Sunday, March 8, 2020

d&d 5e

overall, a fun, easy to run game. the class abilities feel powerful and well drawn, the combat structure is flexible and easy to (basically) understand. the spells are very cool and flexible, and support a flexible, varied sort of game.


there is a sameness and homogeneity to everything that i just can't shake. classes end up feeling sort of similar to each other, even though their powers and capabilities are very different, there is the sense that they are all drawing from the same well. this is obvious in that different spellcasters have spell lists with many overlapping spells. but beyond that there is a sameness. different races feel more like different coats of paint than actually different in substance. same for backgrounds.

this is my big gripe, but i have a few others.


oh man, the technical writing gets so vague at times. i've been playing this edition of dnd since it came out, and we are still having trouble understanding how different spells and effects exactly work. the worst case is spells like "moonbeam" or "cloud of daggers," which only deal damage when a creature "enters the spell's area for the first time on a turn or starts its turn there" this is so numbingly vague, it's like looking at a piece of glass, they only say the word turn twice but it looks like it's written four times, and apparently this means that the damage only takes effect on the monster's turn AFTER the spell is cast, or if a monster MOVES into the spell, but NOT when the spell is cast, however there is no indication in the book that this is the case, it is only clarified online by the writers. 

or consider the concept of "clear path to the target." a caster of magic needs a "clear path to the target" to be able to cast the spell. again, this is left a little vague, presumably to allow DMs to give rulings, and also to allow casters to affect things shrouded in darkness or fog. but what does it MEAN?? does it mean a straight line? can the path curve or go around corners? my players were in a dense forest recently and i ruled that the trees were blocking magic, but is this intended? how is the game meant to be played? what is the rule??

throughout the book there is repeatedly this sense that they should not be too specific, and sentences become a sort of equation to be deciphered. Spells and abilities repeatedly refer to specific "conditions" to determine exactly what they do, which are so complex that they can't be effectively memorized, however the conditions page is embedded in the index somewhere after the spell-list and somewhere before (I think) the appendix which lists the different planes of existence. character abilities like "sneak attack" are filled with so many modifiers and buts that it's hard to understand exactly what the intent behind the power is.

why are critical hits not simply double damage? why do we have to roll the dice twice and then add the modifier? every time we get a critical hit at the table, we always have to remind the player how to do a critical hit. double damage is so much simpler and more satisfying, why not just do this?

one of the effects of this is that it becomes hard for new players to understand what their spells and abilities are. i have a player who is a sorcerer who is very reluctant to use her sorcery points, partly because she has trouble understanding what they do. i've had players abandon spellcasting characters because they want simpler characters. 

the other effect is that my players like following the rules in the game, it creates some shelter against my capriciousness, changing moods, and spite. this is true. but then the rules are sometimes vague and difficult to interpret. for instance, one of my players is a barbarian with high strength and the ability to lift huge poundage, when his allies are unconscious and endangered, he wants to be able to move them out of danger. i've encountered this with other players to, when someone they care about is in danger and unable to move, they want to push or move them to safety. however there are no guidelines for this, i feel it is creates problems if characters can simply use their movement speed to move their allies out of danger, however the barbarian character is (through powers granted in the game) very strong, and we have had to have a detailed rules negotiation to find a ruling that threads the needle and works for both of us.

 it's frustrating.


players are able to cast 0-level spells at will. i tried this for a few sessions and found it made the game seem ungrounded and strange, like a weird dream. this is easily edited with a house rule, but it still felt not quite like dungeons and dragons.


why aren't there tables of races and their bonuses? why isn't there a list of all the backgrounds? why is it so hard to find the equipment list? why is it so hard to find the backgrounds chapter at all? why does character creation jump back and forth through so many different chapters? why isn't there a chapter just called "skills?" this stuff drives me insane. i've heavily marked up my book to help but it still barely works.


there's no easy list of steps to just follow. it jumps back and forth through so many chapters. as my new players have started dying, they've started making new characters on their own. it usually takes at least an hour to roll a new character, sometimes more. first its rolling abilities, then choosing a race (back to organization: why aren't the races just alphabetically organized? how on earth are they organized? i don't understand, it's so hard to even just find "human" let alone "tiefling"), then choosing a class, then going through the equipment list, choosing skills, choosing spells, okay we're done!! actually not quite, still have to choose a background, what page is that again...?


So, there is something nonintuitive about proficiency bonus. on its face its a simple and effective tool to provide scaling, but not too much of it. i like that high level characters are still weak against many attacks. however, my players over the years have repeatedly had trouble understanding the purpose of proficiency bonus and what to add it to. i tried to explain it with powerpoint recently and they're still a little foggy. i think the concept is slippery -- its a small, static bonus, added to a few rolls (but only a few of them), only bonuses you're "proficient' in, which increases over time but only very slowly. it's a teflon concept, it feels like padding. 

the smallness of the proficiency bonus (+2 at level one, +6 at level 20) is complicated by the fact that some character powers allow you to double your proficiency bonus for certain rolls. this allows my players to easily attain skill rolls in the high 20s with even a mediocre roll. if i want to create monsters that are competitive, they need bonuses so overwhelming that players without that particular power, even if proficient in the skill, have nearly no chance of success. doesn't this defeat the whole purpose of a slowly scaling bonus? i don't get it.


Again, simple on the surface, and easy to grasp. however, again, a homogeneity to it. so many powers and effects grant advantage/disadvantage, there's a lack of scaling, or of needing to think carefully. okay, you get advantage, great! i've started reverting to old 3e rules of giving bonuses of +2 to +10 for good ideas, but it feels like the rules of the game resist this. 


My new players sky-rocketed through levels 1-4 but now the gap to level 5 is huge. Monsters at the appropriate challenge rating deal so much damage and have so many hitpoints that combat feels really scary and deadly. I can homebrew this. but it's something I've noted.


one of the effects of this is it can be hard to foresee what the effect of adding homebrewed and DIY objects, powers, and spells is. an item i want to be interesting will end up being underpowered because i didn't add the "finesse" tag to it. stuff like that. 

the hardest part of homebrewing is figuring out relative power of monsters. there is very little support for this in the books. the official DMG supplies a chart and a multiple page guideline for writing monster stats. my current system involves three different calculation websites in order to supply them the numbers necessary to make them a credible threat. monsters need to have huge numbers of hit-points to be a threat long enough to use their powers, and need to deal huge amounts of damage to feel like a danger, and it is next to impossible to tell exactly what the appropriate amount of damage is. a CR 14 monster should have 266-280 hitpoints and an AC of 18, however, if you decrease its AC you will need to increase its hitpoints to compensate, by how much, I do not know. i plug it into a website and it tells me, and then i use another website to reverse engineer dice averages, and then a third website to find out the appropriate experience point range for my players. but you can't just hit a target XP range, you actually have to multiple the total by a different modifier depending on the number of monsters present. i don't know, it's insane. the good news is this seems to be roughly accurate, when i do it right the encounters' numbers feel appropriately challenging. 

otherwise, i make a neat monster with a cool concept and weird powers, and my players just walk all over it with their 5e specific powers.

creating new spells is challenging for the same reason. we're instructed to follow some loose guidelines and look at spells of similar strength at similar levels. level 9 spells are supposed to do 14d6 damage in an area, however then the spell meteor swarm deals 40d6 damage. it is all mystifying.


I was raised on 2e and migrated over to 3e, played a campaign of 4e, and have been playing 5e since it came out. i'm an edition follower i guess. there is something in dnd 5e that doesn't quite feel like actual d&d. it's a little too seamless, too integrated, with a lack of flavor, there's not the weirdness, the care for the seemingly unimportant details, the tables of different weapons. it feels too interested in fending off criticism and creating a sort of "language," and not interested enough in fantasy. this is just a feeling, i have no evidence for this.


this is all a lot of complaints, but, we're used to it and it's generally easy to use at this point. it works well enough.


the spell system, particularly, is very well written and easy to follow. i personally love the concept of spell slots, spells known, and spells prepared. it makes using the character much simpler than in past games, and magic users are much more fun and viable to play at lower levels. previously, low level casters were bullshit runts who couldn't do anything, and now magic feels flashy and significant right out the gate. my 1st level cleric "Tom" got a critical hit against a mimic and got to roll eight d6s. it fucking rocked. i did 30 damage. when you cast "speak with animals," it does what it says on the tin, and it's flexible and easy enough that you can just roll with it. spells didn't use to be this way, they used to be sort of fidgety.


Action -- move -- bonus action is simple and easy to remember. early editions had to do all this fussing to create the same effect. 3e had its lame flanking rule, and attacks of opportunity were so ubiquitous that combat slowed to a crawl. the disengage action creates a lot of freedom, and its easy to see the drawback of using it. the action economy is pretty obvious -- if someone is complex or hard to accomplish, i just say that it's an action to do it, and my players understand the immediate consequences. going back to the problem of picking up another character, i ruled that picking up or moving a character uses an action. bingo, problem part-way solved.


after all that, it works pretty well most of the time. i'm able to use the system to create an evocative and strange world, and that's what i really want, as well as the ability to create challenging and tactically difficult fights. the second part has taken a lot of experimentation, but over time i've had some really good results.

Alright, thats my review of dnd 5e. until next time.

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