Wednesday, January 11, 2012

5E - What works in D&D

With all the speculation floating around about what 5E could possibly look like, or what folks would like it to look like, its interesting to ponder what exactly makes D&D work in the first place. The simple fact that people are out there still playing the earliest iteration of D&D means that there are some definite "core" elements that keep this game alive.

One of the first things that springs to mind is the Hit Die. This is, I think, the most important baseline of the game, and what everything else is built off of. Starting with OD&D, the baseline is this: a creature has 1 HD, or 1d6 hit points. An attack against it with, say, a sword, does 1d6 points of damage.

This is deceptively simple, but its an important reason why D&D works. Starting with this baseline, a regular sword has a chance to kill a regular guy in 1 round. The randomness of tossing dice to determine the regular guys hit points, whether or not you hit the regular guy, and how much damage you do if you do hit the regular guy, means nothing is predetermined, nothing can be taken for granted, and there will always be an element of risk.

As a baseline, this means you have something to measure against when someone gets better than the average guy (or "levels up"). More hit points, a better chance of hitting, etc. Or maybe your magic sword gets better than the regular sword. It lets you quantify tough concepts in a simple way that doesn't take hours to figure out, or bog down your game resolving simple combats so you can get on to the rest of the session.

For old school gamers, this can be taken for granted. Subsequent editions have gradually eroded away this essential baseline. 3E emphasized things like ability modifiers for monsters. A sword still did 1d8 points of damage against an orc, but that orc was now likely to have a Con modifier to its hit points and do a whole lot of damage, often more than that 1st level character could withstand. This created the expectation that in order for one's 1st level character to survive and succeed, its player would need to do some serious min/maxing, arranging scores and abilities for the optimum number of high modifiers to boost damage and hit points. Characters became a lot less randomly generated, and lot more "built", carefully constructed to counter an increasingly spiky baseline.

4E further eroded the baseline. Some might argue it practically washed it away. Orcs and PCs alike start out with 20+ hit points. Yet that sword is still doing 1d8 points of damage. The simplest element that made D&D work was removed: in one attack, a sword has a chance to kill you. No longer. In this latest edition, in addition to min-maxing a character, now groups had to min-max adventuring parties! It was necessary to have the best combination of striker, defender, controller, etc, so that those four or five PCs could carefully coordinate their attacks on the game board to kill that one orc.

The farther you get away from the 1 Hit Die baseline, the farther you get from quickly resolved combats, abstract resolutions that lend themselves to imaginative interpretations and descriptions, and sessions that emphasize goals and explorations over the minutiae of combat.

We'll look at another element of what makes D&D work tomorrow.


  1. Good post. I'm not familiar with the later editions, never having played them, so it's interesting to see how they depart from my edition of choice (1e). Look forward to more in this series.

  2. Interesting observation. You seem to be right on the money with this--at least it seems right from what we're noticing in the 4E rules we've perused and in the way our stuff is getting converted over. Change the baseline assumption(s) and you're not talking the same language any longer. That's quite a disconnect.
    Excellent post. We're looking forward to the next installment!

  3. Having started with Basic, and always using the optional weapon damage* and different dice for HD; learning about 1HD=1d6, all weapons do 1d6 stuff from 0e was real eye opener for me.

    Anyway, good post. Looking forward to the next.

    *I wasn't even aware that 1d6 for all weapons was a rule in Basic.

  4. Although in 4e, it has a rule for "Mooks" that allows PCs to kill minions with one hit - no damage roll necessary. As they gain level, more powerful monsters can become "Mooks" and die in one hit. This rule was added so adventures could play-out like Keep on the Borderland.

    But yes, the power-scale in that game is like a beer-and-prezzie game akin to HeroQuest, where the PCs can fight one-sided battles or stubble into soft traps and not fret too much over forethought or survival.

    Hopefully WotC figured-out that the fun of D&D is the risks of exploration, and figuring-out ways to overcome the challenges.

  5. Great post. I never thought of it that way. Another important related development is the move from the 1 minute round to the (I think) 6 second round by 3rd edition. Totally different expectation of what combat is, taking it from the simple and abstract to the fiddly and complex.

  6. @Malcadon - I definitely appreciated the inclusion of minions when I ran 4E for awhile, but it wasn't too long before I developed the opinion that they were added to the game to fix a problem that shouldn't have been there to begin with.

    Interestingly aside, the 4E hit point inflation was exponential. So orcs with 30 hps also meant dragons with 400 hps, while longswords still did 1d8 (albeit plus a whole bunch of modifiers) so combat took a looong time! I wonder if things would have been different if the baseline had been kept intact - as in, if an orc has 30hps, then longswords should do 5d6 damage, and so on.

  7. This is actually one of the things that I have always liked about the early D&D systems.

  8. great post, Al. A very astute insight, and one that I'd never seen expressed quite so clearly.

  9. One of the things that turned my group off to 4E was the fact that, at first level, they were fighting goblins who had thirtysome hit points. What should have been a five minute combat was a forty-five minute combat... and it only got longer from there.

  10. For the record I am a grid hater ... I have played and run alot of 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder/4e era D&D ... but I hate it. I hate what the grid has done to D&D. It just is so disruptive in my opinion ... it transformed D&D from a fantasy RP game into a tabletop skirmish game. Yes I know the history of the very game itself ... Chainmail .. Gygax was a wargamer ... yada yada. However I liked how the game flowed and played in the pre-3.0 days far more than I have since then.

    The thing that turns me off about ALL previous versions of D&D is at low level you have to be afraid of stray dogs and housecats. That ALWAYS bothered me even back in the original red box days and it was one of the FEW things about 4e I liked. I like heroic heroes ... seriously ... why be a "hero" if you are going to get one shotted by an angry house cat. Yes orcs had more hitpoints but so did the PCs ... and the PCs didn't get dropped nearly as easily. So they had some staying power, they felt a little beefier. That was one thing I did actually like about 4e and I actually played and ran a fair amount of 4e, I didn't just read the rulebook once or play an abortive test game then quit. I played ALOT of 4e ... I did not like the game and there is much to hate. Honestly though I think 3.0-3.5-Pathfinder are all equally shitty. I hate the powergame/min maxing that these games just seem to breed in all players ... I hate being forced to use the grid ... sure you can not use the grid but then your NOT going to be actually using 3/5ths of the rules ... hand waving it all. There is alot to dislike and for those reasons, thankfully ... my gaming group finally forsook 3.0-4e D&D.

    Beyond that though I do agree with your point about the nice standardization that the original HD system had. I just hate how terribly weak characters are for the first 3-6 levels of the game ... it was/is and always will be annoying to me. I know many people love that sense of "danger" but to me it was beyond danger to the point of absurdity.

  11. I do also agree that 3.0-4e era D&D = ridiculously complex/long combats. Again I blame that on the grid. Also the meta-conversation among players is off the chart in 3.0-4e ... it has to be honestly. Its a miniatures skirmish game now. They need to talk tactics, do things in the right order. From 3.0 onwards it has been pen and paper WoW. The tank has to go in, grab agro, then mark everything necessary, the strikers have to focus fire, the healer has to make sure they have line of sight, yada yada yada.

    It can actually be fun people ... for those of you who have never played. It really can. But its fun like a board game or miniature wargame. It is not a very similar experience to 1st or 2nd ed D&D (though late in the run on 2nd ed if you were using all the options ... you were nearly playing 3.0). I really do prefer quickly resolved, cinematic combats to long, drawn out, tactical slug fest mini game stuff. If I want a good mini game .... I'll go play Warmachine or 40K or something.

    For me unless 5th ed makes the grid style game optional ... I am not even going to give it a look. Having played 3.0-4e pretty extensively ... and had my fill ... I'm done with that kind of a game for good ... its just not worth my time anymore.

  12. BTW Al - since you're the one person who 'follows' some of my game blogs, you might like my 1e AD&D Yggsburgh blog - - 9 sessions in so far, your XP post just prompted me to ask the players what they thought of my XP awarding so far! :)

  13. Right on with the bit about the 3.0 orc; I distinctly remember being critted by an orc during our first adventure and going "Well, guess I'll have to do better next time," which set me on the path to powergaming for years to come.



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