5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons: More Story, Less Crunch

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.

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6 thoughts on “5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons: More Story, Less Crunch

    1. Yes, but I’m also using the adventure included in the starter set box and it’s skewed toward combat. I do see opportunities for other things, and there has been a lot more roleplaying with this group based on the background mechanics.

  1. I’m really pleased you dig it. Maybe, almost as much as I do. I haven’t run it yet, but I’ve been playing as I can in two regular games at my FLGS (Gamesville Tabletop in Gainesville FL). I adore the Advantage/Disadvantage rules, as well as the new Death Saves at 0 HP rules. Both games play for about four hours and usually have no more than two combats each. Lots of role-playing, though the focus of the rules is still on tactical dungeon SWAT Murder Hobo Adventures, The recede into the background between raids.

    There are artifacts both obvious and more subtle from every edition. Some aren’t as obvious in the Basic downloads as they are in the core books. For example, the Basic download only includes one archetype per class, and those give me the feeling of 2nd edition kits and 3rd edition prestige classes, but they’re baked in at level one. The math and probabilities make me think of the old boxed sets and the scope of options is all AD&D. They’re not flooding the market either. So far I’ve only missed one release from a third party that I’m kicking myself for (the Tarokka deck that Gale Force 9 released along side Curse of Strahd).

    The game, like any other, is what you make it. I know as a kid I had fun with Monopoly when we ignored parts of the rules. I played Starfleet battles using disassembled Battleship trays as our battle mat. If you were looking for advice on purchases, knowing you Berin, between the Basic rules, the box, and Unearthed Arcana downloads you’ll be fine until seventh edition comes out. BUT, if you bought the PHB, I don’t think you would be disappointed. Be sure you get a later print run though. The first ones come apart at the drop of a hat. With what is in the Basic and Box, you don’t need a MM for… like… ages. If you bought any of the adventures, well, like me, you’ll probably dig on Strahd and Yawning Portal more than any of the others.

    1. A physical PHB is on my list, for sometime this summer after I’ve handled some other expenses. They are spendy here, but I want to give the friendly local game store my business rather than ordering it online for half the cost.

      I’m having fun just running rules-as-written with no hacks or house rules other than the on-the-fly and totally canonical “gimme a ____ save” now and again. I’ve been enjoying the background, and just ruling “yeah, you’d know that/could do that and it that moves the game forward so you succeed with on roll” rather than “roll to see if you’re screwed over and the game comes to a grinding halt because the guy with History +5 doesn’t know some basic fact about the major landmark where the adventure takes place.”. MY FAVORITE RULES ARE MADE OF HANDWAVIUM

      It’s also bee fun running for a group where most of them have never played before. D&D is as new to them as this edition is to me, and there’s something exciting about that.

      1. Most of both groups I’m in are a mix of gamers but d&d newbies or lapsed grognards new to the edition. The Background rules seem to encourage a little handwavium. So far my only complaint is I really think the chapters in the phb should have been race, background, class. Not race, class, background.

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