Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Meditating on 5e (Basic Rules)

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.


  1. It's good to read your posts again! (Long time reader, first time poster here ;)

    I think it's obvious (and even encouraged by 5e authors) that every DM will make D&D his own. Question really is do you want to use 5e as a basis for your hacking (and for example change levelling to XP for gold) or do you prefer some other edition for being changed.

    Your example with a clockwork machine speaks more about particular DM than used system, I think.

  2. Good to see you back in action Padre. Blessings on your house.

  3. I've always enjoyed your blog and am glad to see you posting again and hope all things continue to improve for your family.

    A thought on XP; my own suspension of disbelief has always accommodated the idea that whatever your character gains XP for is simply what your DM or the game designer wants you to focus on having your character do. A combat centric game will naturally reward combat and one focused on exploration and treasure hunting will reward getting discoveries back to market and converted into spending cash.

    I’d suggest that none of the major XP models will really hold up if you try to extrapolate them to an entire world. Apropos of Henry V; I remember reading that a major motivation for soldiers in the 100 Years war was the promise of wages and loot far in excess of anything they'd be able to back home in years or decades of peaceful work. I don't have right reference material nearby, but I imagine that on a 1 XP = 1 GP spent, the soldiers on the winning side of Agincourt would've all went up a level or two, provided they survived long enough to spend their gains. The stock character of a spendthrift soldier could rapidly level up over a successful campaign and a really successful Condottiere company would be chock full of correspondingly high level characters.

    None of which I mean to be contrarian; I try to tailor what XP will be awarded for in a given campaign based on an agreement about we want a given game to focus on. I think this helps with the suspension of disbelief by having the characters grow stronger by doing the things the players expect to make their characters stronger.

  4. What parts of 5e do you like/find hackable?

  5. I think you're taking the rules too literally. Where does it say xp is for combat only? Also, the rules for PCs are not the rules for NPCs. The PCs are adventurers, therefore they get xp for adventuring. As Scrivener says, some rules are not universal, they are there to regulate a particular part of the game and make it more fun. XP is not meant to be physical fact.

    Also house-ruling is pretty much built-in for 5E, so xp is just one of the more minor things you can tweak.

  6. Glad you're back to posting! I'm a fellow Orthodox Christian and RPG lover.

    I think if you're going to evaluate 5e based only on the 5eBR, you just need to realize that (in my opinion) the 5e system is the most hackable D&D version I've seen, and I've played them all. Whether you want to tailor how XP and leveling works, how healing works, or many other facets of the game, the Dungeon Master Guide has many, many options. I think you have to read the DMG to catch the flexibility of the core system. There are so many genres, magic systems, setting tropes etc. that you can pull in without breaking the core rules. Anyway, I am an old school Grognard and loved the B/X, 1e and other flavors, and I find I can get whatever old-school feel I want using 5e. That being said, I've seen many folks who have no interest in upgrading from their older system of choice, and that's cool too :-)

  7. I'm also one who likes the game, but feels like making my own determinations about how to manage XP is up to me. In my own recently-started game the group encountered two bears in a cave. The druid's player attempted to calmly get the bears to allow them to pass unmolested. I awarded them XP for that, even though they didn't enter into combat and kill the bears.

  8. A 5e goblin is a very nasty opponent that can easily kill a 1st level PC. You don't 'plough through six a day in basic training'! The full XP award is for victory in a life & death situation.
    A 5e 1st level is similar to BX 1st level in terms of power, but the XP table is designed to level them up quickly, I'm not sure of the wisdom of that.
    5e Basic seems to lack a good discussion of XP awards. You should award XP for non-combat achievements on the same scale as combat, eg an achievement equal to victory in battle should typically get a party XP equal to winning a battle of CR = their Level. That might include looting a significant treasure cache, forging an alliance, rescuing the princess, etc.

    1. Actually, there is no discussion on XP awards…

      1e goblins are not pushovers either. They show up in numbers and can easily get a TPK if the players aren't tactically sound.

      My own understanding of XP has been largely molded by the 1 gp = 1 XP model and by the fact that both Arneson and Gygax made their players spend that money. While Arneson's model was direct, Gygax required his players to spend money on training. They couldn't advance until that training was done.

      Plus, XP = victory in life & death situations doesn't track as a realistic model. That would mean that I (sans any real combat training) should be as effective a fighter as someone who has finished basic training, earned any kind of belt in a martial art or spent any time at a firing range.