Posted by : David Guyll January 13, 2014

I know Mearls has played other games (or has at least heard of them), so why is he still insisting that one of his reasons for eliminating most meaningful decisions is for the sake of making character generation quick?

First, what about all the other levels? In most cases you get to make one choice at 3rd-level that locks in the rest of your decisions down the road. Second, there are games where you get to choose something at every level (or whatever amounts to a character milestone), and character generation is not only quick, but actually quicker than 5th Edition.

In other words it is not like allowing players to make decisions throughout the course of the game slows it down in a noticeable way. 4th Edition allowed you to make several meaningful decisions at 1st-level, and it was incredibly easy to come in under his arbitrary 30 minute benchmark (yes, even without Character Builder). I would also argue that it does not dilute the "feel" of Dungeons & Dragons, unless that feel for you is writing down what the game tells you most of the time.

He further tries to justify this decision because the first two levels will normally take about a session each, and that if you want more stuff that you can always start at 3rd-level. The problem is not that players like me want more options at the start, but that we want to make more decisions. Not necessarily as many as what 4th Edition provided, but there is a decently-sized middle ground between choosing a suite of four or more powers, and just writing down whatever the designers believe defines an archetype.

But maybe for some reason you actually want to extend the play time of those first two levels. I have no idea why you would want to...I guess some people might have a hard time committing that one class feature that every other player with the same class is also using to memory. The good news is that there will be an optional experience progression to help pad it out.

Okaaay, but why not do something actually interesting with experience points like, say, provide a more modernized system, even as an option? So instead of killing monsters to accrue ultimately pointless heaps of points, players have the opportunity to collect a handful each session, and only need a few to level up. You could also spend them on incremental advancements. I get that big numbers is what was done before, and having tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of experience points looks impressive insofar as large numbers can, but it is still unnecessary.

He claims that by "allowing" players to choose what level to start at (which you always could), and an experience point system that allows you to drag out various parts of the game will somehow allow you to run a campaign the way you want. It will not. Sure, it lets me control the speed at which the players can make their cookie-cutter characters kind of dissimilar (well, assuming no one else picks the same subclass), but there are a number of other factors like fragile characters, a reliance on magical healing, and pseudo-Vancian magic that not only prevent me from running the game the way I want to, but also do not have much precedence in fiction.

He wraps things up with the statement that "flexibility has always been a hallmark of D&D". No, no it has not. If anything prior to 4th Edition one of the "hallmarks" of Dungeons & Dragons was needlessly monolithic classes: you pick a class, check the level, and write down what it says you can do. 4th Edition broke from that tradition by not only having you decide most of what your character can do at the start, but allowing you to make another choice at every level. 5th Edition undoes almost all of that, stripping out most of the choices and doing most of the work for you. That is opposite of flexibility.

The only upside is that, for now anyway, you will be able to choose your own skill and tool proficiencies. Given all the confusing mechanical rollbacks I find it a refreshing-yet-strange deviation from 5th Edition's charted course, I just kind of assumed that they would go back to 2nd Edition's model.

Speaking of model, I am not sure what "old model of limiting skills by class" Mearls is referring to. 4th Edition kind of limited you, except that anyone could take a background to have access to a skill or spend one of numerous feats to become reasonably competent in any skill (or even go with a Multiclass feat to get a skill and something extra), and even 3rd Edition let you spend skill points on almost any skill you wanted (though cross-classing usually sucked).

{ 9 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. I seem to recall a stated goal of low level monsters still being reasonable challenges to higher level characters in 5E. I don't see that happening, but if it is the intention, then a simpler experience model is almost necessary. The exponential model would punish the use of low level monsters to the point of making them unusable. What good is a low level monster that can still provide a threat to a high level character if it's only worth 100xp and they need 10000xp a level (and that's pretty low compared to the 3E tables).

    I was also put off by his comment about making character creation quick so that you could jump right into the adventure. I suppose it's the way D&D has been done for a while, but I think there's something to be said for an opening session dedicated to character creation. It leads to better synergy and roleplay in my experience, and can be a good deal more fun than meeting in a tavern and then bashing some kobolds.

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    1. You get a cookie for realizing why the XP budget system in Next is totally infeasible. I'd been point those sorts of things out since the playtest began, but apparently all WotC wanted to hear from us was whether or not the material "tasted" like D&D. It certainly did, in a stale and unappetizing way.

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  2. Mate, sounds like you need a non-D&D game to give you a lot more flexibility.

    Runequest 6 would help you with most of your unhappiness points...

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  3. @Svafa: I would love a system that has the DM reward players for doing stuff like discovering or learning things, and maybe limiting XP for kills to meaningful opponents. This would remove the need for padding out adventures with trash fights just to legitimately get the characters enough XP to level up.

    I have nothing against fast chargen, but I agree that taking a session building characters and establishing stuff can also be fun (like in Dresden Files). It would be nice to see both methods supported.

    @Ben: Well, whether it tastes like a specific flavor of D&D, and I agree that it is a stale one at that.

    @Barry: 4th Edition and 13th Age both give me enough flexibility, as do Dungeon World and even FATE do the trick nicely. Honestly I do not see why 5th Edition needs to strip that stuff out, though.

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  4. Don't know, i found experience points to be such an outdated paradigm. We got rid of Experience Points on our 4e for more than 3 years, and we are very happy about it (we level up after a story arc it's finished). The fact that Mearls is trying to "fix" problems on the game design thru experience points is something that seem so backwards.

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    1. Yeah, I mentioned in a previous post that our group did something similar with experience in 4E. We got rid of the xp per mob and made it 1xp per encounter (or more/less if appropriate) and then just required 10xp to level. I based it on the 4E guideline that characters have 10 encounters/level, and it works pretty well (it's a little fast, but I wanted faster than we were seeing).

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  5. In my case it just story arc, because it make a incentive to avoid combat and advance the plot, I can imagine back on the day, players just wanted to go in combat every time they could, just to hoard experience points.

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  6. @spearhead: Yeah, it is pretty outdated at this point. I would compare it to extra lives in console games: it had a purpose "back in the day", but not really anymore.

    When I ran A Sundered World I just had the players level up after every session, though honestly at various story milestones makes a lot more sense.

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  7. I remember being so burned out on gaming in general that I took a long hiatus from gaming before joining Antioch's original Sundered World 4E campaign, which I was initially skeptical about due to the tactical, plodding nature of D&D4 combat - but in the end David had made a couple of adjustments to his game that made it one of my favorite gaming experiences:

    A) Forswore experience points - the poorer examples of 4E adventures function as little more than long delves, with a mandatory amount of encounters designed to meet a precise XP payout for players. The problem here is that 4E doesn't function well as a game with room after room of arbitrary combat encounters - it works best when the battles are fewer and more meaningful.

    What Antioch did was to decouple advancement from experience points, thereby freeing him to insert encounters only when and where they made sense without having to worry about meeting XP quotas. This meant that the game focused more on exploration and roleplay than tactical battles. The paradigm of experience rewards in D&D has pretty much always been borked - the game really needs a way to advance characters without assuming that they are blood-thirsty spree killers or greedy, sociopathic grave robbers.

    B) Treated combat as a narrative exercise rather than a tactical one. D&D4 battles have a lot of precise movement and position, as well as terrain effects and AoE abilities leading many to feel that the game all but requires a grid and minis to run. What we did was to essentially eschew all that and instead run the game based on fiction and intent.

    What this means is that we only paid cursory attention to the effect text of our powers and instead went by the descriptive text and let the DM make judgment calls on what we could or could not accomplish within the context of the fiction. Also, instead of tracking movement in terms of squares or feet, we instead told Antioch "I intend to move myself into a position to accomplish X" and Antioch would then decide if there was an obstacle in our way (distance, difficult terrain, monsters, etc) or if we had the juice to pull it off. This helped make the fights dynamic, exciting and fast-paced without the need for a grid, which we barely used during that campaign. David ran it fast and loose, but it would be fairly easily to codify this into actual rules. I think that FATE does a good job of leveraging tactical value with highly abstract movement rules.

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