Trevor: Why don’t you start off by telling me a little bit about you and the gaming group? Your history with D&D, what you guys are playing now, etc.
Teos (Alphastream): We call our group 'Going Last', after the podcast of the same name started by two of our members (Ian Ramsey and Justin Turner) in January of 2011. We playtest often for organized play, for Wizards, and for other gaming companies. We take playtesting as a fun but important responsibility to provide feedback that will represent both our diverse group and the even more diverse groups we meet through organized play. We have a really diverse set of gamers:
Ian and Justin are younger players. Despite being in his 20s, Ian began gaming after reading the Fiend Folio and has experience with Vampire. Both have played a variety of RPGs like Shadowrun and Eclipse Phase, wargames, board games, and card games. Justin started 15 years ago with AD&D due to a suggestion from the drama department at the art-focused high school he attended. Justin's favorites are Star Wars SAGA and 4E. They are really big fans of 4E organized play, promoting the growth of Living Forgotten Realms in local gaming stores, running events at conventions, and helping Ashes of Athas by co-authoring adventures. They have a great talent for the math of the game and, while really enjoying story and RP, they are the most likely to optimize in our group. They want to have fun building a lot of characters and to have their choices be rewarding. They like a tactical game, playing 4E several times per week.
Andrew Nuxoll and Rob Vaughn are long-time gamers familiar with earlier editions and were both active contributors to the Living Greyhawk campaign. Andrew and Rob have both designed games (Andrew's 'Enlightened Grognard' can be found on EN World and is a 3E/4E hybrid with some really neat ideas). They are amongst the best DMs I know and bring into their gaming a wealth of knowledge from many different RPGs. They like to build characters, but most greatly like being a part of a story-rich campaign where their PC's background and actions are integral to how the campaign evolves over time.
Jeremiah and Tara Shepersky are newer players, having started with 4E. However, you wouldn't know they are new from how they play. Jeremiah is very balanced between story, mechanics, and camaraderie. Tara prefers the story aspects of games and favors simpler systems where rule complexity doesn't get in the way of what her PC wants to do.
Gary West started in 1988 (unless you count the Dungeon! board game or the choose-your-own-adventure books) with the Red Box, then AD&D. Gary has played many of the editions and gives a slight edge to 4E over 3.5 as his favorite. Gary particularly wants to see rules that make his character more heroic. His favorite setting is Dark Sun, in part because the adversity highlights PC heroism. Gary is sometimes joined by his wife Dena. She too prefers a simpler game and is unlikely to spend a long time on character creation. She wants to have a great time without a lot of work, and to feel competent without having to turn to others all the time. Like so many in the group, Gary is a really good DM and active at regional conventions.
I (Teos Abadia) began playing with the Moldvay box set in 1983 in the 6th grade. I play a variety of RPGs, though I always come back to D&D. I'm very active in organized play as an author and contributor, most recently as an administrator for the Ashes of Athas campaign set in Dark Sun. I post often as Alphastream. I most like to make a single cool PC and see him or her grow and accomplish over time. Though I like the open play of AD&D and at one time really enjoyed 3E's realism, 4E was my favorite edition because of how it could create fantastic cinematic stories. I also like how accessible it was to new players.
Trevor: What do you guys think of the D&D Next playtest so far?
Teos: We really love the opportunity for imaginative play. Before playing D&D Next we went back and played some of the older editions. When we first played the original OD&D white boxed set two of our members remarked it was the most fun they had ever had, in part because it was a simpler game and forced us to fill in the blank spaces with creative play. As we began playtesting D&D Next we enjoyed how D&D Next allowed us to tell a collaborative story very well. For example, if my table at D&DXP (soon to be renamed to Winter Fantasy) wanted to investigate something in the forest outside the Caves of Chaos, I could easily move an ogre from the ogre cave to where they were investigating. In 4E that's a lot harder, since the ogre would be part of a robust Encounter with things like cave terrain that are hard to move. We also like the concept of the adventuring day and the three pillars, where we could have several small and fast combats, various investigations, role-playing, and more.
One early concern of our group was that D&D Next seemed to focus just on a delve sandbox experience. The most recent playtest adventure, Blingdenstone, is a good test of how well D&D Next supports PCs creating their story during play while also being part of an ongoing narrative. At Gen Con our table initiated an alliance between underdark creatures based on our halfling rogue's chocolate chip cookies! D&D Next's structure helps new and existing gamers develop important skills, such as improvisation. I'm really happy with this aspect so far and I'm filled with ideas on how organized play can embrace the new edition.
One thing we've seen while playtesting is how much we appreciate the way 4E addressed problems found in prior editions. As we play the early stages of D&D Next our feedback often centers on these issues. Having to bring a cleric, disparity between casters and non-casters, character creation being filled with 'traps' that created an ineffective PC... we would like to see D&D Next incorporate either 4E's solutions or new solutions to these problems. For example, if a player sits down to make a Mountain Dwarf, they shouldn't then find out that the Hill Dwarf is really the right choice, or that their PC is vastly better if it is an elf. The rogue might want to take a healer background that fits their backstory, but then feel they have to take something that helps them hide.
Moving from 4E's encounter focus to the adventuring day is something we like as a concept, but which has not yet worked well in our games on a consistent basis. During play we might see the sorcerer blow away foes with a large use of spell points in the very first fight, then get them all back because the cleric was knocked unconscious. We end up having to take a long rest, which makes the sorcerer seem too powerful. Because we are all so often recruiting new gamers for local conventions we want this edition to work really well for new gamers. We want encounter construction, the number of fights in an adventuring day, and monster choice to be obvious to a new DM. While the latest playtest packet has better monster design, it still seems to require expertise to know what will be a challenge or a cakewalk.
These kinds of issues create different feelings within our group. Ian and Justin feel D&D Next is not yet facilitating all the types of fun D&D has provided to them in the past. Ian likes most of the individual pieces, but isn't sold on how they come together. For others in our group, 4E went too far. D&D Next brings back important aspects and feels more like D&D to them - so long as it can address those issues found in older editions.
Trevor: Anything about the playtest that has you really excited?
Teos: Besides what we mentioned already, we have enjoyed taking turns converting adventures like Temple of Elemental Evil and Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh to D&D Next, which is very easy because of how D&D Next speaks to the common history between editions. The idea of Wizards of the Coast making older materials accessible and for gamers to be able to convert them is super-exciting. I have huge bookshelves of stuff I want to put to use!
Our group is excited by the vision of an edition that could speak to 40 years of history, but do so in an innovative and better way. That's a really exciting prospect! Advantage and Disadvantage, Expertise Dice... we would like to see more of these innovations, as well as greater ones around encounter design, the three pillars, and the adventuring day.
Trevor: You talked about trap choices and making the best choices. Would something like a guideline for new players to make a basic optimized character fit what you’re looking for, or do you think those choices that might be thematically great but underpowered should be changed or removed?
Teos: Our group had fun debating this! Ian pointed out how OD&D had few guidelines and almost no trap choices because it had no choices (for example, all weapons dealing d6 damage). I pointed out how the bard in 3E was seen as being weak for many years but worked far better when it received specific feats and spells. 4E had great balance and removed traps (for example, any leader could heal well enough and a party could even function without a healer). On the other hand, as a result of that balance players like Rob felt 4E lacked interesting choices.
In the end, our group feels D&D benefits from variety and interesting choices. A player wants to feel rewarded for choosing. There is great fun when a seemingly underpowered power or class feature saves the day. Fiction, myth, and film all portray cases where heroes do far more than dish out damage. Individual spells or options can be underpowered in typical use so long as they are really cool when they do get used. The fly spell has been a great example of that in most editions. It didn't kill your foes, but it did so much else! 4E's system of differentiating between attack and utility options was a really nice way of ensuring PCs chose non-combat options.
Builds are a place where D&D Next could shine as compared to previous editions. The decision to be a guardian/defender type of character instead of a damage dealer, for example, is a lot of fun for players - so long as either choice is also fun for the rest of the table. Fun took a hit in 3E when the cleric that joined your organized play table couldn't actually heal, or if the bard didn't do more than give a minor bonus to attacks and damage. It is problematic when a player sets out to make one choice, or to realize a thematic goal, and finds they really shouldn't continue on that path. For example, many attempts to cast arcane spells and still fight in melee were traps in 3E. Being a halfling barbarian was extremely difficult up until 4E. Guidelines help, but they aren't the sole solution. Similarly, really bad and circumstantial options should be removed, but choices that are interesting and fun for the table should remain.
In D&D Next we dig how the Fighter provides various alternatives. You can be an archer or a duelist/skirmisher and neither choice need be a trap. You still function as a fighter for your party, you still have some options, and you can combine them with other choices for more fun. On the other hand, the rogue's options seem to be based on a nebulous concept of how often you should sneak attack, such that the choice seems less like an interesting creative choice and more like a painful tradeoff. Can the rogue just sneak attack reliably and have that be part of its class feature, and then have more interesting choices that seem rewarding?
Another option is to have traps be obvious, but also provide solutions. 4E did this a bit, such as through racial feats that enabled an eladrin fighter to be more effective. Rob might say the 4E approach was a bit too obvious and bland - the solutions came from designers rather than players. Justin might point out that 4E was incredibly accessible for new players.
In general we like how D&D Next tries to compromise. There is that promise that a class could be cool on its own, regardless of race. And, a race could be cool regardless of class. Backgrounds and specialties can be the same. Ideally the system could enable players to pick the ones that speak to them, rather than feeling that some combo must exist. Optimization can still happen, but it is more about being good at something (more spells for a wizard) than stacking bonuses or avoiding choices where there aren't stacking bonuses.
Trevor: You mentioned the sorcerer a bit. What does your group think about the current iteration of the sorcerer and warlock?
Teos: Our group really likes the idea of different ways to cast spells. It makes the game more interesting, while providing options for players that do or don't like Vancian spellcasting, power points, and spell slots. We have enjoyed the sorcerer and warlock, though they feel a bit strong. Some of us also feel the sorcerer is not different enough. Unique spells would help, but in many ways the spell point system is hidden in the background and what is seen in the game is very similar to a wizard (twiddle thumbs, cast magic). The sorcerer did not feel very iconic, though that may be largely due to the draconic build option being the only one presented. It is interesting to compare the fighter to the sorcerer in terms of builds. Should they be more similar? Our group isn't sure.
We do really like that they are fun to play. Ian called them two of the best built classes in D&D Next, but wanted them to feel less like wizards in terms of what they did on a given round.
Trevor: Anybody playing a fighter in the group? What do they think about the new fighter dice mechanic?
Teos: When we first saw the fighter we tried an all-fighter table, with everyone shooting for different uses of expertise dice. It was very fun and we want to see more innovative ideas like expertise dice.
However, in play we noticed that the fighter went from being really creative as the player looked for advantages ("DM, can my fighter shove this table into those kobolds to slow them down?") to using the stated maneuvers ("DM, I hit and using my Push maneuver I push it back"). Could the two be brought together, such that some maneuvers were really about the player describing what happens and coming up with a solution? Could we have a maneuver where the PC picks a terrain element and use it to accomplish some task of their creation, perhaps with either an attack roll or skill check (and a bonus) as determined collaboratively with the DM?
The biggest danger, especially when we played at high levels, is that the Expertise Dice end up being used mostly for damage. That's a boring option and should be the least attractive. It also should not be leaving other classes behind so clearly. If the fighter is always doing 23 damage, and the caster's at-will does 12... that creates stress on the idea of the adventuring day.
Trevor: What other classes are you looking forward to?
Teos: Ian loves barbarian as a tactical class that perfects the rist-versus-reward play style. And hey, d12s! I would really like to see a ranger. I loved the ranger in 3E, in particular how it had such cool imaginative features and spells at higher levels. I had a pet, I could commune with nature, I could track on the run... that was awesome! I would like to see a leader other than a cleric so we can see whether those are viable for a typical adventuring party. Justin might really like the monk. And of course, we all want to see how Dark Sun is supported!
Trevor: If you only saw one new thing added to the next playtest packet, what should it be?
Teos: One of our group mentioned magic items. They could really be a cool imaginative part of the game. They could also really cause the game to fall apart balance-wise and they can be vital to balancing the monsters and encounters.
I'm still really curious to see a rules module. In particular, I think a tactical module would be welcome by 4E players. And by tactics we mean support for grid play, lots of choices each round, movement and positioning, interaction with terrain, and more robust rules for things like opportunity actions and flanking.