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!
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.