Saturday, December 27, 2014

D&D 5E is… Awesome?

In the aftermath of the holidays, I've been able to peruse the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  It's… an interesting game.  In many cases, it's an amalgam of the previous four major editions of D&D (AD&D 1E, 2E, 3.5, and 4th) cherrypicking some of the best or most iconic bits and making sure they're represented.  The mechanics are streamlined and simplified, and there's plenty of modern design thinking evident - things like inspiration points, or minimized book keeping and resource management.  Overall, it seems like a good game from a quick read through of the system.

Characters advance very quickly, have a wide range of abilities (even at level one), and they recover from adventures very quickly.  It supports a far more cinematic and heroic style of play than OSR D&D.  If Tolkien's literary roots correspond to the AD&D 1E experience, than D&D 5E is like the Peter Jackson edition.  There's even a mine-car chase pictured in the artwork.

I really like top-down adventure and dungeon design, and I was gladdened to see lots of material in the DMG to support encounter creation, experience budgets, challenge ratings - that kind of stuff.  4E did that well, although combats were typically long and grindy; 5E kept the math-based design aspects, but the higher damage output by characters and monsters looks like it will avoid the grind.  I need to get some drive-time with the rules in play, perhaps with the starter set or something, to fully calibrate how the encounter experience plays out at the table.  I've only done a few of the pre-release play tests.

I also liked all the options late in the DMG for adding things like madness, horror, honor, injuries, and other optional rules like firearms and gonzo science fantasy.  There are a lot of dials and levers the referee can adjust to alter the tone of their game.

There is some dissonance between what 5E is proposing as the style of play and how I run dungeon crawling with older editions.  For instance, consider the rate of advancement proposed in 5E.  A party of adventurers should advance to level 2 after the first game session, to level 3 after the second game session, and then to level 4 after the next 2-3 games - and that's the expected rate of advancement for the rest of the game, with the players earning a new character level every 2-3 game sessions.  Keeping with the Peter Jackson cinematic experience, characters will go from zero to epic hero in the course of the two hour movie.

This expected rate of advancement dramatically changes how you'd approach designing a sprawling dungeon, like the classic old school megadungeon.  No need for extensive 100-room dungeon levels when the players are going to be ready for the next level down after a scant couple of combat encounters.  Plus, all of the experience in default 5E comes from fighting, not recovering treasure like the older editions.  Figuring out how I'd do a large dungeon in 5E is one of the first things I'm going to consider with the system.  I have a few friends playing "The Rise of the Hoard of Tiamat the Queen Dragon" (sic) adventure path books, and they've remarked that they're fairly linear and feel like a railroad.  Could just be their referee, but I'm suspicious that most of the 5E officially supported materials might come out in that style, to support the way characters rocket through their character levels.  It's not my favorite approach, but some adventure paths are written better than others, no doubt.  WOTC could "get there".

We did a game last summer built around a dungeon called "Taenarum", the legendary road to Hades and the Greek underworld (before gamer attention deficit disorder drew me into the super hero game for a bit) .  5E could work really well for that style of game - powerful characters that quickly advance to a legendary status, myths and monsters, an epic setting.  I'm off work a fair amount in the next week and will start thinking about whether Taenarum 2.0 could be worth investigating.  Maybe 5E would work for Vikings and an updated approach to one of my older campaigns, the Black City.  Dunno.  I know the system is new, has anyone started working on a megadungeon style of play with 5E, or are you finding there's too much resistance built into the system?

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