Thursday, July 22, 2021

Return to Live Gaming Part II - D&D 5E Returns (some re-impressions)

 Our second week of gaming has resumed in the live venue, which has by coincidence been an awfully nice and quiet place to game on Tuesday nights, shared mostly by a smattering of wargamers. I am told Wednesday nights are busier, so I am glad we moved to the new night a while back.

For Tuesday, the Roll20 game I had been running on the "off week" was essentially at a close. I had plans to continue the campaign, but rather than do so with D&D 3.5 I advised we should move back to D&D 5E. The other rotating game night will stick with 3.5 for now, though, until that campaign is done, if only because I love juggling editions of the same game (not! I just want to finish out that campaign).

The basic reason for moving to D&D 5E again is pretty simple: it's the edition which shows the most efficiency in providing a ruleset that runs according to the way most people want to play and experience the game in a live environment.* D&D 3.5 is a lot of fun to run right now, but I know it will inevitably get increasingly convoluted as it advances toward higher level play, and the very tactical rigor that makes it distinct also means I need to haul maps and minis along for effect. With D&D 5E the maps and minis are almost entirely optional, and we ran Tuesday night's game with no need for visual of the mind combat management worked absolutely fine.

D&D 5E has some other advantages, too. At least one of these I came to realize was something which I had ordinarily been unhappy with in prior 5E experiences, but in an odd twist after playing some Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition again** I realized I probably shouldn't look to negatively upon. In a nutshell: I've never been a huge fan, as a DM, of the hit die and resting mechanic in 5E. It's a hold over from the 4th edition of the game which used quick recoveries to effectively let groups play through scenarios without worrying about having to take several days off back in town to recover from various damage types. The concept, back in 2008 when 4E came out seemed well intended, but the long term consequence (from my actual play experience) was that the game deflated the sense of risk dramatically. Risk became something that mattered during combat only, for the most part; even diseases were rarely a threat as they were written in 4th edition, and long term debilitation simply ceased, for all intent, to be a thing.

Back in 2008 this was an issue for me because I have a very descriptive style as a DM. In 3rd edition and earlier if someone took a massive injury or dropped to dying status it was easy to suggest through description that that person really had taken a serious wound and the game design supported the notion. Healing from such a wound took magic or time (or both). Suddenly, in 4th edition that was essentially gone from the equation. The closest one could get to "near death" in 4E was when all recovery options were completely exhausted, and that took serious effort and intentional DM overkill to achieve such a state.

5th Edition seemed to try to course correct a bit, providing hit dice as the recovery mechanic, with rules which seem to encourage at least a long rest to get back to full health. However, the DMG has optional rules (of which I am using one in the new game) to regulate the pace of healing. It's a good compromise, though one I had been reluctant to use when I ran 5E before, but I think it will work just fine now. The rule in question is the slow natural healing rule, which simply states that players don't recover HP after a long rest, and instead must spend hit dice to do so. The hit dice continue to return at a rate of 1/2 the level of the character, so the ability to spontaneously recover quickly in this process is a bit diminished. It's not the grittiest mechanic on offer (the DMG has the one where it shifts a short rest to 8 hours and a long rest to 1 week!) but I feel it provides an excellent middle ground, slowing down recovery rates a bit (making healers more useful) while still giving players some flexibility with hit dice.

 Other things I like in 3.5 but also happen to like not having in 5E include some of the fiddly combat bits. Stuff like a -4 penalty to firing into melee, positional flanking and other combat rules of specific note work really well with a map and minis (and ergo very well in Roll20 where maps/minis are trivial to manage). At the game table, however, it is really useful to not have to worry about that stuff when you are seeking a more narrative/freeform TotM approach to the game. People can describe their actions with more creativity (or will, when they get used to that process again....I honestly know some of my players likely prefer a set of "things you can/can't do" in combat situations but they will readjust!)

Although I love 3.5's skills, I also can't say I don't like the way 5E does skills. In fact, 5E's skill approach is more organic and essentially unrelated to the leveling experience, which is really cool. It also has more "natural" skill choices for its limited reflects very accurately the skills I want to call out checks for when running a game. In contrast, I am still after two years of Pathfinder 2E trying to adjust to the fact that it rolled so many skills up into nonintuitive clusters (society I am looking at you!) ....put another way, some of the consolidated skills in Pathfinder organized for efficiency in design at the dramatic expense of useful granularity and specialization. Some of the specialization was retained through the skill feats, but the skill feats are universally regarded as awkward throwbacks to the time when feats ruled all, and it's a weakness in PF2E. 5E sidesteps this entirely.

The thing I found oddest in last night's game was readjusting to the very small modifiers we were dealing with, but that's no big deal (but it also means low level 5E is forever swingy). I will, later, get somewhat annoyed with the way it makes monsters tougher through HP inflation, but that is also solved best by relying more on other third party monster books when possible, as Kobold Press, Onyx Path, Frog God Games and others are very good at making monsters with better "dangerous abilities over  HP bloat" balances.

Either way....still insanely happy to be live gaming again! 

*Yes there are people who might prefer to play it a different way, but they are in their own cluster niches in the hobby and not the people propelling the game to immense levels of popularity via current sales, play, and Youtube stuff. 

**This deserves some elaboration: the short version is I haven't managed to get anywhere close to replaying Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition with its new content and DLC (or move on to BGII which I have never played at all) because I kept trying to play it on the "normal" mode, which for a real-time game at my age means serious annoyance and frustration as my group dies repeatedly and the laws of diminishing returns leave me disinterested in continuing. It's like playing with a DM who ends every third game in a TPK and then demands you restart and reroll from the beginning. This weekend I put it on "story mode" (alias easy mode) and was shocked to get through and blow right past the wandering encounter sections that kept wiping me out with ease. The game is using some basic tricks to make my characters hit tougher and take more damage, but the result felt like I could focus on my main and let the rest of the group efficiently do their thing. As this happened, I realized it was essentially jury rigging the experience to play more like an at-the-table event in which you weren't actually having to engage in the wargame micromanagement minigame that the old isometric engines focused on. That was fun in 1998 because Reasons but for me, in 2021, I just don't have that kind of time and need games that help me to relax, not stress me out. Either way, I suddenly had an epiphany and realized that the same principle concept helped explain why the economy of 5E design worked so well for such a large crowd of gamers.

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