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D&D Next: Off the Cuff, Round 3

So hey, there's a new D&D Next Playtest packet that arrived last night. Neat! According to the playtest summary, they've updated monsters and experience points, added a chapter on magic items, and updated the Caves of Chaos adventure. Obviously, I would have liked a new class update also, blah blah whinycakes, but I'm excited about magic items, so I'll jump right in.

Within the first three paragraphs, they're saying things that I like, as they talk about magic items having secrets and history. This is exactly how I think things should work - though I don't expect that their published material will work in my campaign all that often, as long as there are hooks for magic items to have story presence and a sense of objective reality beyond the way it changes the numbers on my sheet, I can work with it. My feelings on "magic items are almost never available for purchase" are more complex - because what are the players going to buy with the cash they pile up, if not magic items? But the rules do provide a broad guideline for magic item values, so there's definitely room for multiple approaches even within these playtest rules. I'm also pretty much fine with players not selling their magic items to optimize their loadout, but instead wielding whatever the game brings their way. As a particular anecdote, in the AE game I play, I've enjoyed the fact that my greathammer-wielding warmain switches to a longsword whenever we come up against incorporeal creatures, rather than having a weapon for all seasons. It is another small thing to help those fights feel different in my memory.

Around the time they were first pushing Essentials 4e, WotC also started talking a lot about magic item rarity classes as a rules mechanic. They've brought those terms back to the table here, but with a completely different mechanical meaning. This time around, rarity is more like an in-character term to describe power and value. Obviously it has some issues with connotation vs. denotation; if, for example, there are actually only six sets of drums of panic in the world, their denotative "rarity" is extremely high, completely out of proportion with their actual power. It's interesting to me, though, that they go on to provide magic item tables such that players really will keep getting relatively large numbers of low-level items throughout the campaign - but let's face it, I haven't the faintest intention of randomly rolling treasure and obeying the roll throughout the course of the campaign. I never have before, and I'm not going to start now.

The magic item identification rules are well and good. Nothing special here; let's move on. Oh, wait. Attunement, you say? Now that's interesting... I'm curious to see where this goes. It looks like it might be a limiter to how much "specialness" a single PC can wield, if attunement is restricted to items that you wouldn't want a PC to have in large numbers. It's not exactly the most innovative mechanic, but I'm happy to see D&D add a few more hooks to its magic item scripting, if you follow me. They don't get into magic item secrets in this section, but it's another of those little hooks to make an item more interesting.

I wasn't really expecting magic item creation rules yet, so I'm not too fussed about their absence. I would like them to be cool, obviously - I hope they'll take their time and blow me away.

Interestingly, they're doing away with slot limitations on magic items in a lot of places. This surprises me quite a lot; I figured that broadly reducing the reliance on magic items would lead to tighter restrictions on slot-based items. I'm nervous about this decision in the game's long-term health - if you can just slap on more belts or whatever and selling magic items isn't easy, then... I dunno. On the other hand, there's a very different tone to these rules than to any prior edition I can recall: an explicit and frequent "ignore or modify this if you like" statement. Houseruling has always been a thing, but this brings it much more forward into the reader's awareness. I am of two minds about it; I worry that it doesn't direct player expectations appropriately (making the DM look like a jerk for taking a particularly restrictive approach), but on the other hand, it explicitly permits DMs to do weird stuff if that's where they are with their gaming. That is a big part of where I am with my tabletop gaming these days, and especially (for reasons that I can't yet pin down) with D&D Next.

Magic item details - a random-roll way to give items a bit more character and secondary utility - are fine and good, though this is material I feel like I may have seen in some OSR blog or other. Many of the Nature details are not great for random assignment; Prophecy in particular is exceptionally illogical if generated for a piece of loot recently wielded by a slain enemy. As a way to generate ideas for history, though, it's great - just make sure you complete this process prior to the session, and leave time to adjust things around. Minor properties are pretty excellent, again when rolled prior to the game session. They're also a good reason not to let the players go shopping in such a way as to customize their gear - but shopping from a short, randomly-generated list is still definitely on the table. Minor quirks, on the other hand, are sometimes mechanical and sometimes flavor-only. They're fine, but I suspect that my players would roll their eyes whenever they came up. God help the player who winds up losing a lot of turns trying to unsheathe a slippery sword.

Armor: well, the random table to +1 armor totally ignores the prior rarity tables, but I suppose you might be approaching magic item distribution from a number of different angles. Since it looks like +1 armor might be only 100 or so gold pieces greater in value than regular armor, I'll have to rethink a lot of my expectations about gear scaling. Also, I am fascinated to see black dragon scale of resistance: this armor does not have any explicit bonus to AC above that of scale armor. This approach would certainly make multiple suits of magical armor be valid choices for a character, and in itself would go a long way toward resolving the goals I discussed in the aforementioned armor post. Obviously, this isn't universal through armor, and that's fine; it can be a cool idea without all things working that way. It's not like this is anything revolutionary, unless (like me) you were expecting the designers to cleave more tightly to the design of all previous editions.

Oh, hey, elven chain. It's some badass shit, and until I see other, competitive options, I'm assuming every wizard in the world will covet it most highly.

The spellguard shield is a great example of why I want another step of benefit and hindrance than just advantage and disadvantage. I suspect that there will be a number of different ways to gain advantage on saving throws against some or all spells, and I suspect that they will not stack gracefully with the spellguard shield. This seems wrong to me.

I'm surprised by some of the weapons that aren't consumed on use, such as the javelin of lightning or the arrow of dragon slaying. Most of the weapons, though, are just showing off time-honored classics of D&D in the new rules system. What this system doesn't do - and I know this was a particular concern of Samhaine's when we first read Mearls's post about magic items in D&D Next - is give a DM actual guidance on how to make new magic items that are cogent and balanced. There's guidance through example, of course, but there's a pretty heavy usage of Very Rare to Legendary items; not so much on Common or Uncommon. This is just something I'd like to see them address in future releases, rather than a problem per se. We do also see a lot more in the way of the attunement mechanic here, sometimes with specific requirements to achieve attunement.

Staffs are reasonably straightforward, with per-day charges and a (quite rare) burnout condition. My only concern about the use of secrets for the staff of charming is that the trigger might be hard for a DM to keep in mind. I have this problem with Virtues and Vices in Mage: the Awakening, after all.

Wands hold and regenerate fewer charges, but carry the same burnout condition. Huh, at this point it occurs to me that in the long term, saying "you must be a cleric, a druid, or a wizard to become attuned to this item" is going to cause problems - I don't see why sorcerers and warlocks don't have any access to those kinds of staffs and wands, and I'm sure there will be other spellcasting classes in the future.

Potion miscibility. How about that? And a potion of 3.0-style haste, more or less. I like that it's Very Rare and has a drawback at the end of its effect. You know, I think I can get behind obscenely expensive consumable items.

A number of rings possess secrets, and most of them require attunement. Interesting stuff here. The bit about secrets appeals to me overwhelmingly, but DMs will need to be ready to come up with new secrets for items, or the whole surprise of it will be lost. Also, if you don't plan to DM, the DMG is once again spoiler territory, and you'll probably have more fun to stay well clear of it.

Scrolls look pretty standard, and they sometimes include scroll mishap as a possible outcome. That's fine, whatever. I had heard at one point that scrolls were going to work differently, but this looks very much like a 5e adaptation of 3.x scrolls, which is all I really wanted.

Wondrous items: well, the belt of giant strength is pretty freakisly badass. But if you knew you could get one, it would be okay to play a fighter with 10 Strength, because the character's natural strength is irrelevant. Same for gauntlets of ogre power. Oh, hey, bracers of defense, more good caster armor! Yay. I think it makes some interesting world-statements that a crystal ball is Legendary. Ioun stones grant ability score bonuses? That's pretty unexpected, but... well, if Very Rare items live up to that name, then maybe it's all right. The rod of absorption suggests two interesting things: the cost chart for sorcerers past third-level spells, and the existence of tenth-level spells in core rules.

Okay, about that "rarity terms" thing - the tome of the stilled tongue specifies both that only the original and four copies exist, yet it is listed as Very Rare. They gave it a super creepy secret, too! So any grief I was going to give them about the rarity thing is completely washed away with appreciation that it's a cool magic item, very much in the Arkham Horror vein.

Moving on to the Bestiary chapter, I'm sort of skipping around, but the monsters' attack bonuses still look awfully low - I expect that will get tweaked upward in some future material. Likewise, monster damage is surprisingly low compared to the damage kicked out by PCs even at low levels. It's weird to me that characters have a baseline bonus from their class levels, but monsters have only their ability score modifiers. The troll's regeneration mechanic is relatively sane and reasonable, though requiring the DM to track changes to both current and maximum hit points could be weird in itself. I'm not sold on the fun level of the medusa's petrifying gaze - looks like the same old save-or-die to me. The bruiser trait of several hulking-barbarian-type creatures is pretty cool - it's an iteration on 4e's Cleave power, in that you deal damage on a miss, but not on a really abject failure of a miss. My experience so far with the Rage +X mechanic isn't promising, in that disadvantage doesn't play out well for NPCs all that often (because of how low their attack bonuses are). I mean, why does the human berserker have lower weapon accuracy than a 10-strength wizard, when it also has a high enough Strength bonus to do a little bit better (even if it has no class bonus)?

On the whole, though, I like the new traits that are getting introduced because I think a lot of them would be reasonable to grant to PCs as side-benefits.

All told, I think the new playtest documents are going in the right direction. I continue to feel that they're building a phenomenal architecture, with pretty good implementation around it. If I have to choose between the two, I'd rather have the great architecture, because it's easier for me to improve implementation and tune it to my own tastes than it is to restructure the whole thing.

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