Monday, 2 September 2019

Making 5E work for me…

I came back to gaming in 2012, having last played in 1992, and thus seen the early days of 2E AD&D and previously played a lot of B/X and 1E – along with a number of older systems such as MERP and Paranoia, and they all had something in common.  They were lethal. Yes Paranoia was comically so, and a parody, but that’s by the by.  Older systems had a strong emphasis on quality of play by the players themselves – you were expected to be cautious, inventive, and most importantly – well prepared.

A couple of years after I got back into gaming, 5E was released – it was declared to be a throwback to the old days, simple, fast and fluid, with more power given back to the DM. This was supposed to be somewhat of a reaction to 3E/3.5E/4E, systems that had shifted the balance of power to the rules and away from the DM. In terms of adjudication at the table, early systems left the bulk of that up to the DM, but as time progressed, the rules became more and more encompassing – a ‘rule for everything’ approach.  Then there’s the blandness of the character classes in 4E, a system where balance was all-encompassing to the point where classes ended up feeling the same.  Everyone seems to have x powers that do x amount of damage – it was criticised as being like an MMORPG at the table, and that criticism is fair.

I thoroughly enjoyed my initial forays into 5E, both as DM and player – of course this was low level stuff as that’s where you begin and yes, the rules appeared on the surface to be simple. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic the game uses in fast and intuitive. The system’s bounded accuracy meant the powergaming style of play which dominated the 3E era was largely shunted out, and the clunky, burdensome combat of both 3E and 4E was largely eliminated.  The character Backgrounds is also an excellent feature, giving PCs personality and purpose.

All good?  Well no, not really….

I often look at my big, beautiful shelf of books, and on there are 6 of the 5E hardbacks.  I now rarely open them, as I’ve not run a 5E campaign in a while.  I do occasionally play games of 5E, and yes they are fun in short doses, but do I have the urge to play in a lengthy campaign up to high levels?  Nope.

At low levels of play, 5E DOES have an old school feel – characters are fragile, the player must exercise caution, and inventiveness and teamwork are often necessary for success.  But the time at these levels is short, and once the party reaches roughly 5th level, the power curve ramps upwards steeply.

As characters progress thus they gain more abilities, often based around a long rest/short rest structure, and this makes it feel more and more like 4E as the game goes on – the video game element still lingers.

All hitpoints are healed on a long rest, if a PC gets reduced to 0hp then receives healing then usually they are good to go on their next turn in combat, saves are often repeated every round to resist effects, the ‘action economy’ is critical, and the obsession with balance still pervades. Yet more nods at the video game style of play.  Keep everyone involved at all times or else!

There’s also a lack of ‘character’ in the game, and this I feel stems from the game being pitched at a player base who get their fantasy inspiration from more modern sources than older versions of the game.  No longer have most players cut their teeth on Tolkien, Greek legends, the stories of King Arthur and Conan, or novels from the Swords and Sorcery genre – nowadays it’s video games, superhero films, and anime.  Thus the tropes of the innocent, naïve Halfling with a pudgy belly and hairy feet, or the coarse beer-swilling Dwarf obsessed with gold, or the aloof and inherently magical Elf – they have all been shunted into the background.  There’s an ‘anything goes’ approach, but the net effect is one of blandness – when there is total freedom in terms of character creation, nothing really feels special, or different. Intolerance, mistrust, and prejudice between races is no longer the default – probably due to societal awareness.  But the game is not set in a modern society!

So how would I fix 5E to make me want to play it?  To give me the enthusiasm required to run a campaign again, and not lose interest quickly…..


- 0hp is unconscious, if a PC is reduced to 0hp and subsequently healed then they can still fight, but all actions by them are made at disadvantage until the end of that combat.
- 0hp causes exhaustion, 1 level of exhaustion added EACH time the PC reaches 0hp
- the ‘save every round’ rule is removed for effects such as Poison and Petrification, I might keep it for mind related spells, I’d have to see how that worked.
- the Healing Word spell is removed, as that is the biggest culprit for the ‘up-down- up again’ nature of combat
- save or die situations will exist


- the intention to multiclass must be declared at 1st level, and classes can never be more than 1 level apart
- race and alignment restrictions on classes to be restored similar to 1e/2e – though not quite identically, as some races DO fit classes that were not allowed in older systems – for example Halflings cannot use arcane spells, Barbarians must be tribal Humans or Half Orcs, Dwarfs are creatures of rock and stone and thus cannot be Druids, and so on…
- Racism exists.  If you want to play a Drow on the surface you’ll probably be burnt alive by the people of the 1st village you enter. No, your Half Orc is not pretty, you’re the ugly, unwanted offspring of a violent sexual encounter and society will treat you accordingly. Tiefling?  Dragonborn? See Drow.
- experience requirements are tripled
- xp for gp is restored and full xp is always given if the party intelligently avoid a dangerous situation without resorting to combat.
- material components must be used – and bought and kept track of during play – ditto ammunition.
- most magic items will have fixed charges, and not recover any when you rest
- The Identify spell is needed to properly understand magic items (potions can be tasted).

- Passive Perception is only used to determine the success or failure of an enemy’s attempt to be stealthy – not for traps and secret doors, these must be worked out by the players specifically stating their characters are looking, and using the Investigation skill if necessary.  PCs do not have some innate radar going ‘PING’!
- Information related skills are to be rolled by the DM behind the screen and the result narrated to the players
- If a trained and intelligent Wizard cannot fathom out the meaning of some Arcane writing, those with lesser skill cannot even try… this would be applied to other skills, with 1 roll allowed for the WHOLE party.  Help may be given to give advantage to the roll, but only by a PC who would realistically be able to.
- 20 is not an automatic success (yeah I know by RAW it isn’t, but a lot of people seem to assume that it is), and occasionally, if the player is attempting something really stupid, it would be preferable to fail dismally!  Yeah you can roll, but if you want to flirt outrageously with the fair princess, if you roll a 20 and get her attention then her father will probably have you executed at dawn.

- CR and relevant encounter balancing will be largely ignored, the players must not have the expectation that the world will revolve around the level of their PCs.  It’s up to them to decide what is too much for them and what is realistically possible.
-  The PCs are NOT superheroes, caution will almost always be the best option.
- The gritty slow healing rules in the DMG will be used.

Thankfully, 5E is actually pretty well designed at its core, and none of the above changes will break it.  Certainly they would all change its feel greatly, but in my opinion, that is for the better – because I’m an old git who prefers the old ways….

1 comment:

  1. Well thought out article. For me I wound up house ruling so many parts of 5e I just started making my own hack of D&D. I like a lot of what you have to say though, well done :)


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