Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Let's Talk About 5E, Shall We?

I eat a lot of Mexican food. Probably too much, actually. But when I go to a new place, I'll generally order either something I've never seen before or chicken fajitas.

"Something I've never seen before" is pretty obvious. Those are likely to be the specialty of the house and will set them apart from the tacos and burritos that are ubiquitous on Mexican menus.

Chicken Fajitas are a little less obvious - it's because chicken is a good platform to highlight unique or special spice blends. And I've never had two chicken fajitas that tasted the same.

My wife, by contrast, orders enchiladas. Most of the flavor of an enchilada comes from the sauce, and - much like fajita spice - that can vary wildly from restaurant to restaurant. Most Mexican restaurants have more than one enchilada sauce (and many of them allow you to mix and match sauces on your enchiladas).

So what does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?  Especially the fifth edition of same?

A lot, actually.

I've been playing D&D since I was ten. It was 1e at the time, and we played it on the playground at recess. I didn't get to play a lot, as my parents were part of the satanic panic of the eighties. This means I definitely wasn't allowed to own any books or dice.

Because of this, I played the simplest class. The one that had the fewest complex rules. In 1e, that meant I played a fighter. Why? Because the fighter's only real decision was "Which foe do I want to hit?"  Mechanically, 1e fighters were (and continue to be) super-boring.

By the time 2e rolled around, I was familiar enough with the rules that I was able to play something different. I dabbled with Wizards and Rogues before settling on (don't laugh) Bards. Because Fighters continued to be boring.

When Wizards dropped 3e on us, Feats made some interesting changes. Suddenly every class had interesting customization options (and Fighters were more interesting). Some of the fighter feats meant that there were occasional interesting decisions to be made. I only played a tiny bit of 3e (I was much more a DM than a player at that point).  By the end of 3e's run, however, it'd turned into an optimization game. "The best fighter takes and and ." Or "Check out this broken Feat combo!"

Pathfinder took the optimization aspects of 3e and turned them up to eleven. The game's power curve was structured so that players who didn't optimize were left behind. It also highlighted those parts of 3e that I didn't like, turning them into the focus of play. Note that I'm very carefully not saying "Pathfinder was bad." I'm saying, "Pathfinder wasn't for me."

Then we hit 4e. Suddenly every class was equally interesting. And theoretically balanced. Fighter powers/abilities hit harder or applied status effects (stun and knockdown were pretty common). Wizard powers/abilities did elementally-flavored damage and applied different status effects to foes. Feats were less-important than power selection.

And now we have 5e.

For those of you who are wondering, I haven't broken my self-imposed boycott of 5e. I received a copy of the Player's Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG), and Monster Manual (MM) as gifts from a friend.  I spent the next few days following that gift reading the 5e PHB and ... meh.  I don't get all the love it gets.

One friend, when he saw that I had 5e in my hands, asked if I was "finally tired of that tactical combat simulator" that 4e was.

I've got news for you, Matt: All editions of D&D are tactical combat simulators. And 4e is the best/most interesting of the bunch for most classes. Every edition of D&D has fallen desperately short when it came to mechanically rewarding non-combat encounters. Which means that 5e is - for what I want in a game - significantly less-good than 4e. Because it's a less-detailed tactical combat simulator.

Reading through 5e, it's like a bizarre cross between 2e and 3e. There's good in there, mind you, but for the most part it strikes me as a huge step backwards.

The only real "killer app" of 5e is the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanism. And possibly "Inspiration," which lets you trigger Advantage.

I did what I often do when I confront something that is so popular that I just plain don't understand: I went online and asked my friends. Here's what I heard from them:

  1. Combat in 5e is faster. This is both bug and feature, as you can have multiple small combat encounters in a single session, but big set-piece battles are less interesting.
  2. Classes in 5e have three sub-classes that characters move into at 3rd level. Only one of the Fighter subclasses is boring 2e Hit 'Em more/better.
  3. There are fewer ways to apply fewer status effects in 5e, which is cleaner and easier to understand for newer players.
  4. Combat in 5e supports "theater of the mind" better than 4e and 3e. While you can use a map and grid, it's not as strictly required as it was in those editions.
  5. DIY players have an easier time tweaking 5e, as 4e was so tightly interconnected. Creating a power here-and-there for 4e was simple enough, but creating new classes was a lot of work.
Even a lot of 5e players expressed frustration with how boring and limited it felt after a very short time. One friend said, "Loved 5 E at first, got bored with it after a couple of years." And that was pretty close to consensus.

5E hits on more cylinders than 4E for me and also has some good ideas. I have played it several times and will likely play it again. 
All things considered, I would still prefer to play OSRIC, Advanced Labyrinth Lord, Blueholme, or Low Fantasy Gaming.

Other games came up, too. Both OSR retroclones and newer branches of the d20 tree (Pathfinder and 13th Age especially). And games that aren't from that family (Fantasy Age got a lot of love).

Indie gaming legend Ron Edwards left a long comment that I'm going to quote in full, here:
I just played 5E for the first time, just a couple of days ago, as a player. It struck me as a very 2000s game, maybe even 2010 on the nose. That's not a slam, but identifying it very much as of its era, and not any kind of old-school whatnot which in this case makes most sense as precise marketing.
More importantly, as a game, it is caught like a writhing insect in what I called The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast. If I play my character, in the sense of all this characterization and agency that the creation process fires up, then the DM cannot create the story, as everything about DMing and especially the published scenarios and campaigns emphasizes. And vice versa, perhaps especially, vice versa.

Everything for the player presumes a DM who isn't actually the DM as written/encouraged, and everything for the DM presumes players who aren't actually those players as written/encouraged. The net effect is almost always the same: the players are reduced to posturing, establishing and repeating tropes, and (eventually) goofing in order to enjoy themselves, as the DM waltzes them through fights that lead to clues, and clues that lead to fights. 
Exalted, all over again, and that's merely a refined point of reference among a sea of game texts of this kind. 
As with so many of these games, the solution is obvious: pick one or the other, and ignore, as in obviate, reject, abandon, defy, reverse the text and most of the rules concerning the one you didn't pick. But that solution is not arrived at very often. The more usual one is to play while insisting loudly online that this is the most awesome thing ever, then to limp along wondering about or resigned to the necessary outcomes of the Impossible Thing, and eventually to shift into lonely fun with one's extremely expensive purchases.
 There was also a ton of nostalgia for 3.x.  Publisher/designer Cam Banks said (in one of his comments):
When I moved to 4E, I hit a wall with the way the game was designed to centre around powers/techniques/etc. As a 3rd edition designer, I knew that system back to front; I could come up with stats and monsters and spells on the fly, and I even ad hoc'd a prestige class for a player (and wrote the whole thing up the next day). 4E was an inscrutable black box by comparison. I ran it like I ran 3E, and stumbled. I couldn't make my own classes easily, I couldn't eyeball anything, even with the famous page 42. It was extraordinarily frustrating because I liked what they were doing with the game, but the game didn't let me in.
 Peter Darley said:
It seems like D&Ds primary strength, in any edition, is to be a lowest common denominator. I don't think I would ever chose to run or play it given the universe of games available, but since not everyone likes the same stuff, D&D is often something that people can agree on.
 I had more than fifty comments on that post.  I'd link to it, but it's on Plus and Google is shutting that down next week, so the link would be useless.  There was disagreement, but not much. And it never got heated.

So the long and short of it, for me, is this:

If I am forced to play D&D and am given a choice of edition, I will still choose fourth edition. I can see some of the appeal of fifth, and I might play it a bit to see how it compares to second and third, but I don't see anything there that I can't easily find in a dozen other games.  Realistically, though, I'm more likely to play something else.

I didn't get into it here, but it's worth mentioning that the DMG for fifth edition is quite good with some solid advice that applies regardless of the game being played. It's a shame that the game itself is so uninspired.