Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Challenge For 5E

There was lots of recent chatter on the old school blogs about 'dissociated mechanics' and how this doomed 4E.  The hanging question, is WOTC still doing the same thing in 5E?

I have a different requirement for 5E:  I want a set of rules that support simulation of whatever fantasy world I'm building for my campaign.

I know the word "simulation" is loaded; I don't want a game that simulates real world physics.  But I want the rules that define the game elements to follow some internal consistency, and apply equally to players and non-player characters and the world at large.  I want a rules set that is coherent for simulating an interesting D&D world for placing adventures.

4E is littered with examples where the rules of the game lead to a game setting that has zero internal consistency or logic.  Monsters have ridiculous armor classes that make them impossible for the ordinary inhabitants of the game world to damage them.  Other monsters have 1 hit point each (as minions) and die when someone gives them a good push.

Just look at the subjective logic of treating dragons as "solo monsters" in some instances, or "elites" based on the combat role the DM wants them to possess, in the next.   The monster has no objective reality in the setting; its role and mechanical footprint is completely subjective, and based only on how it's defined in relationship to the chosen ones, the player characters.  I wouldn't be surprised if there were eventually dragon "minions", too.

I was stubborn with that game system - we gave it a long leash, trying multiple campaigns and getting deep into the 'paragon tier', against my better judgment.  I drank multiple cups of the kool aid.  I won't be nearly so gullible with 5E.

So this is my personal criteria for a successful 5E.  The rules and mechanical bits need to present a world with internal consistency regardless of the presence of player characters.  The mechanical styling of a 4E game world only made sense when viewed from the perspective of providing a perfectly balanced challenge for a set of player characters of superheroic stature with manifest destinies.  It was basically West World, Future World, and any one of those Yul Brenner theme parks (Medieval World, Roman World).  It drove me nuts.

I haven't looked that closely at 5E yet to know if it passes the test.  We probably haven't seen enough regarding the roles of monsters and NPCs in the setting.  I've heard the buzzword "bounded accuracy", which seems to mean The Mearls has abandoned scaling armor class and gone back to the older approach, where armor classes exist in a consistent range across the game setting.  That's really a great first step.  But I've also heard that level 1 characters have super high hit point totals and wield the crazy at-will powers.  (Like, dude, where's my first level?).  If NPC opponents have the same ridiculous hit points and the laser-beam clerics and the zap zap zap wizardy powers, then perhaps the system will have some internal logic.  It might be a good system for gonzo high magic fantasy where all the clerics walk around shooting lasers out of their holy symbols and all the wizards shoot ice rays out of their fingers, and that's just how the world works.

I don't see that happening; I have to think the final version of 5E will keep the players as the super heroic chosen ones of destiny, with over-the-top abilities no one else in the game world seems to possess.  This will probably mean I'll skip 5E entirely.  I can live with some dissociated mechanics.  I won't buy into another incoherent WOTC game that panders to power gamers.  I truly hope to be proven wrong!


  1. It's fun to see what kind of crazy world you get when you build out the world from the premises of 1st edition rules. The result is pretty weird, but you come up with a fantasy world at least vaguely close to those from the literature. But if you try the same thing with 4th, you're right, it's westworld, and obviously so.

    You state the situation with 4th edition very well. It's written from the point of view that nothing is real unless a PC is looking at it that very instant. While that approach makes considerable sense, given that it mirrors the acutal situation of a DM and players talking about things, it leads to the rules having a very odd perspective, one that actually breaks down suspension of disbelief.

  2. The main reason the developers , i think, are doing these weird at-wills or1st lvl's being "super heroes" stems directly from the card games and the video games. Hence the dumbed down game mechanics.
    If you want a good balanced "real world" or close to "middle earth" style campaign world, then 2e is your best bet. But keep in mind, if the world isn't believable, then your campaign is doomed from the begining

  3. I have to think the final version of 5E will keep the players as the super heroic chosen ones of destiny, with over-the-top abilities no one else in the game world seems to possess.

    This seems to be a slightly different point than what the beginning of your post is about. There's absolutely nothing that I have read in 4E that suggests PCs are the only ones with over over-the-top abilities. It's true that monsters often have fewer powers than PCs, but that was a reaction the cost of building 3E encounters; I gather if done by the book, 3E monsters can take longer to create than to kill. But if you want a monster or NPC with more powers, you can do that, and even while following the monster creation guidelines in the DMG.

    Monsters and NPCs are usually simpler than PCs in traditional D&D too.

    The scaling issue is a different one, and they seem to be pretty dedicated to this idea of bounded accuracy, so I'm hopeful this concept will anchor the final product. In some ways, it may even be less scaled than AD&D (which does have it's share of bonus inflation arms race going on, though it's not nearly as bad as 3E or 4E in that regard).

    I think the "PCs are the only actors that matter" problem is more caused by the preplanned scene-based adventure encounter design guidelines, not the other parts of the system.

    1. The one problem is a symptom of another.

      When you start with the perspective that the setting is only a vehicle for PC's to be awesome, the monsters and NPC's are naturally defined only in their relation to get punched out by the PC.

      Then you end up with every villager being a 1hp minion, and the troll that terrorizes the country side having a 30+ AC, and no one for a hundred leagues could hope to damage the troll according to the system... at least until the chosen ones show up.

      Really hoping that 5E returns to the approach of letting you create a coherent world first, in which you just drop the player characters.

      I do agree that if everyone with a character class has over the top powers, that doesn't imply incoherence, it could just be a gonzo setting where clerics shoot lasers all the time.

  4. Great post! It's too early to tell if 5e D&D presents a world with internal consistency the way you describe. Certainly the PCs are exceptional people--even though they haven't presented an idea of what Normal Men look like, if you compare the PCs to the humanoid monsters, the PCs are clearly exceptional. Kobolds have 2-3 hit points. Goblins, who in early editions of D&D are a bit stronger than Normal Men, have 5 hit points. The PCs have anywhere from 16-20 hit points*.

    Here's a side note about the inflated hit points. 5e D&D seems like a great system (so far) for running Sword and Sorcery games, where everyone is a Fighting Man or Thief, with the odd Sorcerer here and there... and no Healers/Clerics. Between the Short Rest (aka Bandage Wounds) rules and the occasional Healing Potion, these PCs are capable of soldiering on in a way that the more fragile B/X D&D characters I'm familiar with are not.

    I talk a bit about some of these issues (although not dissociated mechanics) on my blog:

    * What's interesting about this is that if you subtract the Constitution bonuses, hit points by class look like:
    Wizard 14
    Rogue 15
    Cleric 16
    Fighter 18

  5. Having playtested and stayed as on-top of info from the developers as I could, I can tell you that the idea of making 5e modular so you can fit it to the tastes of your group has a great chance of happening.

    The current playtest materials use a mix of modular bits thrown in so they can get feedback on some specific stuff along with getting a feel for where the interests of the player base fall.

    Also, they state on the character sheets that you can remove themes and backgrounds and test without them. Mearls also stated you can also drop the at-will spells and test without them. The designers also clarified that the high hitpoints were temporary since they are still working on monster design and those too are above the intended goals.

    I don't think at this point there is any cause for 5e alarmism. Give it time, and get involved in the playtesting so we members of the old guard can influence design elements of the optional rules and help solidify the skeleton of the core.

  6. Well, I have ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King System), which is a beautiful ruleset designed with internally-consistent setting assumptions and full of options (and its Companion has even more). While it has B/X under the hood, it does feel like good ol' 2E of my youth through my nostalgic glasses. So why spend $100 or so (including shipping) on a new-school edition which might be less compatible with my tastes.

  7. Very well surmised -- the "West World" analogy cuts to the core of the issue!

  8. Nice post here. Hits the nail on the head for what was wrong starting 3e to 4e. Next/5e does seem to be going back to a solid world where numbers mean something -- so far, so good, but hoping with OSRbaron that they scale back PC hit points a bit. Characters can get into pretty deep trouble even without a cleric around and come out on top, which is cool to an extent, but I think for balance it needs to scale down a bit farther.