3 Reasons why D&D 5e is good but not great.

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Oddly enough, I’ve never been a big fan of D&D nor was it the game I played the most. I really sunk my teeth on Shadowrun 2nd edition. I did pay some measure of respect to the game that helped create our whole hobby, but my tastes brought me elsewhere. However, with 5th edition, I became intrigued; most likely because I had discovered the OSR years prior and heard rumors that this D&D was going back to its roots. A friend and colleague of mine invited other colleagues and myself to start a campaign, using the starter kit scenario, but supplemented with the available material at the time. Not only must I commend his DMing chops, but the game itself was very fun and enjoyable. I never suspected I’d like it as much and I believe it goes the same for the rest of the group. We since played a couple of other shorter campaigns, including Curse of Stradh, and it was still mostly good and entertaining. However, this friend and I both feel a sort of exhaustion or maybe more like a desire for something that has more bite to it. After all, D&D is still very much the gateway into our hobby and so, it is perfectly understandable that it tries to reach as broad an audience as possible and that means it needs to make many compromises to accommodate all kinds of players. In this post, I would like to explore some of the reasons why D&D 5e is a good game, but not the greatest around. I know it has been addressed abundantly, but the interest of this piece is to sort of help contextualize why I find OSR games and indie ones vastly more satisfying than D&D in my experience.

Everything revolves around character build.

I often say of 5e that it is “build-centric” and by that, I mean that the core of the game is the choices that players make about their characters, more specifically in terms of customization and optimization. That is far from being bad. It is very cool to muse about different character builds in 5e and the game really supports this. A good example would be how easy and seamless it is to multiclass or the different paths that each character can chose from within their class. I would never complain about having many options and I find that they are generally well-communicated and organized in 5e. It’s relatively easy for a newcomer to make informed decisions at chargen and that’s also a great feature of the game.

With that being said, D&D 5e is very much combat-oriented (we will develop this point later) and it is reflected in the abilities of characters. The game thus encourages players to come up with interesting and/or effective combos, synergies, routines, etc. A great deal of the fun in 5e is had when all the different options you picked to create your “combo” work as intended and score the big success you hoped for. For example, I picked the spell “Web” for my wizard who was otherwise a sort of fire mage. The reason why I did so was because I hoped to glue a bunch of enemies in the web and set it on fire, doing very good damage for the level we were at. We did face the perfect situation and the spells worked as intended so that was very fun… the first couple of times.

See, being able to customize and optimize at leisure will drive you to come up with and settle in a certain repertoire of “routines” or “combos”. This happens both at the individual and party levels. I would say that it’s not too much of an issue for the first four levels, in large part due to how fast you gain new levels at that tier of play. But after 5th level, progression slows down and everyone in the party now has a couple of reliable combat routines that are now made even more effective with the bumps of both 4th and 5th levels.

This focus on providing tons of cool possibilities of builds makes some of the most significant decisions about the game happen outside of play proper. A bit like a Magic: the Gathering player would spend time fine-tuning a deck. The more optimized the deck, the more it will successfully perform the same combo over and over. If the thing works consistently enough, there is no real incentive to come up with other avenues. It makes gameplay become repetitive and I know I started simply wanting to end encounters swiftly, mark the XP, and reach the next level as fast as possible so I could try on some new abilities. I wanted to have new decisions to make and see some novelty.

The way the game is designed ensures that every character has some cool thing to do on their turn. Again, that’s not fundamentally bad, but it makes gameplay centered on looking up your character sheet to see which option to use. This means that character abilities get more screen time than a player’s skills at finding clever and creative solutions to problems and obstacles. Since, as we’ll see shortly, the main type of problems to solve is combat, it lessens even more the need for players to think on the spot and improvise ways to triumph over obstacles.

Combat > exploration

Let’s be clear: combat in an rpg plays a huge role in whether I like the game or not. I find it fun to both run action scenes and play in them. Fights are indeed fun in D&D 5e, but as mentioned earlier, they become repetitive and unimaginative when reaching the 5th+ levels.

Another important dimension of rpgs is the sense of wonder and discovery. It would not be straying to far from the truth to consider the dynamic between the GM and the players as involving a great deal of revelations about the fictional universe. Whether it comes from extensive GM notes or is improvised on the spot, players come at the table to experience amazement and GMs revel in providing sources of wonder, befuddlement, surprise, and discovery.

Another thing to keep in mind is that exploration, for me, is not merely limited to mapping some geographical space. My take on it also includes exploring relationships with other characters or creatively dealing with a monster.

Looking back at my experience with 5e, I’d say that we didn’t engage in much exploration of the dungeons and other locales. I don’t recall us caring about stuff like light sources, rations and water, time spent searching rooms, etc. I also think there weren’t any random encounters. Basically, we went from room to room in a pretty linear manner and the point of exploring the dungeon was to go from one encounter to the next. In 5e, what you mainly do is fight your way to the boss battle. This is why character abilities and choices in character builds become so central to the game.

I would even go as far as saying that the books themselves show how dungeons don’t matter all that much. The section about creating dungeons in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is about 6 pages long in a 320 pages book, that, need I remind you, is about DUNGEON mastering for a game called DUNGEONS & Dragons. In comparison, there’s around 100 pages devoted to treasure and magic items and 60 pages to create a whole setting including a multiverse and different planes.

Another element that supports this idea that exploration takes the backseat and combat is the main thing is how you gain XP. In 5e, the main source of experience is defeating monsters. To be fair, this has been the case since AD&D 2nd edition, as far as I know. What follows from this is that players will almost never avoid any encounters because that would amount to leaving XP on the table. Creatures are not obstacles in your search for riches, they are the main reason why you entered the dungeon in the first place. Balancing encounters becomes a crucial skill for GMs to develop. You don’t want them to be too easy because that would get boring real quick, but you don’t want them to be too lethal either because you just know players won’t really try to avoid a fight or flee an encounter. This leads me to my next point…

Tired of winning yet?

I often joke about how “no character ever dies in 5e”. I guess it must happen from time to time, but I’ve yet to see it happen at our table. I attribute this in part because the game is making you rather attached to your character since you put some thought into carefully creating it. The other factor that explains why PCs don’t die in 5e has to do with the “encounters=XP” dynamic. Combining both, it paints the following picture: We don’t want your investment in your character to go to waste too easily and we also don’t want you to run away from combat. How do you manage that? You make every encounter balanced for the party and the difficulty scale up as the PCs gain levels. The game also provides a few safety nets to make sure characters can take a beating without dying to quickly: starting with a fair number of HP, falling to zero HP doesn’t mean you’re dead, as long as you make your saving throws you will survive, many classes have access to healing abilities, etc.

First level characters in 5e start rather strong and sturdy. For example, a wizard will have access to cantrips that serves as their default attacks. The “to hit” roll being made using proficiency bonus as well as intelligence modifier, you basically have the same chances of hitting as most combat-oriented characters and Firebolt deals 1d10 damage with a 120′ range. Sure, you don’t get to add any bonus to damage from having high intelligence, but it makes the Wizard a decent combatant and that’s without using more powerful attack spells. In comparison, most OSR games will limit the Magic-User class to fighting with a dagger or staff, with a crappy Attack bonus, very low HP, and less available spells  (lvl 1 Magic-User can usually cast one spell per day whereas in 5e, you can cast at least 2 spells of 1st level and you can regain your expended spell slots after a short rest, for a total of 3 spells cast per day.)

Beginning characters stats are also generated either by rolling 4d6 and keeping the best 3 or with a point-buy system. You assign scores as you wish. Compare this to how, in Lamentations of the Flame Princess for example, you roll 3d6 and you do it the order the stats are placed on your sheet. You’re only allowed one swap. Guess which game produces the most epic 1st level PCs? To be fair, there is a design choice that makes sense for 5e at play here. In this edition, the designers probably worked to ensure players could create the character they want without having to fear poor rolls for stats would mess up the process. Rolling stats comes in as the third step of creating a character, after you picked race and class. In LotFP, you roll stats first and pick your class after. These are two vastly different paradigms.

Another good example to illustrate the idea that 5e runs in “easy mode” compared to OSR games is that you roll your HP at character generation. I remember playing a 1 HP thief in Labyrinth Lord. In LL, you die at 0 HP, that’s it. No saving throws or going into the negative. You simply roll up a new character. Let me tell you that every time we encountered any creatures at all, I would go out of my way to try and find ways to deal with that encounter that didn’t involve a melee fight.

Gaming experience aside, I suspect there are business considerations at play. WotC aims to sell you adventure modules and campaigns. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. But, there is a strong tendency to design these adventures so that the players will see them through to the end. I can see how, from a DM standpoint, it might not be very fun to drop money on a campaign book only to never fully play it because PCs die off too often and players had enough of it. Instead, everything is made so that some fights will be a bit challenging but ultimately all fights are winnable.

The longest campaign we played brought my own Wizard PC to lvl 7. I had magic items that gave me amazing defensive capabilities, got lucky on HP rolls plus had a great Con modifier, another magic wand that gave me access to other spell-like abilities, etc. All the other characters in the party (we were 6 in total) were similarly super-powerful. This made us take great advantage of different tactical possibilities at the table on top of the regular power creep in D&D. Apart from boss fights (which usually involve some cheaty powers and abilities on the part of the big baddy) most of our fights were foregone conclusions. The main factor deciding how difficult the fights would be was our luck on the dice. This means a good deal of the early thrills were now a thing of the past. I can only imagine how things could get if we reached 10th level and beyond.

This reminded me a bit of what happens when I play a crpg: I get too powerful for most of the opposition and simply play to reach the next info dump/story elements. By the way, I almost never finish any crpgs because I’m bored to death by the mid-game.

I’ll finish this point with a short example: In Lamentations of the Flame Princess, your fighter won’t ever get multiple attacks per round, nor will they see their damage drastically increase. Your sword still does a d8 of damage, even at lvl 10. Sure, you get a sweet Attack Bonus, but that’s it. The game is also less likely to give you all kinds of magic items and, well, reaching lvl 10 is already quite the achievement!

In conclusion

Despite all my criticism, I do believe that 5e is a good game and a better gateway into the hobby than some earlier editions. There definitely is a big deal of fun to be had creating all kinds of multiclassed badasses. But the emphasis on combat as the main thing we do at the table as well as making sure PCs will survive encounters and “win” the campaign makes 5e feel like a family-friendly rafting trip. Will give you some adrenaline rushes, but it’s mostly safe.

I simply prefer whitewater kayaking, nowadays.

Another shot at blogging!

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Deep down, I know I always wanted to write. But for all kinds of reason, ranging from the very bad and lazy ones to full-on impostor syndrome, I could never maintain a blog on any consistent and regular basis.

“What convinced you to try again?”, you might ask. Well, social media is becoming increasingly toxic and censorious and forums ain’t what they used to be anymore. A blog would let me write about what I want without having to think about moderators. I can also write loooooong texts and insert relevant picture and links in a format over which I have greater control.

“And what will you write about, this time around?” I gotta say you ask very relevant questions! I want this space to be devoted to tabletop rpgs. More specifically, OSR titles and indie publications like Dungeon World, Torchbearer, and the like. If I ever go back to hacking and designing games, that would also eventually find its place here. All in all, if I think of something that is somehow even remotely related to rpgs and I feel inspired, I’ll write.

“How often will you post?” Is it an interview? Well, gee, I didn’t put much thinking into that one. For the moment, I’ll go with “whenever I feel like it” but I also acknowledge that having some sort of schedule might help a lot in the long run. This is something I’ll have to figure out by talking with some veteran bloggers and seeing what’s a good fit for me.

“When is the real first post coming out?” Wow! I’m glad to see you’re so eager to read me! I don’t have a date yet, but I’m in the process of gathering ideas and notes for a first essay about why D&D 5e is good but not great and why I dig OSR games better.

Reckoning World version 2.4 is here ! Big changes !

Hi everyone !

With each iteration it seems like the game is slowly teaching me how I should design it. I’ve added a mini-game to make the hunter.net thing more directly useful and, I hope, fun. It’s based upon the Otherkind dice mechanics from Vincent Baker.

Also, I made some changes to the abilities gained when you max out your Conviction. Some of them were useless due to changes in previous versions and I hadn’t found a suitable update until now.

As always, every feedback is appreciated !

Reckoning World 2.4

Good Hunting !

Reckoning World version 2.3 is up !

Short playtest last evening. My main fear was that by having a mechanic where you add dice to your rolls, everything might become too easy for the players. But it sure didn’t !

Man, this game is hard! It might be tempting to use Edge dice on every roll, but you’ll soon be out of Conviction points when you most need it and then, you’ll suffer.

The lethality of the Harm rules is part of my design intent. I’ll develop this later on, when I’m finished gathering my thoughts.

So, without further ado, here it is:

Reckoning World 2.3

One-shot tips and etiquette

Here’s a short one about things I learned or relearned during our local gaming day. It was mostly inspired with a disappointing game (not bad, just disappointing).

When you GM :

  • Don’t try to teach the whole game : Just enough so players know how an action works.
  • Start playing as soon as possible.
  • Present players with a problematic situation right from the start. Make sure they see what could be done about it, but let them act as they want.
  • Don’t answer rules questions framed as hypothetical. Only questions relevant to the situation at hand.
  • Don’t try to tell PCs about all the possible course of action or mechanical options. Ask them what they want to do, explain how it’s done in the game and the possible outcome and confirm that it’s what they want to do.

When you’re a player :

  • Don’t try to learn the whole game. Keep your questions focused on understanding the basics.
  • Ask other questions when a situation arises and you want to know how you could go about it.
  • When you’re constantly asking questions about every mechanical bits of your PC, you’re preventing others from playing. Same thing if you spend your time discussing all the possibilities of this character. If everybody did the same, there would be no time left to play !

For GMs and Players :

  • Don’t talk too much about the game, talk about the story or better yet : tell it !
  • When I sit to play, I’m not there to discuss what could be done with this game but rather what we do in this particular session.
  • Discussing hypothetical situations and possibilities : that’s (meta)meta-gaming !

Michtim RPG : Not really a review, but…

I recently bought this RPG. At first, it was the cuteness that brought me in. You play these fluffy hamster-looking creatures that want to protect their kingdom from human activity. Being a fan of Mouse Guard (both the comics and RPG) I already enjoy stories about little creatures going on adventures set in a world so much bigger than them.

But, the cuteness doesn’t end there. The actual game text is laid out in a clean and attractive fashion with pretty little icons representing each different chapter and an ideal book format for the subject matter : it reminds me of children story book.

Then, when I got the rulebook and started reading it I discovered a system that was both easy to learn and allowed lots of mechanical twists and character customization. Better yet, the game is designed so that you’re invited to come up with new content and rules during play. Let me explain by discussing the rules a bit.

Basic mechanics :

Characters are defined by 5 emotions (Joy, Love, Grief, Fear and Anger). They range from 1 to 4 and this rating represents how many d6s your roll when you’re attempting an action relevant to that emotion.

In order to succeed when attempting an action, you roll a couple of d6s and add the pips, hoping to get 7 or better. That’s a hit. Since it’s easy to get 7 on 2d6, extra dice can be set aside to become additional hits in case of success. This means that in order to get better results on your actions, you have to take risks.

Also, when dice show up as 6s, you earn Mood markers attached to your emotion. These Mood markers give you a +1 bonus each on the result of future rolls with that emotion. But there’s a catch : each emotion is also opposing two others so that when you have these markers on Joy, for example, actions accomplished with Grief or Fear incur a corresponding penalty. You also have a cap of 3 Mood markers, total. If you want to get rid of that penalty, you’ll have to make a related action and trade them for additional dice or maybe spend them on a Calling ability.

Here, I noticed something with cool implications : If you spend Mood markers to get more dice, you actually augment your chance to roll 6s, meaning you risk regaining those markers. This actually supports the fact that your character is inspired by an emotional state and keeps his mood, changing how you can act and giving you pointers on how to portray him in the scene.

Callings : Classes without really being classes

I briefly mentioned Callings and now I’d like to detail them a bit. They correspond to archetypes known in Michtim society that each add a twist on the basic mechanics. The Adventurer, for example, lets you accumulate up to 7 Mood markers (but with the bonus still capped at +3) and also flip a coin when facing danger (so that you either avoid the threat or it doubles its effect.)

It gets even better when you spend experience to gain Calling talents from other Callings. In a sense, each Michtim will “multiclass”, combining his different Calling talents into Synergies (it is up to the group to find out how they work, but it is easy to come up with these combos.) That’s where you, as a player or GM, get to design new content and rules. There’s a lot of fun to be had on a purely tactical level and it’s a great way to make sure your Michtim is special in how he “works” at the table, creating a niche for your character.

This is further expanded with the concept of Ultimates which are somewhat unique abilities your Michtim will gain with experience. They offer a boost to an emotion and a secondary conditional effect. Once again, this is something that the player and GM will come up with together.

Transparency and open design : Turning participants into co-designers

In a nutshell, what I discovered with Michtim is that beyond all the cuteness, there was a game that had a great level of complexity without being hard to learn and manipulate. It’s also a game that empowers the users and gives them all they need to make this little universe into something special and unique for each gaming group.

Each group gets to detail the setting and decide for themselves the balance between Nature, Magic and Technology. They can create or reskin Callings, design Gear, explore the possible Synergies and Utlimates.

This is all possible because of the transparency of the design. The game is simple enough and explained in a way where you can see all the gears in action and know how to effect changes without breaking the game. But it’s also an open design by which I mean that there are spaces, openings, left in the rules so that you have to complete them by yourself. Not that there are holes to fix, but rather occasions to make the Michtim RPG truly yours.

This is why I’ve spent the entire week always going : “How would I use this ? What would I like to try?” and ending up making surprising discoveries about the game and what it could do.

I just can’t wait to see what Georg Mir still has in store for this game ! (Here’s currently working on a set of cards looking to both aid learning and expanding the options with Special Actions.)

Go check it out :

http://bit.ly/michtimrpg

Settings are part of the system

First, I’m envisioning “system” according to the Lumpley principle of which I’ll give two formulations:

1)     By Ron Edwards : System (including but not limited to ‘the rules’) is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.

2)     By Vincent Baker (lumpley) : However you and your friends, moment to moment, establish and agree to what’s happening in your game, that’s your game’s system.

As you can see, in roleplaying games your system is everything you’re using to produce fictional content to which everybody agrees. Of course, rules and mechanics are used to produce such agreement like “I rolled a natural 20, I hit the guy with my sword !” That’s the obvious part. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that we often tend to oppose “system” to “setting” when we discuss games. Here, I’m saying that we should in fact oppose “setting” to “mechanics+procedures/techniques” while both opposites are comprised under the umbrella of system.

The idea is simple : Setting lets you know what can and cannot happen in the fiction by putting limits to what can be the case in this fictional world. For example, you’d rarely say that you’re getting on a plane in a game set in a medieval-fantasy setting. Setting here is creating expectations and assumptions on what can happen by telling us whether or not you can “get on a plane” in this fiction (in our example, setting is telling us that we can’t).

This also imply that with games that have a detailed and extensive setting, system mastery (which helps you play better) cannot be achieved without learning a great deal about the setting. Without information about how things are done in this fictional world, you as a player are unaware of options otherwise available to your character. This effectively limits your choice (once again, as a player) of actions during play.

Moreover, I’ve noticed that some players are more inclined to tolerate inconsistencies in the application of rules than inconsistencies in the portrayal of the setting (provided that they have a good knowledge of the setting). Fiction has to make sense while rules can be eyeballed (and sometimes even ignored).

All of this also means that games with detailed settings but simple mechanics can still be “system-heavy” if great portions of the setting are used in gameplay. I played a couple of sessions of Vampire: The Masquerade recently with players who are well-versed into World of Darkness lore. We, as a group, then had to sort through that body of lore to pick up the pieces that would be in use in the game and choose which parts wouldn’t. There’s often talk about “rules-lawyers” but in this case, we had “setting-lawyers”. So, time was spent rectifying or simply evacuating expectations instead of just playing and coming up with stuff by ourselves. This isn’t bad per se because it is really handy when playing a game where published material is wholly integrated in the campaign, but when you want to do your own thing, this becomes a burden.

On top of that, when you’re playing a game that aims to be faithful to the official setting, this means that participants need to learn about that setting. Considering that not every player wishes to read about all that stuff, the task of teaching the setting is often the responsibility of the GM. How should it be done ? Big crash courses before the game begins so that players can make better informed choices when creating their characters ? Long and windy explanations mid-game so that players get a better grasp of what’s going on ?

Returning

Dear readers,

I’m sorry for taking such a long leave and not completing what I started. Many things have happened in the last couple of months which have made it difficult to focus and put the time and energy into this endeavour.

The dust is now settling and I wish to resume posting on a weekly basis. In fact, I made great discoveries during this hiatus that I will gladly share with you, so stay tuned.

Regards

Sandboxing Shadowrun : interesting ideas

It seems like I’m not the only one who’s thinking that sandboxing Shadowrun is a good idea ! So, even though we might walk different paths on the subject, I was delighted to find a fellow gamer willing to share his ideas and techniques. This also means that I’ll take some time to learn from him before posting my other thoughts on the matter.

You can find his blog here :

https://www.packetlost.net/