Minimalist D&D 5e?

Mike Mearls makes another good Legends & Lore post, in which he discusses a stripped-down D&D that just uses the ability scores and doesn’t fret with as many other mechanics. It’s interesting reading especially given the obvious lead-up to a D&D 5e in the offing.

I laud thinking about stripping down D&D more.  3.5e/Pathfinder is too complex IMO. The more books they put out for it the more disgruntled I get, especially as a DM. And 4e sucks; they tried to fix the problems in the exact wrong way. I keep going back to 2e as the happy medium between the more rules light like Basic and the later stuff.  Even 3e with just the PHB/DMG was OK, but it went crazy fast. And yeah, a lot of it was going to the open ended “infinite plusses vs a DC” model rather than the closed “stat rolls against itself” model.

The only problem with his pure-stats approach, though, is that ability scores are one of the most min-maxable attributes out there.  In early D&D, ability scores didn’t mean much, so everyone just rolled them.  As they got more and more of a part of the action – that high STR doubles your damage now instead of just adding 10% – we went to point buy and stat fiddling became de rigeur.  Going to “all stat,” unless it’s joined to “pure rolling” (which I wouldn’t mind, it’s retro) or “standard array” (which is unacceptable, but I fear would be the 4e+ way) will result in more of the colossal min-maxing we see today.

Maybe.  I mean, it does work for GURPS and such, but they have more careful stat balancing in general and tend to not promote “all combat monsters” as characters.  With D&D, now that everyone has to be a damage dealer (so the game theory goes) it becomes an exercise in high STR, except for the one guy with the abusively high CHA who automatically gets 40+ Bluff checks…

I’m not against the concept of getting rid of a lot of the rules cruft and just using stats as the base – but I have trouble believing they’d implement that right.  The temptation to layer yet more cruft on top in the new computer-gamer-uber-power world is too much.  Oh sure, I just roll DEX for archery or to avoid a fireball… But I add my level and half my buddy’s aura and feat bonuses and synergy and +2 for my class and +1 from magic and and…  Even if you managed to go back and limit stats to 3-18 instead of to 362 or whatever they go to nowadays (and then how do you reflect giants etc…?), then a simple +2 in cheese bonuses makes you auto succeed right? You would have to be very, very disciplined about removing nearly all bonuses and not letting things stack.  GURPS has this discipline – see my high level duelist character, he is very very experienced and very focused on fencing but a 16 is the very best he can do on an attack roll ever. Can D&D have this discipline, when everyone’s used to the “+3 sword?” Unlikely.

I would like to see a simple, OPEN, stripped down D&D core that removes a lot of the pain that 3e/4e have given us. Rules Cyclopedia/2e level of complexity max. That’d get me into a 5e…


16 responses to “Minimalist D&D 5e?

  1. Heh. Mxy, you are NEVER, if you live to be a hundred, EVER going to see a game designed where anyone, no matter who they are, cannot find a way to abuse it on a systematic basis in a way calculated to raise the blood pressure of gamemasters in the next zip code.

    We had Champions V2.0 and it was good. Lotta holes fixed, then came V3.0 and the GM thought his prayers had been answered. Instead, he got 32d6 kicks four times a day. When the players are ready to settle down and grow up, they will. The GM’s task (if he or she has the stomach) is to ensure the game is enjoyable for everyone else in the meanwhile.

    You the GM? Here is the big secret: you don’t HAVE to let anyone have anything better than a +3. Or chain mail. Or a small keep. Or… or whatever. The magic and technology and bonuses in your world? They are YOURS. I played for years in a campaign where the absolute best you could lay your hands on was a +1/+2 sword. We had a ball.

    Another big secret? Every world out there based on any RPG rules whatever is house-ruled from the get go, and that is the way it is supposed to BE. No one is supposed to play the rules as written – this is not a computer game and the second you start playing in Don’s Basement, your rulebook is subject to Don’s approval. Maybe he’ll let you have that Cloak of Dismemberment. Maybe not.

    So why the fuss over what’s coming next? If someone wants to min-max, they will do it either by the book or they will do it when the GM isn’t looking – with fudged die rolls. 4E blows, I agree. I think the next storytelling framework (for that is what RPGs are) should be made ready for the next graduating class of players who still like to game face-to-face but are tired of MMOG performance and are ready to BE an elf.

    But a system that cannot be abused without a supervising adult in attendance? Not possible. If it was, no one would play.

    • Yet some games are easily abused and others are not. GURPS requires some oversight, but the system is well constructed to where it’s not really necessary, unlike with about every level of every class in 3.X.

      • Yes, but is that the game? Or the type of players it attracts? There are more variables operating here than just the design of the game. I think GURPS is a lot like Champions, and chose my example for that reason. Fourth Edition Champions put the emphasis heavily on roleplaying, and NOT min-maxing the numbers – but if the GM was not enforcing the restrictions, there was nothing *inherent to the game itself* which prevented abuse.

        Which is not to say you don’t have a point. Sloppily built games, minimalist or otherwise, attract sloppy players.

  2. Nope… WotC needs to let D&D die, because as it stands its an unmarketable mess. It needs to just be left for 10 years, so people forget how fucked up WotC has made it. Because as it stands the market is to fractured to be able to support a 5th edition. There are now more people playing previous editions then there are playing & supporting the most upto date offical edition.

  3. Don’t forget the 2nd Edition Splat books… Abuse galore. The the specialty priests came out…2nd edition was jsut as bad as third. If you really want D&D in it’s most basic form. you have to go back to Basic D&D prior to Percentile Strength. That’s about as stripped down as is got. I mean really, ELF was a CLASS!!!

    • 2e splatbooks were fine. Everyone always groans about them, but not anyone who’s looked at them in context of anything that has come out since. Most of that was kneejerk reaction at the first hint you could customize a class in any way, and of course some gave more martial benefits (woot, a free weapon proficiency!) and some gave other stuff. None gave anything approaching the routine kind of +n bonuses modern prestige classes do.

      If you published any of the 2e kits as a Pathfinder class archetype, people would laugh it out the door as being underpowered/not changing enough.

  4. As much as I love playing D&D/Pathfinder, the constant “splat bloat” is one reason why I will never, ever be a DM. Ironically, as a player, I adore the options that splat bloat gives….

  5. A buddy of mine is running a modded version of 1e. We use the equipment tables out of the 1e PHB, we use the monsters straight out of the 1e Monster Manual and we get random treasure from 1e DMG. However, we don’t use thief abilities as percentages and we use a simple ability check that makes a lot of sense. He’s written about it a bit on his website

    To be honest, it would be a great version to start off 5e with since it’s simple, goes back to D&D roots and is very versatile. He also has a game world that is true to the original modules, but holy crap does he have a wacky backstory for it. Regardless, it would be a neat direction to take WotC, but you’d have to sell them on the concept.

  6. The sad thing is… this game already exists. Not enough people give it i the time it deserves but Castles & Crusades does this and really really well. Heck even the late Gary Gygax was writing for them before the DM passed on to the great dungeon in the sky.

    Steve, you buddy should take a look at it also. Really great system.

    • He owns a copy, I believe. His version is even more stripped down in terms of how the rules work I believe.

    • I have C&C and played in a game of it. It’s OK – but a little too “old school” for me in that it is so depowered. I played it and being a first level cleric with zero spells brought back to me some of the un-fun parts of early D&D. It would be a fine chassis to build on, though.

      • An example of how depowered his version is: My fighter/thief at level 5 did 62 hp of damage to a hill giant in one swing because my backstab multiplier is x3, I rolled maximum damage and he gives a half-level bonus to damage. 62 points is okay in almost any edition.

        A good portion of the reason why he started this campaign up and worked with it was to see how much the game of 1e D&D changed when you use ALL the rules. He’s not making up stuff because Gygax literally had rules for everything. It’s terrifying, but true that everyone’s experience of D&D was different because when you’re 14 you care about slaying dragons and killing stuff, but skip all the boring stuff like attack modifiers vs. AC type. We used that initially this go around and it informed our decisions about what weapons to use against armoured foes. My DM uses morale rolls and reaction rolls all the time and it really changes the flavour of the game. It would be interesting to have a time machine and be a fly on the wall at one of Gygax’s original campaigns since it would be radically different in tone just due to the players being adults than almost any other D&D session at the time.

    • Even a 1st level cleric gets a 3 level 0 spells and 1 level 1 spell per day. So you would have Detect Good/Evil, Create Water, and Cure Light Wounds. Clerics are utility anyways, not dedicated healers. I love C&C and recommend it to anyone wanting a rules light system that lets you use just about any DND material made up to 3.5 with very very minimal conversion.

  7. er.. and one other level 0 spell. Create Light maybe? what ever hehe.

  8. Pingback: D&D Next Early Thoughts – It Works But It’s Boring | Geek Related

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