Monday, July 18, 2016

A Little 5e Under My Belt


Not quite two months ago I finished my first 5e campaign. We met kinda-sorta twice a month, each session lasted about four hours, and it ran for, I think, 14 months. So ballpark it at about 112 hours of gaming. The highest PC level attained was 10th.

I’d call it a successful campaign; the only player dropping out is moving out-of-state; everyone else wants more. And I learned a lot about how 5e works.

EXP

This is the biggy: EXP-for-kills turns the PCs into bloodthirsty savages. They don’t look for the easiest or quickest route around a problem, they look for the solution that creates the largest pile of corpses. Solo monsters (your traditional dragon atop a mountain) are nigh irresistible, especially if the players have time to prep and plan in advance. The players threw their PCs at the same problem twice with a head-long frontal assault (granted, the first time they did attempt some subterfuge), failed both times, but came out smelling like roses due to the body count and EXPs collected. EXP-for-kills is the first thing I’ve dropped from the new campaign.

Action Economy

This is the principle reason I stick with 5e. The action economy takes a bit of work to wrap your head around, but once you grasp the concept of bonus actions (and that everyone only gets one), it’s a lovely, elegant little trick to allow neat extras, but not give a single player a dozen actions in a single turn. It also gives all the players an easily understood resource to manage in the middle of combat that is not immediately dissociative. Do you use your bonus action to fight with a second weapon? Use a special ability? Wait for an attack of opportunity? It’s usually an easy choice to make, but it’s also one that has a different answer in different parts of a single fight, and very different answers for different character classes.

Backgrounds

I love these in concept. In play, they can create lots of neat opportunities for RP; almost all give you a neat out-of-combat/RP “power” that can help drive a campaign forward and give players interesting spot-light opportunities. However, it’s easy to forget about them. Normally, I’d just rely on my players bringing them up, only…

Complexity

… 5e is just on the bad side of the complexity line.

Yes, I know; it’s not nearly as complex at 3.x, the latest edition of Shadowrun, 4e D&D, any version of Fading Stars and Vampire, or just about any mainstream RPG you care to name that’s been released in the last 20 years. So how simple do I need it?

Apparently, simpler than this.

My players are not dumb. They’re not even mentally slow. The youngest was in her late 20s, most had college degrees and even those who didn’t had at least a few years of college under their belt. These were, almost without exception, white-collar professionals or successful entrepreneurs. One dropped out of the game briefly to teach opera in Paris. There wasn’t a dim bulb in this bunch.

And yet, even in the final session, I was holding hands, reminding people of their powers and abilities, describing how simple mechanics worked. And I’ll be shocked if half of them understood the action economy.

Those who were interested in the mechanics picked it up pretty quickly. They understood their powers, how they could leverage their background, what it meant to use a bonus action. The others were eager to dive in and try things, but they didn’t understand how to make their wishes work within the system and often forgot opportunities their race, class and background created for them.

A good part of this I blame on not playing every week. I think a weekly schedule would have kept things fresh in everyone’s mind, and there would have been less remedial education from session to session. But playing weekly isn’t an option when people have lives and money. And that means we need a simpler game, with easily grasped mechanics. 5e is almost, but not quite, that game.

Magic

As I’ve said before, it doesn’t feel very magical. The spell-slot system works, but it feels more like loading bullets in a gun, or apps on your phone. The spells themselves don’t really help, being fairly straightforward in their applications. The most mystical character of our bunch was probably the min-maxer’s druid who freaked the more arachnophobic players out by turning into a giant spider and webbing spell-slingers in the face.

When I abandon 5e, it’ll probably be because the magic is just too dishwater-dull.

Combat

It works, but even with the elegant action economy, it’s not interesting enough to hang a game on. 4e’s probably was, but 5e’s only got a bit of 4e in the shape of its fenders. If you want a fun, successful campaign, you’ll need to bring a lot more to the table than just some bog-standard fights. And 5e isn’t going to help you much in achieving that by itself.

Classes

Meh. I’m not a huge fan of balance; I’m fine with some classes being less interesting, but also less complicated than others. But I do prefer it when the players know ahead of time what they’re getting into.

There’s definitely a simplicity gap between spell-slingers and everyone else. There might be a fun gap there as well, though that’s largely going to depend on temperament. The thief is a good class for someone who wants to really dive in and try all sorts of lateral thinking and wacky hijinks, but if you want to play it as straight DPS you’re better off with a spell-slinger, and certain flavors of monk are far better at the sneaky thing. The bard is struggling to find its niche in a system where three other classes also have Charisma as their most important stat, where the high-Intelligence wizard is blowing away the History and Arcana checks, and the high-Wisdom cleric is the party’s face due to her excellent Insight (and, in our group, nearly as good Persuasion) rolls.

Rangers are a hot mess. They’re kinda-sorta DPS, but they’re not as good at it as other classes and kinda squishy. Their abilities are cool and useful when they’re in their favored terrain, but otherwise… meh. Their combat powers are just weird, and clearly work best if you’re using a battle-grid and minis. The one player who took ranger did ok with the character, but they were dissatisfied and have opted for a sorcerer in the new campaign.

A shape-shifting druid is hard to take down and extremely flexible, in and out of fights. Wizards remain the big guns, but more than ever it’s clerics that win combats, principally by keeping the rest of the party on its feet and buffing their attacks. Clerics are a potent force-multiplier in this game.

Every class has a magical option. People are going to be whipping out magical abilities left-and-right in your 5e games. However, they’re likely to be reaching into the same bag of tricks, time and again. The result is something that feels a lot like an ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon, where everyone has their flashy, signature shtick and occasionally gets to do something really clever with it. The result is something that looks more like He-man and less like Jackson’s LotR. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is going to depend on your tastes.

TL;DR

All in all, I’m fairly happy with 5e. The mechanical changes are largely positive, streamlining the game and keeping the rules out of the way of the fun. There’s a lot less you-can’t-do-that-by-the-rules and a lot more sure-roll-a-d20-and-we’ll-see-if-you-succeed.

Backgrounds can bring a lot to the table, but only if people remember that they exist. The races are decent, but not terribly exciting. The classes are a mixed bag and will result in a magic-heavy game if only because nearly every member of the party is going to be slinging a few spells or spell-like abilities.

The game benefits from some light rules-tweaking. The rules-as-written EXP-for-kills definitely encourages the players to embrace their inner homicidal maniac, but is easily replaced. It’s fairly simple to create new backgrounds and races customized to your campaign. Creating your own classes, however, will require some serious research and effort.

The game is fun, my players are eager to continue in a new campaign, and 5e is fairly easy to run. This gives it a big thumbs-up in my book.

10 comments:

Robert Fisher said...

As someone who is curious about how 5e plays but not enough to go out of my way to play it, I appreciate really this post.

"My players are not dumb."

Yeah. I hit on a realization back when I was playing Gurps and Rolemaster: Half the group liked mechanics and really got into them. The other half's eyes glazed over when we got to the crunchy stuff. Not that they couldn’t understand it; they simply didn’t want to. They didn’t complain. Maybe they didn’t even really realize it. But half the group was clearly missing half the fun.

And, I also noticed that the half of us that liked the crunch were equally engaged during the non-crunchy moments. I found that when we minimized the crunch, the crunch-fans were just as happy, and the other half were more engaged.

Fast forward to today when--even though we play weekly "on paper"--in practice we manage to get a quorum together much less than that. Even a member of the crunch party like myself has a hard time keeping up with the crunch.

I don’t know if all that is true for all groups, but--for myself--I now aim for the lowest crunch I can when I get to pick the system, and I think my gaming has been better for it.

Dennis Laffey said...

"Every class has a magical option. People are going to be whipping out magical abilities left-and-right in your 5e games. However, they’re likely to be reaching into the same bag of tricks, time and again. The result is something that feels a lot like an ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon, where everyone has their flashy, signature shtick and occasionally gets to do something really clever with it. The result is something that looks more like He-man and less like Jackson’s LotR. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is going to depend on your tastes."

That sums up the feel of 5E pretty well. It's Saturday Morning Cartoon D&D rather than pulp fantasy fiction D&D (old school) or CRPG/MMORPG video games D&D (3~4E).

I'm liking it as a player, but I'm not planning to try DMing it any time soon. Maybe once I get my dissertation out of the way and Chanbara published, I'll think about it.

trollsmyth said...

Robert Fisher: Yep. That, I believe, is one of the major weaknesses of the Cypher System. Sure, it really frees up the DM to concentrate on setting and story, but it puts so much mechanical in the hands of the players that those not interesed in the rules will likely be turned off.

5e is much simpler than any other version of D&D in the WotC era, and it's certainly more intelligible than 1e. But it's still a smidge too complex for completely casual play.

Dennis Laffey: Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I want to do a Saturday Morning Cartoon thing with this, even more than I did with Numenera, which absolutely has a He-man feel to it. I'm wondering if there's something in the water in Seattle, or just that's the direction taste and the zeitgeist have been drifting.

Avash Islam said...

This isn't properly communicated in any of the core books but it is in the Adventurer's League module: 5e exp isn't for kills but for encounters. Your players get the exp for resolving or beating the encounter anyway you see fit (talking, sneaking, etc). Technically traps, roleplaying, and exploration are encounters and count for exp, as they do in the AL modules, but there's no way for calculating it. It also makes wandering monsters a huge exp farm, since just sneaking past them counts as "resolving" the encounter. I think Mearls has even said he doesn't use the 5e exp system and just uses milestone progression.

Avash Islam said...

Critical Role is hugely popular 5e show and that has a very Saturday Morning Cartoon by way of Joss Whedon feel to it. I feel like this is pretty much the way the mainstream plays now.

Dennis Laffey said...

You've got me wanting to run some sort of 5E mashup of the D&D cartoon, He Man, Thundarr the Barbarian, and Captain N the Game Master!

Dennis Laffey said...

You've got me wanting to run some sort of 5E mashup of the D&D cartoon, He Man, Thundarr the Barbarian, and Captain N the Game Master!

trollsmyth said...

Avash Islam: yeah, technically, a case can be made that, even should the PCs kill everything but still fail to achieve victory in "the encounter," they should still get zero EXP.

Only "encounter" is a vague term and that feels stingy. I've also heard that Mearls just gives EXP when it feels right to him, and I can absolutely understand why he does that.

Dennis Laffey: me too! Though the new campaign's a bit more Korgoth than Thundarr.

TeamRocket Grunt said...

I rather like 5e. I still don't like just how powerful the classes are, but they aren't the "superheros of fantasy" that Pathfinder makes them out to be.

My favorite thing about 5e has to be that its a modern RPG I can stomach thus giving me something to play with others lol

trollsmyth said...

TeamRocket Grunt: Heh, yeah, can totally see that. I'll admit that I'm hyper-sensitive to this sort of thing; if you have a ranger class, I want to run them like Strider/Aragorn or Robin Hood, not the magician-with-a-bow thing that they've become.