Next weekend I have volunteered to run a short game of Dungeons and Dragons (fifth edition) for two friends who are veterans and a ten-year-old novice. I have spent a lot of my life running Dungeons and Dragons, but haven’t as yet touched fifth edition. I actually started a couple of weeks ago, working up a simple campaign story based very loosely in Al-Qadim (a setting I have fond memories of from the 90s), but then I got cold feet and chucked it all in the bin and started again with something a little more accessible but a little less high-fantasy with fewer genies in it. I’m still not sure I made the right decision.
The challenge is that not only is this a new system I am somewhat unfamiliar with, being very late indeed to the party, but that it’s also the first time I’ve run anything for any of my players. What if they hate my style? Oh I should probably have mentioned that one of the players is my boss, one of the others is his daughter, and the third likely player is m’colleague the company finance director. That’s enough to give anyone the twitches, I reckon.
What I should be doing is just running something like Lost Mine of Phandelver straight out of the box. Or at least just rubbing the serial numbers off Keep on the Borderlands or Palace of the Silver Princess. Probably the latter, because the former could be mildly problematic. Also not really designed for three players to roleplay as opposed to just hit things with hammers.
In fact, I could just run Eberron… except I know that one of my players is into heroic fantasy and Eberron is a bit specific and also if I’m honest I daren’t run Eberron because if I do I’ll want to run more Eberron and getting three people in the same place at the same time has been challenging enough without trying to run a proper Eberron campaign and… I forget what I was saying.
I’m an emotional wreck, as you can see. Full of D&D themed turmoil. So I decided to take a break from deciding what the main religion looked like and write this instead.
I Feel Like I’m Betraying Fourth Edition…
Cards on the table. I didn’t hate Fourth Edition D&D. No, fuck it, let’s be honest. I enjoyed fourth edition D&D, both running and playing it. Once some of the hard edges had been smoothed out. I mean the Players’ Handbook was a clusterfuck of worthless dailies, and the Monster Manual had no idea of its own maths, but pretty soon it got kicked into shape. I liked that everyone got to do cool things. I even enjoyed paying a non-spellcaster in it. Even in fights. Reader, I did not enjoy playing a non-spellcaster in third edition, second edition, or first edition. Not in any way.
Then Joe Rooney ruined it by pointing out it was basically Descent. But ignore that.
This new system looks okay though. There’s still a little bit too much spellcasting in it, but it looks like the power levels of the various classes are a little tweaked and I could imagine myself playing a fighter or a rogue in fifth edition without feeling utterly useless.
Fewer Stupid Numbers
I’ve obviously not absorbed all the rules but I appreciate what seems to be an emphasis on doing things in different ways rather than just adding numbers to them. Fewer modifiers to remember, basically. I rarely have problems with modifiers, let me be clear. I write everything down neatly so I generally know what my bonus to any given roll is without help. On the other hand, being around players who don’t do this drives me up the fucking wall. I often had to make a real effort to be very calm when saying things like “did you remember your +2 for flanking” or “remember to add +1 damage for your skill” or whatever.
Here that seems less of an issue. You either have advantage/disadvantage or you don’t. The number of numerical bonuses and penalties seems much smaller. There’s plenty of places where I’ve looked at something and nodded thoughtful – like the fact Expeditious Retreat doesn’t change your movement number it just lets you move normally but as a bonus action. I approve. Letting you do things in a different way is always cooler than just letting you do the thing you could do anyway but with a 10% improvement to efficiency. Likewise, rolling two dice and taking the best (or worst) already feels like its a thousand times better than getting a +2 or a -2 or whatever.
The Problem of Pregens
I worked out early on that I would probably want to do pregens for this session with the understanding that if we continue they can be tweaked. But obviously that also gave me the fear. Pregens have two very solid advantages – you can start playing almost immediately and as GM you know what everyone can do which keeps things fluid.
However it also runs the risk that the players are less attached to them, feel less like they’re playing a character they care about and more like they’re playing a board game, and worst of all have to deal with that disappointed “oh, I was hoping to play a tiefling druid who was also a hermit from the Algarve” thing that happens with pregens.
Plus there’s all the problems around how you lay that information out so it is intuitive for people who are not you to access. I used to do this a lot back in the day – we’d regularly play through short three-encounter games on a Monday evening that were designed to test out new bits of fourth edition for example and I’d have as much fun putting together (say) a dwarf shaman and finding a nice picture as putting the scenarios together. But that was when my printer was in the same postcode as my computer which is sadly not the case at the moment.
I Don’t Like Halflings
I spent several years toward in the early 10s playing a halfling in a fourth edition game. Ulmo Riverrunner, Halfling Rogue and all around good-guy. Always upbeat, cheerful, friendly, and ready to help the needy.
I fucking hate D&D halflings mind. I don’t know what it is about them. Maybe I’m just a hipster who enjoys disliking Tolkein. Again don’t misunderstand – I really like Eberron halflings (and not just because Eberron is an incredibly rich and enjoyable D&D setting). I like the dinosaur riders, I like that they are the best healers and run the best inns, and I like that they are the best mafia. Also did I mention the dinosaurs? But the awful pastoral sneak-thieves… maybe I was just badly injured emotionally but that fucking kender at an impressionable age.
I don’t hate Birthright halflings (where they are alien invaders) although I could never quite work out why they were a playable race given there are like 50 of them in the whole world or something.
I didn’t entirely hate Dark Sun halflings either actually, even though I seem to recall that they were a teeny bit cannibal pygmy for my liking. But then I didn’t really like Dark Sun much so there’s also that.
I’m prejudiced against hobbits is what I am saying.
Most likely I will either delete halflings and replace them (probably with Eberron shifters because I like shifters), or reskin them as fucking rat people or something. Or just not mention them because that is also an option; remember you’re building a game that will run maybe two sessions if you are lucky not a three year campaign Raff! FFS!
Encounter Creation is Giving Me the Fear
I like to make encounters. The most fun part of third edition for me was probably statting encounters. So many lovely numbers of play with, most of which would never matter because someone would cast a spell and the encounter would just end (yes I’m bitter and irrational what of it?) I really enjoyed building encounters in fourth edition D&D as well – thinking about the roles of the various creatures, coming up with cool elements to the encounter, working out how to present it and keep it moving and so on.
This new edition… I’m not familiar enough with the flow to be entirely comfortable just winging it so I’m following the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and it feels… wrong. It doesn’t help that I’m statting for three combatants – in fact I’m very tempted to break with my usual strategies and send a competent NPC with the group just to push the numbers definitely to four because it feels like the maths here is aimed at four players and falls apart at three. The multipliers it suggests to effective experience point totals for multiple creatures feel… clunky… to me.
It is reminding me of the bad old days of third edition where a “suitable encounter” was one creature that would get whaled on by the party and just die, or a horde of smaller creatures that would hit on a 20 and do pitiful damage before all being annhilated by a single spell. Makes my skin crawl just thinking of it.
Still… the flatter number curves in terms of THAC0 and AC seem to be suggesting that encounters even with lower challenge rating creatures will be less swingy and frustrating. The damage dice being rolled on some of these abilities are worrying me a little.
Nobody wants to run a short game in which everyone dies in the first encounter. Oh well, let’s see how that goes.
I Like the Delicious Flavours and Toothsome Crunch
There’s plenty of flavour here, which is very nice, even if it is a bit Forgotten Realms in places. The Monster Manual in particular makes me happy. I like that they’ve kept some of the concepts from fourth edition (clean, interesting statblocks, where most entries have one or two cool things) but accompanied them with some nicely detailed flavoursome write-ups of what these monsters are and what they are for and what makes them cool.
Still too many spellcasters though, but at least they don’t have ridiculous reams of spells including all the minor little utility things nobody ever cast. I can get behind that.
I like that dragons are no longer giant scaled winged sorcerers by default. That always made encounters feel odd to me. I’m not even going to complain about the inclusion of the metallic dragons at this point (Eberron’s good influence on my thinking again) although I still think the old D&D versions were better (who can tell brass, bronze, and copper apart? Nobody can. Shut up).
I’ve checked out a few of my favourites. I like what they’ve done with wights and shadows. It’s nice to see creatures like ghouls having the “save ends” quality that I enjoyed in fourth edition and stopped fights with creatures like them and carrion crawlers being fucking tedious and awful.
I’ve made a note on my world notes to remove the aberration class of creature. It’s not because I dislike them, but because I want to try something different and it is too easy for me to slide into Bad Habits when it comes to tentacles. Carrion crawlers and rust monsters appear to be monstrosities these days, which is nice.
Plus I’m going to keep the genies. Just reskin them and change their names and… Dammit Raff! Stop trying to build a campaign setting and prep a scenario!
I Can’t Help Myself
I’m running one session as a taster. I’ve plotted out the basic scenario – it will involve a magical boat and a frozen lock because apparently Zomboat has crept into my subconscious and laid eggs there. If it works out, and we play again, I’ll cannibalise the first scenario idea I had (basically The Diamond Throne but with genies).
I just need a scenario with a handful of encounters; a couple of roleplaying scenes, a puzzle or investigation, maybe three total fights.
I do not need half a dozen well-fleshed out religions designed to promote conflict, a sweeping political landscape, a dozen slightly tweaked races and classes designed to highlight certain niches, a detailed explanation as to where these genies have come from and why undead exist, a decision about whether the Evil Empire is run by hobgoblins or tieflings (and whether I flip the elemental association of devils to cold to make them fit better with the slightly Norse-ish flavour I’m playing with in my head), nor to worry about exactly how many dwarvern noble families there are in the Fundindelve given nobody is going to reach the fucking place until at least the second scenario.
For fucks sake Raff! Have a word with yourself!