Monday, 2 January 2017

5th Edition, Youthful Invulnerability and the Red Queen Syndrome

Shortly before Christmas I was one of two PCs playing through the introductory D&D 5th edition starter box adventure, The Lost Mine of Phandelver. It was a great evening, but I was struck by how this new edition lulls you into a false sense of security. You think that with so many hit points and abilities you are practically invincible and can take on all comers. In fact the opposite is the case because 5th edition monsters pack a heck of a punch; we effectively had two TPKs in the session because we kept stumbling into deadly scenarios thanks to our attitude of blithe self-confidence. Rookie players used to Basic D&D or OD&D, take note: you may have a lot of hit points and spells but that won't matter when bugbears do 2d8+2 damage per hit.

This is certainly a big improvement on 3rd and 4th edition, though you have to wonder if there isn't a bit of a red queen syndrome going on: 5th edition PCs, it seems to me after running and playing in about a dozen sessions, are about as fragile as Basic D&D ones. Everything has been amped up in turns of hit points and healing, but all the threats have been hugely boosted as well. The game works and is probably objectively the best version of D&D since the Rules Cyclopedia, but the feel is also quite similar to that iteration because the threat levels (and also the pure vanilla tonal palette) are effectively the same - it's as though we've gone through 20 years of change to end up in exactly the same position we were in back then. This is no bad thing, but perhaps a cautionary tale about the value of change in itself?

13 comments:

  1. In my experience, the hit-point inflation makes it really, really difficult to one-shot a PC at the start of encounter (in spite of damage inflation). You usually get a round or two of seeing how bad it can get before PCs start taking dirt naps.

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  2. It's a small distinction but maybe an important one: D&D hasn't come full circle back to Rules Cyclopedia, because twenty years ago D&D was 2nd ed AD&D. Basic D&D was always the alternative to what was perceived to be 'proper' D&D, at least in the gaming circles I was involved with.

    So rather than taking a long time to get back to where they were, they took the long was round to something which was just a step away. It's much the same thing really, but the interesting question is, why didn't anyone see the value in Basic/Rules Cyclopedia at the time?

    One thing I think 5e has over Rules Cyclopedia is more player facing rules and options. In RC the character options were fairly slim after choosing your class, 5e offers more options to make characters mechanically distinct which is probably an advantage in the long run.

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    1. That's true. I think Basic D&D was victim of being thought of as for kids.

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  3. What you say is true, noisms - for level one and two. My party have gotten to an average of 6th or 7th level now, and the standard monsters in the MM would pose no threat whatsoever to them. The homebrew monsters that I use instead are barely any better, and the path of simply making more and more lethal monsters - as one of my friends has done - doesn't really solve the basic problem.

    I was enthusiastic about 5E when I started DMing it, but having run it for a couple years now I am very familiar with its failings. After this campaign is finished I have no intention of running another in the same system.

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  4. I was going to write the same thing. I'm trying to follow an old school style of play, but starting from level 5 the PC can approach haphazardly almost every encounter. Now i'm trying to port everyone in LotP, despite my love of the advantage mechanic.

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  5. Interesting to see here themes like the questioning of "the value of change in itself" along with the "eternal return" (quoting Brian above: "full circle back to (. . .) twenty years ago D&D was 2nd ed AD&D").

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    1. What would Nietzche make of it all, I wonder?

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  6. The great survivalibility (sp?) of mid and upper level PCs in 5e can be mitigated by tweaking the extremely generous natural healing rules. Also, removing a few "save from death" spells at lower level can help a lot. Lastly, magical items that boost AC should be extremely rare.

    Ancalagon

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    1. Agreed on all points; I'd also recommend a Death & Dismemberment table to help offset the massive negative hit point margin. I still wouldn't recommend the system, but there are some easy partial fixes.

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  7. An advantage of having PCs start with tens of hitpoints instead of a handful is that you can more easily model sub-PC entities. If a first level wizard only has one hitpoint, then where does that leave children, or cats, or dogs? YMMV on how much that matters, though.

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    1. That's true, although I normally just treat things like that as being outside of the hit point system. One hit kills and they don't do physical damage to PCs.

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    2. How about thinking in terms of 1/2 hit points? Could be used for attacks that would do small amounts of damage, for example.

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