What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:

What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:
Castles & Crusades Players Handbook - 7th Print Edition

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Weekend R&R: D&D 5th Edition and C&C

Well, it's safe to say that Wizards of the Coast has a solid success on its hands with the release the new Player's Handbook for the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  Many people seem to really like the new ruleset and, I know of people were were not at all impressed with the Basic Set were won over by the contents of the PHB.  Simply put, D&D5 is a great system and had it come along when I was ready to toss in the towel with 3.x Edition back in 2006, I would probably be still playing D&D to this day.

Before going further... if you are just looking for a quick comparison, you can find that HERE.  Otherwise, read on.

Back in 2006, when I just about had it with the endless Feats, rules discussions, necessity of miniatures and combats that seemed to take forever, I started looking across the internet for a rules-hack or house rules for D&D that stripped things like Feats and made miniatures optional.  For some reason, on of the searches led me to discover a game called Castles & Crusades.  Intrigued and encouraged by some of the things I saw, I took a chance and ordered a copy of the C&C books through Amazon (the PHB and M&T).  My package was delivered a few days later and I haven't really looked back.  C&C allowed me to continue playing the type of D&D that I've known before 3rd Edition but also embraced some of the modern conveniences brought about such as a unified task resolution system (the d20) and other things like ascending Armor Class.  There were no Feats... no endless list of skills... and best of all, Miniatures were hardly mentioned at all.  It was a streamlined and fast paced style of D&D.

Here we are 8 years later and Wizards of the Coast has finally given me what I had originally searched for.  The new edition of D&D clearly embraces much of what has been found in the various retroclones and simulacrum style games.  Quite a lot of work has gone into the new game and a very open playtesting was done to help create this edition.  It is no coincidence that the build up to this new edition also saw the reprints of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Edition material as well as a premium boxed reprint of the OD&D rules.  Even if these reprints has nothing to do with the idea of fostering good-will among the old D&D fans, it was certainly a way to keep things rolling given the disaster the 4th Edition ended up being.

The Fifth Edition is much more streamlined and gives the feel of a rules light game which puts it in a similar playing field that Castles & Crusades occupied for the better part of a decade.  There are certainly commonalities between the two as well as enough differences to set themselves apart from each other.

Character Generation & Classes

Character generation in both games are very similar.  An array of stats are generated (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha) by rolling 3d6.  Ability modifiers are a bit scaled up in D&D5 compared to C&C but this is a very minor difference.  An 18 stat in C&C would yield a +3 bonus while D&D5 would yield a +4 for the same score.  As a character advances, D&D5 presents opportunities for ability scores to increase.

EDIT - 5th Edition actually does 4d6 and drop the lowest unless you are using the given array of stats or the point buy system.  I've personally been using 4d6 and drop the lowest for just over 20 years now as a house rule and I'm sure I'm not the only one.  Guess it looks like D&D has finally caught up.  ;)

Both games are reliant on a level based system that centers on various archetypes available for play.  In other words, it's a class based system as opposed to a skill based one.  The classes themselves also retain a strong familiarity to those ever popular archetypes so you will immediately recognize the rogue, wizard, fighter, and cleric in either game.

However, looking at a particular class side by side, a neutral observer would immediately notice that a D&D5 character class seems to offer 'more'.  The truth here is yes and no.  While leveling up in the new edition almost guarantees you a change and/or class feature of some kind, most are in line with the sort of things you would expect to find for these archetypes.  There is more which is 'the same' that what is 'different' if you look at the broad picture.  These aren't overpowered when you start making a critical comparison though attempts were made to make classes more interesting as well as address some decades old issues.  The Fighter for instance has a lot more given to it in order to stay relevant and interesting.

A couple of classes have also had a Hit Die bump ... notably the Rogue and the Wizard (and Sorcerer and Warlock).  The Rogue class now sports a handy d8 and the everyone's favorite Arcane spellcaster, a d6.  This, in addition to the ability score bumps and higher than classic D&D modifiers, have many an old school player want to cry foul and make claims that these are the first stages of power imbalance.  I've read that these things make characters harder to kill because they have more hitpoints at the outset.  More difficult to kill?  Hardly.  The first encounter in a recent D&D5 campaign that started almost killed the Druid.  The poor Druid got in the way of a boar.  There may have been a critical involved -- I don't remember.  But what I do remember is that the first encounter had the group (most haven't tried 5th Edition yet) have a taste of the Death Saving Throws.  Given the circumstances, help wasn't immediately available which meant the player had to roll all the required die rolls in order to self-stabilize.  He was lucky.  Combined with the Instant Kill rolls, Death could visit the adventuring party often.  As for the higher stats and hit points argument, well, everybody and everything has that edge so that edge is effectively neutralized.

If anything, this little boost will give starting characters a small marginal chance to see second level.

One of the nice things is the attempt to diversify the basic classes allowing them to specialize or choose a particular path.  Citing the Rogue again, at 3rd level, they can become a 'Thief', and 'Assassin', and an 'Arcane Trickster'.  Each class offers some sort of specialization in a similar manner.  While this is interesting and some fans have been raving about this, it isn't all that revolutionary.  Castles & Crusades has a base of 13 archetypes to choose from and its Rogue and Assassin are just set up as different classes.  The recent 'Black Box' set introduced a 'Thief' class and many other supplements have come out with different classes to choose from.  However, when you look at something like the Cleric in D&D5, you will find that a Cleric will choose a Domain (in line with their god or religion).  Once again, nothing new here but it does show a very deliberate and elegant way or organizing the class options.  In the end, an Assassin or a Thief is a Rogue and a Cleric who worships Life and another that celebrates War are still just Clerics.

Advancement is another interesting aspect in the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  We've already mentioned the ability score increases and covered that there is typically a 'gain' of sorts on most level-ups.  One of the NICEST things in the new edition are the experience point advancement tables.  For years, I have encountered many who decry and lament about the slow progression and lack of survivability of 1st and 2nd level play.  People who like D&D (or C&C) seem to enjoy 4th level and higher as it gives them more hitpoints and the characters are simply more competent.  I mean, who hasn't played a Wizard with the major character goal to reach level 5 to be able to cast a Fireball spell.  In the new D&D, you will still need to get to 5th level to case it but only 6,500 experience will be required to attain this.  Compare this to the 20,800 required in C&C.  Advancement is much swifter in D&D than older editions and other games like C&C.  The first few levels are faster still compared to earning later levels and the reason for this is to reflect what is described as 'four tiers' of advancement.  The first tier, for example, covers levels 1 though 4 and really represents the time spent as a 'novice'.  This is much shorter than the time spent in other tiers and this is a good thing.  I know that there will be those that don't like this method at all and prefer the tried method of a slow and gradual advancement but I believe that, the rapid initial advancement coupled with the frequent 'rewards' for leveling up just reinforces why a class-based leveling mechanic is still as successful as it is after four decades of play.

Game Mechanics

Once again, many similarities between the new Dungeons & Dragons and Castles & Crusades and more than one might have expected.

Like in Castles & Crusades, saves are directly tied in to Abilities.  Gone are the Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saves.  You save with a relevant ability score as dictated by the DM.  Dragon breathes fire in your general direction?  A Dexterity save will do nicely.  A contest of the minds?  How about an Intelligence save.  As simple as that.  For fans of C&C that keep on insisting that the Siege Mechanic is a great way to emulate and attempt various stunts and maneuvers, well the good news is there is nothing to prevent you from doing the same in the new D&D.  Things are just a little different though but work equally well.

In C&C, your primary abilities essentially grant a +6 modifier to saves, skill, and ability checks to the associated ability stores.  In D&D, there is something called a proficiency bonus.  The proficiency bonus works a bit different and starts at +2.  This will increase as the character advances to levels to a +6 at 17th level.  This proficiency check applies to skill associated with the stat, saving throws, and your ability to fight with weapons you are proficient in.  This last bit is very interesting since they've essentially eliminated a 'Base to Hit' bonus which previous editions of the game relied on and C&C still does.  As first, some might take issue with the fact that a Wizard could be as proficient as hitting someone with a staff as a Fighter would but a Fighter has other abilities to draw on with a Wizard would not.  More importantly, a character trying to use a weapon they are NOT proficient in will never get better no matter how high level a character they become.  In other editions, a penalty would have been -4 applied to the attack roll but, in time, a character effectively nullifies this anyway.  It seems a much simpler solution.  The other thing about this proficiency bonus is that it applies SPECIFICALLY to skills one is proficient with and not an ability.  If you have an Athletics skill, then a proficiency bonus could be applied when trying to climb a wall or swim against a strong current.  If you don't have Athletics, then you don't get the proficiency bonus even if you have Strength as one of your key attributes.  C&C differentiates this a bit by added level to skills or competencies associated with an archetype.  Theoretically, you would roll your d20, add your prime bonus (if applicable), add your level (if applicable), and your ability mod.  In D&D you roll d20, add your proficiency bonus, and then your ability mod.  The result is D&D in this case proves to be LESS of a numbers game than C&C is.  Given how D&D shaped up with the advent of 3rd Edition, this is a really good thing to see.

It should also be pointed out that while neither system is really a skill based one, there are skills to be fond in both games.  C&C largely eliminates the need for them in virtue of the Siege system where that +6 associated bonus plus level modifier is a substitute for these unnamed skills.  There is no skill list though some classes have skill-like abilities tied to them.  Dungeons & Dragons *was* a game that had a much more pronounced focus on an itemized skill list but it has been seriously curtailed in this new addition.  They seem more broad than they had been previously and fewer in number.  This should take away the number of skill checks in a given game and, once again, there is less playing with numbers since you don't actually ever put points in a skill.

In a further attempt to simplify matters, one of the best new features of D&D is the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic.  Like the previous editions of D&D, C&C has a bunch of numbers for situational modifiers.  Castles & Crusades is a simple enough game but there are some for elevation in combat, concealment, and the like.  Being a rules like game, a person running a C&C game will reference these numbers from behind their GM Screen, quickly consult the book, or simply pull out the numbers from memory or pull it out of their asses as needed to keep the game flowing.  Easy enough but there are situations were multiple bonuses and penalties start flying around the table in the heat of combat.  Thankfully C&C has kept these numbers to a minimum, but D&D5 has managed to mostly eliminate the need altogether.  Party finds themselves in an advantageous situation?  They roll an extra d20 and take the best roll.  If they find themselves in a disadvantageous situation?  The roll an extra d20 and take the worst roll.  If advantages and disadvantages appear for a given situation, they all cancel each other out no matter how many there are.  Period.

As for combat itself -- they run much the same way they always did.  Armor Class, Hit Points, Attack rolls are still all the same.  Combat seems a bit more simplified in the new edition of D&D and both games run reasonably smooth and fast now.

The Rest of It

The rest of the new edition is just a lot of little refinements.  The spellcasters got a couple of tweaks so that their magic is still decidedly Vancian but with a bit more flexibility thrown in.  There is an emphasis on creating background in the new edition of D&D which is something I always supported in my C&C and older D&D games.  In this case, playing to a character's background (Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws) can grant you 'Inspiration' which can give you an Advantage for a particular roll.  Multiclassing works well enough since all classes advance at the same rate (unlike C&C) and Feats are COMPLETELY optional to the point that even if they are used in a game, it is possible to have a character never take them.  Spells have also been streamlined while retaining their roots but increasing the versatility of some of them which adds to a spell casters versatility.

Frankly there is a whole lot of stuff to like in this new edition of D&D if you are familiar with various older incarnations of the game, or if you happen to play a game like Castles & Crusades, Labyrinth Lord, or even Swords & Wizardry.  Hardcore Pathfinder fans may be a bit disappointed as will the FEW 4th Edition fans since, upon initial examination, some of the hardcore min/maxing will have been nerfed in this version of the game.

But what if, like me, you are already playing something like C&C?  Well as I started off by saying, had this game come out in 2006, things would be a different story.  I'm very happy with C&C and will continue with it as my main game.  However, I would happily join in and play a 5th Edition D&D game and continue to support the game as well.  The differences between the two as far as my enjoyment goes are too little for me to be even concerned about it.  Some things that the new edition of D&D brings are certainly worthwhile.  My top three picks would be experience point advancement, the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, and the proficiency system.  The two things I didn't care for are very minor in comparison: I like the reduced skill list but I think it would have needed to be reduced further (if not eliminated) or balanced out a bit more.  In this latter example, there are 4 physical skills (none associated with Constitution) compared to 14 mental skills.  The other thing I didn't care for were how they presented the sample backgrounds with tables for traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws.  I like the suggestions but when categorized in the manner they are, a new player may not know where to start.  On the other hand, making them tables you can roll on was kind of neat and a great way to get some NPCs fleshed out in a hurry.

If anything, I would likely be tempted to borrow things for my C&C game.  The Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic would be extremely easy to port in and taking a crack at modifying the Experience Point Progression tables for the classes would be a great way to port in two of my three favorite features.