Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons is Weird

The new D&D is weird.  It's this Frankenstein's monster of old games.  When you peer into it, there bits and pieces from past D&Ds scattered around.

I'm sitting here with rulebooks piled up on my desk - everything from Moldvay to Pathfinder, trying to figure out what makes 5e tick, and why it ticks in the way it does.

For anyone who's played a bit of D&D over the past 40 years, the archaeology can be confusing.  Some things are so similar to our favorite versions of D&D, and some things are not.  It can look broken and strange at times, and I've found myself having to tilt my head and squint my eyes to figure some things out.

At 5e's core is the d20 system task resolution developed for the third edition of D&D.  When I first saw the d20 system years ago, I was very enthusiastic.  In practice, however, it became a real scaling nightmare since character levels weighed heavily in 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder/4e.

Fifth edition flattens the curve considerably into something that very closely resembles the advancements back in the pre-d20 days:


Level Proficiency Bonus
1-4 +2
5-8 +3
9-12 +4
13-16 +5
17-20 +6

And those bonuses only go toward combat and skills the character is proficient in, which is largely determined by class.  So the ability stats actually mean a lot more to a player, since they follow the standard d20 progression:


Ability Score Bonus
3 -4
4 -3
5 -3
6 -2
7 -2
8 -1
9 -1
10 0
11 0
12 +1
13 +1
14 +2
15 +2
16 +3
17 +3
18 +4

If you are not rolling, the standard set of scores are 15,14,13,12,10, and 8.  But even if you use the point buy method, you can't get a score above 15. Racial bonuses could get a starting character up to 17 - but that is it.  In fact, 20 in the maximum for any stat.

What this means in practical terms is that when fighting a goblin, it's a tough fight at 1st.  It's still not an easy fight at 2nd, and even at 3rd level it's something to think about.  In the game we are currently playing, my fighter has been on her ass, unconscious, in every game session at some point.

So it's a new mechanic (d20) that replicates the feel of an old mechanic (THAC0 and the old charts.)   It plays nice and clean, so clean that you may not notice how different it is.

Then you get to the weapons.  Sure, they look almost identical to the weapons of old.  Heck, a dagger still does d4.  But then you start noticing that most weapons have something special about them - properties that haven't quite appeared the same way in past games.  The three big one are finesse, thrown, and versatile.

With finesse I'm not talking about a feat.  Finesse is a quality of a melee weapon where you can add your dexterity bonus, rather than your strength bonus, to hit and damage rolls.  Again, I'm not talking about a feat.  It's an intrinsic quality of certain weapons, such as a dagger, a scimitar, a short sword, a rapier, and a whip.  

Yeah - that one little change is huge when you think about it.

The thrown property is basically finesse in reverse.  With some ranged weapons, like axes and spears, you can add your strength bonuses, rather than your dexterity bonuses.  Booyah.

Versatile is a property that allows you to two-hand a weapon and make it spit out more damage.  The d6 of a quarterstaff pops up to d8 if you use both hands.  Yeah - that makes it as effective as a long sword with one hand.  4e had a mechanism that added +1 damage when wielding a versatile weapon, but I like the dice upgrade better.

The list goes on.  One of the big ones, the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, I've talked about before.  It's very simple and very powerful.  A player can choose to take an average hp gain, rather than rolling each level.  The 4e based death and dying mechanic is balanced by a new insta-death feature.  And so on.

I think the main thing I've noticed is that those of us who have played previous versions of D&D have a hard time figuring out all of the repercussions of a bunch of little rule changes, tweaks, and a handful of big new mechanics.  It takes sitting down and actually playing to see if it's something you'd like.

Like I've said before, I'm quite happy with 5e so far.  Those two years of play testing - both in public and private, really paid off for WOTC.

(They just released sub-class descriptions for the upcoming players handbook.  I'm excited and horrified WTF all at the same time.  Some WEIRD shit that did not expect is coming up.  Fun times . . .)

- Ark

Tired


Sunday, July 27, 2014

The New D&D

From dahli-lama.deviantart.com 
D&D 5e has been along time coming - an event which I have viewed with cautious hope and creeping dread for - what - has it been years now?  Our gaming group is currently in the middle of the D&D Starter Set's intro adventure, the Lost Mine of Phandelver.

I can't really review the Starter Set because, strangely enough, I am not the DM this time around.  We've got a mix of people playing - grognards and complete D&D newbs, old and young, girls and boys.  There are six of us, and the basic set only had five prebuilts - so we whipped up a totally random character for player #6 out of the Basic Set.  I mean, compltely random - even race and class.  So he's a halfling stout soldier wizard.  Yeah.  Hilarious, but surprisingly effective.

We did a lot of things randmly - like roll height and weight out of the Basic Set.  I had picked the human noble fighter - the tank of the group, and decided to run it as a woman.  Well, due to the luck of the dice, she ended up being 4'11''.  Since her weapon is a two handed axe, she gives of the feeling of a tall dwarven warrior.

After a few weeks of play - I'm really impressed with the Starter Set, the Basic Rules, and D&D 5e in general.  The race/subrace/class/backgroud combo gives an immediate sense of who the characters are.  For a 'role' player like me it gives plenty of meat to sink my acting chops into, while not being in the way of people who just want to dive into a whole-sale slaughter-fest.

The D&D newbs of the group are enjoying it, as well as us old jaded types.  My son Kenny said that it really has an old school feel.  It does - and I think it has just enough differences to keep me on my toes and interested.  Funny, it's even got me interested in good old fashioned dungeon crawls again - something that I had become bored with by 1982.

The mechanics are quite slick.  I love the advantage/disadvantage mechanism that tosses out so many of those little tiny plus/minus rules that we tend to forget about and leaves you with one big whammy of a bonus/nonbonus.  In every fight, with every swing of the axe, I'm thinking about how I can get an advantage out of my attack - from launching myself in a high-jump off the helmet of a downed ally, to hocking a big, fat, sticky loogie in the face of a bugbear who is staring me down.  Yeah, I'm driving the DM crazy with descriptive plays for advantage, but it's fun. :)

I think one of the bigger problems with the game is the new spells mechanics for prepared spells and spell slots.  The mechanic is actually just fine - I like it - but players seem to get confused about how it works.  Well, old players.  New players seem to get the hang of it quickly enough.  It's something us grognards need to read over very carefully, and I think they could have spelled it out more clearly in the rules.

Another issue I see if the level progression.  It rockets players up quickly in levels at first, then slows down considerably.  For a player's first game, or games by people who don't have a lot of time, I think it's fine.  But for a group who plays with one another on a regular basis, I think it might feel a bit wierd having characters get proficient so quickly.  I don't know though - that is somethign to test in the future.

So, the group is really pumped by D&D.  We've got some brand new players who have a really good taste in thier mouth from this edition - which is exactly what I had hoped this version would do.  And I am jazzed about dungeon crawling with my 4'11' tank girl.

In less than a month, the Player's Handbook will be out, and we're all excited to see it come.  I still dread the min-max fest that will go on with a heap-load of backgrounds, specializations, and feats, but I'm crossing my fingers it won't get too annoying.  Besides, I can always sit back and play a character that plays almost exactly like a character from 1981 while someone else goes and plays a character out of, oh, a deck of Magic: The Gathering. :)

- Ark

Back Muscles #2