PLEASE NOTE: As of now, all my musings on 5e are going to be about the Basic Rules (which I will refer to as 5eBR from now on). When one has a child in the hospital for the better part of a year, one’s gaming budget is Free. I have no ability anytime in the near future to actually purchase any of the core rulebooks. I may never do so.
I really want to like 5eBR. I really do. It is a really good hack of D&D and there are several interesting ideas that I will be hacking into my own hacked version of D&D. Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to like 5eBR as is. It all comes down to a theatrical concept called suspension of disbelief.
When putting on a theatrical production, it is critical that the world presented have some kind of internal logic so that when presented with things such as the Battle of Agincourt from Shakespeare’s Henry V— something that could never happen within the confines of a theatre stage — the audience can easily immerse themselves in that world. They suspend their disbelief that the battle can’t occur on stage.
RPGs operate in a similar fashion. Everyone who plays D&D, for example, should know that the world presented defies all kinds of economic, physical and social logic. However, the rules do such a good job of representing a fantasy world in the abstract that we have successfully suspended our disbelief for decades.
Upon reflection, the moment I knew I didn’t like 3.5 was the moment my suspension of disbelief was shattered. Our party stumbled upon a machine that was built/controlled by the bad guys. It was a giant clock work of gears. We wanted to literally throw a wrench into the works; however, we did not have a rogue and the gear system was the equivalent of a DC25 trap. No matter what our party did, no matter how logical, no matter that it would work in the real world no one in our party could stop those gears from turning. I could no longer immerse myself in the world and I found, rather, that I was just seeing how illogical and silly it all was.
When the DM section of 5eBR was released, I decided to “play” the game the only way I could: stock a dungeon and see how it compared to the editions I like to play. I quickly realized that I couldn’t. There are no treasure tables. I then realized why WotC would be so lazy as to not include any: all XP comes from combat. Treasure is largely irrelevant.
This seriously challenges my ability to suspend disbelief: in order to become a better mage, cleric or thief you have to go kill stuff. The world presented isn’t a world where adventurers explore ruins from lost civilizations. Rather, it is a murder world where prowess in combat is everything. I suppose if you wanted to run a campaign inspired by Glen Cook’s The Black Company this would be okay, but this certainly isn’t the game I played as a kid.
What really threw my suspension of disbelief out the window was the combination of XP progression and the amount of XP given per kill. I have no real issue with fast XP progressions, especially in context of not having the kind of time necessary to take a character from 1st to 9th level (something I never did using older rule sets). Personally, this really never bothered me because my favorite “tier” of play is 1st-3rd; however, I could see how shortening the XP progression could be a very good thing.
Having said that, the world 5eBR presents completely breaks down when considering the amount of XP given per combat kill. A measly little goblin is worth 50 XP, a bandit 25 XP and a commoner 10 XP. At 300 XP to get to 2nd level, it would take 6 goblins, 12 bandits or 30 commoners to advance. This defies logic, because those kinds of numbers should be achievable through basic training — especially in a murder world where even scholarly mages need to kill things to be a better mage.
This is rendered even less logical when one realizes that Soldier is one of the backgrounds available to 1st level characters. A professional soldier in a world where combat is a constant should be plowing through the equivalent of 6 goblins almost every day during training, let alone if one actually participated in some kind of military campaign. Add to that the idea a 1st level character could be an officer and the 5eBR world just spirals off into the ridiculous.
I suppose that if the average age of a 5eBR 1st level character were, say, eight I might be able to accept all of the above, but I don’t really get off on imaging a character as an eight year old kid who is forced to murder things in order to get by.
For me, this all highlights the genius of Arneson’s 1 XP = 1 gp spent. Regardless of the world in which such a scheme exists, the main impetus for characters to advance from 1st to 2nd level is getting enough cash to invest in themselves — whether through better equipment, better henchman, tithing to a church, a down payment on a house, etc. Thus, each character can become a renaissance man (woman) in their own unique way and believably face down tougher and tougher monsters and win.
It also becomes believable that an army of commoners will still be commoners after a series of battles. When treasure spent is the main way one gets to 2nd level (because otherwise someone would have to kill 100+ goblins), war is no longer the main way a bunch of normal joes can become high-powered adventurers. Only folks willing to explore ruins, lost civilizations and dungeons to bring back treasure get to do that.
13 hours ago