D&D 5th Edition Is Deeply Flawed, So Why Not Play Something Better?

D&D 5th Edition Is Deeply Flawed, So Why Not Play Something Better?
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is known for being two things above all else, depending on who you talk to: really approachable and easy to play, or a total mess that dilutes a lot of the distinctive factors of previous editions of D&D. Both things are true. It is also true that other games exist, and execute on most of 5e’s goals better than it does.

This is not a post about how you are a bad person for liking 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. If you love 5e, that’s great! This piece will help you find more games that you will also really like. I am not mad at you, and I do not think you are dumb. I promise. I legitimately love TTRPGs, which is why I’m opening the floodgates to being brutalized for my (correct) takes. And let me just get one thing out of the way. I do not hate crunch. In fact, I really like crunch. I’m this website’s roguelike weirdo, which is why I feel qualified to say that I think D&D’s crunch is boring.

D&D 5e is trying to be everything to everyone, and that is a very difficult thing to be. And by some metrics it is succeeding. 5e, by being approachable, simple(ish), and recognisable, has brought tens of thousands of people into this cool hobby and for that, I am deeply thankful. If 5e’s design goal was only to bring people into the hobby, then it would be a resounding success. However, I would argue it is also trying very hard to be an expressive storytelling system, an engaging tactics game, and what people think of when someone says “D&D.” On those fronts, I am less than impressed.

It isn’t hard to claim that 5e is trying to be approachable. If you look at previous editions of D&D (I’m looking at you 2e and 3.5e) you will see a lot of shit. Complex rolls, pages of feats and traits, detailed alignment charts, and some pretty strict combat rules. Of course you can bend these things for your own needs (that’s what makes TTRPGs so cool!), but as written there’s a lot of material and a lot of numbers. 5e seriously cuts down on that. Everything becomes simpler, and the sprawling number of classes, races, and monsters is reduced to a reasonable size.

The 2014 release of 5e was designed to be simpler, and the fact that a bunch of material was cut added to its approachability. A lot of elements have been added back via homebrew and later modules, but that core approachability hasn’t gone away. Couple this with immense brand recognition, and 5e is great at getting people to play it.

…But that doesn’t make it great to play. As written, 5e has a pretty binary pass-fail system for most things. Which is to say that if the DC (the roll you need to succeed at something) on an action is a 15, there’s no written difference between rolling an 11 and a 14. The 5e DM’s Guide does include a short section about introducing Success at a Cost (also known as partial successes) into your game, but doesn’t provide DMs a framework for doing so. Here’s an example of how this can become a problem.

During one early session of a 5e campaign, my DM introduced a living set of armour to an encounter. Animated Armour has an AC (number you need to roll to hit the damn thing) of 18. For low-level characters, rolling a 19 or higher on an attack roll is no small task. An attack roll is made up of your ability modifier, and your proficiency bonus (which at low levels is gonna be +2). If we’re assuming your character isn’t min-maxed, chances are your best attack modifier at Level 2 is gonna be a +3. So, you’re rolling d20+5 to try and get above a 19. You have about a one in four chance of doing this.

The Animated Armour is, similarly, not great at attacking. Which meant that, for several rounds, we had player characters and animated armours just standing still, whacking each other with Wiffle ball bats doing absolutely no damage. Close rolls felt absolutely terrible. Getting a 17 meant doing nothing, and all but wasting the round. This went on for a while until the last armour finally fell, un-animated, after an excruciating 10 or so rounds. It was not a fun fight. It lacked both expressivity and tactical depth, which 5e often does.

And I do not think the answer is blaming the DM for introducing Animated Armours too early, or the players for not coming up with creative solutions to the problem. The game’s design, centering combat above all else in terms of ability selection and build priorities, encourages this style of play. It’s a holdover from the series’ wargaming roots. Players who were new to the game did not have the familiarity with the medium to creatively problem-solve their way out of scrapes, which is the key problem with D&D. It encourages imagination and creativity on paper, but its standard ruleset doesn’t give players the tools to develop those skills.

Partial successes, which see players get what they want but with an additional consequence, have become a mainstay of the independent space. 5e does include a small note about partial successes in the back of the book, but it doesn’t try to teach DMs how to use it.

To use another system as an example, if you roll a 7-9 in first edition Powered by the Apocalypse games, you get a partial success. A partial success on a given move provides a list of additional factors that come with the success. Roll a partial success on attacking? You deal damage to the enemy, and the enemy deals damage back to you. If you roll a 7-9 on Defy Danger, the GM can pick from a list of other things that happen, which always drive the story forward. Once they become more familiar with the system, they can develop their own consequences. Failing forward is a fundamental principle in these games, and is written as such into the rules. D&D encourages these practices in writing, but rarely through its actual design.

5e can do virtually anything, it is a relatively easy system to modify, the question is whether or not it should. More specialised games exist, and they’re great! They give you actual storytelling frameworks, and then teach you how to use them. Once you have those tools, they apply to every system. 5e wants to be the game that teaches you these things; the preface to the Player’s Handbook says as much:

The first characters and adventures you create will probably be a collection of clichés. That’s true of everyone, from the greatest Dungeon Masters in history on down. Accept this reality and move on to the second character or adventure, which will be better, and then the third, which will be better still. Repeat that over the course of time, and soon you’ll be able to create anything, from a character’s backstory to an epic world of fantasy adventure.

Once you have that skill, it’s yours forever. Countless writers, artists, and other creators can trace their beginnings to a few pages of D&D notes, a handful of dice, and a kitchen table.

And it does help many players develop those skills, which is why some people love the game. But that’s the rule of large numbers. For a lot of people it doesn’t. I’ve watched group after group of people who want to play TTRPGs bounce off of D&D because its rules as written do not encourage them to do the exciting, creative storytelling they actually want to do! Instead it just hands them several dozen ways to kill a goblin, most of which end up feeling the same anyway.

So now that I’ve denounced 5e, I’m going to shout-out a bunch of games which do a great job of doing the things they want to do really well!

If you like crunching numbers, and using those numbers to tell interesting stories, try Lancer! Lancer is a game about giant robots in a massive space war, and the system really leans into the “about robots”-ness of it all. It’s a game about managing heat, and power, and using tactics to talk about feelings. It could be overwhelmingly dense, but this is alleviated by the fact that it also has a super cool virtual tool called Comp/Con that will help you keep track of all the numbers, and every piece of equipment in the game. Also, its art is beyond phenomenal. Like holy shit, look at this.

Image: Massif Press Image: Massif Press

For games about scoundrels, look no further than Forged in the Dark games like Blades in the Dark, Scum and Villainy, and Beam Saber. This system puts you in the shoes of a daring weirdo who is very good at what they do, but under the incredible stresses of a life of adventure. These games are particularly improvisational and collaborative, allowing a GM to throw together a new heist or score in a matter of minutes, and focus on character growth through performance and goals instead of combat. They’re built around managing your character’s stress, and the competing goals of your crew’s members, which makes them incredibly fun to play with dramatic people who like taking big swings.

For people who just like telling short fun stories with their friends, there are a ton of one-shot games I absolutely love. Fiasco is a chaotic Coen brothers movie generator. Ribbon Drive is great at telling deeply personal stories about growing up on a road trip. Wisp is a cool game about the deeply intimate relationship between a Will-o-Wisp and a mortal entering a bog. I could go on about one-shot games for a while.

I am going to regret saying this, but if you’re looking for a non-D&D game recommendation, just ask in the comments and I will probably have something for you. I love this stupid medium a lot, which is why I want people to try new and interesting games!

Comments

  • Based on my experience with this kind of article, I made (and won) a bet with myself before reading it: that the recommendations would be almost entirely for non-medievalish-high-fantasy settings.

    I think a lot of the time, complaints about D&D as a system are more about the fact that its setting is very swords and sorcery, dragons and goblins, and they are novelty-seekers looking for different worlds and environments and different ways to interact with them… and while there’s definitely the possibility that a material-or-otherwise plane exists where players can go be space-faring mech pilots, D&D rules don’t do mechs very well.

    If I’m looking to roleplay a barbarian who really wants to kill some orcs, Fiasco or Lancer are probably not going to be better. It seems the ‘deeply flawed’ part of D&D is that it has a specific type of setting that the author doesn’t feel like playing.

    • (I did appreciate the points made about the as-written pass/fail nature of 5e and the fact that half the article does go into how you can work around this, once you know what you’re doing.)

  • Its kinda interesting to see how D&D has evolved as of late I havent played in years and mostly just grab the manuals for fluff and a read.

    Just my 2 cents… why not split the game back to D&D and AD&D? That way you got your simplified entry point of just plain D&D and then you grab AD&D to flesh out your worlds? I mean the way rulebooks/expansions have been released is practically the same.. its just the main rulebooks are the ones squishing beginner and advanced together in a compromise

  • When 5e was released they made a huge deal of how simple it was, how the range of books, classes, races, magic items, spells, etc had been cut back to overcome the bloat of 3.5. Now, having realised that this is a flawed business model, they’re releasing four or five books a year, full of all those things they cut back on. Soon they’ll occupy as much room on people’s shelves as 3.5 tomes do on mine

    “But you don’t need those to play the game” I hear people cry. “You only need the core books.” But that’s true of 3.5 as well. It’s when they start adding complete classes in additional books (artificer – don’t try hiding up the back) that things start going off the rails.

    Add to that that 5e is one of the loosest, most poorly written RPGs out there, with more loop holes that my sister’s hand knitted jumpers, has one of the most frustrating indexes of all time, and insists that you buy each book multiple times (glares at D&D Beyond), I should hate 5e. I don’t. I quite like it. Hell, as a notorious min maxer I love it, as it’s loopholes, inconsistencies, and ambiguous rules allow some truely appalling power plays.

    It’s a system. More simplistic than many; not as flexible as its forebears; and sometimes a little bit too rigid. But the game is the story told by the GM. As long as the system doesn’t get in the way of that, and allows you to do what you want to do (GM:“You can’t attack them while hang off the pub’s wooden sign. You don’t have a free hand.” Me: “I’m a monk. I can pretty much do anything I bloody want!”) then that’s all it needs to do – give you a way of determining success.

    By the way, if all you’re getting out of your primary stat is +1 (and pretty much every class attacks with their primary stat in 5e) then your character should never have left the farm. That isn’t Min Maxing, just character design 101. “I wanna be a wizzard!” “Sure. What’s your Int?” “Firteen!” “Your best stat is 13!” “Nah. I rolled a 17. But I’m putting that in Crisma, cos I’m roolly pretty!”

  • 5th ed isn’t flawed, it does what it set out to do, and it does it incredibly. Yes, it simplified a lot of systems from earlier editions. You say “diluted”, I say “streamlined”.

    The huge surge in its popularity at the moment is exclusively down to the excellent design decision made by Crawford et al.

    If you don’t and can’t grasp that, then, well, sucks to be you, I guess.

  • I swear authors of these articles intentionally ignore the spirit of games like D&D literally being about playing however you want. There’s always that inevitable, “Sure you can modify it…” mention right before they roll out the REAL reason the article actually exists, “…or just play these games I personally prefer instead.”

    And @transientmind is right in that it’s almost always the non-medieval/high fantasy games/systems being recommended. Pathfinder not getting a mention here at all speaks volumes to that.

    On top of which, basically every system is deeply flawed in some way… And it almost always comes down to a case by case basis on the people you play with and how they want to play.

    I haven’t heard of a single even remotely consistent group that plays ANY such game/system without making house rules and modifications to suit their own preferences.

      • It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that get a mention.

        I know what it is, but I’ve never used it so I don’t personally know how good/bad it is. Though I’m generally of the mind where as far as games/systems like D&D go it’s much more about the people you’re playing with… So you can make just about any system work as a base, and go from there over time.

        I bought a lot of the D&D 5E books to use with a group of players new to the whole deal so it was an easy starter point… But the intent was always to use them mostly as a guide/inspiration (hardcover books with nice art are a plus) and not to follow the rules to the letter.

        Besides, I feel like a big part of D&D is modifying rules on the fly if it lets players do things they might not otherwise be able to rule-wise… Especially if it adds to the story, which for me is the biggest part of it and not whether rules get followed. As such I obviously make it a point not to play with rules lawyers.

        • GURPs was pretty terrible, or at least the Vampire and Werewolf official modifications. Werewolf was especially broken and both needed a DM with a strong sense of ‘Cut this shit out’ to the players who could max/max it to hell.

          The most stupid thing in 5e that I’ve found to date is the removal of ‘evil’ races and alignment. The 1st level Cleric spell Detect Evil and Good is essentially useless since it now only detects certain extraplanar races of the demonic/angelic variety.

          Got a necromancer thats got an undead army? Doesn’t cause a blip on the spell. Because calling someone Evil is Problematic.

          So any issues with 5e I have is the devs genuinely having their heads up their butts, smelling their own farts and declaring them as being like sunshine.

          • I mean to be fair GURPS was designed to be a catch all generic TTRPG system without trying to copy other systems too much.

            It was bound to be broken =P

  • Ten rounds of swing and miss? Personally f I were the DM and it was becoming a stale encounter with low levels I would have made some adjustments a few turns in.

    Have the animated armor recoil from the hits that were close and perhaps knock some shit over that causes combat obstacles, perhaps have a missed arrow or spell or whatever start a fire or something to suddenly throw a time hazard in the mix. Every players second turn in the same combat encounter should be different in some way. Even if superficially.

  • I think “Like DnD? Maybe you’d enjoy trying other systems!” would have been a better title for the article. The flaws you raised about DnD5e are more features than flaws.

    It was very deliberately play tested to achieve what we eventually ended up with. A system with “enough” rules for the most part, but open enough to allow DM’s to modify it on the fly as needed.

    It’s not perfect, but it’s success is testament to how well it achieved this goal.

    “And I do not think the answer is blaming the DM for introducing Animated Armours too early, or the players for not coming up with creative solutions to the problem.”

    Nope, that’s pretty much exactly the answer to the problem raised. Putting a monster in front of the players that they can’t hit is just a rookie DM mistake. Shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

    Secondly, if the combat is going poorly and starts to bog down, the DM can spice things up by *allowing* near hits to advance the fight in some way.

    DnD5e is treated by some has a hard and fast rule set, rather than a framework. Yes, you should adhere to the rules as closely as possible, but it’s *your* game. The goal is for everyone at the table to have fun. If slavish adherence to the rules isn’t resulting in that, then adjust the rules.

    • Hell, if the DM put something there that the party can’t hit, it’s on the party to consider actually running away, or the DM to start coming up with an environmental puzzle or deus ex machina-summoning-button on the fly that’ll allow the combat to resolve. NEITHER of which is especially difficult.

      • This! A lot of players just see monsters as exp especially newbies that they forget there are other options besides fight to the death!

        A guilty pleasure of mine is to occasionally watch those DnD and TTRPG horror stories on YT. The hilarity that ensues on folks who just didn’t know how to stop is pure gold xD

  • The reason this article focuses on, being the nature of pass/fail rolls, is the very least of the issues people have about 5e.
    It was introduced and has flourished because of it’s simplicity, but that simplicity comes at the cost of vague rules which need to be houseruled on the spot as well as cookie cutter character builds.
    pass/fail is ingrained in everything in life. In PC shooters I either hit the target or I don’t. Crit pass/fail and homebrew crit charts counter that a little.

  • I’ve played from 1977 (yes I’m old 🙂 and have played and ref’ed D&D version X from then to now but moved into other systems and genres. The trick is to adjust complexity to the group, I currently ref Bushido (a fairly complex Fantasy Japan world) with some players but Fate a more simple system with others.
    I would suggest the Fate system, It takes a bit to get use to the aspect system but you can use it for almost any genre and its more about story and freedom to improvise at times. Playing a super Fate hero game –
    Ref ” the hall is lined with killer robots”
    Player ” with big claws?”
    Ref ” they do now”
    Player “with laser eyes?”
    Ref ” they do now” with grin
    Other players “stop !”
    It’s can be fun and simple

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