Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Turning Point with 5th Edition

I've been dubious about 5E.  I do not see eye to eye with modern adventure design and the expectations of modern players (post TSR players).  The story of my blog has become a search for a middle ground - running the system my friends all prefer (the 5th) while running a game that satisfies my own expecations, too.  However, I finally think we're getting there.

If you've read my game reports on Tomb of Annihilation (TOA) you know TOA is one of 5E's adventures I praise liberally.  It's flaws are modest, it's virtues are many.  It thrusts the players into an old school style hex crawl, requiring that they plan and manage resources.  The story isn't about an author's scene-based plot to follow, it's an emergent story built over time based on player actions.  Tomb of Annihilation checks off some good boxes.

We are in the capstone dungeon of the campaign, a grim place called the Tomb of the Nine Gods (the erstwhile Tomb of Annihilation itself, the namesake).  It means what it says on the cover.  Death lurks around every corner.

I've noticed a big change in the players.  Everyone has been leaning in a little more at the table.  They take their time discussing spell choices and preparations for the adventuring day.  Planning matters.  There's a nervous energy as I describe the next room. It's palpable.  The threat of instant death has a way of sharpening the mind.

It brings to mind a Flannery O'Connor quote, from a "A Good Man is Hard to Find":  "She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

5E feels the most like D&D when there are real consequences behind every player choice.  Many of the hardback books are too "balanced" and forgiving.  I'm starting to see what it takes to deliver a good game of 5E (my definition of a good game, at least).

The Tomb of the Nine Gods is not unfair, and I'm not an adversarial DM.  Sure there are save-or-die effects, and massive damage traps, and literal death rooms that can kill the whole party.  It's an homage to Tomb of Horrors!  But there are clues, and high level characters are not without resources.  Mostly though, the players are surviving because they are planning well, making smart choices, and sometimes getting a little lucky.  They've cheered each other and high-fived each other and relished their hard won successes.  It's been real fun on both sides of the screen.  It's been D&D.

I wasn't sure how this bare-knuckled style was going to play out in a Fifth Edition setting, and it's going quite well.  My 5E "training period" is coming to a close.

Mandatory Corona-vacation will shift us online for our next game session - I'll come back with a report on what tools we used and how it went.  And I'll get a game report posted with some details of these "player victories" in the Tomb.


  1. Yes, but it'd still run better on 1e.

    1. Undoubtedly, BraceDecades (although I'd probably run BX or a retroclone if I got to pick).

  2. I got thrown in the same boat, running 5e because it was more popular than 1e.

    First I disallowed a lot of silly races, restricted the classes, and modified clerics to replace cantrips with an extra 1st level spell slot.

    Second I wrote a sandbox.

    Third I ramped up the danger on encounters. The advice in the DMG is garbage.

    65 sessions in it is palatable, and I know enough to further refine it for the next campaign, such as adding material component cost to some rituals to prevent abuse (looking at you water breathing cast every morning)

    1. Looks like I'm following a very similar trajectory, at least as far as wanting to restrict silly races, build a sandbox, and ramp up the danger. I'm starting to get a good feel for what 5E characters can handle. Good insight on "ritual abuse" - we're not there yet, but I can see it happening.