Friday, February 8, 2019

5e: Round Holes

I'm writing another of these because readers are asking and because, just now, this is fairly straightforward deconstruction.  Unlike writing a class just now, or putting up content from my wiki (which hasn't been worked on), these posts sort of write themselves.

Let's continue with character creation in the 5th Edition Players Handbook.

The old Players Handbook in AD&D starts with a direct definition of the six main character stats, explaining what each are, how they affect your character and the specific adjustments they add.  Each stat works like its own piece; and those descriptions were valuable for investigating again and again the substance underlying the character's structure.  The designers understood that those six stats were fundamental in creating the character concept.

Right after the old P.H. dives into the races, again writing a passage about each, defining their relationships to each other and to the classes, without any effort at this time to pay attention to those classes.  We are discussing one thing at a time, rationally.  The language lacks any attempt at drama or building excitement. 

Then we are given a definition for each of the character classes, one by one, separated so the reader can chew over each with a clear understanding of what they do.  How the characters are created is not described at all; that is left to the DM's Guide, with the understanding the players would not be creating characters without being told how to do so by the DM. 

No effort is made to "interest" you in the material ~ but it is straightforward, direct and runs 23 pages.

The 5e Handbook gives one vague table to defining the stats, though how to use them comes up a lot of time later.  It spends 31 pages describing the races and 70 pages describing the classes.  Most of this is filler, campaign detail that may or may not work for your campaign (and will most likely be discarded).  Everything is overdramatized.  Nothing is straightforward and absolutely clear.  Much of the content boils down to, "well, you be you."  The content is wholly geared towards giving the players a vast hodge-podge of different powers in the hopes this will allow individuals to form of themselves.

If the common complaint about AD&D is that it was too detailed or too hard to understand, or that it's classes were too rigorous and unimaginative to be liked, I don't understand 5e's answer at all.  Being a fighter in AD&D meant you had weapons and could wear armor, and make yourself into whatever sort of unique person you wanted to be.  5e hammers the character into round holes, with the supposed benefit that, "You can pick the round peg you want."  Want to be a half-elf?
"Walking in two worlds but truly belonging to neither, half-elves combine what some say are the best qualities of their elf and human parents: human curiosity, inventiveness, and ambition tempered by the refined senses, love of nature, and artistic tastes of the elves. Some half-elves live among humans, set apart by their emotional and physical differences, watching friends and loved ones age while time barely touches them."

That was easy.
I can't help seeing this as anything but racist ... and illogical.  Do humans combine the best qualities for their two human parents?  Then why should half elves?  Perhaps neither of my human parents were curious, inventive or ambitious ~ must we assume that all elves are refined, loving of nature and possessing artistic tastes?  Perhaps I want to play an elf with none of those things.  If so, wouldn't that mean I was "set apart" by my emotional differences from other elves?  And why should half-elves in particular be described as set apart?  Are dwarves, dragonborn, tieflings and what have you also "set apart" by their emotional and physical differences?  Logically, in a world mixing all these races together, I would half expect the passage above to read, "Since you're pretty close to two other races, you can pretty much vanish into their numbers more easily than you could if you were, say, a half-orc.

These racial and class descriptions ALWAYS try to tell us what to think, what to believe, what our tastes are, who we get along with (something I really did not like about the original P.H.) and so on because the real differences between the races is harder to establish.  We ought to be discussing internal organs, diseases, brain function, soft and vulnerable spots ... do elves have a solar plexus?  If you whip a dwarf on his feet, does it hurt?  Do we all have just one heart, one liver, two kidneys and so on?  Do we require the same calorie intake for a 20-mile hike?  Do we need to sleep as long?  Does sex work the same way?

Admittedly, I've never wanted to touch any of those; and likewise, I have no interest in telling players how other elves think.  Presumedly, if they liked the way other elves think, they wouldn't be here adventuring with these dwarves, humans and half-orcs.

In the larger picture, none of the quote above matters.  Players aren't going to read it again, they're not going to follow it, the DM isn't going to follow it ... the pitch is just a bunch of bullshit filler where the writer thought, "I have to say something."  This is the typical spew that comes out.  It was probably lifted from someone else's description, that was lifted from someone else and so on going back into the mid-80s.  It's dreck and meaningless.  It doesn't belong here.

Yet it's always here.  Picking up on page 11, under "Choose a Race," we get the preliminary for it:
"The race you choose contributes to your character’s identity in an important way, by establishing a general appearance and the natural talents gained from culture and ancestry ..."

I understand why we might want to give the races a cultural ancestry, but why does MY character need one?  How is this "important" to me?  Apart from the monstrous plethora of special abilities that are going to be poured on my character like honey, what does my "identity" have to do with it?  Clearly, I'm expected to fit myself into this neat, round hole ... though as the book tells me, "Sometimes playing against type can be fun, too."

Is that it?  Have I only the two options?  I can be a conformist or I can be a non-conformist conformist.  Wonderful.  But what's actually fun and is not racist?  Ignoring the type completely and playing whatever character I like.  I don't have to be a half-orc paladin or a mountain dwarf wizard to be a memorable character ...

I suppose that's as far as most imaginations reach, however; assuming, of course, that we don't incorporate anything into the actual book to inspire imagination.

Both the races and the classes are little more than power lists; which presumedly is an answer to 3e's build system.  Every system going back to the original was a grouping of power lists.  My mage in AD&D, by the book, received 1 spell a day, the privilege of using the lowest-scale weapons and a few higher saving throws.  That's all you got if you were human.  As we were playing at 15, we could see the cleric nearly always got 3 spells to start because of their wisdom, so we agreed the mage should start with 3 also.  I still play it that way, though that's not how the rule was written.  Cantrips were added by the Unearthed Arcana and those seemed fair.  We did see there was a reason to beef up the characters in small ways; that's why I began with adding actual secondary skills like fishing or hunting, making armor or being able to sail.  That steadily morphed into sage abilities ... which I carefully manage so that at low levels they're useful without being powerful.

As I venture forward into this book, however, I gaze with suspicion on what's on offer here.  There's always a way to make the enemy more powerful than the player, no matter how many special abilities they get.  A part of me wants to argue that it shouldn't matter if the players are powerful or not.

Still ...


Eigen Ignacio said...

I agree on pretty much all your points. It IS very difficult to distinguish the races from one another in a way that is truly meaningful (and not just mechanical), and so after awhile, which races the players choose appear to be (in my experience, at least) more on the basis of personal wish-fulfillment (e.g., in the games I've run, everybody wants to be an elf because they want to be good-looking, and nobody wants to be a dwarf because they don't want to be short and wide).

I would also posit that yes, it shouldn't matter if a PC is weak or powerful, because I prefer the game to be about player skill rather than character skill/power. But the game itself needs to incentivize this, I think, or else players will inevitably want their character to have as many mechanical advantages as possible. This is why I appreciate how Into the Odd balances having weak attribute scores with better equipment.

JB said...

There's this weird dichotomy throughout 5E (and maybe earlier WotC-era texts, but I can't be bothered to research them at the moment): the rules as written are clearly designed for returning, experienced D&D players...and yet they write all this additional bullshit filler as if their audience are a bunch of morons without little or no imagination. "Let us give you some ideas of how this works!" We already fucking well know how this works. If I can't figure out a way for a half-elf (or whatever) to fit into this setting, I must be a fracking moron.

Boggles the mind.

James said...

Races have always been weird. I chose an Elf in the Juvenis campaign because the +1 to Dex was especially meaningful to me.

Sometimes my players choose races for mechsnical reasons and have zero interest in roleplaying them. Others have wanted races to be a core characteristic. My stance has been to let the players take the lead, with the caveat being that their race does exist.

What does that mean? Well, if the guards are looking for a Drow, Dwarf, Human and Elf, you four are going to look mighty suspicious, so factor that in if you are doing anything illicit.

But if my Dwarf player never interacts with the Dwarf community, they won't give a damn about her. But if my Drow player chooses to care about and help the Drow community, yeah, they'll have her back if possible.