Initial Impressions of the New D&D

30 Second Summary

Though we know little about the final game, the foundations of the new D&D are solid. The focus on ability scores, flatter power progression, and faster gameplay give freedom to both players and dungeon masters. The refined nature of the game puts a focus on the imagination of the players and the story being told by the group. This early it’s hard to see what the final game will look like. Major components like advanced character creation, tactical combat, and high-level play are still deep in development. If groups have as much fun as the five in which I played, however, we have a good system on the horizon.

A Focus On Impressions, Not A Complete Picture

This writeup won’t cover all of the information available on the new D&D. Many write-ups, transcripts, and recordings of the seminars hosted by Wizards of the Coast at the Dungeons and Dragons Experience can be found at Enworld’s D&D Next page. If you want a greater view of the total of D&D, that’s the place to go.

In this article I’m going to talk about the four areas of D&D that left the biggest impression on me. Let’s start with attributes.

Ability Scores

Since 2nd edition, ability scores never seemed to serve any real purpose. The modifiers always mattered, but the scores just seemed to be bits of complication held back from the early days. I felt that getting rid of ability scores and focusing on the bonuses was the obvious evolution of the game. Other game systems embraced that idea. One might even go further and remove ability scores completely, focusing instead on attack and defense scores.

But ability scores are core to D&D. Everyone knows them. T-shirts make fun of them. Ability scores are a part of our culture, you can’t get rid of them.

And the D&D designers didn’t. Instead, they made ability scores actually matter. As discussed in the skills and abilities seminar, ability scores now act as a sort-of passive skill check. If you want to open a barred door and that door’s DC is 13. If you have a strength ability score of 15, you don’t even have to roll. You kick in the door. It’s elegant, simple, easy to understand, and uses the whole score instead of the ability bonus. There are still bonuses for abilities, but now the score itself means something to the game and that meaning actually makes everything else much faster.

The focus on ability scores means that the core of your character is represented by those six scores. Everything else is mainly a modifier of those scores. Every tweak to your character simply tweaks those scores. As stated by Monte Cook, everything else about your character grows out from these core ability scores.

Flattening Power Progression

In earlier editions of D&D, and particularly in D&D 4e, character power progression scaled linearly. In 4e, between feats, magic items, and level bonuses, you gained roughly +1 to attacks, defenses, and skills. Since this bonus modifies a d20, you can say that every level you gain roughly equates to a 5% greater chance to succeed at something. In 4e, when you’re fighting a creature five levels higher than you, it becomes 25% harder to hit and hits you 25% more often.

As described in the charting the course seminar, D&D’s new math is flatter. This means that these 5% bonuses might be farther and fewer across levels. Now lower level monsters can still hit you and you might miss them. It means that skill checks no longer seem impossible at lower levels and stupid easy at higher levels.

This flatter progression also empowers players to try things he or she might otherwise avoid. If the chance to hit with a crossbow is only one less than hitting with your sword, they might be willing to pick it up and shoot once in a while. Skill specialization might not give you the same giant bonus that it did in 4e, instead specialized skills might only be 5% or 10% easier than anything else you might do. You won’t run into the problem in 4e where you’re trying to argue a way to bench-press a throne when having a conversation with a noble lord because your diplomacy is 12 points lower than your athletics.

This flattening of the math not only helps ensure a greater balance across levels in the game, but opens up a much wider range of choices for players since they don’t feel stuck using only the things in which they specialized.

Speed

“Mike, you have five minutes left.”

“No problem, I only have one boss battle to run.”

That’s a real quote from one of the games I ran this past weekend. In the five games I played, every one of them packed a whole lot of story and a whole lot of action into the four hour game. We fought dozens of battles, navigated many traps and hazards, and engaged in all sorts of negotiations. Instead of calculating out the game by the number of battles (usually two to three), I added in an entire hour of the session to exploring a local town because I felt like I had the room.

We might have had ten battles spread out through these games. As shown in Greg Bilsland’s pictures from the event, some of them were free-form descriptions between the DM and the player, some of them had loose diagrams just to keep everyone on the same page, and some had full tactical maps with miniatures. I ran it all three of those ways without any real break in the narrative of the game. We simply used what made sense.

Returning to the Theater of the Imagination

“What do you mean I don’t have a dagger? Why didn’t they give me a dagger?”

“If only you had just been to a blacksmith who could have sold one to you for that silver you’re carrying.”

“…F$&k you.”

Two of the groups I had both went into the Caves of Chaos with very typical 4e empowerment. They had expectations about their capability and survivability. Both returned to the Keep bloodied, battered, and with a long shopping list of door-spikes, rope, poles, and crossbows. Both groups went out as 4e PCs the first time and old-school PCs the second. The entitlement they expected in the codified rules of 4e quickly transformed into the understanding that they would need to take hold of their own destiny. The world wouldn’t save them, they would have to save themselves, and the best weapons they had were their imaginations.

Once that transformation took place, the whole game changed. The antagonism between player and DM transformed into a true cooperative story. Described by Monte Cook as the core mechanic of the game, the players told the DM what they wanted to do and the DM told them whether they succeeded or not.

The Great Unknown

While the core of the game appears strong, there is still a lot we don’t yet know. Every version of D&D played well at lower levels but in six versions of D&D, high level play seems to fall apart. Only later will we see whether high level play keeps player challenge balanced, the game running fast, and remains fun for both players and DMs.

We also don’t yet know about the more advanced classes, classes for players who like to tweak their PCs and select from dozens of options to build a specific character.

The modular approach to tactical combat also remains a mystery. How will tactical combat will fit into the rest of the game? How modular such combat will actually be? A lot of that, I expect, is still up in the air.

We do know that we’ll get to see a good deal of it over the next few months and that WOTC will be paying attention to what we think. That, in itself, will hopefully make D&D Next the great game many of us hope it will be.

To avoid fueling the edition wars, I asked Dave to turn comments off on this article. If you have any thoughts, opinions, or impressions you would like to share, please feel free to email me or follow me on Twitter.