Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Meditating on 5e (Basic Rules) Part 2

PLEASE NOTE:Currently, all of my meditations on 5e are going be about the Basic Rules as a stand-alone product outside the context of the rest of 5e. I am doing this for a couple reasons:

  1. My only access to 5e is the Basic Rules, because I cannot afford to invest anything other than free in my gaming for the foreseeable future.
  2. As this community has demonstrated from its outset, there is value in examining a rule-set on its own. We have examined 0e, Holmes, B/X, 1e etc. and found a number of wonderful, unexpected treasures buried inside those rule sets. We’ve also found a number of things we’d rather not use.

Yesterday, I got several comments that deserve a response. Due to the wide breadth of these comments, I am going to do an entire blog post.

Firstly, my biggest beef with 5eBR is that as a stand-alone product, it is unusable. There is no treasure table. There is no advice in the DMs section on awarding XP, except a table in the Building Combat Encounters section. That means, as is, combat is the only way to earn XP. Certainly, I can hack away and use treasure and XP tables from another edition, but I really didn’t want to have to do that in order to play. Even though limited to 1st-3rd levels, both Holmes’ and Moldvay’s Basic Editions are playable without using any other outside material.

Secondly, there is enough in 5eBR that I do want to play it in some incarnation. There are two things, specifically, I will definitely be trying out regardless of edition I play in the future:

  • Advantage/Disadvantage — this is such an elegant mechanic that so simply deals with a huge swath of situations where a ±1 to ±4 just never felt right.
  • Backgrounds — anything that can enrich the story of a 1st level character with randomized goodness, a couple of non-combat areas of expertise, NPC contacts and some equipment that one might not otherwise bother buying is right up my alley.

Thirdly, while I do understand and accept that there are other useful models for granting XP, reading 5eBR reminded me how awesome Arneson’s 1 XP = 1 gp spent really is. As anyone who has read this blog long enough knows, one of the things I value most in my RPGs is freedom. While combat-only is a legitimate choice for awarding XP, it does so at the cost of player freedom and, at least in context of how much a goblin is worth and how fast the XP progression is in 5eBR, my own ability to suspend my disbelief.

Player freedom goes out the window, because the only way a mage can become second level is to go out and fight things. IF Arneson’s XP model is used, that very same mage has a huge variety of choices as to how to get to second level. The mage could go and find a goblin army to kill, but a more interesting choice is to make off with the army’s supply caravan or to run off with the treasure hoard of the evil mage paying the goblin army.

To boot, the 1 XP = 1 gp formula puts the development of the character directly in the hands of players. How a player spends that money in order to become second level defines who that character is even more than class mechanics. That same mage could spend money by bar hopping across your favorite FRPG city or by buying access to a private collection of scrolls. Each choice says far more about the character than his/her spell book does.

I have also found that when players are having to find ways to dump thousands of gold pieces, the easiest way to do so is to invest in and build stuff. Players suddenly have far more of a vested interest in the health and safety of a community/locale when this kind of spending happens. Thus, external threats become much more personal and adventures have higher stakes.

Fourthly, while professional armies were a new thing during the Hundred Years War, the largest expense of the Crown was equipment not wages. And if, as is the tradition in FRPGs like D&D, one relies on literary source material, according to Shakespeare, Henry V had a close personal friend hung for stealing from the conquered French. Thus, the actual amount of cash an average commoner would get from a 6-month contract wouldn’t likely be enough to be able to advance to second level. Which goes to show that this scenario is a lot easier to justify using older editions than trying to justify how anyone, let alone an officer, in an army could only be 1st level using 5eBR.

Finally, when it comes to game mechanics, I don’t buy into systems that treat PCs differently than the rest of the world. Suspension of disbelief plays a large part in this, because such a mechanic is antithetical to the world view of my faith. Christ gave eternal life to all of humanity when He went to the cross and rose from the dead. The crux of our life is what we do with that gift. Practically, it means that anyone can do great things. If a game does not allow Joe Nobody to defeat Mr. Big Bad Guy with a good plan and good luck, then my suspension of disbelief is out the window, because I know the stories of thousands of Joe Nobodies who did do great and wondrous things.


  1. "...the 1 XP = 1 gp formula puts the development of the character directly in the hands of players."

    This "Arneson Rule" is one of the best ideas I've seen since I started exploring the OSR movement, for just the reasons you mentioned. It's also a great way to prevent the ungodly accumulation of wealth in a party's hands.

  2. An interesting and edifying response, and one I'll mull over before making further comment. I'll also read up on the 100 Years War, instead of relying on a hazy recollection of reading Desmond Seward's book a decade ago.

    I'll say again though that I'm glad to see you blogging once more; the discourse on our hobby is much the better for it.

  3. @ Fr. Dave:

    The Basic rules, as presented, are not a complete game. They appear to be a lure to get folks to buy the new 5E books. Without sensibilities provided by knowledge of past editions, it is impossible to run a game with the "new Basic Rules" as written.

    I believe that the combat-for-XP mechanic in the Basic Rules was a bone thrown to folks who enjoyed 3rd-4th edition D&D.