I coud write a book about my impressions, and I will probably be cranking out thoughts all week in various blog posts. But for now, I want to focus on one thing. It’s the biggest impressions I got about the game, and to my mind, the most important:
The rules as presented play much better in the Theatre of the Mind than on a Battle Grid.
I had gone into the weekend hoping to try the game both with and without a grid, and I was not disappointed. One table chose to play with the grid and one chose to play without. And without question, the gridless game was faster, more enjoyable, and less rules-fussy than the grid game. This isn’t to say that the grid group was un-fun. But I am convinced that the presence of the grid took players out of the mental act of storytelling — and storytelling is at the heart of the D&D Next rules.
Keep in mind, I’m not an anti-grid person. Ever since the first days of 3E, I have embraced the grid. I was kind of player who had a miniature for his character on the first night of the campaign. I was the kind of DM who painted miniatures for my players. I came to the playtest with four miniatures cases and of course a vinyl battlemat. I love the grid.
But playing D&D Next, I began to like it less. I began to get frustrated that my grid group was turning every encounter into a combat. Or maybe I just had a party who always wanted to attack. Whatever the reason, I tried placing RP moments right in front of them, but they always somehow managed to attack instead. Sigh!
It really made me like D&D Next for not starting with the grid, but with the storytelling.
What happens when there’s a grid on the table? Players stop improvising and start counting squares. Being able to play some of the same scenarios in both formats really highlighted the problem. When there’s a grid in the table, it’s ever-present, taking up moist of the space, just waiting to be used. “Role-playing” becomes something that happens between encounters; the grid is where the real game is played.
As modern gamers who have spent the last 12-plus years playing grid-based, rules-heavy versions of D&D, we expect there to be a list of deliniated actions we can take and their game-defined consequences; the grid helps us do that. We expect every scenario to offer the same tactical options, neatly phrased, ready for the battle grid. Consider these two scenarios:
- Table 1: The party takes a party of bugbears by surprise, earing them a free round of attacks. The fighter Charges in a straight line at the enemy and stops within Melee Range, earning the +2 attack bonus. He slices into the bugbear leader. The rogue goes next; she charts a path across the grid that helps her avoid Threatened Squares, thus avoiding an Opportunity Attack, and gets in position to Flank, earning a +2 attack bonus on her stab. Because Flanking lets her get her Backstabbing bonus, she cuts into the leader’s backside and fells him before he’s even gotten to strike.
- Table 2: The party takes a party of bugbears by surprise, gaining the initiative. The fighter says he wants to charge at the bugbear leader. The DM says that since the bugbear isn’t ready for battle yet, the fighter gets an Advantage on the attack. He slices into the bugbear leader. The rogue goes next; she says she wants to get behind the leader, so she moves quickly but carefully to do so. The DM rolls a dice and declares that the bugbear, who was already caught off guard and now has an angry warrior in his face, didn’t even notice the rogue go past; she too gets an Advantage on the attack, and thus triggers her Sneak Attack bonus damage. She cuts into the leader’s backside and fells him before he’s even gotten to strike.
I’ve just described the same thing two ways. One uses more rules, though, and could be repeated in every encounter: the fighter Charges to get the Charge bonus, the rogue Flanks to get the Flank bonus, and squares are avoided to prevent OA. The other tells a story, and the rules define the story in a way that affects the outcome. The next time the players at Table 2 kick a door in, they might not get the same advantages for the same actions, depending on story circumstances; the players at Table 1 will always be able to pull off the same actions, as long as they follow the rules and track the grid.
“Role-playing” is not something that happens between grid encounters in D&D Next. I like that about the system. Having said that, let me follow it up by saying that my second major observation about D&D Next is this:
The rules are a bit too abstract.
As much as I enjoyed playing with these rules, I wonder whether or not the rules are a bit too abstracted. The idea that almost all combat and non-combat interactions can be expressed in terms of 6 ability checks and the Advantage mechanic, plus a liberal application of storytelling interpretation, is a good one. But as DM, I feel that it currently leaves too much undefined.
Unless you’re noting every call you make down, there runs the very real risk of ruling differently on different encounters, or even within an encounter. And while the rules state that the DM has final say, and that every variation in ruling could be explained in story terms, I find that the rules as currently written don’t give enough guidance.
Some players have minds like a steel trap. If you make a bad call a certain way once, they’ll hold you to that call for as long as it benefits them, and grumble that it’s taking them out of the play experience when you finally come to your senses and disallow it. And while I could chalk that up to annoying players, I would like the rules to say a bit more about how things get decided, when they get decided, and how to keep things consistent.
Consider Advantage and Disadvantage. How rare should these be? How do they interact? Players at both my tables quickly figured out that Advantage was the only “plus to attack” in the game, and began to think every turn about how to gain Advantage. Should I be giving them out like candy? Or making them rare, like a good magic item? Should a player expect only one Advantage per encounter, or many? I think these questions need some more concrete answers. The rules need to be a bit more rules-y.
As an example, I had a player who was running the Cleric of Pelor. He got it in his head that one way to help the party out would be to shoot someone in the eyes with radiant lance — literally blind them with the light of Pelor. I liked the idea, but I decided that it was what we used to label a “called shot”. So I gave him a disadvantage on the attack roll. He missed, but became so enamored with the idea that he wanted to keep trying it. And then the fighter realized that “called shots” were a neat idea, and before long I had players targeting sword arms and knees, all at a Disadvantage. And because hit bonuses do a lot to erase Disadvantages, they began hitting. So literally, I had blinded Orcs (temporary blindness because of the light of Pelor), crippled orcs (shot to the knee), disarmed orcs.
At one point, a halfling decided to join the fun by climbing onto a bugbear’s shoulders (Dexterity check, Disadvantaged, against the bugbear’s Dexterity) and ram a slop bucket on his head (Attack roll, Disadvantaged because it was an improvised weapon). And guess what? He pulled it off!
It was a frenzy of Disadvantage and Advantage. But is that the point? Or was I allowing too much, giving too many chances? I would like to see a little more spelled out.
I won’t lie though — it was all fun as heck. Especially the bucket moment. Not surprisingly, all of the above about called shots and buckets over the head were from the Theater of the Mind group. The grid group stayed more standardized, asking for what constituted a Flank and a Bull Rush and a Charge in D&D Next.
I’ll chime in more on specific rules in the coming days. But for now, on the whole, I love where this is going … provided they keep grids out of the core and make them an add-on module. I can see moments where pulling out the grid for big or complex “boss battles” might be useful, but on the whole I will continue to keep them the exception, rather than the rule, in my D&D Next games.
What do you think about this? Let me know in the comments!