Unless you were hiding in a D&D-proof Panic Room yesterday, you know that the D&D Next Playtest has finally moved into its Open Phase. Now all members of the Gaming Community will have a chance to participate in the testing process for creating the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
Regretfully, the launch of the open public playtest was not nearly as smooth as it could have been. Confirmation emails that were sent out after registration and NDA signing had broken links to access the materials. Not to mention that WotC’s servers were struggling pitifully to keep up with the onslaught of gamers looking to download and try out D&D Next for themselves. Although I found it frustrating that WotC did not anticipate this situation in advance, and work out a better way to handle downloads, I have to give credit to Trevor Kidd for his valiant efforts to handle damage control and keeping the community informed on the progress to resolve the problem. Without a doubt, he was earning his salary in overtime yesterday to deal with all the issues.
And now that the Open D&D Next Playtest has begun, and some of the restrictions on the NDA of the Closed Playtest have been removed, I can announce that “Yes, I was in the previous playtest”, and “Yes, I have been playtesting D&D Next since January”. I want apologize to my Dear Readers for not disclosing the info, but playtesters were asked to keep their identities quiet. However, under the new NDA, both myself and my gaming groups are free to discuss their opinions on the previous material, and so I can finally give a bit of insight about the progress of D&D Next development from the playtesters point of view.
Closed Playtest vs. Open Playtest
First off, before I start rambling about my impressions of the Closed Playtest, I want to note that the current Open Playtest packet is a serious improvement over the rules I played with. I can’t go into specifics, obviously as NDA applies here, but several of the “issues” I gave feedback about got fixed or re-worked, so obviously I wasn’t the only one who had concerns with certain mechanics. But most importantly, WotC designers did make changes to what I (and others, I guess) saw as problem areas, which means they listened to feedback.
Of course, I am making assumptions here because the Closed Playtest was really closed. We were incommunicado with the rest of the playtesters, so I had no idea what they liked or disliked, or flat out was confused about. There were definitely a few mechanics that confused my groups, but admittedly that was still fairly early in the playtest drafts.
Anyway, so when I was asked to participate in the Closed Playtest in January, I convinced my two groups to agree to participate, meaning I had one group of neo-grognards and one group of hipsters to play through the material. My neo-grognards (called so because they are old school and still love 4E, by the way) all had been playing D&D for almost as long as I had, and had huge amounts of experience with old school editions of the game, as well as other RP game systems. My hipster group was massively tech savvy, and what they lacked in old edition experience, they made up for in enthusiasm and experiences with MMOs, PC, and console games.
So needless to say, we were all a bit stunned when the first playtest packets arrived. I think we all had been expecting something a bit closer to the current game design, but instead found something quite different. Disappointment was evident with all my players at this point, not to mention a bit of outrage over what appeared to be a capitulation to the old school gamers.
Nevertheless, I pointed out that this playtest was to create the core rules, and that WotC had been talking about “modules” in numerous blogs to add depth and content to the game system. So both of my gaming groups hunkered down and rolled up characters using the new rules. While character creation was fast and generally easy, the finished Level 1 characters left a lot to be desired, and there was universal complaints about how the characters felt lacking compared to 4E ones.
For my neo-grognard group, I ran the playtest module, which also was being used at numerous conventions over the past few months. For my hipster group, I recreated trusty (crusty?) old module B1 In Search of the Unknown, so I could try out the DM side of the materials to see how they worked.
Regretfully, I must announce that the adventures were an unmitigated disaster, and frustration around both gaming tables mounted as we playtested week after week. Very quickly, we discovered that there were some fundamental design flaws in monster stats, and while I never managed a full blown TPK, character unconsciousness and death occurred with frightening regularity. When you create a “low-level” monster that can hit the armored fighter (or cleric) 45% of the time for an average damage that was 60-80% of their hit points… and then throw packs of 6, 12, or even more of them at the party, you don’t have to know differential calculus to see that’s a recipe for disaster! And those encounters, by the way, were from the playtest module included with the packet.
I should note that monster stats and combat math is one of the things that got fixed for the Open Playtest – again I can’t describe what or how – but most of the low level threats seem to have been brought down to a reasonable level.
My hipster party in re-designed module B1 faired a little better, because I designed encounters using fewer of the heavy hitters and more of the less brutal critters with lower damage and percentage chance to hit. But I still managed to kill a few of their characters, which didn’t make them happy either. Even for the combat survivors, the overall player enjoyment level in the game was waning rapidly, with most of them completely underwhelmed by their characters’ abilities. While most of my hipster group had messed around with a little d20 and 3.5 before I became their DM, one member had only ever played D&D 4E and had never touched previous version of D&D in his life. He quickly became the most vocal member of the teams’ growing angst, clearly frustrated with his character and baffled why anyone would want to play a game that had retro elements that didn’t seem fun to him at all.
Despite trying to keep the mood during sessions upbeat, soon I was frankly at a loss to mollify him, not to mention the rest of my playtesters. Not surprisingly, when I run a game as a DM, I am doing so to entertain my friends, and to create what I hope is a fun experience for us all. But over the course of many sessions, playing through the Closed Playtest materials was like some dreary death-march, and I actually got to the point of dreading running my games. I felt like I was literally inflicting the playtest on my friends, and we’d thrown fun right out the window.
So we finally decided to go back to our regular D&D campaigns, and playtest only when we got new updated materials. And while that might sound like a sort gaming group consensus/gestalt, I can assure you it was actually closer to a combo grief counseling session, labor strike, and armed peasant revolt! Thankfully, the peasants were armed with only polyhedral dice, Cheetos, and M&Ms, or I might not be here to retell my tale.
Trying to run a campaign with the Next core rules in their “alpha” state was simply unpleasant, frustrating, and unrewarding to both groups. We answered the questionnaires given to us, offered our feedback and recommendations, and stoically plodded on until we finally gave up and returned to 4E. I received only one updated version of the rules during the Closed Playtest, and almost nothing had been changed, which was even more demoralizing. Thankfully, I was heartened to see that there are a considerable number of new mechanics, and resolutions to issues from the previous rules in the current Playtest release for the open public.
And I also like that some discussion is allowed between members of the playtest on the WotC boards. The earlier closed playtest was like being stuck in a dark room, with no idea if the issues you saw were problematic for everyone else, or just you.
But as far as both playtests go, I still have far too many concerns about where D&D is actually heading right now. While the D&D Next Core rules have been refined from what I saw earlier in the Closed Playtest, the Public version still makes me wonder who the game is aimed at, from a marketing point of view?
I simply cannot see how the addition of modules will ever get the core rules of D&D Next to a game even approximating what I experienced in 4E. And even if you could add enough modules to change the combat mechanics and character generation details, the monsters would all have to be majorly updated to make them capable of fighting pseudo-4E style characters. Can you imagine the amount of work it would take for DMs to create their version of a 4E-ish game when so much needs to be changed?
And the basic conundrum I have supporting D&D Next, and even playtesting it, is that 4E is what I want to play! I’m not looking for some other system which is designed as a honey pot to attract old school gamers and Pathfinder runaways, particularly when it has to be massively modified to add complexity just to get back to what I was originally playing!
But despite many misgivings, I’m going to keep inflicting the playtest on my players every once in a while, and run through a night or two of some combats and delve mechanics to see how things are progressing. I’ll keep offering my feedback, and hope I’ll see some hint of those “module” things in the playtest material to give me assurance that there is a chance Next might be worth all the effort. And perhaps, if my voice joins with enough other D&D gamers in the community, then maybe the playtest might succeed in creating a game I might, just might, want to play.
And I don’t want to sound like I’m inciting drama or anything here.. But honestly, after being in the Closed Playtest and reviewing the new Open playtest materials, all I keep feeling is that I’m looking at another version of D&D poised to split the community into even smaller factions than the 4E/Pathfinder War did. And I don’t really want to see that happen, but I’m honestly concerned it might.
So to put it bluntly, I don’t like D&D Next, but the NDA prevents me from telling you why in specific detail. All I can do is hope I my playtesting and feedback will help make it into a game I can like… but I’m not holding my breath.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!