D&D 5th Edition: A Few Thoughts

After having played and run D&D 5th Edition for a couple of months I think it’s time to have a look on what worked and what didn’t work quite as well.

Overall D&D 5th Edition is a very good game, much better than several predecessors, but it still has a couple of things that bother me. But before focusing on the things that didn’t work let’s praise what WotC did right.

D&D 5th Edition feels like D&D. There’s a strong focus on roleplaying which is supported by the new backgrounds introduced in this edition. Ruleswise the advantage/disadvantage mechanic is a stroke of genius and basically removes numbercrunching to an absolute minimum. I also love that classes are much more flexible than before without the need for too many additional rules. After being burned out on D&D 3.0/3.5 and having serious issues with 4th Edition, D&D 5th Edition felt like a welcome breeze of fresh air.

Alas there are still a couple of things that bother me. Armor class is still among the first things I’d throw out if I had to redesign D&D. It just doesn’t make any sense that heavy armor makes it less likely being hit. Armor should reduce the damage taken instead. Another thing I don’t like is that attribute values are still a thing. They are actually never used. It’s probably a tradition thing but mechanically it makes no sense.

But the biggest problem is that there are other more exciting games out there. D&D was the hot new thing in 1974 but nowadays it has become the baseline for what we expect from fantasy RPGs. It has become a trope, a genre in itself. And as long as you want to keep it recognizable as D&D you have to keep some elements alive like the aforementioned attribute values, AC, hit points, the classes, etc. Without these elements it’s just not D&D anymore.

One of the systems I fell in love with is Monte Cook’s Cypher System (which has been used in Numenera and The Strange). It still retains a couple of D&D-isms, but overall it takes fantasy roleplaying into a different direction. In my opinion it is a very elegantly designed system, easy to pick up and play and extremely easy to run. When I run D&D it still feels a bit more like work.

This summer Monte Cook Games will release a Cypher System Rulebook which includes a section on how to run standard fantasy settings using the Cypher System. I have to admit I am very tempted to convert my D&D game to this new system or start a new one from scratch in one of the genres supported by it.

D&D 5th Edition is still my favorite edition of D&D, but there are games out there which are – at least in my opinion – more fun to play and run.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

16 thoughts on “D&D 5th Edition: A Few Thoughts”

  1. My main problem with 5e is that it’s dull. It seems like a hybrid of 2e and 3e, which are my least favourite versions, and making the game simpler seems to have also included making the GMs job harder.

    And it’s utterly devoted to the FR concept that magic is overwhelmingly important, and thus gets massive support as the best way to do everything. Which has never been how I preferred my D&D.

    1. LOL – And yet, in per DMG, magic is evidently quite rare and wondrous – but amazingly easy to make! I like 5E quite a lot, but I run my long-standing game world with it. The canon setting is full of contradictions…


  2. ” It just doesn’t make any sense that heavy armor makes it less likely being hit. Armor should reduce the damage taken instead.”
    That’s what I thought starting roleplaying in the late 70s. – But then, 25 years ago, I started training and later teaching in historical european martial arts. There you can see how in actual practical fencing especially heavy armor DOES make you much harder to hit.

    Not to hit anywhere. To hit with EFFECT. To get an effective hit in on an opponent in heavy armor requires going for the few weak spots on the armor (joints, visor). That reduces the chance for making a hit that gets through even slightly quite small.

    Heavy armor does a very fine job in “reducing damage” – it reduces nearly all hits anywhere on the body to NULL EFFECT. That is: total damage reduction, unless you manage to hit the very small weak spots.

    Even using allegedly “armor piercing” weapons as heavy warhammers etc. on a mobile(!) maneuvering opponent does not result in even damaging the armor to any relevant degree. Unless you hit one of the small weak spots – and, well, that is nearly the same problem whether you use a spear, a sword, a dagger or a warhammer.

    Basically, heavy armor, hard armor does make you harder to hit. A LOT harder!

    Soft armor might reduce due to some cushioning effect the impact of hits, but soft armor is most often auxiliary padding worn under heavier types of armor – so in effect resulting in the near complete absorption of hits and therefore making you harder to hit, too.

    A well designed suit of armor does its job to protect its wearer really well. And, very surprising even to me and my preconceptions about how armor “is supposed to work”, it really reduces the chance of receiving an effective hit. All other hits to next to nothing, having no effect, causing no danger at all to the heavily armored fighter.

    From a simulative perspective, D&D’s armor class regarding heavy armor (and shields) does it just right. – Soft armor and small shields are a different story.

  3. I completely agree. I fully enjoy DnD5, and it’s actually a very well-designed RPG I think. It’s definitely the best edition of DnD so far, hands down, but it’s still DnD and just like you most of the time I feel that there are many much more interesting RPGs out there that I’d rather play.

    But you know, sometimes you just want to play some good old silly DnD, and 5e is just amazing for that. Its mild story-forcing elements with the backgrounds and the inspiration system helps with setting up a scenario for a game with minimal planning from the GM, and its relatively quick character generation (for an edition of DnD) means you can just get some friends together and have a session. I still remember the times of 3.x when you usually needed a couple of hours long pre-session just for chargen (or have patient players who could make a character beforehand). With DnD 5 I could put together a bunch of friends who had never played any RPG before and make characters and start playing in about an hour, and that just blew my mind coming from 3.5.

    As for the mechanical concerns I don’t really mind the AC. A “hit” is clearly not meant to be a literal hit, as in method of violence physically connecting to target, but rather a more abstract “method of violence connects and actually has the intended effect” kind of hit. When I describe DnD combat to my players I often have “misses” mean that the enemy’s weapons bounce off the PC’s armour or they deflect it with their shields or whatnot. They still “hit”, but it didn’t do any damage and thus counted as a “miss” mechanically speaking. In this regard it’s similar to HP, which is clearly not a literal measurement of a person’s health but rather a combination of that with willpower and sheer combat-readiness and such. The only thing I’d like changed in regard to AC is that I’d like the book to clearly and explicitly state that a “miss” is not always a literal miss, otherwise I think the system can stay as it is, if nothing else because I think damage reduction is more math-intensive and thus slower at the table.

    I do fully agree with regards to the ability scores though. They are pointless (well, Strength is used to calculate carrying capacity but let’s be honest: who even bothers with keeping track of that?). I do kinda wisht that DnD would go the way of Mutants and Masterminds and just have the modifiers be the “score”, but on the other hand it’s hard to break with tradition. I also think there might be a bit of a point to the scores when it comes to the random generation of them. Since you use the 3 best of 4d6 to generate your score you get a stastical tendency towards the upper range of mid-value scores with some higher-end values and very rare low-value extremes, which is just perfect for creating a DnD character. On the other hand that might be solvable with some other clever combination of dice (Fudge dice come to mind…), but still.

  4. If they changed the wording … Roll to see if you Damage your opponent instead of Roll to HIt, would that make it easier to understand?

    High AC makes you harder to Damage.

  5. Damage Reduction I don’t like because it means that you are invulnerable to small damage and no matter what “hits” you you will never die. You have no chinks in the armor and can only be hurt by big hits.

  6. Armor does reduce the damage you take; it reduces it to zero. 0 to 10 = whiff, 10 to AC = ting. Rolling against attribute values are the semi unspoken core mechanic of classic D&D. A lot of people don’t know how to use them because 3e didn’t spell it out but that doesn’t make them useless.

    It’s okay. D&D doesn’t have to be all things to all people. It just has to be D&D. The world is big enough to support another RPG or two.

  7. I was also thinking about how effective it might be to use Cypher for high fantasy. I look forward to your thoughts about it once it’s out.

  8. A couple thoughts:

    1) Had a pretty short armor = DR hack, maybe you’d find of interest. Originally intended for an earlier edition, but could be fitted to 5E without much difficulty:

    2) Also kind of a fan of 5E so far, though it took me years to see the flaws of 3E, so I try to temper my enthusiasm for anything new. So far so good though.

    I’ve heard issues with the reliance on magic before. Actually just makes me want to run a game with magic stripped down a bit (maybe note tentirely eliminated), just to see how it runs.

    3) Have yet to play Cypher, but on reading up on the system the only beef I have is with the resource pools. More of an aesthetic nitpick of my semi-simulationist mindset:

    I can mentally abstract categories like health, willpower, or mana/luck to spendable resources, if those are theoretically quantifiable things within the game universe. But the idea of speed and stamina being separate types of reserves just doesn’t sit right somehow. Have the same problem to a greater degree with the Gumshoe system.

    Just my personal hangup though. Tough to begrudge anyone a system they find elegant.

  9. I came to comment on the AC thing, but somebody already beat me to it. People need to remember that AC, HP etc are very abstract things. As the person above mentioned, heavy armor makes it harder to get hit effectively. This always seemed obvious to me. Also, I love the trope that is D&D and it’s still all I need to have awesome adventures all these years later, and 5e does it right for me. Its all relative of course!

  10. I totally understand where you’re coming from, especially since I find myself feeling something very similar. I have some problems with the game, like multiclassing and the magic system, I think 5th Edition as a whole is a solid system and feels like D&D.

    However, I doubt I’ll pull the books off the shelf anytime soon because I have other games that give me almost similar experiences that I enjoy much more than it for different reasons. When I want a lot of options and mechanical depth, I’ll gravitate towards 13th Age or Pathfinder. When I want something a little lighter, I’ll pick up AGE, Dungeon World, and possibly Cypher when that book comes out. I have trouble finding a place for 5th Edition in my gaming life.

    I think 5th Edition is a good game and can definitely be enjoyable. I’ll definitely play it if offered the opportunity, but I don’t see myself seeking it out anytime soon and I feel like that won’t be changing either.

  11. I just recently wrapped up a 2 year 1-20 campaign in 5E so I have a fair bit of thought about it myself. I can very much see your PoV even if I don’t agree with every detail. I do agree it’s a good game, but that it has its issues. The issues for me are a bit different.

    I used to think as you do about armor and damage reduction until I played more games that used those mechanics and found them to be overly fiddly and not yielding any real improvement. Particularly once I started viewing AC as it was intended (and as other posters above have commented). Armor as DR has its own set of problems as another poster mentioned and as can be a problem in games like Dungeon World. Once you get AC and how it works, it really is the simplest and most elegant mechanic for trading blows. It may not be the best simulation, but abstracted, it works very well.

    So what are my issues with 5E? As others have mentioned, I’m not in love with its deep roots connecting it to Forgotten Realms. I’ve never enjoyed the realms and having the setting baked into 5E does cause some problems IMO. Those mostly relate to one of power and risk. The realms are super high fantasy/magic and that is not what I want from D&D.

    I started playing when characters were as likely to die as survive a game session. Making it to level 5 was an accomplishment to be celebrated. The reason for that is because the game was CHOCK FULL of very serious and threatening monsters, traps, and all sorts of bizarre realities. Now, the monsters, traps and realities are all based around a very favorable-to-the-player algorithm. The rules not only enable, I’d say they encourage, the type of attack-first, think-second gameplay that is not as enjoyable to me.

    In early editions of the game, players were forced to take great care in planning and execution because the math may or may not be in their favor. They could not count on a minimum of 3 failed saving throws (the likelihood of failing at all 3 being a very very small chance) to protect them. They couldn’t rely on full healing in one night or being able to cast any spell they choose so long as they have a slot for it. In fact, casting spells itself was a challenge. One that was worth it because the effects were truly powerful.

    Now, the math and the balance is so prevalent as to remove most of the fear, uncertainty and risk. I understand that it probably makes for a better game, and certainly one that speaks to modern sensibilities, but in my ideal world, it would be different.

    That is not to say the mechanical underpinnings are the problem. They are not. 5E mechanics are quite good, as others have mentioned. I would just make changes to the probabilities that are involved. For example, pretty much every creatures AC should be 2 higher than it is in the MM. Maybe 3. They should also do more damage for their level. More creatures should have life threatening abilities. I want my players to get a whiff of a bullette and have a moment of panic. Instead, they run around looking for its nest. In order to instill that panic, you have to go up level so high that then the math that was protecting you is now a problem in the other direction.

    I’m currently reading a third party book. Fifth Edition Foes by Necromancer games. And the monsters in it are a big improvement. I read one this morning that can permanently reduce your charisma on each hit. Another gives you a fever that only allows you to save after a long rest, so you’re stuck with the condition all day, maybe longer if you can’t find a cure or have the right spell. These are the kinds of things that, for me, make great gameplay memories, overcoming truly daunting challenges.

    When everyone goes to sleep and wakes up shiny and new, always getting another chance to save after their next turn, with nearly unlimited casting and the wizard able to cast 20 fireballs, it just feels like a supers game more than D&D.

    I know this sounds pretty negative, but I do quite like the system. Obviously, I just ran it for 2 years straight. We now plan to return to our interrupted 4E campaign (we stopped once we got into the 5E playtest) and then after we finish that, we may play Adventures in the Eastmark.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.