On Saturday I ran a Dungeons & Dragons game for the first time in years, using the most recent iteration of the rules. I picked D&D, rather than any of a dozen other systems I prefer and am more familiar with, because this group specifically wanted an authentic D&D experience. Only one player (other than my wife Katie) had every played before, and she’s only played it once. The rest had never played D&D, or any other sort of tabletop roleplaying game, in their lives.
The big advantage of using 5th Edition D&D is that the basic rules are available as a free download. This, I think, was a great marketing move. It means that no one had to spend any money to try the game out and see if they like it. Free rules meant that I didn’t have to make an investment in a system, in the event that this turned into a one-and-done session rather than an ongoing group. I’d had at least the core books for every edition going back to 1st Edition AD&D, and had picked up every beginner boxed set including the original “white box” rules along the way; but the time I moved to Finland, all of that stuff had gone away though. I did visit the friendly local game store and purchased the Starter Set box, because it was only 20€ and I thought it would be nice to have some physical reference book for the players to look it. It also has a really nice adventure/mini campaign in it, which I decided to use.
This was a weird experience for me, because it has been decades since I ran a boxed adventure module. I wanted to give the players an authentic experience, though, not Berin’s bizarre off-kilter ideas about what roleplaying is, or could be, or should be. It also made game prep a lot easier — I had to read through a 64 page adventure booklet, rather than make things up from scratch, and only made a few notes. I changed nothing, which was also a first for me.
To save time, I printed out pregenerated characters that are also downloadable for free, and let the players pick. Earlier in the day I walked through character generation with Katie, because she knew what she wanted to play and there wasn’t an official pregen that met her criteria. It took about an hour, and with five other players I knew that wasn’t going to work. If they were experienced, or there were multiple physical rulebooks to pass around, maybe. With only a PDF on my laptop, I was afraid new players would be restless and bored.
It worked out well. They liked the selection of pregens (I think I had 14 characters available for 5 players to choose from), and we got to focus on names, backgrounds, and personalities rather than crunchy bits. They all got into how they knew each other, and developed some interesting and detailed background on how they each knew the person that hired them. The emphasis really landed on the roleplaying.
I let everyone know that even though I’d been involved with tabletop roleplaying games longer than some — holy crap, all — of them have been alive (I started with the Holmes boxed set in 1978, which was 39 years ago), I have never run this edition before, so in some ways I was as new at this as they were.
The session went really well, and everyone had fun. There were a couple of times when we had to stop and look things up, because 5th edition was using a term I wasn’t familiar with (and every time, it was “oh, they call it THAT now instead of [insert archaic gamer jargon]”), and a couple of times I just winged it and made things up. Everyone wants to keep going, so we’re going to get together probably once or twice a month as our schedules can accommodate. We even have a secret Facebook group to coordinate.
As for the 5th Edition rules, so far I like them a lot. They’re easy to run. It feels more like 1st Edition, but with less of the “we made this up as we went along” vibe. It’s got the core of D20 there (roll a do2, add modifier, beat a target number), but the skill list is a lot less intense. As a person who adored 3rd Edition/Pathfinder, I was concerned about the elimination of feats as a main feature, but it doesn’t really bother me; there is a system there for those who want the character customization feats off, without the massive power creep problems. Pouring more emphasis into backgrounds, including the newly added personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, is a clear nod to people like me who prefer storytelling and character development to an overwhelming number of options to build a better killing machine.