I’m sorry that this took so long. It has been very difficult to write because I want so badly for Next to be awesome and I simply don’t believe it is. I don’t think the developers are evil or stupid; I just think that they have very different priorities from me and the people I game with.
I think the hardest part of this for us was remembering that this is an alpha version, to use software development jargon. This is by no means a finished product, rather the opposite, actually. This iteration of Next is a very rough framework so that they can get a sense of what does and does not work. I think it’s important to keep in mind that roleplaying games never become obsolete. I own virtually every D&D book ever published, as I’m something of a collector as well as a player. If I were less scrupulous, the wonderful world of torrents would provide me with whatever books caught my fancy. I think there’s a tendency to bash 4e’s sales because “the community hated it”, while ignoring the great recession and the heyday of digital piracy.
That’s why, if Next is going to thrive, it has to do something better than all the other roleplaying games out there. People have to connect with it in a fundamental way. Currently, the mindset seems to be somewhere between 2nd Edition and 3.5. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, especially if we’re teaching players and GMs to incorporate more narrative into the game. If I wanted to just play a boardgame, Descent lies waiting. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want a robust combat system, it just means that I want an underlying understanding that the rules aren’t fixed the way they would be in a competitive environment. If a player wants to push to try and hit something outside his normal range, that should be permissible. If a player wants to swing from a chandelier or throw a mug full of ale, that should be okay too.
That’s why I wish they would just come out and say, “In Next, we expect that some combats will happen entirely through narrative, or they will never happen at all. The Fighter might scare off all the goblins. The Wizard might put them all to sleep. Actual fighting should only happen when the circumstances dictate.” Now, I’m not fully committed to that as a philosophy, but it seems as though that’s the direction they’re headed and I think they should just be honest about that. A game centered on that expectation is going to have a very different feel from one where “most combats happen.”
The Rogue is a lie…
Let me begin by saying that I think the Next Rogue is terrible. As in, mind-bogglingly, what-the-hell-were-you-thinking terrible. We were trying to reserve judgement until we actually saw it at the table and we did our best to play it as written, but none of us wanted to actually pilot the character. We decided to include it, but pass it around from player to player in the hopes that one of us could make it not suck.
- The fighter does 2d6+7 damage. It also does 3 damage on a miss. The Rogue does 2d6+3 every other round. Honestly, if there was a theme or background that allowed you to get the Rogue skills on a Fighter frame, I can’t imagine a reason why anyone would play a Rogue ever again.
- We used the Rogue as a scout because Skill Mastery means that the Rogue can’t score less than a 16 on its Stealth checks. This was actually our first – and only – bit of rules lawyering during the session, as Witchknight thought that the class feature meant that the Rogue couldn’t score less than 10 total, rather than the die roll being adjusted to 10. In an environment where the NPCs have small – or even negative – Perception checks, this meant that the Rogue could pretty much go where it pleased…
- Except, of course that the environment is dark and the Rogue has the worst Perception check in the party. I mean, how is it even possible that the class known for getting into other people’s stuff has a negative Perception check?
- We were also curious why the Rogue could do more damage with a sling than with a dagger.
All in all, we really felt that this implementation of the Rogue was very non-thematic. That is, it doesn’t do the things we expect of a Rogue. Maybe it’s just the people I know, but Rogues are supposed to be high-precision, positional melee combatants. They’re supposed to be high-risk, high-reward. I mean, the most effective way to do damage with this character is to hide behind one of the other party members and throw rocks… I can’t imagine anything more boring. What it really looks like is that what used to be the Rogue’s design space was moved to the Fighter. The “hide for a turn, then do something big” mechanic feels wrong when no other class is expected to routinely sacrifice a whole turn in order to access its cool.
Also, one of the design concepts behind Next is the “All-Star Moment” where classes that aren’t good all the time really shine. This is especially built into the Wizard. The Rogue is clearly inferior to the Fighter in every way, but he never gets anything that makes him stand out. I can’t even imagine him excelling out of combat. He can’t pick pockets. The only connection he has to the underworld is in the form of Theives’ Cant. Big whoop. I mean, you made him a frakking commoner. You might have been trying to demonstrate the flexibility of the skill system – which rocks, by the way – but saddling players with a definitively non-heroic character for the first big time playtest is a no-no. You want us excited about your product, if for no other reason than that enthusiasm can fuel more and better playtesting. This character is a dud by every measurement.
I thought that the three pillars of Next were supposed to be “Interaction, Exploration and Combat.” The module even starts out fairly strong, explaining that we shouldn’t be looking too closely at play balance, but should instead focus on whether or not the game supports the way we want to play. That would be fine if the module had any structure at all. Why are the Orcs and the Goblins fighting? Well, they aren’t, not explicitly. The expectation here is that the GM will just make all this up. All we’re really given is a bunch of combats.
My problem with this is that it doesn’t seem to be especially helpful with regards to playtesting. There should have been situations in which exploration or interaction were highlighted. Let me give you an example:
“Mount Achilrae is not part of a mountain range. Instead, it towers above the plains and swamps of the southlands like a giant granite fist. On the north face of the mountain is one of the world’s largest waterfalls, which tumbles down into what was once a great cathedral. The great city that stood there was known as Shadowsmeet. It was a place of canals and magical flying gardens. It was a center of study and arcane lore.
All of that is gone now. The might walls are pierced in several places, melted by a fire hot beyond comprehending. With the engineers gone, the city is flooded and choked with reeds. Tribes of lizardmen squabble in the ruins. You were warned to steer clear of them, as they have a reputation for cooking and eating those they capture. There are others within the ruins as well – half-mad wizards combing the city for records from the golden age of magic, mystics hoping to draw power from the convergence of the ley lines, treasure seekers, fugitives and many more. The city may not bustle as it once did, but now it seethes with petty feuds and nighttime murders.”
Now, with less than ten minutes of work, I’ve described a place. Cool stuff can happen there. All you would have to do to flesh it out is make up a couple of lizardman factions, a few NPCs and a couple of magical doodads in the city and you’re ready to rumble. I get that Caves of Chaos is supposed to evoke warm gooey memories of AD&D, but it falls on its face on a playtest environment. If you want feedback on the system, you have to create situations where the players are more likely to choose a specific tactic, but aren’t forced to. Maybe there’s an NPC that can tell them how to get into an old vault, but won’t unless he likes them. The trick is to make it really memorable so that people talk about it. That way, you can look at the blogs and whatnot to see how people responded to it. This will reveal the actual strengths and weaknesses of the system in a way that surveys will not.
I suspect that this is comes across as somewhat confusing, so I’m going to try an extended metaphor. Let’s say that I’ve hired you and your friends to be secret shoppers at my new Italian restaurant. You’re all excited at the possibility of helping create the best bistro ever, but when you come in, I hand you a giant box of raw ingredients and almost nothing in the way of instructions. When you ask, I explain, “just make whatever you want. It’s your meal. Cook anything that appeals to you.”
Puzzled, but determined to make a go of it, you head home and start cooking. Now imagine that the same thing is happening in kitchens all across the world. In some of them, the head cook decides to swap in some whole wheat pasta for a more robust, earthy flavor. In others they crank up the spice or add sugar to the sauce. Then, when it comes time for you to report, I ask only the most generic of questions. “Did you have a good time? Was it too much work? Would you eat this again?” I ask very little about what you actually made and what you changed and why. In the end, I lack a way to learn much from the exercise.
That’s what I mean.
If you want an excellent fix to some of this, Mike Shea over at Sly Flourish produced a list of NPCs that can be found at the nearby Keep on the Borderlands, including a bunch of possible plots and motivations. I still think that the module was overly nebulous, especially for the purposes of playtesting, but his suggestions go a long way toward improving the experience.
Killing goblins for fun and profit…
We played without a grid, mostly because the 10′ squares threw us off a bit, though wanting to try Next “as intended” was also a factor. From a narrative sense, it was very bland. There are only so many times that you can describe walking up to someone and swatting them with a sword before it becomes incredibly tedious. Repetition was also a huge factor. Yes, there are many more monsters than there would be in an equivalent 4e fight, but the Next fights felt considerably more grindy. When so many of the monsters are effectively minions, all the tension drains out of the experience and it becomes a dice rolling exercise.
As an example, we decided to start our explorations in what turned out to be the goblin area. We sent the rogue up ahead to see what they were up to (this is where the glaring problems became apparent). After a brief discussion about what to do with them, we decided that they were too shifty to be trusted and too weak to be of any use. Besides which, it wasn’t as though we had much in the way of goods to bribe them with. It’s good that we didn’t carry through on this suggestion because it turns out that they had a large sack of gold with which to convince the ogre to come beat in our skulls. They had many times our wealth.
Our first combat was against the six goblins in area 17, which cascaded into the wandering patrol, which brought out the Ogre. Without the map, everything felt very distant and abstract. As much as we tried to make the fight exciting, it pretty quickly devolved into “I attack one of the goblins.” The utter flavorlessness of the combat made me wonder if the real strength of the AEDU framework isn’t the E. The only mechanic that we had any fun with was the Cleric of Moradin’s “shield an ally” power and that was because I was being goofy and actually putting my arm out over the player.
A make-your-own-fun kit…
This brings me to the most telling comment made during the “debriefing” phase: “You know, we all had fun, but it wasn’t because of the game. We had fun because we’re all friends. We could have had just as good a time MST3K-ing the crap out of a movie – which is pretty much what we were doing here – or playing a boardgame or whatever. There wasn’t anything that grabbed me as exciting about the game itself. In fact, it feels as though we had fun in spite of the system, rather than because of it. I really don’t see what Next has that I can’t get from someplace else and probably better.”
I lift things up…
When I mentioned the strength of the AEDU system, I was largely referring to the Fighter, as it was the class with the least variety and agency in previous editions. Next seems to take the position that doing “tons of damage” is enough to make up for returning to that older mindset. It did not resonate with us. We kept quoting that commercial throughout the playtest. Sometimes it was in a funny way, but mostly it was bitter and resigned. The guy playing the Fighter actually used that as the entire description of his action at one point.
Of course, the Fighter and the Rogue were not the only classes subject to tedium. They all were.
- While the Rogue was mechanically nonviable, that character at least got to do something. The Fighter was the very epitome of boring. It only has flat bonuses, so at 1st level there is literally nothing it can do that isn’t just numbers. We get that you wanted the Fighter to be simple to play, but this is just ridiculous.
- The Cleric wasn’t much better. We didn’t try the Cleric of Pelor because we were already passing around an extra character and we were told that downplaying the importance of healing was an important part of Next. To be honest, we also avoided the Cleric of Pelor because we think the idea of standard action heals is garbage, at least as the primary heal mechanic on a character. If you take nothing else from 4e, please allow healers to do something else.
- We thought that this implementation of Shocking Grasp was very anti-thematic. Here’s the problem: most of the other characters can kill a monster in one hit. Magic Missile cannot (or it has a low chance to do so). This means that Magic Missile is only good when one of the other characters has just barely failed to kill a monster and you can snipe it with an auto-hit. Yay. If the Wizard wants to do reasonable damage, he has to walk up on his opponent. This doesn’t jibe at all with the “smart play” mindset of the glass cannon.
- Without opportunity actions, combat felt very mushy. There’s nothing to stop anyone from doing whatever they want, which created a sensation of formlessness. It felt far closer to “Cowboys and Indians” than any combat system we’ve seen in a very long time and not in a good way. Part of engagement is restraint.
The hopeful grognard?
Next confuses me, as I’ve never seen a game go backwards before. Rather than doing something new, it feels like it devolves into a state where the GM has to do more work to make things exciting, rather than less. I think that’s because the combat system is intentionally neutered because the expectation is that a far greater number of “combats” will simply be handwaved, either literally or through the use of spells and abilities that bypass the encounter. I don’t find any satisfaction in “we put the goblins to sleep and slit their throats.”
Despite all that, I continue to want good things for Next.