Definitely curious to dig into the Starter Set Rulebook, so I naturally start with the Table of Contents. I’d normally just skip over it and start reading, but it’s worth pausing and viewing it as an outline for the doc. It’s an interesting breakdown – 32 pages total, 6 on the essentials, 6 on combat, 6 on adventuring, 12 on spells and a 1 page appendix of conditions.
This is actually a pretty informative split. Combat is smaller than the stereotypical image of D&D might suggest, and rather it is the magic section which really eats up the pages. This is not new – magic (and magic items) have always greatly outstripped the base mechanics in terms of volume, even if we don’t always think about it in those terms.
Into the actual text, I was struck by a very nice touch – after the initial (perfectly solid) “What is D&D?” Paragraph, we actually open with an example of play. It’s not that the example is particularly amazing – it’s fine – but starting with example text illustrates a priority of design that I like very much. Sadly, it’s a head fake – after two examples on the first page, that’s pretty much the end of the examples. So, bummer.
It also , honestly makes me a little more skeptical of the text explaining the very basics of how to play. The reality is that I’m a very poor judge of their quality – I have done this too long to freshen my eyes that much, but as I look for things like examples (or a glossary) and don’t find them, I worry a bit. of course, the counterargument is that a) space is tight and b) there is enough ambient information on what an RPG is that no one is really just learning from the text anymore. I’m sympathetic to a, but worry about b as a bit self-fulfilling.
The description of the Structure of Play is a nice inclusion. It’s fairly solid:
1. DM describes environment,
2. Players describe actions
3. DM narrate response.
I could nitpick some of the details, but really my only beef is that I wish the statement that the end of 3 was back at #1 was a bit more prominent.
In a curious layout decision, the rules for halving (round down) is its own section rather than a callout box. I’m presuming because it’s immediately followed by a large callout box on “What’s Next” so the decision was forced. Tiny thing, mostly revealing that I spend more time than I should thinking about layout, but I suspect that’s not news.
The stats…er, Abilities are largely familiar to any D&D player. It reveals a few interesting things, like the fact that monsters have stats in a very 3e-sounding fashion. It also confirms that 18’s get a +4 (no 18’s on the character sheets to check that).
What caught my eye was something in the stat descriptions. Wisdom is described as “perception and insight” while Charisma is described as “force of personality”. This is interesting because of a missing element – willpower. As those are written, I’m not quite clear which stat I’m going to be rolling to resist, say, magical persuasion. Given the new shape of the saving throws, I’m VERY interested in the answer to that question. Now, it’s possible this is just unclear because it’s a shorthand, but I’m putting a pin in it in hopes of finding out.
The words spend on distinguishing ability score from ability modifier gives me fresh appreciation for the elegance of Dungeon World’s stats where you have a 17 “dexterity” and a +2 “DEX”, so it is clear which id being referred to.
The core rule is the same it’s been since 3e: roll d20, add a value, equal or exceed a DC or AC. Simple enough, but nothing is said about what DCs mean, so there’s another pin.
And, finally, we get the actual Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. They went with the bonus die/penalty die model. if you have an advantage, roll an extra d20 and keep the better one. If you have a disadvantage, roll and extra d20 and keep the worse one. I’m withholding opinion until I’ve tried this a bit at the table, but I certainly like the idea. The underlying construct of an abstract Adv/Disadv is a great rules hook, and I think it is unreservedly a good idea. The only question is whether the extra die (which seems fun) is more or less hassle than just calling it a, say, +2/–2
The ability section took a couple of read-throughs. Some of that may be my own assumptions, but I think the clarity is a little weird. As explained, you don’t make skill checks, rather, you always make ability checks, and skills fold into that. I can see the logic to that in the abstract, but the presentation of the skills on the character sheet suggests the opposite (that you make skill checks by default, with their bonus derived from the relative stat and modified by proficiency).
Put another way, as described, you can use dexterity to do acrobatics, be sneaky, or perform sleight of hand. Skills equate to these arenas of dexterity, and grant a bonus if you’re proficient. I actually like this explanation quite a lot. But if you look at the character sheet and see that you have a dexterity of +2 and an acrobatics of +2, it seems that would suggest that you take +4 to the roll when getting acrobatic. If you already know the system and realize that it’s just a cross reference, then you can suss it out.
I’m not faulting the design for this – as I said, I kind of dig this approach, though it’s not flawless – but I’m faulting the character sheet for not reflecting it. If it turns out the basic rules actually talk about skills in the normal fashion (as reflected on the character sheet) then this may have just been a complication in the name of simplification.
I’m trying to judge how this intersects with the number of skills per stat, especially because of some weirdness. Con has no skills, which seems bad, but I presume it shows up a lot in saves lot or something. Strength has only one skill, but it’s Athletics, and it encompasses climbing, jumping and swimming, so that’s a pretty badass skill. Dex has three skills Ca has 4 and Wis and Int have 5 each.
Setting aside the weirdness of Constitution, the historical thinking with these things has been that Strength and Dex are so dominant in D&D that there is a balancing effect to adding more skills to a given stat. However, I don’t think that’s true any more. If the idea is that I’m rolling Wisdom (rather than Insight) then I’m actually being penalized if there are more skills.
To illustrate what I mean, consider if there were Climb, Jump and Swim skills under strength. That would be 3 skills, making it 3 times as expensive to be good at those three things than it is with a single skill (athletics).
Now, it’s not quite so clear cut as all that, but since the bonuses pretty much all work the same way, the real “balance” is in the determination of how many useful things fall under each stat. If we take the number of skills as a shorthand for that, then it might make sense to consider more skills to mean a more “potent” stat. However, that idea falls apart when we look at the actual skills involved. Of intelligence’s 5 skills, 4 could easily be combined into “Lore” skill (if that was desired), so they do not reflect a broader penumbra for the stat so much as it does more narrow slicing (and since the 5th skill, investigation, feels hijacked from wisdom, it seems all the more arbitary). Similar things can be found in the division between Insight and Perception. These are traditional divisions, and I’m not sure they still hold up.
Add in the fact that saves seem functionally identical but are treated as mechanically separate, and I admit I’m kind of throwing up my hands. If there is a unifying idea behind this section, I can’t see it. Perhaps it becomes more clear in the actual rules, and it’s merely suffered from the abbreviation that comes of going into a starter set. I certainly hope so.
And to be clear, I don’t think this is going to be a problem in terms of learning to play (excepting the potential character sheet confusion) because the ultimate mechanic remains very simple. And more, since I don’t yet know how proficiencies are distributed, I can’t make any real comment about balance, but I’m definitely giving it the hairy eyeball.
The section ends with a callout box on finding hidden objects which could probably be labeled “reasons for things to no be found” which is not the best note. 🙂
So far the game seems fine as a game, but I’m definitely struggling with some of the decisions and presentation. Hopefully more becomes clear as we proceed.
EDIT: After I posted, I realized a clearer summation of my concern: I like how they rethought the idea of skills, but in doing so, it does not feel like they rethought what things should be skills (with all that entails)..
Boilerplate: I skipped the beta. I am writing these as i read each section, which means I will frequently reveal misunderstandings and faulty assumptions. That is the cost of doing this “live”, so to speak, but I want to capture those impressions, warts and all.
- Despite their brevity, there’s something interesting about the examples – there’s no explanatory or framing text, it’s pure script format, with everything expressed in the way it’s said at the table. It’s a good format. ↩
- This is the call out to go get the basic rules at the website and a plug for the forthcoming core books. ↩
- No, that’s not mathematically equivalent. Were I to guess, it might be closer to 3 or 4, but I don’t have the math on hand to be sure. ↩
- While I like the concept, it has one HUGE flaw that I don’t see an easy path through, and that is that it is simply awkward for the GM to call for a “Strength(Athletics)” check rather than just an “Athletics check”. ↩