12 January 2012

New Year - New Musings on D&D 5e

  OK, dear readers.  New year, new discussions, new dedication to blogging about stuff.  In honor of this dedication, I'm going to use this first post to talk about Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.  The internet is burning up with discussions, disgust, hope...  Forbes and the New York Times even mentioned the new edition.  Mike Mearls has been making some pretty interesting comments on just what 5e would be, and the open playtest model has got a lot of people talking - and signing up.

  So, 5e, eh?  Here's my thoughts on 4e.  When Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition first came out, I wasn't a fan.  I bought the PHB, DMG and MM at launch and learned the rules and found that it just wasn't what I wanted in D&D.  It wasn't a bad game- just not the kind of D&D I had grown accustomed to.  Time went by.  D&D launched the Essentials line.  For some strange reason that hooked me.  My friends tell me it was the Larry Elmore artwork on the Red Box, but I assure you it was the rules tweaks.  Gone were the martial characters that played like spellcasters, "defender aura" made so much more sense to me than "mark", and best of all I got into the D&D Encounters program at the FLGS and had a blast with it.  Maybe 4e *could* be the kind of game I could love.  Sadly, to this day I have still not gotten to see if the game would work for me and my players as a home campaign - I have players who stolidly refuse to touch anything 4e if they can help it.

  So, what did I like about D&D Essentials that persuaded me to change my mind about 4e?  Well, first of all there are a couple of things that both 4e and 4eE do that are, from a player perspective, very good changes.  Thanks to healing surges and extra HP first level characters don't have the mortality rate they used to.  Now, trust me, I still carry my 1985-vintage grognard card from when I first started playing D&D. I am used to player mortality rates being in the triple-digits as one or two poor players lose 3-5 characters before the party averages 2nd level.  That's the way it was... and we liked it!  But today's gamers are different in their outlook, and a newbie player who might be teetering between being a mundane or being a closet geek might be made or broken by a single bad gaming experience.

  Let's talk about Carly.  Carly is a girly-girl, and had never picked up much less rolled a D20 in her life.  She was into pedis and shopping and dancing and karaoke and didn't read much and didn't really watch sci-fi or genre TV outside of the Lord of the Rings films...  So, not our target audience.  Or is she?  I have always been of the opinion that inside nearly EVERYONE is a gamer waiting for the right game.  So we talked Carly into coming over and trying D&D.  A little alcohol and some good friends later, she made up her first D&D character using the choose-your-own-path vignette from the Red Box (Essentials) book.  And we played.

  Now, Carly had chosen to play a thief.  Had we been playing BD&D or AD&D1e I guarantee you she wouldn't have lasted thirty minutes into the game as she played her character with cinematic gusto.  A 4HP thief would have died several times over, ending her first D&D character and probably souring her on the experience.   BUT - with the way D&D Essentials characters are built, not only did she survive taking some risks and diving into the melee, but thanks to minion rules she was able to feel like a total hero on her first time out. 

  Some of my players think 1st Level characters in 4e are overpowered.  I tend to agree until I look at the situation I just described.  Carly may not find a weekly D&D game - but I'm pretty sure the next time she comes to visit she'll wanna play with us again.  Her first experience was empowering, and fun - and that's what it should be if we expect to recruit new gamers from outside the audience that is already predisposed toward our hobby.

  Oh, I digressed... Back to what I liked about Essentials.  OK, the Warpriest played like a BD&D Cleric.  I could kick butt, and I could heal - sometimes in the same round.  I really liked that.  I also liked healing being per encounter rather than per day.  It made the party a little more hardy and let us get on with the business of adventuring instead of camping after every fight.  Now, I know this is how we played from when I got into the hobby until 4e launched, but I can admit that it's traditional - but not optimal.  The slow grind up from 1st Level to about 5th Level was a slog with a lot of running back to the camp or the keep to sleep and recharge spells.  Getting around that made for a faster-moving narrarative.

  I like that martial abilities now make a little more sense to the in-game physics.  OK, someone standing next to my fighter causes me to swing at them when they're attacking one of my friends - makes sense.  Me going "Hey, you, over there!  Come get me!" and having that cause a to-hit penalty, or worse in the case of the Paladin cause damage... not so much.  Now, if that Paladin damage happens while the opponent is next to the Paladin, that's more like a holy aura.  It's things like these, and stances, that tend to make more sense to me for some reason and make Essentials feel more like D&D that original 2008 4e.

  So, now 5e is coming out.  I am going to be cautiously optimistic.  Now, I'll be honest.  If I were to start a D&D campaign tomorrow I would be equally likely to use Essentials, Basic D&D (B/X or BECMI), AD&D 1 or 2...  I have some love for all versions of D&D save 4.0 and 3.0 (I don't dislike 3.0, but 3.5 does solve some of the early 3.0 issues).  There's also Pathfinder and FantasyCraft, which are also quality games each with their own flavor.  To complicate things, I'm also a fan of OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Dark Dungeons and the retroclone movement in general...

  So what am I saying?  On one hand, I don't really need a new edition of D&D.  I already have several editions that all serve their purpose in different ways.  On the other hand, this is Wizards of the Coast's opportunity to do what they have stated is their goal - which is to create a version of D&D that will be acceptable to fans of all editions.  They have said they will be building a modular game.  I think this is a great idea.  It reminds me of the Advanced Edition Companion book for Labyrinth Lord.  It basically makes a B/X Clone into a usable AD&D clone.  The beauty is that one adds to the other, rather than replacing it.  If the new D&D is built like that, then BD&D and AD&D (for example) can be easily compatible.  Mearls has already been quoted as saying that a grid and tactical combat would be a module to be added to the basic game.  This suits me fine, as I've got players who love tactical combat, but some who want narrarative combat instead.

  If this opportunity is made the most of, and WoTC actually listens to the playtesters... I think this could rock quite a bit.  We could get a cleaned up version of Basic D&D that would contain the ability to be expanded to a more tactical, or more detailed, or more... anything game.  Modular.  It could work.  In fact, I've been cribbing some notes myself - but I promised after Stars Without Number totally blew away the project I was working on that I'd stay away from writing my own fantasy heartbreakers.  Of course... there is still the tempation to do it...

  5e.  I'm signed up to playtest.  I look forward to seeing what they've got going on.  Cautiously Optimistic.


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