Thursday, 29 June 2017

Thoughts on 5th Edition, or: Yes, I Know This Thing Came Out in 2014

Just some scattered musings this time around.

I've more or less decided to use 5e in running my new game, because I've been curious about how it plays - especially in relation to the more "old-school" style of campaign that its designers supposedly had at least partly in mind. Starting up with a brand new set of players, at least a few of which are new to the game, seems as good an opportunity to try it out as any. I haven't even really looked at it up to this point, so some quick preliminary thoughts in relation to the kind of game I want to run (which is heavily influenced by my experiences with running a firmly old-school style game with Labyrinth Lord):

  • I hate character creation/the approach to characters in general. I honestly almost gave up before I got through the section. 5th edition characters are basically just 3rd edition characters with all their fiddly powers and random bonuses, and then a bunch of extra layers of stuff thrown on for good measure, and by "good measure" I mean "no good reason." I mean, okay, things like backgrounds are probably okay, especially for newer players, but I hate hate HATE that every class has to choose one of two "paths" (or "bardic colleges" or "druid circles" or whatever). That mechanic bakes so much setting stuff into your game by default: what if I want my world to be one without bardic colleges, or where druids are lone weirdos like Radagast who don't organize into circles? I have similar, though not quite as vehement, reservations about formally accounting for different "sub-races": again, what if I don't want a world where there's a division between high elves and wood elves, and even if I do, do they really need to be formally and mechanically accounted for?  ALSO I hate dragonborn, and I don't like the idea of tieflings as a player character race outside of the Planescape setting (which, as a friend pointed out, is technically every D&D setting, but you know what I mean). Now, I know most of this is a matter of just dropping those aspects out, but I don't like the presumption on the part of the system; D&D has never quite been a "generic fantasy game," but it always seemed to strike a vague middle ground which it edges annoyingly away from here.
  • All that said, I want to see how the game plays out of the box, so I'm not going to be dropping any of that stuff. Maybe I'll change my mind when I see how it works in practice, or players will really like it, or whatever. A consequence of that, though, is that I can't really set my game in the specifically Tolkienesque Norse milieu that I was planning on: there's no room for dragonborn, Bardic colleges, etc. etc. in that sort of setting. So I've opted to take the megadungeon idea I had and move it into Judges Guild Wilderlands, the approach of which (in its original form, anyway) is both vague and kitchen sink enough that all the assumed setting stuff of 5th edition fits right in (but more about how I'm approaching the Wilderlands in another post).
  • Wilderlands is a hex crawl setting, and as such it gives a decent built-in framework for wilderness exploration. And I might need it too, because I'm not convinced 5e is going to be able to do dungeons very well - certainly not megadungeons (some of the issues with this are explored here), but maybe not even just regular dungeons. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it's not going to be able to do an old-school approach to dungeons very well, which as I understand it is where dungeons are something you go into because they're there and you want the XP and treasure contained within: "story" develops out of your adventures and exploration, it's not the reason you go into a dungeon. This approach doesn't really seem to work in 5e because there's no real mechanical incentive to go into a dungeon, specifically, to do this: all your XP comes from encounters, and you also level quite quickly, so it makes more sense to just wander around the wilderness triggering random encounters. You don't really need either the treasure of a dungeon or the relative "encounter density" that made dungeon-crawling attractive from a purely mechanical standpoint in earlier editions. Now, I recognize that there hasn't been a really explicitly mechanical incentive to dungeon-crawl since the game stopped giving XP for treasure, but I feel like 5th ed more or less formally adopts the approach that dungeons should be story-based, i.e. that there needs to be some reasons that the characters, not just the players, want to go into the dungeon. I don't know, maybe this isn't as much of a problem as I think it is.
  • 5th edition is, pretty explicitly, a game of epic heroic fantasy. The quick advancement rate and the pretty much superhuman healing rate work to make this a game of cinematic high fantasy; I read somewhere that if earlier D&D had roots in Tolkien, then 5th edition represents the Peter Jackson version, and that seems like a pretty good description. This isn't a complaint I have about the rules, per se; D&D hasn't exactly been a game of gritty sword and sorcery since 2nd Edition (and arguably since 1st), but it does require me to shift the headspace I've been in when designing adventures and running the game using Labyrinth Lord.
  • I love the main resolution and combat mechanics. Love them. We'll see how things work in play, but on paper at least this seems to me to be the best version of the game as far as this aspect of things goes.

That's all for now. Join me next time when I'll probably have changed my mind about what I'm running again.

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