I’ve been playing in a 5e campaign for around two months now. In the past ten days or so I’ve been reading various source books and Internet threads regarding the design of 5th edition. I’d like to draw some comparisons and contrasts between 5th edition, and the 3rd edition family of games (DnD 3.5e and Paizo’s Pathfinder, which may be thought of as 3.75e).
The first thing I’d like to discuss is that wizards and clerics are no longer Vancian spellcasters. In rules terms, this is the idea that individual spells are pieces of ammunition. Spellcasters have a list of individual spells stored in their heads, and as they cast spells from that list, they cross off each item. Barring special rules about spontaneously converting prepared spells to healing spells, for clerics, the only way to add items back to the list is to take a night’s rest. Contrast this with spending points from a pool of energy in order to use an ability to cast a fireball. Then the limiting factor on using spells is having enough points in your mana pool, not having further castings of the spell waiting in memory.
One of the design goals of 5th edition was to reduce the dominance of spellcasters at higher levels of play. The article to which I linked in the previous paragraph argues that this rebalancing requires the removal of Vancian magic. The idea, to the extent that I’ve understood it, is that Vancian magic is not an effective restriction on spellcaster power levels, so it is to be replaced with other restrictions—adding new restrictions while retaining the restrictions inherent in Vancian magic would leave spellcasters crippled.
A further reason for removing Vancian magic was to defeat the so-called “five minute adventuring day”. The compat ability of a party that contains higher level Vancian spellcasters drops significantly once they’ve fired off their most powerful combat spells. So adventuring groups would find themselves getting into a fight, and then immediately retreating to fully rest up in order to get their spells back. This removes interesting strategic and roleplaying possibilities involving the careful allocation of resources, and continuing to fight as hit points run low.
There are some other related changes. Spell components are no longer used up when casting a spell. So you can use one piece of bat guano for every fireball your character ever casts, instead of each casting requiring a new piece. Correspondingly, you can use a spell focus, such as a cool wand, instead of a pouch full of material components—since the pouch never runs out, there’s no mechanical change if a wizard uses an arcane focus instead. 0th level spells may now be cast at will (although Pathfinder had this too). And there are decent 0th level attack spells, so a spellcaster need not carry a crossbow or shortbow in order to have something to do on rounds when it would not be optimal to fire off one of their precious spells.
I am very much in favour of these design goals. The five minute adventuring day gets old fast, and I want it to be possible for the party to rely on the cool abilities of non-spellcasters to deal with the challenges they face. However, I am concerned about the flavour changes that result from the removal of Vancian magic. These affect wizards and clerics differently, so I’ll take each case in turn.
Firstly, consider wizards. In third edition, a wizard had to prepare and cast Read Magic (the only spell they could prepare without a spellbook), and then set about working through their spellbook. This involved casting the spells they wanted to prepare, up until the last few triggering words or gestures that would cause the effect of the spell to manifest. They would commit these final parts of the spell to memory. When it came to casting the spell, the wizard would say the final few words and make the required gestures, and bring out relevant material components from their component pouch. The completed spell would be ripped out of their mind, to manifest its effect in the world. We see that the casting of a spell is a highly mentally-draining activity—it rips the spell out of the caster’s memory!—not to be undertaken lightly. Thus it is natural that a wizard would learn to use a crossbow for basic damage-dealing. Magic is not something that comes very naturally to the wizard, to be deployed in combat as readily as the fighter swings their sword. They are not a superhero or video game character, “pew pew”ing their way to victory. This is a very cool starting point upon which to roleplay an academic spellcaster, not really available outside of tabletop games. I see it as a distinction between magical abilities and real magic.
Secondly, consider clerics. Most of the remarks in the previous paragraph apply, suitably reworked to be in terms of requesting certain abilities from the deity to whom the cleric is devoted. Additionally, there is the downgrading of the importance of the cleric’s healing magic in 5th edition. Characters can heal themselves by taking short and long rests. Previously, natural healing was very slow, so a cleric would need to convert all their remaining magic to healing spells at the end of the day, and hope that it was enough to bring the party up to fighting shape. Again, this made the party of adventurers seem less like superheroes or video game characters. Magic had a special, important and unique role, that couldn’t be replaced by the abilities of other classes.
There are some rules in the back of the DMG—“Slow Natural Healing”, “Healing Kit Dependency”, “Lingering Wounds”—which can be used to make healing magic more important. I’m not sure how well they would work without changes to the cleric class.
I would like to find ways to restore the feel and flavour of Vancian clerics and wizards to 5th edition, without sacrificing the improvements that have been made that let other party members do cool stuff too. I hope it is possible to keep magic cool and unique without making it dominate the game. It would be easy to forbid the use of arcane foci, and say that material component pouches run out if the party do not visit a suitable marketplace often enough. This would not have a significant mechanical effect, and could enhance roleplaying possibilities. I am not sure how I could deal with the other issues I’ve discussed without breaking the game.
The second thing I would like to discuss is bounded accuracy. Under this design principle, the modifiers to dice rolls grow much more slowly. The gain of hit points remains unbounded. Under third edition, it was mechanically impossible for a low-level monster to land a hit on a higher-level adventurer, rendering them totally useless even in overwhelming numbers. With bounded accuracy, it’s always possible for a low-level monster to hit a PC, even if they do insigificant damage. That means that multiple low-level monsters pose a threat.
This change opens up many roleplaying opportunities by keeping low-level character abilities relevant, as well as monster types that can remain involves in stories without giving them implausible new abilities so they don’t fall far behind the PCs. However, I’m a little worried that it might make high level player characters feel a lot less powerful to play. I want to cease a be a fragile adventurer and become a world-changing hero at later levels, rather than forever remain vulnerable to the things that I was vulnerable to at the start of the game. This desire might just be the result of the video games which I played growing up. In the JRPGs I played and in Diablo II, enemies in earlier areas of the map were no threat at all once you’d levelled up by conquering higher-level areas. My concerns about bounded accuracy might just be that it clashes with my own expectations of how fantasy heroes work. A good DM might be able to avoid these worries entirely.
The final thing I’d like to discuss is the various simplifications to the rules of 5th edition, when it is compared with 3rd edition and Pathfinder. Attacks of opportunity are only provoked when leaving a threatened square; you can go ahead and cast a spell when in melee with someone. There is a very short list of skills, and party members are much closer to each other in skills, now that you can’t pump more and more ranks into one or two abilities. Feats as a whole are an optional rule.
At first I was worried about these simplifications. I thought that they might make character building and tactics in combat a lot less fun. However, I am now broadly in favour of all of these changes, for two reasons. Firstly, they make the game so much more accessible, and make it far more viable to play without relying on a computer program to fill in the boxes on your character sheet. In my 5th edition group, two of us have played 3rd edition games, and the other four have never played any tabletop games before. But nobody has any problems figuring out their modifiers because it is always simply your ability bonus or penalty, plus your proficiency bonus if relevant. And advantage and disadvantage is so much more fun than getting an additional plus or minus two. Secondly, these simplifications downplay the importance of the maths, which means it is far less likely to be broken. It is easier to ensure that a smaller core of rules is balanced than it is to keep in check a larger mass of rules, constantly being supplemented by more and more addon books containing more and more feats and prestige classes. That means that players make their characters cool by roleplaying them in interesting ways, not making them cool by coming up with ability combos and synergies in advance of actually sitting down to play. Similarly, DMs can focus on flavouring monsters, rather than writing up longer stat blocks.
I think that this last point reflects what I find most worthwhile about tabletop RPGs. I like characters to encounter cool NPCs and cool situations, and then react in cool ways. I don’t care that much about character creation. (I used to care more about this, but I think it was mainly because of interesting options for magic items, which hasn’t gone away.) The most important thing is exercising group creativity while actually playing the game, rather than players and DMs having to spend a lot of time preparing the maths in advance of playing. Fifth edition enables this by preventing the rules from getting in the way, because they’re broken or overly complex. I think this is why I love Exalted: stunting is vital, and there is social combat. I hope to be able to work out a way to restore Vancian magic, but even without that, on balance, fifth edition seems like a better way to do group storytelling about fantasy heroes. Hopefully I will have an opportunity to DM a 5th edition campaign. I am considering disallowing all homebrew and classes and races from supplemental books. Stick to the well-balanced core rules, and do everything else by means of roleplaying and flavour. This is far less gimmicky, if more work for unimaginative players (such as myself!).
Some further interesting reading:
- Rules versus rulings over the five editions
- Threat creation using bounded accuracy
- Pathfinder vs. 5e on reddit
- Pathfinder vs. 5e on StackExchange – this claims that 5e is like 2e in being low fantasy, with constant character deaths and thus little longterm character development, but this has not been my experience so far
- On the Defining Characteristic of 5th Edition