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Wizards Watch: Memoirs of a D&D Next Playtester (From Closed to Open)

Well, it's not like we weren't given ample warning...

Well, it's not like we weren't given ample warning...

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!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


18 Responses to “Wizards Watch: Memoirs of a D&D Next Playtester (From Closed to Open)

  1. Brendan says:

    The NDA shouldn’t prevent you from talking about the current playtest documents though, as I read it. So you could tell us what you think of remaining issues. Myself, I’m pleasantly surprised, but then I am more of an old school player (though currently running a hacked 4E game).

  2. Andrew says:

    Interesting experience. Particularly when compared to this experience:

    I hope to run the module with my group in 2 weeks time, so shall see how we go. All 40-odds about half who’ve played older versions and half who haven’t. All enjoying 4e (though combat grind is awful and unenjoyable)

    The danger is that this version may not appeal to 4e fans and though while it may appeal to old-schoolers, may not be enough to bring them back from pathfinder, rolemaster, 2e, or whatever they went to from 4e. That would be an unmitigated disaster.

    I really hope that doesn’t happen.

  3. Mike says:

    “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… ”

    Talk about old-school! When I first started w/ OD&D I adopted a numbering system to simplify naming all of my replacement characters after they died (#13 was the first to reach 2nd level). I like that 4e gives you an opportunity to have character development w/o dying too easily; I hope to see the same when I try the play-test.

  4. froth says:

    Thanks for the honest review. I haven’t gotten to play it yet; they aren’t allowing it to be played on the vt

  5. Jeremy Mac Donald says:

    I tend to agree with you that it seems difficult to get to there (there being 4E) from here, though that may somewhat depend on what you think 4E is.

    If 4E is just the power system then there is a possibility while, taken to the other extreme, 4E is a narrativist heavy game with strong tactical elements and a metric ton of options that has been heavily influenced by the indy games movement then there is no real way to get there from here because the elements that are important are often found in the initial structure – its there that the system starts to support either a narrativist style or a simulationist style.of play.

  6. Marc says:

    Yeah, 5e does seem to be a middle-finger to 4e fans, in much the same way 4e was to 3e fans.

    Thing is, from what I’ve seen, PF is still superior and 5e won’t be enticing me away … a bad sign for WotC …

  7. Lunatic says:

    the Public version still makes me wonder who the game is aimed at, from a marketing point of view?

    The buyer of 2015, whose purchasing choices will be Next, Pathfinder, or a retro-clone.

    ll 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.

    Oh, see, you don’t have to worry about that. 4th edition wasn’t ever released under the OGL, so once it goes OOP, it goes away. If there’s substantial resistance to moving on that actually hurts uptake of Next, WotC will be able to kill 4E support on D&D Insider, and 4E will die. Oh, there’ll be a handful of people huddled around used copies of never-printed-with-errata 4th edition core books, but that can’t support a “faction” commercially, as nobody will be able to publish new material for it.

  8. Magician says:

    Thanks for sharing this. That’s how I expect my group would fare with the playtest rules, too.

  9. Arbanax says:

    As always appreciate the honesty, looking at the game as it is I am hopeful. I love playing 4e but hate the massive battles where everyone one becomes a major encounter. I long for shorter simpler battles that don’t require me to dumb down the encounter. I also hate the way its so geared to combat, its becoming a major point for me, which is why I love the magic use in DnDnext. But what I do appreciate about 4e is the ease of prep (well aside from having to make minitures and maps for the battles that is). So I guess if we could get 4e and DnDNext to merge their best bits, I think I’d have the game I’d love to play.

    In the meantime I will try to playtest this with my group and see how milage may very.


  10. benensky says:

    I think DnDNext is Mike Mearls idea of what D&D should be. I think the propaganda, “that it will play like the version you like regardless of the version of the game you love,” was said to mitigate damage or has been abandon since that time.

    It can still change. That is why I am still not going to trash iuntilll I see what direction we head. Tat said, I am till with you on your running criticism of the current game.

  11. @Lunatic – Agreed, the expiration date on the GSL prevents it from carrying on after 5E comes out. But there is a 3rd party Character Builder out there – Hero Lab – that has a database which can be built up, character by character. Does that mean we’ll have to use our 4E books to create characrters? (gasp!) Yes, but we have everything we need to run many, many campaigns without WotC’s assistance or support.

    @Marc – Agreed. I fear what will happen if the “great scheme” fails, Pathfinder and old school fans ignore it while 4E fans despise it… and 5E just sits there. How will Hasbro react then?

    @Andrew – The key sentence in the KQ article is “After our last 4E game fell apart, we tried a lot of systems—some homebrew, some retro clones—and while those were great, we still really missed D&D.” The author and his playtesters are clearly old school fans, have been looking for something old school, and finally got to playtest 5E which is all old schoolish, and they got their happy on. As I mentioned in my experiences of my playtest, both my groups LOVE 4E (that includes the old schoolers), and consider it the correct direction for D&D to go. They went BACK to 4E excitedly after being subjected to the playtest.

    @Brendan – Actually, under the new NDA OPTA: “You agree not to copy, excerpt, distribute (either in physical or digital format), publish, display, disseminate, release and/or transmit, in whole or in part, or create derivative materials from any Playtest Materials provided to you.” So discussing what changes were made from Closed to Open, as well as discussing rules sounds pretty much like an “excerpt” to me, and I’d rather err on the side of caution. To me it seems that most of the rules specific discussion is intended to happen on the WotC community site, which is probably what they intended, so they can close a thread or do an extraction under their control.

  12. Dave Wainio says:

    So we can surmise that your somewhat bleak attitude towards D&D Next via-a-vis the various article you commented on was probably a subconscious reaction to your actual play test experiences that you could not tell us about.

  13. Straylight says:

    It’s reassuring to know that my group wasn’t the only one that was desperate to get back to playing (and enjoying!) 4e after the closed playtest material. You’re dead-on when you describe it like being trapped in a dark room; I had zero feedback from anyone else on the playtest materials.

    For what it’s worth, my group came to almost exactly the conclusions yours did about the playtest and the direction of the game. We are, roughly: two veterans who loved 2e, then 3e, then 3.5, then 4e; a player who didn’t like 2e or 3e but loves 4e, a WoD-convert who’s only ever played 4e, and myself, who learned on 3e and will never, ever, ever go back to that drek again after seeing 4e get it right.

  14. @Dave W – No my earlier WW blogs were actually a very conscious reaction to my playtest experience. Without being able to communicate my concerns and frustration to even other playtesters, other than my group, I started writing the WW series, analyzing the stuff that WotC was saying, to which I could react openly regarding Next. It was partially a way for me to let off the frustration I was experiencing inflicting 5E on my gaming groups, and in part a way to suggest to the community that what was being said openly in L&L and blogs was being implemented much differently behind the scenes than the designers suggest.

    As proof I offer the character sheets in the Open Playtest. WotC claimed up and down that the Fighter Linear-Wizard Quadratic problem was being looked at very scrupulously. And the Open Playtest pregens have a Wizard which is hell on wheels right at first level, while the Fighter is a boring knob of a character with one combat option. So yea, guess they need to learn to solve that equation a bit better, huh?

  15. Philo Pharynx says:

    Well, my experience with the open playtest was interesting. After warning the players that they could face threats that were outside of their pay grade, they whooped up on the ogre without taking any damage and mowed down most of the goblins while only taking a little minor damage. I don’t think that they will get to 4e level complexity, but I think that with the right expansions they can hit the level of early 3.5/Pathfinder. So far my response is that the current version is meh, but that the right amount of support may change that. Sadly, most OSR blogs don’t seem to be more enthusiastic about.

    @Lunatic, you are right that taking away DDI support will kill 4e. Hopefully they realize that this move will not make 5e more popular.

    @EiC, yes we can build up characters manually, but there are several issues with this. 1) Having to manually check all the errata, 2) Dragon magazine had lots of content over the years and anybody who hasn’t downloaded every issue will lose that. 3) A lot of people I know used DDI and didn’t buy all the books. 4) Even if you have all of the books and downloaded every Dragon article, you run into the indexing problem. For 3.5 a lot of people used the Crystal Keep indices to organize their character building. I don’t think anybody’s done this for 4e because we’ve had the compendium. I hope they at least provide/sell a version of the compendium when they pull DDI support.

  16. Thomas Scott says:

    Personally, I pray that they don’t add more 4e stuff in D&D Next. The idea that we need to make this more like 4e is wrong in my opinion. 4e has a history of only 4 years whereas D&D itself goes back to the late 70s. It is a far better strategy, in my opinion, to work on attracting/bringing back the large crowd of players that have enjoyed the 30+ years of D&D games and not to cater to the crowd that has jumped on board the 4e wagon over that past few years. Now, this is coming from someone who didn’t particularly like 3e and jumped into 4e with both feet and contributed 7 adventures to the Living Forgotten Realms campaign for the RPGA. I have a stack of 4e books and was totally into 4e over the past 3+ years. But what I’ve seen in D&D Next so far looks exactly like the kind of D&D that I want to play.

  17. @Thomas – I appreciate your opinion, but I could not disagree more. If you want D&D Next to be “exactly like the kind of D&D that I want to play”, then go play it. Pull out your old AD&D and 2nd Ed books and make up some houserules, and go for it! But don’t expect me to jump up and down for a hybrid of old editions I already played for over 25 years. In its current form, Next if a combo of 2nd Ed and 3rd Ed, with enough odd house rules to make sure WotC doesn’t get accused of self-plagiarism. 4E was a new and cool way to play D&D, and it solved problems we’d been having to houserule around for three decades. And its a real tragedy that the GSL ensures that there will be no 4thfinder around for those of us who have no interest in playing WotC’s desperate grab for market share. So you’ll forgive me if I think your comment is short-sighted – I don’t think WotC’s little 5E experiment is going to work, and the grognards will still be playing their old editions while the betrayed 4E crowd turns into a community of edition warriors.

  18. James Geluso says:

    I’ve been playing D&D since the ’80s too. And on the first day of 4e, I was wowed, because my eladrin wizard had multiple options every turn, and we didn’t die.

    Those two things — multiple at-will attack options and more hit points — are the things that make 4e awesome.

    I think 4e made a mistake in scaling up monster hit points as well. When kobolds have 20-something hp, but we’re doing about the same amount of damage as we were in 1e-3e, combats get long. Minions almost solved the problem, but I don’t think they were used enough: rarely was an encounter (even two guards outside the fort) all minions, and there was always the concern that players would waste a daily on minions and be frustrated. I think that is the real reason, more than interrupts and power selection, that 4e combat takes too long.

    So I like where 5e is going, for now. I agree the fighter needs more attack styles but I think that’ll come.

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