I’ve been playing Dungeons And Dragons for over 10 years at this point, and I’ve mostly played 5e for my whole life. I started with 3.5 because 5e wasn’t out yet, but then I quickly transitioned and 5e became my de facto edition of choice. I played almost all the officially released modules, I homebrewed my stuff, I did dungeon crawling, roleplaying, fighting, exploring and much more.
I’m gonna be honest with you, this is gonna be an angry primer because I got sick of everything surrounding the new versions. They became poisoned for me and I can’t play them anymore. This is gonna be an article that aims to explain my view of the game, how to make it fun and what it should be. Don’t take my words for objective truths but fuck you if you enjoy the 5th edition.
Someone will tell you D&D is a cooperative storytelling effort, others will tell you that it’s a fun escapade into a fantasy world, DMs will tell you that it’s a way for them to create immersive worlds and stories. They’re all wrong. D&D is not an improv class, you can go and do theater for that. D&D is a game first and foremost. You have rules that serve as a foundation for your actions and help you in determining the results of said actions (Important: rules SHOULD NOT tell you what you can’t do). Roleplaying comes on top of your actions and your goals. Let’s be real, no one wants to listen to a 10 page backstory or to learn about your Tolkien knock-off world. Dungeons & Dragons is a game about people (1/2e) or pulp heroes (3e onwards) trying to do stuff in a made up world. The game morphed lately during the years: its rules and its core principles all shifted into something completely different from its origins.
5e is a mess, admit it. None of the published adventures are fun, none of the rules are fun. It’s a system developed for ADHD nu-gamers that want their powerfantasy fulfilled in a safe environment. Past the first level the challenge is non-existant, the HP bloat is massive, the character sheet is confusing and the rules tell you what you can do and what you can’t instead of helping you do the things you want. I agree 5th edition is easy for new players and it serves as a good introductory point for newcomers to the TTRPG genre but once you’re past that phase there’s no reason to play it. Probably it’s my elitism speaking, but once a hobby gets popular it becomes shit because the publishers tend to cater to as much people as possible instead of remaining true to the core identity. Let’s tackle some of the problems I have with 5e:
Combat: Combat is unfun, and it’s not the DMs fault. The problem with it is that it’s too long and tedious after the first few turns. You just declare your attack, roll the dice, get crazy ‘cause you rolled a 20 and wait for your next turn hoping you don’t die. Oh no actually, you wait for your next turn hoping that if you drop down your healer has some healing spells.
Roleplaying: This is something not intrinsic in 5th edition’s rules but its something WOTC’s D&D helped popularize. I’m not against roleplaying in a roleplaying game of course, but lately the game became Improv 101 where everyone feels the new Tolkien and George Martin. I shouldn’t have to listen about your backstory for 10 minutes, roleplaying should be something that happens naturally as you react to the environment as your character would do.
Exploration: 5th edition largely ignores Encumbrance rules, there’s no strict time keeping, no one keeps tracks of arrows and rations. People find it cumbersome and then they complain that exploration and hex crawling feels boring. Go figure!
Fantasy: This is strictly a matter of personal taste and goes in parallel with the Roleplaying problem aforementioned. Nu-D&D’s fantasy is terrible, uninteresting and over the top. Just look at this:
There’s no magic formula but changing ruleset is a big step forward. OSR rulesets like B/X, DCC, LOTFP and my own Minimum aim to solve a lot of problems just by changing the rules. First of all the key concept of OSR: rulings over rules. The ruleset should give you a guide on how to deal with things, not a list of allowed actions. If your players want to do something and it seems reasonable just let them! Less rules equals less time spent dealing with stupid shit and more time playing. Let’s see some examples of how OSR solves the things mentioned before:
Combat: Combat is deadlier and shorter. One of the ideas in OSR books is to embrace randomness and random encounters. In 5e they’re a dread, in OSR they’re a recipe for fun. Combat is war, it’s not made to be won and this stimulates creative thinking and problem solving. If a skeleton is gonna kill you in 3 hits just don’t run at it and drop a fucking library on him instead.
Roleplaying: Simple rules encourage in-game roleplaying. Not having a “Find Traps” skill forces you and your players to actually find the traps rewarding interesting roleplaying, while the deadly nature of the game serves as an entry barrier for level one characters with elaborate and stupid backstories. Your character grows with you and with the game: it’s when it reaches level 10 that it can be called Grog The Medusa-slayer and you’ll be attached to it, not before.
Exploration: Strict time keeping, exploration, hexcrawling and dungeoncrawling rules all exist in OSR rulesets and serve as a foundation for fun gameplay. If you keep track of inventory what was a simple hindrance in 5e now becomes a challenge. You need to draw your own maps, you need to keep track of torches, dungeons live and change and you can use rations to lure monsters but what if you run out of food? This depth is non-existant in newer editions of D&D because the rules make it too hard and tedious to keep track of stuff.
Fantasy: Race-As-Class rules are there to reinforce the uniqueness of Races, magic is more scarce and mystical and the limited class options (unless expanded by the DM itself) provide a strong foundation for some classical fantasy that doesn’t feel over the top. The exploration rules also help with maintaining a level of pseudo-realism.
There are various topics I didn’t go over, mainly because I suck at writing and didn’t know where to fit them but also because I might have forgotten about them. In general, Dungeons & Dragons is a game, a game where there should be fucking Dungeons and fucking Dragons, and in 5e there are none. Dungeon Of The Mad Mage is an example of that: it’s considered to be one of the worst modules but that’s mainly because the new rules suck for implementing a decent dungeon crawl. New D&D is all about living your own fetish dream and jerking off to a world you’ve created instead of actually playing a game, and I hate that. Embrace random tables, embrace sandboxing, put cool weapons and magical items and homebrew everything. Who fucking cares if Holdir with that Sword Of Ogre Slaying is too powerful? He could die any minute if he’s not careful and a monster could steal his sword. Make the game revolve around the players and not the other way around.
There are only three things necessary for a fun game: Motivation, Loot and Cool Ideas, and sometimes the desire of finding what cool shit the DM has put in the next room is already a good motivation on its own.
Embrace Gold as XP, embrace hexcrawls, embrace megadungeons.
Embrace playing the game.