DND 5E: My First Playtest Impressions (as DM)

DND 5E: My First Playtest Impressions (as DM)

{This is a repost of a post I made in RPG.net for your purusal.  I hope you all find it useful}


Last night I ran the playtest module (Caves of Chaos) along with my regular Tues group consisting of five players who I have known for years. I was doing so not only to test the system, but to give the other DM a couple of needed weeks off.
I modified the module only that I sketched out a world and a little more outside background for each pregen character that hooked them into the general location and why they were monster hunting and as part of that gave them a small amount (5gp) of money to buy minor items in addition to their listed gear.

Normally as a group we prefer to use battlemaps, but we did so only once. Since we were asked how the game played gridless, we decided to try that for most of the battles during last night's session.

When the group arrived at the caves, after a bit of scouting around, they approached the goblin caves and essentially got swarmed with three waves of goblins followed by an Ogre. I have to say that my players handled it like champs. I'm not sure if anyone got wounded and if so it was minor. We did notice immediately the lack of an AoO mechanic and that both made things dicey for the players but it also gave them some interesting tactical opportunities (esp the Rogue and Wizard). Like I said, the group played like champs and ultimately won, but they did have to burn some precious daily resources to do so (more later).

I noticed immediately that some monsters (goblins and kobolds in particular) may as well be minions which makes the Fighter's "Reaper" feature esp problematic. Also the guardian's ability while a genuine lifesaver for the group, also seemed rather hard to adjudicate off the grid. 

After this the party took a short rest. I made it clear that there were hostile forces watching and that the goblins were fortifying inside (but it was the right call). It was the right call because shortly inside the goblin caves they ran into most of the rest of the tribe in fortified defensive positions....but enter my bad initiative die rolling along with Pryo the wizard, a bit of oil, and his last daily spell. That was ugly. Again the wizard took full advantage of the no OoA rules by moving in, torching the baracades and moving back behind his meat wall before the goblins could react. By the time they could react, there were only about half of them left and the meatshields (war cleric and fighter) simply ate the five points of fire damage from the burning oil to engage them.

So far I was thinking this was going to be a walk....but I determined by the start of the third round that this was enough time for the Chieftan and his elite bodyguards to have heard and reacted to the battle. Then things got ugly quick. In the space of about six seconds both the War Cleric and Fighter went down in a hail of arrows and the Healing Cleric was staggering in his own blood (barely concious) and the Wizard was getting ready to "beat feet" and was the Thief. Fortunately for the party, I had a serious of bad rolls and more importantly some clever play by the Healer along with the Guardian's ability to interfere saved the day....but the party was completely spent for the day....and just discovered that the neighboring hobgoblins were about to join the party. They barred the way enough for a short rest and made it back to town before the Hobgoblins could break down the barriers (it was the right call....they would not have been able to extended rest in the Goblin caves). That's when we called it a night....until next week's session.

I will start by what I liked. This session reminded me a lot of the sessions I played in and ran when I was in junior high running the ODnD and the BECMI editions of DnD. There was the same on the fly improvisation, roll and shout, and it brought back memories...and yes it was great fun. That I think is the biggest thing I can say in it's favor. When everyone can have fun, there is at least the potential for something really great.

Unfortunately it's a long way from that yet. All my players noticed that there was a lot that simply wasn't included on their sheet. Understandable perhaps for a playtest but distracting nevertheless. I found my players wished they had a better idea and a better or at least more fleshed out picture as to what they could and could not do. For example our thief seemed bewildered that there wasn't an option to Pick Pockets. I explained that would be a Dexterity contest and we went with that, but I believe it's worth noting. Also my players wished that advantage and disadvantage were fleshed out a bit more. Advantage is too good IMO to simply hand out by flanking so I didn't, but I did do it once when one of the clerics sacrificed his turn to draw the attention of the Ogre away from the fighter and onto him while moving into flank. I'd like some more steady and firm guidelines as a DM and I believe my players would as well.

That leads to what I regard to be the most serious flaw of the game and one that IMO will kill it unless something is done. The darn game left me both mentally and physically exhausted as a DM after about 4-5 hours of play. I literally had to made up the missing stuff and adjudicate everything on the fly. I can do that, and my players seemed happy with the calls I made but when I have to do that AND keep track of the world AND manage the monsters and other challenges in such a way to really challenge my players, it's extremly tiring and I don't see how a typical thirtysomething professional is going to have the time, energy, or patience to do that (and especially not if they have to write the module/campaign too!) Moreover, this is a DM with over thirty years of experience talking. I shudder at the disaster that could have been had a completely inexperienced or simply insecure DM had been at the helm. I shudder too (as one of my players pointed out) had one of the players not accepted and known me and had wanted to challenge everything...expecially in hour four when I was starting to get tired.

That would not have been good......

In short, this game needs a lot of work and the most important thing that needs to be done (even before char-gen rules) is to write up a simple but robust skeleton that allows the DM to see the basic assumptions and expectations of the game so the poor DM doesn't have to GUESS so much of the time. In short if a game needs an expert DM to run well and/or the game uses DM fiat in place of a solid system ruleset, then it's simply not a good game, and that's where I would put 5e in it's current incarnation.
I hope everyone found this useful. It's largely what I sent back to wotc with some more details of course.


Polaris (If this is RG_Polaris, southern Oregon, we know each other):

I completely understand where you are coming from. I am also a DM with decades of experience. What I did (and am still doing) is I cut the caves into small sections, created a town and surrounding area, and made the test information into several smaller adventures. This allowed me to break from constantly running encounter after encounter, gave the players time to "camp" (hang out in town), create thier own role play encounters and all that stuff.

Does not invalidate your claim, however. The point is, I HAD to cut things up to prevent mental fatigue.