Saturday, September 19, 2015

Dead, dead, dead

I got to play DnD 5th edition for the first time today.  While I was pretty bullish on the game prior to trying it I found a lot of things that grated when I actually waded in and got to see it in action.  Part of that was just the module that we played which was originally published for DnD 3rd edition and was updated for 5th.  The module basically tossed us into a magical dungeon at first level and then sent incredibly lethal fights at us, the second of which killed us off.  Whoever designed the Whispering Cairn for DnD 5th really had no idea what they were doing in terms of difficulty as we determined afterwards that our balanced party with reasonable builds and stats was absolutely rated to lose the encounter, no question about it.

We were a group with HP values of 8, 9, 10, and 12.  We were injured from a previous fight, but not grievously, and if we had had our full complement of HP our total would have gone to 46, but as it was we had only 39.  The enemies had a total HP between the two of them of 54.  The enemies having more HP than us looks bad, but here is the total set of stats:

Us (Mage / Druid / Ranger / Barbarian):

HP:  39
Damage:  5.5 / 8.5 / 10 / 13
Hit:  5, 6, 6, 6
AC:  13, 15, 15, 12

Monsters (Swarm of Beetles and Giant Spider Thing):

HP:  54
Damage:  10 / 8.5 / 8.5
Hit:  3, 5, 5
AC:  13, 14

So while the enemies have more HP than us we have one more attack and better hit values.  That looks fairly balanced, but the problem is that our HP was spread way out and theirs was not.  The two opponents had 32 HP and 22 HP but the 22 HP opponent was resistant to almost all of our attacks.  Taking out any one enemy was a major endeavour that required roughly 4 successful hits, so probably 2 rounds of focus fire.  Unfortunately we had several ranged units that lacked the ability to break contact with the enemy so focusing fire wasn't really an option.  The other big problem was that our HP pools were so small it was easy for the enemies to take us out before we could pose any kind of threat.  We lost the 8 and 9 HP targets on the first turn, which isn't particularly unlikely, and then by round 3 we had a TPK (Total Party Kill).

It is an enormous advantage to be able to eliminate targets quickly and reduce the enemy's ability to fight back and in this case the monsters were able to use that to easily destroy us.  Players usually use this to whittle monster groups down to size and reduce their ability to deal damage but it works both ways.

This particular encounter was definitely rated to kill us but the previous one was also extremely dangerous.  We won it, but I am pretty sure we had at least a 33% chance to die to that one too as the monsters again had more HP than us and similar quality attacks but lacked spells to burn to swing the fight like we had.

Even though this might seem like an aberration it really can't be terribly unusual.  Even a fight against a few goblins can be deadly - the goblins can easily 1 shot squishier characters and 2 shot tanks so all they have to do is roll good initiative, land a couple attacks that are roughly 50/50 propositions, and the fight is all but over.  Sure, the characters win fights against four goblins 95% of the time, but you have to win a lot of those fights to level up!  It really seems like 5th edition goes back to the assumption that low level characters are disposable and die constantly and you should only get invested in them once they get past the death zone that is level 1-2.  As In The Hat pointed out, it is sort of like some cultures that only name children once they get past a certain age and are then likely to actually survive!

I was also kind of frustrated at my options when building a character.  I wanted to have a few particular skills but I was stuck with a small list from my class and background and getting more seemed like an awfully long trek, which in any case required me to give up really powerful combat bonuses.  I also felt like being good at a skill hardly mattered, because being superb at something meant I was about 6 better on a d20 vs. a totally random dork.  It seemed basically like we were just rolling looking for high numbers and it wasn't really possible to be actually good at anything, as somebody else could just as easily roll an 18 and be far better.

5th edition is certainly better balanced between classes and races than older editions of DnD and they obviously put a lot of work into the fluff components of the game which I do appreciate.  Unfortunately some of the numbers really grate on me, and I am trapped between wanting two different things:  An interesting combat game where I try to figure out strategy, and roleplaying where I build a character will all kinds of history and cool stuff going on and make it really neat.  I can't really do much in terms of interesting combat because I just attack for 1d10 every turn or just die immediately without having made a choice.  Making a cool character and putting lots of thought and time into it seems silly when I am so likely to die right away without having done anything of note or made any mistake that caused it.

Probably higher level play would be a lot more rewarding.  I expect I would have more options in any given situation and would be less likely to just die.  We may get to test that out over the next little while - assuming the next group can survive the rigors of level 1, that is.

That all makes it sound like I didn't have any fun but that isn't true.  The group had a good time, but it was in spite of the system, rather than because of it.


  1. Hey, if most level 1s didn't die the world would be overflowing with level 2 adventurers!

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  4. (re-posted because posts getting kept getting interpreted as html codes due to my bracket choices)

    "Unfortunately we had several ranged units that lacked the ability to break contact with the enemy so focusing fire wasn't really an option."

    This sentence snapped me out of believing this encounter was impossible. The bugs had a range of 0. You have a range of 80, 120 or 150. Instead of taking advantage of that, you fought the monster at 0 range like they wanted. You're first level, you need to have more fear. You had 3-5 rounds to prepare for the battle, but you stood close to the entry point waiting.

    Alternate history:

    Players: "We trigger the well-lit Green corridor, keeping far back"
    GM: "You hear rumbling"
    Players: "We stay back"
    *3 rounds pass*

    GM: "Floor collapses and you hear thousands of insects deep in the hole"
    Players: "We retreat to maximum short range (150 feet, 80 for shortbow) in this high domed chamber, split apart so area affect spells can't his us. Fortunately all of us have range weapons!"
    *2 rounds pass*

    GM: "A swarm of insects emerges from the hole and slowly moves towards you. A large spider bounds past them and comes at you quickly".
    Players: "Swarm of insects? Swords aren't going to do much about that. The mage shoots Fire Bolts at the swarm, backing up enough to stay in range, but not letting them catch up more than we have to. The ranger, barbarian and druid will concentrate missile fire on the big spider while also backing up"
    *resolve 1st free round of attacks by players*

    The creatures continue to move towards you.
    *resolve 2nd free round of attacks by players, Barbarian rages*

    GM: "The creatures continue to move towards you, the spider has now reached you."
    Players: "Barbarian and Druid will meet the spider head on to protect the Wizard who is still shooting that insect swarm with fire - I wish he'd taken Magic Missile or Sleep or some other useful attack spell that always hits and has no saving throw! If the spider is looking heavily wounded, then the Ranger will risk hitting our own people to try and take it down quickly. She's an expert with the bow, so it's worth the risk"
    GM: "Barbarian gets taken down but due to the Rage, is able to continue fighting..."

    This isn't even optimized. You could concentrate fire on the spider, taking one round to Dash so that you have more time until the Swarm arrives. Once the Spider is down, the Swarm is trivial - you can always keep in front of it and you have unlimited room to retreat.

    If you had oil (1sp, 1lb) you could have spread it across the entrance hallway and lit it, keeping the insects away while you dealt with the spider. The wizard died without using any of his spells - possibly the wrong ones were chosen, or maybe they would be more useful with the additional time and distance of the above scenario. Did the Barbarian or Druid actually have ranged weapons? If not, they should have as they are proficient in them.

    Similarly, 4 goblins is a threat up close, but not when you're 100 feet away and have longbows. As the other group figured out.

    Hardly "I can't really do much in terms of interesting combat because I just attack for 1d10 every turn or just die immediately without having made a choice." :-)

    When the math isn't in your favour, change the equation. :-)

  5. You make two large and unwarranted assumptions, and forget one thing. Firstly you assume we are psychic and can predict the future, and we know that the monsters we are facing have the abilities they have. What if we all stand back at maximum range where our druid and barbarian can't attack... and then ranged attackers come out and mow us down while half our party is ineffective? What if we desperately needed to get our melee into contact with the enemy in order to prevent them from casting/using bows? I stayed back far enough that someone with a speed around 6 couldn't hit me, but the spider was faster than that and came and got me anyway. We had no idea what was coming out of that hole and to design our theoretical tactics around the assumption that we do is silly.

    Second, you assume that our characters know how monster abilities work. We are first level. We have, presumably, never fought a monster, and there are hundreds of different kinds of monsters. How in the world would we know that a zot of fire would be more effective than a giant mace against beetles? Maybe they are immune to fire? Maybe they are resistant (or immune) to piercing attacks, but react totally normally to bludgeoning attacks? Are we operating on the assumption that all of the mechanics and powers of monsters are obvious to the characters? If so, why didn't you tell us what those were? They certainly weren't obvious to the players! Moreover, the barbarian died before taking an action, and I died after shooting at a single target, moving in so that a human speed creature couldn't get to me but close enough that if both monsters moved up to the barbarian that I could run in next turn and use my Thunderwave spell, which is a melee range AOE. However, the spider was fast, which I had no way of knowing, and one shotted me. I used tactics making guesses about the monsters, reasonable guesses, and guessed wrong. One tactic you describe, pouring oil on the ground and lighting it, sounds cool in theory. But in practice that would have taken multiple rounds at least (4?) and we were fighting *beetles*. Who can often *fly*, over a small patch of fire on the ground. Like ladybugs! The only thing we knew about the beetles was your description that they have acid that can, over the course of two seconds, melt rock. Our ability to derive that said beetles are slow, ground based, resistant to all weapons but immune to none, not resistant to fire, and melee only is not something you can reasonably assume at all.

    Also you assume we are operating in an infinite sized room with perfect line of sight. Neither is true. If I had backed up the way you describe I would have been attacking with disadvantage due to cover, and the monsters would have been able to easily wander to the side and completely negate my attacks. Sight is also a major issue as I can't attack anything that is any significant distance from the singular source of light in the dungeon. Torchlight and mage light extend less distance than the spider can run, so any attempt at kiting would leave me basically out of the fight.

  6. If they have deadly ranged attacks, you flee because you're near the exit. Flee to the forest where they are less effective. Use the cover afforded you by the exit to protect yourselves. Lots of options. Deadly range attacks at first level are pretty rare, fyi. :-)

    You did know what was coming out of the hole - insects! You had two rounds of warning.

    It's a pretty safe assumption to default to maximum optimum range. I do it in FPS, I do it in Baldur's Gate - anywhere that I have a ranged option. It's true, against beholders it's always a mistake, but the odds don't favour that scenario.

    As for understanding a swarm of beetles - beetles aren't mythical monsters! It seems intuitive that swatting at them with weapons will only kill a few when you need to kill thousands. It bugs me that weapons work at all (in 3.5 they didn't). In theory you could shoot the swarm to death with arrows, which is a bit silly. Anyone in any world with insects has a chance of figuring that out.

    Your right, the beetles might fly. If you were 80 feet away though, you'd be able to tell in time to light things up. I don't actually know the timing on lighting oil but I'm guessing it's a single round action.

    The room was actually quite large (80 foot diamond) with really good sight lines (empty except low sarcophagus in centre, exit was directly across from the insect alcove). The hole was well lit from above and you had rocks with Light cast on them (and 5 rounds of warning). The ceiling was even domed for long arrows shots! The escape tunnel was 20 by 20 and 200 feet long.

    As GM, I shouldn't have sent both monsters out together though. And I should have emphasized the slower speed of the insect swarm (I didn't realize it until they made their second move after taking down the barbarian).

    Note: Barbarian was taken down because he was too close to the hole. If he even has a round of warning he can rage before engaging in melee and survive that first hit.

  7. We didn't know melee oriented insects were coming up. We had been down below only once, and in the down below there was a ranged monster. A hole opened up to down below, and things were going to come out. If anything we should definitely assume it is ranged as the default. These insects could magically dissolve rock - are we really going with the assumption that we could predict their behaviour? If it had instead been a thing with a gaze attack that came up would we have been foolish for being at range, allowing it to massacre us while most of our damage potential spends their turns running towards it, not attacking?

    (Also this oil thing is silly - at what point after realizing that there is a swarm do we get the four rounds required to get oil out of backpack, pour carefully over a twenty foot corridor, and then light it up? Especially when we have plenty of reason to think the beetles will just fly over or climb around on the wall.)

    The barbarian can't stand far away by default. If it is a ranged monster he wastes his whole first round doing nothing, and he can't really use a ranged weapon because he uses a maul. Where is he going to sheathe that thing exactly? Put it on the ground and then waste a move picking it up later when his pathetic ranged damage is not going to cut it? Same goes for the druid, who had some hand axes but who also used a staff. He can't swap back and forth, and his hand axes are short range and low damage.

    I don't disagree that we could build a pure ranged party that is amazing at kiting monsters and ruins melee encounters where we have tons of room to run. We didn't have that party, and we had good reason to guess that the encounter was against ranged enemies, and the monsters killed us before we could change our minds or even figure out what their speed, mode of attack, or defenses were.

    I could, with perfect knowledge, have soloed that swarm easily. But are you really arguing that when monsters appear suddenly with no concrete knowledge on the players part of what they are facing that we should default to 'never have a character in melee range of a monster ever'? Half the classes are melee classes!

    1. "But are you really arguing that when monsters appear suddenly with no concrete knowledge on the players part of what they are facing that we should default to 'never have a character in melee range of a monster ever'?"

      At first level? Yes. Until you know it's a mage or beholder.

      You can pour 5 feet of oil a round, so 20 feet corridor would take a while. But it doesn't take 4 actions to get oil out and light it (5' radius). Would have been tricky to pull off.

      Can you describe any range attack insects? :-)

    2. So just to be clear, since apparently our characters are supposed to know the nature and capabilities of every monster in the world and their relative power levels, would you mind giving me a listing of every monster in the world that we might encounter and what it does? That way I can play as though my character does know this stuff. Barring you giving me that list (which isn't the monster manual, because obviously we encountered monsters that aren't in the manual) we probably shouldn't assume that characters should act as though they have this information, since clearly we don't.

      Alternatively when an encounter starts you could tell us everything we might potentially want to know about all monster types we might potentially encounter or think we are encountering... that way we can make decisions the way you describe.