Out of the NDA, And Into A Different NDA


As you may have noticed, the gaming world blew up recently due to the public D&D Next playtest coming online. I was part of the Friends & Family playtest group, and keeping it a secret has been like trying to use mouthwash made of angry bees around a kindergarten — you can’t open your mouth, or things get REAL. Now I’m free to talk about all the stuff I’ve been wanting to for months! Whee!

(Shameless plug: if you want to hear about everyone else’s experiences with the playtest, follow our brand-new twitterbot @dndnext!)

First Impressions

The first playtest materials we received in early January felt really familiar as a long-time D&D player: a limited class selection, Vancian magic, and a whole lot of mechanics that worked in a way I’d seen before. The strange thing was, it felt old — like the red box D&D set my brother used to have when I was a kid, and the 1e AD&D books I used to use in high school. That first night, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Dwarf or Elf as a class choice.

After reading more, I started to feel what I thought was the hand of Monte Cook in the game mechanics, and the game started to feel like 3.5e to me. Opposed skill checks, saving throws that weren’t a 50% chance, things like that. Oddly, when I talked to some of the more seasoned gamers in my group, they thought it felt like 2e.

I remember thinking then that this was a really strange phenomenon. WotC had announced by this point that their intention with D&D Next was to bring old gamers back into the fold but providing a system that’s still exciting for new players. And it’s still all supposed to “feel like D&D.”

This is where I started to get worried. Don’t get me wrong: the idea is noble and awesome and I love it forever and ever, but I’d be lying if I didn’t think the road was fraught with hella peril. It became apparent to me pretty early on that a major component of this game’s success  might be based on successfully overlaying nostalgia over something new, and people’s opinions of it may have very little to do with the product’s actual merits. I’ve also been around gamers my whole life, and I very seldom see them unite. On anything.

Even so, the concept of a light framework upon which you can attach whatever you want appealed greatly to me. I can’t see a reality in which this works without the system being modular, but I do wonder how in the world the actual implementation of said is going to look when it’s done.

But — make no mistake — holy crap am I excited about this.

Real World Playtesting Experience

As my group’s 4e campaign had slowed to a crawl and died over the past month or so, we decided we would just cut things off there and give the playtest a shot.

Our first experience was running through the provided Caves of Chaos module. Given my track record of hating to use pre-made modules, I was worried about this be the way to introduce a group to a new edition. It wasn’t too bad. Pretty much everything I didn’t like about it was just personal preference. It felt like a good old-school dungeon crawl (which it was, being an updated classic module). I’m just not particularly interested in that kind of stuff.

In fact, the strangest part to me about the entire experience was how much I really didn’t care about the game mechanics when running for my group. This seemed like a rather important thing to worry about when playtesting a brand-new edition of D&D.

Why? A few weeks previous, I’d been fortunate enough to go to DDXP, and to partake in one of the early playtests there. A couple of things happened there that shaped my opinion of D&D Next (and that I hope will shape yours). First, I went to a lot of the seminars the R&D Team put on to discuss design goals, and they talked an awful lot about something they were calling the Three Pillars: combat, exploration, and roleplay. I’ve always felt 4e was a little too combat-focused for my tastes, so to see the new edition putting the spotlight on the parts of the game I enjoy the most made me really happy. Second, I had a really awesome DM at the playtests they ran there who decided to go off the rails a little bit. We had about 15 minutes left and said he wanted to try something cool. He put the party in a room with a minotaur and said up front he wanted us to try out some unconventional tactics, just to show what the game can do. Before I knew it, we had the thing tangled up in chains and were dropping rocks on its head and that thing went down without our weapons being involved much. It was awesome.

Now, I’ve been playing this game a long time, and I know any DM in any edition could have done that. It’s just knowing that kind of thing is Officially what the game is about once again that makes me feel good about this. It’s strange to say it, but it almost feels like we’ve been given permission to loosen up a bit. Not that we wouldn’t have done whatever we wanted anyway, but it’s a lot easier when the rules will support you.

That is, essentially, how I felt running the D&D Next playtest for my group. Sure, there were a lot of pieces missing, but even unfinished it’s more comfortable than previous editions for me. I feel like I can be the DM I want to be with this edition. I don’t care what edition it feels like, who it caters to, what pieces are missing, or what’s still unbalanced.

What I do care about is that a couple weeks later, the system got the hell out of my way when I needed it to and paved the way for the best night as a DM I’ve had in my life.

Was it the system or did I just happen to catch lightning in a bottle while playing it? Who knows. But in a skill check where the objective is to “feel like D&D”, it rolled a natural 20 in my book.

Looking Forward

As you may have guessed, I absolutely love what I’ve seen so far. We haven’t gotten to mess with the new public playtest stuff in my group yet, but the Friends & Family stuff made me a seriously happy dude. Noncombat is back, and the combat ain’t half bad either.

I’m worried that we’re all going to fight continuously and hate about things we haven’t even seen yet and ruin everything in the end. I hope with all my little nerd heart that we don’t.

If you haven’t yet, I wholenerdheartedly encourage you to read Dave’s article on how to be a good playtester. We’re gonna make or break this thing in the end. Let’s all work together and form D&D Voltron. If nobody else has called dibs on it, I’ll form the head.

Photo Credit


  1. “the system got the hell out of my way when I needed it to..” This is exciting to hear- I used this same phrase about the system getting out of the way years ago when all the rage was “System Does Matter”- it’s kind of a lie, or at least, it’s a lie in the sense that people *don’t* play games just to “experience the system”. (They don’t! Also, Mario isn’t popular because people specifically enjoy jumping on turtles. Obvious, right?) Take ‘System Matters for what it is, a statement of game designer hubris and move on.

    The system /does/ matter in the sense that things go smoothly and it ‘gets out of the way’ (just as you describe) when you need it to.

    I can ‘force’ the system out of the way in 4e, and I’ve been doing that for a couple of years. I did it by carrying a miniature sand timer to games so that people didn’t spend too long trying to make decisions on the battle map, nor punishing or frustrating people with stupid little decisions at every step… and basically ignoring everything anyone ever said anywhere about skill challenges (a skill challenge is just a non-combat scene that is important enough to be worth XP, remember this and throw out all of the mechanics, and you will never go wrong).

    Anyhow, good review. Glad you are writing these, Vanir.

  2. Chris Arthur says:

    I just got the playtest materials and skimmed a bit at lunch. So far I like what I see. I would like it if we all formed a D&D Voltron too, but you know, only if its the five lions Voltron. That other one sucked.

  3. CrowOfPyke says:

    I have read through most of the playtest material now. I really, really, really hope that Vancian magic is NOT the only way to use the magic system in DND Next. I really, really, really hope that the 4e system of magic IS and REMAINS an option in DND Next.

    Why? When I told my group that the playtest material only included a return to Vancian magic for those characters using magic, EVERY single one of them reacted with anguish, frustration and disgust. I can tell you right now, if Vancian magic is the ONLY option in DND Next that my group will NOT be playing DND Next.

    If DND Next is really trying for a modular approach to rules, then there absolutely HAS to be another option to Vancian magic… otherwise DND Next will lose just as many play groups as it gains.

  4. “the system got the hell out of my way when I needed it to”

    My feelings exactly! As someone who started playing D&D with 2nd edition and has regularly played each edition since, everything about this system felt natural and easy (I’m not looking for something earth-shatteringly innovative, I just want something that feels genuinely like D&D). I’ve never had so much fun improvising as a DM; it all came effortlessly.

    I’m very excited about what this new edition has in store.

  5. I have not had the time to playtest yet, but have thoroughly gone through the material provided. I have to agree with your article. I started playing 2nd Edition and on. I have to honestly say that I like the material I am reading, simple yet elegant. I really thought 3-3.5-4th edition were really combat oriented and 2nd too “TotM” for me (visual learner here).

    I am looking forward to the future releases of the playtest. I am really curious.

    I finally have a use for a piton again!!! Hooray!

  6. What’s wrong with Vancian magic when the spellcasters also get viable at-will spells? Is it the lack of encounter spells? I don’t think we’re going to see any abilities tied to encounters in D&D Next is trying HARD to move away from only having setpiece encounters, which is the only setting in which encounter powers make sense.

  7. DarkplaneDM says:

    adamfjord: I think people react negatively to having the thought, “oh damn, I should have prepared that other daily spell.” I personally like the blend of at-will and vancian magic, but some of my group (who have been playing mostly 4E) got seriously frustrated mid-game because of the compulsory vancian aspect. I felt my DM sense tingling that players were enjoying the game less than usual, and that’s the true test in the end.

    Not that vancian magic is the devil, but I can see why the new players that 4E gained will be turned off by some of the old-school style (which the rest of us have been missing for the last 5 years), unless they have an option that also “feels like DnD” to them. I’ve been playing 4E long enough now that Fortitude, Reflex, and Will “feel like DnD” to me. We each have a different perspective and I think the goal is to include options that evoke as much of it as the game can support.

  8. I haven’t had a chance to actually play it yet, but I am excited too. It feels simple and leaves room for improvisation. My only hope is that players brought up on 3.5 and 4E will understand how to handle this style of game.

    As for Vancian magic, I hated it in previous editions. However, while the wizard uses Vancian magic the clerics in the playtest material uses spell slots. So it is fairly obvious that a sorcerer or other kind of non-Vancian arcane spellcaster wouldn’t be far off.

    Of course, all previous versions of D&D look good if you look at the core rules. It is when we get to ‘Complete Handbook of Options II’ that the game mechanics get stretched to point when the game slows down. That was the case with 3.5 and 4E. So in addition to making a strong core rules set I think they should lay out stricter guide lines for what they want those extra books that will eventually come to add to the game.

  9. Hypocrite! All gamers agree about everything! What are you talking about!

    Jokes aside… I’m kinda the opposite in that I prefer to run pre-made adventures. That is what drove me from 4e to Pathfinder. I feel that even an average Pathfinder module easily matches the best of the best for 4e.

    What this is really about, is entertaining the players (and DM), and a good story goes a long ways.

    I think that all this talk about 5e will come for naught if there are issues with licensing and WOTC decides to churn out 4e style pulp adventures.

    Latest funny story from a (Pathfinder) combat… The fighter didn’t want to kill a rabid dog, so he punched it. He’s got a solid punch, and *pow* the dog went down like that. Then he picked up the unconscious dog and beat the other dogs to death with it. You should have seen the look on the player’s face when I told him he was doing real damage to the dogs. (The others were laughing of course.. “Har har! Dog Killer! Shame On You!”)

  10. i have had this idea for a while. i played a D&D computer game called “The Temple of Elemental Evil”. even though it had lots of bugs in the beginning, they managed to release fixes; even more a mod community called “The Circle Of Eight” have managed to expand and further fix the game; and currently working to further it. the original release date of the game was around 2003 or 2004. the game idea is fantastic…like bringing pen and paper D&D to computer as the computer acts as game master it used the 3.5 rule book. but i believe with the current gaming technology the game could be made even more fantastic. improved graphics, longer story lines [like starting from the lore and stories of the very first D&D all the way to the latest] adding side quests and collaborative multiplier ..it could be a fantastic game …..WAY BETTER THAN THE LAME GAME THEY MADE “DAGGERDALE”. …TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK OF THIS IDEA…