Dungeons & Dragons 5e: A Review in Perspective

I was looking at reviews of DnD 5e recently and most of them were published shortly after the system was, sometimes before even all the core books were out.  I’m a firm believer that you don’t really know a game system until you’ve played a campaign with it, possibly more than one, and I thought I would take a look at what 5e did right and wrong after a campaign in the Dungeon Master’s chair and as a player.

Fifth edition has returned to the game’s roots while keeping some of the improvements made in 4e and making major quality of life improvements that make the game easier and more fun to play.  Most of the balance issues decried at the beginning, notably the large health pools available to moon druids, have turned out to not be issues in practice, at least in my experience.  With more features for martial classes, concentration limits keeping spell casters from rendering other characters obsolete, and a more balanced implementation of former prestige classes and sub classes, things tend to run smoothly.  Some of the launch options such as the beastmaster ranger and four elements monk are as lackluster as they appear, but all classes have at least one viable implementation, usually more, and the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide & Unearthed Arcana releases have some good fixes and options,  showing that the design team has learned from their mistakes.

Feat taxes have been removed so dexterity based characters are no longer a pain in the ass to run, and much of the system has been simplified or turned over to DM discretion so that you don’t run into the 3.X and 4e problem of needing to constantly consult the rules, while still having enough crunch that the structure of the game is easy to follow.  I wasn’t originally a fan of the 4e style skill system where you pick a few broad options instead of spending a mound of individual skill points, but it makes managing a character much easier and with the choice of background skills it offers more customization both narratively and mechanically for your character than 3.X or 4e where players are penalized for going outside class skill lists; I recommend letting the players put together custom backgrounds from the features and skills available.

The Player’s Handbook is streamlined, has examples, and is actually written in such a way that a new player could pick it up, read it, and make a character following the instructions, rather than serving as an encyclopedia for someone who already knows how the game works.  The player experience in general is much better, with a range of balanced and interesting classes to choose from, simple and easy to follow rules, and less bookkeeping than previous editions.  The changing of feats to powerful but rare options, removal of preparing individual spell slots, and consolidation of a horde of floating bonuses into the advantage/disadvantage system and proficiency removes all the tedious chores of previous editions and leaves a smaller number of more meaningful choices for the player.  From eliminating the mandatory 4e battle mat to speed up combat, hit dice healing based on the 4e healing surges removing the need for healbots or carts full of potions, to ritual casting so you don’t have to manage a long list of utility spells almost every aspect of the game has seen quality of life improvements.

In contrast to the PHB, the great flaw in 5e is the Dungeon Master’s guide, a confusingly laid out reference tome of magic items and random tables.  Originally I was going to write a rant in the style of the Angry DM’s critique of earlier editions, but my attitude has softened somewhat.  Games like The Witch is Dead make good use of random tables, and I’ve made good use of the ones in the DM’s guide, especially the chase tables, but it is not a replacement for instructions on how to run a game, which are largely absent.  In contrast to the easy to follow layout of the PHB, the DM’s guide opens with advice on organizing the planes and cosmology of your campaign, which is not necessarily relevant and a terrible place to start.  There are no instructions for how to set up a first session, no full session examples, and no example dungeons.  5e is an improvement because it in part returns to the lighter rules of earlier editions, but nothing in the DM’s guide gives suggestions on how to use this new discretion- it is assumed the reader already knows how to run the game.  In light of robust instructions for setting up a session in single author games such as Monster of the Week the Dungeon Master’s guide is pathetic and probably has limited 5e’s growth by barring all but experienced players from the Dungeon Master’s chair.

The suggested adventuring day of 6-8 encounters remains difficult to fit into a 4 hour session, and its failure skews the suggested challenge rating and encounter compositions; I will probably test out the optional longer rest rules the next time I run a game- they look promising.

Dungeons and Dragons was not originally meant to be played at high levels and it still shows in this edition.  The wheels start to come off of bounded accuracy with armor largely becoming meaningless in the face of growing proficiency bonuses as levels go into the double digits, and while martials remain relevant in combat the utility gap yawns wide with spellcasters often having more skills and utility spells such as teleports and flying, while the thief subclass can’t even get a climb speed.

I leveled my players up to 20 for our final session and it just wasn’t interesting; nothing threatened them.  Dungeon World‘s system for retiring characters might be a useful house rule, as is Tim Kask’s suggestion that characters retire after founding a stronghold.  I’m looking forward to Matt Colville’s house rules on the subject.  There are experimental mass combat rules in the Unearthed Arcana and based on my limited experience with them DnD is not a system that functions well in mass combat- FATE and Savage Worlds handle it better- and Dungeon World has more robust mechanics for building cities.  At some point it stops making sense for high level characters to be vagrants rummaging through ruins, and the system does not handle it very elegantly.

At times it feels like DnD has been re-purposed into something it wasn’t meant to be; the original TSR editions were based on exploration and treasure-finding as much or more so than combat.  The Dungeon Master’s handbook supports this in saying that a game should rest of a triad of combat, social interaction, and exploration, but few rules, examples, or suggestions are given for the latter two.  5e works despite this but it feels like aspects of the game have been abandoned, and I wonder how much better it could be.  The absolutely lackluster ranger that the game launched with might be worsened by wilderness exploration falling to the wayside.  Combat, skills, and magic all feel tight and well written; I just wish the exploration and social aspects had gotten a fraction of that attention.

I figured it out on my own eventually but the first campaign I ran could have been much better, and I had been a long time player before stepping up to run a game.  My complaints boil down to the weakness of the first time DM experience.  I’m now comfortable with the system and can improvise what the rules do not cover, in part from learning from systems with more guidance such as Dungeon World and The Sprawl, but I have lost a lot of time and the game has lost a lot of players to that initial rough patch.  Wizards of the Coast claims that 5e is selling well, better than previous editions, and my own experience matches that- many of the people I have played with are sitting down at the RPG table for the first time, more so than when I played Pathfinder, but while it may be doing well, I think it could have been done better.  Maybe the purchasable adventure paths solve these problems, but I had a taste of them in Adventurer’s League and didn’t care for them.

5e fixed what was broken from past editions but was too afraid to make some needed structural changes to help the DM and lessen the focus on combat after the commercial failure of 4e.  There are fan made resources to fix these issues- Youtubers such as Matt Colville, message boards, reddit, tumblr, tg, and other communities all can offer a lot of help.  This is the edge that DnD has over all other games- its community is huge and picks up the slack.

TL,DR: 5e is a system that has learned from Dungeons & Dragons’ past mistakes and successes to make a good low fantasy experience; problems from previous editions remain but are greatly diminished.

Review: The Sprawl

The Sprawl  by Hamish Cameron is my favorite RPG and a Powered by the Apocalypse System like Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, focused on cyberpunk missions and heists.  While the basic mechanics and moves are familiar, there is more focus on the meta game – for example players have access to moves that allow retroactive decisions and focus heavily on meta mechanics like threat and mission clocks – and the game is significantly more lethal.  My campaign in The Sprawl is the first time I’ve had player deaths that were not directly the result of friendly fire.

As a PbTA game, the familiar 2d6 dice mechanic to resolve all rolls returns- 10+ is an unqualified success, 7-9 is success with a complication, and on a 6- the Game Master makes a move.  There is an emphasis on partial success and “failing forward” that keeps every mission fast-paced and uncertain.  Players take on the roll of skilled agents in a cyberpunk dystopia, pursuing their profit and ideologies via social manipulation, stealth, and violence on the backdrop of a high-tech world dominated by corporations and a decaying society.

What stuck out to me about The Sprawl, perhaps because the genre is close to the original Apocalypse World, is how everything in the game fits together so well.  All the mechanics work well together and are inter-related, referencing each other- nothing feels unnecessary.

In contrast, the Dungeons and Dragons mechanics in Dungeon World, while part of its charm, don’t quite feel like they belong.  The multi-page spell lists feel exceptionally clunky in a game engine where most characters run off their character sheet and the basic moves, no other references needed.  Monster of the Week’s mysteries, which must at some level be scripted, frequently clash with the improvisational nature of PbtA games.  This may be my perspective – if you’ve read my Monster of the Week review you’ll know my group wasn’t really buying into the whole mystery thing.

And that is the great strength of The Sprawl, is that its unit, the mission – which is for it what dungeons are for DnD and Dungeon World, and mysteries for Monster of the Week – is so robust to players trying to burn it down.  It provides structure while being flexible to the group’s desires.  A mission can be a smoothly executed spy operation straight out of Burn Notice, a mission to avoid the mission, or a bloody dumpster fire like Reservoir Dogs, and the game still feels like it is running smoothly and as intended.  The mission structure works without being on rails, this Let’s Play has a good example of how flexible things are- the party cobbles together a job for itself rather than getting one from a corporation.

The system has to be robust- players have access to a lot of firepower, both narratively and mechanically.  Tanks, helicopters with missile launchers, large gangs, control of corporate security systems, infiltration secure locations off a single roll, retroactively chosen gear and information- all of these things are available without a level up and a smart group will tear apart planned opposition.  Game Masters should be prepared to raise the stakes and players should know the system is high powered and relatively lethal for NPCs and PCs alike.  Like all PbTA games, the players have a great deal of agency in shaping the story, down to picking the corporations that shape the tone and feeling of the campaign world.

Meta – gaming is supposed to be a dirty word, but I found the ways it is incorporated into The Sprawl made for a better game play experience, at least for my group.  The mission and corporation clocks are counters that tell how close the party is to blowing a mission and inviting retribution from the all-powerful corporations, respectively.  I found they give both the players and GM a clear idea of what was happening, make it easy to run a session with little to no prep and are highly responsive to player actions.  It makes expectations for the length of a session and its difficulty clear from the get go.  The Gear and Intel mechanics, which are currencies that can be spent to have an item or piece of information retroactively, makes bookkeeping simple and lets the characters be competent without combing through an equipment list before every mission.

In contrast to Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, the moves give a great deal of structure and good cues to the GM.  Outcomes of 7-9 rolls are listed instead of the Game Master being forced to improvise repeatedly, weapon tags are clearly defined, and clear limits are set out for NPC help and equipment.  Flexibility is the great strength of PbtA games, and The Sprawl strikes a good balance between clear rules and leaving room to maneuver.

Basing experience on mission success rather than failed roles along with the high lethality change the tenor of the game, creating a focus on playing more carefully than in Dungeon World and MoTW where easy access to magic healing, luck points, and experience awarded for failed rolls encourage taking risks.

It’s not all perfect – for instance, rules on how to keep track of damage to vehicles are non-existent, but it’s a small point to improvise on.  The one great flaw of the Sprawl is rules for the Hacker, which is not just a class but also a clunky Matrix subsystem dealing with the structure of computer networks.  Obviously the Hacker has to be in a cyberpunk game, but in trying to capture the hacking sequences from Neuromancer, Cameron has bolted on an unintuitive subgame that excludes everyone but the Hacker, forcing awkward switch-offs and makes DW’s spellcasting seem perfectly integrated.

Compared to the elegance of the rest of the system, it feels like it was inserted by another person at the printers.  The Flake from Monster of the Week is an example of how to handle this better- the  Netfriends move gives hold that can be spent for information from consulting online allies.  The Hacker needs a little more flavor than that but the Matrix rules sheet is longer than the basic moves; it’s in need of downsizing.  I would recommend not using the Hacker playbook or the Matrix unless you rework it, compressing the Matrix moves into a few Hacker moves- something like the optional conduct operation rules which abstract a lot of setup.

TL,DR: If you like cyberpunk, heists, PbtA games, or fast paced urban games pick this elegantly simple game up.  Image from my copy of The Sprawl, source & purchase link at the start of the article and here, and my thoughts on some actual play here.

Review: The Witch is Dead

The Witch is Dead is a one page RPG by \u\gshowitt on reddit about murder- the witch has been killed and her entourage of woodland creatures must kill the witch hunter and take his eyes in order to revive her.  My group had a lot of players out this week so I ran it as a quick old-school revival style bloodfest for the two people who had made it and everyone had a blast.

Taylor the witch was killed by a wild and headstrong witch-hunter from the nearby oppressively perfect village of white supremacists at war with the local forest tribes. The mortality rate for the night was 150%-Hadvar the hare bolted across an open field and managed to convince an orphan boy that he was his father using magic before he was carried off by a falcon.  His player rerolled and returned as Gonzalez the rat in about 30 seconds.  The predator guarding the village now busy eating, the rest of the party entered through a creek but Tony the NPC toad was almost devoured by koi until Roger the rat beat them back with his unseen hand.  After a shouting match with a cat, they managed to infiltrate a rally led by the witch hunter.  Gonzalez dropped a bag of sand on him back stage, badly injuring him, and Roger the rat managed to steal a war horn originally taken from the forest tribes and get Tony to blow it as a distraction, at the cost of Tony’s life.

Seeking to finish off the witch hunter at the doctor’s office, the party mistakenly entered an exterminator’s office.  Roger attempted to kill said exterminator with his unseen hand spell and the knife he had used to avenge Tony, but was instead killed by a flying mousetrap.  His player rerolled as Mosey the cat,  and successfully lead the forest entourage and Gonzalez in mobbing the exterminator’s ankles until he fell into his own poison stash and died.

Armed with the information that the sign with dead and hurt animals on it was not the hospital, they soon located the witch hunter.  A pitched battle ensued in the doctor’s office, and Mosey was mortally stabbed by the doctor’s pet dove Archimedes before he swallowed it whole.  His player took over the NPC Errol the arsonist owl who set fire to the building and with Gonzalez’s help removed the witch hunter’s eyes and flew off.  Regrettably, Errol could only carry Gonzalez and the rest of the forest creatures burned to death.

With the high probability of failure and death I think you can’t run it as anything but a funnel world style game, with disposable characters and a deep pool of backups.  Using this set up the game flowed well and the quick rerolling and simple rules encouraged the players to take risks- combined with the random generation the group ended up in a lot of interesting situations; it didn’t feel like there was any dead time with this game.

What I would say the downside is like Dungeon World your (meaning the dungeon master’s) ability to improvise is very important.  In particular the concept of failing forward is very applicable.  Working a vague degrees of success system into this helped- if you stop dead on a bad roll The Witch is Dead is not going to work.  The random tables help things get moving quickly but you have to make a lot of snap decisions about how difficult things should be and how to lay out a world created with dice rolls.  If you can do that, the system is very good for one shots- I ran mine in about 2 hours with no prep and I think it was one of the best sessions I have ever run.  The rules provide a good deal of structure for the players while leaving room to maneuver- a good system for old and new players.

TL,DR; A quick and fun one page RPG in the OSR style- if you are good at improv and don’t take it too seriously you will have a good time.  Give it a try.


The Sprawl: A Cyberpunk Gametale

I’ve been working on a review for the Powered by the Apocalypse game The Sprawl, and while that is in the works I thought I would post a recording of one of my sessions.  It’s one of the best ways to understand how a system works.

In a nutshell, The Sprawl handles spontaneous, episodic sessions very well- it’s ideal if not everyone can make it to every session or you need to get rolling without a lot of prep.  It runs cyberpunk tabletop gaming well in a system that is a lot easier to pick up that Shadowrun.  Sadly I haven’t found or had a chance to try anything as elegant for space opera.  This is one of my favorite if not my favorite system – if you are interested, I suggest you give it a listen or take a look at one of Eric Vulgaris’ let’s plays.

Review: Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week is a Powered by the Apocalypse (or PbtA) tabletop gaming system by Michael Sands in which players tell a collaborative story about monster hunters, a la Supernatural or the Dresden Files.  This is the same engine used in Dungeon World , so the basic mechanics are similar, though Monster of the Week rejects the classes and combat of Dungeons and Dragons while Dungeon World borrows heavily from it. For example damage rolls, full attribute scores and inventories are not present, favoring the simplicity of most PbtA games.  Everything you need is included in the single book for the system, and character sheets with included instructions for making a character are both in the book and easily available online.

All rolls are decided using 2d6, with 10+ being a pure success, 7-9 being a success with a complication or cost, and 6- being a failure where the Game Master – or Keeper as they are called in the book – makes a move.  Fighting is treated as another skill check with the Kick Some Ass move, which sacrifices some combat detail for streamlining and making playbooks – classes in PbtA – that aren’t combat focused viable.  Investigation and protecting bystanders are both important enough to have one of the 8 basic moves devoted to them, with a bevy of playbook moves also focused on protecting, investigation, and finding or bypassing the monster’s weakness.  The monster mystery genre is baked into this system.   Adapting this system to other genres is unlikely to work unless there is a reason for mysteries, monsters, and some analogue to a magic system- the game rules assume the presence of all three and are built around it.

Combat is portrayed as fast and lethal- but in practice the hunters are fairly beefy; the only deaths in the campaign I ran were when the characters turned on each other.  Players always take damage when fighting and die when they run out of hit points, no save, though they have a limited number of “get out of jail free cards” in luck points.  However this danger may be eliminated by some game breaking move combinations, especially from the Monstrous playbook- it does not fit the overall tone or power level of the game very well, and I had a very hard time balancing encounters involving it.  I would recommend banning the Monstrous playbook if you are running the game.

In contrast to Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon World, Monster of the Week offers detailed instructions on setting up individual sessions, a notable improvement that should make this game runnable even by someone who has never played it before.  The Sprawl’s planing system is even easier to use but MoTW’s suggested planning gives a more complete map of what could happen in the session.

However, it is necessary since the mystery format of MoTW involves a great deal more preparation than Dungeon World or other games, where the dungeon structure can simplify preparation greatly.  The mystery structure forces a certain amount of rail roading- the players only have agency within the confines of solving the mystery, or the system breaks down; if your players do not like structure this may be a problem.  Additionally the “Use Magic” move is the most open ended move in any of the PbtA systems- it needs some attention from the GM both to keep things balanced and to prevent players from getting lost in the endless possibilities.

If you do the prep, 30 minutes on average for me, or use a premade mystery from the book or online, the mystery flows well.  There’s time for investigation, social scenes and several fights in a 3 hour session.  A 2 hour session is possible but will require the Keeper to manage time carefully and keep things moving.  I liked running the system a great deal and it reproduced the balance of investigation and fighting while trying to keep the public from catching on you would expect from a monster TV show or an urban fantasy novel in an exciting fashion, feeling true to the genre without being bogged down into mechanics.

Where I ran into trouble was a clash of expectations.  Monster of the Week needs more player buy in into the genre than a swords and sorcery game or something else less plot focused.  My group essentially had two factions, the people trying to solve the mystery and a team of black ops murder hobos.  Since some playbooks trade combat effectiveness for investigation the clash was more serious than in Dungeon World or Dungeons and Dragons where all classes are built and have tools for traditional dungeon delving and adventuring.  When violence became the default solution to problems the investigation team felt left out, and the murder hobos felt bored during the investigations.

This management of expectations is always important but is much more so in Monster of the Week where investigation is the meat of the genre.  I should have been more aggressive in getting the group on the same page; the book recommends banning certain classes to give a campaign a certain feel.  Coming from a Dungeons and Dragons background this felt strange and I didn’t do it, which was a mistake.  I’m not saying some playbooks can’t coexist, but the players have cooperate to make it happen – tell this to your group and if you think it isn’t likely, restrict the playbooks to keep everyone on the same page.  Obviously the Keeper can create different challenges for different players but if the Monstrous shape shifts during an attempted social encounter or a hunter assaults a journalist trying to interview them its hard to stop things from devolving into combat without breaking immersion.

Dungeon World’s quick leveling is present here as well – experience gain is slower but requirements do not increase as the players level, so campaigns must be planned to be short to keep challenges from being trivialized; that or forced retirement of characters.  I ran a 10 session campaign and all the characters were into their advanced moves despite lots of absences.

While Monster of the Week is quick and flexible compared to Dungeons & Dragons and other crunchier systems, it feels very slow compared to other PbtA games.  I have played and prefer Dungeon World and The Sprawl to Monster of the Week, though it may simply be that the genre wasn’t what my group and I were looking for.  It is a good system so if monster hunting seems like something you would like, give it a try.

TL,DR; A fast, streamlined, and easy system- pick it up if you like the monster mystery/hunting genre.

Purchase page and image source are linked at the start of the article.

Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel, is a tabletop role-playing game that focuses on storytelling and ease of use.  One game master and 3-5 players collaborate to tell a low fantasy story.  Anyone who has played some flavor of Dungeons & Dragons (aka DnD), or really any RPG, will recognize most of the tropes but the system is highly streamlined.

Character sheets are simple, with 1 to 2 pages containing all information so the players don’t have to refer back to the book.  There is no skill list, all players instead sharing a list of common moves that use their attributes without training modifiers.  All outcomes are determined by rolling 2d6 as opposed to a d20, with an added wrinkle- only the players roll for actions.  Players failing a roll is the main opportunity for the opposition to make moves, and also the main generator of experience.  It creates an interesting and spontaneous game, where the players are the primary movers of events.  Failed rolls giving experience also acts as a good equalizer and takes some of the sting out of failure.  Dungeon World emphasizes failing forwards, so the story keeps evolving instead of coming to a grinding halt when a roll fails.

The downside is that the GM needs to be very comfortable adjusting scenes and encounters on the fly or simply making them up as they go along.  Collaborative world building is encouraged, but in my experience players react poorly to being put on the spot- if they offer something it can be integrated but the bulk still falls on the game master.  The game master’s section offers some excellent instructions on this and running a game in general but you still need to be comfortable improvising.

In the same vein, combat is much simpler than in most games- no battle mat required, which helps keep things fast.  Hit point pools are small so things don’t drag on.  This makes things more lethal for the players as well but the simplicity of the rules makes it simple to adjust encounters on the fly.  There is no recommended monster budget for encounters as in DnD, in part because not all the classes are balanced for combat- the game master will need to create situations where the more utility focused classes shine, assuming they are being played.

Conversely, if you are coming from another Powered by the Apocalypse Game, Dungeon World will have longer and less lethal combat than you are used to.

Something to be aware of with the system is how quick the leveling is; not a problem itself but players start to gain access to game-breaking abilities around level 7 or 8, which can quite easily be reached in 10 sessions.  At this point players will be able to one shot even the toughest monsters in the book, teleport unlimited distances, succeed on most roles involving their main attribute, and in general trivialize any challenge thrown their way.  You’ll need to plan campaigns to end at or shortly after 10 sessions to keep power creep from making things boring.  I just wrapped up a 13 session campaign and my players dealt with the worst the book had to offer without too much difficulty.

The games themselves are also shorter- I’ve always tried to keep my sessions to four hours, as have most of the people I’ve played with.  Pathfinder and DnD always strained against this, especially 4th edition DnD, where you can really only do one combat encounter in a session.  Dungeon World’s simpler rules let you run numerous combats in a session with plenty of time for exploring and character development as well, something I love about the system but people who enjoy tactical combat may not.  There is also no set initiative- I tried to give everyone turns and only making GM moves on failed rolls but ended up having to play a little loose and fast with the monster’s actions to keep things interesting

Price wise its no contest, $10 for a Dungeon World PDF, or twice that for the paperback, which includes all the playbooks and, gamemaster material, and bestiary, vs at least $30 for even a player’s handbook for more popular systems, and you need several hardback books to run 5th edition DnD.  Obviously if you pirate the books this isn’t an issue, which is a fairly common practice in the RPG community, but I like having books to hold and they aren’t much cheaper used.

TL,DR:  A light on rules & story focused system.  Ideal for newer players but the game master needs to be able to improvise.  The price is right so give it a try if it sounds interesting to you.

Picture source and paperback purchase, or you can purchase the PDF.