Thursday, December 10, 2015

D&D Now

This is going to be a grump post, which is to say it will probably include a bunch of beardy grognardisms and may even devolve into a full blown rant of pent up negativity. And I'm not going to blame it on fatigue or even excessive Parguayan heat (it's currently cool and stormy weather and I've been getting a bit of a nap in the afternoons). It's just me. You've been warned.

[my original plan to do a series of posts on superhero subjects (specifically Ant-Man, Jessica Jones, Mystery Men 1E, "street level supers," and Bat Girl) will probably have to wait till next week, and perhaps even till the New Year due to holiday responsibilities and our upcoming trip to Mexico to see the in-laws. Likewise, yet another recent shaming at the G+ hands of Heron means I want to devote at least some time to Cry Dark there's that, too. We'll get to the supers eventually]

SO...5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Events conspired to prevent me from really taking a good, hard look at it when I was back in Seattle...almost as if God or the Universe was trying to tell me something. However, I was strongly considering picking up a copy to take back to Paraguay. Yeah, I know, right? But...well, anyway, if it wasn't for the young woman working the counter at Greenlake Games (very nice, very competent, completely failed to get her name), I wouldn't have even been able to peruse the new PHB. As it is, I was able to thumb through a copy (and the DMG and the MM) and...I was thoroughly unimpressed. I mean, I was the opposite of "impressed" (is there a word for that?). So I didn't buy it...though I did pick up a new set of dice to bring down to Paraguay.

[apologies. Due to very sporadic internet access...storms and infrastructure issues...this post is taking a couple days to write]

So I decided to stop worrying about 5E or "keeping my hand in" with the latest-greatest (which is the reason I had considered purchasing it in the first place). And then I read this review of Lost Mine of Phandelver over at Dungeon of Signs. And it piqued my curiosity enough to take a closer examination of the rule set. Which, in Paraguay, means finding illegal PDFs on Asian web sites (since there's no legal PDFs available, nor game outlets closer than Brazil).

So now I've delved 5E a bit and I have a real opinion. The opinion is: 5E is dumb.

I'm sure no one is shocked to hear negative things about 5E from this blog. I've been critical of the whole concept since it was in it's "D&D Next" mass-playtesting phase. And I'm pretty sure that anything I say on the matter won't change others' opinions, especially the folks playing and enjoying the game. So why should I even bother ranting about it? Why take the time to formulate a blog post (even a stream of consciousness, off-the-cuff one) that's nothing more than an attempted punch-in-the-nose that won't have any goddamn impact? Because I'm bored? Because I'm a "big ball of anger?" Because I have some sort of past-life beef with Mike Mearls?

I don't know. I'm a blogger: I blog. You'll see I've got close to a couple thousand posts spread over six years. The way I keep it up, in the midst of a hectic life, is by writing about things that grab me and get my "juices flowing." The stupidity inherent in 5E does that so, well, I'm just going to go with the per usual.

BY THE WAY...I'm only using the words "dumb" and "stupid" because I can't think of better words to use; that may be a product of fatigue. I really don't have the words I need. Maybe insipid would be better? Actually "lame" is the word that keeps popping into my head. My google gives the following definition, which I think kind of articulates my feelings:

"unconvincingly feeble"

And lists a number of synonyms (weak, thin, flimsy, poor, sorry) which are pretty good, too. "Feeble," by the way, is defined both as lacking strength and lacking strength of character. Which, I'm going to guess, most folks who like 5E are going to strongly disagree with. This is a robust system! It's customizable to taste! A good DM can do a lot with this! Etc., etc.

Okay, folks. You got me. It's really awesome and I'm just a crusty old man. Please allow me my crusty old man moment.

When I was a kid in middle school, I often acted as a DM for my younger brother and his best friend, Brandon. We played a lot of games, not just D&D, but D&D was certainly a favorite, and Brandon really enjoyed the hell out of it, even after the game had lost a bit of its luster for me (in high school). Brandon never owned a book, never learned to run a game, and stopped gaming altogether once he and AB started attending different high schools and, thus, didn't see much of each other (I was also running a lot less). Fast forward to now. Brandon is a successful lawyer, working for his father's small practice. In many ways, he's turning into his father: a little heavier and out-of-shape (Brandon was always wiry and a three-sport athlete) with a beard; a good and stable family man with three or four kids (though his are all girls, while his father had all boys). His oldest daughter is 7, very smart, and a big reader and lover of fantasy, and Brandon thought she would really enjoy Dungeons & Dragons, the same way he did as a kid, 25 years ago. So, knowing nothing about various changes over the last couple decades, he went down to the local game shop to pick up the books for her to read and learn how to play/run the game.

In the running for worst PHB cover, ever.
After reading through the 5E books, he put them back on the shelf. The shit was so over-her-head, there was no way she was going to be able to grok it. The shit was way over his head...he couldn't make heads or tails of it either.

[this story, by the way, was related to me by my brother on my most recent trip to Seattle]

I think most people coming to 5E, enjoying 5E, are coming at it from a very different direction than Joe off the street. Fine and dandy, but I'm on Joe's side (and Brandon and his daughter). Hell, I'm on my side, and my priority for D&D play is a lot different from this mash-up of 3E and 4E and BECMI sensibilities with some abstract metamechanics pasted on. I want something different from a game where you'll know you're fighting a druid because they're all using thorn whips after 4th level, where I can only take the death domain for my cleric of Hades with my DM's permission (and need to buy the DMG to do so), where wizards can conjure/summon something other than elementals (just like in World of Warcraft!), where players can read a players handbook that offers them all them handfuls of kewl options as they advance, but no information on how that advancement takes place other than "DM gives you experience points."

'Cause that's, you know, bullshit. The original PHB at least explained the process of acquiring XP, and the justification. Because it's, ya' know, kind of important to know and understand the rules when you're playing a game? Here's what the 5E PHB has to offer:
"As your character goes on adventures and overcomes challenges, he or she gains experience, represented by experience points. A character who reaches a specified experience point total advances in capability. This advancement is called gaining a level."
Sure JB (I can hear you say), but it explains right need to overcome challenges to gain XP...just turn to the index and look up "challenge" to see the entry describing what that entails, and then you'll have your answer.

Except there's no such entry.

I'd transcribe the much more clear (and explicit) section of the AD&D Players Handbook (on page 106), but this post is already running long...perhaps in a separate blog post.

This is the kind of thing I call a "gross oversight" but I'm sure there will be folks who'll say I'm being nit-picky. JB, I know what a damn "challenge" is, I played 3rd Edition! Fine, I don't give a shit about you, I'm talking about Joe, remember? To me, it's pretty asinine to structure a rule system this way, especially when the "free basic set" (as I've discussed before) doesn't actually provide any complete system for learning to play the would presume it is this "per pay" version that is supposed to teach new players. Instead, however, you get a bloated page count, with too much padding and too much stupid. The DMG...320 mainly padding and random frigging tables for stupid shit. Oh, and magic items: roughly one-third of the text is devoted to magic items, precious few of which are new since 1st edition (they even recycled Blackrazor, Wave, and Whelm from White Plume Mountain). Compare that to 20% of the original fact, it would probably be a good exercise to do a straight comparison between the 1st edition and 5th edition DMGs to see how they stack up against each other. That'll be another (masochistic) blog entry. My guess is I'll find a lot less info regarding actually running a game of 5E than it's dense, non-user friendly page count warrants.

But that would be indicative of the edition. "Get less with more," should be the motto here. You get 158 monster entries in the first 315 pages of the new Monster Manual compared to over 200 in the original 110 page version. Fortunately, you don't see the same alphabetizing of creatures by their "giant" prefix and whatnot that was in the Basic PDF (well, except in the miscellaneous creatures section)...all the dragons are under the "dragon" entry, for example. Instead, you see other stupid shit, like an invisible stalker entry for a summoned creature when no such summoning spell exists in 5E (I suppose the cleric's planar ally would work? No, that's only for gods and other "cosmic powers," I see. Oh, well...). Or taking the succubus out of the demon section and making it a fiend native to ALL the lower planes (despite outer planes embodying particular alignments (PHB5, page 302)...Hell and Lawful Evil, for example...and creatures of non-corresponding alignments experiencing "a profound sense of dissonance." Why would an outer plane have a native creature of non-corresponding alignment?).

By the way, if you're going to make the entry "Succubus/Incubus" than fucking alphabetize correctly and put the "I" word first. Jackass.

JB! JB! You are being too damn hard on this totally fine edition of D&D! Your complaints are nit-picks! Sure, it's easier to use/play/run if you have a base of knowledge in earlier editions, sure it's not exactly as friendly to the newbie as one might expect...but in the hands of a good DM it can simulate "Old School play" with some cool upgrades! It's easily modified to taste! It's a damn toolbox!

Yeah, well, so is GURPS and I don't play that either. I don't want to build a game. I don't want to fix a game. I want to play a game. I want to be able to recommend a game to people to play. If I walk into Barnes & Nobles looking for "D&D," this is what I get...I know, because I did just that (I just didn't have a chance to peruse it at the time because I was chasing two small children through the store). Over 600 pages of rules (not counting the extra 300+ page "bestiary"). THIS is what Dungeons & Dragons is today, right this instant. THIS is "D&D Now."


It's a good thing they have great marketing and brand recognition, because this would otherwise be a pretty terrible business model. Seriously. If the game was called Fantastic Fantasy and lacked the on-line community that has flourished for years, would anyone be interested in shelling out the cash for this package? Would anyone be enticed to pick up this weighty tome based on its cover? A pair of androgynous adventurers engaged in a ridiculously suicidal fight with a giant opponent? Would that make you consider shelling out the cash to read these 320 pages just to learn (most) of the rules?

My friend Brandon was unwilling to do this...and he even knew the brand. I suppose most proponents of 5E would say neither Brandon, nor his soon-to-be eight-year-old daughter, are the target audience for 5E. That the true audience to whom 5E caters is the same mass of people that took part in the "beta testing" of the game, the demographic who cared enough to provide feedback and voice their opinions, the vocal online community who was already in WotC's back pocket, who had complained about aspects of 4E, who had complained about aspects of 3E, who wanted a fully supported fantasy (tabletop) gaming line all packaged for purchase.

I'm not part of that target audience either.

I didn't mention that when I decided against purchasing 5th Edition, the nice young lady behind the counter was quick to offer me Pathfinder as an alternative. I told her my 3E days were long behind me (what I wanted to say was, "I'd rather set myself on fire." But I didn't). She said Pathfinder had cleaned up a lot of the 3E's problems. When I still refused, she offered me FFG's Edge of the Empire, perhaps angling to figure out what type of nerd she was dealing with. I didn't bother explaining that I write and design my own games, and will probably continue doing so.

After seeing the current state of D&D, I don't see any other alternative.


  1. have you taken another look at ffg's star wars? i think i remember you writing about it, but that was little more than a superficial glance, if i'm not mistaken. i'd be interested in reading your thoughts about it.

    1. @ Shlomo:

      The mixed reviews I've read haven't enticed me to pay the heavy price for it. They are beautiful books, though, and as a fan I might pick them up as a "guilty pleasure" someday.

    2. to add something to the topic at hand, i'm not sure you're being completely fair to 5th edition (the 3 main books) if you judge it by accessibility for newbies. isn't that what the beginner boxes (starter boxes?) are for? don't they cover the basics in far fewer pages? i'm sure they do.

      haven't read them, so i can't judge if they are doing a better job, but maybe your friend simply bought the wrong product?

      also, when me and my friends started out, a lot of the game was "over our heads" as well. that's not necessarily bad. ;)

    3. @ Shlomo:

      Just went back and read the introduction in the PHB. Nothing here refers the new reader to a beginner set or starter box; no such product is mentioned. Nor is there any mention of the game building on more basic sets; instead you find the typical "this is what role-playing is" text aimed at the new player, not the old hand.

      At least TSR had the kindness to label one set as "Advanced" (both 1E and 2E) cluing folks in that there were easier, more accessible sets being published simultaneously.

      [I should also note that I didn't see any "starter sets" at the stores where I saw 5E. It's possible that they were on different shelfs/areas, but they weren't with the 5E books. This includes a game shop, a B&N, and a kiosk in the mall selling a variety of games, including board and card sets).

      So, no, I don't think I'm being unfair...the game is labeled as "Dungeons & Dragons," not 'expert' or 'advanced' or 'graduate level' and sure seems to have a lot of newbie text (to the point of being terribly weak-sauce in the DMG for veteran DMs...see Heron's comments). However, I'll see if I can dig up a copy of the starter set for reading and review.

  2. The rules of 5E aren't bad - at least when I played it a few sessions with someone who had done the heavy (or light) lifting of rules mastery - but I agree with you in that I think the system makes all the right noises about open world, older style exploration games involving wonder and creativity and then falls back on throwing odd tidbits to the rules mastery "optimal build" crowd. It suffers a bit from saying one thing and doing another.

    1. Saying one thing and doing another has been a problem since the project started. For me personally, I've got more gripes than that.

      Hey, Gus: in your 5E game with Necropax was he giving gold for XP? Just curious.

    2. Excuse me, that should say "XP for gold."

      (I'm drinking, sorry)

    3. I can't remember - I think so.

  3. I think of all the unknowing people who, having heard of D&D, have gone into a store and found 5e. Looking at it, they think, "Oh, I'm sure once I read all this content, I'll understand what to do." Then they don't. And the book, too expensive to throw away, sits on a shelf for years as the owner thinks, "Perhaps someday one of my kids will know what to do with that." But that never happens. In time, the owner realizes the money is lost and commits to throwing the books away.

    But what the hell. The company made a buck. They destroyed all their potential to make many bucks, but there never was much expectation there to sell to new people.

    That's what you get when you ask your disgruntled clients what they want. The Simpsons put it best.

    When you read people saying they like 5e, remember that Homer thought the car looked great.

    1. @ Alexis:

      In my opinion, it was a lazy approach to design from the beginning... I appreciate getting input from the masses and all (especially in light of the backlash received from 4E), but the proles aren't necessarily great designers.

      For that matter, neither is the team that actually wrote these books (oh, I'm such an asshole).
      ; )

  4. @ Ian:

    It's weird. There was a lot of talk in the beginning that 5E was going to be "modular" in design. That's not what I see here. From all the "old school" talk I've heard thrown around in describing 5E play, I find surprisingly few differences between it and the last few iterations.

    Hell, THAT should probably be my next post.

  5. If you think the rulebooks are bad, then wait until you see the adventures!

  6. All editions of D&D are their own sort of shit-show. I think a kid picking up these books today would be able to pull their knowledge of video games, and run a game with little trouble. I think Brandon may be selling his daughter short, thinking she won't get it just because he doesn't.

    I personally like 5e's basic mechanics. I think they are cleaner than any other edition of D&D. The book is written and organized very poorly though. Poorly enough that if I met the person responsible for the spell section of the PHB I would have to restrain myself from violence.

    1. @ Matt:

      You may be right (about Brandon selling his daughter short)...folks frequently underestimate their kids. But just judging by my own experience, I'd be surprised if any kid under 10 could learn 5E without some serious mentoring.

      Oh...and I hear you on the organizational layout thing. That was just a nit I didn't want to pick.

  7. It's not without its virtues - I think it handles armor a lot better then B/X even and some of its other changes are nice and intuitive. It's simple enough to be pretty house rulable as well. I think it manages to be modular to an extent or at least easily moddable and I'd add it's a heck of a lot clearer than AD&D by the book.

  8. You're right about this version being poorly suited to newcomers (although I think the expectation is that total newbies will start with the Starter Set); you're also 100% right about the PHB cover being terrible. (Honestly, aside from 1e, there hasn't been a PHB cover I actually liked - the good art has mostly been relegated to supplements.) I like 5e mechanically, but considering that the Basic Rules are a reasonably complete game in and of themselves (not totally, as you pointed out), I don't see myself shelling out for the PHB unless I have a desperate, overwhelming urge to play a monk or druid. And even then, I'll probably just cobble something together from the couple of 3.5e books I have laying around.

    Also, my local Barnes & Noble has some of the premium reprints of older editions... except for 1e. Maybe they're just out of stock, but it's comical in a way how that store has every in-print edition of (A)D&D except for the original; the 2e, 3.5e, and 4e core books are all sitting on the shelf right alongside the new edition.

    1. Your B&N has a lot more history on its shelf than mine (maybe its customers aren't frequenting the RPG section enough to turn over the shelf space? We're such nerds in Seattle)!

  9. after running it for the past year or so, I'm kind of ambivalent about it. The core gameplay moves quickly enough, and it never really feels like there are too many rules I need to keep in my head.

    The DMG is pretty much useless for an experienced DM, although I do think some of the advice might be good for newbies. I've used it to look up the 5e versions of a couple of magic items, but that's it.

    As Kelvin said earlier (and Gus L said at length in his Phandelver review), it's the implied setting (an extreme vanilla take on the Forgotten Realms) and the adventure material that's been outright bad. Granted, I'm pretty much incapable of running published adventures, but I DO read them voraciously. And these are just weak. All combat situations or characters to role-play, with none of what I consider the heavy lifting in module design: clever traps, puzzles or tricks that I couldn't easily have thought up on my own.

    Would I run it again, if/when this campaign ended? Maybe. It would just depend on what the players felt like doing. It's not exactly a hard system to run, but I could just as happily go back to running my B/X + house-rules game and steal a few of the bits I liked.

    1. "Complexity" isn't really one of my complaints. I've written before that I think the advantage-disadvantage mechanic is pretty nifty, and I'd assume it works well to streamline play, as do some other 5E design choices.

      I hate to say it, but I think the think loses more "style points" for me than anything else. But that includes a lot of things besides aesthetic appeal. Do YOU like this version of the Druid?

    2. I don't know. No one has played one, so I haven't seen it in action. I can tell you that the Beast Master Ranger is pretty dumb, though. One of the first rules I chose to ignore was the one that you have to use up your own action to make your animal companion attack.

    3. @ IG:

      Ha! You know, I haven't even bothered to read the specific class features, so I completely missed this. A "beast master" ranger...huh. That's interesting. If such a character was, say, a dragonborn, would you think he'd have a more difficult time enticing creatures to his retinue? I mean, he'd smell like dragon, right?

      (again, there's a lot of stupid in this game. I suppose I'm just too old to enjoy its "whimsy")

    4. Ugh. I haven't even bothered to read the section on Dragonborn, to be perfectly honest. I knew I wasn't going to use them.

      I think the point I was getting at originally was, it doesn't really matter about a lot of the fluff or implied setting material, because people like you and me are just going to roll our own thing anyway. The core rules themselves (what we call "the engine" in video game dev) are what's important, and those are actually pretty clean and pretty flexible. At least from what I've experienced.

    5. @ IG:


      Okay, it has a clean, flexible engine. But what's being sold is the whole package. My grump is with the package as a whole...the thing is DUMB (or, rather, "lame").

      And sure folks like you and me can edit, modify, and tweak the thing...we can do that with a lot of dumb, cluttered systems (except maybe Palladium). So the F what? I'd like to think folks deserve better of something called "D&D," and the people making it. But maybe they don't.

  10. I think 13th Age is the real 'new' D&D, especially for gonzo fantasy, but 5E is fun and straight forward enough-- especially with the Phandelver set and not starting with the PHB straight away. You can cite your friend's experience, but I was just at a gaming bar this weekend and there were three groups playing 5E so it's definitely getting played out there. Again, it's too bad you actually don't play the versions you write about. You're really just talking about what you read in a book, and using your imagination for the rest which is not the game itself at all. It's like knowing all about the ballet and ballet dancer's performances from books and the newspaper but never actually attending a ballet.

    1. @ lil mute:

      I'm sure there's plenty of folks playing and enjoying 5E. Never said there weren't.

      And I HAVE played some least during the "testing phase." Yes, with its twice-kill-needed orcs (where O where did THAT stupid idea come from? The Uruk-Hai scene in Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring?). It felt dull and lifeless and boring.

      My friend's experience had nothing to do with had to do with accessibility issues that led to zero gameplay. You seem to have missed the point of my post. Well, several points actually.

  11. Literary comment: Nice close on the post.

    1. @ Bob:

      Ah, you caught me. Sometimes those zingers work, and sometimes I just look like the hack I am.
      ; )

  12. Spot on. The nicest thing about the older editions is that no one has come to my house and said, "I'm sorry, those editions are no longer supported, we'll have to take them back."

    Sort of like Windows 10. ;)

  13. @ Ian:

    I would presume that one idea would be for everyone to have a consistent rule set from which to run. But since everyone seems inclined to modify the rules, well...

  14. My nine year old Niece received the 5E core books and is now running a game for her friends and the rest of us with it. She had ZERO issues learning the game and had never played a rpg before.

    On the other hand she read my Swords and Wizardry Complete book and said it was stupid.


    I think 5E is .......ok? I guess? It isn't bad, it's just not to my tastes.

    1. Yeah? Your niece was able to read the DMG and figure out how to construct challenges of the proper XP totals for the party? For that alone I'd salute her, let alone being able to take the game and teach it to her fellow nine-year olds.

      I haven't read S&W Complete, so I can't speak to her assessment of that product.

  15. Know what I've noticed?

    Virtually everyone I've ever known who has cut their teeth on D&D eventually leaves it behind for a system in which the rules don't get in the way of telling a story. Including me.

    I do love tinkering with 3.5 and other rules systems, but ever since I fell in love with FATE I don't think I could go back to playing 3.5/Pathfinder. And I've no interest in 5E, as to be frank I've already memorized one crunchy system and I can't see a good reason to do it again. (Same applies to PF.)

    I prefer chewy bacon and Dungeon World.

    1. @ Jack:

      Hmm...your experience has been different from mine. I've known many fewer people who jumped ship for a story-oriented game, and I've known many folks (like myself) who DID jump ship only to return to these Old School games as their regular, if not permanent, choice. Clearly, we run in different circles.

      However, I am totally on the same page with you with regard to NEVER going back to 3E, 3.5, Pathfinder, or other D20-based game. That system blows chunks.


    2. I think I might not have been clear that I consider OSR to be one of those systems in which rules don't get in the way. :)

      And for the record, 3.5 is a masterpiece of game design. If you want a heavy-tactical, heavy-opt system that still feels like you're playing a fantasy game you can't do better than 3.5. It simulates the "real world" mechanically pretty accurately and is highly modular. It isn't perfect but it's actually pretty hard to really, genuinely improve on -- and PF isn't an improvement, just a sidegrade. It's flat-out superior to 4E due to the latter's reliance on dissociated mechanics. And 5E, to me, just looks like a 3E retread, doomed to suffer the rules bloat and power creep of its predecessor.

      My preference is in games that don't require multi-page character sheets or hundreds of pages of rules or databases to track spells and feats or SRDs. I'm comfortable with a higher level of abstraction for the sake of being able to "do stuff" as I think of it rather than being limited to the skills on the character sheet. It's been my experience that most players trend in that direction over time, and that's the point I was making.

    3. @ Jack:

      "For the record," I'm not sure I'd give D20 (the moniker I ascribe to both 3.0 and 3.5) quite the accolades you give, but it IS masterful in many ways, and an excellent, innovative derivation. A "valiant effort," I guess I'd call it, with a lot of good writing and nice ideas/organization. A lot of care, thought, and work went into it...not just as a product, but as a design, and there's some respect due to the team that put it together.

      That being said, I have a lot of issues with it, mainly as to how it plays, what it produces (in its participants), and its myriad limitations. Stylistically, I have some issues with it, too (and here I mean the TYPE of game it produces, not the art aesthetic or anything).

      But that's just my opinion.

  16. She does create her own encounters that (seem)fine. She doesn't award exp based on monsters slain but on adventures. I have no clue if those are actually figured out right or just at whatever rate she feels like letting us advance at.

    It's pretty fun seeing a nine year olds take on adventure creation. Her games tend to be a mix of Lord of the Rings, harry potter and teen titans with a UNHEALTHY dose of young inexperienced heroes being totally right and anyone with experience and age being unreasonable and wrong.

    Go figure eh?

    1. That looks like great fun! I'd play it.

    2. @ Dluke:

      That's cool that she's running, and it does sound like a neat campaign. But if you're going to make your own rules it seems a bit of a waste (to me) to invest a couple hundred bucks in a thousand pages of book.

      I was able to run some fun campaigns at age 9, too, using only the Moldvay and (later) Expert rules. But my game was "by the book."

      Whatever gets 'em playing I suppose.

  17. 5e is written to a subset of existing RPG players/customers from what I can tell. It isn't as awful as 4e was but it doesn't have any draw over earlier editions, inexpensive offerings or free offerings out there.

    Why can't they write a coherent and brief basic set?

    1. @ JD:

      And Why O Why can't I be as succinct in my blog posts as you are with this comment. You have pretty much summed up everything in my post in three sentences.

      Thanks for making me feel like a hack...again.
      ; )