Thoughts on Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition (5e)
I’m an old AD&D player. I got my first Advanced Dungeons and Dragons boxed set around 1984 and I still have some of the dice from it. I also had the Basic Dungeons and Dragons set back in the day. Then in the late 1990s and early 2000s I got into 3.0 and 3.5. I have lots of thoughts I haven’t written down, and this blog will just get to a few of them.
First level, as you knew it, is gone
The best metaphor I have heard is that the first 3 levels are gone. If you think of your 5e character as starting at 3rd level or so in the old AD&D, then you’ll have a better mental model. By the time you’re 3rd level in 5e, you feel like you’re 6th level in the old game, and so on. Obviously at higher levels the difference is less noticeable. In fact (I’m not up to 10th level yet), I expect as you close on 10th level and on up, the difference probably fades and it probably feels similar.
In AD&D and all its predecessors, first level was tricky. If you were a first level fighter and a peasant came at you with a short sword, you’d win, but you were only just a bit better than that peasant. For the first 2 or 3 levels, you were pretty weak, gradually getting stronger and stronger as you faced foes of increasing capability. In those first few sessions, though, you could get killed by stuff that just didn’t seem all that powerful. A few unlucky rolls, a few poor decisions (perhaps because you’re learning the game) and pow: you’re dead. Death was also a bit more final and penalising, which I will come to.
In Fifth Edition, though, you start off quite powerful, even at first level. This has some knock-on effects that I don’t like.
Lots of pointless monsters
There are all these classic monsters in the game like orcs, goblins, kobolds. Plus your standard undead fodder: skeletons, zombies, mummies, etc. They’re all pretty pointless. Their challenge ratings are so low, that a reasonable party of first-level characters can take on a large number of these low-level creatures. They simply aren’t a challenge.
If these low-level, classic trope monsters aren’t a threat to the 1st level characters, why are they even in the game? They’re not going to get harder. They’re simply not going to get used. My DM has a similar history to me and she’s just getting her feet wet in DM’ing 5e. She pulled out some pretty standard 1st level encounters (like 5 or 6 kobolds against 3 PCs) and there was no contest. There was barely any danger. Sure: our resources were depleted faster than they would be at higher levels. But there was no danger. At no point did we think we would die or lose.
Dogs and cats living together
Spellcasters can wear armour and cast spells while wearing armour. Fighters can cast spells. So much of what made the various classes and paths distinct has been erased. Now it’s just this big all-you-can-eat abilities buffet and you can heap your plate full.
In the old days, if you were a fighter or a ranger, you generally had a handful of abilities and the main magic you would get was from magic items. Sure, at very high levels you would get some spell-like abilities. Rangers and Paladins got a few low-level spells at high class levels. But they weren’t casting fireball and such. At 3rd level, monks may spend 2
spell ki points to charge an unarmed strike or monk weapon attack with 1d6 fire damage. Wizards didn’t armour up and get into melee.
To me, races and classes feel more like pieces of flair. They’re like colour and style and accents.
I got no skills to pay the bills
There are barely any skills compared to the reams and reams of skills in AD&D 3.5. That’s one that also cuts both ways. It sorta implies that either everyone can kinda do everything (just roll an ability check or one of these really crude skill checks) or it implies that everybody can do almost nothing. There’s no skill for it, so you can’t. Again there was a semi-realism to the old 3.5e rules: you can’t specialise in everything and developing a true skill in something takes limited time and resources. Someone who has 5 ranks in a skill has really worked hard over time and achieved something. But when that skill is too broad, it’s actually messing with the return-on-investment of skill points.
Dying is just a video game respawn
In earlier D&D, dying sucked. If you died it was a big deal. You lost a level. You spent a long time recovering from it. You tried really hard to avoid dying. Now, you can die and come back like nothing happened. It seems like there is very little penalty to coming back from the dead.
I suspect the new death save mechanic is actually a good one. I think it’s probably better than the negative hit points we had before. I only came to that conclusion after reading a few reddit posts and blogs.
Saving throws have largely been done away with (fortitude, reflex, and will) and just replaced with ability checks. I sorta see the logic in that because the saving throws were always dominated by a key ability score anyways. But its a kinda radical simplification, too. They weren’t exactly the same. I sorta grudgingly accept this one. It’s probably better.
It’s not all bad
The emphasis on character back story and personality characteristics is really welcome. It’s role-playing after all. What is your role? I think a lot of good players and good DMs did it somewhat unconsciously or naturally. For new players, though, it’s super helpful to put that front and centre and get them thinking about it explicitly. And for an old salt like me, who might be prone to taking shortcuts and ignoring some of the role playing aspects, it reminds me to do the whole character, not just stats and skills and stuff.
Race is weird
I feel like we play a kind of racist D&D in my campaign. It’s like: dwarves always act this way and elves always act that way, and tieflings are all this way or that way. I can’t reconcile this with both my own aversion to racism and my own lived experience as an American living in Europe. In the real world, there really are cultural stereotypes. To name some gentle ones: Dutch people will be blunt and Germans love organising efficient systems. It is genuinely super helpful to be aware of them because sometimes they’re true. But at the same time, we don’t to box players’ thinking into “elves can’t do that” or “a halfling would never do that.” It’s always in the back of my mind. How much prejudice (literally “pre-judging”) are we assuming and doing in this fantasy world, that we wouldn’t do in the real world? (Or would try not to do…)
Conclusion? Nah. There isn’t one. This is a bit stream of consciousness and just opening up my raw thoughts. My thoughts and feelings are still evolving as I play more and get more data.