Played one, ran three: 5e first thoughts

Generating first level characters is pretty simple. You need to find your way around the book a little, and I wish there were some summaries to help with that, but it’s not too onerous. Because the first two levels are tutorial levels, you don’t get a whole bunch of decisions (though the Cleric has to pick domain straight away) and it’s time to play almost immediately.

One bad hangover from the old days is that equipment can still be a drag to getting started. The packages really help, but you need to flick back and forth to get the detail (why aren’t the packs given weights?). I’d love to see the packs on cards, and may well do that for future games.

In play, the stat modifiers make a lot of sense. There’s an awful lot you can do with six abilities, and I’m left wondering why saves have to exist at all (especially seeing as there’s three of them that aren’t getting any love: str, int, Cha). I like asking for checks, and the players coming back with proficiencies, though the language still causes the occasional stumble. I guess I have to accept that I should ask for Perception checks sometimes, and not Wis. Thing is, I like to mix up my abilities, and the character sheet as presented wants things strictly silo’ed. Shame.

Speaking of which, the character sheet is fine, but notepaper is just as quick, and with new guys, doesn’t leave them wondering where to put things. Time to design my own sheets I guess.

Magic is absolutely central to the 5e experience. They call it out as such early in the PHB and they’re right. This ruffles my feathers slightly as I always did prefer a martial low magic vibe. Only the Barbarian has no magic options. Even the Fighter can go with Eldritch Knight and get a spell list. I’m coming round to it though. If I look at the spells list as more of a ‘fantasy talents’ list it actually sits better with me (and ties into the edition warrior chant of ‘everyone gets spells’. In this ed, they really do).

As a DM it falls on me to learn the back half of the PHB. I need to understand the spells, so I can rule on them, and because my baddies will need to use them too. In 4e I could afford to be ignorant of player side stuff as I had my own rules, and they had theirs. Not in 5e. The PHB is as much my domain and it’s back to the DM having to know their stuff. Now I know that, I’m ok with it. The spell casting classes each have subtly different ways of preparing their shizzle, and players look to DMs to hold their hands. Fair enough really.

Combats are speedy, but not trivially so. I spent nearly an hour DMing a scrap between 3 characters, an NPC, and a bugbear with a wolf. That’s not far off a 4e battle. No maps or minis though, and it had an ebb and flow to it that I liked. Brutal too. Two pcs went down and it verged on a TPK. Immediately after that battle the party levelled, and those extra hp would have made all the difference in the previous fight. So far, so swingy.

At this stage I’m actually very happy with the game. Advantage and Inspiration are the innovations, but everything else is cozy, comfy and reassuring. The books I’m waiting for are the Monster Manual and the DMG. They’re my books, and my part of the game. That’s where I can step out of the published scenarios (fine, functional, basic) and riff off the traits, ideals, bonds and flaws that the lovely background chapters are throwing up.

The halflings still look terrifying though.

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Foreseen Circumstances: the 5e diviner

Today’s character, a gnome wizard (because I can’t bear to use halflings now that they look so monstrous). Not usually a caster player, but 5e really wants everyone to use that back half of the PHB.

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The process is getting quicker and quicker as I find my way around. Ten minutes tops.

The diviner stuff is interesting. I get to scribe divination spells on the cheap. Whatever. But, Portent! I can roll 2d20 over breakfast each day, and sub in those results at will. Very cool (I’m sure there was an item in 4e that did similar, a bag of something or other)

I grab spells based on name and my murky memory. Then I look them up and see if they’re appropriate. Weirdly, I don’t get Guidance in the wizard cantrip list?

Still have to pause and think while moving my lips on the whole known/prepped/slots thing. That will come.

Personality wise, all I had in mind was the little guy in the team who offers wisdom to the leader in a pinch. There’s archetypes for that everywhere, from King Arthur to the X Men. The background rolls turned out a little more interest. I’d like to play this little guy.

The hardest part? A name. Any suggestions?

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The Fight-arr in 5e

Who doesn’t want to see a Dragonborn pirate? Not me. So I got busy with my Players Handbook again.

Stat array is easy to do, putting the big guns in Str and Con, naturally. The Dragonborn race bumps Cha for me so I’m already picturing a big-assed cutlass wielded with bon mots for his foes. This time I went straight to background as it seems to be the right way to grab all the right detail early in the process. The book provides Sailor but also offers Pirate as an option. Nice.

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My traits come up as you see them in the pic. Pleased with those, and it sends me straight to Chaotic Neutral as an alignment.

I fill in three lists as I go, kit, abilities, and proficiencies. I push him up to level 3 straight away and grab Battle Master as my sub class. So this is where they hid the Warlord! This option opens up Superiority Dice as a sub mechanic. 4d8, which clearly I want buy in a custom colour just for this. They power maneuvres, and I pick Feinting Attack, Riposte and Trip Attack.

All told, 15 minutes, an it appears I’ve generated a T’skrang sword master by complete accident!

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Cards on the Table

You know what this hobby needs more of? Cards.

There’s been a few thoughts floating around recently that have slowly condensed into an idea.

The old question of why D&D and Magic don’t collaborate on a setting has been raised.
I’ve been playing the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.
I haven’t been finishing Numenera, or Blue Planet, or Iron Kingdoms, or…. Etc.
Fate and ARU got me heavily into index cards.
I like pretty pictures.

I learn really well from cards. When I did my law degree it was all about cards, with cases and precedents on them. It’s the same for most people trying to cram info. While at University I also played a bunch of CCGs, and I remember the stats of a Serra Angel more readily that the salient facts of Donaghue v. Stevenson.

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Similarly with game prep. Getting my notes onto cards makes me concentrate my info into digestible chunks. I can riff away on them, and not take up too much real estate on the table. I’ve gotten great mileage out of Paizo’s various card offerings, for items and especially NPCs. A picture tells a thousand words after all.

Where I struggle now is finding the time to digest a 300+ page setting encyclopaedia, and goodness knows RPG publishers love them. Even shorter works, like adventure, I have to revise and make notes just like when I was studying. It’s work, enjoyable to an extent, but work nonetheless.

So why can’t I get a card deck that shows me a setting rather than a hard back book? This goes back to the Magic/D&D question. I don’t actually want a Magic setting book, I can get all the knowledge I want from the cards themselves. Now, I’d like them to be reformatted for the purpose of writing and presenting adventures from, but that’s no more difficult than formatting them for their current purpose.

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Take Numenera. No please, take it. It’s doing my head in. The setting is big, and unwieldy and I’ve tried to plough through it more than once. Everyone tells me about the lovely art, so let’s make that even more of a feature. Give me the Numenera setting presented as a deck of cards, with places, people and plots in abundance.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has already shown it works the other way round. You can get damn close to a traditional RPG game using cards. I was never ever going to play through Rise of the Runelords RPG in this lifetime, but in the next weeks I’ll finish it in its excellent card game format. Yeah, I’m sure I’ve lost a little nuance, but I know all the main points, and I had a great time, and I actually finished it! Not nothing is it?

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So what I want now is a card set that gives me a D&D adventure as a DM. No book, just cards. All the bits are easy enough, monsters, loot, NPCs scenes. I actually don’t think it’s beyond the wit of WotC (or whoever) to get the plot down on cards either. Just think of the flexibility! Maybe I’ll have a go with a classic module and see if I can distill it into a deck. Bet I can.

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Under Starter’s Orders

Another edition, another starter set. If 5e is an attempt to bring back all the edition war casualties to the D&D homeland, then arguably, the starter set should sit outside of those considerations right? After all, it’s primary purpose is to attract new blood into the hobby. Except, it isn’t.

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I am just guessing here, but I suspect the core demographic that buys the starter sets are already hobbyists. They may be as presents for nieces and nephews, or just as nostalgia, or more likely out of a sense of completion and an opportunity to get hold of the rules as an early adopter. Certainly, the new starter set doesn’t appear to be made with novices in mind, but for lost gamers coming back for anger look at the old girl to see what’s up.

With 4e there was an attempt late in the day to make a product designed to teach the game, the new Red Box as part of the Essentials line. It had a retro cover to lure back the (by now) dads and uncles, but it also made a good effort to show a solo purchaser how to play D&D from scratch. Little wonder the existing fan base slated it for not going beyond level 2 or for only being 99% compatible with core 4e. It suffered by comparison with the original Mentzer red box, and/or the Moldvay red book that millions of gamers got started with.

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Useful to remember then that those old school sets were named ‘Basic’ and that the current WotC proposition suborns that name for another thing entirely: a limited option but otherwise complete text of the full bore game.

Let’s see what the new starter set contains. You get a dice set, some pregens, the rules in 32 pages, and an adventure that goes to level 5 called Lost Mines of Phandelver. Now, it’s not that there aren’t some nods to the brand new player within, there are. But overwhelmingly this is an introduction to 5e for those who have some past knowledge of D&D (or other RPGs) or more likely, a handy DM who expresses a desire to try the new edition. I should know, I bought it for that very reason!

My players preferred to use the Basic rules available for free online to generate their characters (fair enough), and I used the same to learn the rules. The dice were handy, but really my money all went on the adventure and a big old cardboard box. The adventure is fine, good even, though 1-5 doesn’t last as long as it used to. The first two levels are really a tutorial so you’re getting no more play than you would get out of, say, Keep on the Shadowfell.

Now there’s a lamented adventure! Hard to remember now, but that was the launch product for 4e, and it contained the basic rules of play too. In fact, lose the dice and the box, add a card sleeve and you’ve got a very similar product. Amazing what a bit of trade dress can do to alter appearances. This adventure got me started on a four year campaign, so it can’t have been all bad, and it taught 6 players the game too. We enjoyed it, but as I say, I think is was a starter set only for me, as an experienced DM, looking to get a group together.

For me, the current starter, and so many others, fails as a tutorial on the game. And I’m fine with that, and so I suspect are WotC (and Paizo, whose Beginners Box gets a lot of well deserved praise, from it’s existing fanbase). I don’t really think that raw text and pictures are ever going to do that good a job of teaching anyone how to play from a cold start. You need your hand holding. You need guidance, from either a real person or a well organised website. No matter what you put in a box, you need that extra step.

What you could do, and what I would do, is make multiple jumping on points for the hobby. Instead of ‘starter set’, I’d release a series of starter sets with their own names. I’d package the recent one differently. Lose the box, put in plastic, like a big blister pack you can see through. Have it able to hang from a shelf hook, or stack. Keep the dice, and the pregens, put the adventure rig at the front. Now it’s the Lost Mines Starter Set. Include rules, even more stripped back than they are, and chuck in loads of promo that leads you to the WotC site. Then, put that process on delayed repeat. Every few months put another one out. The Tomb of Horrors Starter Set (with black dice). The Autumn Twilight Starter Set (with red ones). The Vault of the Drow Starter Set (with purple ones). Make it all about the adventure, not the rules.

These concepts already exist, and close to home too. First, How to Host a Murder Mystery. Many boxes, all of them contain the rules of play, but the meat and the hook is the adventure. Even closer? Magic: the Gathering. The rules are fine tuned down to a booklet by this point, and are available freely online. The sets (the story really) are the draw and there’s multiple ways to get involved. The whole core fat pack experience is there for the veteran, but the toy shops are full of prepackaged duelling decks, or colour themed starters. It’s exactly the same for Pokemon. Lastly, the board games that WotC went with over the last couple of years, with Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardlon and Legend of Drizz’t. Notice how you didn’t buy a Board Game Core box and then separate adventure boxes to go with it?

That’s what I would have in the mass market. Standalone adventures, with enough rules to play that particular one, and clear directions to the rest of the hobby from there. In disposable packaging that shouts ‘start here’.

Just like…. Fighting Fantasy books.

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My first proper 5e character

Now that the playtest era has finally come to an end it’s a blessed relief to finally get my hands on a proper Players Handbook and get stuff into gaming rather than theorising. Sure the Starter Set kept me in the game for a while, but this is the real deal. First things first, let’s make a character. And while we’re at it, let’s kick it up to level 3 which is where all the juicy stuff starts.

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I went for a classic pen and paper approach, and scribbled down my stats straight away. I picked a Warlock for no other reason that I thought it was a bit funky, and I really like the character art. I assigned stats, noting that I’d need to go big on Charisma first and Con second. There’s a decent step by step overview in Chapter 1, but I’m already having to keep my fingers in a few pages as I flick back and forth. Chapter 1 does have a neat table that shows you which races get which stat bumps. I’m no min maxer, but it seemed like a good idea to go either Tiefling or Half-Elf for the extra Cha. I went Half-Elf, noting thta the races are not presented in strict alphabetical order. You get common races first, then the uncommon ones. Hope my DM doesn’t object to Half-Elves then.

Stats are simple enough, boni follow no problem. As I worked through the race and class chapters I noted any proficiencies as they came up. This turned into quite a list, and I like that actually, far more than a big list of skills. I know they’re kind of the same thing, but this looks good on my notes.

I skipped all the spell stuff for a while as I wanted to get the third big choice done first; background. I plumped for Outlander as I was increasingly seeing my character as someone who was a bit of a wanderer, perhaps even a planar one, who ended up encountering something extraordinary which got her started on a life of adventure.

All this kept adding to my three lists of equipment, abilities and proficiencies. Couple of decisions to make along the way, but not many, instead it was more about firming up my concept as I went along. By now, my character was brought up by wolves, and wielded simple weapons and leather armour. I was getting more and more of a tribal vibe.

The two big Warlock decisions were Otherwordly Patron (I plumped for Great Old One) and Pact Boon (Pact of the Blade). Invocations looked more like old style feats that I thought they would, but they were simple enough to pick as previous choices had made many of them ineligible. Spells next, and I had to read the Pact Magic section a couple of times to get it right in my head. This is one of those times where prior edition knowledge can be a dangerous thing as it leads to incorrect assumptions. Double checking a few things, and the list came together relatively quickly. Definitely need an extra cheat sheet though, or even cards until I’ve internalised all the effects of each spell. Every time I see a bit of flavour I add it in, including spell components.

And she’s done! Total time, about 45 mins.

Tasha the Jackal, female half-elven warlock, whose patron is a long forgotten tribal god of trickery and laughter. She is slight of build, yet tough. She carries fetishes and small pouches full of oddments about her (including a purple handkerchief embroidered with the name of a powerful arch mage), and is armed with small knives and a crossbow. She can produce a mystical and ancient spear from thin air that crackles with eldritch energies. She rarely speaks, and when she does it’s with beasts by preference before the civilised races. Sometimes her lips don’t even move all day, yet still she is a persuasive presence.  

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Really happy with that process. Little bit of back and forth, and I’m spoiled by already knowing the rules of the game, but even so, pretty painless. Very inspiring at little steps along the way. Didn’t have much of a concept in mind at the start but the whole thing came together really well. I’d love to play this character!

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Mint D&D

Cold hard cash, so often the reward for a fight in D&D. Never mind the dodgy magic item economy that’s designed to follow this scooping up of coinage, let’s consider the practicalities.

Have you ever counted out and stacked one hundred coins? What about a thousand? Ten thousand? I have. It’s mind numbing. And that’s with modern stackable currency almost designed to sit right. You can get little machines designed to weigh money bags, but that also relies on modern minting consistency. I shudder to think just how long it would take to even remotely accurately count out coin based loot in a dark wet monster infested dungeon.

And then you have to carry it. Know what it’s like when you’ve somehow ended up with more than ten pound coins in your pocket? It’s like having a small rodent squirming around in there. You’re almost desperate to find a car park so you can offload the chump change. Just how much would 100gp weigh? (I could look it up. I won’t though.)

Point being: I love imagining the tiny dark parts of D&D. I couldn’t give a monkeys about Gate spells or Crafting potions (which fill entire sourcebooks with their explanations and expansions), but I do love thinking about the grubby business of spiking doors, spilling oil, and counting coin.

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