Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The D&D Next Playtest at Gen Con

I was optimistic.  Really.  Sadly, it turns out that the glass is less than half-full and, regardless, the Kool-Aid doesn't taste right.

At Gen Con, Wizards of the Coast offered a suite of activities under the rubric of the ‘D&D Experience.  Two of these activities, ‘Sorcere’ and ‘The Clawrift,’ pertained to the D&D Next playtest and were coupled into a single 1.5 hour event.  I attended this event and was subject to conveyor belt regimentation that dampened my optimism somewhat.  A host of D&D drudges maintained a playtest bureaucracy, strictly enforcing time limits on activities as well as grouping and ungrouping participants as necessary. For the most part, these drudges were merely performing their responsibilities and I appreciate that Wizards was attempting to engage with as many of its (ostensible) consumers as possible.  Such a situation does not lend itself well to individual interaction and were that my single vexation, I would have little cause for complaint.  Alas, my experience at Gen Con with D&D Next is discouraging.

‘Sorcere’ is listed as “D&D Next Introduction/Character Creation.”  I sat at a long table with eight or ten other participants supervised by a drudge.  (To be fair, this particular drudge was personable and enthusiastic given the circumstances.)  We were given character sheets and encouraged to create characters using the playtest materials.  Copies of the relevant portions of the materials were provided (except for the 'How to Play' document, containing the rather important ability score modifiers).  In addition to the playtest materials released on Monday the 13th, two additional character classes were provided – sorcerer and warlock.  This caused some consternation among the drudges since – evidently – the decision to introduce these classes to the playtest was made at the last minute and the drudges (understandably) felt ill-prepared to discuss these late-comers.  I mean, what's the rush?  The playtest is supposedly going to last another two years.  Anyway, the drudge was available to answer questions but, for the most part, we were left to our own devices.  Of course, in order to get the 'drow-themed' d12, we had to present a complete character to the drudge.  'Sorcere' lasted half-an-hour; that was the extent of the 'introduction' and 'character creation.'

Let's take a look at character generation.  Suppose someone wants to create a thief.  Well, the appropriate class would be 'rogue.'  When creating a rogue, a player chooses a rogue scheme; two such schemes are listed in the playtest materials – thief and thug.  It would seem that, to be a thief, a character should be a rogue with a thief scheme.  Easy, right?  Oh, wait, did you want the thief to be able to do things traditionally associated with thieves?  Like, you know, open locks and disarm traps?  Well, those are skills and characters obtain skills via a background.  Although backgrounds are supposed to be optional, there does not seem to be any other means for a beginning character to obtain skills.  By the way, there is a thief background and a thug background.  These backgrounds are distinct from schemes, so it's possible to have a thief scheme with a thug background or vice versa.  That shouldn't be confusing to new players at all!  You can also choose a specialty (previously known as a theme), but that's optional too.

Here's how your humble host would handle things.  First, get rid of 'fighting styles' and 'rogue schemes'; those should be subsumed into specialties.  Then, each class should have a built-in background and specialty by default.  The possibility of switching to a different background and/or specialty would be optional.  This would make character generation more streamlined and less burdensome for inexperienced players.

'The Clawrift' is listed as D&D Next Adventure.  I and five other participants, with our freshly made characters, were assigned to a drudge DM.  I wasn't expecting a masterpiece of storytelling; just a simple scenario showcasing fundamental game mechanics (via railroad if necessary).  Our drudge DM didn't like the sudden addition of the sorcerer and warlock classes to the playtest.  Our drudge DM didn't like that, during the course of our character creation activity, we had not been taught the finer points of turning undead.  In the brief hour we were alloted for the adventure, we did not accomplish much (according to our drudge DM at least).  The really sad part was when our drudge DM employed (human) racial caricature when providing the voice of an orc.  Someone more principled than myself would have left the table at that point, but I stayed around to get the 'drow-themed' d20 (for a pal – not for me).  I don't think that the drudge DM acted out of malice; he was just oblivious.  Regardless, Wizards should make certain that anyone representing them has undergone rudimentary sensitivity training; after all, we're in the twenty-first century.

In closing, I think that 'Sorcere' and 'The Clawrift' should have been two distinct events.  'Sorcere' should have included an actual introduction to D&D Next and an overview of the character creation process.  After signing up on-line (computers were available for this) participants could have received a cheap booklet of the latest playtest materials (at least those materials pertaining to character generation).  Would a solitaire adventure have broken the budget?  'The Clawrift' should have used pre-generated characters with the DM allowing original characters at his discretion.


  1. Sounds like the RPG equivalent of an assembly line. Well, at least you got two dice, although, considering it was 1 1/2 hours, they should probably have given you a full set for your troubles.

  2. That whole scheme/background thing sounds a bit confusing. To nerf the quintessential thief skills is a bit absurd. I guess it was to give "flavor" to different kind of thieves? I remember the thief splatbook from 2E was kinda interesting in that respect, but this sounds more haphazard.

    About the actual playing - did it use a grid for combat? If so, does it seem like it is playable without one? Just curious, as some of the hype has been it is playable with any preferred style of play.

    And the racial bit - I am from eastern Virginia, too, and when travelling about come across similar things, casual statements or caricatures that offend me. Having grown up around brothers and sisters all my life - maybe you have too, being in (maybe from) Richmond - makes me a lot more aware of that stuff. I don't think we are being too "sensitive" by expecting people to hold a higher standard. It really is sad that today some instructor, even for an RPG seesion at a big con, would let fly with that, but sadly it seems to be becoming stronger, almost in defiance to our President and the office he holds.

    Thanks for the write-up, Perdy,


    1. In general, my concern is this: having 'backgrounds' and 'specialties' be optional to make the game simpler is fine in theory, but a character with these options will be more effective than a same-level character without. Given such a disparity in power, 'Challenge Levels' (or whatever they're called) become difficult to interpret. And, yes, it is absurd that in order to play a core class with its traditional functionality I would have to employ optional rules.

      We used a grid and miniatures in the playtest, but they were by no means necessary.

      As for the other topic, I will respond privately.

    2. I reread the playtest packet last night. The rogue schemes grant the benefits of the backgrounds as well as the additional benefits listed in the class description. If a DM is using the backgrounds rule, rogue characters also get to take another background beyond Thief or Thug. It's badly written, but it isn't as effed-up as you feared.

    3. You are correct. My rant could have been better articulated; my point, however, remains valid. A person (especially a new player) should not be overwhelmed by options during character generation. There is no need to have rouge schemes. In my opinion, the thief 'background' should not be a background; it should be incorporated as a standard feature of the rogue class.

    4. Good point.

      Also, attacks of opportunity suck and should have stayed dead.

    5. I agree. At least there is a 'disengage' action.

  3. "As for the other topic, I will respond privately."

    Hopefully it will include mood lighting, uncomplicated clothing, and whiskey galore.

    Your bloody Valentine,