So, the new, 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons is out, and the Manglers gave it a shot this past week. Back in June of 2012, we played the play test version of the rules, and in my review, I said that it felt like a greatest hits album–hitting all the highlights that could appeal to fans of past editions, but not really adding any new material. After our first play with the Starter Set, I think that metaphor is still mostly appropriate. But maybe now, it’s more like one of those greatest hits albums with the extra studio tracks.
The Manglers used the pre-gen characters from the boxed set, but we only have four players, so nobody played the ranged fighter. We played through the first section of the adventure (up through the goblin lair, for those of you familiar with the adventure). Most of what I had heard about the adventure prior to playing was that combat was deadly and that the adventure felt a little like a Warcraft quest-hub. I think both of these concerns are accurate.
Combat, at least at first level, is deadlier than 4th edition. With starting PC hit points having returned to the 6-13 range, and the average goblin dealing out 3-8 points of damage, the chance of someone dying on a normal hit is pretty high. (And with a goblin crit doing 5-15 points of damage, even the hardiest 1st-level fighter shouldn’t feel safe around the little buggers.) We didn’t have a TPK, but we did wind up with half the party making death saves at the end. For most of the Manglers, we like the chance of death. It gives a weight to player decision-making. It was one of the things missing from 4e for our group– short of the DM creating an intentionally difficult encounter, characters were highly unlikely to die. The deadliness worked the other way, too. The rogue, especially with a melee fighter in the group, was a death-dealing machine with his ability to sneak attack whenever he attacks someone adjacent to his allies. (And while I, as the DM, was a bit frustrated at first by his damage output, after some reflection, I realized that his 2d6 damage was only slightly better, on average, than the d12 output of the fighter.
(As an aside, I have found myself consistently impressed with the math in the game. Every time I think that something is out of whack–i.e. advantage is broken, sneak attack is broken, etc.–a further examination proves that the math is actually reasonably consistent. It will be interesting to see if this bears out over 20 levels. (In 4e, I felt like the math was consistent, but because everything from to-hits to damage to monsters increased with such linearity, it felt a bit pointless, everything at 10th level was just as tough as stuff had been at 1st level.) All that is to say that I appreciate a mathematical consistency, but I couldn’t care less about “balance.”)
I also like the new personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. While this mechanic feels a bit like the obvious mechanic that must be included in games now (in the form of fate points, bennies, etc.), I still like that there’s a mechanic directly connected to role-playing in D&D now. And while the amount of combat in the first part of the adventure didn’t lend itself much to getting into character, I think the Manglers will enjoy this mechanic as we settle into the characters.
The increased flexibility in spell casting is also a solid addition, although it does make me wonder how they will differentiate the sorcerer now. But I think both the cleric and the wizard players enjoyed having the ability to make choices at the moment, instead of making all of their choices before they knew what the day might bring. Having to prepare certain spells still keeps a level of tactical thought, but being able to decide that all you need to cast is magic missile is also a nice shift.
I definitely like the switch to advantage/disadvantage instead of +2/-2 modifiers. In one case, when the cleric was attempting to sneak, and he had disadvantage, the whole table was elated when he rolled a 15 and a 16. I doubt the same effect would have been achieved if he had rolled a 16 and subtracted 2. Succeeding under adverse situations just feels harder when taking the lower of a double-dice roll. There’s something to be said for the psychology of a mechanic.
In terms of the adventure itself, it works. It shouldn’t win any awards for sheer awesomeness, and I think for most people, it will be forgettable, but it does what it should, and I like the way it teaches as it goes. (For example, moving from figuring the XP awards for you to telling you how to figure them yourself.) The central part of the adventure (which the Manglers haven’t reached yet) does feel a lot like a World of Warcraft quest hub. (You know, that moment when you move to a new zone and find the town where everyone wants to give you a quest. If only there was a flight path . . . ). But, in truth, the adventure works, and it works as an example of how DMs can create a number of adventures out of a central area–creating more of a sandbox feel than a more plot-drive adventure might have. The adventure feels true to the spirit of D&D, as do the rules as a whole. I’m glad to see that spirit back.
If this was a greatest hits album track list, it might look like this: