Tobold's Blog
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Diving into 5th edition

Besides the ongoing 4th edition D&D campaign I run at my house, I play some 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons at a roleplaying club in the city. And now I decided to run a 5E adventure there as well. While I do like the tactical combat, good balance, and many options that 4th edition D&D has, 5E is definitively more popular, faster, and easier to prepare as a DM.

However one thing I'm still struggling with is building balanced encounters, which might be a problem for the adventure I'm planning. Between the DMG, the encounter building rules in Unearthed Arcana, and the advice you get on the internet there are big differences. The fundamental problem here is that 5th edition re-introduced a strong imbalance between casters and non-casters that 4th edition had removed. A wizard or similar magic-using class casting actual spells (not cantrips) every round has a far higher damage output than the weapon-using classes, but then eventually runs out of spell slots and is reduced to relatively harmless cantrips.

As a result, if you use the official rules the encounters tend to be somewhat too easy, unless you prevent the characters from resting and do the suggested 5 encounters between long rests. That works reasonably well in some settings, like dungeons, but a lot less well in other settings. If you want a mix of combat encounters and role-playing encounters, preventing players from resting becomes a somewhat artificial and strained exercise. You need to invent time constraints or interruptions, just so that the encounters don't become too easy for an alpha-striking wizard. And then you need to invent situations that enable the group to rest after 5 encounters or so despite the constraints you put up earlier.

So no wonder that if you look elsewhere on the internet, people consider the balanced encounters of the official rules as too easy, and prefer higher challenge ratings. However at higher challenge ratings another fundamental property of 5th edition is aggravated: 5E is the most unpredictable version of Dungeons & Dragons due to combat mathematics. Many monsters as well as many spells of players deal a lot of dice of damage, and critical hits double the number of dice. Friday my level 3 paladin was fighting a monster that only had a 20% chance to hit him in his plate armor and shield, but dealt on average 20 points of damage compared to the 28 maximum hitpoints of my character, and had multiple attacks. Even with using all my healing power on myself on my turn, the monster knocked me unconscious by hitting me 3 times in 3 rounds with some lucky rolls.

For the adventure I'm designing, I really don't want to use monsters that can take more than half of somebody's hit points with a single hit, and one-shot a full health character on a critical hit. But if you compare the monsters in the Monster Manual with the "Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating" table on page 274 of the Dungeon Masters Guide, it is clear that most monsters are built around a low defensive challenge rating and a high offensive challenge rating. That results in the typical 5E "fast combat" experience, but is somewhat of a gamble for encounter balance. If every fight lasts only a few rounds with few attacks, the same monster can end up being a complete pushover with unlucky rolls or cause a total party kill on high rolls. A lot of DMs get around that problem by fudging dice. I don't like that method, because it is very hard not to overdo it and basically take the game out of D&D. It also is an admission of defeat, you fudge dice because the mathematics of the system with rolling dice just don't work.

For my adventure I am using a mix of official and self-created monsters. And the monsters I made will be a little less 5E and a little more 4E, lasting a bit longer in combat but also draining the life of the players a bit more slowly. I hope that will solve several of the problems of 5E, on the one side teaching the casters not to use spell slots every turn, while on the other side being a bit more predictable and letting me roll dice in the open. The adventure is designed to have 50:50 combat encounters and role-playing encounters, and if every combat was finished after 2 turns that would be not enough time spent in combat. It isn't so much the number of encounters between rests that is needed by the 5th edition rules, but rather the number of combat turns between rests.

That system seems dyslexic. Are they intending for you to design easy encounters, by having the mages decimate the field, after which the melee people clean up, then rest for the next encounter? Or do they somehow think this generates "challenge?"

"Challenge" with a high risk of character death is not challenge, it's suicide. Since your players aren't supposed to know how many rounds they have to fight before resting, how are they supposed to know how to "pace" themselves by switching in cantrips to save their spell casts?

My biggest issue with table top gaming has always been the simplistic rules system. It has to be that way, as combat has to be resolved with dice and simple math with small numbers... but in this age of smart phones, tablets, Wi-Fi and laptop computers, isn't there a better solution that allows the social get together part as well as playing a challenging game at the same time? Or if we got to use a tablet connected by Wi-Fi, would we also just stay home and essentially be playing a MMORPG with "virtual friends?"
When looking at 5th edition, I had to come to the conclusion that it just wasn't a solid system, primarily for the reasons you have outlined. I honestly struggle to think of a game I'd rather play in 5th rather than in a different, mechanically simple system (e.g. HeroQuest, Fudge, Dungeon World, classic 2nd edition). If I want a mechanically complex system, I'd end up using 4th edition, Pathfinder, GURPS...

4th edition brought something unique to the table. 5th edition? Can't really find a use case for it.

You paladin was actually quite lucky to have plate mail at level 3- it usually takes longer to save up for it.
I appreciate your recognition of 5E's combat issues. I think your players will appreciate your adjustments (I know I would).
My paladin fought an enemy wearing plate armor at level 2, so I just needed to pay 10% of the regular price to get it adjusted. I've basically designed the paladin as a tank, including a spell to "taunt".
Wouldn't a simple solution be to adjust how much Critical hits multiply damage for enemies? Say if you dropped they crit multiplier to a .5 bonus instead of double damage?
This really reminds me of so many "roguelike" games that claim to be challenging, but "challenge" just means "mostly based on luck, and often the luck will kill you no matter what you do." I think the mentality is that players should lose sometimes, and strategy is regarded as basically cheating. You call it a "problem" that a few unlucky rolls mean a dead character or even a full party wipe, but it really doesn't seem likely that the 5E designers never noticed that happens sometimes. I am fairly confident that occasional unavoidable character deaths are an intended feature that players are supposed to occasionally deal with. Particularly crits would appear to serve no other purpose than to ensure just that.
Try not balancing encounters at all.

Look at Keep on the Borderlands - there's several whole tribes of goblinkin and if the players wanted that treasure, they had to work out on their own how to separate out groups they could fight. The encounters were only "balanced" insofar as there weren't a million of them.

Yet players using rules that made them even squishier succeeded, thrived and had fun doing so.

There's a lesson there to be learned.
@Roger Burgess

Well, yes, of course. That sort of high-risk sandbox campaign does work. Ran them myself, many times. Led to things like the player who died early on tending to provide low level cannon fodder for high level players that don't want to risk touching that lever, or lots of expendable henchmen. But it works. Can be lots of fun with the right group, particularly if your significant other isn't one of the ones likely to have her character die.

So... why would I buy 5th edition to play it? What does 5th give me that old school rules D&D doesn't? I struggle to figure that one out.
Well, it basically depends who you are playing with. If you have a captive audience of friends who agree to play an older edition of D&D, that is perfectly fine. 5th edition has a few advantages, a few disadvantages, but overall the difference between it and playing 3.5 or earlier isn't enormous.

Me, I play with strangers in a role-playing club. It's just easier to find people interested in the latest edition.
With a classic hard roguelike, the actual game is about developing a strategy that will get you the seemingly almost impossible win, in the face of deadly events showing up not quite randomly. Yes that dragon will nuke an unprepared character, so you only go where he's likely to show up when you have rings of fire resistance and healing potions.

I'm sure that there are modern roguelikes that don't understand the meaning behind the 'dying is the point' ethos and add random deaths for no good reason, but it's not always wrong to have difficult to avoid deaths.
The other thing that bugs me about this caster/non-caster issue, is that players generally have more fun doing what they designed their character to do. So if a barbarian is smashing face and a mage is casting spells every turn they are super happy. Make one player need to spend an encounter resting, and maybe they aren't having fun anymore. :(
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