Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Year With D&D Fifth Edition

So, a little over a year ago, I talked my friends into humoring me and giving Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition a try. They knew I had been staunchly anti-D&D for years and I don't think they took me seriously. Since I don't know how to do anything small, I set out to run The Hoard of the Dragon Queen for the group.

We are now closing in on the end of The Rise of Tiamat and the entire Tyranny of Dragons campaign. As appealing as Princes of the Apocalypse and Out of the Abyss look, odds are good that we are playing something other than D&D when this is finished, but we haven't decided for sure yet (and I am probably running at least a short campaign for my son).

So, I thought I would blog about my experiences as a DM for the last year. I have ran Rules Cyclopedia D&D, AD&D 2e (a LOT) and D&D 3/.5. I have read all kinds of books up and down the D&D lineage, including 4th Edition. I grew bothered by the rigidity of the 2e rules (though I loved the settings) and the insane amount of math and modifiers for 3rd edition (this being a huge part of the reason why I have never indulged in Pathfinder).

  • The backwards compatibility is amazing. I have managed to pull items and monsters from Labyrinth Lord, 2nd Edition and 3rd Edition with only minor modifications and drop them into my 5e games with no fuss. This means that my available content was loads larger than the five books in the initial wave. I have peppered the campaign with magic items from the 2e Encyclopedia Magica and the 3e Book of Vile Darkness, and used Small Niche Games' Inn of Lost Heroes as a side trek in Hoard of the Dragon Queen to hugely dramatic effect. Huge win on 5e's part.
  • Critical hits are bland. Doubling your dice roll and adding modifiers was too boring for us. We agreed to double damage after modifiers, and I added a critical hit chart I found online. This had led to great moments, like powerful enemies mortally wounded and bleeding out, and even one PC losing their hand in a fight. Everyone agreed that this was an improvement over Rules as Written.
  • Despite simplifying things, it can still be easy to get lost in the Action, Reaction, Bonus action cycle. No one at the table gets too bent out of shape about anything, so if there's confusion, we just kinda roll with it and I look up the actual rule after the fact. This particularly comes into play when extra attacks are involved. Still better than trying to track a Fighter's 3 attacks every 2 rounds.
  • Advantage/Disadvantage in place of the various fiddly modifiers is absolutely brilliant and I love it. Simplifying +/-  into "Roll 2d20 and take the highest/lowest"? Wonderful. And yes, it IS still possible for players to whiff a roll with Advantage, as one player in my game has rolled double 1s more than once while rolling with Advantage.
  • The math for Challenge Ratings and the like is absolutely and gloriously borked. I learned very quickly that CR 5 may well mean that the beast will get smoked by a single level 5 Barbarian, while a couple of CR 1 guys may absolutely shred a group of level 4 characters. I *like* this. This makes the world feel more "real" and less like a well-balanced game, and causes level 12 characters to go "Let's see if we can sneak around that ogre" instead of "Just one ogre? Let's bag him".
  • When the DMG came out, we added in Proficiency Dice (a die you roll instead of flat bonuses, that scales up as you level up). Coming from Savage Worlds, it made my group feel more comfortable with the mechanics. It also helped the whiff factor early on. Now that they are on to d10s as Proficiency Dice, though, I feel like it's a touch overpowered. Not sure I would use it in another game.
  • We also added Hero Points, which are a number of points you can get per level that allow you to add a d6 to your die roll. Similar to Savage Worlds bennies, these were also met with universal approval. I would keep them in the future, but I think I might add the "scaling effect" of Proficiency Dice. Roll a d10 to try to make a Saving Throw still has a ton of risk, but also has enough reward to make you seriously consider it.
  • Speaking of the DMG: Their Horror/Madness rules are frightening, and nearly led to a TPK in Ravenloft when most of the party was disabled by them (one PC was paralyzed with fear, while another was driven to rage and left attacking the closest thing to him...which was party members more than once).
  • Legendary Actions are extra actions that certain monsters can take in a fight, giving them multiple actions on a round. Not only does this make certain monsters (looking at you, dragons) absolutely terrifying, but it also largely prevents a group of PCs versus a monster from turning into a one sided gang up curb stomp when the monster is attacking multiple times around (and then getting multiple attacks on a round). Throw in Lair actions and the PCs have had to earn their victories.
  • Attunement is another great feature. Essentially, some magic items (namely really powerful ones) require Attunement. You can only attune to three items at a time. This prevents PCs from having loads and loads of items. The number of items our group owns has crept up through the campaign, but they are also level 15 now, and I have tried to keep magic items a little more rare but a little more powerful.
  • I ditched the requirement for Spell Scrolls that state that the spell must be on your class' spell list and allow anyone to use the scroll...but if they fail, they risk the Scroll Mishaps table. I like my magic being just a bit more dangerous, what can I say?
  • Combat isn't as fast as Savage Worlds, but it's not horribly slow. Much better than I remembered 3rd Edition being by a long shot. Even with the PCs at level 14-15, everything tends to run pretty quickly. I did give everyone index cards so they could write down the details of their spells and abilities for easy reference. That helps.
  • I did think they needed Mass Combat Rules, so I ripped off the Savage Worlds/Army of Darkness Combat Rules. When they actually released Mass Combat Rules, I still preferred mine...but I love the Savage Worlds Mass Combat rules.
  • God, I love the release schedule. So glad they aren't just flooding the market with books. A few adventure books, followed by a bunch of stuff released for free online? That's aces in my book.
  • The Tyranny of Dragons campaign has been fun, and I have found it terribly easy to add my own flourishes to it (including adding in involvement from the Drow, a Lord of Hell and a side trek to Ravenloft). Are there parts that weren't detailed very well? Well, yes. But I have been GMing over 20 years. I can fill in a few blanks here and there. We have had epic moments, I have nearly driven one player to tears with story twists, and we have laughed hysterically at some of the events that have occurred. I call that a success, folks.
My initial reactions to the 5e Player's Handbook were very positive. This is why I cancelled my planned 13th Age game and ran 5e instead. A year later, nearing the end of a campaign that was fairly broadly panned online (for both being a "railroad" and for being "too open", somehow), we have had a blast, and I feel very secure in calling this my favorite version of D&D ever made, even if I'm not willing to call it my favorite RPG.

Great job, Wizards. I was looking for something to scratch that "D&D itch", and I found it. Keep up the good work.