Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
 
Lost Mine of Phandelver videos

As I want to buy it at my local gaming store and not online, I still haven't got the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. But I did find that several people, Wizards of the Coast included, put videos of themselves playing the starter set adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver on YouTube. *Spoiler alert* Don't watch those videos or read my comments if you plan to play the Starter Set as a player. As watching different groups actually play the game can give a more precise impression of the Starter Set than just reading it, I ended up spending hours on YouTube that way. Here are my impressions.

Let's first list the videos I watched. First of all there is the official version, WotC playing their own Starter Set, with one completely new player. The videos I liked the most were the ones from RPGMP3: Dungeon ON! Also quite well done is the video from Quill18, but after the end of part 4 it appears as if that was just a temporary group and they don't plan to play through the rest of the adventure. Table Top Gaming has a playlist with already 23 half-hour videos, but with apparently experienced players who don't really care that they are playing 5th edition, and a DM taking lots of shortcuts. The lowest quality video is the one from Caffeinated Conquests, where you don't see anything and the music makes it hard to understand what the players are saying.

Of those five video sources, the first and the last are playing theater of the mind style, while the other three are using the Roll20 virtual online table-top. Whatever you think about using battlemaps and miniatures in Dungeons & Dragons, it has to be said that if you want to turn it into a spectator sport these are very much needed. A video showing people sitting around a table and rolling dice just isn't all that visually interesting. Furthermore it turns out by comparing the same fight done by everybody that theater of the mind isn't the fastest version, with even WotC taking one hour for the first fight against 4 goblins. Part of that is of course people still learning the rules, but one does notice a lot of "where exactly is my character standing? Where are the monsters exactly?" type of questions in the theater of the mind versions, and that takes time.

WotC is playing the adventure using the pre-generated characters and they make a great effort to stress the new role-playing rules elements of 5th edition, like characters now having bonds and flaws, or getting "inspiration" advantage for role-playing to those flaws. It is very noticeable that everybody else does not, mostly using characters created using the basic rules. As much as I can understand a dislike of pre-rolled characters in D&D, the pre-gens do have specific background stories, objectives, and bonds to items, places, and people appearing in the adventure, and that gets lost if you create your own characters. So for once I would recommend playing Lost Mine of Phandelver with the pre-generated characters. It isn't as if with the basic rules you could actually make VERY different characters than the pre-gens. As I do consider the personality and background rules for character creation to be one of the strong points of this edition it is somewhat worrying to see them not used so much in actual play videos.

As previously remarked the lethality and randomness is very much on display in these videos. There are several cases of players getting one-shotted from full health to unconsciousness. One fighter, previously wounded, dies outright and instantly from a large critical hit. Quill18 ended up visibly cheating and allowing an unconscious player to use second wind to prevent a total party kill at the end. Some people like lethal games, but somehow I can't help thinking that it isn't a great feature for a Starter Set. If your first impression of Dungeons & Dragons was being the one guy at the table who actually "lost" the game, would you want to play again? I'll have to check, but I don't think the Starter Set even has any instructions on how to replace a dead character, as there are only as many pre-gens as there are supposed to be players.

Speaking of which, WotC had the situation that one player wasn't available for the second session, and "solved" that by presenting that character as having gone elsewhere, instead of somebody else playing that character. Then another character fell unconscious, and the group ended split up with two characters still exploring and one character tending the unconscious fellow. Really? In my opinion the DM should have stepped in and prevented the party from splitting that way, because it sets a rather bad example in the official video of the Starter Set.

5E at its game core is very much a game of resource management. Not every group, and especially not the WotC group, was good at that. The limiting factor appears generally to be healing: There are no healing cantrips, so the two spell slots of the cleric are the only sources of magical healing, and the only way to quickly revive an unconscious character. That is so important that low-level cleric basically should only ever cast cantrips and healing spells. In any case, the level 1 cleric spells other than healing are extremely weak, especially if you compare them to the level 1 wizard spells which do 3d6 area attack damage or splittable 3d4+3 damage with no attack roll or saving throw. Somewhat unfairly the wizard can get spell slots back during a short rest, but the cleric can't. As cure light wounds can heal for a LOT of hit points, it is even debatable whether a cleric should always wait for a character to go down before healing him. On the one side a wounded character can die instantly from a crit, but on the other hand the cleric doesn't really have the luxury of healing every wounded character.

Rogues are actually quite good in this edition. They get their sneak attack even on ranged attacks if they have advantage or, more frequently, when another ally is standing next to the target. And the dual wield rules are rather powerful: If you wield a light weapon like a dagger or shortsword, you get a second attack with your off-hand weapon, albeit only the base damage without attribute bonus. With the bonus attack not being limited to the same target, and moves being splittable in 5E, you can stab a monster to death, move and then stab another monster with your off-hand. In the Starter Set adventure with the level 1 groups against goblins, the rogue and the wizard were the only classes that could potentially kill more than 1 goblin per round.

The Lost Mine of Phandelver appears to be a rather generic adventure, but that is probably a good thing for a Starter Set. It also is a lot longer than the adventures in previous starter boxes, and could potentially be the start of a whole campaign. Given how the basic rules are somewhat incomplete and insufficient to start a game by themselves, the $20 Starter Set looks like a good investment for people who want to play 5th edition without paying $150 for the core books right away. And new DMs can always see how to play that adventure by watching those YouTube videos.

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