Monday 13 November 2017

My continual failures of 5th ed

So I got a 5th ed players book at a good price after playing a few games and playing with the character making software. My motivations are that it is very hard to get any games going here and Ive run about 4 games in Adelaide this year and more games in Sydney when visiting for work compared to 3 games a week for several years in Sydney when I lived there. But things were growing tougher to replace lost gamers and I wasn't getting new players after 5th ed mania. Iv'e never got obsession of why latest computer games or RPG games are better or an improvement but I can see a bit more why computer games are technologically superior (I'm playing Fallout Vegas Now).

My interest in 5th ed is to at least play something instead of looking at my 2mx1.5m bookshelf of games gathering dust or just being for reading. I also had some financial motivation as ppl had asked me to write some 5th ed stuff possibly for money. I will also point out I got back into dnd about 6 years ago because ppl heard I used to play and wanted to give it a go. I chose BX dnd or rather I wrote my house rules based on BX from memory with a adnd 1.5 NWP system with some more recent abilities made into skills like OA book did.

My attraction to DnD was simplicity of the stat block and easy you could run from memory and ad libbing stats of opponents in play. I could make up new creatures with less than 30 words possibly just AC MOV HD ATT abilities.

I had been playing RQ since 80s and had stopped 2nd ed DnD after a quality decline in art, layout and writing in late second ed products and stuck to RQ3 and BRP and Cthulhu and TSR Marvel. Marvel was super simple fun and also low complexity. RQ because of hit locations has more record keeping. One of my GMs in RQ had a huge stack of loose paper notes of monsters and nps and monster stat forms filled out and spent lots of time prepping. My idea of prep is to make tables and doodle a map to help me improvise everything faster. I was running a mash up of historic RQ3 and Cthulhu for my vikings and Babylon games for several years and I used my piles of pregen characters in published products and a bit of faking in quick fights to avoid prep time and help record keeping. Anyway I got back into oldschool dnd for the easy adlibbing and mechanics and less reading and and record keeping. I like BX vs ADnD because it is simpler, smaller stat blocks and it takes race options out of character creation. I almost got into castles and crusades but at time it didn't have a skill system. I like LOTFP lots but I like STR dam bonuses and so do my kids and more skill choices. Cyclopedia DnD is my fave edition.

So I'm reading the 5th ed players book and finding wizards and sorcerers most easy to wrap my head around. I still don't really get fighter abilities or how to play them but will re read. Fighters used to be the dumbest easiest class I used to recommend to new players. (I dont get DCC either)  I find lots of situational things happen in combat I'm a bit puzzled by and wonder why some mechanics bothered to change but I can accept it I just don't get it yet. So a few more re reads and some more playing to understand. My interest in running 5th ed is low and after asking my peers about my current problem with the game my interest in being a 5th ed DM has almost dropped to zero. Actually it was reading Volos guide that made me hope for the product line and get a 5th ed PH.

So my biggest problem is this. As all classes now have quite complex abilities and the approach to character creation is now character building with a emphasis on maximising character growth through to high levels. Characters have lots of emergent properties of this complexity and situational abilities. Many abilities are unclear how they work from name unlike say spells or a BRP skill. So I thought gee it must be hard for a DM to keep track of all this for a DM. The Volo's Guide having some generic stat blocks was handy. So if the poor DM has to run a bunch of high level NPCs it must be hard to run all these abilities optimally. Players vs GM in most games have an edge running player abilities vs a DM brain managing lots of abilities but late dnd seems to be worse a case. So by my quick reading of rules I would have to know lots of these abilities to police rules on players and run the bad guy NPC character classes.

So I began asking ppl on forums and friends I know how do you manage NPC character class abilities in combat and get them right in late dnd vs how easy it was in early dnd.

Some ppl were quite hostile and said it was just aesthetic choice (despite most of them never having played older versions they know they don't like them?)  choice is not a choice if you have never tried the choice (but Im sure id rather be alive than dead). I don't really see this as an aesthetic choice. But I only studied philosophical aesthetics for 5 years so what would I know.

Some misunderstood and they said it was the players responsibility to keep track of their abilities not DM. In play using some of basic game design principles I corrected a experienced player attempting to stack lots of phantom HP and it turned out I was right and they couldn't do it. So I like that some 5th ed game philosophies on stacking abilities has some good general principles that let a novice like me correct a veteran 5th ed player (and it seemed a gross misuse of ability that would break game If I had it). One of my friends rules is if an ability is so good everyone would have it there is something wrong.

One woman told me she used the online character makers to plot out all the NPC abilities as part of her prep to get her head around them which made sense. The Volo's Guide generic stat blocks were handy. I guess this is what all the types of Man in the 1st ed MM were for too. Some of the online sources give capsule descriptions of abilities that inform you as you make the character which is more useful than reading a premade character ability in a book and having to search for it.

My buddy Andz said he runs three games a week of 5th ed. He happily uses house rules in his games in a cavalier manner but he said running it as often as he does helps but he also uses spread sheets to manage these abilities for NPCs.

Someone else said he notes on cards npc with notes on abilities and tactics.

The most common response was that DMs just don't bother with NPC fantastic abilities or they just fudge them and let them do anything on the fly. Many argued only PC heroes have all these abilities because they are special heroes and NPCs just don't. I call this the loosey goosey method. Is this in a book? More than 80% of people I asked responded with a version of this. To me this is a symptom of a broken game. If it is explicit heroes are special and only they get abilities fine but I don't think that is a feature of the game.

This is actually a radical shift in DnD culture, greater than most of the petty rule changes. The idea that players are mechanically special and more equal than NPCs they face and deserve to be treated differently does not thrill me. The superheroism of the game has gone from something you struggle to achieve from a position of weakness and luck to survive to the characters are special day one. The attitude to death in newer gaming is probably related.

As a player the whole point of character classes is they are simple shortcuts to archetypes and abilities. You know what a character can do. You know what an enemy can do. This helps me fight enemies by going kill that guy first because he has X ability. Having a DM just do as they please with NPCs round by round takes away this one advantage of the character class system.

Too many character classes also has this problem. More classes more strange abilities. More splat books with untested content helped break 3rd and 4th. Some complained about 2nd ed kits but they did not have game breaking mechanic (mostly) and were simple to implement than whole specialist classes. Too many classes to me takes away the advantage of the class system. It makes the build a class from scratch in late 2nd ed and dragon systems seem more appealing. Too many classes makes me think RQ is easier because anyone can do anything only culture and roleplaying cause problems not rules. So I am concerned with more splatbooks and classes and abilities being added to the cannon. I like character classes simple archetypes with perhaps skill choices to customise a bit. Hopefully I get 5th ed before 6th ed takes over.

I guess higher level DnD has always had a complexity problem. After tenth level the game increasingly bogs down in rule checks, rolling and adding more dice, more xp calculus, more treasure accountancy, managing party territories which cuts into adventure time increasingly.

I guess RQ has its problems too with complex NPCs, It took years to get our heads around sorcery (scientist min max gamer in group got it and taught us).  Some of the later products in the ten years of RQ3 had NPCs do far more creative things with sorcery that was a inspiration. RQ3 Monster Coliseum is rated by some as worst RPG product ever but it does not deserve it. It offers rules for chariots, a solo or one on one game mode for play. But best of all the monster stat book was probably my most handled book in 3rd ed. The viking Box set had a whole book of pre gen stat block record sheets which were invaluable.

DnD monster stat blocks have gone from a sentence to a page and often are not so helpful. My memories of BX and Adnd monsters is pretty accurate. I couldn't remember everything on 2nd or later eds. 2nd ed felt like they were writing to fill space in the monster folders and the detail given took away the DM chance to make own cultural decisions. With more complex stackable abilities designers started giving bugbears 80+ HP and they had to have special abilities and martial maneuvers too. Occasional monster being a martial artist is fun. Every bugbear being Bruce Lee not so special. More HP and stackable damaging abilities means more maths and dice rolls and slower game also. I tried using a 3-6 d6 difficulty system for skill and stat checks instead of d20 recently and my head exploded from watching ppl slowly add d6 results.

I am increasingly sympathetic of ppl who have given up on DnD. I think my test for a system would be can kids get most of it in one session and can intro rules fit in 30 pages but ok to have more options for long term campaigns.  Probably 1st to 7th is my sweet spot for dnd levels. New players walking into a game at 14th lv that everyone worked to get that high is a bit hard.

Possibly Im just showing my age wanting fairness and equality for NPCs and laziness for wanting minimal prep and reading rules to run a encounter. Also complexity of splatbooks and new eds seems more profit driven than about good game design.

A further note. I like pathfinder but the art puts me off. It is good art but not how I imagine my world. The DnD look doesn't quite do it to me in 5th ed. I think the layouts are among the best but the art look isn't really me. I kinda like the historic and gritty arms and armour pseudo realism of 70s and 80s books. I kinda hate most fantasy computer games with too many crystals and new age looking stuff which the mid 80s TSR artists pioneered. Anyone looking more newage than Elmore or Caldwell is too much. If I could make BX in my image I would Illustrate it with Don Laurence and Angus Mc Bride and Osprey book art. Possibly with more gore and filth.

Qualifiers and G+ Discussion Thoughts after posting this:The JEZ called me out on claim 5th ed better layout
I only mean better than 2nd ed-4th ed
2nd ed disliked most art and hated borders and spot art
lots of 3rd and 4th i could barley read
Ive said before I find things in B&W textbook layouts by being familiar with shapes of blank space

DnD5 and CoC7 have done better job of full colour faux old bool looks than most of last ten years but I still prefer B&W textbook style over coffee table glam

I Like Eclipse Phaze layouts but I thin Zac hates it so go figure

If I had money I would pay for look and learn magazine clip art which I grew up on plus pay some of the insan old illustrators I know who are out of work

this article interesting as it is a fix for amalgamating old and new play modes

a whole book on resourcist mod rules for dungeon horror would be good for 5th ed - this post nails it on the head - BX is a resource based horror game not heroic or epic is a good take. - On the Megadungeon and 5th Edition Play

If I have to play complex game I will stick to my BRP/RQ3 Hybrid (I ditch strike ranks) - Complexity for me is good for horror and near misses. I still remember I had a table next to a 4th ed one and my game played through 40 rooms in 4 hours vs 4 rooms for the 4th ed table.


  1. "This is actually a radical shift in DnD culture, greater than most of the petty rule changes. The idea that players are mechanically special and more equal than NPCs they face and deserve to be treated differently does not thrill me. The superheroism of the game has gone from something you struggle to achieve from a position of weakness and luck to survive to the characters are special day one. The attitude to death in newer gaming is probably related."

    You nailed it. I think this really is a cultural shift - when D&D came out, Conan was the archetypical adventurer, Legolas didn't surf down stairs on a shield, and people equated "high fantasy" with muppets.

    I think players nowadays WANT to be superheroes. They don't want realism - they want epic victory.

    IMO, it's not better or worse, just a shift. But there's definitely a divide between OSR palyers and "modern" gamers.

    1. Yes - i noticed one of the new 1st person shooters has options to turn character into a cap america or thor like character in combat with special abilities to be like them

      A friend in his dnd campaign gives players a mod for which marvel superhero they want to emulate???? ugh

      i love superhero genre but i like my fantasy mythic or grungy not high heroism with no pain

  2. If it helps, I agree with on most everything you are saying. My biggest problem with all the fiddliness is that, even if you can stay on top of all the powers, combats take so much longer. It completely distorts the pacing of the game.

    D&D should be a game about exploration. With quick combat, the focus remains on the exploration. When combat stretches too long, the exploration becomes a small thing between fights.

  3. interestingly the modern game is more combat oriented than the old version. Old dnd with less time in combat had more time for roleplaying and no mechanics or character gen stuff forcing you to roleplay - you just did it your self if you wanted. 5th ed could present choices in a different way but they stretch out character gen to drag out rpg choices when mechanically could be presented differently)probably would encourage min maxing more). Im not gonna buy the OSR more combat oriented any more

  4. You tried to be as fair-minded as possible, which makes your analysis all the more pointed.

    On all of your points: bingo.

  5. Being rather an old-schooler myself and not fond of
    A) Min/Max Characters
    B) 3-4 separate rolls or stat adds just to engage in a basic combat maneuver
    C) Super glossy, animae-influenced photoshop artwork where every character is "edgy" and yet pretty to a fault
    D) Having every single thing a character does correlate to some damn chart, table or rules sub sect...

    Well, D&D5E just doesn't do a ton for me.
    That said, I playtested the beta for 5E when it was being called D&DNEXT and actually had a good time of it. Combat moved by pretty quickly, and the character generation wasn't as excruciating as Mathfinder, or 4th Ed.
    What happened between that version and what hit the shelves is kind of a mystery to me. Either the beta was WAY dumbed down, or they tagged a metric arseload of stuff in before it went to press.
    For me, it doesn't get better than DCC for speed of play, and keeping character growth somewhat free of the huge escalation curve that D&D has been plagued with in various incarnations. If you are having a bit of a hard time with figuring out DCC in practice; may I suggest the SPELLBURN podcast as an excellent place to chill out and listen to some helpful stuff to ease the crunch into bite-sized pieces. Given your incredible imagination, I'd jump at the chance to play in a game that you were running online. Maybe someday. Best-

  6. Cheers

    Ive had DCC for years but I dont quite get it though I love art and lots of stuff. Slowness of MCC and disappointment of PDF kinda killed my interest in it.

  7. For the sake of a counterpoint:

    Having run 5e for some time now (in addition to older systems like AD&D and Basic back in the day), there's a bit more to it than that. The argument from game design is a lot more convincing than the special snowflake hero argument, but a lot of 5e's younger fanbase honestly isn't experienced enough at DMing to competently put it forth and defend it.

    One idea that went into the game design is that PCs and monsters (including NPCs) occupy different game roles. PCs are meant to be used repeatedly and are going to be on-camera for basically the whole adventure. Most non-allied NPCs are only going to be present in supporting roles for one (maybe two) encounters. NPC stat blocks are streamlined to have fewer complicated abilities and be easier to use in small encounters without the DM having to closely study five three-page character sheets. The way you are supposed to use those rules is to use PC sheets where that makes sense (long-term allies, henchmen, *maybe* the occasional villain, etc), and NPC blocks where it doesn't (mostly for throwaway enemies, but also sometimes major BBEG types).

    Those NPC blocks also have the advantage of being somewhat sturdier than a normal PC. 5e has a design asymmetry between high-hp low-damage monsters and high-damage, low-hp players. The NPC statblocks fit this paradigm a lot better than actual NPC classes. You basically trade out the NPC's complicated long-term abilities for a boost in stats that makes a fight run more smoothly.

    The system isn't perfect (for one thing, NPC caster stats follow the normal rules for wizards or clerics, whereas I think the warlock model would probably be easier to run), but in the context of an actual game it's a decent subsystem. If you're going to have PCs with that many abilities, it's kind of a necessary tweak to keep the DM from going nuts.

    1. i think your just saying the same thing and trying to make sound deliberate and a good thing that is deliberate. I dont know rules well enough yet but nobody has said this is deliberate and in rules, it is just how some ppl run it because it is to hard while other do run it as per old editions. Id rather characters be on equal footing to peers than the stars who the universe revolves around. The trend towards superheroism has been increasing and his is evidence of broken game design and making flaws of level games worse.

      Fighting the slavelords is one of the great dnd battles. Now it would be meh if bad guys were not using abilities fairly.

    2. Yes and no. I am saying it's deliberate, yes, but I'm definitely not saying the same thing you are. Where we differ is your assumption that the PCs are designed to be overall stronger or more heroic.

      Like yes, generally the NPC blocks ldo ose a bunch of minor or long-term abilities that either need careful tracking or are not likely to come up; but IN EXCHANGE, the NPC blocks usually get a bunch of boosts to their basic stats that PCs don't (number of attacks, damage, AC, hp, etc). It's not that an NPC is supposed to be weaker or less heroic than a PC. NPC stat blocks TRADE those more complex special abilities for additional damage and defense that's easier for the DM to run. If you check, they actually tend to be a little bit *stronger* than an equivalently-leveled PC in terms of raw stats, damage, hp, or some combo of the three.

      I don't that's a sign of *broken* or *objectively worse* design; it's just a useful tradeoff that helps you run enemies in a system with more complicated mechanics for players. Both symmetric and asymmetric mechanics are reasonable game design choices for an RPG, they're just made with different end goals in mind.

      (Love your blog, btw - been following it for ages)

    3. One of my problems is the inconsistency that it is applied by DMs - are there guidelines in the books? So many different approaches and nobody has pointed to specific advice in books on this thus I think It is a problem. If ppl just said oh yes it is deliberate see pg x i wouldn't have made this post.

    4. The DMG says you can stat NPCs as PCs, or as monsters. Statting as PCs is doable, especially at lower level and for elite types. More doable than 3e/PF anyway.

      But the default is definitely to stat them as monsters, no published 5e material gives any PC-statted NPCs.

      Unlike 4e Standard creatures, a 5e NPC is not necessarily inferior to a PC; they may well be superior 1-1 to likely PC opponents.

    5. thats the first reference to this in a book so far anyone has made so well done. Id never hear of this till very recently at all and in most games i run npcs like pcs. In BRP monsters all have same stats and abilities as players and stats mostly like players that also lets you run monsters as pcs.

      At this stage the closer ive looked at 5th ed the less i like it or find it like older versions than claimed. My main interest in it is that it is popular and im more likely to play it than probably almost any system - choices limited where I am.

    6. I always regarded npc character classes to be among most interesting enemies. The point of character classes to me is to simplify what abilities characters have now it seems this doesn't really work which i find a bit sad to have a class system with none of the benefits and most of the problems


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