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):
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):
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.