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The Good and the Bad of D&D 5th Edition

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/21/16 at 03:56 PM CT

The third and final part of my look at the flaws & features of various editions of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG will bring us into the present, with D&D 5th Edition, which released in 2014. I will be skipping 4th Edition entirely because, as I mentioned in a previous article, it garnered a lot of hate from long time D&D players due to being very much un-like D&D and more like the tabletop version of “World of Warcraft.”

4th Edition was an obvious failure on Wizards of the Coast’s part, as it released in 2008 and was replaced by 5th Edition in 2014 – a mere 6 year lifespan. 5th Edition, however, rectified all of the problems with 4th Edition, not to mention many of the issues that have dogged the world’s oldest RPG since the very beginning. While 5th Edition is, unfortunately, not directly compatible with any previous version of the rules, the new mechanics and behind-the-scenes workings have been streamlined to the point where it is fairly easy to convert all but the most complex AD&D and 3.x materials on-the-fly. This new edition is good – VERY good… but, unfortunately, not flawless. Let’s look at some of the specifics.

5. Dungeon Master Guild
The Dungeon Master Guild is a new Steam Workshop-like website run by Wizards of the Coast that allows Dungeon Masters, enthusiasts, amateurs, and pros to give away or sell their 5th Edition content via an official source. This is a great step forward in Wizards of the Coast’s slow and ludditic march into the Internet-enabled modern world. Most tabletop RPG groups have been using cRPG-style electronic enhancements for a decade now, and PDF format rulebooks and adventure modules are highly popular (especially when they cost less than physical copies!). The pessimist in me is sure that the DM Guild will fill up with garbage like any App Store, but the dreamer in me is excited about the prospect of publishing my own gaming materials. Too bad the DM Guild is currently limited to submissions that take place in the Forgotten Realms setting…

4. Removal of Feat Bloat
5th Edition scrapped the thousands of Feats from 3.x and made them entirely optional. Every few levels, a 5th Edition character has the option to increase an ability score by two points, two ability scores by one point each, or take a Feat from the very pruned-down list. The new feats pack a lot more punch than most of the old ones, and there are no more awful prerequisite Feats. Likewise, a lot of ‘essential’ Feats have been bundled into character classes as basic class features. The Fighter class has experienced the greatest Feat-related overhaul, as the 3.x version relied on receiving a ton of Bonus Feats as it leveled-up, whereas the new version actually feels like a thought-out class instead of a skeleton draped with Feats.

3. Advantage/Disadvantage
All of the numerous, temporary modifiers that made playing 3.x an accountant’s dream and a Dungeon Master’s nightmare have been replaced with this single system. In 5th Edition, anything that would provide a temporary positive modifier to a die roll grants Advantage instead, likewise anything that would provide a temporary negative modifier to a die roll grant’s Disadvantage. In either case, instead of a modifier, the player making the roll simply rolls two 20-sided dice instead of one. With Advantage, the higher of the two rolls counts, whereas with Disadvantage, the lower of the two counts. Advantage and Disadvantage on the same roll cancel each other out, so only one die gets rolled. It’s pure simplicity, and works really, really well in practice!

2. Spell Slots
The old Vancian Magic system that has plagued the game since OD&D has finally been tamed. It isn’t gone, unfortunately, as it is part of that unique D&D flavor. Instead, all 0-level spells, formally known as Cantrips, can be cast an unlimited number of times per day (a feature first used in the Pathfinder revision of 3.x), while the number of slots available for higher-level spells has been made uniform across traditional spellcasting classes (Warlocks are the new weirdness for players who want to buck tradition) and the high-high end has seen a drastic reduction in the number of slots available. Now, spellcasters are encouraged to focus much more on ‘high’ level spells of 6th level rather than 9th, and higher-level spell slots can be freely used to cast lower-level spells with enhanced powers (which was previously only available via 3.x’s excessive series of Meta-Magic Feats). Because low-level spells can be cast from higher-level slots to increase their power, spells in general no longer have automatically-scaling output based on the caster level of the character casting them. The rigidity of spell-slot preparation has also been axed in favor of preparing larger lists of spells that can be cast freely from any compatible slot. This revamped take on Vancian Magic rids the D&D world of two of its greatest evils: low-level spellcasters who spend more time throwing darts or shooting crossbows than casting spells and high-level spellcasters who are walking nuclear arsenals.

1. Flattened Numbers
With THAC0, characters were much, much better at hitting enemies at 20th level than at 1st level. Likewise with Base Attack Bonus, the numbers started at +1 and could get up to +20 without taking ability scores or magical enhancements into account. As a result, a monster that was threatening to a 1st level party of characters was an insignificant insect to a 20th level party of characters (or 30th or 40th for players using the Epic Level Handbook). On the other hand, a monster that was threatening to a high-level party wouldn’t even notice thousands of 1st level characters plinking away at it. 5th Edition has rectified this situation and created a much more interesting game dynamic by flattening the bonus numbers. The biggest Proficiency Bonus a standard character will ever get is +6, while certain super-big monsters can go as high as +9 (and I’d be willing to wager that the 5th Edition Epic Level Handbook will allow the same +9 cap for players too, eventually). Combining the maximum Proficiency Bonus with the maximum Ability Score Bonus of +5 creates an 8-point difference between the lowly and the mighty in combat situations. Thus monsters can remain threatening for much longer in a given character’s adventuring career and the most challenging monsters could conceivably feel threatened by a mob of peasants. For the longest time, the Natural 20 and the Natural 1 were the only situations where the flow of combat could change unexpectedly (for a single round) in an uneven encounter, but now the numerical arms race seems to be over. This design philosophy is called ‘Bounded Accuracy,’ and it is primarily used to combat ‘Power Creep’ and other undesirable side effects of ongoing game development.

5. Removal of Prestige Classes
I loved Prestige Classes. The ability for players and Dungeon Masters to get creative and put together a unique, custom class to complement a character’s area of expertise allowed for infinite customization. However, even as early as Pathfinder, Prestige Classes started to fall out of favor. Pathfinder introduced class Archetypes as a replacement, allowing characters to stick with the game’s base classes but providing numerous optional skill trees to follow for class-related abilities. 5th Edition decided to take Archetypes and run with them, as they are baked into several 5th Edition base classes, like Barbarian, Fighter, and Warlock (even Cleric Domains feel more like Archetypes now). My prediction is that Wizards of the Coast will publish a large number of new Archetypes scattered across a number of magazines, modules, and splatbooks, thus returning to the perpetual cycle of bloat… but the bright side is that it should be perfectly easy to adapt Pathfinder Archetypes to 5th Edition or create custom Archetypes to take the place of Prestige Classes.

4. Attunement
AD&D was a guessing game. 3.x used Body Slots. For 5th Edition, the number of magic items a given character can use depends on how many they can attune themselves to… which is typically three or less. And that’s disappointing. The ostensible reason for Attunement in 5th Edition is to prevent Player Characters from passing-around a magic item amongst themselves and all gaining the item’s lingering effects… except there AREN’T any items that work that way! Attunement also requires a character to ‘sleep with’ (in the romantic sense) their new item before they can use its magical properties, essentially preventing heroic actions like disarming a badass enemy and killing them with their own magical weapon. I refuse to use Attunement in my campaigns… it’s just a horrible, stupid, arbitrary, AD&D-like limitation. I’ll stick with Body Slots, thanks!

3. Buffs Require Concentration
Bless, Protection from Evil, Invisibility, Haste: These are but a few of the most iconic buffing spells from the history of the world’s oldest RPG. Player Characters used to stack as many buffs on themselves and each other as possible before bursting into the Final Boss’ Secret Lab and laying waste to anything that moved. In 5th Edition, this is no longer a viable strategy, as most buff spells now require Concentration, and a character can’t cast two spells that require Concentration at the same time (mercifully, they can cast non-Concentration spells while concentrating on one other one). Concentration was introduced in 3.x as a way to disrupt spellcasting by hitting the caster and hoping they’d fail their Concentration check. Now almost all buffs in the game suffer from that liability for their entire duration, and every buff needs to come from a different party member. This was just a poorly-thought-out decision.

2. Magic Item Costs
AD&D gave magic item values that didn’t really mean a whole lot. 3.x painstakingly dissected the magic item creation process into a set of clear-cut rules that determined how much an item should cost based on its properties. The 3.x system offered a lot of clarity that never existed before, even though it was rather complicated. 5th Edition, unfortunately, takes a step backwards… and then another one. NO magic items in 5th Edition have gold piece values attached to them. Instead, each item has a rarity, and a small table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide lists relatively useless value ranges for magic items of each rarity. Common items are worth 50-100 gp, Uncommon items are worth 101-500 gp, and then the whole system starts to fall apart with Rare items being worth somewhere between 501-5,000 gp and Very Rare items in a massive 5,001-50,000 gp range. Those latter ranges are way, way too large to be meaningful, and there are no cut-and-dry mechanics for determining just where in those larger ranges a given item should fall. The basic idea behind magic item values by rarity is fine… it just needs more details in order to work in practice.

1. Challenge Ratings
I loved the Challenge Ratings in 3.x Edition. They provided an at-a-glance way to determine the suitability of any given enemy as an opponent for any given party of characters. Challenge Rating is back in 5th Edition, but it has been messed-up significantly. It is now considered a STAT for monsters and determines their Proficiency Bonus (instead of, you know, the Hit Dice… the way it has ALWAYS been!). Encounter design is also no longer based around Challenge Ratings, but around Experience Point Budgets, with Challenge Ratings serving only as loose guidance during the budgeting process. The old Challenge Rating system wasn’t perfect (it considered a large number of Kobolds as an adequate challenge for a high level party, which simply wasn’t the case due to the Bigger Numbers Arms Race), but this new revision is worse instead of better.

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