It has been approximately two years since I last played Dungeons & Dragons. I have supplemented my lack of D&D goodness with other roleplaying games such as Blade Raiders and Star War Edge of the Empire, and fun distractions like SolForge. But now that the next edition of D&D is alive and finally a real thing, I am quite excited to dive in, kick the tires, and butcher any number of metaphors while discussing the rules – and hopefully many future gaming sessions to follow.
During the past few days, I have read through some of the Basic Rules, which are available for free, and the Starter Set Rulebook. The following observations are from the perspective of a player and Dungeon Master that truly cut his teeth on 4th Edition, which may make me a bit of a rarity. And they are also made having not played the game yet. I am eager to try the rules and see if my initial impressions are accurate – or completely misguided. Below, I write about a few rules that caught my attention – for better or worse.
The Basic Rules start with a Disclaimer that immediately demonstrates to the reader that the designers have a sense of humor:
Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of splitting up the party, sticking appendages in the mouth of a leering green devil face, accepting a dinner invitation from bugbears, storming the feast hall of a hill giant steading, angering a dragon of any variety, or saying yes when the DM asks, “Are you really sure?”
It is a small thing, but this lighthearted spirit is a nice welcome mat for new and veteran players alike.
The “gender balance” was another positive thing I noted early. The book does not assume only males are playing the game. For example, early in the Starter Set Rulebook the is a brief vignette from a game demonstrating an interaction between a DM and two players (one male, one female). One of the odd things about reading through the massive Edge of the Empire rulebook is that all of the pronouns for the game master and players were male. The art in the Starter Set Rulebook includes five illustrations that contain characters:
- Page 1 – a male and two female fighting a dragon
- Page 2 – four males and two females resting around a campfire
- Page 8 – two males and two females fighting a host of monsters
- Page 14 – two males and two females exploring a dungeon
- Page 20 – a lone, ambiguously-sexed wizard casting a spell
That’s five illustrations with nine males, eight females, and a wizard who is likely a female (although I could be talked into it being a male as well). That is pretty righteous balance, and it is probably calculated – but good for the art directors! In addition, of the eight (or nine) female characters portrayed, there is nary a line of cleavage to be found. Two of the women are wearing full plate armor, carrying a shield, and brandishing a sword; one of them is even rocking the Katniss braid!.
It seems the designers truly want to bring as many people as possible to this edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The first impression in this regard has been a good one.
When I played an early version of the D&D Next playtest, I was intrigued by the Advantage mechanic. I like the simplicity rather than calculating a variety of possible bonuses and penalties. When a character has advantage, they roll two 20-sided dice (d20) and take the higher result; when a character has disadvantage, they roll two d20s and take the lower result. And it is a powerful effect! If you are new to a discussion about how advantage and disadvantage change the odds for players and monsters, then read this fantastic breakdown of the math behind the mechanic. For example, imagine a player needs to a roll a 10 for success. Without any modifiers, a player has an 55% chance of rolling a 10 or higher on a d20. The chance of success increases to almost 80% when a player is rolling with advantage, and drops to less than 31% when a player rolls with disadvantage. I am glad Advantage is still in the game, and look forward to seeing players eager to use it – and fearful when monsters use it against them.
A frequent lament I had during the later stages of running 4th Edition games was the runaway number of critical hits that occur during combat encounters. Critical hits should feel special – and surprising. In 4e, critical hits became a tactic that players (and parties) could build around. Here is a snippet from the article I linked to earlier in the paragraph:
There is also a new combination in our party between the Cleric and Barbarian. The Cleric chose the Divine Oracle Paragon Path, which gives him the Prophecy of Doom encounter power. This power allows the Cleric or an ally who hits the target with an attack to automatically make it a critical hit. This power has been used at the table for several months but there was not a Barbarian in the party. Now Prophecy of Doom sets up the Barbarian (outfitted with a High Crit weapon) to obliterate just about any monster with an auto-crit attack that levels 80-100+ points of damage. And this combination can and will (and should) be used in every encounter by my players moving forward in the campaign.
I was hopeful that the next edition of D&D would maintain the purity (and rarity) of critical hits, so various character-build combinations could not be exploited to routinely land critical hits. It looks like the expanded crit range is here to stay.
On page 26 of the Basic Rules the Improved Critical ability is listed under one of the Fighter’s possible Martial Archetypes, which expands the critical range to 19-20. This ability can be selected at the 3rd Level, which seems really early. I can only imagine that other classes will have builds that feature an expanded crit range, not to mention magic items or other boons that would allow a critical to be landed on something other than a roll of 20. This is a bit disappointing because it reduces the excitement of a critical hit, and could (let me stress again, could) result in players becoming overpowered.
One rule the designers have changed from 4th Edition is that critical hits no longer deliver maximum damage. In 4e, a critical hit with a weapon that does 4d8+7 damage resulted in 39 damage every time. In the new edition of D&D, critical hits results in the player rolling their damage dice twice to account for damage; in this example, the player would roll 8d8+7. The range of possible outcomes for this critical hit is 15 – 71 with an average outcome around 43 points of damage. This adds a great deal of unpredictability to critical hits.
I will now test this out with three rolls for a critical hit with a weapon that does 2d6+3 damage normally, which would become 4d6+3 with the new rules. The three results were (trust me) 10, 16, and 19. A critical in 4e from a 2d6+3 weapon would result in 15 damage. In my limited sample, one roll was actually less than max damage, one roll was almost exactly the same, and the final roll outpaced the old rule. So a critical hit could do more, less, or about the same damage as a non-critical hit, which feels clunky.
If this is an answer to accommodate for the expanded crit range, then nip the problem in the bud and eliminate expanded crits. I am eager to see this mechanic in action at the table, but it is quite possible I will houserule to only natural 20s resulting in max damage. What do other people think about the critical hit rules?
I previously wrote an article gushing about Edge of the Empire’s Obligation system. For those unfamiliar with EotE, Obligation is something a character must start out with before the adventure begins; it’s basically a debt (of some form) that hangs over the player’s head. Rules exist tin EotE o help the game master (GM) decide if any of the player’s Obligation comes into play during the current segment of the adventure. At the very least, it forces a player to spend a bit more time constructing a backstory for his or her character, and gives the GM some potential plot hooks for future use. The Bond feature is presented on page 35 of the Basic Rules, and there are numerous random d6 tables for Bonds associated with different character Backgrounds. Given my enjoyment of the Obligation system, I love the inclusion of Bond even if there are no other mechanics currently tied to this piece of character building.
The DM could gauge the interest in their gaming group about how much each player would like his or her Bond to affect the overall course of the campaign. It is possible some players will roll the d6, select a Bond, and be done with it; but other players may use this as a springboard to create a lively backstory in the hopes of finding closure at some point during the journey. A group could ignore Bond completely, but at least it is there to encourage players to do more during character creation than simply select abilities and fill in a character sheet with numbers.
Spell Levels – Spells & More Spells
This is a clear example of my unfamiliarity pre-4th Edition D&D; the spell levels are confusing. Let me first state the obvious – this is not a major concern, and I am fully capable of making a distinction between player level and spell level. But it is unnecessarily confusing for player who might be playing D&D for the first time. Why not spell tiers?
Another interesting piece about spells is that the list of spells comprises eight of the 32 pages (25%) in the Starter Set Rulebook, which seems like an inordinate amount of space devoted to two character classes that might not be used by a player just learning the game. The Basic Rules devote 22 of 115 pages (19%) to the spell lists. I realize spell effects need to be listed, but it strikes me that spells take up a significant amount of real estate in these documents.
The new list of Conditions found on page 32 of the Starter Set Rulebook (and page 105 of the Basic Rules) does away with many of the really frustrating 4th Edition conditions such as Dazed, Dominated, and Weakened. It does maintain Stunned, but hopefully this condition is not used often. The addition of Charmed is a nice one, as it seems to apply more to non-combat encounters; the charmer has advantage (see above) on any ability check to interact socially with the creature. I imagine many a Rogue will be using the Charmed condition to good effect in taverns around The Forgotten Realms!
The other condition that caught my attention was Poisoned. In addition to any damage a creature might suffer from the effect, the creature also has disadvantage on all attack rolls. I immediately consulted the equipment table and found that a bottle of poison costs 100 gold pieces (gp) and can be applied to one weapon or three pieces of ammunition before it is spent – the poison becomes inert after one minute, which leaves plenty of time to use it during an entire combat encounter. I am uncertain how easy gp will be to come by, but there is a Red Viper of Dorne character concept just waiting to take shape!
Last, I miss Bloodied. I think that was a useful mechanic, especially when it came to building monsters and kicking them into “another gear” to liven up the second half of an encounter. I wonder if that condition will return at some point.
Disengage and Opportunity Attacks
The economy of actions has been changed from 4th Edition, and the concept of Shift has been replaced (sort of) with the Disengage action. A player must spend an action to Disengage from a creature in melee range or else a movement would provoke an Opportunity Attack. In 4e, a player could make an attack against a character – then use a Move Action to Shift; not so in this edition. Disengage is a “full” action, and you can only take one of those each turn. So you cannot attack then Disengage – or Disengage then attack. A player could Disengage then move, but would not be able to attack at the end of his or her movement.
This is one of those rules I will need to experience many times to get a feel for it. My initial thoughts are that this will result in more stagnate combats. In 4e, players had options to attack the creature in front of them and then set up their next move. In this edition, players seem to have an either/or choice – continue attacking the creature or disengage to get in better position. I am wondering how many players will forego a chance to attack to move around the encounter area. As a player, I doubt I would give up a chance to attack (ie, roll some dice) so I could move around the area. Again, I need to see this rule in action for a few sessions.
On a related note, the Opportunity Attack (OA) rules are a bit cloudy to me at this point. From what I gather from the three paragraphs on OAs (page 12 in Starter Set Rulebook or page 74 in the Basic Rules), and the Reactions segment (page 9 in Starter Set Rulebook or 70 in the Basic Rules) a character can only make one opportunity attack each round. As an example, three goblins and one orc are standing in a room with the hulking orc playing the role of bodyguard. Three adventures run past the orc to cut short the life of the dangerous-looking goblin spellcaster standing in the back of the room. It is my understanding that the orc only gets one opportunity attack against the first player to run by him. And if that is the case, keeping track of who – and who has not – taken an OA each round could get cumbersome. Perhaps all OAs will be at the discretion of the DM, and maybe that is a good thing. I recall 4e being a nightmarish chain of actions and triggered reactions, so I am eager to see if this plays cleaner!
A final thought on the movement and opportunity attack rules is that a player could (in theory) move his or her speed in circles around a creature in melee range without provoking an OA as long as they do not move away from a threatened space. I am still thinking in a 4e mindset given I played a Rogue and getting Flanking was a major goal for me during combat encounters. It seems the DM will need to adjudicate this type of “circling” action so it does not become silly.
My first impression is that the new system is deadlier than 4th Edition. Dropping to 0 hit points requires the player to make Death Saving Throws. The player becomes Stable if they roll three successes and dies if they roll three failures. The successes and failures do not need to be consecutive. A few wrinkles make the saves more interesting. First, a natural 20 results in the player getting 1 hp, and thus succeeding. Second, a natural 1 results in a player getting two failures. So anytime a player fails one save, they are literally one roll of the die away from death. Third, a player suffers a failed save anytime they take damage. Imagine a player is consumed by a fireball and drops to 0 hit points with ongoing fire damage. That player could be dead in the next turn since they will suffer a failed save when they take fire damage, and could roll a 1 resulting in two more failures – and death. Exciting!
All These Changes Taking Place…
For those who did not catch the reference in the title, this should explain it:
I did not realize how much I missed Dungeons & Dragons until I dove into the new rules over the past week. I have a game session planned for next weekend, and I am excited to play again. I may even start painting minis again.
The sky is the limit!
How are you reacting to the new material – and my initial thoughts above?