After years of development and playtesting, the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons is upon us. My initial impressions of the free-to-download Basic Rules and Starter Set were favorable, and I was eager to play a few sessions with the new rules. After deciding that I would dust off my Dungeon Master screen and run the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, I needed to find an intrepid group of characters. I had the privilege of leading five players through the first major delve described in the Starter Set. What follows are my early thoughts on running the new rules and Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure over the course of an epic, 10-hour session with a specific focus on character creation, combat speed, combat presentation, and character death. Specific details contained in the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure are avoided, so players awaiting a chance to play the adventure can read further without having a future gaming experience spoiled.
Each player ignored the pre-generated characters included in the Starter Set and created their own. While I was organizing a few last-minute details before the session got underway, the players helped each other create and finalize their character. It was a fun process, although it certainly took a good chunk of time as each player was searching for different rules at different times. A few people stumbled with the different modifiers and when they should be applied. For example, a weapon proficiency bonus is added to attack rolls, not damage rolls. The Passive Perception, Saving Throw, and Skills also took some time to calculate. I imagine (and hope) the Player’s Handbook will be more organized for character creation than the Basic Rules approach.
Even with the limited options available in the Starter Set, the players were able to find a character they were happy with in the end. The Ranger class was certainly missed by two of the players, but they made some style choices with their Fighters to feel more ranger-like. The party consisted of Elves and Dwarves; no Humans to be found. The Basic Rules provided alternative rules for Human characters, although they currently lack the distinction featured in the Elf and Dwarf races. When I created a character, I chose Human because of the across-the-board +1 bonus to Ability Scores. Taking the starting array provided on page 7 of the Basic Rules, a Human will start with the following stats: 16, 15, 14, 13, 11, 9. Not bad!
Once the nuts and bolts of character creation were finalized the players voiced that all of the information they needed throughout the session was readily available on their one page character sheet. This is a major change from 4th Edition, as players needed to manage their abilities and powers with various cards. I cannot recall how many sessions were delayed because one or two players had just updated their character and shouted, “Hang on, my cards are printing!” I imagine the character sheets will be increasingly cluttered as players advance from level to level, but it was great for each player to only have one sheet of paper to deal with.
As the DM, I thoroughly enjoyed supervising the character creation process, and it was wonderful to have each player briefly discuss their Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. Some players chose these while others rolled for a random result on the provided tables. It gave each player a chance to get to know their character in a bit more detail, and provided me with future plot hooks should I decide to venture off the rails of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure.
I originally started this blog to add to the ongoing discussion several years ago about combat speed in 4th Edition. I did not track the time spent in combat during the session, but I will (probably) do that at some point. The adventuring party went through six distinct combat encounters during the session. I cannot recall a time in 4th Edition when we completed six different combats in one session, and my group at that time would often play from 4PM to 2AM and beyond. After character creation, the adventure got started a little before 3PM, and we had a healthy dinner break before completing the session around 11PM. Even sans empirical data, I can confidently report that combat is significantly faster in the new edition.
My initial thoughts are only based on first-level characters, and I imagine combat will likely become more cumbersome as players and monsters advance in level. Also, Feats have not yet been introduced so that may slow down combat as players are processing more decision points and character options. One item of note is that all players – and the DM – were using the rules of combat for the first time. Questions were asked about range, movement, dice modifiers, etc. After a few encounters, these questions were answered and players felt more comfortable with the rules, which only increased the decision-making speed of players in combat.
Theater of the Mind vs. Grids
The Basic Rules make it clear that the new edition of D&D can be played without miniatures and a gridded map. Of the six combat encounters I ran, I used a wet-erase combat map for three of them. The remaining three were combats that were described in words without pushing around miniatures. Running the combats encounters was enjoyable with both approaches with Theater of the Mind working smoothly for quick skirmishes, and the combat map functioning well to illustrate an intricate cave system.
While playing 4th Edition, I was terribly spoiled by playing on The Ultimate Gaming Table and all the riches held within – 100s of miniatures and a dizzying array of terrain including over 20 sets of Dwarven Forge. Without those resources, I relied on 4th Edition materials that I still own; although finding them in storage required a Dungeoneering check as I explored the Harry Potter closet under our stairs! The tokens included in the 4th Edition Monster Vault are a wonderful alternative if you are not flush with D&D miniatures. The good news is that DMs can still find the Monster Vault and buy it for under $20 online. Even though it is a new edition of D&D, many 4th Edition materials can be useful; do not burn them!
The grid-based combat encounters did take on a more-tactical edge, but the rules of combat are the same (for now) if the encounter takes place in everyone’s imagination or on a grid. The rules of combat – and the options available to players and monsters – are limited compared to 4th Edition, so the major addition of time was me drawing the map as the players explored. The good news for gaming groups is the flexibility offered with the rules. I will likely continue to use the Theater of the Mind approach for at least half of all combat encounters. However, I enjoy the grid-based combat for more substantial threats including fights with a Big Bad Evil Guy. It is liberating to run combat encounters without thinking about drawing a map or figuring out how to make the terrain an interesting attraction.
Death & Dying
The initial combat encounter detailed in the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure provides a simple setting for players to learn the rules of combat. When I first read through the rules that apply to death, it seemed that this edition of Dungeons & Dragons was more deadly. Playing through six combat encounters confirmed this thought. I do not know how the threat of death will develop as players advance in level and become more robust, but I can firmly state that first-level characters are squishy, “delicate little flowers” and quite easy to kill – even by accident. Each character starts with approximately 10-12 hit points, and early monsters hit for at least 1d6+modifier damage. If monsters are smart and focus fire, then they can quickly drop characters with two solid hits down to 0 hit points during the first round of combat. There is also the threat of rolling a critical hit for the monsters, which will likely result in dropping a character to 0 hit points. Even simple combat encounters can kill characters.
The players in my group did not try to avoid combat early in the adventure. They handled the threats fairly well but multiple characters were dropped to 0 hit points and required death saves and healing. The players attempted to parlay with one monster and almost avoided a combat situation with a significant mob, but combat took place – and this is where my unfamiliarity with the new edition almost resulted in an unintentional total party kill (TPK). The adventure states that six monsters are in a room, and one of them is the leader. I used six monsters and a leader, so I added a threat without realizing it. I also did not adjust the encounter based on the fact that one of the players had to leave early, so the party was down to four members. The resulting bloodbath, led by me rolling a series of attack rolls in the high teens and a critical hit, left three characters dying and one character valiantly killing the last two monsters. The encounter was tense, and the players were on the edge of their seat (or standing) during the final die rolls as the last standing character took on the leader.
The increased threat of death is certainly a factor DMs and players will need to adjust to, especially if they are most familiar with playing 4th Edition in recent years. Without actively trying to run a brutal Fourthcore-like delve, the party suffered many wounds, each member was knocked to 0 hit points at least once, and they almost all died during the first portion of the adventure. And this ignores an early creature who – if certain conditions apply – can dish out a stunning (4d8+2) + (4d6) damage on a single hit, which auto-kills any character even with full hit points. The players actually made short work of this creature through a combination of good rolls and suspect DM tactics. As a DM, I found the outcomes of rolls to be more significant on a turn-to-turn basis during combat than my experience with 4th Edition. A run of bad rolls by the players or good rolls by the DM can make any combat encounter a whole bloody affair.
I had no intention of killing off the entire party during the first session unless they did something really foolish like climb down a steep 30 foot drop without a rope – which of course happened. The player failed a skill check and promptly fell taking 3d6 damage along the way; he was rescued by another player who used a rope to climb down to stabilize him. The lesson – falling hurts!
The day (and night) of gaming was a rousing success. Combat flowed smoothly through either description or the use of a grid-based map, although DMs and players should be aware that any combat encounter poses significant danger in the new edition. All players are eager to explore Phandalin and continue the campaign.