The essence of D&D, and arguably of tabletop roleplaying at all, is randomness. For years it was right there in the name: D&D ran on the d20 system, where players roll a 20-sided die and use rules to interpret the result. Everything about the system comes down to rolling somewhere, and even non-random choices like “you can Hide after making an attack” are actually ways to affect the randomness (here, creating a random chance to hide where normally no such chance would exist). It feels a bit silly to critique 5E for a mechanic it shares with (almost literally) every other game.
The issue at hand is the amount of randomness. Obviously there’s a sweet spot. Too much randomness and there’s no player agency, but too little and there’s no point to the system at all. Which, as I write it, it a succinct way of stating my point: the more randomness there is, the less say players have over what happens, and vice versa. Now that I’m nearly twenty sessions into 5E I think I can safely say the randomness is far more than in any system I’ve played, and that’s incredibly bad.
After several weeks of illness and travel, my first D&D 5E campaign has finally wrapped up. But in the long stretch of time between last two sessions, I realized a normal campaign post-mortem wouldn’t really cover the things I wanted to say. I think it’s more helpful to discuss each issue separately so it has the space it needs, and I’d like to begin by telling you about a pro wrestling match I saw right after the penultimate session.
It featured two popular, skilled men in a match that had minor implications in their storyline but was more an excuse to give both of them something to do. It was a gripping, back-and-forth affair where both competitors pulled out surprising, athletic maneuvers, and they kept the action moving quickly and constantly. Commentary covered it well, the crowd stayed interested, there were no ridiculous shenanigans to take away from the match or the result, and both wrestlers came out looking like beasts, one for his skill and the other for his determination against great odds. It was fun, it was entertaining, it was excellently performed, and I hated it.
Reading a character sheet isn’t easy, especially when you don’t know what you’re looking for. “Longsword: +6 to attack, 1d8+3 damage” doesn’t actually mean anything without context, and that context is usually buried in gaming rules and minutia. Even if you have a frame of reference, like knowing you’re looking at a 2nd-level fighter in 3.5E, the context changes based on the campaign style (“Why don’t you have a magic weapon yet?”), the challenges (“You’re almost guaranteed to kill any goblin in a single hit, that’s ridiculous.”), the setting (“A longsword? So you’re showing off that you’re a foreigner?”), and too many other factors to list. I can’t give you a detailed primer on how to know if your character’s abilities, or the abilities of your players’ characters, fit the character or characters you want to play. That’s something you have to figure out for yourself within your campaign framework.
What I can do is give you examples of reading character sheets for information and what we learned from those examples. These aren’t direct recommendations like “if a character’s attack bonus falls below the recommended range for an attack bonus at the character’s level, that character is not interested in front-line combat”. Hard and fast rules don’t work for this. Instead they’re concepts, gentle nudges that say “here’s what we noticed, here’s what it meant, here’s how we reacted or did not react, and here’s the result” to demonstrate the general flow of this activity.
There is perhaps no less fruitful question in my daily life then “what do you want for dinner?” The perfect answer is something direct and attainable like “grilled cheese sandwiches with ham like you made three weeks ago”. Acceptable answers include “pizza”. But the most common answer is some version of “I don’t know.” It’s frustrating, it’s unhelpful, and it is completely reasonable.
In my experience, rarely does it actually mean “I don’t know.” It usually means something much more nuanced like “I want a meal that’s warm and hearty but not too heavy, strong on umami but light on salt, preferably heavily sauced, but right now I don’t have the wherewithal to express that.” A person typically knows what they want to eat, but they can’t express it in language. They just know a particular dish or place or culinary style sounds good or bad, and they consider those dishes and places and styles rather than finding the links among them to get a picture of their current perfect meal. That’s neither wrong nor surprising. It takes knowledge of food to be able to say what you want in food terms, and it takes knowledge of self to be able to even begin looking at your wants in that way, and most people don’t have both in sufficient capacity.
I don’t spend a lot of time here talking about how my current campaigns are going. I generally only mention what we’re doing week-by-week when it’s something I can apply to gaming in general or an opportunity to make fun of my bad luck. There’s probably some fun to be had in a narrative, in-character description of what we do each session, but that’s not really in keeping with a GMing advice blog.
Luckily there are other blogs, and one of my players is keeping an online journal for our campaign. Please thrill to the adventures of Dael, written by a player who heard me say “I want this campaign to be darker and more serious” and decided to play a drunken master of a monastic order founded on a typo. If you really what to go blog diving, this is the same player who brought us Egan Mospru, another character in the same setting, and Lao, Laotzu, and Lao!ze, the latter of whom is in this setting by virtue of becoming a god. I’m pretty sure this character will survive the campaign and complete his story, but it’s my first go at 5th Edition. So far I’ve only almost killed three characters in three sessions, so fingers crossed!