Saturday, September 2, 2023

Level Up: Advanced 5E - Staying Power

I put this game aside for a while, and I ended up missing it. 

A 5E-based game does not do that to me. Why? I don't really like 5E; it is just a collection of combat abilities and powers. Out of combat, 5E sucks and has very little depth. You will typically have the charisma class do all the talking while everyone else stands around and waits. The highest passive perception party member spots the traps and hidden items like a radar system. The ranger is there as the 'checkbox that we don't get lost' and avoids wasting the players' time with a GM sidetrack or encounters on the way to the dungeon.

5E has this video game mentality: "If it is not in the officially published module, you are wasting your player's time." It actively fights against GM creativity with passive skill checks. Unlike the OSR, where you have to search that chest before you open it, the passive system kicks in and makes players lazy - well, I should have spotted it! Is a goblin hidden around a corner? Well, I should have seen him!

5E goes out of its way to trivialize out-of-combat abilities and to minimize GM creativity. You play a game like Call of Cthulhu or Traveller, and suddenly, those characters seem deep and complex. Those games have a focus on non-combat abilities as their primary design goal.

5E also trivializes death and danger to the point where a great sword could cut your character in half multiple times in a day, be brought back with a healing word, and be fine - 100% healthy - with infinite bisections. It is the worst part of the game and even worse than the 4E MMO-isms it brought in.

So why did I miss A5E?

Well, it gives characters a considerable amount of non-combat abilities and bonuses, many of them dealing with the other 2 pillars of play - social and exploration. The game supports all three modes of play through character creation and advancement. Exploration, navigation, and survival are essential! Where you rest matters. Your social abilities matter.

You can't recover from death an infinite number of times.

This game was created by 5E fans who had problems with many parts of the game, and they did the hard work and fixed them. They kept inspiration as well but merged the concept with a destiny system. Where Tales of the Valiant seems more like "a compatible 5E mod," - A5E seems more like a complete rebuild.

If the original Warhammer FRP was the UK's answer to D&D, Level Up A5E is the UK's answer to 5E.

It also shares a little of Warhammer's grim and gritty DNA, but it retains the play and feeling of 5E. You will not 'get away with' ignoring overland travel. You will not ignore food, water, and even light. You will not marginalize social encounters, and everyone at the table will have tools to bring to a social encounter. You will carefully consider where and how you rest. You will not get away with the party hiding in a small closet in the middle of a deadly dungeon and taking a long rest next to the entrance.

Martial classes are fun and have options. Casters aren't nerfed. You feel powerful, but you also have vulnerabilities. You track resources. Your party stamina matters. You can't just 'close your eyes and push through to the boss battle' like you can in a videogame.

I can hear UK players calling old 5E out, laughing at the stupidity of what the game forces players to do, calling parts of the old 5E design rubbish and lazy, and then fixing it in their own version.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

"We are in the Tomb of Horrors, right? Well, let's all climb into this closet and take a short rest!"

That sort of statement should be met with stares of disbelief followed by laughter. You are in a horror module. If this were Dungeon Crawl Classics, I would have the closet be a giant mouth, the door grows teeth, and you are all swallowed alive; please roll new characters. Save-or-die if I am feeling generous. Even in old D&D, that is six 1-in-6 (or 2-in-6) wandering monster rolls for that hour of downtime. Prepare to be surprised and run an extra combat without the benefits of the rest.

Try putting away your old 5E books and forcing yourself to just play with this. Don't say, "I wish they would have made this an add-on for 5E," because that argument marginalizes their hard work here.

5E is reductive and brings everything down to the combat lowest denominator. Combat power - by the numbers - is all that matters. This is a very American perspective on fantasy and roleplaying, and it isn't always correct. Frankly, it gets tiring after a while, and One D&D is leaning more into this numbers-based mobile game theory.

A5E was designed in a different mindset, where there is much more to being an adventurer than where your position on a hypothetical damage spreadsheet puts you. Your character is twice as deep as Tales of the Valiant (which borrows some ideas from A5E) but ten times deeper than a base 5E character. When I design a base 5E character, I think about combat power first. When I design an A5E character, I am forced to consider abilities and powers out of combat - and how these would help my party.

If you play A5E by itself, you see the system in an entirely new light. What it could be.

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