Monday, February 2, 2015

The Return of the King: Recap of D&D, Saturday Jan 31

On Saturday, January 31st, I DM'd my first game of Dungeons & Dragons, 5th edition. I had six players, none of whom had played the latest edition of the game, three of whom were new players to me. This was the first game open to the public I've run in a year, excluding my brief Star Wars one-shot last month.

Overall, the game went fantastic. All three of the new players were lapsed tabletop RPGers, so it was awesome to bring them back into the fold, using the flagship game of the hobby. And that flagship? As the title of this blog post implies, D&D is back and better than it's ever been. Let me elaborate:

Character creation. Making new characters took a little over an hour, about par for a group of this size playing a new game of moderate crunch. The first great improvement to D&D's new edition is how much more streamlined character generation is. The starting choices are few, but they're important, and the options expand at a steady rate through the level cap. This makes character creation quick but not too simplistic, and it gives you a lot to look forward to right away in a longer game. The first three levels are basically "tutorial" levels, as you don't really get access to the full capabilities of your characters until level 3 or 4. This is great, though; new players get eased in, and old players will level up quickly enough to avoid boredom.

The influence of newer, indie RPGs like Dungeon World is a recurring theme in the revisions of the new edition, and character creation is no exception. At the end of chargen, I tasked the group with making connections to each other (like you would with bonds in DW) and everyone jumped into it enthusiastically. Backgrounds, ideals, and bonds were fleshing out and tying into each other in a meaningful way, and right off the bat, this group had something more substantial than the classic "we all met in a bar" cliche. With a little coaxing, the opening hooks for the adventure wove seamlessly into their collective story, and suddenly the game had depth.

The Adventure. I played the first chapter of "Hoard of the Dragon Queen", the first official published adventure for 5th edition. Overall, it went well. The adventure has a lot going on, most of it optional, so a flexible DM can adjust it on the fly to suit the mood and tone of the group. My group, in classic form, defied meta-game wisdom and divided into three different groups to do three different tasks. These different tasks were designed with full groups in mind. One of the splintered groups was a single character! Rather than having the first session end in a feel-bad bloodbath, I adjusted some of the encounters to accomdatate the smaller numbers. The result was a lot of fun, with each character getting chances to be heroes while there was still an air of danger about the session. "Hoard of the Dragon Queen" is a very easy adventure to run right off the page, and I recommend any DM have it in their library as a low-prep option for the Biggest RPG Out There.

The System. It cannot be stressed enough how much of a breath of fresh air 5th edition is over both 4th and 3/3.5. It has a much smoother, looser structure that makes the game so much more flexible, approachable, and fun. The much-hyped advantage/disadvantage mechanic is indeed all its cracked up to be; versatile yet meaningful, simple yet still significant. The new revamped magic system provides spellcasters with the best of all worlds; the strategic nature of the more Vancian-style magic, combined with the power and fun of 4th edition's spammable spells. That design philosophy follows to combat, as well: I ran several 5th edition combat encounters in the time it would have taken me to run one straight-forward fight in 4th edition, and yet those 5e fights felt just as satisfying, if not more so.

Is D&D a perfect all-around system? Not really, no. Doing non-combat stuff is still a little undercooked, as it was in 4th edition, but that is by design. The much-vaunted three pillars of a D&D game...combat, interaction, and exploration...are all done very well, but the stuff that falls into the cracks between those three pillars...strategy, problem-solving, dynamic skill usage...remain a little unfocused in the latest edition of the game. Thankfully, there is a brand-new edition of Call of Cthulhu that is far better at those subtleties, making CoC a fantastic "down-time" alternative to a regular D&D group. Outside of that, however, if you're looking for a do-anything game, D&D isn't it. Unlike 3/3.5, 5th tries to focus on what D&D is known best for, but unlike 4th, it doesn't do it to the exclusion of all other playing styles. In that, one could say 5th edition is perfect in its imperfection.

For these reasons, 5E is also a great jumping-off point for new players of the hobby. After a few games of D&D, if new players want more problem-solving and interaction and roleplaying, you can head to Fate Core or 13th Age, Numenera/The Strange or even the Apocalypse Engine. If your new players like cramming numbers and tactical fighting, you can instead step into Pathfinder or Shadowrun, or more simulationist games like GURPS and The Hero System. D&D sits right between either of those two extremes, and as of such, is a great place for gamers across the spectrum (including new ones) to meet. 

So overall, I had a blast. After spending nearly a year with the same group playing the same short list of games, it was incredibly refreshing for me to return to a group of new faces, playing a new game. I look forward to future sessions, whatever they may be!
I was certain this blue dragon was going to fry at least a few adventurers, but they handled the ol' wyrm like gangsters!

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