Friday, September 29, 2017

5e and Feeling Confounded

I have played 5e now for the past couple of years. In fact, I have not played any other game but 5e in all that time. I have written about my struggles with this edition and I have written about the things I think it does rather well. What I have not written about is how confused it makes me feel.

Well, confusion is not really the word, it's confounded. That's the word, confounded.

Confound: cause surprise or confusion in (someone), especially by acting against their expectations.

"Acting against expectations." Yep, that would be it, right there. I just can't quite seem to get my head around this game. I think it may be the basic assumptions have changed a bit with 5e when compared with all other editions. I'll be honest, I disliked 4e more than 5e, but I was able to grok 4e better than 5e so far--and I've played 5e for longer. Why is this?

I'd like to point a finger at bounded accuracy, though to be fair I'm not sure that's the real issue. Bounded Accuracy (BA) was one of the basic assumptions that shifted with this edition. It gives the game play of 5e a different feel. Essentially, BA requires a balance related to number of opponents, not level of opponents. But, frankly it's not that simple.

I've read far and wide that the encounter building guidelines are broken for 5e, and have certainly found that to be the case in my experience. In a way this makes me feel better, since even the designers seemed to struggle with the sweet spot. Not to mention that the death save rules, and healing available makes risk even harder to manage. I constantly feel as if I am dancing between extremes. In one session characters seem to cake walk through encounters I thought would be tough, and in others sessions I feel like I'm constantly having to pull punches and adjust encounter builds or else they'll be wiped out.

I know specifics would be more helpful, but as I mentioned last time I'm not the best at record keeping, so giving you an example seems to lack the necessary details to really make an informed assessment. For instance, I'm currently running The Haunt, a brilliant little haunted house number as an add on to the current campaign. In one part there is a Beholder Zombie in a slime infested pool. I've got six characters of just past 5th level. Though the disintegration ray the beholder got off was a close call, the PC made his save. Next the fear ray, and again a save was made. And the beholder didn't get off a third shot. Druid used call lightning, and wizard was using fire based spells and one lightning bolt. ZB had 93 hp to start, the recommended amount in the MM. It was a cake walk and they got a flame tongue as a result.

Second encounter: 1 Cloaker hidden on a coat rack. Took a bit but eventually the cloaker hit the party cleric and within two rounds the cleric was dead.  Admittedly I rolled a 20, double damage, but still ... The Barbarian was paralyzed by fear from the Cloaker's moan, and only the Druid was left. In this scenario the party had become separated by the House, and so they were split in two, the Druid was going to bit the dust too, when the Bard found them. They managed to do enough damage to the cloaker that it chose to flee and hide.

Now, by encounter builder stats, my party should have had an easy time with the beholder zombie, and a hard time with the cloaker--because we were down to 4 PCs since the party got split. This seems about right, since the BZ was down in three rounds, and the cloaker about wiped out three of them. But you see, that's just it.  It doesn't seem right to me. I think the problem is that I am still adjusting from an old school frame of reference. You see, a cloaker was always a dangerous monster. But in 1e it had 6HD. It was nasty even then, but the 5e cloaker--holy snit you do not want to run into one of those. The beholder zombie? Well, they weren't around until 3e, and frankly I had never used them. Looking around the web, several people question if a beholder zombie is even suitable as a CR 5 monster. Let me assure you, it is.

The problem is us old guys are always used to thinking of a beholder as a massively dangerous critter. Well, the beholder zombie is considerably nerfed when compared with the true beholder. It's a problem of perspective. See in this case, the encounter building worked quite well, but I had come to not trust it, and it came back to bite me.

Which brings me to the dawning realization that maybe the encounter building system isn't broken, as much as it is built for a different system, a different game. The more I actually _play_ 5e the more I find there are times when it works amazingly well and seems to fade into the background like a good system should. What usually gets in the way is my preconceptions and prejudices that come from years and years of playing other editions. Which makes me feel confounded. I often step back from a satisfying game and say quietly to myself, "Holy hell, we were just playing 5e, and that went awesome!"

I feel confounded perhaps not because of 5e "not working" or "working differently" but because my experience predisposes me to feel differently. I've also noticed something else. As I transition away from 4e, and the over reliance on minis that game sort of left me with, I use minis less and less for every move, and more just for combat scenarios. And even then only when we need to make strategic decisions. As the party recently fought a ghost that had possessed a party member, there was no need for minis, nor strategic play on the mat, in was largely a psychic battle occurring inside the characters heads and wholly in the theater of the mind. And the effect was to make the encounter much more frightening because they were playing it all out in their head, without the distraction of the mat or the minis to take away from the horror of the moment. Classic moment had all in 5e.

I just came away feeling good about things, and about the game we were playing. This was confounding for me, because I had just felt really frustrated with the edition less than 2 weeks prior. So, yeah. Me and 5e, we are learning about each other. I've played almost every week, sometimes twice a week for two years now, and I continue to grow and develop as a gamer in this the most recent edition of the game. 


Scott Anderson said...

IT fools you because it looks like a spruced-up version of a retroclone or of 2nd edition or something, but it's not.

I think you have it right when you identify that the key piece in encounter balance is the number of opponents. Sometimes there's a battle of attrition where once one side gets a small advantage, that advantage multiplies over a short period of time.

It's too bad that you can't just use the old games instead of 5e...

Chris Jones said...

Yeah, right now it's a constant source of tension for me. I find myself trying to make the game play differently than it was designed to play. Not going very well. Still trying to figure out if I can be okay accepting 5e for the game it is.

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