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D&D 5e: The Other Side of the Screen

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In every edition of D&D I've played, I've spent much more time as a DM than as a PC. I played maybe two sessions of 2e, compared to the hundred-or-so that I ran. I ran considerably more 3.x than 2e, maybe double or so, but also played a good bit more; instead of 50:1, it was probably more like 20:1. Of all the editions of D&D, 4e is my high-water mark - I probably only ran two sessions for every one that I played (special thanks go to Stands-in-Fire and the Marsupialmancer for this being the case). I've been running 5e since the beginning of the D&D Next public playtest, and because it's mostly been a single ongoing campaign, my session log even tells me how much Next/5e I've run: 54 sessions. Up against that, six sessions as a PC, spread across three different characters. Because my view is otherwise so slanted toward being a DM, I wanted to say a few words about 5e from the other side of the screen. There are some great game-running lessons to learn from both of my DMs.

The Reborn Campaign

I mentioned Reborn back when I created a Divine Trickster subclass for one of the other PCs in the group. I'm playing a cleric, now 4th level, in this campaign. The non-standard cosmology and rules of magic mean that I am much more careful with healing than I might otherwise be, because I've always loved playing healers and don't mind using most of my spell slots for that. Anyway, I'm not doing that here.

The central story of this campaign is that the PCs are at the forefront of a re-awakening of magic and the gods, who are also dragons. As part of our role, the gods have granted us a wizard's tower of many and varied properties (most of which we don't know yet), angelic servants, and powerful magic items. The campaign runs in a mostly-sandbox style - we have a long list of tasks, very general guidance as to order of priority, and otherwise we're free to wander.

Power and Authority

The first big lesson to take away from this game is: why wait until mid-to-high-levels to make PCs responsible for the fate of the world? We have been given the responsibility and (arguably) the power, but definitely not the worldly authority, to complete the re-awakening of the gods, to... some important end. Well, the two gods at the head of the pantheon say it's important. Could be a trap. The point is, a lot of our interactions hang on the huge imbalance between the urgency of our mission and our credibility. This is often true in games, but here, the DM has also given us a foundation for actually developing political cachet, and the kinds of resources that are worth trading on a larger scale.

We Are Outgunned, Outmanned...

There are other factions at work as well, of course. They have a big lead on us in knowledge of magic, the geography of the wider world, double-entry bookkeeping, basically everything except direct contact with the gods, a few very potent magic items, and some angelic assistance. Whenever we leave the wizard's tower, our home base, we're jumping into the deep end of the pool, and it turns out that we're more or less surrounded by enemies.

I've recently become very interested in how being on the back foot and aware of an overpowering threat changes player actions in games, as I mentioned in my review of Sorcerer King. This campaign has been a great example of that, as we are still figuring out just how bad of a position we're in... and every new piece of news just makes it worse. But, well, persevering and finding hope in bleak situations is an essential piece of heroism.

Moral Questions

My cleric serves the goddess known as the Queen, whose portfolio covers Secrecy, Knowledge, and Vengeance. He didn't grow up as an acolyte, getting gradually indoctrinated into Her holy mysteries - one day he was a gentle herbalist and a father of two, the next day he had sworn himself to Her service because he wanted knowledge and we weren't getting out of the room without someone taking the job.

But, well, the gifts she gives are very worrying. Um, I have one magic item that refreshes my spell slots when I feed souls to it. So that seems fine, right? Whenever I heal anything with magic, I have to decide who takes the damage that I'm removing. It can go to me, or to Her, to do with as she pleases. I'm sure it's fine...? So I have tried to control everything that I can, because Soren is deeply aware of his responsibility for his own actions - but in the face of overwhelming danger, his caution and moral high ground are starting to erode. His moral turmoil is certainly interesting to play!

To read more from our awesome DM, check out his blog on writing and his novels!

The Liel Campaign

Kainenchen runs the other 5e campaign I play in, set in her planar-crossroads world of Liel. Much like my Aurikesh campaign, she has a larger player roster than plays in any single session. Right now, the group is split into two teams, who are exploring apparently different but possibly linked dungeons. I have a character in each team, which is why I'm in two campaigns but have three characters. When and if the two parties unite into a single, fluid roster, I expect I'll try to keep the two characters about even in level, and play them based on which other characters are in the team for that session. Anyway, the two characters are Constant, a tiefling diviner who is now 3rd level, and Sakir, a 2nd-level dragonborn fighter.

This campaign is unlike any I've played before, because Kainenchen is chiefly comfortable running fairly "pure" dungeon crawls, at least when running D&D. In my whole experience of D&D, the longest dungeon crawl I've ever played was maybe seven sessions that were adapted for Eberron from I3: Pharaoh. I'm not accustomed to running extended dungeon crawls myself - I'm much more comfortable with the players returning to a home-base-like location at least every few sessions. My point here is that I have a lot to learn from this campaign.

Dungeon Crawls Can Be Political

Constant's group has encountered one intelligent magic sword already, though it wasn't for us to wield - instead, we helped to resolve a dispute between three higher-level adventurers over which of them would wield the sword. The solution we went with involved modest but long-term consequences for geopolitics and arranging a new employee for my character's boss... and probably making an enemy out of the one of them that got nothing of what she wanted. This was in the first session.

We also learned that there are other intelligent magic swords in this dungeon, and they have each, er, carved out their own territory. There's some sort of delicate d├ętente between them, and by resolving things so that one sword has left the dungeon, it can't help but collapse into bloodshed. In the second session, we continued exploring, planning to avoid one particular sword's territory that we knew was off to the east. Then we discovered a secret door, and lost our little goldfish brains, because how could you not investigate the secret door when you hear strange noises just beyond it? 

This is how we wound up fighting slightly toned-down slaadi at second level, which we barely survived, thanks in part to accidentally exploiting an emotional weakness that made their optimal tactics fall apart, and in part because Kainenchen's house rules beef us up a good bit. We had a desperate, close fight - but the slaadi plane shifted away, and the political fallout is that the evil sword that they work for is now very confused about what the hell is going on and sending scouts to figure us out. It's a desperate, tense situation that emphasizes interaction over straight-up murder, even in the midst of what is otherwise a pretty traditional dungeon crawl.

Unusual Team Dynamics

This is more by happy accident and the players being cool than any specific plan of Kainenchen's, but Sakir's party is less a team of six, and more three duos that have been thrown together by chance. Sakir's partner-in-crime (or vengeance or whatever) is an aasimar sorcerer whose draconic sorcery comes from Sakir's distant ancestor. There are two elves who are siblings or cousins. There's a goblin and a hobgoblin who apparently know each other. What comes of that is that we each have one person we can talk to very easily, and can develop a shared history with. When there are stresses in the party - none yet, but I'm sure that will change - I expect that we'll fracture along duo lines, so that any perspective will be supported by two people (just out of loyalty), and it will be harder to just overrule anyone. It's hard to explain how much this brings the characters and scenes to life.

Magic Items Go Great with Drawbacks

Kainenchen has a long-standing affinity for weird magic items with thorny drawbacks. She likes to hand out wildly overpowered benefits with drawbacks juuuust severe enough that you have to stop and think before concluding that it's worth using. For just one example, in Constant's second session, we found Belir's mage armor, a suit of white leather armor that doesn't require proficiency and can only be attuned by an arcane spellcaster. Fine so far. Yeaaah... it grants a base AC of 18 + Dex. By absolutely any standard, this is insane. The drawback? The wearer gains vulnerability to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage. 

Now, assuming attacks do roughly equal damage, an AC that high is going to stop enough attacks (out of the relatively-few I should get targeted with, as a melee-avoiding character) that it's a net decrease in damage, by a pretty fair margin. In combination with shield, many monsters can only hit me on a 19 or 20. On the other hand, crits just became explosively lethal, and no AC bonus in the world can help me there. Good enough to use, dangerous enough that I have to think about it. (The relatively rare cases of bludgeoning/piercing/slashing damage attached to a saving throw rather than an attack roll... I'll just have to live with.)

I don't actually know if we'll find gear later in the game that isn't sort of a mixed blessing. This highlights one of the great things about 5e - the game won't break if we don't have "normal" magic gear. It might make some fights more challenging than they would otherwise be - jackalweres are a real pain if our fighters don't deal magical damage - but even that wouldn't be the end of the world.

Conclusion

Both of the DMs I'm playing with these days are doing interesting things with overwhelming threat and making the PCs claw their way to survival. They're playing hardball at lower levels than I often see, which is cool. I'm excited about where they're going, and I'm looking forward to watching my characters grow. The last time I had a D&D character higher than 4th level was, uh, late 2010? It's great to be on the PC side of the screen, and my three different classes feel fantastic so far.

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