Sunday, October 6, 2013

Can You Spell, DM.

Can You Spell, DM

As a final stop on my little jaunt through the final D&D Next playtest packet I thought I might focus my gaze upon two main areas as yet untouched; the Spells and DM Guidelines to be exact. Along the way I’ll try to sprinkle in a dash or three of any commentary regarding anything overlooked thus far. So, without wasting anymore time; let’s begin, shall we.

First, we’ll start this survey by diving directly into something fun; spells. Dungeons & Dragons wouldn’t be complete without its essential element of magical marvels. And even with enchanted items or ancient artifacts, no party is quite the same without a spell slinger among them. No matter if you’re a player who prefers to play a casting capable character or not, everyone recognizes a familiar spell or two. And it doesn’t take a mage to appreciate a well placed spell blast when the party’s back is to the wall.

  • Pete and Repeat are Looking at a Spellbook – In the past there has been a longstanding pattern of some spells existing in a series of staggered variants. A small, medium and large version, if you will. Instead, such spells are now just a single base spell; one that if cast using a higher slot scales in proportion with adjusted effect. No more juggling how many cure light wounds, moderate etc you have prepared. Now you just cast a cure wounds spell, and if cast in a higher slot it simply cures with increased potency.
  • A Tool for Every Toolbox – Often overlooked, cantrips are a caster’s most basic and useful spells. After years of repeated castings through training or daily use they are now etched upon the magic user’s mind making them almost effortless to cast. This ‘minor magic’ isn’t just some arbitrary handful of options you start the game with and collect dust. Classes like mages and clerics have access to ranged attack cantrips, providing them with magical attacks available each turn. Useful utility spells allow for spellcasters to keep handy tools at their disposal at any time.
  • Sometimes it Takes Some Time – Not every spell, cantrip or otherwise, is designed strictly for use in the spur of the moment. Rituals exist as version of a spell that takes longer to perform, but doesn’t expend a spell slot. For example a mage might choose the ritual for Find Familiar if they wanted to summon and bind a spirit that takes the form of some animal to their service. While the ritual itself takes resources and time its results are permanent. So, while spells can be slung in the heat of combat there are also others well worth the time to take to do them.
  • Don’t Panic, Your Magic Isn’t MIA – I have yet to meet a seasoned veteran player yet who doesn’t have a roster of must have spells they always start the  game looking for. And, should they find them absent, they might just react like a kid missing their favorite toy. Granted, that last bit was just a joke – but in truth some spells have a heritage all their own and a sacred place on a spell list. If magic missile was no more, I think there might be a crying chorus calling foul. So rest assured; legends like magic missile, feather fall, goodberry, prestidigitation, melf’s acid arrow and so much more are all still around. Not only that, but I can attest that I don’t think I have found any classic spell so far that isn’t true to its roots.
  • Shiny and New – The spell section isn’t just a collection of old and moldy greatest hits dusted off with a fresh paint job. Included among the familiar faces are some nice new ones. In fact, I have long been a less than enthusiastic fan of rangers getting access to spells; just never felt right to me. However, I can honestly concede that the spells available to a ranger now not only fit, but they feel right without making a ranger seem like something else. Spells like swift quiver, hail of thorns, and hunter’s veil all seamlessly interweave into the classes image. While other new spells like fire seeds, thunderous smite and sacred flame shine as additions to other classes. (I fully understand that not all of these may be new or never before seen spells, just trying to highlight a handful of standouts.)

Moving along from fun towards more function, allow me to tread into the realm of the DM Guidelines. Fear not however, I have no intention of laying bare all those mischievous machinations players are certain must be grinding away against them in such sections. (Another joke in case you missed it, DM humor can be somewhat like that of the British; dry and an acquired taste.)

  • When to, When Not to – A bit of sage-like advice that I wouldn’t be surprised to have been cited as its source of origin being the venerable Gygax himself starts the DM Guidelines section off. One might have alternatively titled the segment; “When to stroke your beard like an evil mastermind with a grin, and when not to.” All puns aside, it is an essential skill that is valuable to any DM; knowing when to roll the dice and when not to. Not every action taken by players should require a check; the dice are just a tool.
  • The Broad Basics – When you talk about covering all your bases, it’s easy for some areas to manage to be overlooked by the time you get to something like the DM Guidelines. Little things like; how do you deal with a pc falling, are kobolds nocturnal, and what dc you should set for a check based on its presumed difficulty. Impressively enough, everything looks to be covered and laid out in the Guidelines making it a more than capable framework ready to be put to use. Things like setting dc’s, hazards, dealing with ability checks, creature sizes, lighting, dungeon features, exploration tasks, travel pace, weather, encounter and reward building, all the way to an example of play are all covered and then some.
  • Can I See Your Cartographer, Please – Maybe it’s a sign of my age but I can remember every game session we played there was always one player assigned the task of map-maker. As we made our way cautiously down into the depths, they studiously scribed our journey down onto paper to illustrate the descriptions from our DM. Now there are grid sheets with terrain tiles, apps and a variety of other software to use instead. But, no matter how you track it, visualize it or handle it; having a map is handy both in character and out. For us, our map-maker’s character often also took to the task of making a map in character as well. As such in the new rules players can employ a number of useful tasks while exploring; including making a map. So, trust me; if there are rules mentioned in the DM Guide alongside the likes of keeping watch to avoid an ambush – be they map making or navigating etc – then odds are they’re the kinds of things a party would be wise to pay heed of.
  • The Might of Math – Say it with me now; elegance is effective and easy. One part of a DM’s job is to fairly form which monsters will be encountered on the adventure. There have been a variety of ways this has been handled in the different editions and some have been a little less than a lightening to the workload, so to speak. Well, now everyone behind the screen can sigh with relief; because things just got simpler. Have a party of 4 1st level pc’s looking for an average difficulty fight? You reference a simple chart with 3 columns; easy, medium and hard with a row along the side for level. A quick glance on the line for 1st level reveals a value for an average fight that you then just multiply by the number of people in the party. The final result is your xp budget for the encounter. With that figure you can go shopping for bad guys to battle.
  • What’s It Got in It’s Pockets – The flip side to a DM’s duties is one that actually goes hand in hand with what monsters the heroes face. It’s the details regarding how to reward them. Now, when you were shopping for monsters you already established part of what to reward them with by your xp budget itself. That is to say, your xp budget is also the xp your heroes will be rewarded with by defeating the monsters. To determine what more tangible rewards might be available a series of tables are provided based on the kind of treasure complete with how to use them to generate random loot. A DM doesn’t have to use them, but it is a handy reference if you need to throw a quick horde or modest stash together.

Some miscellaneous things to mention:

  • Step by Step – Want to make a character of your very own? Included is a step by stem walkthrough to guide you through the process. It details what choices you have to make and points out some things to consider in fleshing out your adventuring hero to be. Including some explanation of key basic terms and aspects of how to describe your character or what to do beyond 1st level.
  • But How Do You… - Another prized gem is the How To Play section, which, ironically enough explains precisely what its name implies. Gathered here are the rules on how you make an attack roll, what an ability check is and how advantage/disadvantage works. In short; everything from saving throws and skills to movement and attitudes/reactions are explained. Combat, taking damage and healing are described. Even the various conditions with which a character might be afflicted are defined. Everything short of what a DM might need to know is provided in surprisingly easy to understand terms.
  • We Don’t Need Your Sheet – Also included is a pdf character sheet for you to use with your own characters. It’s fairly basic all things told but kind of amusing too. The digital record allows you a layout with all the standard info arranged in little areas to fill in. Including some little bubbles you can fill in and label with a name to track ammunition, potions or torches complete with a simple icon to designate them. Everything is very straight forward and serviceable, albeit lacking in style. But then again, this is a sample intended for use during the playtest; it could just as easily been a collection of empty lines you could fill out like a sheet of notebook paper. Wouldn’t that have been a grand and humorous bit of fun?
  • Hello My Name Is… - If your pals are short on time, a little shy about diving in or just prefer pre-made personas there are already created characters included. There are around 10-ish total, and while they run the gamut of available classes to represent, don’t expect every race represented or anything that might stand out as an unusual combo. No dwarf rangers or warforged paladins I’m afraid, but there are some tried and true examples of some staple heroes. Each one is a complete write up listing their stats, racial traits, class features and background. Any gear is described, including what attacks they can make and if they can cast spells they are listed in detail. No assembly required, batteries included, ready to play right out of the box! The only thing left for you to do is give them a name and/or describe them if you chose. I suppose if a lack of creativity restrained you; you could simply be bob the dwarf…
  • Step Right Up – It wouldn’t be a playtest without some material for you to play through, right? To that end a collection of previous released adventures complete with their bestiaries and a new one are also included. So a DM can get a feel for things before trying to devise his own dark dungeon, if he preferred.

So, I believe that finally brings us full circle and to a close on my commentary regarding the final Next packet. An additional update is promised to be on its way in the immediate future, but until it arrives all that remains is to put these rules to the test. Do they hold up? Will they feel like you expect them too while playing? Who knows, but for now this is my thoughts on the subject. I’d welcome to hear what anyone else thinks or their own experiences. And rest assured; I’ll test things out as well before long. Whether those results make their way into a post or the update manages to warrant one, I’m always willing to discuss my impressions should anyone find themselves’ curious. Hopefully you’ll enjoy your time playing with the new Next material, I know I will.