Sunday, November 13, 2016

Why Can't This Be Love?

I really, really like Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition). Like a lot. It's a rock solid game that strikes a great balance between crunch, approachability (is that a word?), and ease of play. I've played several characters in 5e games and enjoyed all of them. I own a slew of books in the game line. My group is composed (except for myself) with players who all got exposed to the hobby after 3rd edition, though none of them played 4th. They're all glad to play 5e. Seems like the perfect fit, right?

Then why can't I run it?

I don't mean physically. I mean psychologically. I sit down with the 5e books, pour through these beautiful pages, think up all kinds of ideas, start letting ideas spin for an amazing epic fantasy campaign worthy of song and legend (or so my ego tells me). But when the time comes to actually do the work and put pen to paper, my resolve fades. I think, "Nah, I'd rather run White Box (or Basic Fantasy, or Dungeon Crawl Classics, or Castles & Crusades, or Swords & Wizardry Complete, or Labyrinth Lord, or The Hero's Journey, etc).

Why is that? What gives? I want to run 5e. Or at least I think I do. So, what gives? I know my players will enjoy themselves. I know I'll enjoy myself. I've got a plethora of material so a ton of prep isn't necessary. This has been nagging in the back of my mind for the past year, but in the past few weeks it' genuinely bothering me. So, what gives?

I wish I had an answer.


  1. I understand where you're coming from. I don't at all intend this to come across as a bash against 5e. I firmly believe that "a rising tide lifts all boats," and 5e's success can only help the whole hobby. But as a GM, I can relate to your post.

    For me, D&D 5e strikes me as a "safe" system. It's like vanilla ice cream, if you'll permit an imperfect analogy. I like vanilla ice cream, and I can understand how it can be some people's favorite flavor. It's easy to approach and unoffensive. But I prefer bits of tasty goodness folded into my ice cream, and once I tried these other flavors, it's hard to go back to vanilla.

    Other systems offer simpler mechanics and thus easier to use monsters and simpler to build encounters. On the other end of the spectrum, there are systems that offer even more mechanical crunch, if that's your thing. You can go all out, building monsters the same way you would PCs, and tweaking them to the N-th degree until your heart's content. D&D 5e falls in the middle somewhere, and by being lukewarm, I find it impossible to truly love running the system. Each time I run it, I find myself either wishing I were running a different system, or trying to incorporate house rules that make it play more like another system.

    These are my observations. I don't know if they'll align with your own, but I hope they give you something to think about.

  2. I'm the same way. I'll gladly be a players in a 5e game but I have no interest in running it.

  3. I will run it like mad. Give me some players.

  4. Sounds like OSR land is your home. You can always travel to see other lands and even enjoy them a lot. But you always are more comfortable at home

  5. After running three 5E campaigns, I think the issue is really that, although it does hit a nice balance between crunchy and playable, it is still not, from the GM end of play, remotely as easy to run as S&W or Labyrinth Lord.

    The player end is just fine; between all the races, sub-races, classes, archetypes, and options in the system, and lots and LOTS of fan-made material from DMsGuild and elsewhere, just about anything you want to play is available. And unlike my experience running 3E, it all remains fairly well balanced. So players are just fine.

    But then DMing anything other than a single-session or short adventure is a bit of a pain. The power and complexity drift of characters is much higher (though not at 3E levels), and with so much variety for the characters (especially if you let fan-made things in), keeping any pretense of coherence to the campaign is quite difficult. And though it is not as crunchy as 3E, altering ANYTHING, ANYWHERE in the calculations for the sake of the campaign can cause grievous errors in the formulae downstream.

    And don't get me started on altering monsters. Sure, it is all detailed in the DMG, but that doesn't help me if I just want to run something on the fly.

    5E gives you just enough freedom to maneuver within its systemic formulae to allow you to hang yourself, really. As a DM, that is a pain.

    It gives back some DM fiat, and the appearance of more, but it still is far more strait-jacketed than SW or LL.

  6. I wonder how much of it has to do with the monsters. 5e monsters seem to be almost as mechanically complex as they are in 3.x or Pathfinder. That can create a barrier to running a system if you're used to D&D-based OSR games. It be a bigger turn-off if you're familiar with "modern" systems like the Cypher System, which has incredibly simple monster stats.

  7. If you want to get it out of your system, run a short 5e game, maybe 1-3 sessions. That won't take too much prep and you'll all have fun, and you will either get over your issues and be able to work on your EPIC 5e campaign, or you will figure out what your issue with the system is and you can go back to your OSR games without worrying about 5e any more.

  8. I have found 5e to be a breath of fresh air as a DM. Coming off 3e and Pathfinder 5e for me is simple to run and allows me to spend more focus on plot, and presentation of my game then crunching numbers.

  9. It's simple really. Modern fantasy games are missing 3 key ingredients.
    Magic, Imagination, Danger.
    Magic is that certain, undefineable, SOMETHING that the original game had. If you have felt it you know what I mean....otherwise it's hard to explain. Sometimes I think the Circle of Eight were real, and sealed that "magic" into all that wonderful old school stuff with long lost incantations and bizarre rituals.
    Imagination. I have quite the collection of Pathfinder books sitting on my bookshelf and I open them up from time to time and admire the fantastic artwork. But set something by Erol Otus in front of me or something evocative of the same style (DCC artwork comes to mind) and my mind is reeling with imaginative possibilities!
    Suddenly, I am IN whatever scene is pictured...I can smell the dank dungeon air, hear the bats shrieking just beyond the range of my feeble torchlight, and see the shadowy things shuffling towards me in the darkness.
    Modern games are just too tied up with defining every jot and tittle of their respective gaming universe. There are explanations of dungeon ecologies, lengthy lists of motivations for major nps and villians, etc. Hardly any room for the adventure to grow in the imaginations of the players and take on a life of its own.
    Danger. Old school dnd was KILLER. A 2hp centipede could END your character! Not to mention you could be life drained to an undead state, aged to death, disintigrated, turned to stone, caused to explode in a fiery death and burned to ash, turned to green slime, cursed, diseased, polymorphed (most likely into a toad) have your head or other limbs removed by vorpal or sharpness weapons, be stranded in the Astral plane, have your brains sucked out, be swallowed whole and digested in the belly of a beast, be replaced by a mirror universe version of yourself,etc
    The point is the threat level made it more fun somehow. The risks made the rewards (sometimes just surviving) all the sweeter. I can't ever recall a game that started with first level pcs that we didn't lose someone permanently along the way to more survivable levels. Sure, losing you character sucked, but if it was a particularly spectacular end it was likely to become part of the campaign lore whose tale would be retold at the gaming table for years to come.
    James, from reading your various posts and campaign notes it seems to me you are searching for that "perfect" game, no doubt inspired by the ghosts of campaigns past. I may be wrong, and overstepping my bounds there, but it's a quest I can empathize with. Fortunately, I finally found the Holy Grail of my quest! It's a mix of mainly Swords and Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord with a few esoteric dashes here and there. But the main core ingredient, the one that ties it all together for me, comes from a pdf titled "Class Compendium". I use eight of the classes as my PC vocations (in a Swords and Sorcery style setting), while the remaining forty four define and populate my world quite well. I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you good sir for fulfilling one old grognard's quest for that lost "magic" of days gone by!

  10. Ugg, where did my indentations and paragraph breaks go? Sorry for that BLOCK of text, I should have previewed it

  11. Mechanically, 5E has some wonderful ideas and it is much simpler to run than 3E or 4E. Yet when I look at monster stat blocks that still run to at least a 1/2 page in length, I immediately loose my enthusiasm. Besides, most of the best ideas from 5E can be easily borrowed and applied to your favorite retro-clone.

    1. @edowarsblog, that certainly contributes to reducing my 5e DMing fun. I've gotten spoiled by 13th Age with its short stat blocks. What's more the nearly scripted monster abilities makes combat as much a surprise to me as it is for the players.

  12. You might try Dungeonesque by Stan Shinn. It's 5e OGL content presented in an old school format. Only 4 classes which max at level 15; spell and monster description are much more concise, as is most of the rules text.

  13. I heartily second what James Mishler said.

    I've run about 60 sessions of 5E and while it runs smoothly enough "on script", the second that I'm improvising in response to player agency things begin to get annoying pretty fast ... it just doesn't have the "turn on a dime" flexibility that I need and often as not I just revert back to B/X and instincts.

    1. That's interesting, I run a sandbox with 5th and have never had that issue.
      While I have house rules, I tend to run monsters as written since I am pulling them from random encounter tables.