July 19, 2014

D&D 5e - So it's actually kinda fun.

Been a few weeks since my last post.  And while things have calmed down on some fronts, they've gotten a tad busier on others.

Hard to believe that it's now less than a month until GenCon.  While the gaming and cosplay spotting is certainly going to be fun, and the dealer hall sure to be a drain on my finances, one of my big reasons for going to is to meet up with various members of the d20 Radio forum community.  One of the highlights for me trip last year was getting to meet and talk with Jay Little and a couple other forumites.  Seriously, Jay is a funny guy and has some amazing ideas when it comes to game design; I can easily see how the narrative dice system that FFG uses for their Star Wars RPG came about with him at the helm.

Of course, the big thing that I'm hoping happens at GenCon is the release of the Force and Destiny Beta for FFG's Star Wars product line.  As the last of the proposed three core rulebooks for the system, it's been teased to be pulling back the curtain on having PCs that are Force-users first and foremost as opposed to Force-usage being a "tacked on" element of the character.  I've spoken with the GM for the Saturday Star Wars game I'm, and we'll see about doing a re-spec of Valin based upon the new material, but I think I'm probably going to stick with his current build of Smuggler/Scoundrel/Force Emergent and see which of the new specializations in Force and Destiny work for him.  Valin's come pretty far from the slightly off-kilter street rate, to the point that the group longer refers to him as "a Force-sensitive street rat" but instead as a Minor Jedi.  It's taken over 200 XP to reach that point, and there's still plenty of room for him to grow, both as a character and in what he can accomplish, but it's been a fun journey.

I've also been involved in some official playtesting (can't say for whom and definitely can't say for what), and while it's certainly been fun (I'm working with a pretty fun and creative group of people) it's been fairly time-consuming as well, to say nothing of getting schedules to all line up, which is only a couple steps above herding cats.  Still, it's very cool to be seeing early versions of future material, even if said material doesn't always inspire awe.

But enough blathering, and on to the meat of this post.

Back in the middle of May, I did a blog post titled "D&D 5e... So. What?" in the wake of WotC's official announcement that a new edition of D&D was on the horizon, with a Starter Box in July, the PHB in August, and a new release each month after.  At the time, solid information was scarce as to what this new system would look like, and with the last few versions of the Open Beta playtest material leaving me cold, I really couldn't muster any sort of enthusiasm for yet another round of D&D Edition Wars.  To be clear, I actually enjoy 4th Edition (had a blast playing a Monk in a friend's sadly short-lived Dark Sun campaign), albeit in limited doses, and firmly believe that had WotC called that system anything but D&D, it probably would have been a lot more successful.  Truthfully, I am completely burned out on 3rd Edition, and want nothing at all to do with Pathfinder since it's really just 3rd Edition that's exchanged some elements of complexity for new elements of complexity without really addressing the underlying core problem with the system.

Well, with WotC announcing that they would be providing folks with the Basic rules of D&D 5e both online and for free, that answered the concern of "how are they going to get folks interested enough to at least take a look?"  The D&D Basic Rules pdf isn't very fancy, but it certainly gets the job done in providing readers with the basics of character creation and the fundamental rules for actually playing the game.  Now when I say basics, I do indeed mean basics.  You could ostensibly play a character from 1st level to 20th level using just the Basic Rules, but you'd be doing so with some pretty limited options.

But that's honestly to be expected.  As I remarked to one person on Twitter, the D&D 5e Basic ruleset is very much in the same vein as a "free-to-play" MMO.  Yeah, you can play those MMOs without paying anything, but you're not going to get the full content until you start dropping real-world coin in order to do so.  In that respect, D&D Basic is no different, as the free rules are there to give folks a taste, with the (eventual) option to pay to expand their options when playing the game.  So for what is tagged as a "basic" ruleset, anyone that thought they'd be getting all the bells and whistles has only themselves to blame for being mislead.

The races are the standard fantasy array of Humans, Halflings, Elves, and Dwarves, though the non-human races to get a bit of variety in that each has a sub-type presented that offers a couple of tweaks to the standard racial package.  Humans thus far are pretty vanilla (getting a +1 to all their ability score), but the document does state that if using the optional Feats system in the Player's Handbook, then their starting benefits become a good deal more interesting (+1 to two ability scores of their choice, proficiency in a skill of their choice, and a free starting feat).  Given that feats in the D&DNext Playtest packet were a good deal more potent than 3rd or 4th edition feats were, that sounds like it has promise.

The classes themselves are the standard D&D quartet of Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard, with each having a fairly narrow focus in terms of class abilities.  The Cleric is predominantly a healer, the Fighter is a weapons expert, the Rogue is a thief/burglar, and the Wizard is a boom mage.  For players used to the variety of options that the two prior editions of D&D provided, this can feel very constricting.  Now each class does their one schtick quite well, but all you've got is that one schtick to choose from.  Since I tend to stick with combat-types in most RPGs, I don't see this as too big a problem where the Fighter is concerned, as that class has enough other fun abilities to make my character one of the bigger badasses in the room, including such things as an emergency reserve of hit points, the option of an extra emergency action, and eventually being able to make multiple attacks each round.

One of the more complex and perhaps worrisome elements of D&D has been the spell lists.  One thing that I like with 5e in regards to spells is that they've done away with multiple iterations of the same spell type, such as the various cure light wounds, but also found a way to incorporate the aspects of 3e's metamagic feats into the core spellcasting system.  While there are still some aspects of the much-maligned "fire and forget" method of casting, namely the "spells per day" element, it's not as restrictive as the Cleric and Wizard traditionally were, and is somewhat akin to the 3rd edition Sorcerer in that the character prepares what spells they have on hand, but can use their spell slots to cast as they wish.  And if they choose to cast a lower level spell using a higher level spell slot (like using 1st level Magic Missile as a 3rd level spell), then the spell automagically becomes more powerful.  Frankly, I think it's a neat way to keep those older spells relevant even at higher levels and in turn cut down the bloat on spells available.  The 0th-level spells are effectively innate abilities, able to be cast each round and not consuming a spell slot, which certainly helps the party wizard from feeling useless during the early levels of play, something that was always a problem in D&D editions prior to 4th edition.

Now the reason I'm going into all this?  Well, last night I got a chance to sit down with some gaming buddies from prior groups to play a one-shot adventure.  The GM used the first half of the 4e intro module Keep on the Shadowfell, having tweaked the kobold stats to bring them more in line with 5e by using the goblin stats from the Starter Box and various kobold stats from the playtest documents.  Our party of adventurers was five strong, comprised of a Human Folk Hero Fighter (Sword & Board, played by me), a Human Acolyte Cleric (Healing domain, token female of the group), a High Elf Sage Wizard, a Mountain Dwarf Soldier Fighter (two-hander with a maul instead of great-axe), and a Wood Elf Criminal Rogue.  And I must say, in comparison to how some 1st level PCs have felt in prior editions of D&D, we seemed to be pretty darn capable in our fields of expertise.  Granted we were a tad on the squishy side with the two Fighters being the only PCs to have hit points in the double-digits in comparison to 4e PCs, but then monster damage isn't quite as inflated in 5e was it could be in 4e.  The Elf player, being a 4e veteran, did mockingly complain that he couldn't dump-stat his Dexterity and resort to Intelligence for his Armor Class the way he could in 4e, but as noted it was a mocking complaint and he graciously accepted being the squishiest member of the party (AC 12, 6 hit points) as a trade off for having a very potent Intelligence score and thus some pretty impressive arcane power, though with a snooty personality that would give cause for OotS's Vaarsuvius to bemoan the character's lack of tact.

I must say, while I liked the "advantage/disadvantage" mechanic from the outset when it appeared in the playtest materials, seeing it fully in action really helped sell how much of a simple yet effective innovation it was for D&D.  Gone and good riddance to all the fiddly numerical modifiers, just simply roll an extra d20, keeping the higher if you've got advantage or the lower if you're at a disadvantage.  What really helped sell this mechanic was that a few times where a player or GM forgot that the character rolling had disadvantage, they could simply pick up a d20 and roll it; if it rolled higher just ignore it and go with the effect that had already happened, if it rolled lower then use that instead.  And the inverse if there was advantage on the table, though our Wood Elf Rogue was very good at keeping track of when he had advantage on his attacks, since that determined when he'd get the chance to do a sneak attack with his longbow.  What was interesting was that doing ranged sneak attacks was fairly simple, as per the text a Rogue doesn't need to have advantage if there's an active enemy within 5 feet of the target (which there often was since he focused on snipping bad guys that were engaged with the Fighters), something that I'm pretty sure wasn't the case in 3rd edition, and could be true in 4e but then I never saw enough ranged-combat Rogues to be sure (the ones I saw focused on stabbity-stab rather than shooty-shoot).

While the final battle with the Boss Kobold and his flunkies was a close one (the Dwarf went down to a critical hit and just barely survived thanks to the Cleric's intervention), our party of adventurers (hard to call the group heroic when one member is a surly drunkard and another is a self-professed hired killer) succeeded in clearing out the kobold warren.  Unlike 4e combats that could drag on sometimes, the lower hit point totals of bad guys in 5e helped avert that, meaning it was very possible for us to one-shot lesser bad guys, which helped make us feel fairly competent as opposed to being a party of utter noobs.

Also, I'm liking how the proficiency mechanic works.  Only thing missing from what I can see is a means to gain proficiency in additional skills, but hopefully that will be something addressed in the Player's Handbook (remembering that the Basic Ruleset is the "free-to-play" version of the game and doesn't have all the bells and whistles).  There's also the missing Feat system, but we knew that was "missing" going in, and honestly it wasn't really noticeable has ever class had some baked-in benefit that in 3rd edition would have been analogous to having a feat at 1st level.

So what about D&D 5th Edition?  In spite of my earlier misgivings, I enjoyed it, though a part of that I suspect had to do with getting the chance to game with folks that circumstances have otherwise prevented me from gaming with over the past few months.  There was talk of starting up a regular campaign, quite possibly adapting one of the many older campaign series that the GM had written up but never really got to run over the years, though we agreed to wait for at least the Player's Handbook, if not the Monster Manual so that the GM doesn't have to do quite as many guesswork-riddled adaptations of monster stat blocks.  There was also talk of where to set the campaign, but a large part of that will likely depend on what campaign series the GM opts to adapt.  We also mentioned playing through the Starter Box adventure, possibly keeping our PCs from last night's adventure (made easier by the GM not really having much in the way of loot to hand out to us

So in closing, unless you are vehemently against all things based on the d20 core mechanic or deeply tied to a prior version of D&D (or Pathfinder for that matter), I'd say give the Basic Ruleset a trial run before you completely write off this new version of D&D.  If you've given up on D&D ever being fun, you might just be surprised at what D&D5e can deliver if you give it half a chance.  I know I certainly was.

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