TL;DR: D&D 5e needs work, here’s why.

DEAR GOD, ITS BEEN 5 YEARS.

Five years ago, I picked up my copy of the 5th edition trio, DM’s guide, player’s handbook, and monster manual. I had so much fun with my group that we played almost daily after class for a year solid. Damn, I got some mileage from those books.

It was the hottest shit, and we loved every game we played, up until I got stationed somewhere else where I had no one. After a few years of no games, I decided to start running drunks and dragons games for my group of military friends after I found Dungeon World. That’s been my main squeeze RPG-wise for a couple of years now, but something kept stirring in the back of my mind. Every time I walked past my bookshelf full of RPGs and various nerd paraphernalia, I felt a stare. That stare that makes the hair stand up of the back of your neck. The look week old spaghetti gives you when you microwave it at 2 am after the bar.

Slow turning like I’m the douche jock in a cabin in the woods horror movie and I just heard some creepy shit moving behind me, I spotted the entity, the monster staring at me all these years…My old 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons books. Seeing the sad look, the books gave me, I decided that it’s been long enough!

Time to give it another shot!

THE SCENARIO

The Scenario: 3 Session Horror Arch

6 friends – Check

High horror/low fantasy adventure – Check

Too much Red Bull – Check

I managed to get a party together to help me play a short, three session, horror arch to see if D&D is what I remember it being. It’s been a long ass time, so I read up, watched videos, and made some notes. I wrote up some dope ass shit to throw my players way, leaving plenty of empty spots for my players to add their own spin on the game. Classic stuff.

Expectations:

  • I figured that the game flow would be hard to manage the first game but would be easy the last two after I got to stretch my legs a bit.
  • I thought there would be some interparty conflict due to different goals and motivations, especially when their mettle was tested in the horrors that await them.
  • Combat was my biggest worry before the game, not because it is a lot of number crunching or it takes practice to balance combat, but because combat is jarring to the narrative in D&D and that’s a big pet peeve of mine. Anything that breaks the flow of the narrative makes me sad.
  • The most fun part of the game will be what we as a group do outside the rules.

My Players

I had 5 players in this tester game:

Red –

RPG History: Some 3rd edition experience, mostly plays Dungeon World.

Character: Fighter Monster Hunter, 3rd Level.

Sam –

RPG History: Runs so many different RPGs it would make your head spin. Mainly a GM.

Character: Pact of the Tome Great Old One Warlock, 3rd Level.

Jake –

RPG History: Some 3rd edition experience, mostly plays Dungeon World.

Character: Grave Domain Cleric, 3rd Level.

Sean –

RPG History: Some 3rd edition experience, mostly plays Dungeon World.

Character: Assassin Rogue, 3rd Level.

Raf –

RPG History: Some 3rd edition experience, mostly plays Dungeon World.

Character: Pact of the Blade Hexblade Warlock, 3rd Level.

THE BIG 4, MY CRITERIA FOR JUDGING

All are judged on a scale of 1-10 and added up then averaged to get the final score at the end.

Startup Investment

Startup Investment is referring to both the actual cost of starting a game by buying needed books or materials and what it takes mentally and prep-wise from players/the gm to start a game.

How Conflict is Handled

How Conflict is Handled is referring to both fights and challenges in the narrative. Conflict is more than just fighting fisticuffs. How does the game handle present challenges to the players? How strenuous is it for the GM to manage the conflicts in the game? How much of the game is focused on fighting?

Player – Game Interaction

Player – Game Interaction is all about how the game flows. How easy is it for the players to tell their part of the story? How hard is it for the players to engage with the narrative and stay engaged? What is there that is jarring or distracting?

Wildcard

This covers all the things not covered explicitly by the other categories. Things such as company support, community engagement, community impact on game, availability, products to help play.

LET THE GAME BEGIN!

Startup Investment – 4/10

$169.95 retail price for the 3-core book “bundle” or 49.95 retail for each book. Give me a fuckin break.

Pros:

  • The advice in the DMG is fantastic for those new to the game.
  • There are quite a few fun character option to choose from. Analysis paralysis isn’t a bad thing here!
  • There is a cheap starter box to get you introduced to the game.

Cons:

  • Dat price doe.
  • Takes a lot of bookkeeping to make a campaign.
  • The learning curve can be a bit much, and power gaming is ever present.

How Conflict is Handled – 4/10

The tentacle-headed man-fish shambles up to you. With a stomach-churning squelch, it slings out its slimy arm and wraps it around your neck, trying to pull you in. What do…

I attack it and *rolls dice* hit it with an 18 then *rolls fuckin dice again* deal 10 damage.

Uhhh…can you give me some narrative, please?

Pros:

  • Combat is very straight forward in concept.
  • There are a ton of rules to help guide people through their turns during combat
  • There is a solid structure to what you can do in combat.

Cons:

  • THERE WAS NO SUCH EFFORT PUT INTO INTERACTING WITH THE WORLD IN WAYS OTHER THAN WITH YOUR FISTS OR A SPELL.
  • Combat is too structured and takes away from descriptions and narrative flow.
  • Skills need work, why are there so many? They can be simplified.
  • The way conflict is handled breeds adversarial GMs.
  • Since so much of the book is focused on combat, it makes the game feel like its split into two phases: combat and the Narrative. Combat should never be separated from the narrative. They should work together to make the game as a whole flow.

Player – Game Interaction – 6/10

There is a lot here for a player to read and latch onto to force their agency on the narrative. That isn’t always a good thing.

One thing I hear too often is that the rules are there to protect the players from the DM, but that is nonsense. If you need protection from your DM, you need to find a new DM.

Pros:

  • The rules for each class scale consistently, and everyone has access to exciting abilities that fit their class.
  • There is something to be said for games that let you customize and “build” a character. It can be super fun to try out interesting combos or ideas!
  • The rules are crunchy enough to let people who love the math sink their teeth into the system.

Cons:

  • The rules aren’t accommodating for roleplay.
  • The amount of “empty levels” is frustrating. Several levels of the game are rarely used in regular play too, as most people start at level 3 or 5.
  • Too much of the backdrop for each spell or option you can take for your character is defined. The surprising lack of direction in the Player’s Handbook to help new players create their own backdrop or spins on their characters makes it difficult for people to break the molds given to them and play the game they want to play.
  • This game has 2 parts: Combat. Then everything else. The flow of the narrative is broken by the combat, not enhanced by it. Seems odd to have a game where combat is where most of the rules are but preach being a game of imagination and roleplaying.1

Wildcard – 7/10

The support for this game is the best on the market. No doubt. Just be sure to watch out and dodge all those D&D “my character did this” stories whenever you head to a nerd store. Those things are the worst.

Pros:

  • Holy cow these books are readily available! You can even pick them up in non-gaming stores.
  • These books are quality. You get your money’s worth in art and production value for each book. If your book craps on you, you can send an email to WotC, and they will send you a replacement FOR FREE.
  • There are many apps and guides to help you make your character quick.
  • If you pay for it, D&D Beyond is an excellent service for making and keeping track of your characters and makes organization/creation of your characters easy.

Cons:

  • People love making content for 5th edition. So, what does WotC do when people use the DM’s guild to distribute their work? They take 50 fuckin percent. That’s robbing your audience that you’re already charging too much to play your game. Jesus.

FINAL SCORE – 5/10

5e is a good game overall, but it needs a lot of work. The classes, rules, and even the people that work on Dungeons and Dragons need a good combing through and need to have a question asked about them: “Hey, do we really need this in D&D?”

The game feels very clunky and has quite a few issues with trying to make up its mind on what it is. Is it a game about combat? Or is that just what a lot of people are trying to make it? All I know is that every time I see a new book for 5e, its nothing but stories with no blanks left on the map for people to fill in their own fun twists and more “optimal” combat subclasses.

Okay, I finally got a granola bar. I’m not me when I’m hungry.

Over the years, I had a hell of a time playing D&D, starting with 2nd ed when I was a child. Shit, my RPG love started with D&D, but many years and RPGs later, I realize it leaves a lot to be desired. There are so many great RPGs out there that can help you tell the stories you want to tell, so why not break out of the D&D box you live in and explore what great games are out there? This is a hell of a time to be an RPG player, so why not reap the benefits?

If I have learned anything from this experience, it’s that I shouldn’t write when I’m hangry.

PARTING THOUGHTS – WHAT DOES RUSTY THINK?

Favorite Part of the Game:                 D&D story alert

I was most surprised by what I would find most enjoyable. I thought that the best part would be the stuff we did outside of the standard rules, but subverting people’s expectations on what they see as a game of D&D was by far the best part. I put the players in spots where they had to make tough choices that impacted the game, using existing mechanics and narrative to handle the drama. Here is my favorite example:

There was a point where I gave a player a tough choice. They had to choose to either let the part of a tentacle horror burrow into an open wound he had and adequately be able to defend himself against a monster’s attacks, or take the time to pull the tentacle out from behind his eye left there from when a monster tried to eat his head, but not be able to defend himself properly against a monster’s attacks. He chose to not give the monster advantage on its attacks and to let the tentacle disappear behind his eye. Later in the game, at the final battle, the horror tried to take over his mind because he was infected with a parasite that was turning people into tentacle zombie things. So, most of the beginning of the final battle, he had to fight the parasite from the world of madness that was planting roots in his mind. There was an epic fight inside his mind to battle the thing, causing the party trouble as the boss was whooping ass because the party rogue was busy trying to keep his fracturing mind together and not become one of those things. During the fight in his mind, he narrated trying to use his character’ s strengths to change the arena in his mind to change it to his advantage, calling for many saves of various stats depending on the way he avoided the danger. He managed to triumph over the horror in his mind for just long enough to take his own dagger and cut out his eye to pull out the growing parasite. He managed to keep conscious long enough to dramatically stand up behind the big bad while it was distracted by beating the hell out of the party and get the fight winning backstab.

Shit was dope as fuck.

Least Favorite Part of the Game:

The way there were two sides to my table impacted the flow of the game quite a bit. One side was there for the story, putting the emphasis on the way they interacted with the narrative, and the other side that didn’t interact with the narrative unless I made them, and only focused on hitting the baddies in the game REALLY HARD.

This split in the table caused a lot of issues. The narrative was almost entirely controlled by a few players despite the efforts to get the others in on the story, and the combat was wholly dominated by a few players, while the others struggled to keep up with unoptimized characters. This meant that a few players were building dice towers during the two phases of the game: Combat and the Narrative. I get that people love different things, but the way 5th edition is structured makes it hard to interact with the game. It’s not directly the game’s fault for the split, but the game encourages these issues by putting an emphasis on one part of the game with almost every book that comes out.

IN CONCLUSION…

Holy hell, I finally knocked this out.

This game has a ton of issues, both with the game and the types of players it breeds. In particular, the way the game is split into two parts and how rather than teaching and encouraging groups to work together to tell a story, the game makes it so that the burden of the storytelling is on the DM, and discourages groups from working together to make their own story by giving characters little agency in the narrative. The game should make it easier for the group as a whole to tell an awesome story, not play through someone else’s. If you want a smooth storytelling experience, the narrative should always trump the rules, not the other way around.

In my opinion, 5e is a better 3.5, and certainly the best version of D&D.

Rusty’s Suggestions:

If you want to have a great D&D game, get a good group that all agrees on what they are there for, or else you will probably see a split in your table. If you want a more narrative game, I would suggest a system that is built for a more narrative game, like Dungeon World.

Would Rusty Play This Game Again?

5e is a ton of fun, but with a group that agrees on the style of game, it would be a blast. THAT BEING SAID, I am a big fan of narrative games, and there are some fantastic systems out there that handle heavy narrative games better. Yeah, with the right group running D&D would be a blast, but that is true for almost all RPGs.

In short, I would play 5e again, but only with a curated group.