5E preliminary notes

I’m running the play test Caves of Chaos tomorrow for my group, so I thought I’d put down my pre-play thoughts beforehand and then compare them to how it goes. My group is pretty diverse (a few very casual players, some who are primarily video gamers, some 4E fans, and one player with mostly 3E experience; none of them are very active in the online tabletop RPG community), so it will be interesting to see what they think.

I’ve mentioned previously that I like the idea of backgrounds and themes, and I still like the idea after seeing a few actual examples on the pregen character sheets. I’m not crazy about all of the abilities, but the underlying concept is solid, and a huge improvement over the raw skills and feats available in Third and Fourth. Backgrounds as presented are a slightly more elaborated version of the original “secondary skill” systems present in 1E and 2E. The backgrounds are a nice way to add some detail to a character without wasting time on extensive backstory that (let’s face it) rarely gets read by anyone other than the writer. Put the list of backgrounds on a random table and that would make a pretty good character creation tool (compare to the recent Before First Level posts over at The Dungeon Dozen). The backgrounds as given by the pregens are knight, priest, soldier, commoner, and sage.

First Edition Secondary Skills (AKA “backgrounds”)

Themes I see as select class features factored out of classes. For example, the backstab/sneak attack ability is not associated with the rogue class, but rather the lurker theme. So you can create a fighter with the lurker theme and that is a pretty good assassin. The magic-user theme grants the use of several cantrips, so a rogue character with the magic-user theme is a pretty good approximation of The Gray Mouser, who knew a few spells from his time as a wizard’s apprentice. Conan? A fighter with some sort of barbaric background and a theme like slayer or lurker. This is better than multi-classing, in my opinion. I would much rather see a limited number of classes with more themes than a huge number of classes. Unfortunately, many of the non-core classes are sacred cows (ranger, paladin, barbarian, etc) and so are likely to be full classes despite just being slight variations on the fighter. The themes as given are magic-user, lurker, slayer, healer, and guardian.

One of the problems I noticed is the lack of support for games that focus on resource management. The at-will light cantrip is the biggest offender, but there are several other problematic abilities. Detect magic is also an at-will cantrip, and dwarves have a racial ability called stonecunning which allows them to unerringly retrace their steps while underground; this makes mapping less critical. These features are fine, but should be available modularly, not as defaults within the core races and classes. To paraphrase Jeff Rients from a G+ conversation, I respect the right of anyone to play Omega Level asskickers, but I don’t see why there can’t be room for low rent bastardry at first level, and such play relies on resource management. Also, if you want the game to be about anything other than killing monsters, combat can’t be the first resort (in other words, the game has to be more deadly, at least optionally).

From a high level design point of view, a shift to a lower power curve is by far the most promising aspect of the new system. This might even have advantages for old school play over some early editions of D&D. Consider the escalating power levels of classes in AD&D, for example. A high-level AD&D fighter can pretty much hit anything that does not have an absurd AC. It is hard to get a full picture of how this might look from the play test materials, since they only go up to third level, but it is notable that not a single class gets any increase in base attack bonus over that period of time. There are a couple bonuses to damage here and there (presumably to compensate), but I think that will have much less of an effect on the way the game plays. Even the advantage and disadvantage mechanics are designed around avoiding bonus inflation by using a d20 version of 2DTH (roll two dice, take highest or lowest). For an example of how this is used, consider penalties for wearing armor. Armor causes disadvantage to several kinds of rolls (stealth, saving throws when not proficient, etc). I love this mechanic, so this makes me happy.

Gone will hopefully be the nonsense of 4E scaled defenses. Such scaling results in absurdities like a first level pixie having a 15 reflex and a 20th level ogre having a reflex of 30 (I made those numbers up, but they are representative). Some people have described these play test materials as “3E lite,” but I just don’t see it. Pretty much the only point of comparison is the listing of task DCs, and as far as I can tell the whole point of flattening the power curve is diametrically opposed to the reality of Third Edition, which is by far the edition with the steepest power curve (4E starts out more powerful, but advances less steeply).

I love the idea of ability scores as saving throws, despite the fact that it might fight against 3d6 in order (because ability scores will be so potent that players will always want them to be high). That said, the benefits are many, and include avoiding some of the skill tax problems of perception and allowing the simplicity of 3E saving throws without needing separate numbers on the character sheet. This also means, however, that saving throws will not get better as levels increase (one of the few aspects of level-based inflation that I like, because it allows players to earn survivability through smart play rather than optimization). Does this mean that ability scores themselves will inflate as levels progress? Or maybe there will be separate saving throw bonuses? We will have to wait for more details before that will be clear. Also, this means no evocative saving throw types like the save versus death ray.

The Caves of Chaos adventure is almost a primer to old school gaming. Specifically, it gives the following advice:

  • No single storyline
  • PC motivations are not assumed
  • There are no plot points and encounters are not ordered
  • Dynamic dungeons; PCs not just expected to clear the site
  • No balanced encounters
  • PCs may go where they want and pick their battles
  • Monsters are supposed to be played strategically
  • Make up monster ability scores if desired
In other words, this is pretty much the Caves of Chaos as imagined by Gary Gygax. There are several suggestions about how to avoid killing PCs if they are in over their heads, but even Gary had suggestions in the original about ransoming PCs. The only significant modification from the original is that DCs are given for avoiding hazards and finding things like secret doors. However, there is also language about how a player must indicate, for example, the correct place to search in order to have any chance at all, and that the referee can always award success based on good description with dice rolls. In other words, player skill. This might seem like schizophrenia, but one might also read it as a license to make the game your own.

There are still lots of important things missing. XP award guidelines, for example. From the materials, it seems like you only get XP for defeating monsters, and that will not encourage the kind of careful play that the original module expected. There are no mentions of retainers. There is not variable monster reaction system, which will probably lead referees to assume hostility. Given that this is not supposed to be a complete game, I am willing to withhold judgment about those omissions for now. Also, the solutions they propose to fill those gaps need not necessarily be clones of OD&D or B/X to be successful. But the function of those original systems needs to be understood.

2 thoughts on “5E preliminary notes

  1. Jack

    My one comment here is that I like the vast spread of potential power levels in D&D 3.X. I don’t think that it’s a game that reasonably can or should be played straight from Level 1 to Level 20 or beyond, but the system gives you the option of playing wherever you want from gritty adventurers to wushu-style heroes to nigh-demigods. I don’t think that flattening that curve or ‘simplifying’ the system along that axis is going to be a benefit for people like me.

    1. Brendan

      I don’t think the escalating DC and bonus treadmill is a particularly good way to model powerful characters though, especially when it rewards super-specialization, as 3E seems to do. That being said, I also haven’t played much Third Edition or Pathfinder, so I’m willing to be proven wrong some time by a skilled referee.

      I love the idea of E6 though (where 6 is whatever level you prefer). I’ve wanted to try playing the Pathfinder Beginner Box (for example) as a complete E5 game for a while now.


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