Playtest 3: Pole-Dancing Zombies!

Last session, our intrepid heroes killed cultists. This time, they killed already dead cultists. Lots of them.

We are playtesting D&D Next, and so far we’ve tried out pure in your head gaming and using a hand-drawn map. This time around, it was the turn of the battlemat. I wanted to see how ‘Next fares when compared to Fourth Edition D&D – does it offer the same tactical gameplay, and (more importantly) is it quicker to play?

We’re running one of the Caves of Chaos, and there will be spoilers. Just so you know.

As this was an online session (yay for the updated FAQ! Thank you, Wizards), the first order of business was to choose an app. I settled for Roll20, for several reasons; I’d not used it before and wanted an excuse to try it out, it (optionally) works in Google+ Hangouts, and it offered everything we needed for the session with no unnecessary bells and whistles.

We initially tried running the game directly from Roll20 itself with the built-in video & voice setup, but as that was unsuccessful (read: the voice & chat was awful) quickly switched to Google+. Hangouts have quickly become our online gaming tool of choice for the simple reason They Just Work. That said, we did have a few technical issues. A few of us (me included) kept losing connection, but at a least it was quick to rejoin. I’m not sure if that was an issue with Google+ or with using Roll20 as an addon inside it though.

It’s far to say we had mixed success with Roll20. From the GM side of things, setting the map up very simple, and it’s probably one of the best online RPG tools I have used when it comes to pre-game preparation. I could search the intertubes directly from the app for tokens, props and graphics, and I tagged each monster token with their Speed, Hit Points and AC to keep the screen-flipping to a minimum during the session.

The in-chat dice roller is particularly good, and even supports rolling Advantage too (thanks for finding that out, John) – /r 2d20d1+5 will roll d20+5 twice, and highlight the highest total. For Disadvantage, take the lowest instead. Nice.

What was a little frustrating (at least from this GM’s perspective) was that sometimes selecting a token didn’t work. I could click that damned token and nothing would happen. So I’d click again…. and again… and again. Maybe this was a bandwidth or connection problem, but either way it definitely made the game flowed less smoothly than it should have.

Enough of the mini-review. On to the game!

Our heroes follow the corridor North-East and spy a door in the East wall through which they can clearly make out the sound of clanking bones. Immediately (and correctly) expecting Undead, they get into position and Initiative is rolled.

The door begins to open and a rotted zombie hand appears, only to be immediately stabbed then severed by our Halfling Rogue. She pockets the hand as a trophy. Hey, you never know when a Zombie hand will come in useful, right?

One of our Fighters (we have seven players – three Fighters, two Clerics, an Elven Wizard and the Halfling Rogue) doesn’t believe in the indirect approach, and flings the door open only to come face-to-face with Ten Zombies.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that they are being naturally funnelled through a 10′ wide short corridor that leads into the room behind so only a limited number of them can attack at any one time.

On his turn, the doughty Cleric of Moradin casts Turn Undead, or as I prefer to call it “Disappoint Undead” as all it does is stop the poor zombies in their tracks, and only until they are next attacked – which invariably happens immediately on the next player’s go. Turn Undead seriously needs beefing up, imho.

The Guardian theme’s Defender feat had much use during this combat, and definitely saved the bacon of more than one PC in the game. Disadvantaged Zombies are not happy zombies!

I do have to hand it to the Dwarven Fighter for consistently bringing on the hurt. Awesome dice rolling skills (did she miss? ever? I don’t think so!) combined with her massive damage potential meant zombies fell where she walked.

“You know normally when you slice a creature in twain it’s from top to bottom? You just did in the other way around.”

“Well that’s the kind of gal I am!”

Our wizard provided excellent fire support from the back of the pack using Magic Missile to pick off the injured zombies (is there such a thing as an uninjured zombie?). I’m a bit disappointed we didn’t get chance to see Burning Hands making crispy fried zombies (they’re finger-linking good), but there will be other opportunities, other times.

The high point of the session has to be the Cleric of Pelor casting Radiant Lance against one zombie, which blasts a hole clean through its chest. Despite this impediment, the zombie is still moving and groaning in a way it just shouldn’t. The Rogue takes her 10′ pole and (with a successful DEX check) threads it right through the hole, and jams the end of the pole against the opposite wall. I gave the Rogue Disadvantage to the roll, but the other players Aided her to give Advantage, thus cancelling it out. Excellent teamwork, folks.

We have a Zombie pole dancer!

The combat presses on, but that poor skewered zombie just will not die, despite the party’s best attempts, until finally……

“The hit spins the zombie around and upside down. Its legs splay in the air as it’s hands grasp the pole. It slides down slowly, before ending in a heap on the floor at the end of the pole.”

Right. Moving on.

A loud bell begins clanging further up the corridor where another room is shrouded in unnatural darkness.

About three-quarters through the combat, I ask the players to make DC11 WIS rolls. Most of them make it.

“Now that the sound of combat is dying down, you realize that the bone-rattling noise you heard before opening the door is still present, and as loud as ever. It wasn’t the zombies making that noise…..”

One of the party heads further North into the room and spies the source of the noise – ten skeletons who are unnervingly immobile. The noise is cavern wind rattling through their bones.

As the final zombies are despatched, the Skeletons turn West, completely ignoring the party, and exit the room through a door in the North-West.

We end the session there.

Does D&D Next support battlemat play? Without a doubt. I found it more enjoyable than 4e because the freedom of action meant players were willing to improvise, and the lack (so far) of opportunity attacks gave PCs the freedom to move around the battlemat. I saw movement being used a lot more in this session (both before and after taking an action) than I have in many 4e sessions. It felt more like a battle with the monsters and PCs jockeying for position rather than (as all too often happen in 4e) the participants just standing there using Kewl Powers and only moving if forced to so do by a Power’s effect.

Personally, I would be quite happy for opportunity attacks to die a death and the rules advocate monsters and PCs using readied actions to  interrupt the regular flow of the game. This will keep the game running quickly, and that (I feel) should be a core aim of this edition of the game. Make opportunity attacks a module for those who want them, or whatever.

So, just how fast did it play?

This was quite a big battle with seven PCs & ten zombies, and it lasted the whole of the session, about 90 minutes (taking into account technical issues) in total. That included a lot of jokes and rules discussion. Each individual turn passed quickly, and even with 7 players it didn’t take long for each PC’s turn to come around again. I would estimate that a similar combat in 4e would take easily over two hours to run through, maybe more.

If this wasn’t a playtest where we were talking about the rules and just playing the game, the combat time would doubtless have been less. As it stood, combat neither felt rushed nor overly long and drawn out. When modules come out to explicitly support battlemat play, I’ll look forward to trying them out.

In the meantime, D&D Next plays just fine, however you play.

And that’s good to know.


Just what could the PCs do with a 10′ pole anyway?

Session #1: hold back a zombie horde.
Session #2: thwack a cultist
Session #3: zombie pole dancer

UPDATE: Here’s Playtest 4.

9 Comments on “Playtest 3: Pole-Dancing Zombies!”

  1. When I gave up on using Roll20 and just based the map off others webcams, I didn’t have any more technical issues, so i’d hazard that the app inside hangouts is the issue.

    This session was the first where we got to see the guardian themes power in play and its pretty cool. We also had some healing from the moradin cleric, since my pelor one is out of spell slots (and can still do stuff, thank you radiant lance).

    My wife was listening on this session, and liked the fact that you can move up, attack, and potentially still move away, and like you, I think this made the combat a bit more fluid.

  2. Grateful for the info about roll 20, since my group only gets together every other week I’ve been toying with the idea of running a game over G+ myself. Sounds like you had a lot of fun, I think when we next playtest we’ll be using a battlemap. As regards Opportunity attacks, whilst I agree the speed of the game is great, I don’t think taking a basic swing is a great time waster and it does make everyone think more tactically. Reading an action, just means missing out, especially if the trigger doesn’t go off. I realise the round comes around pretty quick, but there is little or no means to defend the soft underbelly of a PC group, maybe that will be shown to be better, but I think give the poor fighter some more defender shiny new feature even if you don’t make it a universal rule.

  3. My reading of Turn Undead does not make it underpowered. The effect only ends on the undead that are attacked. A party can easily pick off the zombies one at a time like that, and are guaranteed to get the first shot (or many shots) each time. Against zombies, it’s almost an instant win:
    – Cleric Turn Undead
    – Rest of the party deals with non-turned undead. (and with 2 clerics, that may not even be necessary)
    – Party surround undead #1
    – All but fighter ready actions to attack when the fighter attacks
    – entire party nukes zombie
    – move on to the next zombie

    In the narrow corridor, this might not have been key, but in a wide open room, this might be the only way to survive the encounter.

  4. Although my connection kept cutting out it was very quick to sign back in and didnt really slow me too much. Playing the mage I thoroughly enjoyed the session and would have loved to crisp up those pesky zombies with my burning hands but I didnt relish the idea of toasting my erstwhile allies in the process (mainly as they all have bigger muscles and sharper weapons than I do).

    As to the disadvantaged zombies, for just 3 copper pieces a month you can help to keep zombies off the street in our comfortably dismal dungeons where they cn learn a trade (pole dancing) before being released back into the villages to provide entertainment for tavern goers across the realm. Just send your donations to Zomb-aid.

  5. With the few play tests I have done online, we have been using openrpg. Its been around for a while and it has always worked for me with several other resources available for it (character tokens, maps, etc from fan sites). Maybe not quite as fancy looking, but it works and predates majority of online interface things like Roll20. When webrpg blundered, most everyone went to openrpg back in the day.

  6. The playtests on Wizards go into great depth discussing the crunch about how often the rogue got sneak attacks with advantage or not. symatt is my bro and and it made me laugh to see that after three sessions, he still doesn’t care about whether a rogue is a striker or a lurker or humpty-backed camel; he is playing a character not a playing piece. I’d guess he’s loving both a DM and a rule system that leans towards the ‘Yes, you can’ style rather than ‘No, you cant’.

  7. Quirky DM has a good point. Also, if you never attack the zombies and instead drive them into a locked room or something and seal them up, for instance, you can simply move on and destroy the source of magic that created the zombies in the first place. As a DM, I think I would rule if the PCs did this, moved on and destroyed the zombies’ creators or the thing that made them, they would automatically cause the zombies to cease to exist.

    I am really enjoying the speediness of battles in the play test as well, and I agree with you that opportunity attacks might as well go away. However, I think there does need to be some sort of drawback to leaving melee; I’m just not sure what. Perhaps disadvantage should simply be applied to that person’s next attack if he or she chooses to leave close combat? This is already what is in place if someone uses magic or a missile weapon while caught in melee, so extending it to apply to anyone who attempts to leave a melee situation might work.

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