Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Playtesting DnDNext Part 6: Mini-Taur

Partially disoriented by the magical befuddlement of the Minotaur Maze in the Caves of Chaos, Bob the Dwarf, Lily the Halfling, Cary Cycax, and new girl Lucy battled a dozen pesky stirges, which didn't do much damage but took about ten rounds to wipe out and didn't gain them a single coin of treasure, which they didn't much enjoy.

Aimlessly wandering left, then right, then left, they chanced upon the cavern that led straight to the Minotaur's hangout. Making plenty of noise as they approached (they all rolled below 10 on Dexterity or Stealth rolls), the Minotaur came charging.

For this big battle -- likely the final combat before Television's Ryan Callahan and the heart-and-soul of Cary Cycax had to head back to New York City as the weekend drew to a close -- I decided to spring the Dwarven Forge pieces out of semi-retirement. It was a chance to test D&D Next with a tactical battlefield. The theater of the mind gave way to miniatures and 5'x5' squares. Line of sight could be clearly determined. It was new D&D, 4e style.

And it felt like it.

I like playing 4th Edition, and I've seen players of all ages pull some fun tactical combos during combat. But D&D Next, until this Dwarven-Forge-enabled session with the Minotaur, felt more wide open. Anything was possible.

The Minotaur battle, with the D&D Next rules, but the detailed 3D battlefield and miniatures felt clinical compared to the fun we'd been having with the new rules until then. Here's what happens: once you turn the game from a conversational, improvisational, imaginative game with some dice rolls to a game that has a board and tiny little figures and a specific dimensionality, the creativity turns from artistic imaginings and "yes, and..." to precise tactical moves and linear decision-making.

Let me put it this way, when you play Monopoly, you don't imagine that you are actually a giant top hat marching through Atlantic City, wheeling and dealing with renters. Once D&D takes a miniature-based focus, it becomes a game where the attention is on what's in front of the players on the game board, rather than what the players themselves are doing and saying.

And 4th Edition cannot accurately be played without miniatures and battle maps. D&D Next can. And should.

It was a good idea to test D&D Next, in this Minotaur encounter, with minis, to see what happened. But the battle was dry, almost colorless, compared to the previous battles. So now we know. Leave the Dwarven Forge in the basement. Use it to re-enact Dolph Lundgren Punisher scenes with Heroclix.

The Minotaur battle also taught us another thing about the mechanics of D&D Next. The "Disadvantage" disadvantage is devastating. The Minotaur was blinded in the first round, and though he lashed out at Bob the Dwarf and hit him a few times, he stumbled over rubble and missed far more often than he hit. And Lily and Cary Cycax blasted away from a distance, doing over 100 damage to the Minotaur in just over a handful of quick rounds.

It's worth noting that D&D Next, already accused of giving less options to characters, didn't become roll-hit/miss/damage/or-not/go until we played with the miniatures. It was the context of the game, not the rules themselves, that changed it to become more vanilla.

Luckily, the flavor returned to the game when the Minotaur was killed, Cary Cycax cut off his head as a trophy and the hidden treature horde was found. Secure in the hidden treasure room, the adventurers camped out and took their first long rest since entering either the Gallery of Death or the Minotaur Maze. And with some time on his hands, and the smithing/armoring skills of Lily the Halfling, Cary Cycax decided to customize his scale mail, by weaving the Owlbear hide into his protective gear.

By the next morning, the adventurers were ready for more, and Cary Cycax, Cleric of Pelor, had a new, intimidating look to match the brave face he wore as he prepared for further adventures in the Caves of Chaos:


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Playtesting DnDNext Part 5: Owlbear Rug

The Owlbear, as it turned out, wasn't particularly difficult to kill at all. A few well-placed blasts of holy light, some hacks from the greataxe and smashes of the warhammer, and a sneaky backstab and the Owlbear was slain before he could knock any of the good guys unconscious.

Because of the low hit point totals for the adventurers, after their Ooze troubles, I did lower the Owlbear's hit points (figuring that it would make for a more even matchup, and it made in-story sense since the creature would have just finished fighting and possibly devouring Lucy's friends just moments before).

But I didn't need to lower the hit point total. They would have easily defeated the Owlbear anyway.

They decided to take a short rest in the Owlbear's lair, and Lily noticed that her character sheet gave her a trade that she hadn't yet talked about. She decided she had a blacksmith background, and between the metal of Lucy's fallen comrades and the equipment they all had in their packs, she could repair the armor and weapons damaged by the Ooze.

Meanwhile, Cary Cycax skinned the Owlbear, taking its pelt as a trophy.

After their rest, they checked out the final section of the Gallery of Death, and decided not to mess with the remaining Ooze. They'd had enough. Bob, Lily, Cary Cycax, and their new Cleric pal Lucy (who, if not a muppet played by an 8-year-old girl, would likely have been drawn into fierce theological arguments by Cary Cycax) crept back out into the thicket outside the caves and decided to climb higher, looking for another cave entrance.

What they found was mythical. Literally. From that Perseus story. It's pretty famous.

Google maps would have placed them at 1 Minotaur Main Street, Caves of Chaos, Gygaxianville.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Playtesting DnDNext Part 4: The Ooze

Instead of returning to the Kobold-kluttered entrance to the Caves of Chaos, Bob the Dwarf, Lily that Halfling, and the legendary Cary Cycax headed deeper into the ravine straight into the Gallery of Death, where they faced one wandering monster after another, starting with the vicious Gray Ooze.

The acidic watery tendrils of the Ooze bludgeoned Bob the Dwarf, eating into the shiny new shield and the fear of metallic decay on the heavily armed-and-armored warrior led him to flee the scene and gather his thoughts alone in the thicket outside as his allies tried to tackle the Ooze, without much luck.

Cary Cycax blasted the Ooze with holy light and Lily flung rocks from her sling, but the tide didn't turn in favor the intrepid heroes until Bob remembered that he had a piece of equipment to be named later, "from a previous campaign," according to his character sheet. He declared that it was an Obsidian Sword, a normal melee weapon in all respects, but invulnerable to the Ooze's metal-destroying touch.

Awesome. He hacked it to bits.

A handful of roaming rats nibbled at their ankles as they marched onward, deeper into the Gallery of Death, their footsteps crunching over the bones of other, less able, adventurers. (Probably from the original edition, when a Magic-User would get stuck with 2 hit points and cloth armor for extra deathening.)

The noise of footsteps, clanking armor rushing toward them, echoed through the caverns.

It was Lucy, Cleric of Moradin. Played daughter's muppet.

My daughter declared, at the beginning of the day's game, before entering the Gallery of Death, that her muppet wanted to play too. So...a chance to test out the Cleric of Moradin, with the muppet rolling her dice and a tiny voice from behind the chair making decisions for the character. (Don't let my daughter know, but I could totally see her moving the muppet's arms and mouth. Shh.)

Lucy the Cleric of Moradin had lost her party in the caverns. They had been killed by the Owlbear who took the bodies back to its lair.

Bob, Lily, and Cary Cycax joined Lucy in her quest for vengeance, with Owlbear hate in their hearts, and lingering injuries from the Ooze battle. But they were not to be deterred. There was an Owlbear to kill, and how difficult could that be?


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Playtesting DnDNext Part 3: The Legend of Cary Cycax

Part Three of my family's continuing adventures in playtesting DnDNext. Read Part One and Part Two if you haven't. Both good.

Day One of playtesting, about 45 minutes total, brought Bob and Lily into wily combat with wandering Bugbears and guardians of a nasty Kobold nest. There was little role-playing, but plenty of improvisational battle moves.

Day Two of playtesting brought a different flavor, with the arrival of Television's Ryan Callahan, who joined our playtest group for the weekend, playing the righteous Cleric of Pelor, named Cary Cycax.

Television's Ryan Callahan played Cary Cycax as a declarative huckster of the sun god, proselytizing with nearly every sentence he uttered.

Bob and Lily joined forces with Cary Cycax to journey back into the CAVES OF CHAOS, but first they headed to the town of Mort, which they made up, because they said they could rest there and get some supplies.

On the way to Mort, only a few miles hike through the deforested landscape -- Mort was built using a primitive clear-cutting strategy -- they were attacked by a pair of Goblin brigands who were easily dispatched by the ray of light from Cary Cycax's staff and the vicious cleaver of Bob the Dwarf. Television's Ryan Callahan, unprompted, eloquently described the soul of a dead Goblin leaving his body, as his corpse withered under the eye of Pelor. Playing off this kind of make-up-the-details-as-you-go roleplaying, my son described the gushing blood from his Goblin victim washing over his Dwarven body, healing all his wounds with magical power.

I vetoed that one.

For everyone on the D&D forums whining about how DnDNext relies too much on DM fiat, I will say as I have always said, "any decent DM will say yes to anything, unless it is completely out of the realm of even fake-medieval-super-magical reality." So no magical healing blood spewing from Goblin bodies all of a sudden.

When they arrived at Mort, I had each player name one famous town landmark. My daughter said, "The Great Window," my son said, "The Casino," and Television's Ryan Callahan said, "The Bottomless Trough." "Is that the name of an all-you-can eat restaurant?" "No, it's just a trough, that's bottomless."

The Great Window turned out to be a platform looking out in the distance toward a simmering volcano. The Bottomless Trough turned out to be less interesting than it sounds, and it didn't even sound interesting. And the Casino -- renamed The Gaming House of Mort -- led to a rousing game of Three Dragon Ante, where Lily the Halfling used her "Luck" to win a handful of gold pieces and a Dwarven heavy shield for Bob's use -- assuming he could find a one-handed weapon to use instead of relying on his greataxe. Didn't those dead Goblins have maces? They did. Bob could run back outside of town and pick his choice of bloody Goblin mace for no money down and no easy payments of 0 gps per day.

The party slept at The Inn. Tomorrow, THE RETURN TO THE CAVES OF CHAOS, healed-up and now with a heavy shield. Of justice.

Speaking of justice, friend, have you let the divine light of Pelor into your heart?


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Playtesting DnDNext Part 2: Kobold and Run

Part Two of my family's continuing adventures in playtesting DnDNext. Read Part One if you haven't. It's good.

After defeating the Bugbears, and getting mightily bruised in the process with no healing in sight (without a Cleric around, healing doesn't much happen in DnDNext until an overnight sleepover), Bob the Fightin' Dwarf and Lily the Rogueish Halfling entered the CAVES OF CHAOS [Booming voice].


Though accustomed to balanced encounters and passive perception from 4th Edition, my son, playing Bob, was wise enough to slowly lead the procession into the nearest cave entrance, where he uncovered a dangerous pit trap before falling into it himself.

That pit trap would become the centerpiece of their entire anti-Kobold strategy soon enough, for within a round, six Kobold guards chanced upon our already-battered heroes.

Spear-flinging and responsive strategy ensued.

My daughter, playing Lily, leaped backwards over the pit and enticed the Kobolds to try to come toward her, picking them off with her sling when they tried to maneuver around the fragile edges of the ten-foot drop. Bob swung his greataxe with gusto, slamming nearby Kobolds into cavern walls and -- in a desperate move with only a few hit points remaining -- swung his axe into the spine of one last Kobold, catapulting its corpse on top of its fallen brethren in the pit below.

Two of the Kobolds had already fled deeper into the caves, presumably to get help, but our tiny wounded party didn't pursue. They staggered out of the mouth of the cave, into the sunlight, seeking help. They couldn't delve further without healing, or without assistance from the gods.

Luckily, Cary Cycax, Cleric of Pelor, was only a few hundred feet away.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Playtesting DnDNext Part 1: Bugbears Eat Meat

As you may (or may not) know, Wizards of the Coast released their public beta test of the new D&D rules yesterday. Currently called "DnDNext" or some variation of that, the rules are stripped-down and much more in tune with the simpler, earlier editions, pre-bloat, and they are a clear attempt by Wizards to engage players young and old by paring D&D back to its most essential components, while still making the system run smoothly.

The playtest rules are closer in spirit to the game I first started playing -- with the Moldvay Basic rules, 30 years ago -- than the 4th Edition rules that have been the core game for the past three years.

My daughter, the artist in the family, just discovered my Basic D&D books last week, after asking about how long I've been playing. When I showed her all the dungeon maps I created when I was 10, she busted out the old graph paper and started making her own, full of traps and secret doors and dangerous passages.

She's part of my DnDNext playtest team, definitely, with her two years of experiences (even at only age 8) with 4th Edition, and her multiple-sessions-worth-of-experience with both Gamma World and Mutants & Masterminds. She prefers Dexterity-heavy sneak-attack characters in every kind of game she plays.

The other member of my DnDNext playtest team is my son, now age 11, who has also been playing 4th Edition D&D for two years, along with Gamma World and Mutants & Masterminds. He likes to play weapons-master characters, ones that can smash stuff with axes and swords and maybe do some cool cinematic moves at the same time. He's an astute critic of these games already, and he can tell you why he likes Gamma World better than 4th Edition (more creative potential, more absurdity) and he comes to any tabletop game with hundreds of hours of video game experiences and a preference for pixels over papers and pencils.

So we busted out the DnDNext playtest packet, on my iPad, with just a character sheet printed out for each of the two players. My son chose the Dwarf Fighter and my daughter chose the Halfling Rogue. No surprises there.

I went mini-less and battle-map-less, because if there's one thing that would emphasize that DnDNext is NOT a tweaked version of 4th Edition, it's the lack of map-centric powers and abilities. Sure, we could have used a map to show positions in combat, but it wasn't necessary -- a few quick lines on a piece of paper showed where everything was in relation to one another -- and the battle in the "theater of the mind" was just as much fun for the kids than anything they'd ever played in 4th Edition or Gamma World or Mutants & Masterminds.

But I'll get to that later.

Before we started on our way, with Bob the Dwarf and Lily the Halfling on their way to explore the Caves of Chaos, my son expressed hesitation about his underpowered character. 15 AC for a fighter??? No special moves??? He declared DnDNext a terrible game, even before we started marching the characters toward their cavernous doom.

My daughter didn't care either way, she just wanted to make sure her character was named after one of her friends at school.

On the way to the Caves, they chanced upon a couple of Bugbears gnawing on an animal carcass. Bob the Dwarf charged in, greataxe blazing. Lily the Halfling tried to climb a tree and leap down on them from above. She failed her first attempt, but chose to use another action to try again, figuring that leaping from above, even delayed a turn, was better than charging in with her tiny dagger.

They dispatched the Bugbears swiftly, with Bob improvising a move to smash one of the monsters into the other, knocking down his foul compatriot, and Lily dropping down to stab the fallen Bugbear in the eye. Vicious little kids, desensitized to violence, what has this country come to, etc, etc, it was awesome.

My son's negativity lingered, but once he got to the Caves of Chaos, everything would change and his grumpy playtesting approach turned to, "hey, this was a lot more fun than I expected."

Find out why next time.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wednesdays: Come Out and Play

On Wednesdays, beginning on May 16th and running for the next three months, I will be running D&D Encounters at Fantasy Realms in Pittsfield, MA from 4:30-6:30 each week.

The May 16th session is for character creation, and each following week will feature a mini-installment (or encounter) of the "Web of the Spider Queen" adventure written by Logan Bonner.

The whole purpose of the D&D Encounters program is to bring in new players, and to have some regular fun for people who can come in for a week, but might miss other weeks, and everyone can still have a good time. If you don't create a character -- or bring a suitable character to play (email me for details) -- then you'll play one of the cool pre-gen characters provided by Wizards of the Coast.

Why am I running D&D Encounters locally? Well, I want to play it, and no one else is running it, so I might as well just take charge of the thing. And I've been running D&D games at home with friends and family for the past two years and a little bit after school this year, so I figured making it a formal weekly thing would be a good idea.

All my friends and family members and anyone else can swing by on Wednesday afternoons and play.

It's limited to 5 players per week, so contact me or Fantasy Realms to sign up for certain Wednesdays, and I will see you there!