Thursday, October 13, 2016

I'm Back and Playing (and Ranting About) 5e

For those of you who don’t know, I have not been playing anything for a number of years now. My youngest was in and out of the hospital for about three years battling for her little life and we have been struggling to find what can only be called a new normal.

When things began to settle down, I found that the group that I had played with had moved on in life, as so often happens. Some began families and have to deal with the time realities that such an endeavor requires, some left town to go to school or back to school and one even went off to the military. Thus, I really haven’t done anything with this hobby let alone something worth blogging about.

Recently, however, my oldest got together with a bunch of her friends and asked me to be a GM for their group. The system of choice was D&D 5e. As a consequence, I got my hands on the core books for the first time. The Basic 5e .pdf release from a few years back did nothing to convince me that I should fork over $40 for a Players Handbook let alone $120 for all three core books.

As I wrote back then, when I took a hard look at the free .pdf release, there are things to like about the new system; however, all of them are things that can easily be grafted onto my (still) favorite version of the game: B/X and its clone Labyrinth Lord.

Now that I have had the core books in my hands and have had to use them at the table, I can with certainty proclaim that they most definitely are not worth $40 for a PH let alone $120 for all three core books. What surprises me, however, is that this declaration has less to do with the system itself, and more to do with the way the game is written, laid out and typeset.

These books are really hard to use. The visual style is chaotic, confusing and hard to read. The best of the bunch is the PH and its a nightmare. The page numbers are not only too small, but are a light color on top of another color. The index requires a magnifying glass. I have yet to really understand the logic of why the book is laid out and ordered the way that it is. For example: races aren’t alphabetical, but the classes are?

While I will admit that the DM Guide does have a bunch of useful information for a beginner, a good chunk of that advice runs counter to my own predilections. The only reason for me to own that book is the magic section and (especially since I own several versions of the game with their own better organized version of magic items) $40 is way too much.

Lastly, I despise the monster stat block. It is visually cluttered and overly complicated. For someone who has written and typeset modules, my least favorite part of the process is monster stat blocks. Swords & Wizardry has the best, and even then it is still a task. 5e requires all six characteristic scores and their bonuses!? Put that mess on top of all the ridiculous artsy crap that fills every single page of the MM and you have something that I would prefer to use as a fuel for a fire rather then something I have at the table. It gives me a headache just thinking about it.

So, yeah, the only book I’d be tempted to buy is the PH and only if I could find a deal that would put it in the $20 range. Even then, it would only be used as a reference so that I could typeset my own more table friendly version. Fortunately, I can do that legally now (and I may not even ever have to purchase a core book to do it!).

Systemically, I am going to do my best to play this particular campaign according to the book so that I can see how it plays, with one major exception: the XP rules. Just no. I can appreciate the faster progression at lower levels (especially given the fact that I am working with a group of young teenagers used to the instant gratification of cell phones, the internet and video games). What I can’t abide is that it is has everything to do with killing stuff (or accomplishing missions if you use the alternative options in the DMG) and nothing to do with gold for xp.

I cannot say enough about Dave Arneson’s 1 gp of treasure spent = 1 xp. It does such an incredible job of emulating a character investing in himself or herself. It also places almost all of the agency of how a character progresses through the game into the hands of the players.

For example: Lets pretend that there is a dragon with a requisite hoard living in close proximity to the PCs.

In 5e the only way to get experience points out of this reality is to kill the dragon unless the GM is kind enough to give you a mission associated with the dragon hoard. In other words, the only agency the players have is whether or not to risk going up against a dragon.

If one uses the Dave Arneson formula, the players are in almost complete control of how the existence of this dragon and its hoard will affect their advance in levels. They can kill the dragon, they can steal from the dragon, they can go on other adventures get enough treasure to do research about how to hide from or defeat or capture a dragon (which would mean getting experience points by spending that treasure), etc. Once they get whatever amount of treasure they want from that hoard, the players get to decide how that treasure is used to express how their character gets to the next level. They can go on a massive bar crawl, they can invest in cargo that will be traded for by merchants hired by the characters, they can begin building a house/temple/castle/bridge/bar/whatever, they can buy a fancy outfit to go visit the king, etc. How the character spends that treasure says a lot about who they are and that choice and agency is almost entirely in the hands of the player — not the game, not the system and not the GM.

So, using the training rules from 1e, I determined that the average price of advancing to the next level from 1st-9th level (when training is necessary) is approximately 36% of the total needed for that level. Thus, the one house rule I am using in this campaign is that players must spend a minimum amount of treasure equal to a third of the required xp to gain a level. In other words, if a 1st level character stole 300 gp from the aforementioned dragon hoard and spent it, they would gain a level. If that same 1st level character defeated a group of goblins worth 300xp, they would be stuck at 1st level until such time that they found 100gp and spent it.

I will grant that this has less player agency than I would like, but it is the only way I am going to be able to experience the 5e level progression while teaching these kids about player agency.

Now, despite all my curmudgeonly griping, I do think that 5e has a lot to offer the game and I look forward to seeing what works, what doesn’t and what modular bits and pieces I steal for my default Labyrinth Lord game.


Dennis Laffey said...

Glad to see you're back! And glad to hear that your youngest is better.

I've only experienced 5E from the player side, other than two sessions back during the play test, so I've only needed the PHB.

For the races, at least, they divided them into "common" (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling), and "uncommon" (everything else). That's why they're not all alphabetical. It's to allow DMs to declare no (or only some) uncommon races in a campaign more easily, or something like that, apparently. Unnecessary, but that was their logic for that one.

I'll be looking forward to reading what else you have to say about 5E.

AndreasDavour said...

Welcome back, Dave.

I hope it has sorted itself out for your child, and that the travails you have had to endure is over.

I've yet to experience 5th ed. but am curious about your impressions and ideas. I know you are totally on the same page as me regarding Dave Arneson's brilliant XP rule.

JB said...

Good to hear you're gaming again. Looking forward to hearing how the campaign progresses with 5E. I've got a buddy who is (or was...haven't talked to him recently) running a campaign with the latest edition, but he said he'd probably be returning to B/X after it concluded.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad it's better with your kid, now. Tough.
Blessings to you.

Conrad Kinch said...

Glad to hear that she's better. Good to have you back padre.

Dr. Obscure said...


Grizaptimus said...

I am glad that she is better now. I have always enjoyed reading your thoughts on Role playing. God Bless you.

Unknown said...

you have defined such facts that I am totally agreed to this thing,thanks for sharing.

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Ifryt said...

It's really a great joy to see you blogging again. I pray for you and your family.

And to give you something to write about, I'll ask about this XP=gp spent thing. :)
Isn't it too materialistic? For example, shouldn't players gain XP for helping some poor farmer rid his field of an ankheg? They won't gain any gold for this, but it is good and challenging act.

In my games (D&D5 recently) characters gain XP for accomplishments and players themselves establish what was an accomplishment during particular session. I only say (after the fact) how much XP is it worth.

WQRobb said...

I'm also glad to see you back to blogging, and gaming, even if it isn't with a rules set you like.

FrDave said...

Thank you, everyone, for all your thoughts and your prayers. They are still needed.

FrDave said...

It can be materialistic, if that is what the player wants it to be.

In my campaign, a perfectly acceptable way for a character to gain a bunch of xp is to use their treasure to repair and improve all of the damaged property destroyed by that ankheg attack. In point of fact, that use of treasure not only says a lot more about a character than awarding xp for accomplishments, but it also impacts the game world in a far more organic and long-lasting manner. Since the character invested (literally) in the livelihood of this farmer, further threats to that livelihood are going to mean more.

Such investments have not only enriched my campaign world beyond my own imagination, they have been the seeds of further conflict and adventure.

Indeed, the events surrounding my current campaign are a direct result of an investment made by a player in a previous campaign.

Ifryt said...

But is it true that only money investments are important? Do characters have to pay for something, cannot they for example build something themselves? Or use some social (or political) influence?

In my recent campaign for example players negotiated with stone giants building of city walls for their base town. There was no money involved and the action changed the game world.

Hardrada said...

Great to have you back,Father! God bless you and your family.

mactavish said...

I am very pleased to see you back, Fr. Dave. I'd prayed for your eventual return, so it's good to see you posting again. We'll still keep the prayers flowing and hope that you'll do the same with the virtual ink!

FrDave said...

I think where we are getting crossed up is that I don't see treasure in a purely economic/materialistic way. Rather, I see it as a game mechanic that represents a means for characters to gain experience. The reason I like it so much is that as a game mechanic I have found that it does an outstanding job of placing agency into the hands of players rather than being dependent on either my own whims or the whims of the system. There are other mechanics that can accomplish the same thing; however, experience as shown me that 1 gp of treasure spent = 1 xp does this better than any other mechanic I have ever played with.

Ifryt said...

I understand it is a game mechanic. This discussion even encouraged me to try it in my next campaign. :)

But what here is a problem for me is one thing you also wrote about yourself - I try in my games to be faithful to my real life worldview (for example, you wrote about all people starting equal, without any special "hero powers"). I think the money isn't the most important thing in the world. This is the reason why I have my doubts about the game mechanic of XP=gp.

FrDave said...

Okay, then let's talk about values and worldviews. In context of RPGs, one of the most important features of a game system for me is freedom. This all stems from the fact that from 2e on, paganism is hardwired into D&D and I, as a Christian, am no longer implicitly free to play the game as a Christian. Im my own journey post Gygax's death, I found it wonderfully freeing to find that older versions of the game used Christian ideas and symbols in context of clerics and their trappings. Suddenly, I was free again to play the game as a Christian.

My love of 1gp treasure spent = 1xp stems from the freedom it gives players. Treasure isn't just a means of measure economic/material wealth, it is a game mechanic that empowers players to mold the game system itself to reflect how they want their character to advance in levels. They are free to have the system be entirely materialistic and economic. They are free to have the system express their own Christian faith. They are free to have the system be whatever they want it to be.

In other words, the 1gp treasure spent = 1xp is to character advancement what older systems of D&D are to my ability to freely play the game as a Christian. That ability isn't forced on me or anybody else, but the system is open enough to allow me to play the game I want to play.

If I go around imposing my values upon the game and upon my players I follow in the footsteps of 2e+ hardwiring paganism into the game. I would much rather see my players see the value of freedom and be empowered by that freedom.

Freedom is hardwired into Christianity. It is a fundamental part of its anthropology. 1gp treasure spent = 1xp lets me empower my players with that value. As a consequence, my gaming experience and the gaming experience of my players has been enriched in a way that no other advancement system has ever come close to.

Ifryt said...

I'm also a Christian (Catholic specifically) and also believe that freedom is included in God’s essential idea of human. And role-playing games represent this human freedom very well. It’s one of the reasons I like them so much. For sure I wouldn’t like to lessen freedom of my players. The achievement (milestones) system of XP that I use, respects this freedom, I think.

The investments in the game world you gave as an argument is a good reason to try ‘XP=gp spent’ system. I simply think I would use ‘treasure’ very liberally and for example, gaining city walls (the situation I described in one of my previous comments) would also count as a ‘treasure spent’ and players would get experience for it.

Svafa said...

I think the wall example fits pretty well into the 1g = 1xp system. The GM figures out how much it would have cost them to pay for the wall, and then awards them xp based on that; possibly reducing it if they aren't supplying their own materials or are only helping to build the wall. Basically, award them xp as if they were being paid for the job; or don't if they are being paid for the job.

I think the gold for experience system works well even if you don't place value on material wealth yourself, because it's asking the players to determine what their characters value. If their characters don't value material wealth either, it still works, because they can still "spend" gold on donations, aiding the poor and oppressed, tithes, etc.

Ifryt said...

When player characters already have gold, then of course what they do with it shows their values. But the question remains if they should seek treasure above all else (for example, instead of trying to help other people).

FrDave said...

From my perspective, that question can only be answered by the players themselves. The beauty of 1 gp treasure spent = 1 xp is that it allows the players the freedom to do exactly that.

In my personal experience, younger players tend to answer that question "yes." Which brings us to another reason I really like this rule: as time goes on and more treasure is amassed and more xp is needed to get to higher levels, someone eventually comes to the conclusion that not only is helping other people an easier way to spend that gold for xp, but it is more fun and rewarding.

In other words, I have found that the very freedom this system allows also allows (and even encourages) players to find out that the answer actually isn't "yes" but something else entirely. And when they come to that conclusion themselves, it actually has more meaning than if I systemically required it of them in the first place.

Thiles Targon said...

Good to see you back!

Not trying to troll but...

"In my recent campaign for example players negotiated with stone giants building of city walls for their base town. There was no money involved and the action changed the game world."

"Isn't it too materialistic?"

Just because it was not purchased with money, does not mean it's not materialistic. Money is not evil, the love of things is.

Dave said...

Glad to see you're back!