I’ve been holding off on writing too much about D&D ZEXAL until I got a chance to play it. Rummaging through the books looking for theory is all well and good, but a gaming system is a system for gaming and you can’t make a valid assessment of it until you game with it. So after a far longer baking period than is strictly necessary I finally got into a short (four-session) local campaign. We played at 8th-level in a custom setting without any house rules, as far as I’m aware, and I got a chance to see how the system met my expectations based on what I’d heard and read.
Expectation: Monsters are dangerous. Since hit points scale with level but defenses don’t, enemies of all levels gain arbitrarily high damage capable of pancaking players. If they can get past a PC’s defenses, which isn’t necessarily easy, they can do bricks of damage that make it nearly impossible for a healer to keep pace.
Actual: Mostly no. We only had three or four fights in the campaign so it wasn’t always easy to tell, but it felt like monsters rarely swung for obscene amounts of damage. It did feel monsters teaming up on a PC could easy take him or her out and there was little if anything the rest of the party could do about it, which makes any tactical enemy group terrifying. We also saw the return of save-or-die effects, capable of knocking out a character in one hit. I’m not convinced they have any place in gaming whatsoever and I’m not happy to see them back.
Expectation: Magic items are powerful, but rare. They serve an in-game story element more than they improve characters.
Actual: Exactly correct. Everybody in the party received a magic item at the beginning of the campaign, but only one of them provided any sort of persistent numerical bonus, and even then only against specific enemies. Two of the items provided a bonus only when used by a person other than the person who had them, two had powers the players weren’t allowed to use until the DM allowed it, and one was only useful in the final battle (there’s some overlap there). They were neat and cinematic, but for ninety percent of the campaign they just sat in our inventory while we stared at them hopefully. When the system is based around treating magic items like deadbeat roommates, it’s not ideal.
Note that I don’t blame the DM for any of this, even though he gave us the items, intentionally withheld information about them, and placed unknowable limits on their function. From what I understand about the system this is exactly how 5E is supposed to work.
Expectation: Advancement has a much lower impact than in earlier editions. Players get class abilities and spells, but rarely do any numbers increase, and money barely exists as a gameplay concept.
Actual: Ug, this. We didn’t actually level, so I can’t say how I feel about leveling per se. But I can say I was a L8 cleric who could not afford holy water, because at no point in his or her pre-campaign career does a character scrounge up more than starting money. I rejected spell after spell every day because they had material components I couldn’t afford, making spellcasting another resource with scarcity determined by the DM. By the time I’d built my character I basically had a L1 cleric with a excess of hit points, spells, and languages. If I want my character to put years of effort into something and barely have anything to show for it, I’ll give him an office job.
Expectation: Character customization is greatly reduced. There are only three types of fighters, seven types of clerics, two types of druids, etc., and these types cannot be combined or adjusted in any meaningful way. Feats are optional and thus ignorable, allowing characters to define themselves solely by class. The system even strongly recommends you pick starting equipment from a class-based list with little variance for builds the designers did not expect.
Actual: Sort of. In terms of mechanics and backstories I felt incredibly constrained by the system. But my mechanical constraints were within the tolerance I afford to any Core rules, which are understandably limited by page count. The character constraints were also within tolerance; D&D 5E wants you to be a special hero who long ago gave up normal professions because being an all-around great guy is your vocation, but since that’s mostly what I want to play I’m not offended. Within the system limits I was able to design the character I wanted and one that fit the campaign. Reskinning didn’t hurt.
Expectation: Challenge Rating isn’t nearly the hard number it was before. Players can reasonably fight monsters with a wide level range.
Actual: This is probably the design decision about which I was most excited, and I’m happy to say it panned out. At a party of four L8 characters, we fought L5 monsters and felt like we were legitimately threatened. We also fought a L13 monster and, thanks to some lucky rolls and timely buffs, ruined it. Since accuracy and defenses aren’t level-based we could fight enemies from a broader range and worry more about their abilities and tactics than their hard numbers.
I’m both happy and disappointed to say playing 5E felt a lot like I thought it would, happy because I was right but disappointed because I wanted to be pleasantly surprised. Like 4E I doubt 5E will become my game of choice but it excels at a particular type of game feel, and now I have a better idea of what that feel is going in so I can prepare myself mentally. I could see going for 5E when I want to run something quieter, without the spectacle of 3E or Pathfinder, and it might even be the right system for the In Over Your Head campaign I’ve been tossing around for a few years. But I don’t see myself moving the Eight Arms setting to it any time soon.