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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

D&D Heartbreaker

This is my first post on Tenkar's blog. I am honored that he allowed me to post here. I had something to say and no venue to say it in that would not cause me endless headaches. I hope you enjoy it.



The first version of the D&D Next public playtest has been out now for a week. If you are anything like me, you have been quite amused. If you got the feeling that maybe you have seen the material before, that's because you have. What you saw was a stripped down rebuild of 3rd Edition D&D + exactly four innovations. That's it.

- Advantage / Disadvantage
- Themes / Backgrounds
- Orisons / Cantrips
- Healing Dice

For those of you that don't know, when a company that doesn't have millions of dollars does that, we call it a fantasy heartbreaker. In the heartbreaker tradition, the improvements are borderline cringe-worthy. And these guys didn't even have to type it up, they could just copy-paste from their own decade-old files. That is really what it looks like they did in a lot of cases. And changing terms a little. Enough to be slightly confusing for no reason.

The best way to view a game is not in a vacuum, but relative to everything else. And compared to other products on the market, this game is terrible. I would rather play any edition of D&D, Pathfinder, any retro-clone / OSR game, or a wide variety of other heartbreakers before playing this one. Those games actually have good ideas in them. Even when I don't like the design (as in 4e D&D), I can at least give them credit for having unique ideas about the direction they wanted to take.

Some people have claimed that this is a retro-clone of 3e. However, that is not true. The purpose of a retro-clone is to improve the base text. I would rather play LOTFP than the original D&D because of it's many innovations in streamlining play; such as the d6 skills, encumbrance rules, and so on. I would rather play ACKS because it really innovated with proficiencies and has some really great class designs. I would rather play DCC because it is going in a new direction. I would rather play any of the truly classic retro-clones like OSRIC, L&L, or S&W because they are just better written and easier to use.

This game is not like that. It is poorly written and lacks innovation. Even the pittance of so-called innovations are daft. 2d20? You got to be kidding me. They must be smoking the good stuff in Seattle these days. I need to stop by and get some of that sweet herb.

But spending more time than this picking on this game is a waste of my time and yours. Because the real lesson here is not the poor quality of the game itself, but what it says about Wizards of the Coast that they released this stinking turd. The true lesson of this game is that WotC has no idea what the hell they are doing. To release a work so amateurish, so obviously unrefined, so draft-stage; says more about the quality of the company that made it than it does about the quality of the text itself.

Imagine if the head of General Motors made a press release that they were working on a new car design. It was going to please the owners of minivans, trucks, cars, and motorcycles. It was going to be everything to everyone; the one vehicle to unite all vehicle drivers. After several months of vague press releases and strange internet polls, General Motors finally unveiled it's new product for everyone to see and it was a station-wagon with three headlights, slightly wider tires, and a fire-engine red sidecar. And they wanted your feedback on how to make it better..... you are probably going to instead call your broker and sell your GM stock.

And that is precisely what this whole fiasco says about Wizards of the Coast. Time to sell the stock folks. These people don't have a clue what they are doing. They have jumped the shark.

They supposedly worked on this game for the past six months? What the hell did they do? I could have written this entire game in one day. Maybe that's what happened. Monte Cook left and Mike Mearls sat down one afternoon and took a weed wacker to the 3e source files. Even the Caves of Chaos is ripped from Gygax.

They say the goal of the playtest is to fine-tune these rules. Here is my tip.

Write some first.

Then we'll talk.

34 comments:

  1. I would like to know why there is such a reviling of this edition? I have been reading many of the recent blog posts here and the bile and hate that coats these words make me wonder, what the hell man?

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  2. QFT:

    "They say the goal of the playtest is to fine-tune these rules. Here is my tip.

    Write some first.

    Then we'll talk."

    Perfectly said.

    @dragolite: Not sure if you are serious or not, but if you are, then it's because from a game design perspective, what we've seen so far is ridiculously disappointing. It's like Error 37 for D&D.

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  3. *Begins slow clap*

    Thank you! I agree completely! I recently just sent an email to WotC requesting them to delete my account (that I made for the playtest), and telling them I'm withdrawing from the playtest. All because of exactly what you wrote (not because of your post, but because my thoughts were exactly what you happened to post). I was so disappointed with what I saw, that I decided I wanted no part in it.

    I'm going to have fun with other games. Got any recommendations? =)

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  4. The bile in this article is completely unfounded. WotC did NOT release this turd, because they did not release this. It is a draft, which is why, surprise surprise, it looks like a draft. It's an early playtest version. And they explicitly state that they removed some features from it in order to test how essential they are. You're complaining that it is what they say it is. Would you prefer if it turned out to be a magical castle instead? It's your own wrong assumptions that are letting you down.

    If you want to see a complete game, then you should wait, and not try an early playtest version. Ranting about how an incomplete game is incomplete makes you look silly.

    And saying that there are no rules in there at all is just stupid. Open your eyes. I realize you love pissing on stuff, but try to use some actual arguments when you do so.

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  5. I was being serious.

    I agree with what mcv said, to a point. There is no reason to call them stupid. I think we can try and be mature here. OK, I get you are upset about the rules and they seem to be part of an incomplete game, but, as mcv said, it is a playtest. They aren't going to be complete.

    I am really curious about why there is such a hate, not just for the playtest, but the vitriol slant that this blog has taken to the entire concept of D&D Next. I understand, it is your opinion. Could you expand on WHY you don't like it?

    If you want to send comments straight to me, I will send you my email. I am asking not only the Biting Halfling, but the Grumpy Dwarf and Erik himself.

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  6. I just had a revelation. WotC just don't know what kind of game they want to release. There is no structure to it. I paraphrase from Jonny Milton:
    Of neither OD&D nor Basic nor 3.x nor 4.x but all those in their different causes mixed and which thus must ever fight.
    If WotC had any idea about the direction D&D Next should take, it would be easy for the designers to crank out some rules to support this direction.
    Mike Mearls, Rob Schwalb and Bruce Cordell have the know how to do it. But they do not have the know what to do.
    So until WotC find a clear direction for D&D Next, it always will be a fantasy heartbreaker trying to please everyone.

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  7. KristianH, I think they do know what kind of game they want to release; which direction they want to take: they want to please everyone. They want to unite the many different playstyles of the various editions of D&D.

    That is not a lack of vision, it is a perfectly valid vision in its own right. It's definitely an ambitious goal, but I think it's too early to say that it cannot be done. I think that's actually what these playtests are for: to analyze which elements are vital for which playstyle, and how best to fit them together.

    And of course it will mean that a lot of stuff is going to be optional. You can't at the same time have healing surges to support a 4e-style sequence of independent tactical challenges, and _not_ have easy healing to support OSR-style strategic resource management over the course of an adventure. So the easy healing is going to be optional, which means it has to be more loosely connected to the rest of the system than it was in 4e.

    Same thing for many other aspects. We're going to end up with a really simple, accessible basic system, and a large toolbox with which to customize not just our characters, but our system. And I happen to like that.

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  8. @ dragonlite - 4e would have had the same effect on the community if there had been an open playtest and this much media attention.

    As for Grumpy, Grumpy is me and I am him. The Biting Halfling is NOT me. For one thing his post lacks my usual typos. Secondly, although I owned a crapload of 3x books, i played but one session of it. I don't have the gaming knowledge to break down 5e to 3e terms other then just a basic overview.

    As for my distaste of 5e, it started with the PR Bullshit promises that Mike and Monte freely made right after the announcement of Next, and which now Mike regrets (and Monte apparently fled from).

    I played through the last 2 rounds of the Friends and Family Playtest - 1st round of the rules were fun, i had some issues but nothing major - 2nd round 4e'ed the game, and removed much of the Old School feel.

    I haven't done more then skim the latest version of the rules, and probably won't based on Mike's published posts on what's in them.

    Grumpy will continue to comment on 5e postings at the WotC site.

    The Biting Halfling will post when he feels fit to post I guess. I do get to read the draft post before it goes up.

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  9. @mcv,

    Please explain the logic to me of "options" wherein you constantly take stuff away from a game and "options" where you add them on to a basic chasis?

    I fail to under stand the "if you want to play X style just take this away" style of game design. Why not create a base game and then add to it - which, if I recall correctly, is the type of modularity they overhyped months ago.

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  10. Let me just look something up, yes here we go, my DCC playtest book....WOW what and INCREDIBLE work. The time, effort...LORD the art in this....hhhhmmmm let me see if I still got it...YEP here it is my Pathfinder Alpha playtest book...WOW these Paizo guys have really put some effort into this...AWESOME!

    What did you say I can get the WotC 5e playtest, HELL BELLS they got tons o'monies! I bet that playtest Document is gonna make my eyes bleed! I can't wait!

    Ok then, I downloaded it....kewl let me open this first PDF....hhhhmmm...What the F##K is this S##T did i get conned...is this some joke what a piece of crap...WotC you lose...again.


    ERIC!

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  11. @Erik Tenkar
    Thank you, and I see your point much better now. And, I will even say that you do make some very valid points. The Monte Cook thing was a load of bull.

    I shall continue to read your posts, not like there was much chance of me not reading them. I have a better grasp of why you feel the way you do and who knows, later playtest updates might swing me into your camp.

    Thank you.

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  12. It's silly to be so critical of the writing in the play test material. This is not the finished game, folks. Reserve such judgment for the polished final product.

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  13. @LucidDion - I remember playing in the Friends & Family playtest. I played a cleric. the material referred to domains and domain powers, but they weren't included in the package we were given.

    That's sloppy. And for a company the size of WotC, inexcusable.

    I haven't given the latest bath of material more than a cursory glance, but isn't the point of a playtest to find probelms with the rules and the material, so it can be improved prior to release?

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  14. "I played a cleric. the material referred to domains and domain powers, but they weren't included in the package we were given."

    They very clearly stated they are not testing the classes but rather the die rolling mechanics this time around. You can choose to ignore that fact. You can choose to complain that what YOU wanted included was not this time around.

    "I haven't given the latest bath of material more than a cursory glance, but isn't the point of a playtest to find probelms with the rules and the material, so it can be improved prior to release?"

    And that is what they are doing...in doses. They are targeting specific rules so they fine tune those and then move onto other specific rules (like the character stuff you are so eager to see). They were very plain on this being their modus of operation, but you choose to "forget" that or just don't care.

    This is not a complete game by any stretch and everyone knows that and yet you choose to judge it as a complete game. You are reaching for straws in your blind hatred of 5E.

    This website is rapidly turning into nothing more than a hate-fest for WotC and 5E.

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  15. It seems every time someone says something critical about the playtest rules, we get the "it's only an early version, it's incomplete" argument. It isn't valid.

    Individual rules aren't the problem. Nobody cares if they will add encumbrance rules, or rules for lording over a domain, or an optional system for miniatures and a grid, or whatever. Things like surprise rolls, morale rules, and lower hit point totals do come up in the discussion, but only as examples to fix the real problems: lack of direction, a complete misunderstanding of what D&D is about, thinking players like old-school play because the rules are simple, bad design decisions, the inclusion of stupid ideas that didn't work in past 2.5 editions, and so forth.

    The direction they're taking the game in is plain wrong. It doesn't matter if this is "just" an early playtest, because they will not make a complete 180-degree-turn towards another direction. They will not suddenly get a clue and change their vision of the game. They will not suddenly understand what D&D should play like and start designing towards it. That's not going to happen, early playtest or not.

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  16. @Callin - I was specifically referring to stuff mentioned in the Friends and Family playtest material that wasn't there when i went to find it to use it. My experience in THE LAST round of testing.

    In case you missed it, last night's post on this blog was not mine, but from a friend. His opinions are his opinions. Mine are mine. Yours are yours.

    I, me personally, do not hate WotC. I, me personally, would love a version of D&D 5e that I would like to play. Something along the lines of the promises made in the begininning (which I knew were nigh impossible to hit). Mike Mearls stated in an interview that he regrets making those comments in the beginning. Live and learn. The 5e I've seen presented so far offers me little that I'd want to play.

    If a personal friend approaches me and wants to post what he likes about 5e, I will give him / her the platform to do so.

    And yes, it's an incomplete game. One in which they removed character generation from the Playtest (it was in previous versions) because they were afraid it might confuse people. I'm not sure if that is a knock against WotC, the game or the playtesters. I will sat that character gen was a breeze in the two previous versions.

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  17. @ Dragonlite

    I don't hate WotC. I am disappointed that they have reached the point where they literally have no ideas left. Where they are grasping at straws. And I am angered by the willingness of so many people to give them a pass on such obviously weak sauce.

    @ Callin

    Where do you draw the line? If they released a playtest document that contained 2 words "orcs attack", you would probably say that document is not ready for prime time. Even as a playtest. So that is the range; between "orcs attack" and say the DCC beta where the game is almost entirely there. My point is that for WotC to be so weak compared to DCC, when WotC is the big dog of the pack, is very disappointing. It shows they are directionless.

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  18. @Jasper Polane: Could you explain what direction you think they should take with the game? Should it have been the complexity of Pathfinder? The predictability of 4e?

    Personally I happen to like this direction. I admit, that might not be a good sign. I've never been a huge D&D fan (I grew up on WFRP and later GURPS), but I play a lot of 3.5 and Pathfinder lately, and I think it's just unnecessarily complex. I really appreciate the move towards simplicity that they're taking here.

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  19. One thing that I do like about the new game is that the 2d20 system is actually innovative. It is simple, but it gets away from two things:

    1) Fiddling with the precise size of a bonus

    2) Endless stacking of bonuses.

    That may seem simple, but the Raggi's LofFP had a lot of equally simple innovations that improved gameplay.

    That is not to say that I defend the edition on one good mechanical advance, but this is the sole interesting thing that I have seen that seems to be new to 5E.

    Saves based on abilities was simply too classic and too Castles and Crusades to count.

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  20. Man this post got me fired up. Okay, I'm tired of writing heated responses, deleting and restarting because I don't want to get all up in arms about one solitary opinion on the internet, always bad for the heart. So I'll just say, "cool story, bro."

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  21. @mcv: I still think that they do not have a clear direction. I think that the WotC Designers are very talented folk. I honestly believe that they could create an improved version of OD&D or Basic or 3.X or 4th if the wanted to.
    But IMHO at the moment they try to cobble parts of all these systems together without creating a solid foundation.

    @ "It's not a complete game but a playtest":
    I was playtest DM for most of Green Ronins' 3.X edition stuff (Black Company Campaign Setting, Thieves' World), for the Song of Ice and Fire RPG and for Dragon Age RPG.
    Everytime I got a complete, playable game with all nessessary rules.
    So, from my experience, it is strange to only get parts of the whole game.

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  22. I've got be honest.. I actually liked the ruleset.. Seemed fairly easy to play. The reason I went back to OSR was simplicity and it seems to me that so far they've captured that. You compared them to DCC and ACKS and I haven't read ACKS yet but the DCC rules made my head hurt. I want to play, not be buried in a book. I do feel sorry for these bastards because no matter what they did, they aren't going to win. I think alot of the community has condemned them from the get go.

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  23. Gotta say, it's pretty awesome how this thread of comments shows the varying thoughts and opinions on the new playtest materials, in a single place. Most places I read only have one viewpoint in the comments.

    I agree that WotC is being held to a high standard, but I think they should be. They have some of the most experienced tabletop game designers in the world, so why not expect a lot?

    2d20 might be an innovation, but it's about the only one and it's not terribly impressive. We already have OSR clones (including streamlined ones), 2e, pathfinder, 4e, etc., so for a new edition to hold water, I'd personally like to see a bit more than "here's all the old stuff compiled together plus you can roll 2d20 sometimes". I have a few thousand dollars worth of D&D stuff on my shelves, I'm quite certain I could take a 1-page document on 2d20 and put it inside any of those systems without needing a 5e.

    Like or dislike 4e, at least noone can say it wasn't hugely different from the existing editions at the time.

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  24. @Mr Blue - yep, as long as folks avoid personal attacks (which they have, God bless them) this thread will keep going strong.

    If someone wants a rebuttal posted, and they feel it deserves it's own post, you can email me at trubluniteATgmailDOTcom. Truthfully, I think most rebuttals belong in this thread, but if its well written and you feel strongly, we can talk.

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  25. So far I am still cautiously optimistic. My biggest problem with 3E, 4E, and late 2E, was the escalating power and focus on mechanical optimization. So far, I see Next trying to combat those tendencies.

    The advantage and disadvantage mechanics are not new, but I like them a great deal. See Philotomy's OD&D Musings:

    http://www.philotomy.com/#twf

    And my own post from a while back on 2DTH:

    http://untimately.blogspot.com/2011/12/2dth.html

    The biggest thing that the D&D Next playtest materials seem to lack is support for low level resource management and the traditional D&D incentive structure (XP for GP, etc) making it possible to advance without too much focus on fighting. I also miss things like the lack of an encounter reaction roll mechanic. These things might come later though.

    The thing I liked most about the playtest is how inviting it seemed to be regarding making the game your own and referee rulings. This might feel "half baked" to some, but that feel of friendliness to house rules is one of the things that I like about older D&D, before they started trying to create a canon with AD&D (for tournaments and such).

    I also think the background and theme design is quite elegant in that it starts with in-game (diegetic) concepts like commoner, slayer, healer, and then attaches mechanics to them, rather than going the other direction. Meaning before mechanics.

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  26. There is no substance to your criticisms here. Is it simply that the game is incomplete? You allude to the 2d20 but don't go into any detail. It's not that I don't believe you, but as someone who is following from the outside but hasn't actually read the playtest rules, I would like to read critiques of specific things not just generalized "this sucks".

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  27. I have been really happy with everything I have seen so far. Even if 5th doesn't pan out well I think I will be using the playtest stuff as a chassis for my own houseruled B/X game.

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  28. :) ... and now release the shit-storm!

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  29. @Mr Blue: "2d20 might be an innovation, but it's about the only one and it's not terribly impressive."

    I might agree that it is not impressive, I just like the properties. No auto fail. No auto success. Simple to explain. Easy to roll.

    I might steal it just because it is good. So I thought it was worth pointing out that this was a nice change. I agree that I would have preferred 6 to 8 nice changes . . .

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  30. mcv:
    Could you explain what direction you think they should take with the game? Should it have been the complexity of Pathfinder? The predictability of 4e?

    Since Mearls seems keen on telling us time and time again how Holmes and B/X are a great inspiration, how about making a game that plays like that? Right now playing an old-school game with it seems rather difficult.

    I think in their goal to create a system which allows for multiple "gaming styles", they ended up designing a game that does nothing at all.

    Its "modulairity" is the problem. I don't like the new Hit Die healing/healing surge mechanic, but as I understand it, I can just remove them for a deadlier game without touching other subsystems of the game. This seems like a good idea, since it's easier to houserule the system, as opposed to, say, 4E, in which all healing spells depended on healing surges.

    However, old-school play depends highly on the interaction and go-and-forth of game mechanics. For example, the way open door rolls interact with random encounter rolls, open locks and the knock spell: kicking in a door makes noise and attracts wandering monsters, but the thief's open locks or the magic-user's knock spell can open it without noise.
    Another example would be the interaction between surprise rolls, morale checks, and the lethality of fights.

    Designing these interactions is what game design is. Remove those interactions between game elements, and there's nothing left. I think that's why people are saying the game has no direction: there really isn't that much there.

    I agree with you, though, on the simplicity of the rules. I like it too.

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  31. @Jasper Polane: A lot of OSR gamers seem to think that this playtest version does feel a lot like that. Not completely, of course. Race and class are independent and will remain so. Thief skills work very differently. But my impression is that the only real obstacle to old school gaming are the hit die healing and the at-wills, and those are very easy to take out.

    Like you say, I think it's very intentional that the "hit die" (bad name, but that's another issue) system is not as intertwined with the rest of the system as it was in 4e.

    The interaction between opening doors and random encounters is very easily inserted by a future Old School Module. Random encounters are very much an old school thing, and not terribly popular elsewhere, so they're probably not going to put those in the basic book (though they might!). The idea that picking a lock takes time, while kicking it in makes noise, is not something that requires a complex set of rules that need to be intricately connected to every other part of the system.

    My impression is that they're currently focusing on the real core, and from there you can add either the random encounter, noise and surprise module for an OSR-style game, or all the detailed character generation stuff to appease the 3.5 fans, or the tactical combat system for the 4e fans. Or you can mix and match those styles if that's what you want.

    I think it can be done, though I admit it's questionable whether it's going to be better at it than the systems that do only that one thing.

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  32. On all the complaints and discussion about innovation or lack thereof: does it really matter? Is a system only worthwhile if it's innovative? Can't it just be good?

    They said at the start that they were going to look back at all the old editions and try to preserve all the good elements of all the old editions. They were not interesting in making something completely new, in the way 3e and 4e were new in their day. Those were completely new systems that allowed completely new things, but also dropped a lot of things, and arguably didn't really deserve the name D&D because they were too different from what D&D used to be.

    Personally I think taking all the parts that people loved about all previous editions and try to make a system that can do it all, is definitely a worthy approach, and as a goal in itself even innovative, even if the elements they're using for it aren't innovative in themselves.

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  33. We're not complaining, we're discussing it. That's what WotC asked us to do, right?

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