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!)
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.
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.