Thursday, January 7, 2016

Reflections after year of Fifth Edition

A friend recommended that I write about what I think about D&D 5E, having now run it pretty consistently for a year now.  What I initially thought about the game still really stands, namely that it has this quality of feeling like the "mode" of Dungeons and Dragons.  Not the average, not the median, but the mode--the most common example in the sample set.  There are, I know for a fact, people who play D&D in some pretty innovative and creative and pretty gonzo ways out there that might skew a sense of "mean" or "median" when it comes to some hypothetical sample pool of what people play fantasy RPG's, but if we look for how likely the game is to be played by everyone, this is probably the ruleset for that play.

 To wit: elves, dwarfs, and humans; classes and spell slots; kobolds and copper pieces.

I do not feel like that is a criticism, that somehow the game is lessened by that quality, but merely that it is an observation.

In fact, the players in my group love this game.  They actually invested in buying copies of the Player's Handbook (more on that later).  They want me to keep running it, even if I am losing steam.  Why?  Because it feels like what they think D&D should feel like.

Now here is my problem with D&D5E.  It doesn't feel like what I think D&D should feel like.  It feels like what D&D should feel like to people who came in at Third Edition or Fourth Edition and who have read some earlier edition books and a few dozen OSR blogs think it should feel like.

For me, the issue is the question of player skill, and what player skill is.

I have always liked the author of the Hack & Slash blog's definition of player skill:
It's your ability to gather information by asking questions and make decisions to survive and succeed at encounters.
This definition of player skill awards attention, creativity, and roleplaying.  What this definition doesn't include is knowledge of the rules. Why is this important?  Because in the former, what makes a good player or a poor player is how invested they are when they sit at the table.  In the latter, it is what the player invests outside the game: reading the rulebook, combing RPG forums and websites, and generally spending time trying to figure out how to use the rules to be more successful at surviving or succeeding at encounters.

For games where player skill is knowledge of the rules, ultimately players who don't have that time to invest in plumbing the depths of class builds or massive equipment lists or power frameworks or whatever iteration of that particular style of RPG design are penalized for spending their outside-of-game time working jobs or raising kids or pursuing other hobbies or interests.

There's a moment when the guy who is the single dad raising two kids and working as a college professor and who plays in a Celtic instrumental group says to me "my PC feels really underpowered in comparison to everyone else" and he understands that in order to fix that he needs to spend more time reading his copy of the Player's Handbook so he can pick more effective spells and maybe switch which class career path that his PC is on and that's the moment that I stop liking the game.

And that moment happened while playing 5E.  And I get that my disposition in a matter of personal preference, and that some people like games where really drilling down into the rules is part of the fun.  But I'm not that guy, and maybe that moment was a poison pill for me, and maybe why I still look at other Fantasy RPG's like Fantasy AGE that have simpler mechanics.  Because I don't want to penalize people who don't know the rules, but are clever roleplayers who have a lot of what I consider to be player skill.

Comments welcome.


  1. I love this post.

    Seriously, I love everything about it. It takes my feelings on approaches to gaming in general, and articulates what I love, and what I don't in a clear and concise way.

    I want my players to read this. To get this. I think some of them do, but it doesn't hurt to have it spelled out to them.

    And you thought you'd have nothing to say. ๐Ÿ˜Š

    1. Well, you are the guy who suggested the topic...

  2. If the problem lays mostly in the character building, it can be as easy as having the players with more interest in the rules helping the others. We do this all the time. The rules experts get double the fun outside the game, while the others get the burden liftened from them. Of course, the goal is getting people to play exactly the character they want, not building more powerful combos.

    There is of course one unsolved problem with D&D (most evident in 4E): the class you like thematically may play, rules-wise, in a way you don't like at all.