Tips for Running the D&D Next Playtest

by Mike Shea on 29 October 2012

In May of 2012, Wizards of the Coast released the open playtest of the next version of Dungeons and Dragons, currently coined D&D Next. Over the past few months, WOTC has updated the playtest packet, releasing new classes, extended levels, and additional adventures. Today we're going to look at some tips for running your own fun and effective D&D Next playtest adventures.

Balance roleplaying, exploration, and combat

Combat speed tends to run far faster in D&D Next than we're used to after playing 4th edition. It's not uncommon to run an entire battle in five minutes. These short battles will completely change how you pace your game. Instead of shoehorning in roleplaying and exploration in the tiny spaces between the 60 to 90 minute battles we're used to with 4e, you can now fill your adventures with deep NPCs and interesting locations.

It will take some time to learn how to balance exploration, roleplaying, and combat. Proper balance of these three components, however, will bring the most enjoyment to your group. Don't sacrifice any one of them for the other two; particularly combat. The new speed of combat might get you used to spending a lot of time on roleplaying and exploration, but people still like a good fight. Keep a battle scene ready to bring a bit of action to your game. Remember the rule of Walker Texas Ranger, throw in a fist fight before each commercial break. In our D&D Next game, run a fight every hour or two.

Try out gridless combat

WOTC wrote D&D Next to support both gridded and gridless play. We spent the past five years making intricate battle areas, now we have the opportunity to try it a new way. Don't throw this opportunity away. It will feel weird at first, for both you and your group. Still, give it a try. Start with smaller skirmishes against only one type of monster described only by conversation.

When running a descriptive battle, give your players the benefit of the doubt when it comes to range and positioning. For example, if your rogue seeks a place to hide that's within crossbow range of the leader of a band of brigands, describe a nearby overturned cart that will work perfectly. If a fighter wants to charge in and attack the brigand archer, don't tell him he's five feet short of his target.

You don't have to run gridless all the time. It is, however, worth trying out.

Go easy on the PCs

If you've run 4e games up into paragon and epic tiers, you know how hard it can be to threaten or kill a powerful 4e D&D party. Even heroic-tier 4e characters have a lot of options for surviving combat. You may find D&D Next parties to be a bit more delicate. Be careful not to throw too much at them. D&D Next PCs have, at least in the latest iteration of the playtest, far fewer hit points than we might expect. It is much easier to drop them with just one or two attacks. Be careful not to ruin their fun by throwing too much at them. Go particularly easy at level 1.

Reskinning still works

WOTC didn't include a lot of monsters in the latest playtest. Reskinning, however, still works very well. There's little reason you can't create just about any lower level monster by reskinning one of the existing stat blocks. This lets us dig out all our old D&D modules such as White Plume Mountain and the original Ravenloft by just reskinning the monsters in the adventure with the statistics of those in the playtest.

Prepare more material

Because combat speed runs so much faster, you will find that your group can get through a lot more material in a single session. You'll want to be prepared to fill that time with more interesting bits of story, exploration, roleplaying, and further battles. D&D Next makes life very easy for dungeon masters, but it will demand that you be prepared to run a lot more material in each session than you might be used to.

Take the opportunity to improvise

The simple core rules of D&D Next and the need for more material gives us a great opportunity to flex our improvisation muscles. Try preparing less instead of more and give your game room to grow on its own rather than spell every encounter out ahead of time. Try making things up a bit more at the table instead of building it all out ahead of time. You'll be surprised at the results.

A cheat sheet you can keep in your head

Because D&D Next uses bounded accuracy instead of inflating levels, we can keep a very easy cheat sheet in our heads when running improvised encounters. DC 10 for easy, 13 for moderate, and 16 for hard is all you really need to remember. If failed result leads to damage, grab a d6 or two. Don't worry too much about scaling damage appropriately.

Provide feedback

The whole reason WOTC released this playtest is to get feedback on how well it actually works at the table. This is your chance to influence the future of the game we love. I won't cover this whole topic here. Instead, read Dave Chalker's Playtest "D&D Next" Like A Pro. Above all, I recommend two points:

Both of these feel counterintuitive but provide the best useful feedback to WOTC.

The D&D Next playtest provides all the material to run great D&D games for months. With these tips in hand, there's no reason your D&D Next games can't be as fun and memorable as any D&D game you've played.

As you go back and run your original 4e games, please take a look at Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games.

Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.