Sunday, December 20, 2020

I take back every nice thing I've ever said about D&D 5th edition. It's irredeemable garbage.

So I've been playing in a D&D 5th edition campaign (under mild protest) for some time now, and I believe that the experience of playing in this campaign has gone on long enough that I need to revise my earlier judgements of the system (which I must admit were previously colored by my experiences running 5th edition as a playtest system, back when it was "D&D Next"—back when it had so much more potential to be better than it is). I've reached a point where I no longer find 5th edition to be merely subpar but inoffensive; it's crossed the line into outright offensive.

I'm starting to come around to the realization that every edition of D&D really does have a threshold of playability—what's commonly called the "sweet spot"—beyond which the game is simply no longer fun to play. For the TSR editions, the sweet spot is 1st level through about 10th level, after which dungeon crawling isn't really all that fun anymore; but then, lo and behold! The game brings followers and dominions into play, and if you can shift modes from adventure to sim/wargame, the fun can continue in a different fashion.

The WotC editions don't even try to do this. They try to stay in adventure mode over the course of twenty or thirty levels, and it never works. For 3rd edition, the sweet spot is 1st to 6th level. (This is why "Epic Six" does, in fact, work.) Above 6th level, the cracks in the game really start to show, and it breaks down, mostly because of spellcasters and saving throws. 3rd edition D&D is actually quite a decent "kill all the monsters!" game at low levels. It's just that "kill all the monsters!" is, of course, its own thing and not really D&D.

4th edition fundamentally has no dungeon-crawling sweet spot anywhere to be found. It's not a dungeon-crawling game at all. From 1st level onward, player characters in 4th edition are heroic tactical combat units, and that's all they are. My understanding of 4th edition is that it's a reasonably fun, varied, and tactically deep skirmish game, until it reaches the point where the monster math breaks, turning each fight into an interminable slog, and the sheer number of options and powers available to the players becomes an unwieldy mess that stands stubbornly in the way of the basic procedures of gameplay. 

(My deep desire to have a skirmish game that aims for roughly the same sort of fun as 4th edition, but without the "power bloat" or the excessive mechanical complexity, is a large part of the impetus behind my decision to replace Retro Phaze with Shining Armour. And I really do need to get back to work on that. Life's just been suddenly really busy again for the past couple of months; but I digress.)

Which brings us to the subject of 5th edition. I've discovered, over the course of the past few months of campaign play, that 5th edition is, in fact, a synthesis of the worst aspects of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions. (I'm not the first to allege this; but it really does require playing 5e for a time to understand why its detractors are correct.) It all comes down to the following:
• Too much focus on the characters
• Boring, repetitive, interminable combat encounters with few "off-ramps" to circumvent them
• XP awards which are either unfocused milestones (like 2nd edition) or a clear incentive to try and kill everything (like 3rd and 4th editions)

Let's take each of these in turn.

· We Explore Characters, not Dungeons ·

It's often claimed that character-building in 5th edition is a simplified or "dumbed-down" version of the character-building one sees in 3rd edition D&D or Pathfinder. This could very well be true. But the point is, it's still a character-building game. You still pick a race, a class, a sub-class, feats or multi-classes maybe, and on top of that, you pick an alignment, a background, two personality traits, an ideal, a bond, and a flaw—and these lattermost character qualities are used by the DM to bestow Inspiration dice. 5e attempts to mechanize role-playing, and that's horrible

Inspiration is a half-assed, mealy-mouthed attempt to incentivize the "improvisational playacting, talk-in-funny-voices" kind of role-playing that I've come to detest so thoroughly. It doesn't really succeed at that, but it does contribute to the overall foregrounding of each character as a "special snowflake" rather than an adventurer. It makes it so that you're there to "play a character" rather than "have an adventure," and it makes the game about the characters' story rather than about the players' experiences. It's just… ugh. It's lame, it's cringe-inducing, it's bad. I don't even have words for this, beyond that simple utterance of frustration. It's so bad.

· We Did the Math… We Did the Monster Math! ·

It isn't just the role-playing in 5e which is lame. The characters' mechanics are lame too. They are, in a word, ineffectual. You can almost never kill a monster in one hit; swords might as well be foam bats. You can never end an encounter with a single spell: sleep and fireball don't take large groups of monsters out, they mildly inconvenience the monsters. 

As with 4th edition, monster hit points are artificially inflated to ensure that combat encounters take many rounds. Apparently, this is supposed to be "fun"—but in the context of playing D&D, it's just dreary and makes the characters feel weak and useless. In a 1st edition game, your 1st level fighter can kill an orc in one hit, and the orc can kill you in one hit, and that's tense and exciting and every reason to play smart and think laterally. In 5th edition, a 1st level fighter and an orc have to spend five rounds dueling each other before one of them goes down—but it doesn't have any of the charm of a swashbuckling Errol Flynn movie. Instead, it just feels like two complete nincompoops in full armor trying to batter the opposition into submission with Nerf swords. It's so goddamn fucking boring. And spellcasters don't fare any better: all 5th edition did by removing the "save or suck" spells from the game is ensure that combats are always an interminable slog. 

Sure, that solves 3rd edition's "rocket tag" problem, but it also removes all the fun and clever "win buttons" from the game, leaving nothing but a 4th edition style tactical combat system, minus the actual tactical depth or variety. That's no fun at all—and, as with 3rd and 4th editions, you just wind up with combat encounters that eat all the playing time, leaving the dungeon-exploration as a minimally-supported afterthought. 

· Kill the Monsters and Leave their Stuff ·

And yet, in spite of the sheer mind-numbing pointlessness that is a 5th edition combat encounter, if you're playing the game in its default mode (XP is awarded for killing monsters), you have to get involved in every fight you can. You seek out reasons to pick fights. You don't want to waste the time, but you do want the XP, and so every single potential combat encounter is a groaning, reluctant, reckless charge into the fray. 

And what's the alternative? Not using XP at all? Milestone level-ups? Sure, you can do that, but then the game is no more focused than 2nd edition when that game is played with its default "ad hoc" XP rules in force. Then there's no gameplay loop at all, and the very act of playing becomes pointless—you'll advance to the next stage whenever the DM says so, and at that point, why am I even playing? Why am I even there? 

So the choice is between either a crappy and unfun hack-fest or a mother-may-I series of quest-givers and railroads. Neither option even vaguely resembles a real game of D&D.

· Conclusion ·

And that's ultimately the problem with 5th edition: it fails utterly to deliver an experience that I can recognize as resembling D&D. It's not D&D. It's just not. The stuff in the rulebooks make it look like D&D on the surface—especially if you squint and only have 4th edition to compare it to. "Oh, hey, look at all the classic stuff that 4th edition didn't have, that they brought back! There are hit dice! There are spell slots! Hooray, D&D is D&D again!" Only, it's not. The cake is a lie. 5th edition is a sorry, shambling zombie-corpse of a game that only resembles D&D outwardly because it's wearing D&D's flayed skin like a body-suit, smiling at all of us through the stitch-work.

If you really try at it—like, seriously go all-in, optimizing a face- or stealth-type character, totally focused on avoiding combat at all fucking costs, whether by diplomacy or sneaking, maybe, then just maybe, you can fool yourself into thinking that 5th edition really is akin to D&D. That could work from about 1st to 3rd level. (Which, I guess, makes that range 5th edition's "sweet spot"?) But much beyond that point, the cracks are going to show, and something is going to give. As the game moves up to the 4th and 5th and heaven forbid the 6th experience levels, the sheer awfulness of the combat rules really does just swallow up the center of the stage and suck all the last drops of—not joy, that's wrong—tolerability? patience? stoic acceptance?—out of what's left of the experience. 

If you play 2nd edition with XP-for-GP rules in place of the default "ad hoc" system, 2nd edition makes for a perfectly playable version of D&D, a cleaned up and streamlined alternative to 1st edition that has some of the simplifications of Basic D&D worked right into the core. 

If you play 3rd edition with a hard cap on experience levels at 6th, you have a reasonably playable "video game on the tabletop" where the object is to kill all the monsters and survive. Award XP for GP, and you once again have a functioning, if truncated, game of D&D.

If you play 4th edition for the first ten levels or so, using only the lower-hp monsters from the game's later releases, and you're going into the game looking for more of a wargame experience than an exploration-and-adventure experience, you can have a good time with the tactical combat.

At no point would I recommend playing 5th edition at any level, for any reason. It wouldn't even work as a kind of "Epic Three" homage to Holmes Basic. It's just worthless top-to-bottom, and I can only weep for what Wizards of the Coast, in tandem with YouTube, has done to this hobby.

I still have my issues with the OSR, but at least the OSR, for all its wrong-headed foibles, still has some heart in the right place. I cannot come close to saying the same of modern D&D.