Hi. I'd planned to run a playtest session yesterday, but things didn't work out quite as planned.
My son is 11, so I'd been looking for a time to introduce him to D&D. I haven't been playing a lot over the past 11 or so years, but I'd been running some D&D games for high school kids at church, and he'd sometimes sit in and/or play with the minis. So I knew he was interested. So I'd asked him, and he'd invited some of his friends, and we were set. I wanted to try 5th, partially just to see it for myself, and partially to give them a D&D of their own, and partially to avoid the issue of buying books and financial investment for his friends.
So I've been reading up and downloading some images and planning how I want to mix the classic Keep on the Borderlands with a game world I've been pondering (mostly a D&D world, but with a bit more Asian flavor and history, plus a simple McGuffin hunt against an evil mage). This morning, I was going to organize the things I'd grabbed and print out a few character sheets and so on. Of course, the laptop I was using crashes. Hard. I can't get it back (I'm typing this on the home desktop now.)
This is bad. Not only do I lose my meticulously laid plans and visual aids, I no longer have access to little things like the module. And the rules. This is bad.
Thankfully, I usually play fairly laid-back and improvisational anyways, so I decide to go forward. I have the physical copy of the module from 30 years ago. That's a good start. I've read through the packet a number of times, so I know the outlines and main notes for the rules. It's not going to be the session I'd planned, but I can make it work, and then clean things up for next time. So while I can't say that we playtested any of the new rules in the sense of numbers and specifics, we tested the broad strokes of the feel of the game. I'll get back on track when we play again in a few weeks.
So I started them out with character creation. 4D6, pick 3. Race, class. Save backgrounds for later since I don't know all of those off the top of my head (but most of the kids had solid backgrounds in mind by the end of the day, so it'll be easy to do next time). I had them pick some basic weapon and armor options, and I remembered enough about which die goes with which from previous editions to get them going. Spells were similar – I could get the ballpark of a Magic Missile and Cure Light Wounds, but the rest was improv. I asked them what they wanted to be able to do, and wrote down some numbers in the rough range of that. So our Cleric of a duality trickster god got a Fire attack spell that also heals a few hit points, and our animal-loving wizard got Animal Friendship and Control Animal. Thankfully, she didn't really cast them so I didn't have to say what the difference is.
So we survived character creation fairly well, but with a few rough edges. We ended up with a Halfling Rogue, an Elf Wizard, an Elf Ranger, an Elf Paladin, and an Elf Cleric (who'd been a wizard up until spell selection, when he really wanted to mix healing and damage spells like he does in Skyrim, so we switched him over). A surprisingly well-balanced party, other than the Elf bias. The Paladin wanted to be a Dark Elf (not sure if the idea came from Skyrim or Baldur's Gate – he said he'd watched his brother playing some Baldur's Gate, and seemed to remember Lloth). We made Lloth a 'not inherently evil' goddess of darkness, and that worked.
And then we jumped in. The age range of the kids was about 9 to 13, and the increase in maturity that occurs over those years was evident. The oldest was eager to adventure and hit the story. The youngest walked up to the front gates of the Keep, and when asked why he was visiting, answered “to raid the place and steal gold from everyone”. Honest, but not the answer the guard was looking for. We tried to give him a few conversational outs, but he wouldn't take them. He got a little side quest in the town jail. At one point, I had to do the direct “you can do this, but there are a lot of guards and you probably won't win the fight” speech, which worked and he stayed in the cell. He did try to persuade the guards to let him out, but even with good rolls I wasn't going to let that happen. But the good rolls did let him befriend one guard.
Meanwhile, the rest of the party was exploring the town. One of the younger girls decided to sell vegetables (she found some vegetable cards from another game in the dice box). Most of them went about buying random supplies in the shops. I'd set up the owner of the magic shop as the main quest giver and a cute elf girl. Partially to give them the quest as clearly as possible, but also for possible long-term plot seeds later. I want her to be a recurring character. Which seemed to work – they noticed her and interacted with her well.
I'd been hoping to get some of them into the tavern for the good old random rumors table, but most of them got into mischief stealing each others' vegetables. The only one who did go to the tavern was the Paladin, but he sulked in the corner feeling oppressed. I'd had the main gate guard give him a hard time for being Drow (they're rare in these parts), so he didn't want to socialize. Drat, no random rumors.
When daybreak came, the Master of the Guards let our prisoner out, but he had to wear a bright orange vest so the guards would know he was touched by a chaos god. Which worked out, both for some of the randomness he did in the city and for the next step of his eventual return to the group. In case you can't tell, that was my main quest as DM – get this one kid to join the group. Once he was out of jail, the others directly asked him to join them, but he said no since he wanted to take over the keep and become king of the castle. Sensing trouble, I went to the next step of direct DM control. I took aside the Paladin (the oldest kid, who as mentioned before wanted to keep the party together) and had the Master of the Guards give him a magic device that teleports whoever is wearing the aforementioned bright orange vest to it. If I can't get him to go along with the group, maybe I can yank him in and get him to join a fight. And these are new players, so I don't think they'll figure out all the fun ways to abuse this gadget if they start putting the vest on different people.
So in the morning, the elf girl gives them the quest (recover the artifact causing the chaos – I turned it into a cursed mask for purposes of my long plot in the optimistic hope that we'll ever reach a long plot) and they set off, without the trickster cleric. Once they're outside of the keep, they do test the device and teleport him to them once. He was surprised, but the first chance he got he snuck away, focused on his plans of mayhem back at town.
A few hours of randomly wandering the woods later, and they decide to set up camp and wait for darkness so the two sneaky characters (Ranger and Rogue) can go off exploring on their own. I rolled to see if there would be a random encounter, and there was. Based on location, it should have been lizardfolk, but there's no way I'm playing Keep on the Borderlands lizardfolk without some moral ambiguity, and the group really needed a simple combat by this point. So instead, I had it be a small raiding party from the Caves. To make it interesting, I made it a small mixed group, where the kobolds and orcs are trying to work together in unity.
The bad guys roll good sneakiness, so the kobolds lay a trap and hide up some trees. At this point, I had to make up some stats, with little reference. Looking at the Bestiary now, I was close. I remembered HP being super-low on monsters. The Kobolds probably should have had slings rather than short bows, but the concept is the same. I set monster attack values a little low, but they generally rolled horribly anyways. A little more damage to the players would have been nice to set the threat level, but oh well.
So the kobolds shoot an arrow or two into the party and score a hit. The Wizard is not terribly sturdy, so I'm a little worried that she might fall even in this micro-combat. (Looking up HP values now, I wasn't far off for player HP, so that would be true even if I did get the numbers right.) I have everyone roll initiative. The Orcs roll well, so when the rest of the players turn to see what's going on, the Orcs run screaming from their light cover and charge. They get a hit or two in, but throughout this fight the monster dice numbers are not impressive. The players lay down the firepower, and manage to take down two of the orcs quickly with some good damage rolls. And that was with me setting the Orc AC a bit too high.
So Orc #3 decides to get out of there. He at least has the mental fortitude to run away past the Kobolds' traps. He gets hit by a couple of arrows and chased down, but the Ranger got a nice DEX Save roll, so the trap was dodged.
Meanwhile, the party starts celebrating and looting corpses while the kobolds keep shooting arrows at them. I'm not sure if it was just because the first volley completely missed them, or the allure of loot was so strong, but they kept on looting despite me rolling a few arrows every round. Eventually, the Rogue noticed and jumped up a tree after them. He got one, but the other two got away. I'll make sure they notice the effect of that when they get to the kobold caves.
With the encounter actually done, they try to interrogate someone, but everyone is too busy dying to provide much information. A failed First Aid roll didn't help, and the Paladin had used his Lay on Hands already (a little too early, IMHO). At this point, they remember that they have a healing machine that they can teleport to them with a simple click. So they teleport the trickster cleric to them, and threaten him at swordpoint (and daggerpoint and arrowpoint) to get him to heal one of the dying orcs so they have a prisoner. The trickster cleric considers ways to sneak away, realizes that actually doing what they ask is the easiest way out, but gets them to agree to let him leave afterwards. Strangest holy act I've ever seen. But they have their prisoner.
A quick and relatively torture-less interrogation later, and the orc agrees to show them where the caves are, in exchange for his freedom. The orc figures that they'll never survive the caves, and at worst they'll take out some rivals for the best positions in the mask's army of evil. He's fine with that. So his orc pride wins. We leave the main party at the doorway to the caves. It's getting late anyways (I'm aiming for 3-4 hours per session), so we leave them and turn to the trickster cleric to wrap up his story.
His main goal has been to wait for nightfall so he can take the friendly guard into the forest and kill him for phat loot (Step One: Kill random guard, Step Three: Profit). He'd been telling stories to the guard the night before about how the god who gives him cleric powers is in the forest. The guard wants to meet a god and get powers, so he agrees to go (it was a good persuade roll). So when we return to his story, they venture off into the woods. After an INT roll to see if he's going to have any chance in the fight (he succeeded – he now knows it's a roughly even match), the trickster cleric is ready to murder. But before he can, they see a figure walking toward them. A mysterious figure who walks straight up to our (not) hero and starts asking him weird questions. After a bit of fun dialog, he claims that he's a different trickster god, but he won't give his name. He offers to give our (not) hero fabulous powers if he worships him instead. Our (not) hero asks to rule the castle as king. The mysterious figure agrees, but only if our (not) hero does a favor for him first. If our (not) hero can deliver the cursed mask to him, he'll make him king of the castle. It's that simple.
I'd originally planned on just having a rival trickster god out for recruits, but now that I've seen how easy it was, I'm tempted to make it Asmodeus or something similarly sinister. But I don't know that our (not) hero would mind. Regardless, I've set the seeds and we'll see where they go.
Anyways, DM mission accomplished! One divine teleport later and the party is all together, and all willing to head toward the main goal. I'm sure there'll be more chaos next time, but hopefully there'll be some rules and numbers to support it by then.
So, what did we learn from this? Overall, they had a great time. They're all asking to do it again.
The number of decisions in characters creation generally worked well for them. They were getting eager to play by the end, so adding a background list might have caused some resistance, but it's close. I contemplated giving them a shorter than official class list, but I'm glad I gave them the full list – most of them instantly gravitated somewhere, and the few uncertain ones weren't hard to talk through (our Ranger was almost a Druid, as shapechanging was one of the first things she asked for, but she settled on Ranger since she ranked combat power as more important). Having a key identity and power for each class really helped – shapechanging equals druid is easy to grasp. Monk is the only one I can't easily summarize in a line, but I can refer to other pop culture references, so that's probably OK. I kind of feel like the race options failed them, since we ended up with so many elves. I assume the list will get a little longer soon.
They all were interested in the sub-races. They wanted to pick different types of elves, but keeping them all under the elf banner seemed to work really well for their sense of identity.
Their instincts come from computer games. Two of them in particular I know play a LOT of Skyrim, and they both expected their character to be the best at everything – magic, fighting, nature, and more. It took some discussion during character creation to get them to focus on one or two particular areas of focus. Thinking back, I should have emphasized the party style of play more to help them wrap their brains around it.
On a related note, they were very eager to loot corpses. That might change once I tell them how much a copper piece is actually worth, and I suspect some of that is Skyrim reflexes. Thankfully, the Caves of Chaos lists treasure for everyone, since treasure is not usually not my strong point as DM.
Simplification works. I wasn't planning to test out super-minimized versions of race and class, but due to technical constraints, each class was pared down to a few simple powers and races had no real mechanical effect. And it worked. The Paladin had Lay on Hands and basic attacks and that was it (and apparently, my Lay on Hands was nowhere near as impressive as the one in the playtest). The spellcasters were just a few improvised spells. I should have remembered favored enemy, but forgot, so the Ranger didn't get much. I knew Ranger and Paladin should have spells, but I couldn't remember if they got them at L1, so I said no. So overall, all my characters had dramatically fewer official powers than they should. But since we did a lot of non-combat roleplay, they didn't seem to care. This makes me think that drastically reducing complexity at L1 could work.
They all fell right into playing a character. I've run for new players before, so I set the tone for them from the start, using clear NPC voices as much as I could (perfected over many years of reading bedtime stories). I think that helped, as the kids realized that what they say has consequences in this world. By the end, they were all thinking of backstories.
Talking about it a little afterwards, one of the Skyrim kids (the trickster cleric) mentioned how cool it was that you could do anything. How that makes it better than even Skyrim. He wanted a computer game version of this. We tried to explain that Skyrim is about as close as you can get since computers don't have imagination, but I don't know that it sunk in.
One interesting finding – the younger two kids really wanted to dictate everything that happened around their player, not just their player's actions. “I wander in the woods, and I find a bandit and we fight”. The older kids understood that they don't control the world. I tried to roll with it as much as I could, but had to flat out deny them a few times.
In conclusion, the pretend version of Next in my head worked well.