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

Friday, November 08, 2019

RANT: the useless complexity of D&D 5e

So, here is the new unearthed arcana: Class Feature Variants. It has some cool options. Lots of optional rules that should be there from the start, but hey, at least they are there.

But I will not discuss it in detail. I'll rant about another thing that's been bothering me for a while.

If you don't want to read a confused rant, well, you've been warned.

This is my main issue: 5e builds characters with "points" [for example, it "costs" 6 points to get a feat, and maybe 1 point to get a fighting style, 2 points to get a skill, etc.], but we never get to see the cost in points. Instead, we get convoluted ways of doing the same thing, so we never have to subtract two from six.

Or, to put it in another way.

Tell me each one is simpler/easier:


A: "When you get to level three, you can choose one of these talents: T1, T3, T5, T7, T9, T11, T13, or T15".

B: "When you get to level three, you can choose one odd-number talent (provided its number is 15 or smaller)".

C: "When you get to level three, you get the T1 talent, but you can opt for talents T3, T5, T7, T9, T11, T13 or T15 instead".

D: "When you get to level three, you get the T1 talent, but you can opt for T3 instead. Alternatively, you can take a level in other class, that will get you T5, but you can replace that with T7 (you cannot replace T1 with T7 otherwise]. You can also get a similar talent, T9.1 that will be identical to T9, at least 98% of the time (but not always). You cannot get T11 unless you get five levels into a new class.  T13 is identical to T5, so don't bother. T15 is inferior to T3 in ALL aspects, but you can get it instead of T7 if you want".


My opinion is that, while A and B look simpler, C is actually the simplest one.

I'm sure someone, somewhere, has already developed some psychological theory on the reason why. Paradox of choice? Analysis paralysis? I don't know. Let me know in the comments! But the fact that the book choose for you makes things a lot easier and faster, specially for beginners. In addition, it reinforces archetypes, which is useful.

D is obviously a mess and, in my opinion, is the path 5e has chosen. It feels like a Rube Goldberg machine of some kind to me.

Let me give you a few examples that were very clear from the beginning of 5e.


* Expertise. Expertise should be a thing for everybody, maybe at a cost equivalent to picking a new skill. The champion should get some expertise instead of remarkable athlete, BTW.

What do we get? If you're not a bard or rogue, you have multiple convoluted ways to get expertise.

Look at this feat for XGE:

Prerequisite: Half-elf, half-orc, or human 
You gain one skill proficiency of your choice, one tool proficiency of your choice, and fluency in one language of your choice. 
Choose one skill in which you have proficiency. You gain expertise with that skill, which means your proficiency bonus is doubled for any ability check you make with it. The skill you choose must be one that isn’t already benefiting from a feature, such as Expertise, that doubles your proficiency bonus.

In this UA, they added this option to the ranger:

Choose one skill: Animal Handling, Athletics, History, Insight, Investigation, Medicine, Nature, Perception, Stealth, or Survival. You gain proficiency in the chosen skill if you don’t already have it, and you can add double your proficiency bonus to ability checks using that skill. In addition, thanks to your extensive wandering, you are able to speak, read, and write two languages of your choice.

Yeah, this is good. But anyone can see the ranger should get the option of being an expert in Nature from the beginning of the edition. The druid too. And why not the barbarian? And why shouldn't barbarians, fighters, etc. get access to expertise in athletics in the first place? Or elves and dwarves? Etc. etc.

Spells. We already have the magic initiate feat:

Magic Initiate
Choose a class: bard, cleric, druid, sorcerer, warlock, or wizard. You learn two cantrips of your choice from that class’s spell list. In addition, choose one 1st-level spell from that same list. You learn that spell and can cast it at its lowest level. Once you cast it, you must finish a long rest before you can cast it again. Your spellcasting ability for these spells depends on the class you chose: Charisma for bard, sorcerer, or warlock; Wisdom for cleric or druid: or Intelligence for wizard.

How many feats, features, etc., do we need to get more spells?

Look at this feat (from XGE):

Fey Teleportation
Prerequisite: Elf (high) 
Increase your Intelligence or Charisma score by 1, to a maximum of 20. 
You learn to speak, read, and write Sylvan. 
You learn the misty step spell and can cast it once without expending a spell slot. You regain the ability to cast it in this way when you finish a short or long rest. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for this spell.

And this fighting style (from the latest UA):

Druidic Warrior [fighting style]
You learn two cantrips of your choice from the druid spell list. They count as ranger spells for you, and Wisdom is your spellcasting ability for them. Whenever you gain a level in this class, you can replace one of these cantrips with another cantrip from the druid spell list.

Languages/tool proficiency. They are obviously interchangeable and inferior to skills, but the game makes things complicated (on purpose?) by adding a feat that make them look equivalent:

You gain proficiency in any combination of three skills or tools of your choice.

Also, thieve's tools are obviously better than other tools (will not discuss this now, this is just a rant remember?).


I bet you can think of infinite examples.

How to fix it? It would be very, very simple. Just make these things explicit. 

For example:

A feat will give you SIX POINTS.
An ability score increase costs 3.
A skill costs 2.
Expertise costs 4.
Languages, tools or fighting styles cost 1 [NOT the same as a skill!].
A couple of cantrips cost 1.
Saving throw proficiency costs 3 [maybe 2 for weak saves, but that's a different subject].

Want to pick something outside your class? Fine, you get FIVE points instead. Do what you want with them. I'm not even sure that's necessary...

But what the heck do I know, I sold a couple of books and WotC has sold millions. How can I criticize a business model that allows them to sell 500 pages where 50 would suffice? And they can claim they are keeping archetypes (or, worse, "class niches", "balance", etc.) intact.

EDIT: BTW... WotC, we get it. You screwed up the beast master ranger. There are enough "fixes" already. Just add the whole class to the errata or something.

This is enough for today.

Rant over, something shorter and more organized next time.


  1. Yeah, I'm happy with my own O5R hack/houserules... Crimson Dragon Slayer D20. Too much complexity ruins the fun.

    1. Yeah, I think 5e's complexity is a big driving force behind many "O5R" hacks.

  2. Uh, a rant, let me chime in :)Complexity needs to be engineered properly. It needs to manifest a wondrous machine that keeps players and DM engaged for unlimited amounts of time, ever challenging, ever inspiring to be played (like the original, say, 2 editions of D&D). Many, many of the rule-light games fall very, very short in that department and most of them will grow with a second edition out of the sheer necessity that they were incomplete to begin with (if they get this far). 5e has the luxury of not needing any kind of proper design, imho, because their goal is to have (their version of) roleplaying become the equivalent of a theme park: expensive, bloated, politicized and colorful, but in the end offering an empty experience compared to the "real thing". Incidentally, designers treating their games as collectibles with a shelf life of [however long the current hype goes] play right into their arms, often just for a quick buck. So yeah, 5e might be needlessly complex and bloated by design, but that's just showing that lazy greediness produces bad design, but it doesn't mean that complex games can't be good (at least it's a fallacy to assume that only because a bad game is complex, the only answer is to have "simple" games). And here's another thought: to write a proper game that others (as in, people that don't know you) can play the way you intended it to be played takes years of dedicated work. Years. Anyway, my two cents.

    1. Well, I think we agree with the main point here; notice I've mentioned "useless complexity". Complexity can be fun if " engineered properly", like you've said.
      I am not a minimalist myself; I prefer my games the size of, I dunno, Into the Unknown rather than The Searchers of the Unknown.

    2. Oh, yes, we agree. For sure. I was just emphasizing that the conclusion many seem to come to (that complexity is bad and "light rules" are the superior way)is faulty. And that 5e is lazy design for a reason :)

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  4. This also offers another progression option. Instead of granting 6 points every three levels, you can just hand out 2 points every level. Players can save up to buy things that cost more than 2.

    1. Sure, I mean, the numbers aren't precise; you could play around with them, etc. I just wish they were explicit.

  5. I had such high hopes when they starting the playtest. THe idea of 5e sounds glorious at the time; a modular toolkit that would allow you to play the version of D&D you wanted to play, with a complexity level geared up or down to meet that individual need. Yet, nope... the modularity is obfuscated, the sense of plug-n-play lost in the mix of same-old same-old D&D. So disappointed.