So my group and I gave Caves of Chaos a go last night. We are only one session in and have plenty more of the caves to explore but here are my impressions thus far;
About us: The group is a three man strong combination of both Clerics (Raest - Dwarf Cleric of Moradin & Onos - Human Cleric of Pelor) and the elf wizard (Veers). We've only ever played 3rd Edition (and its Star Wars cousin) and over the years our attitude towards the rules has varied; for a long time we only consulted the rules when it suited us and didn't bother with miniatures or any other prop to keep a accurate representation of what was happening. Recently, after starting a new campaign, we've begun following the rules more closely and use a grid and paper tokens to keep track of events (though mostly we only bother if its a combat situation) and this is what we have used in playing this module. The players are a wilful bunch who enjoy going off the beaten track; tell them to slay the dragon and save the princess and they'll slay the princess and marry the dragon. They are happiest with a balanced diet combat and role play and tend to get bored if the games constantly favour one over the other.
How we are using the Caves: As well as play testing the rules I also took this as an opportunity to play test a new type of adventure for my players. Exploring big sprawling dungeons isn't something we've done much of so I'm curious as to how they will enjoy it. In terms of theme I went with the Devil You Know idea presented in the module documentation and tied it into our current campaign. The Medusa used to rule the caves and demanded the worship of the creatures. Her vanity and wariness of the outside world kept the monsters from bothering the local villages. Recently the Evil Cult (who I'm tying into our campaign as agents of the, as yet unrevealed, Big Bad) turned up and usurped her and began sending out the monsters to kidnapped villagers so they can turn them into a undead army (the zombies and skeletons of area K). The party is sent to investigate and pacify the area by any means necessary.
I divided up the monsters in Medusa Loyalists, Cultist Usurpers and Neutral Parties, as well as giving each one a personal objective of their own. I felt this theme would work well for my players as they like breaking skulls and playing in politics (I blame Game of Thrones for their recent interest in this) and with their broad mandate they could deal with the situation as they saw fit. I set the location of the Caves to the north of our current campaign's adventuring area and gave the PCs a base near the caves (a merchant caravan camp) where they can rest between forays and barter for supplies.
What happened: The party headed for the Goblin caves and on first contact they stayed their weapons and tried to talk with the Goblins to find out some info and get the lay of the land. The goblins promised information if the PCs bartered the services of the Ogre on their behalf. The Ogre wanted more money than the goblins had and the goblins suggested that the PCs raid the Kobold lair on the other side of the ravine to acquire the extra coin. The PCs approach the Kobold caves and spotting the sentries they once more try the diplomatic route and try to convince the Kobolds to leave the area (sans treasure of course). They learn from the Kobolds there is a rift between the local monsters and that the Kobolds are loyal to a imprisoned "Queen" (the Medusa) and won't abandon her. Negotiations break down and swords are drawn.
This was the first combat encounter and it coloured how I handled the rest of the session. The eight Kobold sentries took down two PCs before being defeated and there was a real possibility of a TPK at one point. To be fair this was mainly due to some poor rolling by the players and some good rolling for me but I did tone down the combat after this, ignoring the Kobolds' Strength in Numbers ability and keeping the combats as (mostly) isolated affairs not bringing any other creatures from near by rooms. This made things easier on the PCs and as they ventured into the Kobold caves they got through the next couple of fights without major peril. The battle against the Kobold Chieftain and his retinue served as the climax of the first session and was suitably challenging and resulted in one PCs being knocked out and the other two taking some moderate wounds before they forced the Kobold Chief to surrender. Laying down his arms he gave the PCs some treasure and led his remaining people out of the ravine, forsaking their Queen and their home. The party then returned to their base to rest and they plan to head back to the Goblin caves in the next session.
Stuff we liked:
* As DM I found the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic really useful. It was nice and simple and helped keep the game play flowing. Call me lazy but I enjoyed using this more than having to come up with a modifier for each different situation (especially since my players will constantly haggle like merchants about how much of a bonus/or how less of a penalty they should get). This was also handy for filling in gaps in the rules (e.g. there was no rule for flanking so I just called it as an Advantage).
* The players enjoyed being able to cast minor spells at will. It feels much more wizardly to use Magic Missile or Shocking Grasp as your normal attack rather than swinging with a stick.
* The amount of ways we could heal (spells, potions, healer’s kit) seemed to provide just enough to keep the adventure going without needing to stop and sleep every five minutes but not enough to make the party careless. That said we did have two Clerics in the three man party so perhaps this would have panned out differently with a different configuration.
* Combat flowed pretty well, we got through four combat encounters in a three and a half hour session (that's pretty darn fast for my group) and the spells the party called upon when things got hairy were both useful and cool (who doesn't love smooshing Kobolds with a floating hammer). In hindsight perhaps I didn't need to tone down the combat (though to be fair in the first encounter they were getting their arses handed to them by the weakest monsters in the module) and next time I think its safe to take the training wheels off now we are all comfortable with the rules and what the characters can do.
* The dying mechanic with the random amount of damage on a failed save added a lot more tension to being taken down.
Stuff we didn't like (honestly, no big gripes thus far but here's a couple of small things):
* Didn't see the point of all the different denominations of coins. Copper/Silver/Gold would work just fine or even just Gold.
* With this module I didn't see a lot of opportunities to use half of the character backgrounds/themes. I guess its up to me to find a way to fit them in but at face value I couldn’t see many ways to apply them to this module.
* The players expressed an interest in how certain things on their character sheet were worked out. e.g. Onos the Cleric's Radient Lance attack was a +6 to hit, presumably +4 from that is from his wisdom modifier but where does the extra +2 come from? Not a big issue in terms of play but the guys just wanted to know more about their characters' stats.
Stuff we haven't gotten to yet:
* Not much Stealth or Surprise came up in this game so no comment on those mechanics yet.
* Hostile magic and Conditions (no magic users amongst those Kobolds)
* We've not tried out the Fighter or Rogue yet, however the characters are present in the story (they're just chillin' back at camp) so perhaps someone will swap out next game.
In conclusion this first taste of DnD Next was a good experience for all involved. In the next couple of sessions I look forward to seeing how my players deal with some of the tougher monsters (I'm pretty sure they aren't going to be able to take that Minotaur in a straight fight) and exploring how the rules deal with some more varied situations that will inevitably crop up (bar dealing with the goblins at the start and dodging one trap this game focused almost solely on combat).