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


  1. I've warmed to 5e far faster/easier than I think I ever will to 4e, and I am partial to several of the new mechanics. At this point I suspect my remaining resistance is as much to do with relative familiarity to the ruleset and simple inertia. It plays quick and fun, regardless of the differences to my beloved Moldvay rules.

    1. Yeah, if you've got a deeply ingrained favorite version, 5e only sells itself so far. As a wandering rpg vagabond however, I think I'll be willing to call 5e home for a while - until someone publishes the perfect DCC/5e fusion. :)

      - Ark

  2. I'm still foggy on how wizarding works. The other classes seem really good.

    I felt a pang of protectiveness when you wrote about your poor short stack knocked out in a dungeon. I wonder if that would work at the table IRL

    1. Wizarding is pretty simple as long as you remember to forget everything you ever knew about wizarding. :) I may write an explanatory piece about it soon . . .

      Short Stack, or rather, Lady Saraphina of Corlinn Hill, knows her duty as a tank and runs on her little tiny legs straight into the front lines waving her giant battle axe. Once, she dropped her axe on a critical fumble, so crawled up on the enemy's back, and pounded him into the ground with her little, tiny fists, cussing like a sailor all the way down. Your pangs of protectiveness would probably fade when you saw her in full, crazed battle rage. :)

      - Ark

  3. Although I don't see it becoming my go-to fantasy system anytime soon, I'm pretty pleased with 5e. I really like the flatter math, advantage/disadvantage, and the reworking of a number of mechanics. There are a few things I don't like (hit die/healing surge mechanic, the magic system, and the apprentice level idea), but I can probably house rule or rework those to better fit my tastes.

    1. Cody - as a DM, the HD/surge and magic seem a bit odd as compared to earlier versions. As a player, however, they seem right on. :)

      - Ark

  4. My current thoughts on D&D5 are "best possible compromise" edition. It seems to work, and work well, but nothing really stands out and wows you, but it is solid. Really waiting for the PHB and an idea of how crazy you can go with the system.

    1. Apparently, the DMG is going to focus on adjusting the system to fit your needs - so I think 'crazy' is already a position on the shift-stick. :)

      - Ark

  5. This is an intelligent breakdown of these issues: most people's posts I've seen so far are vague. But I would have liked to have seen all the wooden dice like the one you have pictured (especially the d20). I'm glad they finally included decent new dice designs and are making them out of wood now. The closest thing to that TSR had was those cardboard chits.