I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

D&D 5th Edition: Bringing balance to the Forge. I mean, Force.

If you have been reading this blog, you know that I frequently post about 5e and BD&D. Those are my favorite versions of D&D, but they are not that similar to each other. If you asked for my favorite right now, I might say BD&D, because I find it a bit easier to house rule than 5e.

Still, I'm playing 5e most of the time. 

So I would like to talk about that for a moment.

5e has been called by some people "everyone's 2nd favorite edition", and I think there is at least some truth to that.

Not because 5e is second best overall, but because it is second best in lots of stuff. For example, it has the best fighter/caster balance other than 4e. It is also the simplest version of D&D other than some variation of BD&D. It has several options for classes, but not as many as 3e (4e had lots of options that followed few different templates, which is cool too). And so on.

It has been said that 5e is unfocused; it doesn't know exactly what it wants to be. Well, it is quite sure it wants to be D&D, but how? By creating an interesting story, like some modern games? By building exciting and tactical combat encounters, like 4e? By careful resource management, like OD&D?

The answer, of course, is: none of this. 

Take the Inspiration mechanic, for example: it is a nod to modern games, such as Fate, but a limited one, since you can get no more than one point of Inspiration. It is quite impossible to create a "fate point economy" or plan your game's ups and downs around Inspiration.

Same thing can be said about combat. There are some tactical options (some classes more than others), and enough information to allow you to play on a grid, but there is not enough elements to allow you to play with the grid (shift one square, push your opponent two squares to the left, flanking, etc). 

Spells? Most unique spell system in D&D... other than 4e. Weapons? Simplest system since BD&D. Etc. 

So, D&D 5e tries to do many things at once. This is its biggest weakness, but also its greatest strength.

You see, some of the other editions were more focused on one aspect or another. Old school D&D was largely about resource management, 3e was focused on detail and customized character creation, 4e was focused on tactical battles, etc. 5e is a bit... everywhere.

The thing is, I actually like it this way. I prefer a "jack of all trades, master of none" D&D than one that is very good in doing one thing above others. I like some tactics, but don't want every combat to be focused on miniatures. I like customized characters, but the number of skills in 3e gives me headaches. I like some resource management, but don't feel like playing a game where you supposedly "CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT" or count encumbrance to the coin.

In short, I like to change the focus of the game from one scene to another, which is one of the things I like in RPGs. In that aspect, The Forge's notion that RPGs should be focused on one aim over to others doesn't work for me. I prefer some balance.

Now, 5e isn't MY perfect version of D&D. I would like to see some additional rules on morale and hirelings, maybe domain management, and would like some things (including classes) to be even simpler. Skills don't work well in modern D&D, and 5e makes it worse with bounded accuracy. 

Lastly, I cannot say that all this stuff is intentional. Like others before me, I sometimes think 5e just tried to combine some (but not all) of the best parts of other editions, using whatever they liked most at the time. 

And I'm not saying that 5e's apparent lack of focus is necessarily a good thing; I'm just saying that it works for me (well, most of the time). This has very much to do with personal preference; I realized that I my favorite versions of D&D (and other RPGs) are less focused than 3e, 4e or 0e, for example.

Of course, there are also places where 5e might be better than ANY version of D&D to date. I am a big fan of the action economy, for example. The exhaustion mechanic might have multiple interesting uses. Backgrounds work well, at least for some styles of play, and I like how most archetypes are built. And 5e has kept some popular items such as ascending AC and few extra HP, things that are common in the WotC era but also adopted by early house rules and some retroclones.

In any case, for now, a heavily house ruled version of BD&D would still be my favorite.

But not for all of most of my group. Some prefer the "modern" versions of D&D for a reason or another; one prefers 4e and likes combat, other likes character building and 3e. There are some that don't care or just want something simple

Still, we could all agree on 5e, and are having a great time with it so far. One player said "D&D is awesome" after playing 5e for the first time. He had played many other editions but had been playing other games (Savage Worlds, W40k, Star Wars by Fantasy Flight) for a while.

Our experience is certainly not unique; there is a whole lot of people involved in the OSR, for example, that praised 5e, and even created material intended for both OSR and 5e (or something called "O5R"). Same with people that enjoyed every other edition. 

It isn't universal, as well; there are plenty of people that criticize 5e, some pointing that it is their least favorite edition. Not taking enough hints from 4e is a common complaint (like the one I did for BD&D, above; surely there are people that fell the same for 3e, AD&D, etc), although the greatest fan of 4e in my group now has 5e as a favorite.

I don't know how long will this last, but "bring balance to the Force, 5e did". 

At least for us.


  1. See and I see 5e as a laborious whore. Why do I have to spend so much damn time creating characters and customizing the setting to my group. I just want to roll up a character and explore some dungeons. B/X was really good at this and I think that whole concept peaked at 2nd edition. If I want to run a game that is all about characters and their growth as people, then D&D isn't the place. This is the main reason why I built out the https://simplednd.wordpress.com project in the first place. We wanted to have interactions and options without having to do all of the homework that 5e requires before you can even play the game.

    1. I am a fan of B/X too, I see what you're saying. But I found 5e a lot less complicated than I thought it would be, specially if compared to 3e, 4e or AD&D. Still, BD&D is my favorite version exactly because of this.

    2. I don't see 5e as a laborious whore... the reason is, and I have played all the editions, you can always play any version of the game you want. Just play BD&D. Simple solution. No need for any projects or anything. I don't like modifying heavily, games that I buy, so I think you're coming from that angle, but some do - I think you just saw a problem and want to fix it for your group and people who share your concerns.

      5e does give the spark for people (the DMG tries too) that want to customize by giving simple rules that you can "expand on".

      In my opinion, it's not the rules as written that are wrong or not enough, but the simple execution of them in-play at the table or online. I do a lot of reading about D&D and I found that my players, 35-42ish adults (with the occasional teen/kid thrown in to keep parents happy) don't. I am the one that in the end decides what we are going to do. Only one couple has the books besides me... BUT, and I am not knocking players and DMs that also take their D&D seriously by factor of immersion... instead I am saying that D&D only happens at the table, and it's all in-play that matters... I have seen rules that I thought were too lean (like the sub-rules/rules in the 5e DMG) work every bit as good IN-PLAY as the 0e-2e rules do.

      I am not saying that your somehow deficient at your in-play way of executing the rules... I am just saying that they really do work. Modify them a bit, but not by much.

      I should say that character creation is a little annoying in the sense that you have so many options, but I always thought that about D&D... over the amount of time it takes to create a character from previous editions (largely 3.5 and 4e) it doesn't take any time in 5e.

      They can be 'built up as developing characters' or just mechanical representations of avatars and play them like you would imagine yourself in game... or whatever someone does when they imagine their character.

      I admit, D&D is either seen, but largely group and individual dependant, not a 'roleplaying game'... but that is just based on the fact that people don't relate to it as that or they do. It's just as good at character growth as you can make it be... if you don't have an imagination for that or interested or inclined in that way... then who cares anyways, play the game the darn way you want. NO role-playing game is going to hit all the points... that I think was iterated by the designers of 5e anyways. Or at least that is the way they saw it.

  2. There are morale rules on page 273 of the DMG.

  3. Good post, and excellent assessment of 5E's strengths and weaknesses.

    to me, feels like it's just an "Unearthed Arcana" away from being the best version yet.

    1. Thank you! I think you're right. Alas, I don't think well see an extensive revision anytime soon.

  4. 5e is... well...
    It's good for newbies.
    But if you're looking for something more in depth.
    Then stop playing D&D. Seriously, they're two (maybe three) ability scores short of being realistic, and classes should be more interchangeable unless you specifically specialize.
    And I have newbie DMs claiming that theres somehow a balance in Elves being better Wizards than Dwarves. They can't show it, mathematically, but they think it's there. Mixed in with the pidgeonholing and restriction of viable characters. Dwarf wizards ought to be as good as elf wizards in a different way. And humans in a third. Oh, why, oh why can't WotC make a human that isn't grossly over- or under-powered?
    And Clerics should just use Charisma, not Wisdom. That's what real priests, for thousands of years have done. Erstwhile Sorcerers ought to use Wisdom, as they're described often (looking at you, Zalmoxis.)

    1. Well, everyone has their favorite system - mine has been GURPS for a long time before switching to D&D - but plenty of people enjoy the six-ability , niche protected, "non-realistic" game that D&D is. A matter of taste, I'd say.

  5. I describe Kansas City BBQ the same way you describe 5E. It is net the best in any category, but it is solidly second best.