Sunday, October 19, 2014

Game Review: Dungeons & Dragons

D&D was the first game that I ever played. Back in 1990 my brother asked me to fill in for a missing player as his group attempted to solve the mysteries presented in Night of the Walking Dead. Those of you that have played a campaign with me will not be shocked to hear about my early run in with Night of the Walking Dead after all, that adventure usually shows up in some guise in every campaign that I’ve ever run. My character at the time, Charles, was a heavily armored warrior that was often out of his league in every arena of his life except melee. His story is one of duty, betrayal by those he was loyal to, and ultimately corruption as he sank to the level required of him by his new lord. All of that is a story for another day however.
When I first heard that there was a new edition coming out I was equal parts excited, relieved, and curious. I have played every version of the game that was released during my 24 year tenure – AD&D, 2nd Edition, 3rd edition, 3.5, 4th edition, and Pathfinder. When the playtest was released I jumped on it and guided an incredibly motley group of heroes through the first stages of an adventure line that culminated in them largely ignoring the subtle political threat posed by the yuan-ti, killing a ship full of pirates on a river dock in broad daylight, and sailing off into the sunset on said pirate ship. By the time that cycle was finishing our group had switched back to 2nd edition because we were having some nostalgic cravings. One of the beauties of this game is that the stories of heroic adventure (and misadventure!) are independent of the rule mechanics through which we form them.
According to the design team of D&D Next they had a number of stated goals, some of which I will reiterate here. The first design paradigm that they laid out was simplicity and elegance in design. Their idea from the beginning was that a player should be able to quickly generate a character that has some depth and learn the basic rules of the game without too much difficulty. Following from this premise was the idea that adventurers should be single session phenomena where the arch of the story and action can take place in a few hours of real time rather than becoming ordeals that last for many sessions.  The stories themselves didn’t change but the mechanics used to tell those stories were streamlined. The second design paradigm was to shift the emphasis of the game from solely combat back to a more even split between Exploration, Roleplaying, and Combat. The third concept was character balance at all levels of play between the classes. I’ll go into this a little more below. Finally, and most importantly, their objective was to appeal to Players from all editions. The Design Team doesn’t care what edition you play, they just want you to play. To me, D&D Next resembles 2nd edition while other people in my group say it resembles their favorite edition. They tried to create an edition that anyone will recognize as having elements of their favorite version and I think they succeeded.
The first thing that you will notice about the Player’s Handbook is the hefty price tag. At $50 this PHB is one of the most expensive books Wizards has ever released. The Player’s Handbook is full of new artwork (like the great piece on the cover of King Snurre) and contains all of the rules necessary to play more than 12 different character races (Human, Wood Elf, High Elf, Drow Elf, Rock Gnome, Forest Gnome, Hill Dwarf, Mountain Dwarf, Hairfoot Halfling, Tallfellow Halfling, Dragonborn, Tiefling, Half-orc) and 12 different classes (Cleric, Bard, Barbarian, Monk, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Paladin, Ranger, Druid). Each character chooses a path to specialize in during their progression through their class. Some characters choose it early such as Clerics devotion to a deity or a Wizard choosing their school of study. While other will not focus until later, like the Rogue that becomes an Assassin or a paladin that choose the path of vengeance. The character paths are reminiscent of the prestige classes and paragon paths of old.
A new addition to the core rules of the game is the Background section. It is this section that makes character generation and early character development shine. From Kriv’s (dragonborn rogue) over enjoyment of alcohol to Meeshak’s (human fighter) hatred of nobles many of the traits that help make those first adventures where you are still feeling out your characters personality are based in the background section. This is the part where you find out who your character was before they embarked on (or had thrust upon them) a life of adventuring. The power level of characters has been reduced across the board. This reduction is evident in the spell list where spells no longer get better every time the character attains a new level. It can also be seen in attack bonus and saving throws. Characters are still quite powerful and are now better balanced between the classes than ever before (Fighters have some neat abilities that allow them to dominate the ebb and flow of combat) but there is an element of danger that has been missing from the game for a while.
If you have talked to me at any time since we were at the Pittsburgh Comicon then you have probably heard me talk about how awesome the new Monster Manual is. The first thing we all notice about Monster Manual's is the artwork. The art in the new book is a mix between amazing (beholder), mediocre (most of the demons), and recycled (umberhulk). I can’t think of any artwork that is purely bad though. The next thing you’ll notice as you flip through is that it looks like they included everything! The first night I had the book I texted all of my usual playing companion that the modrons were back. Of course that message was autocorrected to “The morons are back!!!”  but the point remains that the book is full of monsters from the days of yore as well as those that will be familiar to newer players. For example, there is a chart in the demon section that explains the classification system used by mortal demonologists. On that chart Nalfeshnee are listed as Type IV, which is what they were called a LONG time ago.
A more in depth analysis will reveal that the layout of the book is excellent for ease of use. Each page denotes the letter of the alphabet covered on that page for quick referencing and the monster statistic blocks themselves are well organized for quickly referencing during play. Some monsters have Lair traits which provide details for the influence that those monsters have on the surrounding world. For example, animals living in the area around the copper dragon lair sometimes gain the ability to speak (although they never reveal any information about the dragon). The Monster Manual is the best gaming purchase I’ve made in a long time.
I hope that these reviews have been helpful for you. If you are interested in learning more about the new D&D edition (or just D&D in general) then you can download a free sample of the rules from Wizards of the Coast: The link will take you to a page where you can download a roughly 100 page version of the Player's Handbook and a roughly 100 page version of the Monster Manual/Dungeon Master's Guide. Enjoy!

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