Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is a gift
I write this editorial with slightly more than 5 years experience playing D&D. For that reason, most of my time playing the game has concerned editions 3.5, and 5. In those years, I’ve seen a gradual shift in popular culture. A culture which has grown ever more inclusive of the classic tabletop game. I’d like to argue that a primary reason for that shift is Wizards of the Coasts newest game system. However, there are other noteworthy changes in gaming culture which primed the landscape for such a return to force.
Returning to 3.5
I recently participated in a character conversion. While that sounds like I joined a cult, I’m referring to the reverential act of converting a character to another edition. The backstory matters here, so indulge me. A group of friends and I had been playing an ongoing session of D&D for the greater part of three years when it was put on ice. While the choice was intentional, it was primarily motivated by: (1) lack of time and (2) increasingly fun alternative campaigns in 5th edition. Most of our time playing D&D together was now motivated by the new campaign, premised on a rotation of DMs. However, our group often spoke about adapting the earlier campaign to 5th edition, it just took some time.
When we did finally return to the previous edition, and started converting our characters, something struck me. The 5th edition is a real treasure. Now I know that’s not a surprise, and I don’t want to base this editorial on a strict comparison of game systems. But reviewing my 3.5 character sheet made me appreciate just how streamlined and adaptable 5th edition is.
I played a druid in the 3.5 campaign (on my way to unlimited power), so bear that in mind. Spellcasters were, to put it mildly, about as broken (but not as illegal) as a peasant railgun. Which is why I was shocked that I took a Wild Shape focus on my 5th edition sheet. The system of shapeshift for druids is so much simpler, so much more streamlined (but mostly spellcaster nerf).
Putting class balance aside however, looking down at my sheet I was shocked not to have remembered the Fortitude, Reflex and Will saving throws. Why does fortitude necessarily represent both STR and CON?
That’s when it hit me, the proficiency bonus is AMAZING. Looking at these changes reminded me of how great the new mechanic is for new and experienced players. For the uninitiated; (1) how are you still interested in this post? (2) the prof. bonus is a scaling number which is added to all of the characters proficient skills and resistances in fifth edition. Whether it applies to your mastery of a weapon or a resolute mind, the bonus is steady. Rogues also make great use of it, doubling their proficiency in certain skills or regarding the use of particular tools (which is a brilliant use of the mechanic within the system).
Which takes me to the skills section of the character sheet (you knew this was coming). HOLY KNOWLEDGE AND PERFORMANCE BATMAN! While I can appreciate that disable device and escape artist provide specific fields in which a character can be a professional, I realized one thing. Like many things in life which ruin your appreciation of an alternative by it’s sheer quality (AHEM Dark Souls) once you go 5th, you *rarely come back. Once you’ve played with a system that combines tumble and balance into acrobatics, you wonder why they weren’t in the first place.
Let me say this about the character conversion and related skills. In 3.5, it was really possible for a character to BE a specialist. My good friend (and longtime D&D mastermind) brought it up in a discussion around our characters. While I had played a broody and revolutionary druid in our previous campaign, he was actually playing Max Payne. Both of us were good at diplomacy, but the things our characters were GREAT at very particular skills. While that may convert to a slight advantage on your rolls in 5th edition (congrats, you get to apply a proficiency bonus) it was SO strong in 3.5. To put it into context, my druid had added 15 to any survival roll it made. Now THAT’S survival.
Dungeon Masters: 5th edition and You
While these changes have certainly taken from character specialization, they have enormous repercussions on how the DM interacts with the game system. Simply considering the balancing of certain skill checks becomes so much easier. Indeed, 5th edition allows for characters to be impressive in their accomplishment of feats (due to their added ability score modifier) while standardizing the benchmark for skill check difficulty.
Which takes me to my last point, and the most important. Dungeons & Dragons is strong as ever because 5th edition is the most welcoming. While previous editions all had their merits, the 5th simultaneously allows for some min-maxing while also being palatable. While certain spellcasters might be too much for a new player to take on, most classes can be approached with little knowledge and mastered handily. The reduced skill clutter enables the DM to interact with his players and telegraph his demands in a clearer way. The relationship between DM and player centers on the storyline presented and on the players choices rather than on number crunching.
While 4th edition was criticized as “game-ifying” D&D to an unacceptable degree, an editorial’s worth of content on it’s own, 5th allows for as much complexity as a group of players desires. It is only as complicated as you choose it to be. Further, the system is just easy to manipulate and apply to an alternative scenario. Games don’t always have to be based on high fantasy, and 5th edition reminds you of that.
More players – more problems
However, I recognize my own bias. The 5th edition was the first I actually tried to master not as a player, but as dungeon master. Like in many things, that interaction will always be enough to inspire my respect. Yet, I genuinely believe that this is a return to force for D&D. In the last two years, several new players have approached me about joining an ongoing campaign. Their previous experience with the game has ranged from extensive, to non-existent. While you can attribute this change to many things, whether it be a general rise in the acceptance of geek culture or Stranger Things, it’s a welcome change for D&D and gaming culture generally. I see parallels between the popularity of D&D and the resurgence of Infinity-era RPG’s (PILLARS 2, PILLARS 2).
While other niches may have different opinions, D&D is primarily guided and fueled by player participation. The more, the better. A DM can, after all, curate their audience at will.
I do feel bad about the magic items I lost in that conversion. Their bonuses are just unreasonable to apply to 5th.
So, what are your impressions about 5th edition? Was it your first D&D system, and was that choice intentional?
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