Monday, September 2, 2013

Relics of GenCon II -- ADandD FIFTH EDITION preview

So, as mentioned in my previous post, the other spectacular bit of loot I got from this year's GenCon was the huge ADandD FIFTH EDITION preview, thanks to friend Luis (thanks Luis!). Called GHOSTS OF DRAGONSPHERE CASTLE, this is actually a 140-page adventure*  (which formed the basis of this year's DandD Open at GenCon), followed by 140-odd pages of rules for the new edition.

I've been in a playtest for 5th edition for quite a while now (actually, a sequence of several playtests over two years covering varying adventures with three different DMs), but not written about it here because of the NDA signed by all playtesters. But since WotC has now published a large fraction of said rules, there doesn't seem to be any harm in weighing in on some of the new rules thus made public: expect more posts from time to time on gaming topics arising out of this iteration of the rules-in-progress.

So, what's in this ruleset? Obviously, the rules needed to play the accompanying adventure. This explains the ability scores and bonuses derived therefrom, combat, equipment, healing, and the like. The two largest sections are spells (24 pages) and monsters (almost 50). Of these, the spells given are those for Clerics and Mages from 1st thr 5th level. Probably not the full spell lists even for those levels, but plenty to run all the adventures you want, and enough to see that this initial list, at least, is heavily dominated by the traditional ADandD spells: most of these appeared in the 1st edition PLAYER'S HANDBOOK (though with rather different effects), and even at the same levels.

The largest section of the playtest rules covers some ninety monsters , including such cult classics as carrion crawlers, the behir, giant frogs, stirges, trapper, lurker above, shrieker, and the one I'm most impressed with, green slime -- this last being a kind of touchstone between those who embrace Old School and those who disdain it. No piercer, rust monster, or roper, but then you can't have everything in a limited set like this one, which presumably features only those monsters encountered in the accompanying adventure.  The monster entries are on the long side, in keeping with the tradition of 2nd and subsequent editions rather than the admirable laconity of the old MONSTER MANUAL, but to their credit they don't devote a full page to each monster (2nd edition's worst mistake).

So, what's not here? Obviously, the biggest omission is character creation -- arguably the most important part of any roleplaying game. The pregenerated characters are (1) human cleric, (2) dwarf fighter, (3) human fighter, (4) elf mage, (5) human mage, and (6) halfling rogue. So just from this you can see that the four most popular character races (human, dwarf, elf, halfling) and four traditional core classes (fighter, cleric, rogue, mage) are in place. Too bad they didn't revert from the abomination that is "rogue" back to the simpler and more straightforward Thief, but at least 2nd edition's faux pas shift from cleric to "priest", undone by 3e, has stayed undone. As for the mage, I'm neutral whether character class (a favorite of mine) is called Magic-User (1st ed), Wizard (2nd, 3rd), or Mage (5th): it's all good. Wish I cd say the absence of gnomes here means they'll be dropped like the fifth wheel they are (one of the things the much-maligned 4th edition got right. sort of.), but it's probably only due to streamlining in the specific context of this adventure.

I'm a bit surprised they're planning to keep THE FORGOTTEN REALMS as the default setting; I'd have thought it'd have run its course. Apparently not: like a comic book company's continuity (DC, Marvel) apparently it can reset and carry on; its fans are that invested in their favorite game world.**

THE THING I LIKE MOST ABOUT THIS PRODUCT: old art. They've reproduced a wonderful mix of art from all different eras of the game, including a lot from the three classic 1st edition rulebooks. This is particularly satisfying to me because in my time at TSR, then WotC, and finally Hasbro I from time to time would put into an art order as pick-up to reproduce one of these old pieces, only to invariably have the art director veto it. She felt that the game had come too far and that the work of Trampier, Diesel, and Sutherland wasn't up to her own high standards. I thought the best of the old art matched anything the then-current lot of black-and-white illustrators were turning out. Some of the new ones were very, very good, but then some of the old art had also been very good, as well as evocative of a classic era.  Having lost those fights, it's good to see that old art making a reappearance here and now.

THE THING I DON'T LIKE: it's not a biggie, but I question the inclusion of snarky post-it notes. Some of them are funny, but they have a tendency to Mystery-Science-Theatre the proceedings.  Call it a personal quirk, but it's my belief that MST treatment shd be reserved for dreck -- and GHOSTS OF DRAGONSPEAR CASTLE is anything but.

Now, if only I cd find time to read the adventure itself.

--John R.
current reading: this and that
current audiobook: THE CANON, continued
today's song: "Surfin' Frog" from A TOWN CALLED PANIC
yesterday's game: MYTHOS (thanks Luis, Anne, Sig, and Steve M. for indulging me)
tonight's game: DandD 5th edition.

 *written by the amazing Chris Perkins, long the mainstay of that department and averter of many a disaster, being not only fast but good.

**I've always preferred homebrew when it came to campaign worlds, despite having worked at one time or another on most of TSR/WotC's ADandD worlds: the Known World (Mystara), the Realms, Eberron, Ravenloft, al-Qadim, SpellJammer, bits of Greyhawk, even a brief Planescape adventure. I think DarkSun and BirthRight might be the only ones I never worked on. Of all these, the ones I like best are the ones that offer a really different play experience from the default ADandD world: Bruce Nesmith's Ravenloft, Jeff Grubb's al-Qadim, and Keith Baker's Eberron. ***

***note that both Ravenloft and al-Qadim were edited by Andria Hayday, TSR's editor extraordinaire.

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