Saturday, November 14, 2015

Campaign Changes & D&D 5e Review

So we started a new campaign a few months back (August?). The Tolkienish North Kingdoms campaign has been set aside althought not totally shut down, but there was alot of cruft accumulated around the characters that was making it difficult for them to have fun, coherent adventures in some ways - one character was a king of a dwarf hold, the other characters his advisors. That was a cool set up, but I DM for like 6-9 people and taking subplots and politics is really hard with that many people. I introduced some overall challenges, and the PCs certainly still went adventuring. The one problem with so many players with high-level PCs, though, is that it takes awhile to do even 1 adventure - and if I introduce other hooks, they may jump on those and then lose interest in the main adventure - not in the sense of deciding to do something else, but all their preparations and plans and deeds leading up to the main adventure get forgotten week-to-week. Ah, such is the game, so that will always be a problem, just need to work on focusing and managing it better. What I really intend to do is make sure we keep playing the same world and same PCs so it's not so much an issue. There were alot of interruptions for these "main camapign" characters that were totally my fault - I wanted to tinker with the rules, went through several rules changes, and played several one-offs and so on, so I had kinda fucked with the continuity myself.

Before returning to that North Kingdoms campaign, we did a serious, like 6+ month, jaunt with D&D's new Fifth Edition. We started with the Beginner Box and then I quickly added the Player's Handbook rules. Lots of things are fun about 5th edition, and I think for groups of say, 4-5 players, I could handle it. The impressions that mirror my own best are probably at Hack & Slash blog and Natalie's thoughts here .Character creation is relatively easy, there's lots of stuff on the character sheet that accumulates as the PCs level, the characters are pretty "empowered," and the rules mostly get out of the way - roll high, sometimes roll 2 advantage/disadvantage - in a way that makes sense.  The monster rules are pretty fun too, and I liked alot of the stuff in the DMG.

BUT there were problems. First, from the player's perspective (and mind you, I play with friends who don't read the books or work on their characters except at the table) the class abilities were WAY too complicated. Like, one friend was playing a cleric, but all the channeling v. spell slots were confusing (frankly to both of us at first, until I reread the rules several times). Some of the powers were different just for the sake of being different, which was stupid - like Perserve Life heals a maximum of half your hp, but the cleric has exactly 23 hp to distribute daily and shit. This is some video game thinking that should be absolutely exorcised at a live-pen-paper RPG - simple clear abilities and spells that don't overlap (you don't need 3 different kinds of heal, just have more cure light wounds). I know people who enjoy 3e and Pathfinder and certain video game clamor for this shit, but that's because they spend too much thinking about RPG rules as a closed box instead of strong guidelines for narrating what your character does with friends around a table. In general, all the special spell schools and just gobs of spells for each class was also confusing to players - I couldn't remember what all of them did, so there ended up being alot of looking up shit or "why bother" casting a spell type shit that happened. I also didn't like how many spells I had to keep track of for NPCs and monsters.

The next issue was for me: bags and bags of hit points. Campbell at Hack & Slash has talked about this too - in terms of how higher level characters not only have so many but everyone starts just dishing out the damage.  For me, although I love its many virtues, D&D's main problem is that when characters get up there in HP-count the narrative fiction elements start to break down - human beings absorbing hits that would kill regular human beings (think 1HD humans and demihumans) 5-10 times over. When you think about the Lone Survivor SEAL dude and how much punishment he took without dying, I think there's an element of this (and in more fantasy and Arthurian fiction and our movie action heroes), so it's basically fine but I don't like it getting so out of whack. I also don't like how MMORPG-style level dependent it makes everything: it doesn't matter that a dragon is massive, it has only 100 hp, while a 10th level NPC "assassin" monster has 68 hp. I'll take older school set HD thank you very much, giants and kings with 10-14 HD please.

The other major effect that I really didn't like because of these giant HP bundles was that it really turned the direction of the game towards comic-book style fantasy superhero. Again, there's always a tendency in D&D towards this, but I think in basic D&D it's much tamped-down (see Lamentations of the Flame Princess!). PCs started killing flying adult dragons in pairs with ease, enemies had to be bigger and scarier and more magical and more shut down powered.  5th edition is great at handling this mechanically, lots of that was still fun, but I couldn't keep adventure plots and adventure hooks and the world setting alive and sensical unless we start moving to planar territory. That's great, but it's not the D&D game I wanted to run - which trends much more towards Warhammer or Game of Thrones in feel, even if fantastical.

So all this leads me to a future post which will discuss the homebrew rules based on Basic/Lamentations/Beyond the Wall/Blood & Treasure that I've been using.

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