(Note: this was originally posted in 2014 at my now-defunct gaming blog. Looking back, I feel that the analysis holds, or at least, does a good job explaining my experience with the system. All good? All good.) So in a move that I both totally support, and wonder at the motivation of, WOtC is giving away their “core” rules as a free .pdf download from their website. It makes sense for a lot of reasons – there’s a bunch of free D&D out there already, and they need to convince their core demographic to buy a new thing. I delved those depths, my friends. What follows are my thoughts.
Observation One: WotC has a very specific vision for what playing D&D looks like.
The .pdf starts off with a play example, which highlights something shown both in their examples, but also kind of explicit in their description of how to play: namely, a weirdly structured, call-and-response feel. Their “how to play” blurb outlines the following:
- The DM describes the environment
- The Players describe what they want to do
- The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions
…this pattern holds whether the adventurers are cautiously exploring a ruin, talking to a devious prince, or locked in mortal combat against a mighty dragon. In certain situations, particularly combat, the action is more structured. p. 3; emphasis mine.
This idea is echoed throughout – now, it’s in the “what is D&D” section, so maybe they thought the experienced gamers would just skip it, but this sentiment shows up again in places; like the whole game is supposed to be more turn-based. Maybe I’m overreacting, but it kind of feels that way to me. One thing that I do like, is they’ve really drawn on their source material – all the “in-world” examples come from D&D fiction of various stripes – R.A. Salvatore, Margaret Weis & Elaine Cunningham all make appearances, and the overall tone is noticeably stronger for it; they really talk about the different D&D worlds a lot. Another thing, and I’ll get into this in a bit, is they seem to have decided what the “feel” of D&D is, and optimized for that. You know how in 3rd edition, 1st level feels really different from 6th, which is almost unrelated to 15th? I think we have more consistency here.
Observation Two: The designers wear their influences on their sleeves, but it’s one of those iron-on decals.
So, some indie games were played, they tried to streamline things. Some worked, some didn’t. You know how Monte Cook was originally brought on to design 5E, but left over creative differences? You can really see what he was trying to do if you look at Numenera; 5E very clearly feels similar, but misses the bits that make that system playable.
Basically, you make attribute checks. While this might be specific, like “make me a wisdom [perception] check,” it might also not. If this sounds like a trivial distinction, it really isn’t: skills are much squishier, and every character will have precious few. I mean that: the Rogue is awesome, because they get to be proficient in 4 whole skills! You also get 2 proficiencies from your background (you pick from pre-made backgrounds; these seem to give 2 skill proficiencies, language or tool proficiencies, and a negligible amount of gear). Proficiency is binary: you’re either proficient, or you’re not. If you ARE proficient, you get to add your proficiency bonus: see the next point for more on that.
I do kind of like some of what they’ve done with spellcasting. Prepared casters get spell level slots based on level, which are separate from their spells memorized, which are equal to casting stat + character level. So, if I’m a 3rd level Cleric with a Wisdom of 16 (pretty good by their stat spreads), I’ve got 4 first-level, and 2 second-level slots, which I can use to cast any of my 6 memorized spells. That flexibility is pretty cool, and avoids “wasted” spell slots. It also allows you to cast spells in higher slots – so there’s no more Cure X wounds – it’s just cure wounds. Cast it in a higher slot for more effect. Same with Magic Missile, and a bunch of other spells. On the flip side, spells don’t scale anymore. Your level 3 fireball will always do the same damage; you need to spend a higher slot on it to scale it up. I’ve talked about how much I like the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic before – it’s cool. Even if it has shown up before, I never ran into it, and it’s very core to the system here, which I like.
Observation Three: This is a game about people who fail.
So, remember your proficiency bonus? I never explained that, did I? It’s simple: it’s a scaling bonus, which starts at +2 at 1st level, and goes up to +6 at 20th. This is the bonus you get to add to doing stuff. Proficient with a skill? Add this bonus. Proficient with a weapon? Add this bonus. If not? Just roll D20+stat bonus. That’s it. That’s the game. No magic weapon scaling, no improving your skills; +2 to +6 in a D&D game where you can’t even buy an 18 in anything at character creation.
Okay, this could work in a different system, but with the linear randomness that a d20 provides? The dice are pretty much always going to be more important than the character sheet.
Example. Let’s say that I’m playing a character who wants to succeed at a thing; let’s say that thing is picking locks. Ok, so I max my dex (16) and do something to get me a proficiency – they don’t stack, so I only need one. Ok! Let’s look at our potential DC’s:
Typical Difficulty Classes:
- Very Easy: 5
- Easy: 10
- Medium: 15
- Hard: 20
- Very Hard: 25
- Nearly Impossible: 30
Ok! So, let’s say I need to roll against medium difficulty. It’s a medium thing! My super-optimized character will roll a D20+3+2 to do this. Let’s be generous, and say that I roll average, a nice 11, for a total of 16 I succeed, but barely. If I’m trying an actually hard lock, forget it. But hey, I’m level 1! What about when I’m an awesome level 10 adventurer? Well then, my proficiency bonus goes up to +4! I’ve also gotten 3 ability bonuses (if I didn’t take any feats, which are now an optional thing in the Players handbook – when you would get +1 to a stat, you could instead take a feat) But let’s say I didn’t – these are the core rules, after all.
So, I roll D20+4+4, which gets me a kickin’ awesome 19 on a roll of 11! Which still won’t open the lock, 10 levels later. Basically, it’s entirely a game about how well your D20 just rolled. And it had better roll high, otherwise you get to fail, and feel bad. Now, if that example had used a race that gives a dex bonus, then it pushes those rolls over the line; it’s still basically a coin flip though. And that, to me, makes this a game about failure. Which leads me to my final point:
Observation Four: There is nothing 5E does that isn’t done better elsewhere
*Shrug* If I want to play D&D, I’ll play 13th age – which I’m excited about – or Pathfinder, which is a very mature game at this point. If I want to play with ideas of helplessness in an RPG, I’ll play a goddamn horror game; there’s a whole bunch of them out there, and that’s a genre that benefits from failing, a lot. When we talk about game desing, D&D is classically held up as the example of RPGs where failure feels really awful. Then they went and made the game about that for some reason, even though it really clashes with their source material. I tried to go into this with an open mind; from the first tidbits I’d seen coming out, I was legitimately excited. I wanted to be surprised. Pleased, even.
I wasn’t; this is just as bad as it was back in the early playtest. As such, I can’t in good conscience recommend 5E for… anything, really. Old school gamers can play Old School Hack, Dungeon Crawl Classics, or any number of the OSR games on the market. People who like D&D for the things that the beginning of the book says that D&D is about – adventure, bravery, heroic exploits – would be better served by most fantasy RPGs on the market today; Pathfinder, 13th Age, Dungeon World, Fantasy AGE, Fantasy Hero Complete, Savage Worlds Fantasy, Burning Wheel… seriously. Ask the internet, it knows things.
Addendum: words in context
If I’ve learned anything from my time reviewing music, it’s that time can have an interesting effect on strong opinions. Since this was published, D&D 5 has done pretty well for itself, though I don’t know if it has reclaimed the top spot from Paizo Publishing in terms of market share. More importantly, a lot of smart people in game design, who I respect a great deal, have said some pretty positive things about it.
I found myself wondering what game they were playing, and how it differed from the one I had.
In the end, I stand by my statements; I feel that 5E is not rules-light enough to be a casual game, not rules-heavy enough to be a tactical game, doesn’t allow enough granularity in character expression to be a simulation, and punishes failure way too harshly to be a pulpy, high-randomness game.
In the end, perhaps D&D is about random death. Or more likely, random failure, which is supposed to make your successes feel more potent. That’s not the effect it’s had on me; blame the degree in advanced statistical modeling if you will, but putting so much emphasis on how 20 points of linear randomness feel at the moment is not particularly conductive to the things that I’ve found valuable in the hobby.
And now that I’ve written a 200+ word addendum, I shall conclude thusly. If you’ve enjoyed D&D 5th Edition, that’s awesome! I am legitimately happy for you. Furthermore, I’d like to know what it is that you like about it, in an unironic, honest fashion. One of the problems with analysis is over-analyzing. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing.
Anyway, good night, and game on.