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Finding the Fun: D&D 5e, Part Two

The fighter’s sword is sharp, the mages have their spells prepared, and the rogue has a dagger up their sleeve, ready for the opportune moment to strike. This time on Finding the Fun, we’re talking about Dungeons and Dragons 5e. “But wait”, you say, “didn’t you already review D&D 5e, Jay? What is this rubbish, J-Dizzle, why do you want to go back and review a game you already covered?”

I finished my D&D 5e campaign recently (about two weeks ago), it got pretty emotional, there were tears, laughter, and denial, and that was just me. Seriously though, it’s been almost a year since we converted from D&D 3.5e to 5e, and whilst I definitely enjoyed myself, a large part of this campaign was spent making mental notes about what 5e does and doesn’t do well, so I can learn from my mistakes and use the system more effectively when we start our next D&D campaign in the autumn.

With the old campaign all nicely wrapped up, I thought I might share some of these observations with you lovely folks. So what does D&D 5e do well? What doesn’t it do so well?

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The Story

To me, D&D 5e’s strength is in empowering players to make interesting characters as well as engaging stories involving them and the world they inhabit. It’s never going to be as tactical as 4e, or as optimisable as 3.5e, or whatever it is that AD&D did so well (THAC0? Colouring in your dice? Answers on a postcard!) but it taps into the narrative style of roleplaying that is so popular at the moment.

Character building definitely feels more like making an actual character, rather than a faceless array of stats and abilities as it sometimes did in 3.5, and there is definite growth in there rather than a scaling up of abilities. The apprentice levels in particular give the players a sense that their character is becoming stronger, more competent, and in a campaign which follows the PCs as they start as rookies and grow become legendary figures, it really works.

However, I think Wizards of the Coast could have done more to emphasise what is probably the most under-utilised facet of character building in 5e. Backgrounds, along with the traits, bonds and flaws, give players the opportunity to tether their characters to the campaign setting and set personal goals for their character to work towards. There’s even a reward system in place to encourage characters to try to achieve these goals, and to compel characters to act on their flaws, in the form of Inspiration.

I didn’t feel like the Tyranny of Dragons adventures or the Dungeon Masters Guide sold the backgrounds as well as they could have. True, the Dungeon Masters Guide has a paragraph talking about how they can tie the player characters to the setting or campaign, but it doesn’t go anywhere, there’s no talk of working with your players to create traits and quirks that fit into the campaign, or better yet, utilising these traits to make a campaign that fits the player characters.

Likewise, the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure has 10 optional bonds for the PCs in the appendices, but there’s no sort of definitiveness about how they are being presented, personally I’d have put them at the front of the book, and said “your players are fighting against the Cult of the Dragon, they ought to have a good reason to do so, have them pick one of these each.” I was, however, pleased to notice that Princes of the Apocalypse utilised bonds in a much more productive fashion, giving them some meaning to the main quest and some goals for the players to achieve, and I hope that those sensibilities carry on with future licensees and products.

One of my big regrets with my last campaign was that we were locked into a big epic campaign before we decided to convert to 5e, and in my inexperience, the idea didn’t occur to me to do a Session 0 and help my players build characters whose traits, bonds and flaws connected them to the story. It’s something we corrected somewhat later on to a certain degree, but a Session 0 or a pre-character generation pitch strikes me as pretty damn essential to get the best use out of the backgrounds, if only so the DM and players can get on the same page with character bonds and choose bonds that complement the campaign, or vice versa.

The latter, a campaign built around the characters bonds and flaws, rather than having to build the characters around the demands of the campaign, seems to be logical option, it’s what I plan to do next. That said, if you want to do an epic campaign rather than a character-driven one, consider making a dozen or so bonds, traits and flaws that complement your campaign, and ensure each player picks at least one, that way, they at least have some connection to the game you want to run, and have a way to earn Inspiration.

In Play

With the step away from 4e’s AEUD (At will, encounter, utility and daily power) system, each class plays very differently in terms of mechanics, rather than just the outcome of their action. Each class offers a different play-style to experience, whether it’s the Battlemaster’s manoeuvres or the trade-off that the Barbarian experiences when they attack recklessly, making them an easy target. A Druid in 5e doesn’t feel like just another spellcaster that can shapechange, it feels like a Druid because wildshape works differently to a polymorph spell, and affords the Druid options not available to another spellcaster, such as a Wizard.

When combined with the subclass options, you’ve got a lot of scope to customise your PC, but more than that, the subclasses can show how they are growing as characters over the course of the game, with lots of story potential to explain how they got there, or what this might mean for their future. My esteemed colleagues at Stories of the Fifth Age have discussed more than a few of the magical subclasses in their most recent podcast, and with any luck they’ll tackle classes and subclasses in greater depth in the future. As far as I can tell so far, there are no weak classes in 5e, just different options and roles within the party to play. By utilising the backgrounds, classes and the subclasses available, there’s an unlimited number of fun or interesting character concepts to explore.

The Inspiration system could be improved. As it stands at the moment it’s kind of a mess, with no fixed, agreed-upon system for how often it should be awarded, what is should be awarded for, and so on. Disappointingly, a lot of DMs consider it a chore rather than a way to encourage player buy-in, and so they simply ditch it, denying players the ability to gain and spend it, which then throws the advantage system out of balance because players can’t choose when they get it. In an ideal world, this ought to be addressed and soon.

Going back to bonds and flaws, if someone is playing a campaign that’s not character-driven, like an Adventurers League adventure, they’ll inevitably pick generic, personality-based bonds and flaws because story-based ones won’t be usable. I’ve seen several DMs dismiss personality-based bonds and flaws as being unworthy of Inspiration awards, but what’s the alternative? Do I pick a flaw that I can at least use and reference, or one that won’t get addressed anyway? It’s a lose-lose situation for the player.

5e has a sweet spot (or considering its size, a better term might be optimal range) for levels, from 4th or 5th up to about 16th level. That seems to be the levels where adventurers are fully-formed, yet capable of being challenged and further growth. Once past 16th level, things get a bit squiffy. I like the apprentice levels of 1st-3rd, but a lot of players like to start with a fully-formed character and the 1st level options for many of the characters can look underwhelming. Still, those apprentice levels do have a good rationale behind them, giving new players a relatively unthreatening introduction into D&D, and giving players the option to build their character through play. I see what the designers were aiming to do with the apprentice tier, it’s not always for me, but it serves its purpose.

I’m not altogether that keen on the higher (17th+) character levels of 5e. There, I said it. It’s a personal preference rather than anything being empirically wrong about the kind of powers and abilities the PCs have access to at those levels, but I found that a lot of the options that seemed so enticing early on, like the fancy feats or Inspiration, are increasingly rendered irrelevant with the amount of resources these characters gain by default. That was part of the problem, the other part was that at the higher levels, most of the monsters don’t seem to get more interesting, they just get more durable. Personally I would have preferred more legendary monsters with lair effects at the upper level range, even the Tarrasque only got extra attacks, limiting its usefulness to just attacking/swallowing the PCs until they wore it down.

The other problem with combat is finding that sweet spot for enemy groups. Whilst the encounter math lets you set up encounters with any number of foes for your PCs, from one to potentially dozens, what I found with a group of 6 players was that the encounter math kind of fell apart at later levels (yes, I did work out my budgets correctly) because the sheer damage my players could visit upon an enemy in a round could make mincemeat of most creatures, and mobs of a dozen enemies or more made the combat last longer but they didn’t really have an impact on the PCs. It took a fair bit of trial-and-error to find a comfortable number of enemies to keep my whole group engaged without just mobbing them with an army of ineffectual enemies.

Conclusions

I can see what Wizards of the Coast meant when they said they were bringing the best bits from each edition together, but I don’t think the current iteration is going to be the “edition to end all editions” anytime soon. Which isn’t to say it isn’t good, it really is a lot of fun to play, and the core game is probably the least broken set of D&D rules I’ve found yet, but there’s a limit to what it can accomplish. If you want a tactical, wargame-y D&D, you’ll still need 4e, if you like creating builds, optimising or having tons of multiclass options, items and powers, for the moment 3.5 will still serve you well.

What I think D&D 5e does so well is to accept those facets of roleplaying whilst pushing for character-driven, narrative gaming, so I can forgive it for not doing everything well, as long as it gets that right. Which it does some of the time, when it’s not forgetting to address the important stuff. Hopefully in the future we’ll see more support to bring the good bits of 5e to the forefront and support the DMs and third party publisher to make content that makes best use of their rules.

If you like Finding the Fun and want to help the Mad Adventurers Society in being able to put out more quality content, consider visiting our Patreon page. Eventually I hope to be able to put out game reviews weekly, but that means being able to buy or acquire them without running out of money that I need to, y’know, eat and pay rent. Any contribution, no matter how big or small, helps us, the writers, to be able to do more. If you’re a developer and would like your product reviewed, or you’ve seen a product that’s worth a look, let me know here at the Mad Adventurers Society via the comment box below, or on Twitter @jay_jaydraper.

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