Everyone Knows 5E D&D is the Best RPG. What This Post Presupposes Is…Maybe It Isn’t?
We think about games a lot around here. It’s no surprise since we built Nerdarchy as a tabletop game centric business from the very beginning. Every single day we’re creating and sharing our news, view and homebrews here on the website, on one or both of our two YouTube channels and through our Patreon. Primarily we focus our efforts on fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons for several reasons. We all love the game and 5E D&D in particular. It also happens to enjoy unprecedented success and attention worldwide, something our audience clearly gravitates towards along with untold others. But of course it’s not the only game around nor the only game we play. And after some soul searching and several long conversations and introspections it’s not even my favorite version of the game. How can this be? Let’s get into it.
5E D&D on the streets
The ogre roars in fury and brandishes its greatclub after swatting aside the rogue who lies incapacitated at the feet of the hulking giant about to get their skull crushed and subsequently fail another death saving throw. The ogre looks injured but there’s no way to tell if it’s even halfway to the grave but it does stand perilously close to the edge of a cliff. The fighter could attack and maybe fell the ogre or forgo their attack and try to Shove it over the edge. If only the party reached 4th level already — the Shield Master feat is on the fighter’s short list.
A dragonborn adventurer faces down a trio of death dogs alone after a deadfall separates them from the rest of their party. Attacking might drop one of them but their breath weapon can engulf all three and spread a bit of damage all around. Unfortunately this dragonborn isn’t playing with Nerdarchy’s house rule that says a dragonborn Breath Weapon is a bonus action so they’ve got a tough decision to make.
Anxiously awaiting their turn the warlock character considers using one of their few precious spell slots but when the time comes they cast eldritch blast because eldritch blast. Couldn’t their Otherworldly Patron see fit to diversify just a little?
Everyone in the group feels great about their new characters to begin a fresh campaign except the one player who really, really digs psionics and laments the dearth of this character options. Sure, there was the Mystic from Unearthed Arcana but like just about every other iteration of psionics in D&D it feels kludgy and tacked on to the core rules system after release, gaining little support in the edition at large.
All of these scenarios and many more share one thing in common — 5E D&D. This isn’t to say 5E D&D suddenly doesn’t pass muster. I love playing it, running it and creating content for it (otherwise I’d really be in trouble on the job!). During this era of D&D I’ve participated in many of the best gaming experiences of my life, made tons of new friends and colleagues and even segued into a professional career.
Becoming so immersed in the hobby on a professional level and with design and implementation of 5E D&D material so ingrained in my mind the challenge becomes rediscovering what about D&D and tabletop roleplaying games in general mean to me. Recently during a long post game conversation with former Intern Jake and the game group I’m part of with him I experienced an epiphany of sorts.
I’m a gamist.
There’s a lot of interpretations as to what this term means but for context in this post I mean I like simple, clear rules in the games I play and I expect them to be used. This became clear to me when Jake mentioned how much I prefer dense, crunchy game systems and I was taken aback because this is antithetical to how I feel. Big, thick rule books with complex rules for countless situations? No thank you! Give me a slim, simple system with just the rules enough to serve the narrative aim of the game and I’m perfectly content.
The distinction for me comes when the games we play don’t incorporate the rules inherent in the system in lieu of alterations, adjustments or just plain ignorance for the sake of crafting the kind of experience the players — including the Game Master — desire. For a broad example I’ll use my favorite pillar of 5E D&D play, exploration. Many players lament the game’s lack of support for this part of play and clamor for more robust content to make it more prevalent during their games. But consider this: if combat and social interaction are the other two thirds of the game experience, what do you think you’re doing when you’re not fighting or talking? Using all your skills, features and even many spells to learn things, travel, investigate, navigate dungeons and so forth amounts to quite a bit of exploration. The poor ranger suffers from this misperceived part of the game too, with a variety of features making them one of the most accomplished explorers around.
A much smaller and more specific example is cover. I don’t know about you but I’ve played a tremendous amount of 5E D&D and I can’t think of a single time cover came up in any significant way, or even at all. Players certainly describe their actions with wonderful narrative flair during games and rogues are notorious for attempting to Hide during their turn but how many times does this result in employing cover in a meaningful way? In my experience very rarely to never.
The point I’m trying to make in a roundabout way is 5E D&D includes rules scattered throughout the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide to manage a large variety of circumstances but in almost every game I play and fellow gamer I interact with the thing we love most about this edition is the focus on rulings over rules. The narrative storytelling trumps almost every other consideration. Taken to an extreme (a scenario not at all uncommon) there’s a perception that rules get in the way of storytelling. To this perspective I pose a question: why not engage in a pass-the-story activity instead?
Put another way shouldn’t the rules support the narrative?
4E D&D in the sheets
All of the descriptive examples at the beginning of this post illustrate how the rules of 5E D&D affect the narrative. The fighter can swing their sword at the ogre and cause damage or try to Shove it over the cliff. Doesn’t bashing it with their shield cause any damage though? The dragonborn character eventually comes across as a scaly human because that breath weapon can’t match the features they’ve gained through their class so why even use it after a certain point? There’s no question eldritch blast is an amazing cantrip and a warlock’s bread and butter but wouldn’t it be neat to have a go-to option more closely aligned with their Otherworldly Patron? Psionics are beloved by countless D&D players around the world but the implementation is usually clunky and so wildly different than every other class as to make it feel weird and unwieldly.
The realization I came to is I prefer fourth edition D&D.
In a fantastic video from Matt Colville he celebrates all the great things about 4E D&D and offers a terrific perspective on why it was a tough pill to swallow for lots of gamers. Much of the hurdle lies in the gamist language inherent in this edition. Players chafed at terms like powers, describing distances in terms of squares and even the shorthand mechanical procedure for something like the Grab action or Sleep spell. The video really cemented for me what I liked about 4E D&D, which seems to fly in the face of what turned so many people away.
This edition of the game cleaves closer to rules supporting the narrative than the 5E D&D perspective of setting the rules aside in favor of rulings to support your group’s story. Character powers even include baked in descriptive flair for those times when you want to describe your character’s actions.
“You punctuate your scything attacks with wicked jabs and small cutting blows that slip through your enemy’s defenses.”
Sounds pretty neat, right? Feel free to lay down a Reaping Strike every turn as a 4E D&D fighter with this at-will power. It even deals damage when you miss! How’s that for avoiding a wasted turn and colorful description of the action? Incidentally in the example with the ogre on the edge of the cliff this same fighter could use their Tide of Iron at-will power to strike the ogre with their weapon and push it back with their shield as part of the same Standard Action. For those keeping score this out performs even the Shield Master feat because you’d still have your Minor Action available for something like Boundless Endurance, a power that gives you regeneration when you are bloodied.
“Miss: Half Strength modifier damage. If you’re wielding a two-handed weapon, you deal damage equal to your Strength modifier.”
The frustrated dragonborn player? Go ahead and unleash that Breath Weapon as a Minor Action, leaving your options wide open for your Standard Action and since it’s an Encounter Power you can put it to use in every combat. Meanwhile the 5E D&D warlock looks on with jealously at their previous edition counterpart who can indeed Eldritch Blast at-will but depending on their Pact might instead bathe foes in Dire Radiance, Eyebite or Hellish Rebuke — all at-will. As for psionics well…they weren’t included in the core rules either but when they show up in Player’s Handbook 3 with Power Points they’re only a small step removed from the way powers work for every other class too.
What I always liked about 4E D&D and what became clarified for me during that long conversation and after Colville’s video and lots of contemplation is the very gamist quality. If I’m honest while I absolutely love the storytelling aspects of D&D I equally enjoy the mechanical components of this or any other RPG. It’s not uncommon for me to hit a wall with other gamers when they elevate one of those things with a greater degree of importance than the other. Pure roleplayers enjoy committing to the development of character and story while pure gamers prefer sticking to the precision mechanics but like in so many arenas of life I’m a centrist who wonders, “why not both?”
In light of all this I’m going to be spending some time reconnecting with 4E D&D but don’t worry! I still adore 5E D&D professionally and personally. The modular nature of the current edition of the game makes it super fun and easy to create new content, something it does much better than any other edition. Plus we’re currently living in the best time for the game as a whole, with tons of people discovering the hobby and everyone with the ability to connect for new games and friendships.
Over at Nerdarchy Live we’ve created a wonderful new space to explore all sorts of games and ideas in longform video content, live play and actual play of RPGs so I think when my turn comes around I’ll take the opportunity to indulge my rediscovered love for 4E D&D. At the moment the core rulebooks are en route for delivery along with the Dark Sun Campaign Setting and I think the Nerdarchy crew deserves a trip to Athas.
Now, what do you think? Is this a bunch of crazy talk? How do you really feel about 4E D&D now that it’s been out of commission for several years? Did you play it and if so ask yourself did you really dislike it or did public opinion sway your perspective, or did you enjoy it and either way, why? I feel like enough time has passed to look back more objectively now plus I think a lot of players new to the hobby through 5E D&D might discover a lot to love from the previous edition. I didn’t even get into the amazing monster stat block structure or the extremely versatile and useful bloodied condition! Love it, hate it or remain indifferent but for me at this point in my RPG life I’m happily 5E D&D on the streets and 4E D&D in the sheets. Stay nerdy!