Tobold's Blog
Sunday, November 28, 2021
Better D&D, Best D&D

There are quite a lot of discussions on various forums as well as YouTube videos on questions like "which is the best edition of D&D?", or "what RPG systems are better than D&D?". The large majority of these discussions never discuss what exactly they mean by "better" or "best", which makes the whole discussion pointless. There is a very simple argument to be made that D&D is the best RPG system, and 5th edition the best edition for it, for the simple reason that this is the system that most people are playing. So as long as finding somebody to play with is a concern, 5E D&D wins by having the best statistical probability for that. Once you have a group together, all bets are off. I've known groups that much preferred the maligned 4th edition to 5th edition; and I know a lot of groups that prefer other systems to D&D. It's a bit like asking what the best movie on Netflix is: You can find the most popular, or the one rated best by critics, but for any given viewer the "best" movie might be very different.

What makes the question of "better/best" even less useful is the fact that any RPG system is just a set of rules. You don't really experience rule sets. You experience for example a game of Dungeons & Dragons, but the quality of that only to a small part depends on the rule set; it much more depends on the players, the dungeon master, and the adventure / campaign they are playing. For a given group some systems might be a better fit than others, and some adventures might fit better with some system than others. I did play a Steampunk campaign twice, using D&D rules, but I'd understand the argument that a Steampunk rules system might have been a better fit.

Unless you think that something which is popular can't possibly be good, it is reasonable to assume that 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is a good role-playing rules system. But the current 5E version won't be around forever: A backward compatible "evolution" of the system has been announced for 2024, and it is likely that at some point in time an actual "6th edition" will come out, or that another rules system rises to the rank of most popular. So even for somebody who thinks that 5E is the "best", it is always worth looking how the system could be further improved, either by house rules or by future editions.

So where are the weak points of 5E D&D? One of them is certainly the basic ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. 5th edition uses the same stats for many different things, from chance to hit, amount of damage dealt, to ability checks and saving throws. The result of that is that some ability scores are more useful than others: Dexterity is more useful than Strength, because you can get the same hit chance and nearly same damage with Dexterity-based weapons, while Dexterity saving throws and ability checks are far more frequent than Strength checks. Intelligence is not only used by the smallest number of classes as prime stat, it is also rarely used for saving throws, and ability checks related to it are all "knowledge checks". People don't mind failing a knowledge check as much as they mind failing other checks, as usually there are no bad consequences of failing to know something, compared to failing to attempt something.

Another definitive weakness is the spells in the game: They simply aren't well balanced. In 5th edition the concentration rules make some spells inherently rather weak; an impressive-sounding 5th level Cloudkill spell ends up being less good than a 3rd level Fireball in most situations. Balance doesn't appear to have been much of a factor in the design of 5th edition overall, there are clearly classes and subclasses that are unbalanced and much better than certain others. Part of that seems to be based on the idea of balancing things based on a "standard adventuring day" with "6 to 8 medium to hard encounters" between long rests, which is something that just isn't realistic for most groups and campaigns.

While some people won't care much about balance, a lack of it can have negative effects that are hard to handle. That is especially true for less experienced people inadvertently choosing an underpowered character class and then getting frustrated. I don't think it was a accident that the biggest "problem player" incident I had during 5th edition was with the player of a warlock; you need to optimize a warlock quite a bit with specific sub-classes and choices before that class becomes something other than a spellcaster with too few spells. A player that feels that his character is inherently much weaker and less fun than everybody else's is more likely to act up.

I don't think all of this will be addressed in the 2024 evolution of D&D, but I do hope that some things will be. Because if the most popular system isn't already the best system, it certainly should be. The internet, via virtual tabletops like Roll20 or by showing pen & paper role-playing sessions streamed on places like YouTube, is making the more popular systems even more popular. Availability and recognition are big factors in choosing a RPG system; few people study the rulebooks of several systems in depth to find out which one is "best".


"Unless you think that something which is popular can't possibly be good, it is reasonable to assume that 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is a good role-playing rules system."

No, it isn't. That's a complete non-sequiter. The popularity of a thing and either its subjective or objective quality (assuming a means of assessing the latter can be determined) bear no correlation to each other whatsoever. The measure of popularity is a straightforward numerical count, something that cannot be applied to whether that thing is "good" or not, unless you literally define "goodness" as "the number of participants/consumers/users etc").

The only thing it's reasonable to assume if a thing is popular is that a lot of people like it and even that number is relative to the kind of thing it is and what might be considered a high number in context. "Good" or "bad" have no relevance at all.

I think I excluded you with the first part of my phrase. :)

How do people buy stuff these days? They check user reviews on Amazon, or use similar sites. I don’t buy a Steam game without checking the reviews. The notion that “I liked this” has absolutely no correlation to “this is good” is in direct contradiction to the widely used system of user reviews. Because “good” can’t be absolutely defined, a large number of people *thinking* that something is good is the best measure we have.
Mm. I can see what both of you are saying here. It all depends on what "good" means to you.

For me, on a game by game basis, part of what I do is choose my rules system based on a number of factors, including what players I have, their experience with RPGs, what they like, what I want to run, etc.

Very inexperienced players? Hard to beat D&D 5e. Relatively simple rules, lots of examples of play on YouTube, lots of advice available, and a good chance that if they love it they can find other games. Newbies will need GM help to avoid build pitfalls, but that's doable.

A bunch of tactical nerds that want more crunch than 5e brings to the table? How about 4e? Best fights ever! Does require more work from players to make good decisions both at the table and in builds, so not good for folks that like to go "AFK" at the table, but outstanding for the right group.

Want more RP and better balance than 5e, but you don't want the boardgame feel of 4e? How about Pathfinder 2nd or 13th Age? Wouldn't start a new player there, but either one is a great place to go for a second campaign.

Class and level getting you down? So many other games. D20 is a gateway, not the only endpoint.

I won't say that "system doesn't matter." Players and GM matter much more. But system is / should be part of what you pick when you invite people and decide on your campaign. It's like deciding what board game to play -- you don't just pick a random board game, you pick one that these people you are going to play with might like.
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