Monday, June 6, 2016

5e D&D - A late review

A very somber, almost pensive Tiamat looking yonder at something curious
Basically my surprised reaction with 5e D&D

It's been basically 2 years now since 5th arrived, and until now I have mostly not even touched this thing. Why?

Well, mostly I'm not easily catched in the 'hype train'. I tend to analyse things at a distance and wait to see how the situation develops. And that was basically my first course of actions towards the new edition. Yesm I've glanced here and there at the books, but never digged deep into it. On the surface, it seemed to me a 3rd edition with "make up". I disliked how creatures had a lot of HP on low levels, how classes had a billion powers and overall disinterest.

And then, after 2 years, I looked again at the beast, grabbed it and decided to read it through. And my oh my, those first impressions of mine changed completely. I've not been that surprised since I read some OSR games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and White hack.

So, what did I like about 5th edition? What is my review of this always changing system? I will tell it on topics:

1) Variety and Simplicity

This is the main point of 5th edition for me. It was able to balance Variety (a trace from the New School of 3rd and 4th edition) with Simplicity (a trace from Old School, 1st and 2nd edition).

Variety means that every class has not only its role, but also different paths and ways to it. You can specialize your fighter, rogue or mage. You can be different. You can try different things. Meanwhile, Simplicity means that things are not complicated. Every class still progresses in a similar and predictable manner. Also, numbers are easy to add, rolls are low, hit points are easy to track. When in doubt, a simple attribute check solve any problem.

Those two things were always separated in D&D. You either have variety with dozens of skill points, feats, prestige classes, combat options, combat specialties and attack actions; or you have no skills, simple class progression, a few class kits and simple attack rols

5th Edition is, to me, the first D&D that is able to deal with both of these extremes in a very elegant way. Classes have sub-classes - specific paths they choose when level up. Nevertheless, they still have a logical and simple progression.

2) Proficiency

How to end those ludicrous rules that mages cannot use armor or fight with swords? How to deal with the unberably boring skill points distribution? Well, that is what proficiency tries to remake, doing a wonderful job at that.

It is a very simple idea: each class is proficient with some things, like skills, weapons, armors and tools. When you do something that you are proficient with, you add your proficiency bonus (that is based on your level, +2 at first lvl and +6 at higher lvls). With other stuff, if you are not proficient, you may received disadvantage. If you are not proficient with a specific kind of armor, you have disadvantage in some tests and may not cast magic while using it.

This makes sense. There are rules surrounding all parts of the game dealing with proficiency, and these rules make sense. It does not feel like an arbitrary decision. Although mages cannot use armor (unless they multiclass), they now can use swords or things like that, noting only that they will not add proficiency for their rolls.

Proficiency is a great idea and an evolution from the 4th edition 'trainned' skills, however going above and beyond its predecessor. It is very direct and to the point, casting away all that distribution of skill points from 3rd edition and making all very neatly packed.

3) Background, Advantage and Inspiration

Fifth edition is the first D&D edition that implements characterization and narrativistic rules into the game. Although a little weak and needing an overhaul, it is still a great step forward in my opinion. Every character has to decide its background, with its personality, ideals and flaws. When they act accordingly to their nature and demeanour, they receive Inspiration, a very simple pool of narrative resource. You can spend 1 inspiration to gain advantage in a roll.

And this brings us to Advantage/Disadvantage, another great addition to D&D. Basically, remember all those modifiers? Attacking from behind, flanking, side-stepped, lying down, kneeling, blinded and all that stuff? All is summarized in Advantage and Disadvantage. When you have advantage, roll 2d20 and keep the best roll, with disadvantage being the opposite (keeping the worst one). Yes, this makes the game 'less realistic' or 'tactical', but when engaged in combat and roleplaying, all you need is to know if you have bonus or penalty - and that is what Advt and Disadv do. You can still use the old modifiers, the DM book has ideas for it, but I find this addition wonderful and simple.

4) A sensible progression

When D&D went to 3rd edition, progression became something insane. Feats and prestige classes add up to a colossus cluster of rules, hit points and statistics that made the game borderline unplayable (imo). 4th edition was even worse, with its multitude of powers and rules for movement. That is one thing I always liked in early editions of D&D, specially the old ones where 10th level was basically the highest tier you could go: numbers were low and stakes were high. Progression made sense.

And 5th edition brought sensible back. With the Proficiency Bonus, progression is slowed down, and numbers stay low. With that, not only math becomes faster, but also every number matters. A +1 to attack is worthy much more now than in 3rd or 4th edition. Even though numbers have been reduced, their importance grew.

And this applies not only to high levels, but also to lower ones! Now, it's easy for first level characters to have +4 to attack at first level. When you couple that with values of AC that do not change much throughout the game, you will have a much more interesting combat where characters will hit something! Many a time I've seen my players roll with their +0 or +1 attacks, never being able to hit simple AC 14 monsters.

This sensible progression is truly well done, working on all levels.

5) Comprehensible saving throws, rolls and checks

With a newer and more sensible progression, together with the usage of Advantage/Disadvantage and and Proficiency, the game become a very tightily knit package. In general, you just need to roll 1d20 + relevant attribute + proficiency if your character is proficient with the thing you are using. Simple and direct.

What is even more interesting, at least for old schoolers like myself, the idea of having saving throws for all attributes is surprising to say the least. In old times, saving throws were defined by your class - then, it became the Fortitude/Reflex/Will. And now, all attributes may be used in saving throws.

The idea is very good, although it makes the point of the new rules that I disliked the most. The line between an intelligence, wisdom and charisma saving throw is often blurred. Not only that, but when you add the perception passive rolls and the madness and horror option, things get cofusing. And one things that I disliked was the attribute checks. I don't think they are needed and can easily be substituted by saving throws (and that is what I do in my games).

Nevertheless, the whole array of rolls and checks were simplified and made mor comprehensible. Even though somewhat iffy in regards to intelligence, wisdom and charisma saving throws, the idea is very good and a good GM can make they work wonderfully.

6) All the other little things

. Arsenal. Armor is simplified. Light armor receives full Dexterity bonus, medium armor just +2, and heavy armor no bonus. Also, the weapon tags are very interesting, like finesse and versatile. Also, I like that the d10 is the damage of a versatile weapon carried with 2 hands, and the d12 is the damage of a weapon that can only be used with two hands.

. Tools. Simply fantastic. Having group of very specialized tools to need proficiency with them is genious. Not only that, but it is also very practical when characters want to buy a specific kit, like thieves tools for example.

. The simplification of combat rules. No more stuff about flanking and detailed movement. Grappling is now way more intuitive. The death save roll is a new interesting idea (although I'm not sure if I like it). Overall, combat is simpler, faster and more fun to play. Specially if you add the average damage option. I love it and use it for both monsters and characters. It makes combat much faster, allows players to focus in narrating their attacks and makes so that all you need to play the game is a single d20.

. The short and long rest options, allowing characters to recuperate in the middle of a dungeon.

. The overhaul and balance of spellcasters with their cantrips, dealing more damage and being usefull since the beginning, and at the same time being ballanced to have less power in higher levels (now they can only cast less spells from high circles, like only one level of 9th circle). Besides that, the greater versatility of spell slots make using magic much more fun and also less taxing to keep track.

Final Thoughs

D&D 5e is one of the best D&Ds. For me, it might be as good as Old School D&D. I loved the changes. I loved proficiency, the advantage rules, the background chapter, the simple progression and all those things I talked in here.

I'm happy to say that I'm surprised. Even though the book has its problems to me - like some classes being overpowered, while others are just useless - it is one of the greatest rules I've read in a while. And it's been a long time since I could say that from an official D&D game. I did not like 3rd edition and I dispised 4th edition. I'm happy to see in 5th edition a new way to look at D&D games.

Different from other reviewers, I won't say that this D&D follow on the footsteps of older editions bringing things from newer editions. This 5e D&D is something different, and I like it. As of now, I have not yet finished a campaign using 5th edition. I will continue gming with my groups, seeing how the system fare in higher levels, so until there I cannot give a final veredict.

Nevertheless, a very strong game. I used to say that there is only one kind of D&D for me: oldschool. Now I have to say that this view is changing. And I'm glad for that.

Until next time folks,



1 comment:

  1. I agree with you. All your comments are welcome, however...regarding skill checks:

    "I don't think they are needed and can easily be substituted by saving throws"

    Aren't Saving Throws used just to avoid things? Maybe I have read the rules badly... :)

    I really enjoy your articles. Go on, please!