinate amount of time (an entire day) recovering.

And it happened more than once. That's important. It wasn't a single fight that went sour on us with bad dice, it was a reproducable error, as the kids are calling it nowadays.

Based on the reaction at the table, I'm firm in my belief that everyone thought this problem had long since been dealt with and was no longer a consideration, and were genuinely surprised and disheartened to find it had returned.

Playing out an eight-hour rest is thunderously boring, so we "reset" the playtest in that we erased all the damage and pretended everything had never happened. That's not a strong playtest experience when it's done out of frustration. It was brought up that others in the party were good to go—but that was largely irrelevant. A party is only as strong as its weakest member.

Interestingly, it was other party members who told me, the wizard, that we should wait so I could "re-memorize" spells. Apparently, they weren't impressed with the fact that I was doing 1d4+1 per turn, while they were doing much more.

Segue to...

The Vancian System

I'm on record (see previous post!) as having a significant dislike of the Vancian system. The playtest addressed this issue by giving the wizard a much wider array of spells that were at-will than I expected, so I didn't feel so utterly useless after casting a single spell. I'm pleased with the variety of at-wills. And pleased that magic missile hits unerringly (in most cases, see below).

It didn't help because like I just mentioned, my other players told meunbidden—that the Vancian system sucked. During the playtest, I was very careful to not say a single bad thing or even frown at the Vancian system during play. I was excited to see what the wizard was all about and, naively I admit, I was optimistic that the at-wills would make up for it and that it wouldn't be a big deal. And the number and kind of at-will was so surprising that I was getting rather excited about it all. I was giving it as much of a fair shake as I objectively could. When we were considering whether to stop at 9:01 or press on, I was in favor of pressing on because I wanted to see how far my at-wills would get me.

It turns out that was moot. The fighter's hit points were low and my spells were "gone," and that was enough for the party to say, no, we'll stop playing the game.

There are any number of ways to address the 9:01 am issue. The playtest went in the opposite direction and brought it to the fore, as far as the group was concerned.

I do one thing—and that thing is boring

The fighter complained of not being able to do anything except attack, and a simple attack at that. Meanwhile, the complaint continued, every other class had interesting things to do all the time.

Correct. We were doing interesting things, all the time, and the fighter could bascially do "nothing," it felt by comparison. As a wizard, with my at-wills, I could freeze people in place at range, and electrocute anyone who got up to me, and magic missile people unerringly and I had all this lore and so on—and that was before I cast a single spell. (See how all the interesting things are not-Vancian? Anyway...)

The cleric (moradin) was an excellent fighter, better than the fighter by the fighter's opinion because the cleric could actively defend others with an ability, and could heal (though obviously not enough) and so on. The rogue could rogue, but didn't take advantage of it because it wasn't clear to the player that she could do that. 

But the fighter was frustrated, and rightfully so. And I could sympathize. After I'd cast my spells, I spent a lot of time rolling a d4 when my turn came up and nothing else (damaging monsters with magic missile).

Interesting tidbit: During play, while the fighter was complaining, I told him: "Turn to page two of your character sheet!" I thought all his fancy things would be there. The joke was on me—the fighter only had one page. The rest of us had two.

The fighter does, in fact, suck.

Positives

No playtest is unutterably bad. There's always something good. What did we find?

Combats ran quickly and smoothly.

If you followed my live tweet of the playtest, it was all done in real time. Combats were done but quick, and we ran through them at a good pace.

But it was pointed out that 1st-level combats in any system are always quick. Perhaps true enough. One thing that absolutely made things go more quickly was not using a grid.

But, at the same time, not using a grid made things more difficult to imagine how to position ourselves tactically. We wanted, for example, for the fighter and cleric to form a wall to keep me and the rogue safe from monsters. There was no way, apparently, in the rules to do that, since monsters could pass through "squares" occupied by the PCs.

Segue to...

No attacks of opportunity.

I can't tell you how happy this makes me. It's awesome. I abhor attacks of opportunity because as soon as they're introduced then there is an attendant amount of rules to cover a wide variety of situations and it complicates and slows the game to account for them all. 

Advantage/Disadvantage.

I was alone at the table in liking this new system. I like it because it's more fun. I don't care about the mathematical implications of the system, honestly. I like that I get to roll two d20s and take the higher or lower one depending. That's exciting and fun. Others at the table strongly preferred the static +2 for reasons I'll leave them to explain.

Critical hits.

Max damage. End of rule. I like that. No additional dice or rules or modifications or considerations. Fast, easy, fun and confirming criticals is an awful and terrible way to do things. It's the most anti-climatic thing I've encountered in any game system. Good riddance!

Next...

Part two of my report will come after I run the playtest myself, with my group. That won't be for another couple of weeks, however. Until then, I'll have time to read the rules carefully.

Why the Vancian system is anti-fun

There's an article from WotC about putting the antiquated Vancian system back into D&D. We moved past this system with the fourth edition. Why is it even being considered now?

The article briefly explains:

It's good for gameplay. It requires casters to think about what spells they want to cast ahead of time. It requires them to use their abilities judiciously. In other words, smart play is rewarded. You need to have an idea of what kind of adventure you are about to undertake to optimize your character, which often takes planning and perhaps research.

It is not good for gameplay.

It prevents people from playing their characters

When a wizard has run out of spells, that character has effectively ceased to be a wizard. Put another way, if you can cast two spells per day, you can be a wizard only twice per day.

Wizards of the Coast seems to agree, and it already has a solution: 

As a result, we'd like to include Vancian spellcasting as only one type of magic in the game. 

[...]

One idea we’re considering is a magical feat. These feats represent magical abilities that a character can use all the time. 

If the the antiquated Vancian system requires the introduction of a new system to address problems, why inject the antiquated Vancian system to begin with?

It's the source of the 9:01 am problem

The easiest fix around having such limited spell activity during the day is to wait until the next day. The problem this immediately generates is, of course, the day's adventuring is done at 9:01 am. After all, why make the player playing the wizard sit around and do nothing special?

By the by, telling the rest of the party that we can't proceed to the dragon's cave to save the village right away, because the wizard has to sleep overnight and prepare anti-dragon spells for later, is the height of heroism, action, and adventure, wouldn't you agree?

It addresses a symptom, not the problem

To many of my objections, particularly of only having a few spells to cast at low level, I've heard the retort that at mid- to high-level play, wizards rule the roost in terms of power. What fighter can turn someone to stone, for example? Thus, having few things to cast at low level, while letting the fighter have something to do all the time, makes up for the fact that the fighter has less to do in terms of impacting the campaign at high level.

No. The correct response is: "Make sure everyone has fun all the time." The wizard should not have a sucky time to start to have something better later, and vice versa the fighter. 

Also, no one plays high-level campaigns. The supposed benefit that the player at the table was supposed to be enjoying only rarely actually happens in real life. They paid a price and never got the product.

Choosing spells is not "smart gameplay"

I refer to this, by WotC:

In other words, smart play is rewarded.

There are so many things wrong with this statement.

One thing: It implies that only smart people should play the wizard. Of course by extention, people who play the other classes can be dumb.

But, setting that aside, here's a very important question posted on Twitter:

How are fighter players rewarded for smart play?
@pdunwin

He reported later that no one had given him a serious answer.

Choosing spells presents a real-world at-the-table delay in gameplay. Aside from the physical act of the player going through the list of spells they know to pick them for each level, there's the "research" portion of the gameplay that WotC put in the article:

You need to have an idea of what kind of adventure you are about to undertake to optimize your character, which often takes planning and perhaps research. 

Which only delays everyone else's enjoyment of the game, correct? If your retort is that the act of researching can/is its own adventure, well then aren't you already adventuring? Yo, dog, I heard you like to adventure so I put an adventure into your adventure. Then why have spell choice to begin with? What purpose is it really serving other than being a hoop everyone has to jump through?

Reaction to Monte Cook leaving D&D Next

Monte posted to his LJ that he's leaving D&D. I'm torn.

TL;DR version: I'm newly invigorated about D&D Next knowing that an apparently strong advocate for grognard gameplay is no longer advocating for that gameplay to be codified in the rules. But I'm sad that the way that advocacy had to go away was by a friend no longer having a contract.

TL version: 

I'm sad that a friend is without a contract any more. That's always bad and I'm always sad whenever that happens to any of my friends.

But, on the other hand...here's the thing...

All of my objections over D&D Next, that have thus far been suggested/presented/&c. on the D&D website, have been things that have been pro-grognard.

It seemed most of the pro-grognard ideas came from Monte's posts—before he stopped posting altogether. (And who could forget that "smart play" comment?)

Further, most of the objections that I've seen on the internets about D&D Next have been over pro-grognard concepts. Perhaps this mismatch was too tangible. Maybe the things Monte was advocating were too antagonizing to extant gamist (read: opposite of grognard) player. I honestly don't know.

If there's any positive to come from this, I hesitantly wonder if it's D&D Next.

Path vs Subjot

I'm a total slut when it comes to social media. I'll sign up for anything and use it at least once. As quickly as I am to sign on though I'm quick to never log on after the first experience. There're tons of new social media things and something has to wow to last more than a couple weeks. 

Two such services really got to me, Subjot and Path, but one is the clear victor—and the reasons surprised me because they approach the same task from dramatically different philosophies and technologies.

It's been crazy.

What they are

They're both in the "like Twitter except" genre of social media. You post things to friends, and that's the ur of it.

Subjot is like Twitter except you have to assign a subject to your post, or "jot." Then, when someone follows you, they can elect to follow that subject or not. The idea is if you like someone's antics, but they also talk a lot about sports, you can choose to never see sports postings from that person and just focus on the things you're interested in. Clever, eh?

Subjot allows posting to itself, Twitter, and Facebook simultaneously. This is a critical feature I need because I'll be damned if I'm going to copy/paste redundantly post to more than one service if I can help it (though I seem willing to make an exception for Instagram for some reason).

Path is like Twitter except you're limited in the number of people you can "share" with. Also, it has a number of other features like built-in photo and video sharing, music sharing and sampling, and a surprisingly important and very clever sleep/wake feature I'll discuss later.

Also, critically, Path has the best UI of any social media I've yet encountered. It's brilliant. Also, it's only available on mobile devices, not via website. Subjot, on the other hand, is only on the web and has no mobile app.

Path also allows posting to itself, Twitter, and Facebook simultaneously, but also posts to Tumblr and Foursquare.

The Subjot

Like all these social things, I forget where I first heard about Subjot. I joined and was instantly in love with it. The people running it were very nice, it's a small operation, and responses to bugs were quick and it felt very "family" over there. I was enamored of the subject idea and being able to post to Twitter and Facebook was not only compelling but critical. It became my favorite.

In addition to merely using it as a convenience to transmit to both Twitter and Facebook, I enjoyed Subjot-specific conversations and ratio of signal to noise was very high. Remarkably good, strong, relevant information and entertainment. Strong discussions.

Joining the Path

I heard about Path via a podcast, I think. Anyway, I downloaded the app and right away I was struck by how smooth, elegant, and awesome the UI was. I love virtually everything about it, and it's a model for how such social posting UIs should be. 

When I joined, the maximum number of people one could "share" with was 50. That increased to 150 then again to some number greater than 150 that I'm not quite able to ascertain (because communication from Path is so poor).

Path allows you to share more than words in a post. Unlike Subjot, you can share pictures, video, and uniquely what song you're listening to on the Music app (and the equivalent on Android phones, I guess). When you share that, people sharing your path see what the song is—and are provided a link to a sample from the iTunes store. If you want to buy that song, it's easy peasy to do so (and I've discovered—and bought—new music through this feature).

You can post pictures to your Subjot, but only by providing a link to where it's stored somewhere else, like Instagram. Subjot then generates a thumbnail and presents that in your jot, and you can click it to enlarge.

Limited?

I thought the limited amount of people available to share with on Path would be a mistake, but the UI was so good I pressed on, using it for its simultaneous transmission feature. Instead, Path has turned out to be the most frequented site for interaction that I've ever been a part of. By focusing on a smaller group of people, I believe the group becomes more active.

Since the number is limited, one is encouraged to unshare with people who are inactive in favor of people who are more active. As a result, your path quickly becomes filled with people who are very active. As a result of that, Path seems vibrantly alive and vital—but remains easy to follow because the grand total of people on your Path with you is "low," thus manageable. 

Subjot had a sense of family, like I said, but that sense of community, belonging, and familiarity is significantly more profound on Path. I love my fellow Pathicans, we all know each other, and we're all the time talking about a wide variety of topics.

Also, Path allows you to "tag" people you're "with." Basically if you make a post, you can tag someone who's already on your Path. For example, you could say "I'm enjoying a burger — with Sally" and then Sally would get a notice on Path that you've included her in something. People on Path use this feature to call special attention to their posts hoping to elicit a response from a particular member. For example, yesterday, someone on my Path posted a video of her rolling her tongue, then asked some of her fellow Pathicans (my term) whether they could do the same, and to provide video evidence of it, if so. She tagged a bunch of us, which brought that particular post to our direct attention. (It also resulted in my posting my first-ever video for I can, indeed, roll my tongue.)

Replies

On Subjot, you can reply to any post and it forms a conversation underneath the first post. Anyone can follow any conversation, even if you're not friends with anyone in the discussion. So far as I recall, all posts are public.

On Path, you can reply with text but not with a picture, video, or music of your own. Also, Path features an icon feedback system where to each post you can attach a smiley face, laugh, sad face, gasp, or heart. This feature is used liberally and is very keen when you want to quickly express an emotion with more breadth than a simple "Like."

Privacy

Subjot is open in that anyone can read any thing, like on Twitter. You just need to know to look for it, if you're not following someone. You can post a link to a specific post to share it with anyone, if you want.

Path is private-ish. Say you and Sally are sharing. Sally also has a friend, Tina, who you don't know. If Sally posts something and both you and Tina reply to it, you, Sally, and Tina can read the conversation and all see what each other is saying. But! You and Tina can not see each others' paths. You can only see replies to someone you both have in common. This is a great way to meet new people on the service.

Neither service offers private messaging to individuals. 

However, and this is oddly quirky, Path allows you to post messages visible only to yourself. 

The Killer Feature

Path has an innocuous secret weapon. In addition to making posts, videos, &c., the last option on the UI for posting is a crescent moon icon. Tap it and you're presented with two buttons: "Go to Sleep" and "I'm Awake."

Press Go to Sleep and the screen fills with a graphical representation of the current phase of the Moon, the currrent time, and starts a timer. Meanwhile, on your Path feed, there's a note saying that you're now asleep.

In the morning, when you tap "I'm Awake," Path lowers the full-screen moon and auto-generates an entry for your feed saying you're awake, what time it is, the current weather and temperature, how many hours you've been asleep—and a pithy saying based on the number of hours slept.

Why this is a killer feature is that it promotes thinking about Path as the last thing you do before you set your phone on the nightstand, and the first thing you do when you pick it up in the morning. This trick works, that's exactly what I do, every night and every morning. 

Also, it's quite fun to see people in Australia and England go to sleep and wake up during the course of the day. It's like watching the Earth turn as my Path fills with "I'm asleep" and "I'm awake" icons...

Aside

Whenever I tap "I'm Awake," I go to that post in my path and then quickly write down what I dreamt the night before. Path has become a dream journal for me, and that's something I've never ever done before. And as a result of that, a friend on Path has taken to giving each of my dreams a title based on the description, which is just the most darling and awesome thing ever. 

Social Interaction

Path won my heart. I feel closer to the people on Path than on any other service. The level of discussion tends to be more fluffy and less technical or political or serious on Path, but topics are more intimate and the level of sharing more profound. The tone is more casual, more friendly, and closer.

As well, many people are also quick to share contact information for other services they're on and invite participation in them. Instagram is very popular there, as are instant messaging services like Kik and Voxer. Voxer, in particular, is leading me to connect more closely with my fellow Pathicans.

Whither Subjot?

I use Path and not Subjot. What happened? Path distinguished itself through features and a brilliant UI. Subjot failed to distinguish itself enough from Twitter, and as one of the co-creators mentioned, it was tough to tell someone why they needed to be on Subjot.

Why do I need to be on Path? Because my friends are there. Brand new friends. I only know two people IRL who're on there, and only one of them is active. The people I'm closest to on Path I met just through Path. It's like this whole new circle of friends, a great, fun group I'm happy to be a part of.

And that's how Path won: More and better features that enabled a strong, close community and sense of sharing.

Exactly what social media is for.