Back from a bit of contract work just in time for the release of the 5th Edition of the Players Handbook for Dungeon & Dragons. So far it’s what I expected, and that means I’m not yet impressed. The Challenge Rating system is only slightly better than it was in 3rd Edition, and the monsters are all over the place as far as actual threat. I plan on presenting my findings on this another time because first I want to address common misconception.
There’s a popular sentiment that challenge ratings somehow handcuff the DM’s hands to some prescribed fairness or set difficulty. Frankly, that is absurd. Challenge rating and encounter guidelines are never presented as rules. We call them guidelines, but that’s also problematic. Encounter building systems are not just guidelines! In reality they’re tools of measurement.
The people who cry out against challenge ratings seem to believe that they’re somehow restrictive, akin to listed speed limits. But who is enforcing these numbers beyond a consenting DM? Stop thinking of challenge rating as speed limit because it’s more like a car speedometer. The speedometer doesn’t actually limit how fast or slow you drive. It only tells you how fast you’re going. Like the encounter guidelines it’s a tool that gives you the information you need to make better piloting decisions.
Of course, just like a malfunctioning speedometer, when I have an unreliable challenge rating system I have to default to my gut feelings. And that’s why a good Challenge Rating system is important. Most of the time I can feel how fast I’m driving, but sometimes I look down and realize going close to 30 when I mean to be going a lot slower or faster.
So go ahead and drive your game however you want. Just remember that you’re not less of a driver just because you pay attention to your dashboard.
Note: The people named in this article have a history of harassing their critics. As such I have chosen to keep my sources and any traceable information they have given me anonymous to protect them.
Three weeks ago the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out. D&D is the iconic tabletop role playing game, so a new edition is a big deal. It’s one of the few times that the small, insular pen and paper community gets noticed by the rest of the world. Many game websites have talked about it, notably Polygon’s piece on gender inclusive language. Yet at the same time as D&D tries to appeal to those outside the gender binary, it has been driving them away by employing two of the most toxic personalities in tabletop gaming.
This is pretty damning. A quick Google search shows that people have known about RPGPundit’s role in 5e since the early stages of the D&D Next playtests. I’m sad to see Hicks miss-stepping into this debacle, and feel sorry for the designers who were accidentally dragged into it.
If you’ve read much of this blog in the last couple of years you might know that I participated in the D&D Next Public Playtest. I was also unapologetic about my disappointment with it. Despite that I still think there some really good aspects of D&D 5e that we can all enjoy and learn from. Here are five things that D&D 5e is (probably) doing right:
5. D&D Starter Set
While practically every young child has role-played during “make-believe,” roleplaying games remain a niche hobby. D&D has the broadest reach and market penetration of any RPG. As a result, D&D is probably the first taste of roleplaying games that most people experience.
Why shouldn’t that first experience be as accessible and accommodating as possible? In the rest of table-top gaming new players tend to be attracted to games that require minimum setup and preparation. Unfortunately, even D&D’s prewritten adventure modules still require a great deal of prep-time and it can take hours before anything noteworthy is accomplished.
Mike Mearls and the 5e design team want to finally change that with the D&D Starter Set. They’ve made it clear that the Starter Set should be playable right out of the box and will be compatible with episodic content that requires less than an hour of prep time. Designing a quick-play D&D won’t be an easy task to accomplish, but nothing worthwhile ever is.
4. D&D Basic
While we’re on the subject of accessibility, one of the most obvious hurdles to getting involved with D&D has always been obtaining the necessary books. D&D generally requires at least three books for a group to play: The Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. For 5th Edition those three books could cost as much as $150. A three digit price-tag can easily scare away new customers and many fans were alarmed.
This isn’t a new problem for D&D, but 5e has a reasonable solution. Even before the three core books are published, Wizards of the Coast will be providing free references for the ”basic” rules needed to run and play the game. For the players D&D Basic will include 20 levels of the simplest versions of the four “core” classes: fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard. For the DM it will include all the monsters that show up in WotC’s official published adventures.
This isn’t the same as the Open License and System Resource Document that D&D 3e had, but at least it’ll be available before most of the books! This means you’ll be able to try and evaluate the game before you invest hundreds of dollars to learn more about it.
3. Staggered Schedule
A lot of people have been criticizing Wizards of the Coast for not having all three books available in time for Gen Con 2014. Honestly, in an ideal world that is exactly what WotC would do. Mike Mearls has been spinning how the staggered schedule is good for the product because the writers will finish the Dungeon Master’s Guide knowing the Player’s Handbook better. That’s rubbish, but the staggered release is still a good idea for logistical reasons.
The reality is that WotC’s D&D project has barely more than a dozen staff. Only about half of that dozen are actually responsible for developing the game. The DMG and Monster Manual just aren’t ready yet and it’s taking their full manpower to get the Starter Set, D&D Basic, and the Player’s Handbook out by August for Gen Con 2014.
If the team were to split its efforts then you probably wouldn’t see any products released until October, at the soonest. Since D&D Basic includes the necessary rules for running the game along with an assorted menagerie of monsters, there’s really nothing holding you back from running D&D with just the PHB this summer. Basically a staggered release schedule gets the game to you sooner and that’s better for both WotC and you, the consumer.
2. Licensed Materials
The only thing about the last decade of D&D that all the fans seem to agree about is that adventure supplements from Wizards of the Coast have been lacking. Lacking not just in quality, but also variety and quantity. Perhaps the nadir of this trend was during 4th Edition. While 4th Edition D&D did eventually get some interesting campaign material, by the time Chaos at Gardmore Abbey and Neverwinter showed up it was too little too late.
Adventure and campaign supplements have always been risky investments since the average table probably only invests in one, at best. Still, Pathfinder’s success is due partly to a willingness to provide that sort of support. For whatever reason WotC has had trouble providing adventure material. For that reason it is brilliant that they have contracted critically acclaimed Kobold Press to develop their first wave of campaign adventures.
Think about it. Kobold Press makes great adventures for all sorts of games including Pathfinder and 13th Age. One of the main weaknesses of D&D was that it lacked that sort of support. So why not hire these guys to focus their strengths on correcting your perceived weakness?
Likewise, WotC has tried multiple times to create a collectable line of miniatures for D&D. None of those attempts seemed to stick around so I suspect that they weren’t profitable enough. In recent years though, WizKids has launched several successful miniatures games. WotC recently announced that they’re licensing WizKids to create the next line of D&D miniatures. We don’t know yet if this will turn into a longer term pattern for 5e, but WotC would probably be stupid not to.
1. Narrative Devices
Everything before this has been about smart business decisions surrounding the 5th Edition of D&D. I decided to save the last compliment to something I actually like about the design of the game. The 5th Edition focuses on players as protagonists and narrative characters more than any other edition. Even in the Starter Set the pregenerated characters are apparently being given individual plot-hooks that make them more relevant to the story.
Drawing the characters in and weaving the plot around their personalities is one of the defining traits of an experienced Dungeon Master. Unfortunately you rarely see much useful discussion about it, even in the previous editions of the DMG. In 5th Edition every character is expected to have bonds, traits, and flaws that clue both the DM and the players into how the characters fit into the greater narrative.
This aspect of 5e didn’t make it into the playtest, so I can’t say how well it will turn out. I am, however, glad to see the conscious effort to recognize and support the narrative side of the D&D experience.
Sorry I haven’t been updating much lately. I’m currently taking other contracts so that I can afford to continue the visual design aspects of Asylum. If you’ve got any development work that starts around August, I’m definitely interested.
That said, time to share my most recent dream. Last night I dreamed I was part of a secret task-force of agents who had been granted paranormal abilities. These abilities manifested as ethereal, almost organic, extensions of our bodies. We apparently gained these powers through accidental exposure to transdimensional energy.
In the dream, NASA had discovered similar transdimensional radiation emanating from a location near our solar system’s asteroid belt. My team was sent in a special space shuttle to investigate. Upon arriving our ship encountered a series of strange circular probes that opened up brief holes in time and space. After each of these encounters one of my team-mates would develop a noticeable increase in their powers. Specifically their powers no longer manifested only in contact with their bodies. Instead the powers became alien beings that were almost independent familiars.
Interacting with these now separate extensions of themselves seemed to bring my companions a great deal of personal insight and self-actualization. We finally encountered one more probe but it didn’t seem to function. After bringing it aboard the ship began to malfunction. Because of the malfunctions the crew wanted to ditch the probe and terminate the mission. I was the only member of the team who hadn’t gained some revelation yet, and it was causing some definite anxiety on my part. To me, that probe was my dormant potential and I couldn’t just ditch it back into space.
As we argued about what to do about it, the probe began to awaken and open a portal of bight colorful lights. My team started to evacuate the ship, afraid of what was about to transpire. I have no idea what hope they had to survive if it destroyed the ship. They were only thinking about their next moment of safety.
Instead I dove into the portal. My team-mates had only been exposed to the light and radiation of their probes. At best they caught a glimpse of the portal so I was the first person to actually travel through one.
On the other side was a living world of colorful light. All around me were amorphous alien lifeforms made of bright energy. Their colors and shapes resembled the same beings that our powers manifested as. Watching them move and interact with each other I became aware that they were not individual life-forms but mutualist parts of a greater super-organism.
Before the portal could close though I was violently pulled back through … ending the dream.