Tuesday, July 8, 2014

DND5E - Good Parts (Kind Of)

All right...while the thoughts on my mind this morning are running towards post-apocalyptic gaming (specifically regarding Rifts and Mutant Future), I did say I'd give a rundown of the things I like about the (incomplete) Basic D&D Rules, and I'm really trying to follow-through when it comes to these promised blog posts.

Note: I'm talking about the things that I like...things that catch my interest or seem to be of promising game value. But I want to avoid an "in-depth analysis" because A) the published rules are incomplete and thus difficult to judge anyway without making assumptions of game play, and B) I tend to derail myself when I allow any time to diatribe on the negative.

NOTE: Monsters not included.
For example (here I go!): I could probably fill several pages with the "word padding" one finds in these "basic" rules (something responsible for taking the text of an incomplete game up to over 100 pages sans illustrations). Let me give you a short example/comparison:

Holmes Basic description of the magic-user class: No description provided (presumably one is to assume it is a character that "uses magic").

Moldvay Basic description of the magic-user class: "Magic-users are humans who, through study and practice, have learned how to cast magic spells. Merlin the Magician was a famous magic-user."

Mearls Basic description of the "wizard" class: "Wizards are supreme magic-users, defined and united as a class by the spells they cast. Drawing on the subtle weave of magic that permeates the cosmos, wizards cast spells of explosive fire, arcing lightning, subtle deception, and brute-force mind control. Their magic conjures monsters from other planes of existence, glimpses the future, or turns slain foes into zombies. Their mightiest spells change one substance into another, call meteors down from the sky, or open portals to other worlds."

This description is only after three full paragraphs describing different magic-users doing various things. It's a quarter-page of flavor text that doesn't contribute any actual rules...and it's disingenuous besides! Why? Because it describes abilities that are unavailable to the beginning wizard!

Compare that to the (equally wordy) fighter class: "All these heroes are fighters [referring to the preceding examples], perhaps the most diverse class of characters in the worlds of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Questing knights, conquering overlords, royal champions, elite foot soldiers, hardened mercenaries, and bandit kings -- as fighters, they all share an unparalleled mastery with weapons and armor, and a thorough knowledge of the skills of combat. And they are well acquainted with death, both meeting it out and staring it defiantly in the face."

Ignoring the hyperbole, the description tells a beginning player exactly what they get if they sign up to play the fighter class. An "unparalleled mastery with weapons and armor" (none of the other classes begin with the same proficiency in weapons and armor), a "thorough knowledge of skills of combat" (they are better at fighting than any other class), "well acquainted with death" (they will deal more damage in combat and will probably take more damage as "tanks" for the party).

Now say I'm a beginning player and I read the description of the wizard. 'Hey, that sounds pretty cool!' says I, 'I can create explosions and brutally control minds and conjure demons and animate zombies! Sign me up!' But is that what I get?

No. I start the game knowing three cantrips and carrying a spell book containing all of six 1st level spells. Sure, there's a cantrip called fire bolt which hurls "a mote of fire at a creature or object" (not exactly 'explosive'). There's charm person which turns a creature into "a friendly acquaintance" (not exactly 'brute-force mind control'). But I definitely don't see anything resembling zombie mastery, monster conjuration, or glimpsing the future; there's no ability to cast "mighty magics" with meteors and whatnot to start. Don't sell me a load of bull on what I WILL do...tell me what I CAN do...because who knows how long I'm going to play this game before I get tired of casting sleep spells and frost rays.

Okay, OKAY...I said I'd get to the things I like in the game and I meant it. We'll do our best to skip the irritating parts from here on:

First, a couple things that aren't exactly game mechanics (and are thus kind of "neutral"):

  • The introduction ain't bad (especially the How To Play section -- fairly clear), and my eye was especially caught by this part: "The adventurers grow in might as the campaign continues. Each monster defeated, each adventure completed, and each treasure recovered not only adds to the continuing story, but also earns the adventurers new capabilities" (my emphasis added). Does this mean a return to XP for treasure found? Now there's a nice "Old School" touch!
  • Mearls changed his three pillars from "exploration, roleplaying, and combat" to "exploration, social interaction, and combat." Nice when folks listen to at least half of what I say.
  • Fewer classes, more variety (within the classes): this is interesting, but only as it's something I'm already doing myself. My latest heartbreaker is actually down to three classes, but my Five Ancient Kingdoms works with a basic four similar to those presented here. The actual presentation of "variety" in Basic D&D leaves a little something to be desired...but I said I wouldn't digress again, and I won't.

Okay, now for the actual game mechanics that I like or find interesting:

  • The concept of advantage/disadvantage is quite nice...both simple and elegant. My own games have used various re-roll strategies for awhile, but I don't recall having this simultaneous double roll (take the best of two) which is much more of an actual "advantage" than re-roll and accept the second result. The fact that "disadvantage" mirrors this is also very nice...though it may turn out to be a pretty severe penalty when in effect. The way they cancel each other out (regardless of the number of advantages/disadvantages in play) is also elegant, as is the "no more than one applies" rule...though I've already done that with DMI and I probably stole the concept from somewhere else (in other words, not necessarily innovative). For a game where the success and failure of individual actions is so important, this is a very simple and effective design solution to having a maze of a thousand different variables. I like it.
  • I like the restriction of only a single domain for the cleric class in the Basic Rules...again, I've done something similar with the new game I'm working on. Of course, if you restrict the cleric to the Life domain, it raises the question "why are alignments even necessary?" In my own design, I found an answer to that ("they're not") by constructing the cleric along similar lines. Keep the variable domains to the "optional" PHB rules and I'll give you a thumbs up for tightening your focus. Unfortunately, the focus here tends to put the cleric in the "sole support/medic" capacity (as other reviewers have pointed out), but I think there's enough meat left on the bones to make a crusader-type character as well. Hell, there's too much meat (well...fat and gristle, just to carry the analogy forward)...but again, let's not digress. So hard! O so hard!
  • Class/level appears to be more important in this edition than ability scores and ability scores have hard caps. Again, this is nothing especially new or innovative, but I like it.
  • Inspiration as an (apparent) incentive to "role-playing" isn't anything new...for the most part, all my hybrid games base their re-roll mechanics off role-playing in some way, shape, or form. That it uses the aforementioned advantage mechanic is hip (because I like that mechanic). The mechanic that inspiration provides a "floating advantage" (i.e. one that can be passed off to other player characters) IS different, at least from my designs...using earned metagame resources to aid colleagues as been seen as early as karma in Jeff Grubb's Marvel Superheroes RPG. My reasons for NOT doing floating re-rolls as a role-playing reward is the personal nature of the reward (a bonus for one's personal inspiration) AND to encourage others to role-play (you only get a bonus if you put in the effort yourself). Doing it this way (in Basic D&D) is interesting because of what it signifies in-game (that your fellows are being inspired by your own inspiration) and by its in-game effect (contributing towards cooperative play over "one-upmanship"). I'm not sure if I buy that for D&D in the same way I do for a "superhero team" RPG, but as I said it's an interesting design choice.
  • Backgrounds are cooler than 2nd Edition kits (which I loathed...but then I loathed a lot about 2E), but are so padded out as to be...ugh. They didn't have to do it this way...have you played the original Mutant Chronicles RPG? Do you know how long this kind of character generation takes? Do you know what that does to your play priorities? Ugh. The IDEA was interesting (again, it's something I've already done in a much smaller, more succinct fashion), but I'm not a fan of the execution. At all.
  • "Versatile" weapons is a good concept, but one I've already done (with swords in 5AK and with more weapons in the new heartbreaker) so there's no need to steal it. As a side note, "heavy" and "two-handed" are redundant, dudes (something they should have figured out, as I did, when they implemented versatile weapons). As a 2nd side-note it's good to see "exotic weapons" gone.
  • I actually like the Short Rest, Long Rest concepts as hard mechanics, and I think the speeding HD thing (with short rests) is very interesting...a limited, self-pool of healing to use during an adventure. This IS something I might steal/adapt in my own games, in order to prolong the time spent adventuring without returning to base camp. I think it also cuts down on the need of the cleric to stock up on healing magic ("let's just take a breather") leaving those divine miracles for emergency purposes. Yeah, this is right up there with the advantage/disadvantage thing. And I like the concept much better than "healing surges" (and think its easier than the mechanics for Star Wars Saga Edition's "second wind").
  • Lifestyle expenses (which are well-known to longtime Shadowrun players) are a very good addition to D&D, in campaigns where you're concerned about "downtime" between adventures. I should have done this with 5AK, and now that I see I don't have some form of "easy upkeep" (only taxes!) I'm kicking myself.
  • Lending Help in combat, and thus conferring advantage to your buddy is cool, though I would have also made it an option to confer disadvantage to your buddy's opponent. I might have to steal the whole advantage/disadvantage thing just so I can include a form of lending help. So much easier than +2 cooperation bonuses and synthesis bonuses and environmental bonuses, and...
  • The knocking a creature out mechanic is a good addition...but again, one I'm already using.
  • [I know I said I wouldn't do this, but sorry...have to say I'm not a fan of the death mechanic for player characters in the game. That's all, won't say more about it]
  • [okay, just one more: mounted combat...ugh, ugh, ugh! Why so needlessly complex! Why so not useful? Just say a guy on a horse has advantage over a non-mounted target, and footmen have disadvantage against a mounted opponent! This is a perfect place to incorporate the damn rule...why do I care how many feet of movement I need to mount up? Or whether the warhorse has been domesticated?! Jeez Louise!]
  • I find little good, useful, interesting, or innovative in the magic system as it stands. HOWEVER, when talking about "grooves" (fitting 1st level spells into 5th level spell slots giving you a bigger effect, i.e. a bigger barrel for your bullet), it WOULD HAVE been interesting if they'd taken their logic one-step further and allowed PCs to fit "mighty magic" into "smaller grooves." Allow that 1st level wizard to raise zombies (as promised)...but only small domestic animals (undead familiar) or else only shabby zombies (D4 hit points) to step-and-fetch. Now, since they didn't do it I'm tempted to do so in my new heartbreaker. Of course, that would mean revising my (already revised) magic system. But it's a neat thought!

Okay, that's the whole of it. Time to get the family out of bed.


  1. "who knows how long I'm going to play this game before I get tired of casting sleep spells and frost rays."
    - don't worry that will not be all that long a time, it only takes 900 exp to get to third level and the second level spells. That's a lot of goblins at 10 exp a pop but f you are earning say 50 exp an encounter that's only 18 encounters for 3rd level.

    1. Do we know that this is how XP will be handled?

      In 3rd edition, 18 encounters was supposed to take 5 sessions (more than a month of weekly gaming). That is a looooong suck-ass time, IMO.

  2. it's a great step coming from 4th edition.

    it's a step back though, and while i think the rules are ok (i am not particularly thrilled about anything, but i can't find anything that i couldn't play almost as written), i am a bit disappointed.

    this is the biggest rpg-brand in existence. all they could think of after fucking up an edition was to go back and create a mixure of 2nd and 3rd edition, with a couple of new bits?

    don't get me wrong, this looks like a fun game. it'S just that i expect more from the leading brand. i expect innovation. an attempt to push the whole hobby forward.

    sadly, there is no innovation to be found in d&d next. :(

  3. @shlominus I do not think the majority of the market wanted innovation. Pathfinder has the complex version of the rules covered, and I think it was a good idea to go in a different direction from Pathfinder. I am happy to see a simple core framework. Let the innovation come in the form of optional rules or the community.

    @JB I know that was tough for you man, but thanks for playing to my curiosity. I like your ideas for low level versions of high level magic. Some good spell ideas there that could be added into the game. I also really like the Advantage/Disadvantage system, and thought the mounted combat was pointless (though they may have steered away from using Adv/Dis with mounted combat because it would allow Rogues to Sneak Attack while mounted by default, which seems all sorts of wrong)

    1. i guess i have to agree. doesn't change the fact that i hoped for more though. ;)

    2. @ shlomo:

      You'd think the biggest brand in existence could simply find space to support ALL their lines/editions, no?

  4. @ Harv:

    Ugh! Is THAT how they did sneak attacks? Extra damage every time the rogue has "advantage?" That's just plain lazy.

    Well, there are a couple easy fixes (I mean, if we were to fix mounted combat anyway). One would be to limit the rogue's sneak attack to when he has advantage "on foot" as opposed to when he's mounted, swimming, flying, etc. The other would be to limit the advantage/disadvantage to fighters that have a "mounted" fighting style (the fact that they left one off is kind of an oversight anyway, considering the examples of mounted specialist warriors throughout history!).

  5. hehe, sorry to press a button. But yeah, sneak attack is applied once per round to an attack made with advantage, or when attacking a target engaged with an ally.

    That aside, it does make sense to use adv/dis to depict mounted vs foot, and as you noted a quick note under Sneak Attack plugs that hole.

    One of the rules I think I like the most (could change once I get a chance to actually play them) is how magic is handled. I like that spells do not auto-scale with the casters level, but instead require a higher spell slot to boost power. Makes spells like Magic Missile viable at level 1, but not overpowered at the upper reaches. I have been looking for a good way to flatten the power curve of spell casters.