Wednesday, February 6, 2019

5e: The Company Sponsors Conceit

We begin this session of the 5th Edition Players Handbook with the top of page 11.  Chapter 1: Step-by-Step Characters.

This is the start of the book proper, with the Introduction finished at last.  With so much non-information and misinformation in the Introduction, we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves starting with an introduction to the first chapter ~ which again, says little of consequence.  Even with headers on the page that say, "Choose a Race" and "Choose a Class," the four paragraph introduction on the same page says in the first paragraph,
"You choose a race (such as human or halfling) and a class (such as fighter or wizard)"

And then in the second paragraph,
"Before you dive into step 1 below, think about the kind of adventurer you want to play. You might be a courageous fighter, a skulking rogue, a fervent cleric, or a flamboyant wizard. Or you might be m ore interested in an unconventional character, such as a brawny rogue who likes hand-to-hand combat, or a sharpshooter who picks off enemies from afar. Do you like fantasy fiction featuring dwarves or elves? Try building a character of one of those races."

It would make more sense to save these waxing poetics for the actual subject, but then we have a LOT of pages to fill and obviously not enough material to fill them, so ...

And what is it with always having to put a cliched adjective in front of each class?  I grant the list is not meant to be exhaustive, but must we insert a bias here at all?  If we want to help define the choice of these classes, wouldn't a descriptive be better?  A fighter trained in weapons and combat, a rogue trained in deception and finesse, a cleric with passion for others and the unearthly, a wizard concerned with alchemy and spells ... is that not more helpful if the reader has no idea whatsoever what these classes are?

That is the pattern throughout these next pages.  We say the word "elf" with utter expectation that of course you, the reader, know what that is.  But do you know what it means in this context?  Particularly if you're nine and you haven't read Lord of the Rings or even seen the films?  Once again, the writers here are being lazy, simultaneously writing a child-like primer while ignoring the actual intention.  Moments later, we're told,
"Once you have a character in mind, follow these steps in order, making decisions that reflect the character you want."

How am I to do that, if I have no idea what any of these things are, particularly from the terrifically scant detail you've provided?  Oh, right.  I need to read on ... whereupon this "introduction" is null and void and might just as well be ripped out of the book.

I guess I better take a moment and discuss the word, "rogue."  I am to understand that "thief" had a negative connotation for soft-hearted players in the late 80's, particularly when having to sell the game with public scrutiny bearing down, so the company had a nice long discussion with a thesaurus present and decided that "rogue" is a more lovable, gosh-golly-gee word with its toe dug into the sand than that nasty old word the game settled upon in the 1970s.

My dictionary defines a rogue as a "dishonest and unprincipled man," equating it with a villain, reprobate, good-for-nothing, wretch, rotter, miscreant and wastrel.  I suppose we should be glad the company didn't pick "mountebank" or "picaroon."

The change depends on the mainstream being ignorant of what words mean, since "rogue" is used more often in Hollywood to describe the kind of thief that a girl could conceivably fall in love with, a pattern that started with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.  Unfortunately, the rogue in the game still plays like a thief, or basically a jackanapes with ne're-do-well tendencies and a habit of believing that the only skill in not being seen in order to attack with perfect surprise (and thus a total lack of ethics or scruples) is to roll dice.  Every time I see a rogue represented online, it is die roll after die roll to check everything ... a subject I will leave until getting to that part of the book.

Very well, this brings us to "Building Bruenor."

For those who don't know, Bruenor is the example character the book's writers decided to include at various stages, to show the would-be player how a character comes together.  The result is, well, awful.

Here are all the passages that describe Bruenor's creation ~ which will be clearer to those of you who play 5e, but you can come back later and look at this again after we slog our way through the character creation process.
Each step of character creation includes an example of that step, with a player named Bob building his dwarf character, Bruenor.
STEP 1
Bob is sitting down to create his character. He decides that a gruff mountain dwarf fits the character he wants to play. He notes all the racial traits of dwarves on his character sheet, including his speed of 25 feet and the languages he knows: Common and Dwarvish. 
STEP 2
Bob imagines Bruenor charging into battle with an axe, one horn on his helmet broken off. He makes Bruenor a fighter and notes the fighter’s proficiencies and 1st-level class features on his character sheet. 
As a 1st-level fighter, Bruenor has 1 Hit Die—a d10— and starts with hit points equal to 10 + his Constitution modifier. Bob notes this, and will record the final number after he determines Bruenor’s Constitution score (see step 3). Bob also notes the proficiency bonus for a 1st-level character, which is +2.
STEP 3
Bob decides to use the standard set of scores (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8) for Bruenor’s abilities. Since he’s a fighter, he puts his highest score, 15, in Strength. His next highest, 14, goes in Constitution. Bruenor might be a brash fighter, but Bob decides he wants the dwarf to be older, wiser, and a good leader, so he puts decent scores in Wisdom and Charisma. After applying his racial benefits (increasing Bruenor’s Constitution by 2 and his Strength by 2), Bruenor’s ability scores and modifiers look like this: Strength 17 (+3), Dexterity 10 (+0), Constitution 16 (+3), Intelligence 8 (-1), W isdom 13 (+1), Charisma 12 (+1). 
Bob fills in Bruenor's final hit points: 10 + his Constitution modifier of +3, for a total of 13 hit points.
STEP 4
Bob fills in some of Bruenor’s basic details: his name, his sex (male), his height and weight, and his alignment (lawful good). His high Strength and Constitution suggest a healthy, athletic body, and his low Intelligence suggests a degree of forgetfulness. 
Bob decides that Bruenor comes from a noble line, but his clan was expelled from its homeland when Bruenor was very young. He grew up working as a smith in the remote villages of Icewind Dale. But Bruenor has a heroic destiny ~ to reclaim his homeland ~ so Bob chooses the folk hero background for his dwarf. He notes the proficiencies and special feature this background gives him. 
Bob has a pretty clear picture of Bruenor’s personality in mind, so he skips the personality traits suggested in the folk hero background, noting instead that Bruenor is a caring, sensitive dwarf who genuinely loves his friends and allies, but he hides this soft heart behind a gruff, snarling demeanor. He chooses the ideal of fairness from the list in his background, noting that Bruenor believes that no one is above the law. 
Given his history, Bruenor’s bond is obvious: he aspires to someday reclaim Mithral Hall, his homeland, from the shadow dragon that drove the dwarves out. His flaw is tied to his caring, sensitive nature ~ he has a soft spot for orphans and wayward souls, leading him to show mercy even when it might not be warranted.
STEP 5
Bob writes down the starting equipment from the fighter class and the folk hero background. His starting equipment includes chain mail and a shield, which combine to give Bruenor an Armor Class of 18. 
For Bruenor’s weapons, Bob chooses a battleaxe and two handaxes. His battleaxe is a melee weapon, so Bruenor uses his Strength modifier for his attacks and damage. His attack bonus is his Strength modifier (+3) plus his proficiency bonus (+2), for a total of +5. The battleaxe deals 1d8 slashing damage, and Bruenor adds his Strength modifier to the damage when he hits, for a total of 1d8 + 3 slashing damage. When throwing a handaxe, Bruenor has the same attack bonus (handaxes, as thrown weapons, use Strength for attacks and damage), and the weapon deals 1d6 + 3 slashing damage when it hits.

Reading through this is hard for an old grognard like me. Rather than the familiar experience of players rolling dice to see what results they get, then deciding what to do with those results, here everything is supposedly decided straight out of the player’s head. The mini-game of character creation, long the best part of introducing new players to the game, has been eliminated. Rather than rolling, he chooses from a stat array; a collection of numbers that any player in an old school campaign would have stared at crestfallen, thinking “Jeez, these rolls are crappy.”

Bruenor, however, suffers not at all from these numbers. The adjustments for choosing to be a dwarf adds +4 to his choice stats (!), without a balancing penalty. Such adjustments make the stat array necessary; any one of my players could easily roll three scores above 14, most probably ending up with a 19 strength and an 18 constitution. With these excessive modifiers … hell, I have no certainty what it means in relation to 5th edition, but I automatically translate it into my old AD&D framework and think, shit, that’s a THACO of 15. For a first level fighter with a so-so 17 strength. Pretty damn easy-peasy right out of the gate.

But then, while characters in my world would be figuring out proficiencies, Bruenor only seems to have one. Of course, with such a hit to fail ratio, he can afford to use non-proficient weapons (which explains some of what I’ve witnessed in my online campaign about weapon proficiencies). In this system, “proficiency” doesn’t mean “able to use.” It means, “wildly effective with.”

While the characters in my campaign would be feeling concerned about being spongy meat-pies for some monster, and setting out to equip themselves in a manner that will compensate for that dread prospect, Bruenor is casually electing himself to noble status, supplying himself with a noble destiny and compelling an entire culture to identify him as a “folk hero.” It’s a good thing he’s decided to be caring and not whatever the “folk hero background” allows. And no, his soft heart hidden behind a gruff, Dwarven demeanor is in no way a cringeworthy cliché. It sure is heartening that the self-aggrandizing, co-optive, presumptive player behind this dwarf is able to contain his claiming of past accomplishments and spectacular attributes that he hasn’t yet done one thing to earn inside a soft spot for orphans and a willingness to show mercy; so long as you haven’t broken the law.

And so much the better that the makers of the game openly condone this bragging, boasting exaggeration of instant just-add-water deeds and heroic exploits!  Is it any wonder that Reddit is full of backstories where players presuppose themselves to be the siblings of gods and the Mary Sues of every kind of gadget imaginable?  Hey, the game designers want it that way!  If you haven't defined your character as The Chosen One, complete with Birthmark of Destiny and the last surviving member of your race, you're not playing the game the way it was MEANT to be played.

I have to admit, looking over these initial systems that transform "characters" into stupidly overpowered snowflakes with disproportional benefits to produce a plug-and-play system of enablement, I hesitate to go farther.  Still, it helps explain the ridiculous inclusion of things like dragonborn, something that grates my sensibilities.  But what difference could it possibly make against this backdrop of excessive make-believe?

Clearly, where the game once saw itself as characters moving through a fantasy background, the game has become the embodiment of fanciful wish fulfillment, with the background becoming whatever you, the player, want it to be.  What an awful, compromising misery this must be for a DM.  I can't imagine what sort of self-flaggelating slobs would consign themselves to running a game where the participants in it are liable to whine and pout if you won't allow them the use of their father the King's army on loan ...

"Since I am, after all, my father's favorite son, always have been, and daddy never denies Me anything.  Says so right here on my character sheet."

Can't wait to get started on his wizard character's background


7 comments:

JB said...

You know, my old players thought I was a curmudgeon when it came to this kind of thing but, damn man, I was positively permissive compared to this.

Not that they disagreed with me. Not that I disagree with you.

It's friggin' painful...painful!...to read and analyze 5E in this manner. I just skim this shit, noting "padded word count," "padded word count," "worthless exposition," "padding," without actually *considering* the effect this crap has on the True Believer...let alone the newbie beginner just trying to learn the damn game. Jesus H. What are they sowing? What will they reap?

And here I thought 3E (which I played for a year or so) fostered too much "snowflake-ism" in players. Not even close. There were no backgrounds, no personality traits, no aspirations of greatness...only (perhaps) a plan of advancement which, as it was, made game play pretty damn soul-less when coupled with adventures like, say, "The Forge of Fury."

5E is an odd, odd beast. Its purported reason for existing is to provide a simpler, more streamlined game...a return to "older" sensibilities. A lot of people love it...but for the most part they seem (to me) to be experienced players who are comparing it favorably to 3rd and 4th edition. Even those who prefer pre-WotC editions of D&D have willingly embraced it as an in-print, "supported" edition that can be easily pruned and that doesn't "suck as much."

But is that the point? I mean is THAT what folks are willing to settle for? That's just shitty.

Damn.

Discord said...

One of the really strange things about this example is the character that is being designed is an existing character in one of the Forgotten Realms novel series by R.A. Salvatore named Bruenor Battlehammer. (It's the same series of novels that introduces Drizzt, if that name rings any bells.) From the background descriptions, to the weapon choice, to the specific detail about this helmet, this is an existing character. That the character in the novels is already a walking cliche doesn't help them either.

They included this specific character as an "easter egg" for those players who have read that series of novels, but it's a major sign of laziness that they couldn't be arsed to come up with a new example character. They mention other "famous" characters later on as well.

While I actually like the system that 5th Edition users, it's surrounded by many, many loads of drek, especially with this terrible writing.

Alexis Smolensk said...

There's a quote from Salvatore right in the Players Handbook, that I didn't include:

“Yer late, elf!" came the roughed edge of a familiar voice. Bruenor Battlehammer walked up the back of his dead foe, disregarding the fact that the heavy monster lay
on top of his elven friend. In spite of the added discomfort, the dwarf’s long, pointed, often-broken nose and gray-streaked though still-fiery red beard came as a welcome sight to Drizzt. “Knew I’d findy 'e in trouble if I came out an' looked for ye!"

—R.A. Salvatore, The Crystal Shard

Discord said...

Ah yes, including excerpts of their badly-written, cliche-filled fiction to try to give themselves more authority. Further on, each of the entries on the races are prefaced with more quotes from the body of official D&D fiction. I feel like I have the authority to say they are badly written, as I've read more of them than I care to admit.

There's more examples of using existing characters as examples in Chapter 4: Personality and Background. I'm not sure what the point of these easter eggs are. New players won't recognize them and, at least for me, they feel like the authors are dropping these names just so someone can get the warm fuzzies saying "Hey, I recongize that! They really know me."

Ozymandias said...

If you're baffled by dragon or, I suggest avoiding the firbolg/tiefling half-breed.

Personally, I find there's a need to include that sort of thing ~ aasimar, tieflings, draconians, half-giant, etc. ~ in the home game because it appeals to a certain player; one who's interested in exploring the fantasy elements of the game, or who wants to acquire power, and so on. I'm quite certain this player would be satisfied with a robust, dynamic game that let him scratch that itch . . . but since the official version gave up on the idea of teaching DMs how to appeal to those players (nevermind the lack of tools to do so), they've opted instead for the proliferation of races . . .

Lance Duncan said...

What really irked me when I first read these sections of 5e was that they are making a 1st level PC, but the character they are describing from the book was already high level. If they were to make bruenor at 1st level that would be when he was chased from his Homeland. And half of the backstory wasn't revealed until later books. So, not only are they promoting their poorly written 'official' drivel (see I can use adjectives too), but they are completely misrepresenting that source material at the same time.

Dusk said...

Having barely glanced at a friend's copy of the 5th Edition PHB and chatted to a couple of people about it, I assumed it was a fairly "harmless" version of the game. Rolling back some of the trends from 4th and 3rd editions that didn't really work, not really innovating on the older ideas, and with modern artwork/layout to make it more "accessible". Of no interest to me really, but ultimately nothing worth complaining about.

But, damn, this series is showing me otherwise.

Ozymandias - I'm with you on the proliferation of races. The stereotype originally would have been for those players to be elves, then some variant of "standard" elves (see: the aforementioned Drizzt, a "uniquely" good-aligned dark elf) before they added more races. I think players want it as a stand-in / shortcut to show how different and exciting their character is, without having to develop any actual *character* during play.