September 23, 2020

5 things 5e Gets Wrong

Before we get started, let’s get some things out of the way. Fifth Edition is a great installment of Dungeons and Dragons’ core rules. It’s by far the easiest to pick up and teach, which is evidenced by the exploding player base and expansive 3rd party contributions. It cut back on the complexity of 2nd and 3rd editions, while still feeling more customizable and balanced than 4th. On top of all these improvements, 5e has found a way to present itself in an extremely streamlined and polished manner. The core suite of Players Handbooks, Dungeonmaster’s Guide, and Monster Manual have hands down the best formatting and ease of reference of any previous edition.

I really like the 5th edition. However, everyone loves to complain, and it did get a few things wrong. Granted, every previous edition’s list of gripes would be much, much longer, but we’re here now and there are elements I want to call out.

Darkvision

According to the Player’s Handbook, darkvision grants the ability to,  “see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.” On its face that seems pretty handy, but this ability is often misunderstood. Darkvision is commonly treated as built-in night vision goggles for your character. When I’m DMing and I ask what light source the party is using, any player with darkvision is likely to say they aren’t using anything to illuminate their path- even though it would still be difficult to see and dangerous to navigate a dungeon at such a disadvantage. The flavorful aspect of not being able to differentiate colors has never come up in any adventure or scenario I’ve ever played in, which brings me to my next point: you almost never end up actually truly using darkvision.

If you have a human, halfling, or dragonborn in your party, they’re going to need a traditional light source. According to data from D&D Beyond, humans are the most common player race, which means it’s pretty likely a party of four will have at least one. This makes darkvision pretty much useless for exploring dark castles or cavern systems. The context where it seems to be the most useful would be a lone rogue or ranger prowling solo. And sure this is a fine application, but halflings, ideal for sneaking and general thievery, don’t get darkvision.

Aside from being situational, it’s pretty ubiquitous and doesn’t do much to make playable races feel distinct from each other. Six of the nine races in the PHB get darkvision. In the end, darkvision is an ability that is often misunderstood, very common, and unlikely to actually confer any benefits. Darkvision would be better served to be isolated to one race or maybe as a class feature of the rogue or ranger.

The Ranger Class

If you had never played D&D before and asked me the difference between a fighter and a ranger, I’d tell you that rangers specialize in bows or dual wielding and get some limited spells. This is the basis for my critique. Rangers just feel like variant fighters. The distinct features they do get end up being kind of clunky.

Take for instance their favored enemy ability. To truly take advantage of this, you’d probably need to do a bit of metagaming. If you knew you were going to be playing Storm King’s Thunder, it would make sense to pick giants as your favored enemy. Or perhaps if you were playing Curse of Strahd, you’d pick undead. But how did you character know they would be facing these creatures so often? Guess it’s just lucky for them that they wandered into a campaign that features this one enemy type so heavily. But even if you did have an advantageous enemy, this is a bonus you’re not going to get in most fights. So what you’re left with is an ability that comes into play at most a third of the time. And let’s not forget the agony of every ranger asking if every random enemy is their favored one.

Their other starting ability, Natural Explorer, is likewise pretty limited. It has many of the same flaws of favored enemies. First, you have to pick a specific terrain type, which again means most of the time, this ability won’t do anything. When it does work, it functions to take away gameplay elements. The clearest example of this is one of the key mechanics of Tomb of Annihilation. MILD SPOILER: The first portion of the campaign involves navigating the treacherous jungles of Chult. If you’re unable to become lost, like Natural Explorer stipulates, it significantly decreases the challenge level of this segment. It would also prevent the fun of stumbling across many of the scattered sights and encounters therein.

Going back to my original point, the ranger feels closer to a fighter subclass rather than something all it’s own. Where the eldritch knight subclass is a wizard themed fighter, the ranger naturally seems like a druid themed one. Additionally, if you’re a fighter and choose the outlander background, you’re basically a ranger anyway.

Which brings me to my next item.

 Backgrounds

I like the background feature of 5e quite a bit. It’s a great way to marry roleplaying and game mechanics. However, I find that many people, particularly new players, skip this step when creation. Or more specifically, they end up randomly with the acolyte background. 

Why does this weirdly specific issue happen so often? It all comes down to Wizards of the Coast’s open game license for 5e. Without getting too deep into the legal weeds, Wizards allows 3rd party creators to create content for 5e using most of the rules and mechanics of the core game, but this comes with some notable exceptions. There are a handful spells you’re not allowed to reference. Usually there are spells that have somebody’s name in the title like Melf’s Acid Arrow. Although they’re not essential to the game, there is only one feat available for reference. The most glaring omission comes with character backgrounds. Even though it’s an essential part of character creation, the only option available with WoTC’s open gaming license is the acolyte. If somebody creates their character with an online character builder that doesn’t pay Wizards for a license, many times they will just be an acolyte.

5e’s open gaming license is a wonderful thing and a huge improvement over 4e’s policy, but it’s a weird bit of stinginess to not provide more than one option.

Investigation vs Perception

This might be a relatively small qualm, but seeing as exploration is a fundamental pillar of the game, it comes up in almost every session. The players have entered the necromancer’s study and they want to search the room. Is this a perception or investigation check? Based on the rules as written, if you’re not searching for anything in particular, it’s probably perception. If you’re looking for the Maltesse Falcon, it’s probably an investigation. But this line is constantly blurred and the text of the players handbook contributes to this.

For common uses of the investigation skill, the PHB lists, “deduce the location of a hidden object.” Only about a page later it states, “When your character searches for a hidden object such as a secret door or a trap, the DM typically asks you to make a Wisdom (Perception) check.”

I myself am constantly waffling on when to use which when I’m DMing. It’s gotten to the point where we’re in a borderline situation, I often just tell the players to pick and roll whichever is higher for them.

Vancian Magic

If you’ve ever played a spellcaster in 5e, you’re keenly aware that D&D’s magic system is very unique. You prepare a set amount of spells in advance, usually from a pool of spells you know, and expend ‘slots’ to discharge them. This concept is broadly referred to as vancian magic and is derived from the works of fantasy author Jack Vance. A distinctly D&D element of this is the asymmetrical relationship between your character level and the level of spells at your disposal. Meaning a fifth level wizard can’t cast 5th level spells. Not to mention the added complexity of the ability to cast lower level spells at a higher level slot

This system was ditched in 4e in favor of a powers system wherein a mage’s spells would replenish after encounters or in some cases daily. After it’s brief absence, vancian magic returned for 5e.

While it definitely gives D&D a unique flavor, it’s a complicated mess. I don’t know if there is a copyright for this magic system, but I don’t think you’d need one because nobody designing a game from the ground up would want this system for casting spells. There’s a reason many other RPGs rely on a much simpler magic point or spell card system.

Overall, 5e gets so many things right. But we’re 6 years into 5e’s lifespan and I think it’s fair to interrogate what could be improved upon in the future. I just hope when the next edition does come out I’ll know if I need to investigate to see what’s different or use perception.

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