Sunday, September 8, 2019

Character versus Campaign

I'm still trying to get comfortable with the difference between old school characters and the latest edition.  Let's talk generalities - old school characters are quick to generate, somewhat disposable, and they become interesting over time due to emergent stories.  There's not a lot of mechanical difference between various 1st level fighters.  It's the adventures they survive that make them interesting.  Because the characters are disposable, the campaign becomes the constant at the table.  Campaign transcends character.

5E is another animal.  Players come to the table with deeply thought out level 1 characters, taking great care to select race, class, backgrounds, character options, and considering a mechanical arc for the character.  In addition to the player's handbook core rules, there are several other books that expand character options.

I know these topics have been litigated ad nauseum since 3E.  The argument goes there are way more players than game masters, so economically, market forces dictate the company makes lots of player options because it sells books.  Wizards has been fairly disciplined with their publishing schedule, so the market isn't flooded with too many 5E player options like the 3rd or 4th editions, but there's still a good amount out there.

However, I think it's more interesting to reflect on how 5E's approach to the player character affects gameplay.  I've been part of convention games, and running a good amount of Adventurer's League games as a "public DM" for one of my friends (plus a weekly home game).  Every week it's (potentially) a different set of players with different characters.  The public games are single-serving fun-size episodes.  The story and the campaign doesn't provide the continuity for the players, it's the character itself that's the one constant.  (Wherever you go, there you are, or something like it).

The positive for this approach is the amount of creativity manifested in the players.  Character story still emerges through play, the way God and Gary intended, but players show up having given a lot more thought to how they want to portray the character when their time at the table is a single-serving instance.  No one at a public game table wants to hear someone's five page backstory, but the players that get it are very good at using their turns to add some flourish and tell their character's story through brief action choices, mannerisms, or maybe a funny accent or turn of phrase. I'm sure the ever-presence of Twitch gaming and celebrity-table D&D is contributing to player theatrics and a heavier focus on roleplaying through table presence.  (The Matt Mercer effect).  I don't live in a particularly large town, one of many suburbs north of Philadelphia, but it boasts two nights per week of these "Adventurer Leagues", at different stores, running 4-5 full tables of players.  I don't know if Dungeons & Dragon has ever been more popular.  I'm not going to complain.

There are some ramifications to 5E's character emphasis I still don't like.  The characters are extremely powerful, very hard to kill, and all of the game effects that should be permanent and horrifying are typically only temporary (an example would be petrification).  I'm not a killer DM, but the lack of lethality undermines drama at the table - combat is sport instead of war, as we say.  I usually have to discard any game balance "guidelines" and be willing to throw anything and everything at the players to generate a credible threat.  (This is much easier in a home game than the public Adventurer's League setting where you're constrained by an author).  For campaign building, I don't like the limitations high-powered, high-magic characters create for the world at large.  5E D&D doesn't emulate genres well; it's created its own genre of fantasy; at best you can import flavors from other genres and nudge the default 5E assumptions towards the style you want to mirror.

Despite these cranky "get off my lawn with your 5th edition" complaints, I'm having fun.  I appreciate the player creativity I'm seeing.  Running Adventurer's League is meh, but I'm helping a friend out due to the high demand in the area.  Apparently one can run the published hardcover campaigns in lieu of their Adventurer's League modules, so I'm going to try that soon - most of the hardback campaigns are well done, and I've run enough home brew megadungeons to handle a drop in/drop out episodic public game.  The biggest dissonance I have is re-calibrating my expectations of world building, which arcs towards low magic, pseudo-historical settings with a side of horror.  I don't naturally embrace the wahoo high-magic eclectic mash-up embodied by 5E.  Getting there is a work in progress; thus I haven't tried my hand at a homebrew setting in a while.  I'm all ears for advice on how you've done it.


  1. In the little experience I have with running 5e, I find that limiting players to a set number of classes/races helps define a campaign world. For example, if the only spell-casting class available is the Warlock, that says a lot about what magic is, where it comes from and how magic is perceived in the world. Players still get to cast spells, but they do so in a framework that is much easier to re-introduce the low magic, pseudo-historical, and horror elements that you and I both love to have in a campaign.

  2. Willingness to offer death and to risk it are inversely proportional to the amount of time invested in making your guy.

    In Mythical Journeys (which is FLAILSNAIL,) you can make a guy in literally 5 minutes.