Thursday, January 22, 2015

D&D 5th edition and "The Chet Factor"

Using the new 5th edition D&D Starter Set (actually the ninth version of the game by my count) with a little modest support from free downloads strictly to help with character generation, I've now been playing this version of the game 2-4 times a week since September.  That's a pretty fair sample size with which to develop impressions.

  • It has fairly fast-paced resolution and the flexibility to make rulings on the fly.
  • Lethality is pretty high at low levels -- we've had several total party kills in basic encounters when the players weren't on their toes tactically.  This is comparable to older editions.
  • Character creation is a bit sluggish for my tastes, mostly due to powers and advantages that are a legacy of prior editions (e.g. wood elves have "fey ancestry, darkvision, keen senses, trance ... ").
  • I love tool of advantage/disadvantage (roll 2d20, take the highest/lowest).  It speeds resolution and seems to create a greater sense of both agency and excitement among my players than a mere bonus or penalty would.  Smart people say that it works out to roughly the equivalent of +4/-4 on a d20 roll
  • The plethora of combat modifiers slows things down, without adding much.  Example: Greatsword +4 2d6+2 slashing.  Though it is written right on their character sheets, at least half of the time my players end up asking me, "What do I add again?"  The other half of the time they just forget altogether [Austin, I'm looking at you]. 
  • Death checks for characters at zero hit points are a sweet GM tool!  They create increased drama, reduce player frustration from missing a single roll, and (perhaps most importantly) creating a simple mechanic whereby characters can be captured by vile enemies!  This last point is something that has really been missing from the game since 1974 -- how often do Conan, Fafhrd, The Gray Mouser, John Carter and other characters in Appendix N swords and sorcery lit end up captured by gloating villains?  This simple rule allows the players to recreate that type of action with ease.  

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, D&D continues to have what I've come to think of as "The Chet Factor".  Chet, as I'm sure you will remember from junior high, was the name of your friend's cool high-school-aged older brother ... the one who was into heavy metal, swore freely (at least when parents weren't around), and who had cigarettes (even if he didn't actually smoke them).

You'll recognize Chet in his role as "Michael" on the right there.

Chet always seemed annoyed by his younger brother's "stupid little friends", but in some ways that just made it twice as cool when, with many sighs, he finally deigned to teach you D&D.  And that's how you learned to role-play in 1980-something.  You didn't learn from a book (that would come later in dizzying wave after wave of Gygaxian prose); you learned by playing.
"Roll a save versus Death Ray, you little @#%."

I still remember vividly the afternoon when Kierst (that was my "Chet's" name) tossed me a character sheet for Cratz the half-orc henchman fighter and tossed me right into the action, skirmishing against drow in the Valley of the Mage.  It was confusing, exciting, and nerve-wracking all at once -- I was hopelessly in over my head and totally hooked!

So basically, for all that the 5th edition Starter Set sets out to create an (extremely affordable!) entry point to tabletop gaming (and does provide solid advice for new DMs) it simply isn't very accessible.  The average middle schooler (heck, even the above-average middle schooler) just isn't going to commit to the quantity of reading required to get through the 96 pages of the introductory rulebook in any systematic way without first having played the game.

So here's to all the Chet's out there who are keeping tabletop going.  Maybe you can even be a "Chet" for some neophyte players.