This year’s DDXP was a very interesting one, as I suspected. We were actually able to get there, unlike last year, though Fort Wayne’s weather seems persistant in its attempts to keep us out. In order to help finance the trip, and because I was one of the few who had an early look at the new D&D, I volunteered to DM seven four-hour slots of the new game to eager players. While I only ended up running four games of it (mostly because I was too tired to do any more than that), I had a blast and felt good about the games that I ran. Like everyone who played, I signed an NDA (though in my case, several months ago) that prevents me from discussing the exact rules being used. What I can discuss are some general feelings after running the game, some various impressions I heard as someone not involved with the design of the game but from talking to players, and tell you about the other games I played.
Into the Caves of Chaos
As was revealed prior to the show, the adventure that most (if not all) the DMs running the playtest was the Caves of Chaos, a portion of the original Keep on the Borderlands adventure. We used the same exact map of the caves, with the statistics updated for the new system. I mentioned to some of the other DMs how funny it was to be running an adventure released in 1979 on an iPad.
To be honest, I had some hesitation about this. For one, I wasn’t blown away with the game during my one short session as a player. Secondly, sandbox-style games have never much been my thing, either as a DM or a player. Every game I run I try to include a number of elements of the PCs influencing the world, but I prefer to focus on possible storylines rather than let the game work out the stories. Thus, the Caves of Chaos didn’t strike me as an adventure I’d enjoy running. I discussed with ChattyDM and THE Shawn Merwin about some ways to jazz it up a bit, including adding some 5×5 method elements (obviously my favorite implementation of sandbox-style) to it.
Well, I was wrong. Each of the four tables I ran went great, without adding else to the adventure. Part of that is that I feel pretty comfortable as a DM and rolling with the punches, part of it was how the system does a really good job of making me feel empowered as a DM, and most of it had to do with having 100% awesome players in every game (no matter what version of D&D they liked best.) Lemme break those each down a little bit.
Rolling With the Punches
Adopting a “say yes” philosophy lets me run games on the fly a lot easier than what I used to. While fighting a player’s questions would close off options and ideas, saying yes means I had something to run with when trying to figure out what happens next (or what would happen later.)
Additionally, the new D&D contains a piece of 4e game design technology that goes a long way to helping power story and connecting characters to the adventure: themes. Without getting into the mechanics, it’s easy to look at the character themes (just by their names alone, but backed up by the rules) how the Neverwinter book uses them: as a way to tie the PCs directly into an adventure, and give them goals based around them. By just asking a few open-ended questions at the beginning of the session, I was able to figure out how things could go, and link the characters to what was already there. For example, if a player told me his character was searching for a lost mentor, I could tell him that there was evidence that Bugbears had taken him, and instantly, the character had a goal. That kind of thing made it much easier for me as a DM to run the adventure, and kept it from stalling out due to lack of motivation… even if the PCs main motivation was still “kill things and take their stuff.”
Here’s the overly broad and sweeping generalization I’ve made about the game: in AD&D 2e and before, many things just did not have rules, so the DM had to make them up. In 3e-4e, there were rules for many things. In this new edition, I feel like the presentation gives you the rules you most need, and then for rules that work by being the DM’s judgement call, it tells you specifically that it’s the DM’s judgment call. So for me it’s a nice balance between there being enough rules to guide me so it’s not consistently an arguing game, while still telling everyone that some rules are going to be based on what the DM says, no more, no less. If this was intentional, or even if this survives into the final version of the game, remains to be seen, but I like it so far.
At one point, we joked that the real test of the game would have been to recruit mediocre DMs. Of course, no RPG system is going to be able to insulate the game entirely from bad DMs, and having a sub-par DM isn’t the best thing for a playtest this early on in the process. Players were able to focus on the game and how it played without being distracted by a “that guy” DM. (Though, considering how many PCs I killed or captured, maybe the players didn’t feel the same about me!) That said, most of the credit for how the sessions went should go to what the players brought to the table. A random smattering of some of my favorite moments:
- The Elf Wizard returned to the Keep to do some research, and at one point requested that she find an expert in anthropology to discuss the various humanoid tribes’ culture. I noticed Mike Mearls was wandering around observing tables, so I asked him if he’d like to play that expert. After some questions (like “what’s my motivation?”) he launched into it, insisting that the Elf was tracking mud into his library before rattling off tribe names that I hurredly jotted down to use in the game. Afterward, while reporting back to her group, the Elf relayed what she knew, but said she didn’t get all of it because he was talking faster than she could take notes.
- The elaborately crafted plan by the Warlord to take out a minotaur hit a roadblock when the Paladin refused to attack it while it was held in place by magic. The Fighter, whose character had a crush on the Paladin, also followed suit thereafter, gobsmacking much of the group. However, they easily leapt back into the fight once the magic had worn off, smashing the dreaded minotaur to bits before it could get a good swing in.
- That same Paladin had previously charged a room full of stirges, and become close to death by blood loss, necessitating a several week recovery time back at the Keep.
- The Wizard and the Rogue, the last surviving members of their group, tossing money at an ogre while running by him to keep him at bay and allowing them to escape from the other monsters on their tail.
- How many adventurers decided that fire was the answer whenever the situation became dire.
This was just a small sample. One of the really cool things to observe was seeing players and DMs compare their experiences with each other. I understand that was often the case in the early days of D&D, and was also something I enjoyed when Keep on the Shadowfell came out (even if the reactions were decidedly more mixed.)
Was this all flowers and roses? By no means. While I certainly had fun at all my tables running the game, I talked to a few friends that I generally only see at conventions, and they were not fans of what they played. While the stated goal is to unite all D&D fans, there are going to be fans of every edition who are just want to keep playing the edition they enjoy… which is totally cool. While there seems to be a lot of unity around the new game by those who played it, it’s still too early to tell if the final game will bring enough of them to the new game to justify a whole new game, and how adaptable the new game will be to varying playstyles.
In previous years, we’ve heard just how good this event was, and I always lamented that my schedule didn’t even seem to allow me to play it. For an example, check out Matt’s report from last year that I missed. This year, I wanted to change that by getting together a group of people I wanted to game with to tackle the Battle Interactive. We also decided that we had played enough of 1st level D&D 4e, so we were going to use the rules for making higher level LFR characters to make a group of 11th level PCs to take it on. Of course, I played a ninja.
Unfortunately, for a number of factors (tiredness, unfamiliarity, structure of event that didn’t appeal to us, etc.) it never quite clicked for us and we bailed out early on the event. However, I still enjoyed playing D&D with the rest of the group, and the DM did a good job of dealing with a party of misfits. And most importantly, I got to have my ninja throw shurikens at a giant flying squid monster, and it was flippin’ sweet.
Magic: the Gathering
I’ve relapsed hard on Magic, after many years of staying off the stuff. The new Commander decks plus the release of the super-awesome Ravenlofty Innistrad set have caused me to dive back in to Magic. In addition to playing a 6-way Commander game (and getting knocked out first), I also played two booster drafts with some Dark Ascension whose pre-release was this weekend. After making a few draft decks that I was really happy with, I’m even diving in to making Standard-legal decks and thinking about entering constructed deck tournaments again. It’s all over.
Both games I was able to fit a “tribal” theme into my deck- the first was U/B zombies, backed up by a few key removal cards. The second deck was U/W spirits, with TWO of the spirit captains, where nearly all the deck was flying creatures.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying
Before the show, Phil and I had multiple requests to run the new Marvel RPG that we both worked on, scheduled to come out at the end of February. It turned out that we had enough interested players to run TWO sessions of it. Just like the D&D games, both groups were great, and seemed to have a really good time taking on superheroes and trying to stop the supervillains. I feel like I’ve dropped the ball by not writing down all the various Spider-Man quips all throughout the playtesting process. I did remember the one from this session however, as Spider-Man rips a metal door off its hinges and tosses it to Colossus to hit the bad guy with:
In Soviet Russia, jail breaks YOU!
Of NDAs and TPKs
Non-disclosure agreements, while common in some industries, are one of those things that is still being adapted to in the tabletop gaming industry, which still continues to find its proper place in an increasingly connected and open world. Initially, the seminars were going to be NDA-protected, which fortunately ended up not being the case. The game itself was in a separate section, where you had to sign an NDA to enter, and couldn’t take any of the materials out with you. Now, I’m not defending or condemning this practice: I don’t work for a Fortune 500 company and know everything that goes into these kinds of decisions, which I’m sure are more complex than they appear. And as a freelancer for multiple companies, I’m quite used to staying silent on topics that the companies want protected. While I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would love nothing more for me to break my agreements and share all the information with the world, I don’t think that ultimately serves anyone’s interests.
It does create weirdness, especially at an open convention like this. You get corporate weirdness, like Paizo employees not being able to participate in the playtest. You also get social weirdness, like trying to figure out what you can and can’t talk about with others at the convention while eating dinner, and making sure that everyone you’re discussing with has already signed the proper papers. Then when you attend seminars, and they’re revealing some of the rules, it’s hard to judge what rules you can then discuss with the public, because the guys in charge have talked about it. Finally, you get social media, or you know, blogging while trying to judge what you can and cannot tell the world while dying to share with all your readers/followers/friends.
Ultimately, the game is going to come out, and the NDAs won’t matter. I’m not even sure what the open playtest coming in the Spring is going to do, because if they do try and enforce an NDA on it as well, it’s going to be even tougher to control. It will, at some point, become moot, and for those who still need to decide whether to buy the game or not, all the information will be out there because it’ll be available in stores. In the meantime, I’ve never signed any kind of agreement that has specified that I’m only allowed to talk positively about something, so I’m going to continue to report on developments when and where I can to the best of my abilities. I co-founded Critical Hits in order to talk about the things I’m passionate about, and D&D is definitely one of those things I’m passionate about. DDXP did a great job of reminding me of everything I love about D&D and gaming (and a few things that annoy me too), and I hope to keep that enthusiasm going and contribute helpful feedback to the next version of D&D as it gets developed.