Today is Day Seven of 30 Days of Dungeons & Dragons, and the topic is:
ok. It’s actually day eight for me… I failed my saving throw against sleep after getting home from work around 10:30 PM, so my post is late!
I feel like we’ll all get over that.
Full disclosure: I really only have two options to choose from, 4E and 5E, even though five editions exist. I suppose it might be fair to say that since I’ve tried Pathfinder, I’ve played something much like D&D 3.5, but I absolutely hated the mechanics of that system, so I won’t address it further.
I liked 4E. I love 5E.
I first started playing D&D when 4th Edition came out. Unbeknownst to me, having no previous experience with which to compare the new books, 4th Edition focused heavily on all the cool powers your characters possessed.
Every class had a variety of options. Some could be used all the time, at-will. Some were complex or taxing enough that you could only use them once per encounter or combat. Some were the best abilities in your whole bag of tricks, and could be used only once a day.
Fighters didn’t just get better at swinging a sword or ax as they leveled up… they learned amazing techniques and maneuvers that they could employ much like how a wizard might cast a spell.
I honestly enjoyed 4th. It felt like a big deal when one of my players declared, “I draw back my bow, glare at the enemy, and unleash a Thunder-tusk Boar Strike.” Then he rolled a nat 20, and everyone cheered at the ridiculous damage inflicted on this rando bad guy.
It also felt a lot like learning your button rotations in World of Warcraft or some other MMO. Use these abilities when fighting trash mobs, and then use all these “cooldown” super abilities when fighting a boss.
4E got a lot of grief for putting the spotlight on tactics and combat, powers and spells, while leaving the story in the dark corner at the edge of the stage. I think that’s an unfair perspective–if story mattered at your tables (as it always did to my players), you could make sure the collaborative storytelling aspect shone through.
It’s an unfair assessment in my opinion, but it’s one I hear often.
Not surprisingly, from the playtest materials of 5th Edition, the D&D team made sure to sprinkle hints and ideas throughout their works, like plot seeds ready to sprout into epic campaigns.
The character sheet dedicates prime real estate to jotting down reminders for role-playing, covering what matters to the character:
- Personality Traits, like “I have a quip for every situation, the more inappropriate, the better” and “People, like feral beasts, are not to be trusted unless broken.”
- Ideals, such as “I’ll always lend a helping hand” or “I’m not afraid to use my strength to get my way.”
- Bonds, such as “I would do anything for a member of my old traveling troupe” or “One day I will find my missing sister and make those who took her pay.”
- Flaws, such as “At best, I immediately forget the plan. Most days, I directly disrupt it” or “I can never resist a pretty face.”
When you make a character, you establish these aspects and have them readily available to answer “What would Grobthar do in this situation?”
One bit that caught my eye was the character backgrounds, particularly the starting equipment that you get for being a sage instead of a charlatan, for example. The sage starts with, among other things, a letter from an old friend with a question you haven’t yet been able to answer. What question? Who is this old friend? Where might the answer be found? Why does this information matter?
The charlatan starts with a particular scheme they use to dupe their marks – do they forge documents, run con games on street corners, or make some easy gold by selling worthless trinkets to the naive? How would you role-play this in town? Who have you fleeced in the past? Who might be looking for a refund for the fake holy relic you pawned off on them?
The trinket tables in the DMG and Curse of Strahd are full of interesting and/or creepy options that can tie into a campaign or provide additional fluff for the setting.
Newer 5E books like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes break down the story and background elements for a variety of monsters, allowing a DM to create enemies that feel like real personalities operating inside a vivid world, with unique motivations and intentions along with distinctive features or quirks.
With Volo’s, for example, common enemies like a hag, an orc chieftain, or a gnoll pack alpha become much more than bags of hit points and loot, pursuing some obscure, vaguely evil threat while waiting for a party of heroes to come slay them for XP.
To me, 4E felt like a great game, well worth the time spent playing.
With every section of every book, the 5E materials feel like pieces of a living world that welcomes you into a story which is already being told, already ongoing, just waiting for the answer to the age-old question:
What do you do next?