02 November 2014

5e Report, Two Games In

I've been playing in an open-table 5e game for the past month or so. Has it been that long? It feels like we just started. It's mostly the same people as my regular Dungeon-World-Turned-FantasyCraft group, with a couple of friends added from the GM, who is one of my players.

It's been fun, in its own strangely familiar way. I like it. But you know, I'm not sure if I love it.

Part of it might be the way that the system is strangely "flat." There are a small handful of moves you can perform in combat, like Ready and Dash and Dodge, but that's really it. It's back to move and attack in combat, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. You can get a lot of mileage out of just move and attack, as the continued popularity of old-school systems shows. The thing is, the combat wasn't the focus of the show. It's just another simplistic mechanic in a simple system designed to get players interacting with the world through the medium of the rules, and it serves its purpose so well that it's still getting re-purposed decades later.

And here it is again! The thing is, it doesn't feel like the right lessons have been learned here. The designers looked at 4th edition and said "nobody likes being on a modifier treadmill," and they took it out. They looked at 3rd edition and said "every character should be able to contribute at every level," and "every class should have interesting tweaks," and they changed things up to that end. And I appreciate that. But combat is still a drag; it's still half a dozen rounds of "I attack the orc with my sword" and no amount of action surges or infinite-use cantrips really solves the inherent contradiction of the system: they've tried to stretch out the very simple and clear mechanic by adding complications. While intended to create additional depth by providing options, it sometimes feels like padding and a band-aid on the wrong system.

What I'm trying to say is that combat takes up an inordinate amount of space and class features and it doesn't benefit the game. Damage still doesn't matter until you're out of health, and status effects are simple "save or suck for a while" effects that are almost entirely doled out by special abilities. Tripping, stunning, bleeding, tiring, blinding, and knockdowns just aren't effects that you have access to unless your class allows it, and that means that the vast majority of damage is just whittling down the creature's hit points until you reduce that last hit point and they finally fall over.

That said, there are parts of the game I still do like. The classes are distinct and have abilities that are fun in play and create interesting design space in the game. The backgrounds set some cool non-combat abilities and ground your character in the game world (unless you've chosen the Outlander, in which case your choosing not to be part of the game world is your place in the game world, another nice touch). Your skills, attacks, and saving throws all use the exact same proficiency bonus, which is a great step since it makes math much easier. You either have a skill or you do not, and all saves are just tests against your ability score, which is just beautiful design.

I'm very impressed with the way the non-combat systems work together,  and I wish that the combat had been designed with the same elegance as the rest of the system. It's almost certain the that the designers would rather add more classes and feats and continue over-engineering a core mechanic that just plain doesn't need it.

The campaign itself is pretty fun; we've managed to kill some monsters and help people out, and I've been getting almost too much mileage out of Minor Illusion and been enjoying Magic Missile. But the best parts of the game are the parts that aren't in combat, and that's just a shame in a game where the main method of experience gain is killing monsters and the main point of experience is gaining further combat power.

Maybe the game changes substantially at higher levels; we'll have to see. Wish me luck!


  1. 5E seems to be something of a Rorschach test. Even on the official forums there is debate over something not mentioned in the rules is disallowed because it is not stated, or allowed because the rules do not exclude it. You seem to be of the former camp.

    For instance I look at the status effects, and I see the game telling me how these statuses affect the maths of the game in addition to the normal physical effect you would expect in real life (eg when prone, in addition to the combat modifiers being it also means you are one the floor, so avoiding anything going on at head height etc etc).

    Likewise any effect can be applied by taking a simple action that would cause that effect in real life - you don't need a 'power' of class feature to use them (eg setting up a tripwire you make someone prone.)

    Of course there are lots of ways to play the game, but it is important to realise that fact and choose the way that works best for you. I've found ways of interpreting the rules that make 5E look like one of the most powerful (as in in terms of that the game itself can do quickly and easily and with precision) versions of the game to date. Using 'Theatre of the Mind's Eye, combats have been incredibly fast (sometimes a little too fast), players have been creative in and out of combat and there have next to no rules arguments. We're having a blast.

  2. With my group we find combat to be fairly dynamic and more than just move/attack. If a player comes up with a descriptive or inventive maneuver in combat then I'll give them Advantage which is a large boon in combat. Doing this gives incentive to my players to be creative in combat...to move it beyond simple move/attack. So far, it has been working really well.