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.
42 minutes ago