Dungeons & Dragons: Free Basic Rules

Lots of people are talking about 5th Edition, D&D Next, or just simply “Dungeons & Dragons” per WoTC, which is utterly confusing for a brand that has put out different editions and variations of the same product. Anyway, if you were somehow unaware, the newest iteration of Dungeons and Dragons is live. The free basic rules are available as a PDF from Wizards of the Coast. The Starter Set is also available for purchase ($20). The perennial triumvirate of core rule books will not start their staggered release until August (PHB).

So I wanted to do the summary first and then speak about the specifics from the free basic rules.

Overall Impression

It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a solid rules system, but that’s about it. The newest edition will allow you to play enjoyable sessions. It does nothing poorly thus far, but conversely it does nothing great either. In the end I’ll play it, but I’m always going to listen to the full list of rules system alternatives before deciding on it.

We SCREAM!

Trying to describe the new rules I would say it fits somewhere between 2nd & 3rd edition with some retooling of the mechanics with smart RPG design from the last two decades, D&D and otherwise.

What Once Was Will Be Again

It’s interesting to see the cyclical nature of D&D development reach arguably full circle. The development of third edition was greatly tied to the fan base wanting a more specialized, more intricate game. Enter feats, a robust skill system, and a big jump in rules minutiae. It allowed its players to cover almost any situation that came up. It was also a candy land for power gamers.

I think two major points spurred the development for 4e.

Aging fan base: New blood was absent from the hobby, video games and especially MMOs were/are stealing the young demographic

Time: People did not like how long it took to play a lot of third edition. Fans complained about how long it took to do combat, and that’s without difficult rules quandaries like grappling.

Streamlined: faster to play and lowered the barrier of entry by using mechanics more similar to video games. The classes were also similar so fighters were as interesting to play at level 10 as wizards. In addition the system was designed with DM’s in mind. Often a thankless job, 4e even with all its problems, is a breeze to run behind the screen.

Problems arose with 4e of course and a lot of valid finger pointing can be done to a lot of different responsible parties. Upper tier game play was an absolute mess most easily summed up as option and feature overload.

So 5th edition, D&D Next. Two plus years of R&D, extensive play testing from the public, and now it’s live. It’s a return to roots, a prodigal design that scours through the life of the brand to distil the quintessential when people think of D&D. Unfortunately I think this is an idea borne of the edition wars, that a rules system either can or cannot be D&D enough. But there’s no measuring board and D&D has mutated, changed subjectively for better and worse over four decades. It’s like saying Cherry Coke isn’t Coca-Cola enough. Of course this is the same thinking that upsets people when Final Fantasy games aren’t Final Fantasy enough.

But from the development history of D&D I find myself wondering if there’s not a reason to return to the D&D Basic and AD&D framework. There are two polarizing factions. One faction of the target audience wants simpler rules and fast play. The success of things like Savage Worlds, FATE, OSR, Fate, and others show that pretty clearly. On the other end of the spectrum you still have a significant audience who loves the complexity and ‘crunch’ of 3.X, Pathfinder, and other systems. So why not do that, support two separate lines? Right out of the box you almost double your supplements and thus revenue opportunities as a developer. I think it also may be able to save some of the vitriol that’s so pervasive in the hobby’s community.

But for anything like that to happen WoTC needs to make some changes. First and foremost I feel like they need to find someone with a plan to actually run the brand. Let’s look at their management history real quick:

1997 – Purchases D&D brand

2000 – Releases D&D 3rd Edition w/ OGL

2003 – Releases D&D 3.5

2005 – Begins development of 4e

2008 – Releases 4e, Drops support of all prior editions, no OGL (thanks Pathfinder)

2010 – Releases D&D Essentials

2012 – Begins D&D Next development, Re-releases prior D&D edition materials from the Disney Vault back catalog, Kills all 4e/Essentials future supplements

2014 – Releases D&D (D&D Next, and I believe no OGL)

WoTC does an about-face with the D&D Brand every 2-3 years, hard ones. Like doing a jibe when sailing and not telling your friend and laughing as the boom swings around and violently hits him in the head and knocks him out of the boat. Hard not to be a disgruntled consumer considering the treatment we’ve collectively received.

 

Particulars of Dungeons & Dragons (seriously, it needs some sort of identifier)

Things I Like:

  • Proficiencies, I like the across the board flat bonus.
  • Exploration & Social Interaction Mechanics, Finally some reference on how to run/resolve the other 2/3 of the game that’s not combat.
  • Multiclassing, I like 4e but it’s multiclassing was useless.
  • Gain a Feat OR Ability Increase, Options for how to run your games and how players can develop their characters that actually involves a tradeoff. Also +1 to 2 or +2 to 1 ability makes ability increases always useful.
  • Human Racial Benefit, Viable mechanical benefit to play a human, it even offers a variant!
  • One-Size-Fits-All Shield, Shield or no shield, there is no buckler (…yet)
  • Advantage/Disadvantage, Who doesn’t like to roll more dice?
  • Attack of Opportunity, Only provokes when moving away from an enemy

Things I Dislike:

  • Vancian Casting, It’s improved but you can only varnish a turd so much
  • Too Many Situational and Too Few General Purpose Spells, A cornerstone of Vancian casting systems so you can play the ‘guess what kind of trouble you’ll get into today’ mini game with your DM.
  • Healing Spell Preparation, I think you should always be able to default cast a heal spell without wasting a prepped spell selection on it
  • Sneak Attack, I want one devastating alpha strike, after that leave all the fighting glory to the FIGHTER
  • 3×3 Alignment, Silly vestigial trope. Alignment only matters for divine classes and even then it can be replaced by common sense
  • No Reflex Bonus From Shield!
  • No 4e Disease Framework, Hopefully shows up in the DMG
  • Inspiration, Feels tacked on. I wish it had beneficial options other than just granting advantage

So yeah, it’s good; not great, but good. I think there are better options depending on the specifics of the campaign you’re trying to evoke, but it’s a solid entry for the brand and should be pretty easy for new players and veterans alike to pick up and enjoy.

Enjoy it now, you may only have 2-3 years before WoTC completely ruins it.

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From the Dice of Babes

Due to an unexpected change in my weekly D&D games roster we had to call in a reliever from the bullpen. Ah… sports metaphors. Anyways, due to some change in my usual group, mainly the departure of two regulars, we were left we a distinct lack of enough people to field a strong, four man party. One of my friend’s sons has shown interest. Previously we had played some very simple RPGs with his two sons with varying success. One of these attempts was the Sword & Shield RPG I have spoken about previously.

The eldest boy is eight and we decided to give him a go running character in the interim. He has proven to be generally capable with some minor coaching from his father. Currently he plays a warlord in our 4e campaign. Despite the experience he still lacks a certain respect for the aspects of the game which are not concerned with bashing evil things in the face. Such is to be expected, I’ve yet to meet a young kid whose strong point was his/her patience.

Roleplaying_FamilyAs the campaign’s DM placed the story on hold at the conclusion of the most recent chapter we were given a few weeks of time to fill as he works on the next leg of the campaign. It was at such time the boy requested to take the mantle of Dungeon Master for his first campaign. With smiles equal mix nostalgia and jaded we agreed.

The plot was as simple as you might expect, a short three session parade. There are dragons, dragons are bad, kill the dragons; voila plot! The task of PCs fell to me and I tinkered some time to forge four stalwart adventurers. Unfortunately the wizard turned out to be not so useful, the one silver lining it’s pretty cool to fling a dragon 25 ft through the air. We constructed a paper thin background for our group, all the PCs were orphans (imagine that!) raised in an orphanage/mercenary factory. Because what good are orphans if not for molding into trained warriors. We were shortly summoned to the king’s castle. Which king, why the king of the whole freaking world. The guy has all the resources of the world at his disposal, united varied people and places under his iron fist but a few dragons are giving him fits, call in the low level adventurers!

En route to the king we were set upon by one such dragon. A might battle ensued and the party stood triumphant over the corpse of their kill. The remainder of the journey to the king’s castle was uneventful. We met the king and learned the specifics. Three dragons were terrorizing his lands, suspiciously in close proximity to the king’s castle. We had killed one and were tasked to dispatch the remaining two dragons. Given 1/3 of the job was already finished the group requested some upfront cash. The king of the world said no. We pleaded, he said ‘ok, five gold pieces each.’ The king of the world is a notorious miser. We also learned the dragons are a particular issue because they crave the sugary, deliciousness of gold. Suddenly the five gold pieces inflated in value. Since gold is scarce, my character requested the king provide us with some equipment to better accomplish the slaying of the remaining dragons, perhaps a healing potion. Without hesitation the king granted each member of the party three healing potions. In the back of my mind I knew that was the gold equivalent of 150 gp. Gold was scarce indeed to begrudgingly liberate 20 gp from the king’s coffers while not a second thought is given to providing the adventurers 600 gp worth of goods. Instead of gold the king offers the strangest of rewards for dragon slaying. If we complete the task we will be adopted by the king and become princes and princesses. It is not so much an offer of reward but a demand. I mean you can’t tell the king of the world ‘no it’s cool, I don’t really want to be a prince’. It is of note to mention that the king already has eight princes. This does not seem to be an extraordinary turn of events.

We left the king with reports of a dragon a few miles to the south. Traveling along the road we came across a fortified camp complete with a palisade. With the day drawing to a close it was decided best to seek shelter behind the walls than exposed on the road. The wizard and paladin approached the gate and knocked. The thief sidled up to the palisade to peer between the heavy logs at the camp’s interior. The rune priest held back by the road alternating between scratching his butt and picking his nose. The camp was populated by orcs and they disliked being disturbed. Conveniently no one spoke orcish and benign diplomacy quickly broke down. Weapons were unsheathed and sunset was accompanied by the sounds of battle and the death cries of orcs. The camp liberated the party bedded down. The night proved to be uneventful but a quick search of camp revealed a partially buried chest glittering with a gemstone and some small coinage.

In the morning the group gathered their supplies and readied to depart. While making the final equipment check on the road the party was approached by a servant of the castle bearing news the castle had spotted a dragon and it was descending on the castle proper. Just as the news broke and the party readied to turn around they were attacked by the remaining dragon. A fierce battle raged, with fire breath and poisoned tail spines but the adventurers were able to dispatch the beast. Being smart this time the party cut open the fiend’s belly to retrieve a small fortune of gold only to find none. Seriously gold is scarce and the handful of coins in the party’s collective pockets must have made them a beacon. Gold = catnip for dragons, they go bonkers for the stuff.

The party rushes back to the castle, a days journey away and arrive the next morning. In the castle’s atrium the king was bravely battling a massive, purple dragon. Just within the hall lay the eight princes, wounded and exhausted from the conflict. The party hurries to aid the king, their would-be father. Another great battle, another victory and the day is saved. The party becomes royalty and everyone lives happily ever after.

It wasn’t bad. The game had a refreshing simplicity. There was no thought of what was being presented by the DM as anything but fact. No diabolical NPCs, no subversion, no real surprises. While this might sound somewhat bad on paper, a few traps or an NPC betraying the PCs at some point and the group can quickly get paranoid. If you’re running a horror game this is probably good, otherwise it’s bad. The party painstakingly scouring dungeon floors inch by inch for traps and giving every NPC a thorough background check can grind a game to a halt.

So here are some things I have taken away from the experience.

– When in doubt simplicity is the best way. The more convoluted things are the more difficult it is to adjust on the fly and as a DM/GM you will have to do this because you know, players are far too ignorant and rude to follow the obvious route.

– Material wealth is unnecessary. Strip away the almighty power of the dollar/gold piece and it will free you to make better impetus and reward for adventuring. Money is a terrible motivator for RPGs, it’s shallow and if it is the PC’s primary concern that character will be all sorts of boring to play. I usually keep the PCs in my games edging the line of abject poverty. Campaigns and NPCs are more interesting when you have to use a barter system. Thanks for killing those goblins, have a pair of goats. Now that random wolves encounter is more plausible.

– Honey and vinegar should be mixed when using NPCs of power. If PCs grumble or push aggressively for a better reward don’t be afraid of strong arming them. Threaten some dungeon time, and then when they decide to take the reward tell them you’ve changed your mind and offer them 75% of the previous reward. Don’t let PCs walk over plot-centric NPCs, especially ones in positions of power.

– Solo monsters in 4e still suck. Collectively gaming groups have tried to use them, tweaked them, created new ones. WoTC has done the same. No one has crushed it with a winning solution. A balanced group of five PCs against a single monster with appropriate stats is simply no match. Solo contests are often obvious early on who will win the fight. The rest is the whittling away of a solo’s ridiculous HP. I may have to delve back into tinkering solos. I don’t particularly like solo fights and especially dragons, so it’s usually a non-issue for me.

– The ending should be more interesting than the beginning. Maybe it goes along the lines of ‘always leave them wanting more’. I find myself wondering what happens to those characters next. Suddenly becoming royalty, a household of 11 princes and 1 princess, that seems like it would be a very interesting situation to explore. Is their contention for the throne, are all the princes adopted or are some of the eight legitimate blood heirs to the world. Upon the king’s death will their be one heir or will the world kingdom be broken up into multiple princedoms. A great amount of intrigue. This sort of plot is beyond an eight-year-old to bring to fruition, but interesting all the same.

– Uncanny. I think a success of world building is being uncanny. By that I mean familiar, but strange. Familiar means it is easy to grasp the general order of things but strange is that one thing that sets it apart from others, its distinction. A generic fantasy world where the world is already solidified under one ruler who does not appear to be a twisted tyrant. A world where gold is ridiculously scarce, to the point it cannot be used for general coinage. I have a campaign setting where a virulent plague wiped out horses. A world that very suddenly lost its standard method of transportation and its infrastructure is reeling from the loss.

Have you played games with kids? What was your experience like, what sort of things did you learn, truths did you need to reexamine?

Sword & Shield Review

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Sword & Shield is a rules light, tabletop RPG in development by Christopher Brandon. A few weeks ago I stumbled across the Brandon’s blog for the system. You should check it out at http://swordandshieldrpg.blogspot.com/ along with his other works. Soon after discovering Sword & Shield our weekly D&D session was canceled by two of our members going out of town. After a short conversation with the remaining player I offered to run the play test adventure for him and his two boys. It was a rousing success, the boys (four and five years-old respectively) were not only able to handle the simple rules but the standard dungeon delve held their attention with minimal coaching.

The Nuts & Bolts

The play test rules have a character creation process consisting of three classes: Fighter, Thief, and Wizard. Character details can easily fit on an index card. Each class has a polyhedral die assigned to the abilities Fight, Shoot, and Magic. Fight is used for melee combat, Shoot for ranged, and Magic for casting spells and resisting magic/status effects. The system uses opposed rolls for conflict resolution. In addition there is a generic Skill ability used for sundry checks including climbing, tracking, lock picking etc.

What Sword & Shield Does Well

What the system does well is quick combat. Melee combat represents not just one attack but a flurry of attacks. Attacking a creature and failing can end with the instigator taking damage. Turns go by quickly and combat can be quite dangerous. One combat ended with the party fleeing and hiding after a few rounds of attrition against a living statue. The best compliment you can give a rules light system is it is easy to pick up and play.

Shortcomings

Sword & Shield does have some shortcomings. The encumbrance rules are harsh, donning armor and adventure essentials can leave characters easily over-encumbered and slow. For the play test we tossed out encumbrance as being overly difficult for the boys (fractions). The Luck mechanic seems out of place. Luck points allow a character, once per level, to turn a failed check into a success. It seems easier just to omit the Luck mechanic as currently written. Damage also suffers from a small dilemma. A wizard with a d4 Fighting die using a light weapon can never damage a creature with an armor reduction score of four or better. This came up during the play test as the wizard did not take any damage dealing spells.

Suggested Improvements

With development currently halted for Sword & Shield (seriously bug Christopher Brandon to continue its development!) I would play Sword & Shield again with a few house rule changes.

Encumbrance: Change the encumbrance rules to -1 Movement for each ½ hit points of encumbrance. This should allow parties to still be able to run away from combat successfully and let them carry gear and loot.

Luck: Allow Luck points to be used per play session, with each uses counting as rolling the highest possible result on the die for the check in question. Gaining levels will give players extra points of Luck to use for failed checks.

Initiative: Initiative is rolled by the Party Leader for each opposing faction in a skirmish. While this mechanic works well enough, I would like to see individual initiative rolls to spice things up and keep the wizard from casting Dazzle on the BBEG at the start of every combat.

Minimum Damage: Allow successful attacks to do a minimum of one damage.

A wizard with a dagger attacks a fighter wearing chain mail and using a shield. The wizard rolls four on his d4, and the fighter rolls a 1 on his d8. 3(difference of the rolls) + 1(damage bonus for dagger) = 4 points of damage. The fighter has armor 4. In the basic rules the fighter would never take damage from the wizard. The minimum damage rules makes any time the fighter takes five or fewer points of damage he would take a minimum 1 point of damage.

HP: I like the idea of rolling hit dice as a general rule. But it can also be disastrous if you roll poorly In our play test the thief ended up with the most HP, six at level one. The fighter had three. With minimum damage rules in effect the fighter can be killed pretty easily in melee. There are loads of HP mechanics out there. For first level I would at least change to make starting HP a minimum of ½ the hit die rounded down. Roll a ten, the fighter starts with 11 HP. Roll a one, the fighter starts with minimum six HP rather than two. Fifth edition Hackmaster has some sound, if cumbersome bookkeeping, mechanics for HP progression.

XP: As a rule of thumb I throw out calculating experience points for leveling up. I find it more natural as DM to allow players to level up when it seems appropriate rather than during extended rest at point X in dungeon Y. Sword & Shield’s XP system takes some extra work to calculate. As written it takes longer to level low-level parties than high level parties who can handle stronger monsters.

Streamline Task Resolution: The most difficult thing to remember in the play test was which tasks require you to meet and which require you to beat the target number. In Fight, Shoot, and Magic you have to BEAT the opposing die roll. But you only have to MEET for Skill checks. For simplicity sake choose one or the other. As lock picks grant a +1, use the Beat mechanic. Our play test saw the wizard fail to cast Heal a number of times as I continued to roll eights on the Challenge Die.

Summary

I am salivating to play Sword & Shield again. It is a breeze to run and simple to pick up and play for those not baptized by tabletop RPGs. I think I will keep the play test rules around as an introductory system for new players interested in learning RPGs. Download the play test rules and adventure and let me know what you think!