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.


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