Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 11, 2014
 
Unification failure

Dungeons & Dragons started its life as squad-based tactical wargame, made by people who called their company TSR for "Tactical Study Rules". The idea of acting in character was a later addition, and in fact there are a number of other pen & paper roleplaying systems which have rules that are far more suitable for roleplaying than D&D. Nevertheless Dungeons & Dragons played most of the time for most of people as a mixture of both, a tactical combat game and a game where you play-acted a role. And like with all games that have more than one core that inevitably led to conflict between players who preferred the one over the other. That conflict was fueled by the fact that over the 40 years of its existence many different developers worked on Dungeons & Dragons, and they swung back and forth between the two parts. That led to the "edition wars", which culminated in 4th edition, a version of D&D which strongly favored the tactical combat part over the play-acting part. 5th edition set out to end the edition wars and be a unifying edition that pleased and united everybody. And the one thing that is clear from just reading the basic rules is that it completely failed in that mission. 5th edition is clearly swinging the pendulum back towards a play-acting game.

It is not as if 5th edition wouldn't permit you to put figurines on a square grid to play out your combat in a tactical manner. The problem is rather that 5E made many design decisions which result in it becoming a rather bad tactical game if you want to play it that way. First of all it threw overboard the class balance that 4th edition introduced to D&D; 5E went back to a system where classes are initially not equally strong, and then certain classes that start out weaker become stronger than other classes after a certain time. That has good reasons on the role-playing side, but makes for a horrible tactical game outside a narrow range of medium levels where the classes happen to be just about equally strong.

The second problem of 5E as a tactical game is randomness. If you look at MMORPGs, you will find that in combat there you rarely miss, and the damage you deal with a single hit only takes a slice of the health of your opponent. Dungeons & Dragons always had a system where your chance to miss was around 50% at lower levels, with varying systems of how that evolved in higher levels. But where the editions differed a lot was how big a percentage of health a successful hit could deal. For a tactical game you prefer to limit that, so that tactics play a bigger role than luck. 5th edition has an extremely luck-based combat system, where not only hit and miss depend a lot on luck, but also the difference between minimum damage and maximum damage of an attack is huge compared to the health of characters and monsters.

So whatever modularity 5th edition will add to the rules later, I don't think adding more tactical rules about facing or positioning to the game will turn 5E into a good tactical combat game. Which means that people who want to play a good tactical combat game will stick to 4th edition. Which is perfectly fine, but does herald the failure of 5E as the great unifier of the D&D editions.

Comments:
What you describe is the casual-hardcore problem that plagues MMOs: some players want to experience the game, hang out in the World and access its content.

The other part want to defeat its challenges.

There simply can't be unification. They just can't play the same game.
 
I'm with Gevlon on this.

Tactical combat is more akin to a wargame, while D&D's heart is not tactical combat at all but the RPG. Class balance and other MMO aspects that were introduced to 4e turned a lot of people off of the game, and 5e aims to correct that.

5e has a lot of OSR in it, and just like the Dragon Age RPG (or FATE, for the storygaming end of things) you don't need a battle map for it. I'm fine with that.

I've seen way too many combats reduce down to analysis/paralysis over a battle map to be that fond of it. Big battles and set pieces, yes. A random "a bear charges out of the bushes" encounter, not so much.
 
I do wonder why they are reverting back to the older mechanic.
Back in the 80s a designer would see at most 1000 combat encounters a year. Changes we tough to make and frequently not implemented by the player-base and issues would be harder to spot. Since everything became computer based, especially with MMOs designers can run millions of fights before even making a release and can implement universal fixes almost overnight. The net result should be a golden-age of balance and combat design yet D&D5 is just ignoring everything that has been learnt in the last 20 years and releasing a rehash that takes a semi-random guess at fixing last generations problems.

Paper-based games should be using modified versions of computer-based designs, scaled down for shorter fights and easier calculation. That is the only way they can ever get close to being balanced.
 
It may not be a tactical vs role-play issue. I know that I like both aspects of D&D equally.

I would hazard that it's a timing issue. Personally, I don't want to "open a door" and then wade through a tactical combat sequence that lasts an hour (in real life) to complete before I can open the next door.

Now if the boss fight last an hour, that's something different. But to borrow an MMO phrase, if I'm killing 'trash mobs' then I want to speed things up a little bit and not spend an hour doing it.
 
I disagree with your presumption that class balance is needed for an optimal tactical experience. D&D is a co-op game. Variance between the classes adds interest. Its easy to design encounters to reward class diversity and discourage the stacking of a particular class. But then again, mono class parties might be occasionally fun as well by posing a different challenge to the players.
 
I still do not understand the value of 5E over 3.5 or Pathfinder. It is perfectly valid not to like the longer tactical combats of 4E, but those people already went back to other systems which are still perfectly functional.

I find it pointless to compare 5E and 4E. Can someone give a comparison of 5E and 3.5, and why you would want to switch from that system?
 
Something to consider is the "combat as sport" vs "combat as war" issue. 4e is designed for "combat as sport", where it is assumed that fights are generally balanced and fair. 5e, I think, is designed for "combat as war", where fights are often unfair
 
Re 5e verses Pathfinder:

I can see some advantages to 5e: I think the magic system looks improved. For example, I like the "known spells/casting slot" system in 5e. i like that spells scale based on the level you choose to cast them which eliminates the need to memorize separate levels of "cure" spell, for example. I think the 5e rogue class is more functional within the rules system than the Pathfinder version. (I suspect the same will be true for the monk class.) The spell descriptions seem to be improvements as well.

I'm not sure how I feel about advantage/disadvantage verses "+/- 2" but it seems like a fun mechanic that could speed play. I also like the 5e magic items system of attunement and the general turn away from the magic item proliferation of Pathfinder.

That being said, the "killer app" for Pathfinder is its setting materials, not the rules. It will take more than a refined set of rules to lure me away.
 
TSR may stand for "Tactical Study Rules" and Dungeons & Dragons may have started its life as squad-based tactical wargame. But from the very first set of rules that was published it was a Role Playing Game.

Not surprising really as there were, at that time, much better rule sets out there for squad-based medieval wargames.
 
Not surprising really as there were, at that time, much better rule sets out there for squad-based medieval wargames.

It came a few years later, but Car Wars is an excellent tactical game and went on to inspire Mad Max and one of my favorite "LAN-party era" multi-player games, Interstate '76. And let's not forget the early RPG "Autoduel" (a project worked on by Richard Garriot).

Hmm... that IP would make for an awesome sandbox FFA PvP MMO. Just saying...
 
Many issues I could raise about this blog, but the short version is that I will agree that 5E is not aiming to be a highly codified grid-dependent combat simulator with a little RPG tacked on. It still has as lush (and honestly more involved) a combat system, but the mechanics of 5E are highly dependent now on the role play/interaction element to gain tactical benefits, as opposed to 4E which had all but scoured the hard-to-define RP component of combat and encounters from the equation.

My very first new 5E game involved a complex siege of a town and the eventual efforts by the PCs to escape overwhelming odds. They got an enormous amount done in the space of four hours, and had some very involved fights....none of it with map and minis. The same game would have been considerably more localized and less complex in 4E because it is necessarily limited to the area you can chart out on your map, and the very tightly defined limits on your choices of action.

I guess what I'm saying is that if you consider "tactical actions" to be something that must be defined within the mechanics of the game instead of something that emerges from the rules of the game, then maybe 4E is ideal for you. If it's the latter though, 5E is vastly superior and finally gets D&D back to feeling like D&D to me.
 
Also, I think the casual/hardcore analogy fails badly here. I consider myself very hardcore as a D&Der and consider editions of the game which focus on emergent elements from the rules to be more complex and truer to the spirit of the game over its 40 years. 4E however is designed to almost run on its own....it's not a "hardcore" edition because it's ruleset has the tightest mechanics with emphasis on the game elements over verisimilitude, but rather the opposite....4E can be played very, very safe in a casual fashion that avoids the exotic and endless variety that pops out of the mechanics in an edition like 5E which require more thought and effort to arbitrate.

I'm not trying to sound like I'm knocking 4E....but 4E while a good game in its own right is not really a "D&D game" and 5E helps to demonstrate that issue. I personally feel that WotC would be smart to rename 4E "D&D Tactics" and continue to support it as a separate system, because it has its fans and it is fun to play.....but it's too simple in all areas of the game I want complexity (RP/exploration), and to detailed and gameist in the area I want more flexibilioty (combat).
 
I fail to see how 5E and 'randomness' doesn't lead to good tactics. If a system is randomly dangerous... then players are even more likely to use tactics to eliminate randomness. If you know that you might have a hard time taking out five kobolds, you'll use ambushes, hide in trees, toss oil on them, etc. 5E 'tactical advantage' would appear to encourage using tactics.

I also find all 'balance' arguments to be silly in a game where a human being (i.e. the DM) writes and controls the game. A good DM can alter the encounters of situations to avoid allowing any player to dominate. You only have about 1-3 combats per week (night), so if a wizard is getting to powerful, have a three week session where you face drow (magic resistance), some underwater combat, a city with a strict 'no magic' policy, or a session involving a one-on-one fist fight.
 
So what you are saying is that with 5th edition you can't possibly play regular dungeons and encounters, but have to fudge the story in order to limit the overpowered wizards? I'd rather go for a balanced rules system!
 
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