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D&D Basic: General Rules and Adventuring

In this, my third post comparing D&D Basic to the last of the playtest packets, we get into the fundamental rules of D&D. In the Basic PDF, it's Part Two: Playing the Game, but either part of that would make for a misleading post title, and what kind of barbarian of a blogger presumes to use two subtitles? So here we are. I'll also continue into the Adventuring chapter, where we see another of the tonal elements of 5e that sets it apart from its forebears.

This is the engine that makes 5e go, and it's been remarkably stable throughout the playtest material - as you'd hope, really. The exact scaling of the proficiency bonus has seen a little movement; as late as the last packet, players spent first and second level at +1. The change to +2 looks like a great decision at present; a less-trivial margin between proficiency and non-proficiency even at first level is a good thing. So the difference between the things you're good at and the things you're not (all other things being equal) comes to 10%, eventually scaling up to 30%. Based on what we see at the moment, characters mostly won't become skilled in new things, though the last playtest document's feats show that many of them grant proficiency in skills, weapons, or armor.

That said, players will clearly also improve in the tasks they are not skilled in, through ability score improvement (assuming they don't spend every single advancement option on feats). I continue to feel like ability score points versus feats isn't an interesting choice, because passive bonuses are just that good in... every game ever. On top of that, one of my players is highly allergic to the process of combing through all of the books for just the right feat - the possibility of a Wrong Choice ruins the whole experience. I look forward to exploring alternate approaches in the course of my 5e campaigns:

The other thing about proficiency and non-proficiency that bugs me is that each ability score has a list of tasks connected to it for which there is no appropriate skill. This is tricky because the DM has to remember which tasks have no appropriate skill or tool when calling for ability checks. If there's going to be up to a 30% difference in success chance based on whether I can convince the DM that one of my proficient skills fits this situation... that's consistently putting the DM in a weird place. You'd think this would also have some effect on DC scaling. Imagine two cases, both featuring Karl, a Badass Fighter Dude with 20 Strength and a +6 proficiency modifier in Athletics:
I remain baffled that there's no Gather Information or Streetwise skill, since that skill neatly wraps up two of the Charisma tasks that otherwise aren't filed under Persuasion (and partially under Investigate). If I were a rogue in a tight spot, I'd certainly be arguing for the DM to allow my Persuasion proficiency to apply. I detest getting into situations where PCs feel that they need cadge the DM for bonuses (or anything else). The general social dynamic of gaming is that DMs should always say "Yes" or "Yes, But." Players know this (many of them are DMs themselves), so when a DM says "No," they do so in the face of more than one species of social pressure. I favor clarity in rules, though not exhaustiveness, to short-circuit this interchange.

I think this is the first time we've seen rules for passive skill ratings; I expect that as in 4e, Perception and Insight are the main places this comes up. It's interesting that these rules rate advantage/disadvantage as +5/-5, when mathematically it's usually regarded as +3/-3, but there's no problem with this as such. I am particularly pleased to see rules along these lines, as I was just recently talking to a friend about how to handle differing levels of guard alert (regardless of which side the PCs are on). The math we came up with is identical to WotC's; the only difference is the terminology of taking 5 on the roll in a state of low alert and taking 10 for "average" alert. The "high" alert case of taking 15 didn't come up in out conversation, but I can imagine its use.

There's another fascinating new rule that follows: Group Checks. I assume everyone here remembers 4e's skill challenges, including both the good parts and the bad parts? Right, well, I'm not going to rehash all of that in this post. Group Checks are a mid-step between a standard skill check and a quick skill challenge, designed to cover cases where not everyone in the party has a decent rating in a skill but everyone has to get through the challenge. It's just not reasonable to expect every roll in a challenging series of rolls to succeed. That's just bad math - and in a lot of these cases one failure is as bad as everyone failing, such as Stealth. The way it works is that if half of the party succeeds, they cover for those who did not, and the scene proceeds as if everyone succeeded.

The extended terrain hazard sequences in Peter Jackson's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films are perfect cinematic examples of the concept: Particularly in Khazad-dûm, the more athletic characters help the less athletic characters across vast gaps in stairs and the like. I think one could compellingly interpret those scenes as "Gimli failed his Athletics roll to jump, but enough other people passed that he makes it across."

I think there's some unused space here, though, for a more Dungeon World-like solution: for less than 100% success but more than 50% success (er, after rounding down, if necessary), the party takes a 7-9 outcome - maybe one or more of the failed rolls has to take some damage, lose a piece of gear, or the like. The 6- outcome - DW's "abject failure" - is probably going to be pretty rare, unless the party is just utterly unprepared. I mentioned rounding? Well, in 5e as in previous editions, we always round down, so a three-person party needs one success, a five-person party needs only two, and so on. It's a quite generous rule, designed to keep the action moving along and make Hero vs. Nature challenges interesting without bringing gameplay to a halt or just screwing over the characters who did something else with their time. Anyway, I'm looking forward to taking this particular rule for a spin, and I hope we'll see a new and improved skill challenge system that takes this rule into account in some way.

So now we get into the detailed breakdown of what each ability score can do with regard to skill checks. This is where they decided to store the rules on Encumbrance. The default rule is incredibly generous (deliberately set "high enough that most characters don't have to worry about it"), while the variant rule is radically more harsh. On consideration, I think it's good to have both of these rules available, so that there's a rule to ignore if the DM doesn't care about tracking weight and a more traditional rule for that kind of DM. My take on it is that I'm not going to dicker over every troy ounce you're carting out of this hoard, but if you expect to carry ten suits of plate armor in your pack and a vast collection of spare weapons, I'm going to politely decline your proposal.

Have I mentioned that Search got renamed Investigate? It's a small change, but I like it a lot, because it broadens the scope of the skill in directions that don't infringe on Perception. To my surprise, it also gives rogues a key application in research scenes. That part is a touch off-theme, but I can live with it - my games are going to have research scenes, so it's best if as many people as possible can get involved. There's a bit of a glitch in the "Finding a Hidden Object" sidebar, as it seems to contradict the listed applications of Investigate as well as the traditional function of Search. Between this and the non-skill applications of ability checks, I think the takeaway has to be that DMs and adventure designers should do their best to be fair, but the exact way to resolve most questions that involve a check is open to interpretation. (This can be an okay thing, as long as the social dynamic at the table stays relaxed and groovy about it.) I'm hoping that the DMG (and portions of that text that become Basic rules) highlight the fact that you want to pitch to the characters' strong suits about 80% of the time. Let the plot and the actions of the NPCs, not the tasks at hand, be the circle changeup in your arsenal.

This chapter closes out with a few short paragraphs on saving throws. As others have noted, there's no guidance here on what a Strength, Intelligence, or Charisma saving throw might mean. It's important because saving throw proficiency in these stats is a class feature, and it's good to know how to use all of one's class features! For want of any other answer, I would say that saving throws represent reflexive ability, so any just about any task that a character has to perform reflexively or under extreme duress (rather than deliberately) might qualify - even that isn't much help, but it's what I've got.

To summarize, this is one of the more confusing chapters in D&D Basic. There are functionally four classes of tasks: skills, non-skill ability checks, tool uses, and saving throws. The lines between these tasks are more muddled than clarified by the text, even as it seems to assign the divisions between them great importance. I hope to see further detail on this in the full texts, because while flexibility is good, guidance helps make rulings consistent. Emergent plot means the DM doesn't know what the challenge will necessarily be before it is happening.

Next up is the chapter on Adventuring, where we see the crux of the three styles of adventure they've been talking about for this edition. Now, every edition of D&D, and every kind of heroic-adventure game, includes these areas of play. What 5e is setting out to do is to crystallize them into gameplay with the same kind of clarity and engagement that combat offers, without turning them into Combat By Another Name - a common solution in other heroic-adventure games.

The first really new thing in Basic that wasn't in the playtest packets is a rule for grades of exhaustion, the only "leveled" condition in the game at present. It's described at the very end of the Basic rules with the other conditions, but I'm going to talk about it now because the rest of the Exploration rules don't mean a damn thing without it. The Exhaustion condition covers starvation, dehydration, and general fatigue - it's no stretch at all to call it the failure track for the Exploration game, as Exhaustion 6 is Death. (And hey, once you're dead you provide your party with the rations they need to survive just a little longer.) I've seen a lot of other efforts at the same concept that this covers, and this is one of the better ones out there, since it doesn't result in a situation where having a first-level cleric on the team makes the whole group as good as immune to the rule. I'm anxious to see how these rules are invoked in published adventures.
Digression: Also, I am sure I won't be the only one to notice how well the Exhaustion track could be translated into a Wound track, if rules for grievous or lingering wounds are your bag.
Probably one of the more useful ways to break down the Exploration and Exhaustion rules is to look at the things that advance or reduce the failure track, and derive from that how difficult it is to suffer catastrophic failure. It would be altogether too easy to create a situation where the rules look good, but failure is all but guaranteed, or ones where only rampant idiocy on the part of the players causes failure (we'll call this "typically avoidable, but YMMV").

Causes and Solutions of Exhaustion

The rules on movement are pretty extensive. I like the fact that they've introduced more group decision-making into exploration - choosing a movement rate involves tradeoffs. "Having" to think about this kind of stuff won't be for everyone, and it's easy to gloss over it for such groups, but to me it is the PCs interacting with the terrain. I think this is more focus on overland travel and exploration than I've seen since the Forgotten Realms 2e boxed set. It's also the first time ever (since I started with AD&D 2e) that I've seen the rules explicitly call out front/middle/rear marching order structure in the rules, as well as how that works in split teams. If anything, I'm surprised they bothered, but sure. Also, I'm curious to see how feats and druid or ranger class features (and spells) interact with the Exploration rules - we saw a bit of that in earlier packets, though I didn't care for how it was handled there. 

There are also new rules for specific party roles during an extended exploration sequence. These include the Navigator (Wisdom/Survival on land, Navigator's Tools at sea), the Cartographer, the Tracker, and the Forager; implicitly, they also include the Sentry or Scout (everyone else, spending their time making Wisdom (Perception) checks. This rules are mostly fine, but I have two doubts. Firstly, three of the four roles are Wisdom (Survival) checks, which means a lot of characters are going to get stuck rolling without proficiency - this might or might not be a problem, since the DCs and general order of exploration sequences are in text that is not yet available. Secondly, the cartographer role is not particularly interesting - it gives you a map in exchange for not making a Wisdom (Perception) check, but otherwise offers no choices or tests of character ability. A pass/fail roll on cartography probably would not be interesting, which is certainly why there is no roll - this is just an area of the rules that doesn't have a way to be satisfying.

Next up are the rules for social interaction and roleplaying, which are much thinner than they were in the last playtest packet. There's no reference whatsoever to learning and using the personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws of NPCs to win social interactions. In the last playtest packet, this text ran several pages, including adjustments to Charisma skill check DCs and so on. I have to wonder if they decided to cut that subsystem entirely, or if it has just migrated into the DMG. That system was a bit mechanical (though less so than 3e's or 4e's Diplomacy rules); for better or worse, the new text puts all of its emphasis on non-mechanical conversation governing the outcome, with only a passing mention of dice rolls. The one thing that rankles, albeit obscurely, is the reference to the rogue with Deception proficiency handling the, er, deception, and the cleric with Persuasion proficiency handling that. Though logical, I hate the suggestion that the interactions will mostly involve a "face" character handling the whole deal, because I've played fighter-types who weren't the "face" for any type of interaction, which meant I checked out for huge portions of gameplay.

The rules for resting are mostly okay and almost identical to their prior incarnation. The one change is a reorganization of ideas in Long Rests to clarify that characters at 0 hit points can "rest," they just can't benefit from a rest until they have at least 1 hit point. You don't have to have 1 hit point to take a short rest, but if you're at 0 hit points and 0 Hit Dice (and your cleric is out of spells or nonexistent), you have to wait 1d4 hours to naturally up to 1 hit point. It creates a sort of odd rules case that may trip up some users, so if I were WotC I'd call out the rule about naturally healing up from 0 hit points in the rules for healing during a long rest.

Now, the rules for short and long rests are some of the more contentious rules in Basic. I've certainly written my full share of blog posts about them before, because they've been mostly-stable for awhile. The longest that a party doing nothing but resting stays below 100% strength is two days. After the first long rest, they're at 100% hit points and 50% Hit Dice (assuming they were completely tapped out before), and after the second long rest they get the other 50% of their Hit Dice back.
Just in case you're not reading along in the home game, I'll mention here that in this usage, Hit Dice are the mechanism for natural healing, and they emphasize the interpretation of hit points as avoiding telling wounds rather than actually receiving massive injuries.
Like I said, contentious: at first, I wasn't too happy about it myself. I've given it more thought, and now I think I'm okay with the two-day recovery - it's not grimly realistic, but two days might be the right level of interruption to feel like you've taken a massive beating and recuperated. This is still better than writing complex rules for natural healing taking weeks that players never actually use. A long rest restoring half of your Hit Dice means that you can suffer some attrition over time, if you're spending down to less than half more of your Hit Dice but not running out. Thematically... not bad. My problem with it emerges when we're talking about players needing to choose between spending Hit Dice to get back up to full hit points before resting, or not - this is a choice that makes a huge difference in how long your recovery time takes, but it's not clear what this represents in-character. In the balance... not perfect, but I don't expect it to make a huge difference in my games. Consistently pushing PCs right to the edge of their healing resources drives some gameplay that I'm not wild about. (Consistently is operative - it really comes down to whether the PCs need to keep pushing forward after a climactic encounter.)

Following on the heels of downtime during adventures, we move on to downtime between adventures - a favorite topic of mine. D&D Basic rules lay out five actions: crafting, practicing a profession, recuperating, researching, and training. Mearls's Legends & Lore post on this made it pretty clear that armies, castles, and domain management will eventually be sketched out as well, either in the DMG or in a rules module. Now, there have been about seven dozen different Carousing systems posted in the blogosphere (to say nothing of Dungeon World's), so I'm sure many DMs will wind up patching one in if WotC doesn't do that heavy lifting.

Crafting is the most disappointing of them: it stops at setting a cash value of goods that a proficient crafter produces in a day. They seem to have concluded that the 2e and 3.x crafting systems were too complicated and punitive (they were), so now the crafter creates value out of, apparently, nothing. It's easy enough to simply say that the crafter is consuming an unstated amount of components and increasing their value by a net 5 gp. The only cost you incur is living expenses. Other than having more crafters working together, there's no way to speed up production. The best I can do is hope for a rules module that gives it some depth, or hack something of my own. (I realize this nearly-not-a-system will be sufficient for many groups. Good on them.)

EDITED: Alert Reader +John Nunn pointed out my error in comments: "you must expend raw materials worth half the total market value." That fixes my complaint about creating something from nothing, certainly. It still gets into goods having an absolute value irrespective of any concept of economy, but that is an abstraction I'm comfortable with making for the sake of just getting on with the damn game - if I want to tell a story about material scarcity or inflation, that's on me to figure out a way to implement, and I'll be happy to have inflexible prices as a baseline.

The one good thing about Crafting, as well as practicing a profession, is that the rules interact lightly with the daily upkeep rules mentioned in the Equipment chapter. The rules don't resolve this by paying you money, but by covering your upkeep only up to a certain standard of living. Performance, for no apparent reason, grants a higher living standard than crafting or having a job. I am sure we all have musician friends laughing bitterly right now.

I don't want or expect an advancement-through-use system, but I do think characters should have differing levels of skill that are reflected mechanically. I suppose that feats are the most evident way to govern this advancement - one feat might be enough, or two at the outside. Proficiency then represents journeyman-level training, one feat represents mastery, and two feats grand mastery. (Or not - I'm shooting from the hip here.)

Practicing a Profession is either day labor (with a surprisingly good standard of living) or a steady job (one step higher). This isn't all that involved, as rules go, but I guess it's fine. It does mean that every character has means at their disposal to sustain a Modest lifestyle, though if you plan to do any Recuperating, Research, or Training you'll need to have money socked away, presumably from adventuring - those actions don't cover your upkeep at all. The note that Survival proficiency covers a Comfortable lifestyle is stored not here, but in a sidebar in the Equipment chapter.

Recuperating lets you purge diseases, poisons, or other effects that stop hit point recovery, or gain a temporary bonus to saving throws against disease or poison. Maybe a little too temporary to be useful in an adventure set any distance from the site of the rest, but in a bad enough situation I can imagine PCs using the Recuperate action in a camp right outside a dungeon, waiting three days between delves (which also lets them recover Hit Dice).

Research covers rumor-mongering and library work, with either a Persuasion or Investigate check. Calling it a system is maybe a little generous, but it's a minimalist expression of the concept that (as I've said for many topics) will suffice for the majority of groups. For the games I run, though, the secrets of the cosmology and setting history are a huge part of gameplay, and I'll have to think about how I'll implement research. I'm surprised that spell research doesn't see even a passing note here, but I feel certain that will find a place in a future text.

Training allows characters to gain a new proficiency in a tool set, or learn a new language. I like that players can pick up some mechanical benefits without advancing in level or picking up a new class. The downside of this is that it reinforces that skills and saving throws are more important than tool proficiencies, as skills go. It's kind of funny - for years, lock-and-trap functions have been restricted to rogues, but in 5e they're open to anyone with 250 gp and 250 days to burn. I have to blink at 250 days of downtime; that's longer than the total in-game time of a lot of campaigns. On the other hand, I'm great with seeing a bit more incentive for the players to let a few months or a year pass, because that slower pace makes the character development rate a bit more believable.

Overall, the two chapters I've covered here are more to my liking than not, though there are several things I can't help but want to retool. I'm not sold on their skill/ability check/tool/saving throw breakdown for task resolution; the principles are good but the logic seems lacking when it comes down to resolving unusual situations in the course of play. More than any other part of this blog's analysis of D&D Basic, this one is lacking as long as there's no DMG - without knowing the tricks designed for the DM, the players' responses to those tricks don't mean much. Even though I worry that this chapter will make DMing a little more awkward, I look forward to running 5e. There are also a lot of interesting ideas and lessons to adapt to other games.

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