Coming Home to D&D
It’s no secret that I like D&D 5E. I mean, I really, really like it. I had stated at the time 4E came out that I wanted the new edition to be basically a D&D version of Star Wars Saga Edition, and while I would have liked that, I actually like 5E better in almost every way. It’s not perfect, probably no system can be, but it is still mighty good. Had 5E been what was released in 2008, I am pretty certain there would not have been the Edition Wars, and probably no Pathfinder Roleplaying Game either, for better or worse.
It’s also no secret that I disliked D&D 4e. I mean, I really, really disliked it. All of that said, mechanically and conceptually, there is a fair amount of “the good bits” of 4E still lurking in 5E, maybe more than some people would like to admit. Just as the doom of 4E was foretold in the latter days of 3.5, the doom of 5E was foretold in the latter days of 4E. The only difference is that in the latter days of 4E, a lot fewer people were paying attention, myself included.
I freely admit that I completely ignored the playtest. I am one of those people who felt they’d been “fired as a fan” by WotC, and as such, I simply let them go their own way while I went mine. I was, if not entirely happy with Pathfinder, at least comfortable enough to be getting on, and that worked. (My attempts to move to other systems such as Savage Worlds notwithstanding.) So I missed the “Essentials” phase of 4E, which is where the shifts that led to 5E began, and more importantly I missed the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, which seems to be where the real sea-change had finally appeared.
NCG is thoroughly a 4E book, make no mistake, with all the random disassociated powers and dubstep-colored explodey art you would expect from such a thing. But it also includes campaign-specific Character Themes (which would become 5E‘s Backgrounds) and a strong emphasis on long-term story and away from a long string of perfectly-balanced set piece encounters. In the entire book, there is not a single battle-map to be found. Really, with just a few cosmetic changes in art design and tone (and, y’know, tossing out the 4E mechanical artifacts), NCG is practically a 5E book already.
(Also, if you intend to run the Lost Mines of Phandelver from the 5E Starter Set, it makes a great long-term campaign sourcebook. I’m not using it straight for my own campaign, preferring my own homebrew to the thrice-exploded Forgotten Realms, but I am liberally raiding it for good bits.)
Looting the Body
So, now that 4E is a smoking crater safely behind us, what exactly did 5E take from it, and what is there still worth the taking?
Well, as mentioned, Backgrounds are an implementation of 4E‘s Character Themes, providing a small mechanical benefit for a character’s origin. They call it a “feature” instead of a “power,” which is a welcome name change in my opinion– one of the worst things about 4E was the whole “ADEU” (At-Will/Daily/Encounter/Utility Power) framework, which led to the whole “I’ve used up all my powers, I guess I’ll just attack” malaise that made 4E combat such a tedious grind. 
Of course, if you really look at it, the ADEU model is still there. Spell slots are “Daily Powers,” always have been. Any class feature that is expended and recovered after “a short or long rest” is an “Encounter Power” by a different name, and so forth. But it’s heavily buried and disguised, to keep people from staring at their power cards and thinking of them as “These are the things I can do.”
What I like about these things being called “features” instead of being called “powers” is that they blend in. They become part of your character’s background, an attribute they have just like their class or race, something they can go to if desired, but not their defining thing. “Power” implies that it’s something you do– an action you would take, probably in combat. “Feature” is just something you have that other people might not. And as a “feature,” there’s no minimum power level it has to have in order to feel justified. Rogues and Bards get to double their proficiency bonus for certain things, due to their Expertise. Calling that a “power” seems pretty grandiose, doesn’t it? But yes, it’s certainly a “feature.”
Here There Be Monsters
The one thing I really liked in 4E as presented, was the way it handled monsters. The math was forever being reshuffled, alas, but in principle at least there was a basic template for what the approximate stats of a monster should be for a given role at a given threat level, which you could then customize with certain signature abilities. A CR 1 kobold archer and a CR 1 goblin archer had almost the same stat block, except that kobolds where “shifty” (which enabled them to have extra movement) while goblins… uh… did something goblinish that I forget off the top of my head.
I used this to great effect in my one actual attempt to run 4E by having 1st level PCs attacked by a swarm of sea-devils (which were mechanically re-skinned kobolds with the blood frenzy racial feature) supported by harpies (the same kobolds with flight and luring song).
Does 5E share this flexibility? Well, the official verdict is still out until the DMG is released and its chapter on monster creation devoured by the masses. However, based just on what’s in the Monster Manual, I’m going to say “Yes.” For my Silver Coast game I have already created a goblin shaman by taking the Acolyte on p. 342, making him size Small and giving him the Nimble Escape racial feature, and created an undead barbarian king (spoiler, my players, there’s one of those floating around!) by adding some barbarian class features to a wight.
5E doesn’t have Minion rules per se, but it doesn’t really need them, either. To change the danger level of a given creature, the easiest way is to tweak its hit points. A grovelly swarm of kobold bootlickers might have only 2 hit points each, but their boss is a big (reptile) dog, having a whole 10. He’s still CR 1/8 just like the rest of them, but he’s a lot less likely to be one-punched, even by a PC. If you want a really tough kobold? Take the CR 5 Gladiator on p. 346, make him size Small, give him Sunlight Sensitivity and Pack Tactics. Even the party fighter will notice when a kobold spears him for 2d8+4 damage.
Certainly, any game system can do re-skinning and most of them do to at least some extent. But 5E, like 4E before it, has it “baked in” to the monster design ethos in a way that 3.x/Pathfinder didn’t, and it really does make the DM’s life much, much easier. There aren’t different types of hit dice based on what genus your monster comes from (undead get d12, fey get d6, or whatever the numbers were, I forget now), you don’t have to do a lot of agonizing about whether swapping a power will shoot the CR way out of your encounter budget, etc. 
What Say Ye?
What do you think? What was good about 4E that’s worth salvaging in 5E? How are the systems similar? Different? I’m very curious to hear with other gamers have to say on the topic.
 It’s ironic, 4E actually had a brilliant set of mechanics for off-the-cuff stunts, in the form of the famous “Page 42,” but in practice it seems most people rarely used it, instead spending the whole combat trying to figure out which power to use this turn. But it’s all about presentation: players’ activities are molded by what the rules tell them. Thus, for maximum player creativity, you need to have minimum rules.
 With bounded accuracy, the impact of CR is greatly diminished anyway. Depending on the skill of the players and the whims of the dice, lower-level baddies can still be a problem, while higher-level baddies can unexpectedly be a pushover. A surprise round, a good initiative roll, and the number of foes you’re facing are much bigger factors in how any given fight will play out than the individual CR and stats of a single opponent, generally speaking.
I love this exercise, but it takes forever. If interested, you can find the template here: 25 Essential Expressions
I am still not quite happy with the designs for either Charity or Langley. I was hoping that it would smooth out as the story progressed, but if anything it’s getting worse instead of better, so I’m trying to work it out and “get it right” before going on with another issue.
Charity should be young, almost baby-faced, bright eyed, eager, and cheerful. Think Sailor Moon with spots. So, eyes bigger, muzzle smaller, lots of big expressions are the mode for her.
Suggestions? Comments? I’m all ears!
It’s hardly a secret that I’m bearish on MMOs generally. I like the concept of them, but I don’t like the execution of the MMO genre as it’s come down through the years. The one MMO that I really got deeply into for a long time was Lord of the Rings Online, and that was mainly because I am such a Tolkien nerd, and for many years they really did a good job of embodying the lore. Also, for a brief shining moment, there was a really strong social aspect between the Turbine forums, the player blogs, and a group of folks within the in-game kinship that I really clicked with, which led to the whole “Life of a Bounder” series. And LotRO has a really, really awesome “cosmetic” system, which I have never seen matched in any other game. Assuming you can find an outfit you like (and there are babillions to choose from), you simply put that into your character’s cosmetic tab and you’re done forever.
But that was literally years ago now, which somehow seems strange to say. The group fell apart, the gameplay got scrambled and scrambled again by rules changes, the quality of the storyline faltered, and eventually I just had enough. My highest level character is mired in Rohan, needing to get through “epic battle” story quests in order to progress, and I just can’t bring myself to continue. As for the alts… I don’t think they’ll ever see the light of day again. Not if it means having to go through Rohan… again.
So it was that I started casting around for something else to play in my off-hours. I remembered that I’d flirted with Neverwinter a bit, basically getting as far as “making a character and getting out of the tutorial,” and inspired by the fun I’d been having with D&D 5E decided what the heck, give it a shot. In the intervening weeks I’ve managed to get Akikki, my tiny little half-elf Great Weapon Fighter, up to 52nd? 53rd? level, out of 60. (Yes, Akikki is basically Elsa from my 5E game; what can I say, it’s a character I’ve been wanting to play for a while.)
My thoughts? Well to put it bluntly, Neverwinter is just exactly as good as it needs to be… but unfortunately, no better than that. Gameplay-wise, it’s barely distinguishable from Everquest 2, Age of Conan, or a gajillion others. The quests are always incredibly linear and straightforward: “Follow an S-shaped path through the cave/swamp/forest/castle, fight three monsters, fight four monsters, fight three monsters, fight three monsters with a ringer, fight three monsters, fight the boss who keeps generating adds unless you can lure the boss out of his room.” Every once in a while you might find a little jumping puzzle, or an extra non-plot encounter tucked into a corner… once in a rare blue moon you’ll even find a way to approach the boss from an unexpected direction, but that usually seems to be an oversight on the map-designers’ part.
I will say about Neverwinter that it is a very good representation of the 4E Forgotten Realms setting… for better or worse. If you think the spellplague was cool, think floating islands everywhere is what D&D always needed, and you like tieflings and dragonborn all over the place, you’ll feel right at home. For myself I have no real attachment to FR, being more of a Greyhawk fan, but I wasn’t keen on 4E generally and so that aspect of the game took some getting over. It’s not really accurate to say that it’s not D&D, so much as it feels like there’s a lot of junk between me and the D&D that I have to get through. Everyone who said that 4E felt like a MMO was absolutely right: specifically, it felt like this MMO, for better or worse.
There are nuggets of joy to be found in the game, for all that. At the player auction house, one of the random bits of NPC dialogue is the auctioneer expressing doubt that an item being put up for auction really is “the Head of Vecna,” for example. There are bits of deep D&D geekery and that occasional touch of trippy dorkiness scattered across the landscape, and those are worth their weight in gold.
Speaking of gold, currency is a strange beast in this game. Although you’re constantly collecting gold pieces, there’s almost nothing to spend them on, particularly once you’ve bought a horse and hired a companion. Anything and everything worth buying (including stuff at the auction house) is bought with “astral diamonds,” an in-game currency that you collect by doing daily quests. And the prices are nuts. I have, now that I’m 52nd level, something like 16,000 astral diamonds. A single piece of cosmetic clothing often sells for something like 300,000. To alter the appearance of your current armor to look like that favorite piece sitting in your vault (the closest thing the game has to a proper cosmetic system) usually costs 20,000+.
What the heck.
I’d think this was a FTP-grab for cash, except that you can’t buy astral diamonds for real world cash. Really more than anything it feels like devs saying “We don’t want you to have nice things.” It may be that I’m missing something somewhere– this game has tons and tons of subsystems and no meaningful help dialog anywhere– but if so I have no idea what it might be.
Still, after all that, Neverwinter does have one really neat thing, and that’s the Foundry.
Intended to be a spiritual successor to Neverwinter Nights, with its DM’s Toolkit and tons of readily-downloadable user-generated content, Neverwinter‘s Foundry enables you to create your own dungeons, including quest goals, dialogue trees, and all sorts of game assets for locations and foes. Foundry-created quests are shared within the game at “Adventurers’ Job Boards” and the like, and since these are the quests that provide astral diamonds, there is plenty of incentive to go on them. They scale automatically with level, so if you wanted, you could go all the way from the game start to the level cap playing just Foundry quests and skip the solo campaign all together.
Given the linear nature of the solo campaign, that might not be such a bad choice, either. Being user-generated content, the Foundry quests are very hit-and-miss, often amateurish or filled with a junior-high aesthetic of what would be a cool dungeon (I can’t tell you the number of times Akikki has been hit on by other women because the quest designer just assumed that all player characters were male). On the other hand, many of them are very creative and entertaining, such as the quest in which my character sat down for a game of Call of Cthulhu with a gnome, an elf, and an ogre as the other players. If you play a lot of Forge quests (as I have), you’ll find yourself out-leveling the solo campaign pretty quickly. That’s not really a problem, as the Forge quests scale to your level on-the-fly, so you can always find a challenge. It just means that when you go back to the solo campaign, you might find yourself yawning as you wade through the requisite four-monsters-then-three-monsters-then-four dungeons.
I have not really done much group stuff in Neverwinter yet, so I can’t really say how well that works. There is an easy-to-use dungeon queue, and there are “open tap” landscape events (such as the current massive dragon encounters all over the map) where you can just jump in and go to town if you happen to be there at the right time, and those have been fun. Each zone of the game also has a capstone dungeon, of which I’ve done exactly none, but might like to go back and do once I’ve finished the current solo campaign. I don’t know if those scale or not, but they recommend 4-6 players for all of them, regardless of level. I’ll have to see what they have to offer.
Today the last page of the second issue of Suburban Jungle: Rough Housing went up on the website! The files are sent off to the publisher, including a piece of bonus art that isn’t on the website (but will go up on the Patreon page soon). Naturally, I’m quite pleased about this.
I’d be very interested to hear any comments or feedback folks might have. I’ve been experimenting with some different art techniques as well as deliberately coming up with things that would be challenging to draw in order to break out of my old habits of “medium shots of people with crossed arms standing around talking all the time.” The art will probably be shifting slightly again between issues, as it’s still not quite where I want it to be, but it’s getting closer. As always, the real tension is between “getting the page right” and “getting the page done in less than a week.”
As I did between issues one and two, I’m going to pause the web page updates between issues two and three, so I can work on rebuilding the buffer, as well as getting some real work done on “The Other Comic,” for which I have scripts and some layouts done but need a few days of uninterrupted work to get actual pages drawn before we’ll make the official announcement and launch date etc. I’m also going to be building an Etsy shop, getting ready for two(!) conventions in December and… oh yeah, selling my house and moving. O.o
Why do I never do things that are easy?
It’s going to be a few months before the DMG hits shelves, so until then the only real guidelines we have for experience points are the monster XP values provided in the Basic Rules.
However, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how XP was awarded in earlier editions (and in other “old school” games), and the ramifications thereof. In 1e, you got as much XP from treasure looted as monster kills, if not more– and you had to spend said treasure on “training” once you gained enough XP to level up, or you would stop receiving XP. Thus, if you had killed a horde of orcs without collecting a single copper, you were stuck. Alternatively, if you looted a dragon’s hoard, but never engaged a single monster, you were also stuck (but at least you were stuck and rich).
2e loosened this up, and honestly, I don’t know if I ever played in a game that actually required you to train to level up. We mostly just carried it around in bags of holding and wondered what we were supposed to spend it on. In 3.x and beyond, XP was all about the combat encounters, with a little bit of handwavy stuff about “yeah maybe you can give quest XP too.” 4E did try to expand this a bit with the skill challenge mechanic and a little more emphasis on quests, but it was still pretty much “fight, fight, fight, plus variations.”
On the principle that the actions that get rewarded are the actions that get repeated, that was one of the things that has led RPGs to their recent state of being all about the big set-piece combat encounter, which can be fun (I’ve certainly run my share of them), but is both exhausting and, honestly, monotonous when it becomes the main focus of the game.
5E, at least if you believe the introduction to the PHB, is instead built on the “three pillars of adventure,” which add Exploration and Social Interaction as major foci for the game. Of course, I heartily endorse this– even my most hack-and-slashy barbarian characters want to have someone to talk to or see something amazing from time to time. So how can we incorporate these pillars into the XP mechanic?
Tunnels and Trolls had a very simple formula for this: the first time a party explored a new level of the dungeon, they received 100 XP x the dungeon level. (Thus, 100 XP for first level, 200 XP for second level, etc.) To earn this, you had to actually poke around a bit– you couldn’t just wave your arm down the stairs and suddenly claim 200 XP. This required some judgement when out of the dungeon context, of course. Is the lizardfolk village a “2nd level dungeon,” for instance? But on the whole it was a pretty good model, and worth adopting.
So here’s my proposed rule: for each new “region” explored for the first time, the party will receive XP equal to a single creature encounter at the expected level of that region. A region can be a town hub, a dungeon level, or any point of interest on the map. The point is that it’s someplace new and interesting that the party has never seen before. As usual, this XP is divided among the PCs, with hirelings and the like receiving 1/2 shares.
Using the Lost Mines of Phandelver as an example, that might translate to something like:
- Cragmaw Hideout (1st level/CR 1): 200 XP
- Town of Phandalin (1st level/CR 1): 200 XP
- Redbrand Hideout (2nd level/CR 2): 450 XP
- Conyberry/Old Owl Well/Wyvern Tor (2nd level/CR 2): 450 XP
- Thundertree/Cragmaw Castle (3rd level/CR 3): 700 XP
- Wave Echo Cave (4th level/CR 4): 1,100 XP
This award assumes the characters spent a significant amount of time actually interacting with the denizens or features of a given location and is awarded when they leave it or take their first long rest within the region.
This is much trickier. Some classes are all about social interaction (lookin’ at you, bards), while others are often better served by avoiding it (rogues), and it’s one of those things where many people feel that the play is its own reward– not to mention that the inspiration mechanic is already tied into it. (What are BIFTs, if not roleplaying hooks?) Furthermore, what constitutes a “social interaction encounter” is often much harder to identify. If the party attacks and captures a band of hobgoblins which they then interrogate, was that a combat encounter or a social interaction encounter? If you count it as both, is that double-dipping XP? (And if so, is that really a problem?)
I think the way I shall handle this is to award XP for social encounters based on the CR of the creature encountered, awarding 1/2 XP if there’s no real danger to the PCs. Again using Phandelver as an example, there are a couple of quests that may send the PCs to question a banshee. Normally banshees are CR 4, but the text specifically says she will not attack the PCs unless they attack her first. Thus, the encounter with the banshee is worth 1/2 the XP of a CR 4 encounter, or 550 XP. (This is skewed upwards a bit from the suggested XP in the module itself, which seems to treat it as a CR 1 encounter.)
If the PCs are in real danger– engaging in a riddle contest with a sphinx who will eat them if they guess wrong, for instance– then they are awarded full XP for the CR of the creature as if they had “defeated” it. (This is, among other things, to keep people from saying “Eh, the sphinx wasn’t worth any XP alive anyway, and riddles are stupid.”)
Not just any chatting up of NPCs counts as a “social encounter,” there has to be some kind of victory condition. In the case of the banshee, “victory” consists of getting her to answer your question. In the case of negotiating with the bugbear king for the release of a prisoner, you have to actually secure the prisoner’s release (and not get killed in the process), etc.
Quest XP, XP for Treasure and Other Oddities
I am still on the fence about these. I am reluctant to engage in “Quest XP” because that puts me back in the position of “pre-scripting the story” that I have been trying to get away from. There are already patrons in the setting who are willing to pay the PCs to accomplish certain things, and there are the XP and treasure awards in place for overcoming the challenges involved, so I’m inclined to let those take care of themselves. If I put a quest XP system in place, that rather feels like I’m giving the players an “assignment,” which is great for something like Ghostbusters but not what I want from D&D.
XP for treasure is a slightly different beast. Advocates of such a system say it promotes clever and interesting play, when sneaking in to steal the rat god’s gemstone eyes is worth more than slaughtering all the wererats and being done with it. It also makes it clear what players are expected to do: Find treasure! Which is down in mysterious dungeons (requiring exploration) and guarded by monsters (requiring combat).
Critics of such a system say it’s nonsensical at best (“I stole a diamond! Now I can swing my sword better.”) and creates perverse incentives at worst (“Why explore dungeons when I can gain a level every month by opening a Rat-On-A-Stick stand at the dungeon entrance?”). I can see what they’re getting at, but everything in D&D is so abstracted anyway that I’m not sure it’s a real problem. Modern OSR games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess get around this by defining “treasure” as “loot removed from a dangerous place,” as opposed from money you earn via crafting or rewards given to you by NPC patrons.
Awarding XP for treasure implies that there’ll be treasure to find. Unfortunately, with the 3.x “magic item economy” officially gone the way of the dodo there’s precious little out there for adventurers to spend their ill-gotten gains on, other than their downtime lifestyle. Granted, this is not an insignificant expense: 2 gp/day for “comfortable” racks up quickly if your characters lounge around for weeks, and any crafting/research you may want to do cranks up the cost. But it also runs the danger of making the game feel like Papers & Paychecks, and I wonder how many groups will actually use it.
Treating an extravagant lifestyle as one method of 1e-style “training,” on the other hand, has a certain appeal… the wizard “trains” by pouring all their treasure into old tomes and reagents, the cleric tithes and supports good works, the fighter works on establishing a keep or going with the rogue to seek out ale and wenches, and the bard lives like a rockstar. It also simplifies accounting: instead of picking a lifestyle and paying the daily cost, you simply roll that into the cost of levelling up and calling it done.
A simple way to handle it might be to require the expenditure of the same amount of gold to level up as the XP required to go up a level: 300 gp to become second level, 900 gp to become third level, etc., but that seems rather high. (300 gp is a lot of money for a 1st level character!) But this could be tweaked. Maybe 1/3 as many gp as XP? Putting that much treasure out there for players to loot in order to level up suggests that they should not also get XP for treasure, however, or will inflate rapidly.
What do you think, gamerati? I’m very curious as to folks’ opinions on this.