I recently ran 5e for a group of people I’d never played games with before, many of whom were new to RPGs or had only played in Adventurer’s League before. (I’ve DMed 5e before, most notably right after it came out, using the published “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” adventure. That game ended in a TPK, and was kinda fun, but I don’t think anyone was particularly enthusiastic about the game. The following is not about that game, but I think the outcome of play was essentially the same I detail below).
What was I hoping to get out of D&D in this instance? I think I just wanted a sort of uncritical “fun” to emerge, how it seems to happen for people like Matt Colville — I like the widgets that D&D players get to fiddle about using their characters, and I like the fantasy milieu it presents; in particular, in Eberron, which was the setting I ran my game in. I was exhausted with “meaningful” games about serious subjects, which get a lot of play in my area. I was exhausted with trying to keep up with the “new” in game design, and having the conversation be design-focused rather than play-focused. I wanted to have fun fantasy stories, and D&D was booming, and it seemed fun to just meet an entirely new group of people (i.e., people I hadn’t played games with before, yes, but also people who sort of came to D&D through Critical Role and greater nerd culture; most of whom had never heard of even Apocalypse World or any games other than D&D).
I didn’t want to railroad my players; neither illusionism
are interesting or fun for me. I wanted to “play to find out what happens” in fifth edition, but it turns out that is extremely difficult to do in 5e, due to the nature of DM prep and the lack of player priority in the system. The players certainly never said “I want to experience your story, Hans,” and they also seemed totally fine with making whatever decision their characters “would” make, to hell with the drama of the current scene, or whatever. But at the end of the day, I had carrots (because I had monsters and story hooks prepped, because how else do you run D&D?), and, at the end of the day, they knew that for play to work, someone would have to eat the carrots.
This was fine, as far as it goes, but it never quite felt like...playing a game. It didn’t feel like they were “playing through the DM’s story,” or like we were “playing to find out what happens [to the characters]”, it simply felt like I was presenting scenarios, the players were responding to them in the expected way, and at the end not much interesting had taken place, because I wasn’t and didn’t want to create a story to present to the players, but as players of the game they didn’t have player-priority tools to move the game in any particular direction beyond the bounds of what their characters’ abilities offered them within the scenario. I could either present a story (which I didn’t want to do), or I could leave it up to play and have emergent story. Whereas OSR-style D&D allows interesting emergent play to happen because of the challenge-based nature of play (i.e., the reward system), 5e has no real space for emergent play. Consider that the base rules for XP (kill monsters), is almost entirely done away with in nearly every WotC-published 5e adventure. They love Milestone experience, which is “whenever the DM decides you level, you level.”
Anyway, I had some idea, from my previous experience running the Hoard of the Dragon Queen game, what I wanted to get out of 5e’s mechanics. I wanted to run a game that forced the players to make interesting and difficult decisions, about three different things: 1) resources, 2) tactics, 3) the situation at hand, i.e., what NPCs are doing and asking of the characters and what pressure monsters and their violence are putting on the characters.
To that end, I modified the rest system, using ideas taken from 13th Age. The way I modified it was to declare that Short Rests and Long Rests were decoupled entirely from in-fiction time or actions. Characters earned the benefits of a Short Rest after every two encounters. After every six encounters, characters earned the benefits of a Long Rest. I was hoping to solve the problem, among others, of the Five Minute Adventuring Day, and I did. However, there was never any real sense that, even with this system, the players had to make interesting and difficult decisions in combat. Perhaps this modification could be designed to better make this a reality (i.e., more playtesting and tweaking of exactly how many encounters earn exactly what kind of respite), or perhaps this sort of play will just never be able to manifest within the system of 5e. Also, after about ten sessions, we abandoned my modification at the request of the players. They had agreed to it up-front, but after playing with it a while they disliked it. They wanted the “realism” of rest to work.
So, basically, I think 5e works well in a Participationist mode, and in no other. I was hoping for interesting emergent story from the freewheeling nature of task-resolution-oriented play, but I didn’t see that happen and I don’t see how it can. This feels like lessons that were learned decades ago on the Forge, but hey, I never played much D&D till now, and I certainly never gave long-term DMing in the traditional style a shot until now.