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2014-07-04

D&D Next Basic: A Page-By-Page Liveblogging

Since the new version of D&D has finally seen air, I figured what I needed to do was sit down with it and go through, page by page, jotting down my thoughts. What follows is the result of that linear process that took all freakin' day, but I hammered through all 110 pages of heavy duty PDF

What do I have to show for it? You'll just have to read it, won't you?

Live notes for reading D&D Next Basic:
[Opening]
Oh, look, its an 8pt font and a tinted background. The “set aside” boxes just lose the faint parchment texture they use for the background. The coloured ink side-bars for the boxes are nice, matching the tone of the headers, and they use a sans serif font for the boxes at least with a double-width baseline, which almost makes the thing readable enough to be tolerable. Would itr have killed them to pretend digital layout has improved since the mid-90’s and learn a thing or two, starting with the fact that your audience is tired of reading your books with a magnifying glass and you no longer have to pretend to save paper in a world of digital distribution? Also, pick a font with more goddamn darkness if you’re going to print on a randomly mottled texture; you look like amateurs and I can already see reading this thing’ll be a pain.

I have no idea why they’ve laid this thing out for a legal-sheet sized print run considering no one’ll be able to afford to print it out for reference from the PDF in colour and it looks hideous and unreadable in B&W.
(I’ve put on a playlist of Manowar-driven songs to get the right vibe. Something has to help my mood.)
p3 c1:
Establishing that all published D&D settings exist in the same multiverse? Well, I guess.
p3 c2:
Describing the “How to Play” bit is at least succinct and pretty firmly establishes the whole “the GM brings everything to the table and does all the work” thing I think we all expect of D&D, I guess.
p4 c1:
A quick, relatively tight bit on “The D20,” but basically how to make a die check. Overall, solid – but why in the name of black Hades is the target number for a saving throw or ability check the Difficulty Class (DC)? You already had a perfectly good phrase there, “target number,” but instead you pick a term that’s in use elsewhere in the system for an entirely different purpose? Don’t you think that’s kind of dumb?

Oh, wait, the target number for an attack roll is the Armor Class (AC). I see. It’s a slavish attachment to a bad design from an earlier iteration which was also a bad term. All is revealed!
Advantages and Disadvantages? And they just add an extra die which you then read the higher or lower roll? Hallelujah! Someone did read Over the Edge
p5 c2:
You know, for trying really hard to describe a fairly mid- to low-magic setting, they’re really beating hard on “if you could be a wizard, why would you be anything else?” There’s kind of a subtext here. I’m feeling bad for the fighters in the party.
p6 c1:
“*?????????????????????????????????????????character
sheet????????????????????????????????????????
???????????????????????????????????????????????????????
?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
????????????????????????????????????????????????
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????
??????????????????????????????????????????????????
????????????????*”

Well, I was going to copy some text from the PDF to comment on it, but I got the above instead. Guys, don’t bother talking about the text and citing the text directly, Wizards doesn’t like that. Sort of like actually printing it out, this is Wizards’ text and you are but a consumer, barely a Hireling.

Fuck that. I’m not copping out on anything.

Extract from **D&D Next** regarding character sheets

Gee, thanks, Wizards, for telling us our lined notepaper is OK, but suggesting that we start with “an official D&D character sheet”. You know what’d be cool? If they suggested starting with notebook paper. You know, the stuff you have and which probably costs you nothing.
p7 c1:
Proficiency bonus is kind of interesting as a mechanic. It’s straight-up a bonus to stuff you’re supposed to be good at because you’re a Class. It’s a small mechanical tweak that is at least consistent – so far.
p7 c2:
Ah, good ol’ random chargen for Attributes, after you’ve instructed the player to think about what kind of a character they want to play and get them excited by picking a class. So you’re all excited about playing a Dwarven Archer and then the random dice decide you’re a shitty Dwarven Archer. Even with 4d6, pick the highest, your chances of getting screwed over are surprisingly high.

Oh, but “if you don’t like the idea of randomly determining ability scores” you can just assign from this list instead. Implicit: “But you’re not as hardcore or cool if you don’t. Why did you get excited about playing you idea of a character? Who told you something dumb like that?”

Hmm, there is a point buy system down at the bottom of the page. Which involves spending 27 points on an Ability Score Point Cost Table – which isn’t on this page. Where any sane layout would put it. Also doesn’t have a page reference to find it. They’re also very clear that using the point buy system, 15 is the highest score you can end up with.

Remember that kids: More choice is less effectiveness. If you want to be effective, you have to make fewer choices!
p8 c2:
The first mention of ideals, bonds, and flaws – which are both one of the few places your character’s personality and place enter the mechanics and not important enough to come up until Chapter 4. No discussion of how to set them here in chargen, nope, even though every character needs to have them, they’re not important enough to put the creation of them here in the chargen chapter.

At least the background gets discussed as to its potential mechanical impact. Two skill proficiencies, a background feature (which is a “general benefit”), and maybe the ability to have some extra languages or tools.
p9 c1:
Ah, finally, default gear lists based on class and background, but ridiculous lists of stuff if you want to go hog wild with the shops and waste everyone at the table’s time as you have analysis-paralysis over which sword to buy. At least that first is – OK, better, even.

So that’s where the Ability Score Point Cost Table got off to, two pages away, buried right under the Armor Class section in Equipment. That makes perfect sense!
p10 c1:
Classic hit dice rolling per level to increase HP, sure, but you can use the fixed value in your class entry, “which is the average result of the die roll (rounded up)” …? Didn’t you guys only tell us three pages ago under The D20 that we should always roll down? You did!

A foolish consistency and hobgoblins, I suppose, but that’s a trust-eroder.

I actually like the explicit tier system that links level to the kind of threats that the character’s linked to. They’re clear about when characters start to get “the good stuff” which is useful. It also, along with the Character Advancement Chart, tells me that going through levels 1-4 as a Wizard without either Fireball or Lightning Bolt is going to be a hideous grind, because it’s 6,500xp to level 5.

At least the classes share an advancement chart.
p12, c1:
Dwarf race quote

An RA Salvatore quote from The Crystal Shard for your Dwarf section? I – guess. But wouldn’t it be better to go without a selection without the iconic character for another race entirely in it? (Drizzt. Goddamn Drizzt.)
p13, c2:
Elves Do Nothing, John Snow

Same sort of thing here. Goldmoon, a human from DragonLance, sees an elven city for the first time. What, there are no IP owned by Hasbro/Wizards where an elf does something cool? Really? Not one?
p20 c1:
Classes, more than just your profession, they’re your calling – or so I’m told. Followed immediately by telling me about a thief dabbling in the priesthood and referring me to the Player’s Handbook for more on multiclassing. Sigh, fine.

On the previous page, we’re told about the “optional feat rules from the Player’s Handbook,” which is starting to give me a slightly weird feeling, as if I’ve wandered into the part of the game where they try to sell me DLC.

We get the Big Four Classes in the Basic book, Clerics, Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards. That’s pretty core stuff, so I can accept that.

And another pitch to the Player’s Handbook. They can’t page reference their own tables, but they can damn well pimp out the other books.
p21 c2:
My, wouldn’t it be nice if the game actually had page references to things like “simple weapons” when they refer to them, right?
p22 c1:
No big change in spellcasting, I see. Ah well, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected much.

“You can cast a cleric spell as a ritual if that spell has the ritual tag and you have the spell prepared.”

Gee, thanks. No reason to tell my why that should matter to me here, right? Not even a few words on why I might? No?
p24 c1:
The multi-race class descriptions at the beginning of each one might be the best bit about this book so far. There hasn’t been a lot that screamed, “You can be this cool!” before now, which is kind of sad. The start to the Fighter section in particular is full of cool bits.
p26 c1:
Another place where the system specifies rounding up for the Remarkable Athlete ability of the Champion archetype. I don’t want to suggest that these guys didn’t read their own text, but …
p30 c2:
Interesting. A Wizard can “prepare” a list of IntMod + Wizard level spells, and can cast – any of them that are prepared at even a higher slot level by burning that casting slot until you can get a long rest? It says that casting doesn’t remove it from your list of prepared spells. If I’m reading it right, that is a huge change in traditional fire-and-forget spellcraft.
p31 c1:
Gwah! Another case of rounding up! Mind you, it’s in Arcane Recovery which basically lets you reopen some spell slots after a short rest rather than a long one, but Jesus! Why didn’t they just say “always round up” at the beginning of the book so everything is actually coherent?

I know this is a tiny thing that probably doesn’t matter to anyone else, but as a designer and engineer, this kind of thing just looks damn sloppy. If you’re not going to be consistent, don’t say anything. If you say something, bear that design choice throughout the design. Really, its not hard!

And yet another pitch-out to the Player’s Handbook. It feels like there’s roughly one per page. 

Would it have killed them to at least pretend that this is some kind of standalone product? Really?

This text is slavishly devoted (there’s that phrase again) to telling me all the cool things I can’t do with it! Not with getting me excited about doing all kinds of cool things, then capping it with “… and if you liked that, there’s even more in the Player’s Handbook!” but actually and actively dangling out “this is cool, but you can’t do it.” Its a constant reminder of failure.
p31 c2:
Sculpt Spells at 2nd level in the School of Evocation lets you carve out areas of safety in an Evocation spell effect? What kind of world is it if Fireball isnb’t a terrifying area of death and destruction that you have to be careful of blasting your party-mates “accidently” into ash with? I object!
p33, c1:
Chapter 4: Personality and Background, aka “all that other useless stuff.”
p33, c2:
Right, so Tika Waylan, described as having pretty high Strength and a Fighter, is 5’8” and masses 146lb. I don’t want to point out the obvious, but has anyone that writes for D&D met a girl? How about a woman who spends any time working out and has some muscle on her?

Apparently, there’s no gender dimorphism in any of the D&D multiverse, either, which might explain some of their clearly insane numbers.

Though, really, there’s no reason to give this kind of table here. It’s not just useless, its meaningless and can only exist to be criticised for being broken. Why not replace it by a couple of column-inches that talk about physical appearances and giving some broader description of the manifest physical being of the characters?
p34 c1:
Alignment, yawn, OK. A fairly straightforward and mercifully brief take on the alignment matrix. It does manage to make Neutral seem less inherently amoral than previous stuff on the stuff, though, which is – acceptable. I’m not sure why they bother with this, anymore, except as tradition.

Note to self: Learn “Deep Speech” so that I can chat up mind flayers and beholders.
p35 c2:
And here we have it, all those cool personality mechanics that the opening promised me! Now to see what the mechanical impact –

Oh. If you play to them, the GM might award you “inspiration,” which is just a one-shot trait that you can add to a single attack roll, saving throw, or ability check. Just the one. Then you’re no longer inspired. I mean, sure, it does give you an advantage on one roll, and rolling 2d20 take the highest isn’t shite, but – once.
p36 c1:
It looks like you can use inspiration as a form of degenerate Fan Mail, but since you can only have inspiration as a binary, you can’t actually stack up enough for it to be a useful currency, and anyone likely to be doing something cool enough to make you give your inspiration away has likewise probably just earned a free one from the GM. That’s a pretty painful failure of what could have been a neat narrative-focusing mechanic.
p37, c1:
Here there be backgrounds, which mainly seem to be useful in their giving of a couple of skill proficiencies and some basic gear – along with a set of tables where you can roll up some personality traits, ideals, and bonds. You know, in case putting together the personality of a character is just too complicated for you, but to which you’ll pay enough attention to leverage mechanically. I guess. On occasion.

I’d have been far more impressed with these bits presented as “example backgrounds” rather than random tables. More “you can be like this” than “be like this!
p41 c1:
I have to admit, reading through the backgrounds, the “background features” are interesting little narrative bits that give your character some in-setting narrative power simply by dint of who they were. For instance:

Soldier's Background Feature

That’s actually pretty cool. The obvious intent is to couple it with Fighter or Cleric and be a retired soldier, but I’d kind of like to play a Wizard who’s an ex-military spellflinger and when the party inevitably runs afoul of the kingdom’s military, sweeps off his hood, glares arrogantly, and immediately the poor guards start stammering and saying, “Sorry, Commander – we didn’t recognize you!” Sort of the Shepherd Book thing without being a Cleric, if you will.

So far, the background features are the most interesting part about this game.
p43 c1:
If nothing else, they’ve worked proficiency/disadvantage nicely into the system. Have no proficiency with a weapon or armor? You’ve got disadvantage with using it, and remember, that’s an extra d20 rolled and take the lowest. More than a little brutal, but it at least doesn’t say you can’t.
Hmm, let me check something.

Wizards don’t have the sensible thing, a proficiency with simple weapons; they have a very specific list of weapons they can use: Daggers, darts, slings, quarterstaffs, and light crossbows. Has anyone ever seen a wizard using a sling? I guess if you were going all Dalaran and kicked your elven Dex up, it might be a reasonable choice. But nothing beyond that? Kind of weaksauce.
p44, c1:
Ah, that explains it. There are only two categories of weapons, simple and martial. But wait …

Simple Martial

“Most people can use simple weapons with proficiency.”

“Except for wizards, even the ones that used to be street urchins, soldiers, or criminals, because fuck those guys! They picked up a spellbook, they forgot how to hit a dude in the head with a serving mug or a club!”

Yet another chance for D&D to be less stupid, passed over.

No, wait …

Proficency

You just don’t get your proficiency bonus with weapons you aren’t proficient with. Which for Wizards is pretty lightweight, +2 until 4th, +3 until 9th, +4 until 12th. Though that’s weird the other way – a Wizard gets a bonus to smack people in the head with a sling, but not a mace, which is just “swing at guy, hit guy, hope he runs away?” I thought for a moment it might be simple weapons that were tagged with finesse or versatile, but that’s not the case either. It’s just arbitrary.

On the up-side, your wizard can pack some javelins out into the field and then surprise some untoward gobbos with some seriously long-range facey-pokery if they drop a little Strength boost.

Or a greatsword, if they have a serious yen to scare people.

There is no Bohemian Ear-Spoon. Maybe that’s in the Player’s Handbook, too.
p56, c1:
Chapter 6: Customization Options, or alternately, “a one page goddamn ad for the Player’s Handbook briefly describing what Multiclassing and Feats are. Though in the pursuit of complete truth, there’s enough detail here to do multiclassing. I’m not sure why they bother repeating it’s in the Player’s Handbook when its effectively here.

Oh, right, because they fuck you over by not explaining how you add proficiencies. My lack of faith is restored!

Feats, however, are pure tease from the ground up.
p57, c2:
Finally! An example of the system doing something and rounding down!
p58 c2:
Skill checks remain effectively a binary proposition, either you have it or you don’t. Which, surprisingly, I don’t mind. If you must have a fiddly, necessarily incomplete, poorly distributed list of words that define capabilities, the last thing you need to do is tack a scalar on it for no good reason.
If you’ve got it, you can pop your proficiency bonus from your class and level on that d20 check, and if you don’t, you can’t. This says some interesting things about craftsmanship in the D&D multiverse (ie. that blacksmiths get better by avoiding the forge and being a murder hobo in the countryside), but that’s not my problem, thankfully. I prefer sensible world-building and, largely, that’s not what D&D’s about.
p68 c1:
We’re really going to put some detailed crafting rules in here? I suppose that’s of a piece with the section on Wealth earlier that talked about how most folks other than adventurers, merchants, and professional services dealt in barter and the trade of goods – then proceeded to go on for a whole column about different types and materials of coinage.

They do tie it to the lifestyle support cost, which is interesting, but there’s no way that anyone actually becomes a widely acclaimed, wealthy artisan in this system. You put 5gp of effort into an object per day and are very particular about telling you that if you’re crafting you can maintain a modest lifestyle for free, or a comfortable one at half normal cost (and, as usual, they just say its in Chapter 5 but with no page number).
p68 c2:
Ah, there’s the “working for a living” bit. If you have a working profession, you can also be modest for free. If you’re part of an organization, you can go comfortable for free. And if you’re proficient in Performance, you can support a wealthy lifestyle for free.

So – it’s more profitable as a use of your time to be a whore (or a bard) than it is to be an artisan smith, professional soldier/mercenary, or a member of the Thief’s Guild. I realize that they’re trying to make adventuring more interesting at a profit analysis level than downtime, but do we need that? You have to really want to be a murder hobo to be an adventurer. Couldn’t we have had this space devoted to a slot earlier in chargen about “why you’re an adventurer”? It could be character-revealing instead of some cost accounting.

Or a practicing wizard, despite wizarding supposedly being rare and exotic.
p70 c1:
Reactions? But I already have Warrior Heroes: Legends! (Actually, the reactions in WHL are more flexible, since you can react multiple times before your next turn – or activation. But D&D is going for the six second round, still.)
p71 c1:
Getting up from being prone costs half my speed? But I already have Warrior Heroes: Legends!
Wait, I already made that reference? Nevermind, carry on.

The section on Creature Size is one that could use some attention to illustration that I’ve noticed is missing throughout this text. Not to put too fine a point on it, but 4th Edition has the definite advantage in that there is no question that they are going to illustrate things like areas of control with actual maps and diagrams. Here, going for a purely descriptive model is nowhere near as clear or as comprehensible as what you would get with one simple square grid map.

This is a real problem. There are vanishingly few actual examples of how mechanics are supposed to work throughout D&D Next Basic. If they really intend this thing to be used by newcomers to the game and to the genre, you would think that an extraordinary number of examples would be exactly what the doctor ordered. And yet, they are nowhere in evidence. I believe in judging people by what they do, not what they say – and when they say that Next Basic is for newbies, I think I have to call them liars.
p71 c2:
I think this is actually worse because they have an outset box which talks about playing on a grid. With no picture of a grid. And no discussion of the area of control of a figure. If you’re going to talk about a grid, it behooves you to actually show what things look like on a grid. Trying to pretend that 4th Edition never happened is not a good enough excuse.
p72 c1:
So if you take the Disengage action, “your movement doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks for the rest of the turn.” Wouldn’t it be nice if they defined what an opportunity attack was or at least provided a (see page XX) for the reference? I shouldn’t be pointing out problems in this book that we bitched at White Wolf for in the early 90s. I just shouldn’t. I shouldn’t have to.

The Help action is kind of interesting. Giving advantage (roll 2d10, take the highest) on either an ability check or an attack? That’s some big, hefty bonus playing. Of course, if the gobbos are using Help, and swarming a target character – well, TPKs won’t make anyone feel better.
p73 c2:
I hope your frontline combatants are very good at their job, because per the Ranged Attacks in Close Combat section, you’re going to be taking disadvantage on the attack roll if you’re within 5 feet of a hostile creature who can see you and who isn’t incapacitated. That last minute Burning Hands? That point blank Magic Missile? Good luck actually hitting with that.

This is going to make being a low level wizard just as sucky as it ever was. Maybe more so. At least I used to be able to count on Magic Missile to go off and at least be a stinging distraction. Now? With 2d10, take the lowest, +2? You’re looking at hitting AC 7 50% of the time with a tiny little attack, anyway.

Wizards should get a proficiency in Athletics for all the running away I see coming.
p74 c1:
Holy crap! The Grappling section is only a few column-inches! We’re going to have to get all new jokes now!
p74 c2:
Oh, I can see the “spirited discussions” about whether someone is in half or 3/4ths cover from here. They smell thermonuclear.
p75 c2:
“For example, a druid grants a ranger 8 hit points of healing.”

Really? Does he? What’s a ranger and what’s a druid in this game, says the newbie? Because neither of those things have been defined in this context. Was it really so hard to say Cleric and Rogue, since those are things actually in this book?
p77 c1:
Hold up, a crossbow doesn’t have disadvantage if fired at a target within its range underwater? Have you guys seen a crossbow?
p78 c1:
Spell Level

Wat? Why? Look, this has been all kinds of screwed up forever. There is no reason to make this the standard dumb for access to spells. It’d be different if the necessary character level was twice the spell level. Kind of nutty, but defensible. But – this? Why? There are all kinds of things I’d fix if I were rewriting D&D (for one, I’d stop and write a better game), but this is one of the things that always stops me dead as I look aghast as a horrible twisted wart on an already gnarly design.
p85 c2:
Oh, thank Hades. Burning Hands doesn’t require an attack roll – as far as I can tell – so those guys that get snuggly right up next to you can get toasty just as fast. Of course, it’s a cone that originates at the caster and goes 15ft in range, with a final width of 15ft, so you might want to be careful with that in close quarters.
p90 c2:
Oh, Finger of Death, you’ve added a pleasant effect that will never stop me from loving you:

Finger me!

You mean, everything I kill with Finger of Death becomes my zombie slave? Why would I ever prepare another spell ever again? Once I can cast 7th-level necromancy, I’ll just prep this one spell every time I wake up, for every 7th+ spell slot, and after a couple of years of adventuring, I’ll never need hirelings, I’ll be sweeping and clearing dungeons with my own disposable army!

This is why they don’t let me into Ravenloft, btw.
p96, c1:
Oh, hey! Magic Missile doesn’t require a targeting check! So, point-blank dart-flinging is just fine. Of course, you definitely can’t cast it at the Darkness, unless you’re in an Image comic.

Though that begs the question of things that do take a targeting check. [flip flip] Guiding Bolt requires targeting, but who uses that? Ray of Frost is a targeted cantrip that does damage, which seems odd. Huh. Surprisingly little targeting going on, except for some Touch range stuff that only requires a successful melee. So mainly, its just ranged folk with bows and thrown stuff that get screwed by point-blanking. I can live with that.

Though the number of really large AoE spells in this text is – really large. Including Blade Barrier, Fire Storm, Meteor Swarm – just a lot of big, blasty things.
And that’s that.

So I have to figure out a top level way to summarize what I took away from this book, and I think I can sum it up pretty directly:

Why?

I can see what they’re trying to do. They have seen that Pathfinder has made a fair amount of money, has a retro styling, is a logical continuance of D&D 3.5, and that a lot of the old school community has made a lot of grumpy noises about 4th Edition. They want a piece of that pie that, in theory, they gave up when they jumped to a more tactical game design. Basic reads very much, in a lot of ways, like an OSR book, trying very hard to leverage the 3.5 mystique, expressing everything in feet, and at least making nods toward skill use which is not in combat (though by page count, most of the skill use is in wilderness exploration, which seems to be a minigame of its own).

It’s just not very good.

I mean that both as a game design and as a text design. I’ve already talked about the layout, which is crowded and just too dense. There’s the almost complete absence of examples, which in an instructional text is an abomination. The character generation section attempts a fairly decent step-by-step process, and mostly gets there but it’s simultaneously kind of a mess. As an example of a mostly competent Fantasy Heartbreaker, it’s pretty good. As the inheritor of the D&D mantle, well – we’re back to the original question. Why?

There are two fairly interesting sections in this design:
  • The background system, which gives you some narrative power and responsibility based on who you’ve been and some assumed history. That’s actually pretty cool, because you can bring in your character background and make it meaningful in the context of dealing with NPCs.
  • The integrated advantage/disadvantage system which basically adds or removes a d20 from an ability or attack check, with a maximum of just one either way, which is basically a simplification of the mechanics from Over the Edge. With that change, they’ve managed to reduce the amount of “mod juggling” that you have to do in D&D quite considerably, and that’s just a total win.
The rest? If you want to play an old-school style, storytelling-oriented, much simpler and better mechanical system? On Mighty Thews exists, it’s cheap, and you can do everything that you want within the context of that game and have a great time.

Do you want the tactical experience? If you played and enjoyed 4th Edition D&D, that’s something that you may seriously enjoy. At least from reading Next Basic, that’s not a style of play that they wish to pursue. There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth when Next was announced and described, because that community felt like they were being abandoned. I think it’s safe to say that the release of Next tells me that concern was absolutely correct.

If you enjoy that style of play, might I suggest that you look into Warrior Heroes: Legends? It’s definitely not as complex and detailed in the specific as D&D, but I think that you can find some enjoyment there. Of course, nothing keeps you from continuing to play 4th in an ongoing sense. That’s one of the wonders of role-playing games, they don’t require support from a company for your game to continue. Your game is created from your experience and your imagination, and like the sky they can’t take that away from you.

I honestly just don’t see much call as a product for Next. Everything it does, something else does better. Everything it’s reaching to re-incorporate seems to be the numbers it lost to Pathfinder rather than new players, and the text screams that.

Final rating: -2 (Poor) on the Fudge scale.