In Which Some 5E Stuff Needs Remixing
In terms of round-by-round, 5E is great. It doesn’t have the grind-grind-grind problem of 3.x/PF, nor the “everybody is a sorcerer” problem of 4E (which, I’m told, also gets ridiculously grindy in short order).
But structurally, in terms of encounter building and monster design (and how that ties in with rest and advancement), I feel like it still has problems.
The Resource Management Game Nobody Plays
The “15-minute workday” is still a thing in 5E. The game is balanced around the notion that every two encounters (or so) the characters will take a short rest, and that after their sixth encounter of the day they’ll take a long rest.
In order for that to work, most of the individual encounters need to not be that tough. The party uses a big spell in one, the fighter loses some hit points in the next, and so on, but they can soldier on through. Because no one encounter is likely to wreck the party, they can keep on going until they’re out of Adventure Fuel (i.e., hit points and spells), and then recharge with a long rest.
The problem there is that, narrative wise, this can get real boring. If the stakes are that low for almost every encounter, and you have limited game time, there is a strong desire to “skip to the encounter that actually matters.”
So there is a strong inclination to beef up individual encounters, so that each one feels more significant. Instead of six rooms with six orcs each, the party finds three rooms with twelve orcs each. (Of course, in a well-built dungeon, there’ll be more variety than that. But you get the idea.)
But! When confronted with tougher encounters, players inevitably go nuclear on them– the wizard opens every fight with a fireball, the fighter uses their action surges, etc.– and it makes perfect sense for them to do so. The players don’t know how tough the encounter is or isn’t, or what the GM might have up their sleeve. Better to blast the hell out of everything and be reasonably sure you got it all, than to get one-punched by something without ever getting a spell off.
And what do players do after they’ve gone nuclear? They want a long rest to recharge! If that means backing out of the entire dungeon and coming back the next day to take it one room at a time? That’s what they’ll do.
Fighters get the shaft in a situation like this– their strength relative to magic-users is they can keep fighting all day without expending resources. But if the wizard gets recharged every time, the endurance of martial classes is irrelevant. (This is why everyone was a sorcerer in 4E.) Action surges and stuff like that make fighters a little more bursty to compensate, and of course 5E rogues are OP no matter how you slice it, so it’s not as bad as it was in 3.x/PF, but it’s still a thing.
The NERF™ Monster Manual
My campaign currently has a very large party. Six PCs, plus 1-3 NPCs of varying power levels depending on the scenario. This utterly breaks the action economy as it is, but even moreso once Bounded Accuracy comes into play.
Far from making it so that “even goblins can stay viable threats,” with a party this size B.A. makes it so that “even dragons are never a viable threat.” ;P In my last session, the 5th level party went into a fight with three wights and six zombies, and didn’t break a sweat. They were a little annoyed at the way the zombies kept standing back up again… but it wasn’t scary, so much as a nuisance.
Dammit, I want wights to be scary. -.-
When you have an edition in which levels 1-2 are pretty much intended to be skipped, but 60% of the monsters are CR 3 or lower, you end up with things like this. When you then combine NERF™ monsters with beefed up encounters, you suddenly have 5th level parties facing beholders. Combat then becomes very, very swingy, a game of rocket tag in which the only roll that matters is “initiative.”
Not great for “heroic fantasy” style gameplay. Also not great when the players have six chances to roll higher initiative than the monsters. ;P (Savage Worlds, a game that deliberately has rocket tag combat, also makes you check initiative fresh at the beginning of each round to at least add a little more uncertainty to this.)
Encounter Inflation and XP
The other danger of beefed up encounters, using the default assumptions of XP and level advancement, is that characters get beefed up XP, which in turn makes them advance faster, and the whole thing just explodes geometrically.
This can be avoided by decoupling XP from monster CR (or at least minimizing it), which a lot of my favorite RPGs of the past did by default. The HERO System for instance gave a pretty flat “3 XP per session, +/- 1-2 points for dull/easy or awesome/tough sessions.” You could (and our group often did) go through whole sessions without anyone so much as throwing a punch– and as long as everyone had a good time, you didn’t feel like you’d been shafted in the XP department for it.
The most recent Unearthed Arcana column has an interesting take on this, proposing a “100 XP per level” model in which exploration, interaction, and combat all have 1-4 tiers of difficulty, and any given encounter would give (10 x tier) XP.
I think this is a neat idea, although the first thing I notice is that it flattens XP progression back out. 5E is famously designed so that you fast-forward through levels 1-2, slow down for 3-10, and then pick up a little from 11+. The XP for monsters might still need work tho– it basically boils down to “5 XP per normal monster, 2 XP per minion, 15 XP for something way out of your league.” In the case of my party vs. the not-terribly-scary wights, that would have been 22 base XP, halved for having more than 6 characters, or 11 XP. Was that encounter really worth 1/10 of a level?
The tiers for treasure and interactions are also sorta arbitrary. Tier 4 exploration (worth 40 XP) is the discovery/wresting from monsters a “location of cosmic importance,” for instance. If a campaign starts doing the whole plane-hopping thing later, you’ll be discovering cosmic locations all the time, won’t you?
But the key thing is, with this system, combat is no longer the benchmark for character growth. Like the original “1 GP = 1 XP” model, characters who like to talk, sneak, or otherwise do things besides fight all the things have an alternate progression track, and that makes for a more varied and potentially-interesting game.
So What Does It All Mean?
Based on all this, I think I would prefer:
- Beef up monsters a bit. When 1st level lasts a while, a CR 3 monster (like a wight) is scary longer. When the game starts at 3rd level and goes up from there, a CR 3 monster becomes the new baseline. By that reckoning, a lowly goblin should be at least CR 1, while a wight should be something like CR 5. Almost everything in the Monster Manual needs at least +10 hit points and +2 to their attack rolls. 😛
- Tweak rests. This post is hella long already, so I will have to save the “rest” issues for another day. Something that will allow for tougher individual encounters, without screwing over the fighter types and/or creating 15 minute workdays is a big challenge.
- Non-Combat XP is Best XP. A tier-based system in which each encounter (whether it is a puzzle, a roleplaying moment, a fight, a treasure looted, whatever) gains about the same XP makes for a much more interesting game. Is talking to the shop-owner as much of a learning experience as fighting for your life? Well… maybe not. But if it’s a great moment in the game, it should be more rewarding than just tossing a fireball at 2d6 orcs.
What do you think, players?