D&D Next: Isle of Dread Playtest

Though the Isle of Dread has appeared throughout the editions, my group did not make our first foray until last week.

Having only a handful of hours to play I decided to go with the a more severe version of the shipwreck approach (though I was mercial in that I let them start at 4th-level given the reduced party size). They washed up on the northern region of the island to the tune of several giant crabs (which I was surprised to see in the bestiary) picking through the corpses. With only weapons on hand--albeit magical ones--they managed to fight them off with only Josh's fighter taking any injury. 

They picked through the debris for a couple hours, managing to gather some  food, water, enough sheets of canvas to make a servicable tent, some oil, a couple coils of rope (in their standard-issue length of 50 feet, of course), and a ten-foot pole. Josh was able to stitch something approaching leather armor, and tied some planks of wood together to make a shield. Additional rummaging combined with Melissa's character's Herbalism feat allowed them to cobble together a kind of healer's kit (which in turn allowed Josh's character to heal up).

With no way of getting off the island and no idea where they were, they picked a random direction and started walking. The players had never played a "hex-crawl" before, and my closest experience was an old 3rd Edition campaign where distances between cities and villages ranged from weeks to a couple months. The DM's initially tried to make us role-play and hunt through every day of the trip. This lead to a lot of repetitive rolls, stilted dialogue, and boredom; it did not take long before they were abridging the lengthy trips (and allowing us to make Survival checks to encompass a week of time).

With that in mind and the limited time frame I decided to used the hex-side of one of my battle maps, filling in the space where they were and adjacent hexes. They would pick a hex, I would tell them how many hours had passed and filled it in, only going into descriptive detail when the terrain or weather changed. Simple, and perhaps more importantly, fast. When they ran into a random encounter or a numbered location we would just run combat off the grid, something that we had gotten used to while playing A Sundered World.

After a few hours of playing they ran into a carnivorous ape that Melissa's wizard was able to tie down with web, giving them some time to escape, a really laid back treant that told them about the nearby green dragon's lair, and a handful of zombies before making it to the island center. Thanks to Josh and Kamon's Parry I was only ever able to damage Josh, and given the lack of encounters it was a simple matter to just burn through a Hit Die or two. Heck, even if I were to rigidly enforce Melissa's lack of a spell book she was almost entirely able to run on shocking grasp and burning hands.

Since time was running out I removed the village in the center and pared down the temple quite a bit, reducing it to like, two rooms connected by a hall. After a short bit of exploration they encountered a single kopru, which did not last long against wizard-based ordinance and Deadly Strike. To be fair I did allow people affected by its domination to keep making Wisdom saves, and if Josh did not have Parry the bite and tail combo would have taken him down pretty quickly.

Josh and Kamon both enjoyed the fighter and rogue quite a bit. They praised the maneuver system as a simple-yet-effective way to give them extra options without a lot of bookkeeping. They both had the Parry maneuver, which gave them a good deal of staying power even without a cleric. Despite that Kamon wished that he had "just a bit" more hit points. Personally I think that given the four-day trek the fact that Josh and Melissa could count their respective Hit Dice and daily-spell expenditure on one hand, that characters are pretty durable as is.

Even if they had plowed through all of those encounters in the span of a single day I think they would have been fine. The only thing that really hurt them with the carnivorous ape and kopru, which is understandable because they were 2-3 levels higher (and there were only three characters). The giant crabs and zombies generally had any hits rendered ineffective thanks to Parry, which is likewise understandable because they were 3 levels lower. Despite the low-level the zombies were surprisingly resilient, though I recall Josh doing some really poor damage rolls (and I had a few lucky Constitution saves). We actually liked this, as it conveyed the idea of them being difficult to hack apart besides just giving them a massive lump of hit points.

Kamon chose some decidedly class-neutral maneuvers, so I cannot say that his character felt very rogue-like, as opposed to 4th Edition where rogue exploits had a distinct mechanical feel from the fighter (generally involving lots of movement and damage spiking). I think that by creating a stronger thematic divide (as well as creating other lists for warlords and two-weapon fighters), as well as adding in class features (like weapon and armor stuff for the fighter), that it will help differentiate them.

We did not get many chances, or to be more accurate see many needs, to use wizard spells. Aside from web the only other spell I recall Melissa using was scorching ray, which dealt a reliable 20 fire damage (well, 10 since she was zapping the kopru). Unsurprisingly none of us are a fan of the magic system, even with the tradition addition. Mechanically it does nothing to alleviate the 5-minute workday, especially when by the books you only ever hit 1-2 encounters in a day until you hit a dungeon. Also the whole sometimes at-will, sometimes encounter divide makes even less sense than it did before.

All I can say is, again, please go back and develop the flavor of magic and build mechanics around the explanation, instead of trying to wrap flavor around a mechanic that is not doing what it is intending to do. This goes for both clerics and wizards. How would a wizard explain magic to her apprentice? I think that the sorcerer and warlock were much more evocative and interesting than either the cleric or wizard, and am surprised that they did not recycle their mechanics this time around.

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