I ran my first playtest session last night. And for that matter ran my first session in about seven years.
I began playing D&D in the AD&D days, and played up through 3.5. One of our players played the same editions as me, and the other has played 3rd and 4th. The two of us who didn’t play 4th didn’t do so as a combination of logistics (no players near where we lived) and generally being put off by the “feel” of 4th edition. I personally only played two sessions of 4th, and so never really gave it a fair chance. Nonetheless, one of the draws of 5th for the two of us that it looks more like 3.5 than 4th.
Anyway, we only had two players tonight due to schedules (and perhaps pure absentmindedness.) The guy who played 4th ed. played the pre-gen barbarian, and the guy who hadn’t played 4th played a thief-scheme rogue. We started at 1st level.
The thief mentioned during character creation that he felt the way skills are chosen, that is determined by your background and class, was “lame.” He seemed to not like the fact you don’t actually choose skills. I told him that the background was basically a formality and he could just choose whatever four skills he wanted. During the game, as he started to realize what skills he wanted to have but didn’t, he lamented that there doesn’t seem to be any rules at the moment for gaining skills later as the character advances. As others have mentioned, I thought that the number of skills could be reduced, and the activities included by individual skills increased.
I decided to run the Caves of Chaos. Some cultists and gnolls from the caves attacked a town and made off with hostages from a caravan that had stopped there. The heroes were hired by the caravan leader to get back the hostages, one of which is his son. He provided the party with winter supplies (it was snowing outside when I wrote my adventure notes, so now the game is set in cold, snowy mountains.) A cleric in the town (an NPC run by me) offered to join them, as he suspects that the cultists have desecrated an ancient shrine to his god located somewhere in the caves.
The caravan leader sent one of his men as a guide to take the party to the ravine and set up a camp some distance away while the adventures went into the ravine. They sent the rogue to sneak ahead first and as he happened upon the kobold cave entrance both he and the kobolds failed to spot each other. He signaled for the barbarian and cleric to come join him, at which point the cleric noticed the kobolds and yelled out a warning. I allowed the cleric’s warning to negate any surprise on both sides, and combat began.
The fight with the nine kobold guards was probably the best of the night. While the kobold sunlight sensitivity kept the kobolds from being too effective, they were still able to land enough blows to inconvenience the party and use one of the cleric’s Cure Lights. Once there were two kobolds left, they tried to flee but were cleaned up before they could get into the cave.
The party then proceeded into the cave, with the barbarian and cleric trailing about twenty feet behind the rogue as he went forward to look for traps. (He would have gone alone, but needed the torch-wielding cleric for light.) He found the pit trap immediately, but failed to disable it. The barbarian wanted to open the pit trap, then let the rogue down with a rope, have the rogue climb up the other side, then use ropes to get the party across the pit, but when the barbarian hit the pit trap with his axe to open it, it then closed immediately and the sound alerted the nearby guards to the party’s presence.
The next combat was short. The barbarian raged, made a running jump over the pit, then charged into the kobold guards. I couldn’t remember if there were rules for jumping distances, and didn’t want to make a long pause in combat to look them up, so I just gave him a DC 15 Strength check to vault the pit trap. I said the pit trap was 10 feet by 10 feet, and felt that a DC 10 might have been too easy, but now I think 10 might not have been so bad. Either way, he rolled a 22.
With no way to cross the pit without risking falling into it, the cleric and rogue stayed on the other side of the pit. The cleric healed the barbarian after a particularly good round for the kobolds (helped by their mob bonus and the Barbarian’s low AC.) If it hadn’t been for the Barbarian’s rage, he would have been downed. The rogue also fired a few shots, but for the most part left things up to the barbarian. When there was one kobold left it begged for mercy, so the barbarian picked it up and threw it in the pit, killing it. I didn’t do any rolls other than damage for this, as it would have just been a pain to do grapples and what-have-you, and I figured the barbarian probably could have just crushed him with his ax anyway.
The party then went left into the garbage room. I didn’t read the description well enough to realize that the rats should have come out during the combat, so they were enjoying garbage when the rogue peered around the corner and spotted the gem on the dire rat. When the rest of the party rolled up the rats saw them and then attacked the party.
We were playing Theater of the Mind, and I had been pretty cavalier with distances and placement, so I let the players make a bottleneck at the entrance, with the cleric and barbarian side by side and the rogue firing his crossbow from behind. I realize this should have given the rogue disadvantage to hit the rats, but I forgot about the rule.
Rules for size and spacing haven’t been introduced yet (or I haven’t read them) so I let two rats stand in each 5-foot square, but only let them get the mob bonus from the rat in their same square. I felt I was stretching the rules to let them stay in the same square, so I didn’t think it was fair to give them the mob bonus on top of that.
So the combat went on for a while, and since it was a bottleneck situation there was no movement or tactics. We were basically just rolling to see how much damage the party took before finishing the rats off. With the cleric’s cure minor cantrip, I figured the encounter didn’t actually present any chance of death (the rats only do 1HP of damage, and the dire rat got killed in the first round by the rogue) but it did wear down the players’ HP a bit.
Anyway, the cleric was mostly out of spells and the party was injured, so they decided to head back to camp and we stopped the session there. If the party had made use of a short rest and hit dice to heal up earlier and were able to save the cleric’s spells, I think they could have done another encounter. But they are still learning the new edition and we didn’t even look up the healing rules until the end of the rat encounter. That’s something learned, though.
So, thoughts: a lot of people have mentioned that the combats in the Cave of Chaos never present any real danger to the players. I thought this was not entirely true. The first combat was less threatening due to the kobold’s light sensitivity giving them disadvantage, but even then if the dice had not been friendly the party could have been in trouble. (As it was, the cleric had to move around to take pressure off the rogue during the first encounter.) Though, the party was only three characters, which might have made things a touch more threatening.
The barbarian was point in all of the combats, and did most of the work of fighting the five kobolds in the second encounter, but that seemed fine to me. The cleric was supporting the barbarian with healing, and the rogue was instrumental in scouting and trap-finding, so I think each member of the party had something to do (though the cleric was an NPC, so it’s difficult to say if healing alone would have satisfied a player.) The barbarian’s role in combat being much greater than the other two did not seem to detract from the game. In fact, it almost seemed natural that the fighting class would do most of the fighting. We kept combat quick, so we were able to spend more time adventuring, I think.
That being said, the barbarian player, who had played 4th, said that he wanted some sort of splash attack for the kobolds. The fact that the kobolds and rats had so little HP meant that no one rolled damage. If you hit, you got a kill. This made the barbarian feel that his combat prowess was a bit wasted. He could deal a lot of damage to one target, but taking care of a number of smaller targets seemed more like a chore for him. He mentioned multiple times how much he wished he had Cleave. Since he was using the pre-gen this week, I told him he could just make a barbarian character for next week and take Cleave instead of Charge. I think that will do a lot to make him feel more destructive.
The rogue did fine in combat, save that the loading rule for the light crossbow made him less effective. He was used to 3.5, where you could use your move to re-load a light crossbow, so he was a bit disappointed to not have that option. The player himself does not consider the rogue as a “DPS” class, I think, and he was running his character in such a way. He quite enjoyed the way he played his character (that is, for the adventuring abilities). As such, I wonder if the martial damage die was “wasted” on him. Put another way, I wonder if the martial damage die was even necessary for the class. Then again, there was only one time the whole game where the MDD even had a bearing on combat at all (the dire rat) so I can’t really give a good evaluation of MDD yet.
I was running the cleric as an NPC, so whether or not I had a fun and satisfying time “playing” him never really entered my mind. While I was originally opposed to the Words of Power rule for various reasons, in practice it is kind of sweet. Especially with the buffs, I think it really makes them more worth taking and using. Buffs are nice, but unless they are stupid good you don’t want to give up an attack to use them. I wonder if bard song buffs will work like WoP (but I’m not optimistic...) WoP healing was nice, too, though I think touch range on the healing spells would make combats more dramatic and tactical.
Combat was quick (in part because I ran it quick, and perhaps in part because the players didn’t have a good concept of all their options yet), and quick was good. The fight with the rats was kind of boring, given the large number of rolls, lack of maneuvering, and lack of danger to the party, though in this case it was a result of the player’s actions, not the system itself.
Overall, we all had fun and it “felt like D&D.” In some ways I liked the simplicity of the rules because it allowed me to make stuff up as I went along as the DM. In years past I may have been upset at such “vagueness”, but recently I appreciate simplicity in rules. My only fear is that as the product gets into its final stages and rules for more situations are clearly spelled out, the system will lose some of its pleasant simplicity. Some people might say “so just run the game how you want” but if rules for things exist, players tend to expect those rules to be used.
In closing, I was thrilled to play some D&D after so long, and while it took me some time to get back into the groove, I had fun using these rules, and am feeling positive about the edition.
Moonrider, welcome back to D&D and welcome to the forums. Nice report. Thanks for giving feedback. I'm also a fan of the simplicity. It makes DMing easier. Since the final version will have layers (basic, standard and advanced) I think we'll be able to layer on what we want and use what works best for our own campaigns. I like that.
So for the next session the party was joined by two more players. One chose to be a rogue (scout) and the other played the pre-gen wizard.
The party engaged in three combats this session. The first two were against a group of a ten kobolds and a group of nine. In both combats the party suffered no damage at all. I wasn’t running the kobolds as particularly tactically brilliant, but the dice weren’t too unfriendly, I thought, so it seems like the kobolds are not very threatening at all (but I suppose they are kobolds, after all.)
The new members of the party (the wizard and the scout rogue) did not want to kill the kobolds, hoping to get more information or maybe even the kobolds’ help, so I informed them they could do non-lethal attacks as described in the rules. The scout said “Even ranged?” and I said sure, he could be Legolas and pin kobolds to trees or whatever and make them for rules purposes out of the combat. The wizard asked if he could do it with Ray of Frost, perhaps hitting non-vital parts or just freezing enemies in place, and I decided to allow cantrip attacks to be used as non-lethal attacks if the player wanted to. Checking the rule later revealed to me that non-lethal damage is only for melee attacks, but I thought non-lethal ranged attacks and cantrips made for better play, so I allowed it.
Later the party was set upon by a group of twelve dire rats outside of the shunned cave. I kind of misread the description and treated the outside of the cave entrance as the inside of the cave entrance. Every minute of real world time the party spent investigating the cave entrance and discussing what to do, I rolled a d6 for a random monster from the cave, and eventually rolled a twelve-strong dire rat pack that I decided was coming home to the cave. They had the party pinned against the ridge.
The party had some strategy coordination issues from the beginning. The barbarian and thief rogue wanted to make a bottleneck at the cave entrance, while the wizard and scout rogue wanted to make a battle line fifteen feet in front of the cave. As a result, the party moved in two groups, then got split up and surrounded pretty fast.
With 12 dire rats the mob bonus stacked up quick. The rats had a number of very lucky rounds, dropping the raging barbarian once (with a crit) and scout rogue twice. If there had been no cleric to bring them back up, the party very likely could have wiped. The players were still one-hit killing most creatures, but I felt that was okay.
I asked the players for playtest feedback and the only mention was that the dire rats were overpowered, but I think it was a combination of poor coordination on the players’ part, the large number of rats, and unfortunate die rolls. If the players had worked together a bit better, I think the combat would have been easier (though still challenging.)
The biggest take away from this session was how different each combat was. In the kobold combats the players didn’t take any damage, then in the dire rat combat they took quite a bit of damage. The kobold combats made the rats seemed much more lethal to the players. I think more testing is required before I can say anything for certain, but it did feel like the combats were either really easy or really hard.
The party went back to camp to lick their wounds and rest. They were ready to go by late morning and made their way to the cultists’ cave.
This session had the rogues doing a lot of sneaking and scouting. The rules for that are working well so far, I think. As a DM, I like that Hide and Move Silently are the same skill (Sneak) as it means that players and NPCs only have to make one roll.
The session only had one real combat. The party encountered five cultist acolytes in a room. The party only took two hits, one for 2 points and one critical for 11 points, but finally we had a fight where it felt like the party was taking damage but not too much damage. The Cleric used Channel Shelter to reduce the critical to 1 point of damage, and the players all noted that ability is really good.
The players are still one-hitting all of the enemies.
This session was the first time the players used sneak attack, with both rogues using it simultaneously to drop some cultists unawares. (I don’t think either rogue considers Sneak Attack to be an in combat or more than once per combat ability, thematically.) However, at first and second level both players thought that mechanically it was not enticing. Giving up an extra roll to hit (advantage) to double the damage of one d6 seemed like a bad trade-off to them. They thought keeping advantage would have been way better. I wonder if that will change as they get more MDD.
Also, I know it isn’t allowed in the rules but I’m still allowing my players to do non-lethal shots with ranged attacks and cantrips, because it’s just more fun. One of the rogues even did a non-lethal sneak attack to drop a cultist. I’m liking it so far. We tend to visualize these as attacks that may greatly injure the enemy in some way but doesn’t outright kill them.
Since the Ray of Frost cantrip can be used an unlimited number of times the wizard sometimes likes to use it make ice, which isn’t strictly spelled out but I let him do it anyway as long as we are out of combat and he doesn’t abuse it. He used it to bind kobold’s legs with ice manacles once, for example.
The only comment for this session from the players was the way sneak attack works, as mentioned above. Also, as we play the game and players learn how skills work I think they are starting to wish they had chosen different skills, though I see that as more of a new system issue than an issue with the current play test packet.
Remember, most tasks are meant to be resolved with an ability check. Skills are just gravy on top. I would be generous in letting players retrain or switch out their skills. This is a playtest of a new edition and there's no point in punishing players for their choices. Regardless, thanks for the good write up!
I'm glad to see a post on this perticular adventure. I too am DMing Caves of Chaos, my session being last Sat on Roll20 with session 2 scheduled for tonight. My group is also a mixed bag of players. My group consist of a Barbarian, Slayer, Cleric, Rogue, and Wizard (with a Monk as a backup).
1st Kobold encounter took longer than it should have and the Wizard was Afk, but all survived. The 2nd encounter was over quickly when the Wizard put the Kobolds to sleep. The pit appeared to have been more challenging. After the session was over, the Barbarian requests to drop the hack-n-slash and increase the challenge while the Wizard asks for puzzles. Unfortunately the Beastiary lacks info on modifying the monsters and it lacks variety when the adventure calls for certain types. So I'm rolling to increase the monsters' levels by 1 or 2 and downsizing the larger encounters in order to keep the challenge but also speed up the initiative order.
After leveling up the Goblin leader from 1 to 2, I noticed how weak a level 4 Ogre is compared to that Goblin. Is that even right or just an unbalanced Beastiary? I mean, c'mon. That level 2 Goblin could wipe the floor with that Ogre with ease.
This time the party went into the gnoll cave, as they heard the hostages they are trying to save are being kept there.
The PCs are all second level now. There were two combats with gnolls this session. The 13 HP of the gnolls is finally making combats where the party doesn’t kill all the enemies in one hit (though they sometimes still do.) Likewise, the enemies are finally dealing damage to the party, but with their level 2 hit points the party is able to absorb some damage before dropping. The party was never in any danger of TPKing. The combats felt more like they were just slowly wearing on party resources. The party is displaying better tactics now, so that may have something to do with it. But combats seem to have a better element of danger, without going over the top into being too dangerous.
The wizard didn’t use any of his non-cantrip spells, though. The cleric only used Cure Light wounds twice. There has been some discussion on the forums here about limiting cantrips. From our playtest, I see absolutely no reason for this. The wizard still deals less damage than the other party members, but having unlimited cantrips makes him feel magical. One time I let him use Prestidigitation to give a gnoll disadvantage on an attack (the wizard readied an action to make a burst of sparks in the gnoll’s face when he attacked.) I thought this was great: the wizard was participating in combat in a control capacity.
My players are really liking skill dice now. The reason for the sudden skill dice love is that the scout rogue, who has been using the most skills by far, hadn’t been rolling them at all. Now that the skill rules have been explained everything is running smoothly.
The thief rogue got intoxicated on the dwarven ale in the store room, which lead to the mechanically weird situation where he made a skill check and had to roll two d20s and take the lowest, then roll two d6s and take the highest, but it played well enough.
There were a few specific rules observations that came up during playtest and out of game rules discussion:
- The crossbow loading rule is too much of a hindrance. The player must use two actions over two turns (load and then fire) to get an increase in die size over the equivalent bow (simple light crossbow d8 vs. simple short bow d6, martial heavy crossbow d10 vs. martial long bow d8.) The reduced rate of fire is just not worth it the increase in damage die. Thematically the thief rogue wants to use a crossbow, but he is mechanically hurting for it. I allowed him to use his move to re-load, a la 3.5, which makes the weapon much more viable.
- Currently the Heal skill doesn’t seem to do anything, since anyone can use healing kits. The one player who took it has decided to switch it out because it doesn’t do anything. The problem may be that it does do stuff that is listed in places other than the Heal skill description, but with the current layout of the rules it’s difficult to know for sure (I know this will get fixed later, though.)
- The scout rogue has changed his character to dual-wield rapiers. He likes the Dex bonus to hit and damage from finesse. He would go with longswords for the elven damage die increase, but he is a Dex-based character. He thought it was weird that elves get a damage increase with a non-finesse weapon even though they are traditionally a high Dex race. I understand this is a legacy holdover from past editions where finesse wasn’t a big thing (or didn’t exist) but some thought may need to be given about how the mechanics and flavor work together here (personally, I don’t see a reason to change it, but I see the player’s point.)
- At the moment (2nd level) the damage increase for Sneak Attack is often just not worth giving up advantage. The rogues both started attacking from hiding more proactively this game, but most of the time kept the advantage and just did normal damage. Hitting was more important to them than an extra 1-6 points of damage.
- At the moment the rules allow players to draw and sheath weapons more or less as much as they want. The players benefited from this, but they thought it should work more like it used to in previous editions (i.e. it should take an action, or be limited to one free draw or sheath a round.) The scout rogue was surprised he could sheath his swords and pull out his bow, then still move and shoot in one turn. I, however, thought this was fine because it was more cinematic and made the combat go faster.
- One of the players noted that allowing ranged non-lethal attacks (which I’m treating as attacks that wound but not kill) may be getting a bit ridiculous. Personally, I feel that using a sword (a tool designed to kill and maim) to deal non-lethal damage with no penalty to attack or damage also seems a bit unrealistic; I think it would be harder to use a sword in an un-intended fashion (i.e. where it doesn’t kill the target) than to use it as intended (i.e. for killing stuff.) It seems it would take more skill and precision to use a sword in a “non-lethal” fashion. So I figure if we’re going to allow non-lethal attacks with lethal melee weapons, why not ranged weapons, too? I like how simple it is now (i.e. just declare it’s non-lethal) but this rule could be made more realistic with some mechanics, perhaps.
But, on the whole we are having quite a bit of fun. The party is starting to mesh well and the way the plot is playing out is working in a way that makes it easy for me to lead the players to the next adventure hook.
Since this is also a play test of the Caves of Chaos, I suppose I should make some comments about the module. As it is written there are a lot of vague points plot-wise, but the vagueness leaves me as the DM a lot of room to put in adventure hooks, merge the story to be consistent with my setting, and decide how each of the monster groups are interacting with each other as it fits the story that I want to tell. (Though the module raises the question as to why are all of these different races living so close together in one ravine where their caves conveniently increase in difficulty as the players gain experience and levels. The answer is contrivance.)
I understand this module comes from an age where players often role-played adventurers interested only in treasure and XP and no one had a problem with that, but I think some players these days look for a bit more logic and believability in their quests to get treasure and XP (as much believability as a game where you cast magic and fight dragons requires, that is.) It has to look non-contrived, even if it is totally contrived in the end.
But, we are all in on how cheesy the whole thing is in places, and whenever someone says “Caves of Chaos” in character we overdo it like you’d expect from a cheesy adventure cartoon, and we all have a good laugh. It’s all cheesy, but to a certain point I think we like it that way.
I’ve seen other posts to the same effect, but the encounters seem to be, on the whole, a touch too easy right now. I’m sure this is something that will be fine-tuned as time goes on. Our party does have five people (4 PCs, 1 NPC) at the moment, though, so that may be making things easier. They have recruited an orc they saved from the gnolls (something I added) to aid them, so I’m worried the next session may be a bit easy. We’ll see what happens.
We started a bit late, and the party took the three prisoners they found and returned them to town. There was much rejoicing and partying. Other than that, the bulk of the session was a single combat. It was ten bugbears vs. five level two characters and an NPC orc. The party had good placement this combat. The bugbears were mostly caught in a hall where they could only engage the party two at a time. I let the bugbears throw javelins over their comrades’ heads with disadvantage (which I think is that way it’s supposed to work, but I’m not 100 percent sure) just to keep a bit of challenge in the combat.
This combat was finally somewhat challenging for the party, but I think good position did a lot to make sure the party had the advantage. Combat has started to slow down a bit now that we have more characters involved. It also doesn’t help that the wizard doesn’t know his spells, so he usually looks through them all after I tell him that it’s his turn.
It was getting late, so we stopped after the combat and had the party level.
So, playtest stuff:
- The players commented that advantage and disadvantage are very big. They didn’t say they were bad, just that they are a “big deal.” Very all or nothing, with no middle ground.
- The players (and DM) are in agreement that the wizard cantrips are just fine. The wizard is still dealing less damage than every other member of the party, but is still being magical. I’ve seen a lot of comments on the board saying that cantrips should be severely curtailed, but our playtest (and perhaps our style of play) says they are great as is.
- 1st level magic seems underpowered. Color spray, for example, only lasts for a round, and that’s only if monsters fail their saves. The damage on Thunderwave, though an auto-hit and with an area of effect, was so low that it paled in comparison to the damage the barbarian deals while raging. Sleep can barely affect one bugbear. The melee characters shine every round, the wizard rarely does even when he uses his spells.
- The players mentioned that they think the cleric is too good, even though they are benefitting from it. Part of it might be that most of the players didn’t play 4th edition, so the whole Word of Power thing is weird to them, I think. Cure Minor makes going to zero hit points a minor inconvenience at best, and Channel Shelter is really good. Even though the players say the cleric is too good, they also say that it probably would not be fun to play a cleric.
As a DM,
- Normal enemies like gnolls, kobolds, and orcs have specific powers that really give the enemies character above and beyond just different stats. I think this is really cool.
- Other people have mentioned this, but encounter building needs to be refined more. It feels like most encounters in the Caves of Chaos are easier than the designers intended. Our party of 2nd level characters is rocking the bugbears.