I’m going to talk about particulars of what my playtest group did in the playtest adventure below. If you don’t want to ruin the surprise of what’s waiting for you inside the caves, don’t read the Play section below.
***You Have Been Warned***
About half an hour ago, we wrapped the first session of our D&D Next playtest. Short review: we had a lot of fun, and are planning on continuing for at least one more session ((Assuming we can slip it into the schedule, that is.)). Keep reading if you want the longer review.
The Playtest Goals
The stated goal of this phase of the playtest ((As laid out in The Caves of Chaos and discussed on the D&D Podcast.)) is to put the core mechanic through its paces, seeing how well it supports different styles of play. So, there’s no character creation rules and there’s a recognition that, mechanically, the balance between players and monsters isn’t where it needs to be. The core questions seem to be:
- Does this core ruleset let me play D&D the way I like to play D&D?
- Does it still feel like D&D?
These are the questions I’m focusing on as I discuss the first playtest session.
The Playtest Package
By now, pretty much anyone who’s even remotely interested in the next iteration of D&D has probably seen, or at least seen a description of, the playtest package, but I’m including a list of what you get here in the interests of completeness. The package contains the following documents, all in .pdf format:
- A letter from Mike Mearls. This is just a cover letter, letting you know what’s in the package, and what to do with it.
- How to Play. This is a pared-down rules set that covers the core rules you need to play the game.
- DM Guidelines. This is an expansion on the How to Play document, aimed specifically at the DM. It’s got tips on adjudicating the rules, setting DCs, stuff like that.
- The Caves of Chaos. This is the adventure, and it’s based pretty faithfully on the old module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.
- Bestiary. Detailed stat blocks of the monsters used in the adventure.
- Pregenerated Characters. There are five: a fighter, a rogue, a wizard, and two flavours of cleric.
Save vs. Nostalgia
Okay, I knew the adventure was going to be The Caves of Chaos. I mean, it’s not like it was a secret. It’s what they used back at D&DXP. Still, I was surprised at how much nostalgia reading the adventure brought welling to the surface. Like a lot of gamers of my age, The Keep on the Borderlands was the first adventure I ever played, and the first adventure I ever ran. Reading over the updated descriptions of the various cave complexes really got me excited to run the game.
It’s also, I think, a brilliant choice for testing the flexibility of the rules. It is a cave complex with no external narrative attached by default, no required progression through set-piece encounters to a climax, no assumption that combat is the only option in the encounters. The DM can impose pretty much any structure he or she desires on the adventure setting, tailoring it for the group’s preferred play style.
For me, I felt it was lacking a little something. Well, not lacking, exactly, but I was inspired to expand and beef up the adventure to make it something more like what I remembered from the good old days ((Note: those days were not all that good, but they were a quarter century and more ago, so they’re definitely old. Also, they weren’t always days. I remember marathon all-night game sessions on summer vacation.)). See, one of my fondest memories of the original adventure was the table of rumours that you could dole out to the characters. Some were true, some were false, and the players didn’t know which were which. It was a bit of a running joke in the game that, whenever we’d tell anyone at the Keep that we were heading to the Caves of Chaos, they would respond, “The Caves of Chaos! A word of advice…” followed by some dice rolling, and the dispensation of a rumour.
It made such an indelible mark on my gaming memory that I dug out my old copy of B2 and decided to add a bit of adventure at the Keep ((Another reason for that was that it just didn’t feel right to me to have the adventure begin as the heroes show up at the Caves, and give them a prepackaged spiel about why they’re there. Adding the Keep would add a little context and provide some resources.)), along with an updated rumour table. While I was updating the rumour table, I saw that some of the rumours were specific to elements of the Caves, while others were more general, more like adventure hooks. I took a few of the more general ones, and elaborated on them, writing them out on index cards. Then I went through the rest of the rumours, tweaked them a little to better fit the current module ((One example: a rumour in the original adventure talks about the small dog men living in the lower caves. It’s meant to refer to kobolds, but kobolds have evolved away from dog men into small dragon men over the various editions. So I updated that.)), and wrote them out more as bits of overheard conversation, gossip, or stories. When we started to play, I handed out index cards at random to the players to give them some background reason for heading out to the Caves, and told them they could share the information with the others – or not – as they chose. Then, when they spent some time in the Keep, they could try and get more information, and I’d roll on my big list of rumours and tell them what they found out.
We started with the company traveling to the Keep in the company of a merchant caravan. They’d been traveling with the caravan about a week, and it was the last night before arriving at the Keep, so the merchant was putting on a special meal, the bard was playing, and everyone was going to be sleeping in the next day because it was only four or five hours more to their destination. I got the players to introduce the characters, and they got to do a little roleplaying and sharing of information ((They all told each other everything they knew about the Caves from the little cards I’d given them. They’re very trusting.)). The dwarves even regaled everyone with a dwarven drinking song ((Is there any other kind?)), and didn’t embarrass themselves too badly.
When they got to the Keep, the priest of Moradin – who is also a knight ((From his background.)) – prevailed upon the Castellan for hospitality for him and his squire, the dwarf fighter. The priestess of Pelor saw some sick and injured people at the Chapel, and was offered a bed by the Curate. The halfling rogue used her cooking skill to get some temporary work at the inn, and listen in on kitchen gossip. And the elf wizard planted himself in the bar to eavesdrop on conversations that might offer some information about the Caves. They gathered enough information about the Caves from their various investigations that it seemed like it would be a) a good idea, and b) profitable to go check things out.
The next morning, after confirming one of the rumours about a reward for rescuing a merchant and his wife ((Also two guards, but they were worth less reward. Such is the life of a man-at-arms in D&D.)), they set out for the Caves. They had good enough directions that they were able to approach the ravine from the top of the south ridge, letting them look down on the expanse before plopping themselves right in the middle of things. I had done up a sketch map showing area, the elevations, the copses of trees, and the visible cave mouths ((Incidentally, I found this great map of the Caves of Chaos by The Weem. It’s much prettier and easier to read than the blue line version in my original module or the blue line version reproduced in the playtest package. Thanks, Weem!)), which I handed to the party, showing them where they were standing. After some discussion, they picked the nearest cave mouth and went in to start some trouble.
They were surprised, nicely silhouetted in the cave entrance ((Well, not the rogue. She was hidden in the shadows about fifteen feet inside by the time the gnolls heard the others.)) by the gnolls on guard, who proceeded to shoot arrows at them. The heroes closed on them fairly quickly and took out three of the four guards, but the fourth one ran off deeper into the complex, calling for reinforcements. The characters quickly looted the bodies, bound their wounds, and then found enough furniture and scraps to build a barricade across the top of a long stairway that the gnolls would need to come up to attack them.
They finished just in time to face off against a gang of ten gnolls. The barricade and the tactical position at the top of the stairs gave the PCs advantage ((Advantage seems to be a simple way to replace a lot of combat modifiers. It’s a pretty cool mechanic, so far, and is balanced by disadvantage. With advantage, you roll your attack or check twice, and take the better result. With disadvantage, you roll twice and take the worse result.)) and cover, so they were well able to hold off the gnolls, though the priest of Moradin decided he’d had enough hanging around and vaulted over the barricade ((And the burning oil the rogue had laid on the stairs in front of it.)) to attack, and got laid out by the gnolls ganging up on him.
At the end of the fight, we’d gone a half-hour past our end time, so we called the game there. We’re planning to continue for a session or two longer, though.
I had a lot of fun with the game, and the players said they did, too. I asked them the two core questions above, and got a yes on the first question, and a resounding yes on the second question. Why not a resounding yes on the first question? Because there’s enough new stuff in the system, and the parts we’ve seen so far, are bare-bones enough, that there doesn’t initially feel like there’s a lot of mechanical support for doing some things. I think that this will evaporate – or at least lessen – as we gain experience with the system and see the freedom it offers. I’m starting to see that, and I think the players will, too.
For myself, I felt the game did both things quite well. It brought back memories of simpler, more permissive rulesets for D&D, and the old-school adventure reminded me of the freedom such things offer, with no imposition of expected character actions. I had a great time revisiting the Keep and the Caves, and found that the core system was easy to adjudicate, even when the characters did something unexpected ((“I pick up one of the burning stool legs and throw it into the gnoll’s face!”)).
Perhaps most important for me, combat was fast. We didn’t use a battlemap or miniatures, but even with five PCs and ten gnolls, it was no problem to keep track of relative positions and allow for interesting tactical choices, like the barricade ((Or like leaping over the barricade and the burning oil to pour a potion down the throat of the dying priest of Moradin. Just for example.)). In a four-hour session, we accomplished the following:
- Got settled for the game.
- Briefed the players on the rules.
- Played through a night with a merchant caravan and the arrival at the Keep.
- Played through five different scenes of the individual characters investigating and gathering information in the Keep.
- Discussed tactics and objectives and shared information.
- Traveled overland to the Caves.
- Surveyed the area and picked a cave to enter.
- Had a combat with gnolls.
- Took a bit of a break to barbecue hamburgers and eat.
- Searched the dead gnolls.
- Set up a barricade.
- Ate ice cream cake.
- Had another combat with gnolls.
That’s a pretty full session by my standards.
Overall, it was a pretty positive experience.
Well, I’ve been asked to run a playtest session at Imagine Games and Hobbies this coming Wednesday night. There are apparently seven people signed up for it, so it looks like we’ll be doubling up on some of the characters. There are some other people in my extended play group that have expressed an interest in trying the playtest, as well, so we’ll see if we can’t gather a few of them for a game at some point. And, as mentioned, this group wants to keep going for another session or two.
I’ll let you know how things go.