Let’s begin with a question.
What is the job of D&D? What is it supposed to do?
For me, it’s a question with a simple enough answer: it is supposed to entertain. So long as the game does that, it is doing its job.
And oh gods yes. D&D Next does that, by the bucketload.
Two sessions ago, we left our doughty band of adventurers about to ascend an invisible ladder to the fourth floor of Wyneth Tower, a library carved from a pile of gigantic books. Game group logistics being what they are, only three players could make the next session (down from seven the previous game) but they pressed on regardless, acting as forward scouts and we say the rest of the party is resting up and making preparations.
This is a highly magical library with books tending to fly out and cast random spells as people pass by the shelves. Just before they ascend, a book flies out and white light hits the Cleric of Pelor, instantly switching his location with a rather confused Elven archer who had been tracking a deer in a forest glade. I’m sure the Cleric was just as confused at this turn of events (not to mention the deer!) but it does help explain the sudden change of character. It is a playtest first and foremost, and that means being willing to adapt to try out different game mechanics and subsystems. One change of character, and we’re trying something new!
At one time, this level must have looked much like the one below – rows upon row of bookcases. Now all of the bookcases are strewn around and half-smashed, the books scattered all over the floor. The whole area is coated in thick cobwebs – on the walls, all over the floor and festooning the ceiling.
Four creatures which look like gnarled spider-like giant hands with skulls for heads skitter through the debris. Stood in the centre of the room is The Librarian, examining the titles of books before tossing them aside. “Oh dear,” he says mildly, “I did say this area was restricted. Kill them!”
This is one tough encounter. I designed it to be tough with more than six players in mind, and we’re down to three. I briefly consider scaling it down, but that goes against my belief that Encounter Balance is a pot of crock.
Here’s the thing. I think that if you’re lucky enough to have a lot of players, they should feel like that makes a difference. The players should feel like them being there is important to the party, that the fact that they have strength in numbers gives them favourable odds. Likewise, if the numbers are down, the players should also really feel like that’s an important thing too. They can say to the other players “man, we really needed you this session” and mean it, because that player not being there really made a difference to how the party fared.
Scaling the encounters up or down to accommodate the party size is just a way of saying the who turns up doesn’t matter. The encounter is what it is; a party low on numbers always has the option to retreat, and a high strength party should feel the benefit of those numbers. By balancing the encounters you’re providing a less realistic game experience, in my opinion.
I have been intentionally using monsters from previous editions of D&D, just to see how easy it is to use them in D&D Next, and this session is no exception. The giant hand-like spider things with skulls for heads are from the earliest days of D&D’s history – Harvestmen from All The Worlds’ Monsters volume II, first published in 1977. My own print copy (third printing, 1980, bought new) is a treasures possession, but a pdf version is available right now. I rate it as one of the best monster manuals ever written.
We’ll come the the Librarian himself in a while.
The cobwebs on the floor double movement rates and attacks have Disadvantage (unless you’re a spider, wearing a Ring of Free Movement or some-such trinket) due to the fine clinging strands. Where toppled bookcases protrude from the webbing they provide safe footing, but reaching them is difficult.
In short, there is much death that session.
The Librarian casually flings Magic Missiles whilst searching for a particular tome, and the Harvestmen attack with their poisonous bites. Three players enter but only the elven archer survives, running for his life back down the stairs swearing that the forest glade was a much safer place to be. Where the Halfling Rogue falls, her 10′ pole stands in the webbing, a mute grave marker to her memory.
The best the heroes could do was sever the finger-like leg of one of the Harvestmen. A small victory amid the death, but a victory nonetheless.
This was a valuable playtest session for me, because it showed that poor dice rolls (the dice gods were really not on the players’ side that day!) can make all the difference between life and death. Where a dice roll could go against the players, it did. Had the dice fallen in their favour they may well have won out regardless of being outnumbered, but it was not to be. I actually like that in the system. Random is important again. How the players accept and deal with that randomness is a vital part of the game. In this case, perhaps running away would have been the best option :)
Moving on. New session, and more players. We’re back up to seven again. Good news for them, and bad news for the Harvestmen and the Librarian.
Books fly from the shelves once more, summoning new characters and replacing others. It seems the library itself is sentient, and wants them to succeed. The Cleric of Pelor returns with am armful of herbs from his unscheduled expedition into the forest, and the rest of the party is composed of a Human Fighter, Dwarf Wizard, Dwarf Knight, Woodelf Archer, Elven Scout and Human Rogue, The numbers and party composition is good.
They ascend the ladder. The two deceased party members’ bodies are cocooned in webbing hanging from the ceiling, a mute reminder of the dangers of this room.
The Librarian is still tossing books, muttering “it has to be here. It must be here.” before looking with annoyance at the second interruption. “This time, kill them all!” he snarls and the Harvestmen move forward once again.
This is where things take an unexpected turn. The party offer to help him look for the book he is seeking, and are bolstered by a sufficiently high Diplomacy check. Amused, he calls off his “pets” and says he is looking for a tome bound in aged elven skin.
The party begins to spread out cautiously with the Human Rogue hiding as be moves toward one of the fallen bookcases. While the rest of the party search, he finds the book and secretly begins to move back toward the ladder. He has a plan.
Meantime one of the Harvestmen, who aren’t so much under the thrall of the Librarian as grudgingly going along with him, takes a snap at one of the party, and all hell breaks loose.
That temporary truce?
Combat in D&D Next, to steal a phrase, is fast, furious and fun. Even with seven players the turns fly by and every single character contributes something meaningful to the action. While our Rogue is stealing… I mean “moving” the book downstairs, the Cleric of Pelor is using Spiritual Hammer and Sunburst to great effect while the Archers are keeping their distance using ranged attacks. Every character is looking out for each other, protecting and defending each other ass needed. It’s great tactics at work.
The Dwarf Wizard however operates under an entirely different definition of the word “tactics”. Maybe it means sometime else in Dwaven. “Oops”, perhaps. One of the Harvestmen gets rather too close for comfort so he blasts it with Thunderwave. That’s a 15′ cone attack which the Harvestman successfully saves for half damage, but the Fighter isn’t so lucky. He gets knocked 15′ backwards, landing at the feet of the Librarian.
Meanwhile, said Librarian is being peppered with concentrated arrows and spells, and each hit reveals something of his true nature. A searing spell causes him to bleed green blood, and a sniping shot to the eye reveals them to be dark and multifaceted.
“This ends now!” shouts the Fighter hefting his battle-axe – and rolls a one.
I ask for a roll of a d4 and a d8 – the d4 for direction, and the d8 for distance. He loses his grip on his battle axe and it flies 5′ to the East. That’s not the end of his troubles too as the Librarian shoots strands of Web from his fingers, cocooning him. He’s effectively paralyzed until he can make a DC15 STR ot DEX save (whichever is highest). Oh, and a Harvestman, sensing easy lunch, is closing in.
Also meanwhile, the Rogue is downstairs with the book the Librarian has been looking for. He decides to use his dagger to cut off the cover and switch it for one from a different book.
“Let me get this straight. You want to use a blood-soaked dagger to pierce a book from the Demonology section of a magical library? Are you totally 100% absolutely sure you really want to do this?”
Ok, change of plan. Instead he hides it in the illusion section (where it immediately alters appearance to look nondescript. The library also obligingly also changes the appearance of another book (in fact, a whole shelf-full of them) to look like the original tome. He takes one of these “fakes” and heads back upstairs.
The tide of battle is turning. One of the Harvestmen implodes in a puff of black shadow, as it is never existed. Another hit on the Librarian splits his skin revealing a huge spider-like creature with deformed humanoid arms. The flesh and robes slough off and the transformed spider-Librarian (an Aranea!) fires a strand of web to the ceiling and begins to climb, attempting to escape.
It is not to be. Amid cries from the rest of the party, the Dwarf Wizard fires a Magic Missile at the web as he climbs, breaking the strand. The Librarian/Aranea falls and dies on impact, narrowly missing the prone and webbed Fighter who barely manages to leap out of the way.
With the Librarian dead, the three remaining Harvestmen have lost their tether to the material plane. They begin to act erratically, granting Advantage on any attacks against them. Predictably, they don’t last long.
The heroes spy a ladder to the next level amid the cobwebs, and after a much needed short rest they climb.
This was once a well appointed study, now all but destroyed and coated in webs. In the centre is a mirror, behind which is a desk. The mirror cast no reflections and has an ebony frame carved to look like huge arachnoid.
A voice like nails on a chalkboard screeches, “I am Chorathyx the many-legged, sister to Lolth! Why do you approach?”.
Black spider-like legs begin to appear from the mirror, so the players do what comes naturally, and team up to smash it!
It breaks into a thousand tiny shards which embed into the flesh (DEX save to avoid, which most PCs pass) then vanish. Mission accomplished.
On the desk is a single tome with a locked clasp, which the Rogue quickly opens. Inside the book are drawn tiny humanoid figures in blue ink.
And we leave it there. The post-game wrap-up and conclusion will serve well as a lead-in to the next session, so that’s where it will go. We’ve been gaming for about two hours, and it’s a good place to end the session.
What I wanted for this session was a really big climactic fight, and that’s what we got. Compared to the last session where we had a near-TPK, the extra players really made a huge difference, and (I hope!) felt valued for being there. Even with the extra bodies this was far from an easy battle, but great teamwork (and better dice rolling :D) prevailed. Good stuff.
What is the job of D&D? This.
The playtest continues on Thursday with the start of a whole new adventure: The Trail of the Bronze Phoenix.