Thursday, August 7, 2014

Thoughts on D&D 5e (and the Starter Set) After Running a Session

I participated in a couple playtest sessions of "D&D Next" back when it first went public. The mechanics were intriguing, but then I realized I had neither the time nor inclination to actually put up with the playtesting process (not for D&D, at least). So I set the impending Fifth Edition aside and figured I'd check back when it actually came out. I wished it the best.

When the Starter Set went up for pre-order, I figured, "Why the hell not?" Fifteen bucks and I'd have a good idea of the core elements of 5e. Then Wizards announced the free Basic D&D PDF. Hmmm, intriguing.

My Starter Set arrived and I read through the contents. I got together with my Wednesday online group and they made characters using the Basic D&D rules. Scheduling conflicts prevented us from meeting again until last night, when I ran the introductory chapter of the "Lost Mines of Phandelver" module included in the Starter Set.

I've read that the designers took the classic "Night's Dark Terror" module as a point of inspiration for "Lost Mines", and I can definitely see that, especially after having just run "Terror" in my 2e campaign earlier this year. Like "Terror", the adventure's got a central plot spine, but lots of little mini-quests and side adventures as well. (There are even some echoes of locations and plot elements from "Terror" in "Lost Mines" - nothing overt, but recognizable.) It's a "semi-sandbox," which is really cool to have in a product intended for folks just coming into the hobby.

It's also a very, very vanilla adventure. This is not an objective criticism, of course. Vanilla's a perennially popular flavor because it's safe and it's classic. I would not hesitate to buy or recommend the Starter Set to a friend or associated rugrat interested in D&D.

It's actually a testament to 5e's mechanics that we all had a blast playing despite the relatively uninteresting setting/set-up. I think we're all a bit sick of vanilla D&D at this point after wrapping our classic Realms campaign, but the mechanics made for a really fun game nonetheless.

We were all a bit concerned going in about the amped-up healing rules, kewl powers, and whatnot, but then we nearly had a TPK during the initial encounter with four goblins. The fight was resolved when the dwarf fighter, down to 1 hit point and using his Inspiration to gain Advantage, scored a critical hit on the final goblin to great cheers from everyone. This was followed by a nail-biting sequence of "Death Saves" for the PC that had been knocked down to negative HP - two successes, then two failures, then a success!

We all found the system to flow very nicely. Having just wrapped a 2e campaign, I felt like combat compared favorably in terms of balance between speed and crunchiness. As we figured we would, we all loved the Advantage/Disadvantage system, and it made ruling on the fly quite easy. The use of attributes as a basis for ability checks, skill checks, and saving throws reminded me strongly of Castles & Crusades - definitely a good thing. We're also enjoying all the little touches of how the rules interact, which is always a positive sign when you're first getting to know a system.

Initially, the idea was that we were going to play through the whole of the "Lost Mines" adventure, but after last night we really don't feel the need to. We've gotten enough of a feel for the system to know that we're into it, but the vanilla setting's really doing nothing for us, so I'm going to wait until I have all the core books in hand (particularly the DMG, with its advice on rules-hacking and world-building) to put together a non-vanilla campaign. Maybe a mashup of the new edition of City State of the Invincible Overlord and noisms' forthcoming Yoon-Suin? Or maybe my perennial setting-in-search-of-a-satisfactory-system Uresia will finally find a home? Regardless, it'll be a 5e winter this year.

In the meantime, I'll be running a Savage Worlds campaign in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy...because how could I not?
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