Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I've only run about 5-6 sessions of 5E, but I'm beginning to get a sense on some adjustments to make to my encounter and dungeon designs going forward.  Here's what I'm figuring out.

Rest Versus Lethality
5E has very generous recovery rules.  Characters completely heal over night, and the party can recover a lot of their fighting capability after a short rest (defined as 1 hour, sitting put in the dungeon).  Once the party manages to survive a treacherous encounter, they can recover quite a bit back to normal and take on another difficult challenge without leaving the dungeon.

There's the rub - surviving the encounter.  Monsters hit hard, dice matter, and players frequently go to zero hit points, getting revived mid combat by healing.  My old school games featured a longer attrition based approach to whittling away resources, with cumulative small combats wearing the party down over time until they hit a breaking point and decided to leave the dungeon site entirely to recover overnight.

In 5E, you can push the players to that breaking point repeatedly in a single game session, because once they survive the first encounter, enough resources reset for the next encounter and the party can stay in the dungeon.  The angst filled discussions aren't "can we go one more room", they're more like "can we actually survive this room and get to a rest point?"

Delve Pacing
We try to play a 3-4 hour game session.  Depending on how long it takes everyone to catch up with the chit chat at the beginning of the game session, the group has been able to clear 3-4 combat encounters per night.  That means a one night delve or lair should be 2-3 planned encounters, plus the chance for a wandering monster or two.

This is important to realize:  In old school games, wandering monsters waste party resources.  In my current game, where I'd like the players to complete a mission by the end of the night, wandering monsters waste table time and threaten the party's ability to clear the delve.  Technically the wandering monsters waste resources, too, but I'm much more sensitive about the time, because resources refresh so much in between fights.

This is a self-inflicted problem.  I don't know which players are going to show up each week, so I want the games to always start and end back in town.  And because I'm a jerk, if the players leave a dungeon half-finished with a dangling plot hook and the treasure just hanging out, it's likely someone else (one of my asshat NPC parties of rival adventurers) is going to come along and finish the quest while the party is out of the dungeon.  Wandering monsters waste the player's time, not their resources, by preventing them from completing objectives.

Although they're not explicitly called out in MMORPG terms like tank, cannon/DPS, buffer / healer, etc., it's clear some of that philosophy is still present. An optimized party backed by good tactics will do much better in combat.  I saw a glimpse of the future last game session, where a tankish fighter tied down the enemy boss (and went into defense mode) while a group of heavy-damage striker types pummeled the boss at range - it was ugly for the bad guys and I wept bitter tears on the inside.  Luckily the tank player isn't an every week player, and the high-defense damage sponge is an unglamorous role.  Hopefully, the glory hounds of the group will continue to turn up their noses at playing "boring" sword-and-board fighters.  It's much more fun as referee when everyone's a squishy striker with low hit points, and the monsters get to wail on them.  Just saying.

The net-net - much like 3.x or 4E, a highly skilled party will be able to roll over poor encounters that don't present the players with tactical challenges, either through raw power or difficult terrain, environments, or deployments.  It's important to give some thought to challenging the players via sound tactics.  I'm off to read some Sun Tzu.

The complexity of running the game during the combat has shifted more towards the players, who have all the custom abilities and fiddly bits.  Monsters are very easy to run in 5E - it's so easy to run as referee, my heart is about to explode in my chest with joy at the ease of running 5E.  So yeah, the point is you should have brain power left over to think about tactics, because your brain isn't forced to keep bonuses, modifiers, and player facing rules in the frontal lobe during the game.  It's all been shifted to the player's side of the table.

Say Goodbye to Your Chestnuts
Our old school groups used to feature 8-10 characters; 5-6 players and the rest were meat shields, hirelings, and retainers.  Because the old school game is attrition based, the players needed those bags of hit points to rotate in and out of the front lines - sheer numbers mattered.  This isn't really an issue in 5E and the party hasn't had a need for any retainers or mercenaries.

There's no zero to hero arc.  Even first level characters can do amazing, every-round magical feats via cantrips.  5E is a high magic, high power style of adventure game.  It's great fun, but it's certainly not literary or amenable to magic realism or the historical fantasy I've favored in recent years.  My players say they don't miss the days of "pitchfork wielding peasants who learn how to fight monsters the hard way", but I love that style of campaign, so I'm still going to inflict some true old school games on them - probably next time I need to run a horror game  by Halloween or something.

I also loved old school reaction rolls and morale rules.  Random results force me to improvise - they're fun curve balls to navigate from the DM's side of the table.  They're not in 5E from what I can tell, so I'll probably have to house rule these things in there some way.

Good Luck With Those NPCs, Ref
Yeah, I don’t love building NPC parties in 5E.  My referee style fills the world with rival adventurers and dungeon factions - it's a roleplaying game, and the players need foils.  There are a handful of suggested NPC type "monsters" at the end of the Monster Manual, but otherwise, you have to build NPC monsters from scratch.  I don't love it.

Here's a sample issue.  XP value of a monster (and therefore challenge rating) is a function of attack, defense, hit points, special abilities.  Two different NPC magic users, each  representing a 5th level magic user, err… wizard, will have a wildly different XP values based solely on their spell choices.  The guy with Fireball, Flaming Sphere, and Heat Ray will have a damage output off the chart compared to the guy with utility spells, or Sleep and Hold Person.

In an old school game, each of these "monsters" would be 5 HD (with an asterisk or two to cover the special abilities) when calculating XP and difficulty level.  But it makes sense that the guy with Fireball is an order of magnitude more difficult to fight than the guy with a Fly spell - not only does he do a lot of damage, but it's an area effect that could nuke the whole party!  5E takes into account that degree of nuance, but it means each homebrew NPC requires assembly or calculation according to the monster rules and their specific abilities.  I'm still in the process of making my peace with this particular sub-system.  I'm not friends with it yet, having only created stats for a handful of NPC's so far (and choosing refuge in the expedient practice of reskinning stat blocks for many of the NPCs).  But your time is coming, awkward NPC rules!  I will conquer you and destroy you!

If you've made the switch from a rules light D&D clone to 5E, what kind of adjustments have you had to make to your style or expectations?