Saturday, September 9, 2023

The 5E Thing

I wanted to use Esper Genesis for a Star Frontiers ' 200 years after' style campaign, but it fell apart. This is a great game, with many compelling character powers and classes, along with one of the best "Mass Effect" vibes - with no magic - that I have ever gotten from a sci-fi game.

But it isn't Star Frontiers.

These days, the excellent Frontier Space is my Star Frontiers. Nothing is close, nor does anything work as well as this. The original Star Frontiers rules work but show their age in many ways. With FS, the action economy is fantastic, the support for many sci-fi standards is right there, and the rules give me easy character creation and options for improving characters that beat the original game. Scores above 100% in FS do not break the game; the game is designed for higher-level play from the start.

But the fascinating thing to look at here is why EG failed for this setting. EG is a Mass Effect-feeling version of 5E, a stand-alone system with fantastic classes and non-magic powers. It should be an excellent choice.

And then I realized that, at times, the secret sauce design of 5E can suck. The entire 5E design theory is to keep granting powers and abilities at every level. 5E is heavily influenced by mobile game design, and constant reinforcement and power grade make you want to play "one more level."

But 5E has a dirty underside with the design. Because the notion of power is centralized within the character, external items and wealth are deemphasized. The game reinforces a very inward-looking design, where "my character is my god" sort of feeling. You gather so many abilities and powers it gets to be like a bad MMO, where you fill up 100 action buttons (and still need more), and how you "play" the game involves rotations of what buttons you press, in what order, and on what timing.

5E is a very "me" focused game. Wealth and magic items are relatively unimportant. The world around you is less important. The story is less important. The NPCs in the world are unimportant. The god you serve is the exponential power curve, and the power is mostly inside you.

With Star Frontiers and Frontier Space, character power is relatively linear. What is important in a sci-fi game like this? Having credits to buy a starship and maintain it. Establishing contacts, finding missions, and building a story. Relationships with NPCs are essential. Story arcs are important. Character power happens naturally, but it is not a driving force.

Your adventure motivation is for the story and not to gain power.

The sources of power in traditional games are often outside the character - wealth, relationships, accomplishments, treasures, and a few other things. Very few character types are built on that 'internal power' design philosophy - wizards, clerics, and a few others - but it is not 100% that all the classes are inwardly focused like that.

In 5E, I stare at those character sheets and wonder, how can I get to another level? The 5E design is based on a very me-centric and selfish design philosophy. It is a superhero game where nothing outside your list of powers matters.

When I want to be a space trucker, visit a star system, figure out what is going on, and how I can flip my cargo for a profit - I am externally focused. No power will do that for me. I need to get my hands dirty and roleplay. I need to make friends and get into trouble or have trouble finding me. My eyes need to be open. I need to ask the right questions. I need to meet people and determine how my next space trucking run will expand my bank account. Someone may need help along the way.

The EG classes and powers did not feel correct for a Frontier campaign.

They felt so inwardly focused and took over my thinking of how my characters interact with the world.

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