s the playtest moves into its next phase, I think it's time to make a few changes to this column. By now, we've shared the big picture design goals for D&D Next. From here, most of the work focuses on specific classes, races, rules options, and other pieces that fit into the bigger picture. With that in mind, I'm going to shift gears a bit. For the foreseeable future, this column will focus on the progress we make each week and specific things we're releasing in upcoming packets. Think of it as a weekly update on what's going on with the R&D team and our progress on the game.
The Case of the Mysterious Missing Rules
In the last playtest email, we mentioned that the new packet (the one including the barbarian) featured expanded rules for exploration. The rules didn't make it into the draft of the playtest documents, but we missed the reference to them in the alert email.
The expanded rules work a little like combat in that they outline turns and a set of actions characters can take while exploring. The idea behind them is to give a little more structure to manage the action at the table. One character might map, another keeps an eye out for traps, while a third keeps watch for approaching monsters. These rules came about from two playtest experiences.
First, they proved helpful in running the Isle of Dread adventure as a hex crawl, or an adventure where the characters chart out an unknown wilderness and come across monster lairs, ruins, and other features as they explore. In this model of play, the wilderness works like an enormous dungeon waiting to be explored. The structure of the expanded rules for exploration made handling that at the table a bit easier.
Second, in my personal experience I've always wanted an excuse to tell DMs to map dungeons for their players. I've had a lot of games grind to a halt as players asked me for details on where a door was set in a wall or how a particularly complex nest of hallways worked. It's pretty easy for a person looking at a room to sketch it, but a bit of a pain for a DM to rattle off a verbal description of that room over and over again. In running In Search of the Unknown a year or so ago, I found it much easier to draw the map for the players as they explored. It sped up play and kept things moving.
The rules serve as a structure by giving DMs the basics of how far the characters can travel in a matter of minutes, hours, or a day. They also provide guidelines regarding how pace can affect speed and readiness for an encounter and how random encounters fit into the balance between speed of travel and caution. These rules will be part of the next packet.
We're looking at early barbarian feedback and see that many people are finding it more powerful than the fighter. At this stage, I think that the martial classes need some math tweaks to get their damage in line, and you can expect the barbarian to power down a little, the fighter's maneuvers to become a bit more flexible and useful, and the barbarian to also get a few more things to make the class more distinct from the fighter, especially when the barbarian isn't raging. Debates and such in R&D continue to roll along, and we'll see what the playtest survey tells us before striking off in a firm direction.
If you were at Winter Fantasy in Fort Wayne in late January, you had the chance to play Skip Williams's new adventure, Danger at Darkshelf Quarry. We commissioned Skip to write a brand new prequel adventure, which will be part of the A-series reprint due to hit shelves this summer. Skip's excellent work on Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, in my opinion, captured the feel of AD&D's earliest adventures and has sparked a lot of discussion here at the office.
One of the things I like about classic adventures, a feature driven home in running Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain, lies in their cross between simplicity and flexibility. Danger at Darkshelf Quarry is open to any number of approaches a group wishes to take. You can rely on stealth, interaction and deception, or good old brute force to unlock its mysteries. Over the past few years, we've been too focused on covering every possible action in adventure writing rather than giving groups flexibility. That comprehensive approach has spawned a layer of complexity, in my opinion, that makes leaning on adventures more work than simply cobbling something together. It took me about an hour to read and prep Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain and yet it led to about eight hours of play at the table.
Adventures should save you time and give you ideas, but not at the expense of playing to D&D's strengths, flexibility, and possibilities. It's definitely something that's been on my mind as we're talking about adventure support in the future.
Orcs vs. Giants
Speaking of Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain, I ran it to completion as part of testing high-level play. At one point, the characters had rallied several hundred orcs to join them in an assault on several dozen hill giants, ogres, and other brutes. Necessity being the mother of invention, I put together some guidelines for handling battles between hordes of creatures using our core combat rules.
In essence, these rules are guidelines that replace die rolls with the estimated damage per attacker when two big groups fight. Given that X orcs can attack Y giants, and vice versa, you can quickly determine how much damage the two sides soak up each round. I also worked up a simple table to determine what percentage of a mob makes a saving throw against a given DC, making things like cloud kill fairly easy to adjudicate as they roll across a huge battlefield.
I was pretty happy to resolve a battle involving five 10th-level characters, over two hundred orcs, sixty hill giants, twenty-four ogres, fourteen dire wolves, and assorted stone and cloud giants in about two hours. You can expect the guidelines, after a few revisions for simplicity and clarity, to show up in an upcoming playtest packet.
This kind of rules option, something that speaks to the tools that DMs find useful, is one of those things that an extended playtest helps us uncover. Pushing the system in a variety of directions helps discover blind spots and gaps in the DM's arsenal. Hopefully, these guidelines will be a useful middle ground between our standard combat rules and the full-fledged rules for mass combat.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.