Sunday, July 28, 2019

Two Days, Two Games, Two Systems

               This week I had the pleasure to run two days of D&D with different people and different systems. My long time group that I play with semi-monthly just finished Tomb of Annihilation, and it is my turn at bat. I was initially going to run Dragon Heist, but after reading through it I found it a bit too linear for our group’s taste, so I went with Storm King’s Thunder. Saturday was Gary Gygax Day, and I decided to run B/X D&D at a local store The Strange Realms. I had to go with a module created by Gary, so I went with B2 Keep on the Borderlands. It was a fun couple of days, though between work and D&D my voice is shot. This article is intended to reflect on the differences between running the two systems with less than a 24 hour gap between them.

Image take from here.

                Starting with 5e and Storm King’s Thunder (SKT) and the first thing I noticed that the prep time it took for SKT was much more intense. SKT is sold as the marriage of a narrative story with a sandbox, in reality it is a narrative story with some sandbox elements stapled onto the plot. I remember seeing Chris Perkins interviewed about the writing of SKT, and he had just got done with the release of the well-received Curse of Strahd (CoS). Reports were coming in that people loved the complete sandbox experience of CoS, so he went back to SKT and added in some sandbox elements. That shows in the module. There are certainly choices that can be made, but at times they feel superficial. I will say for a narrative plot I find it superbly interesting. I will not go into excessive detail, but the King Lear-like plot drew me in, and was a big decision in wanting to play it. Also…..Giants. They are just a cool enemy to use. They are powerful, versatile, and have interesting culture. They can be negotiated with, bargained with, pleaded with, etc. Also, their reasoning in the plot makes sense.

The art for SKT is stylish.

               I’ve been playing 5e for some time now, basically since it came out. 
I was in on the open beta test and saw the system evolve over time. Funny enough, I can’t remember if I have run 5e before? I know I have never run it in a long term format. I might have run some mini-campaigns (2-3 sessions) a few years ago, but I might have just used Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP). I honestly cannot remember. This was a different experience. My GM chops are still there, but I kept muddling old systems into my vocabulary. An example was that I wanted a player to make a check to see if they fell off their horse and I said, “Um…make a Riding check…like is that a thing anymore…no that’s 3rd…how about Athletics? Or maybe Animal Handling? I don’t know, pick one.” Terminology aside, I also am not a big fan of initiative, I fell into my old school mentality of asking for declared actions, then just using side initiative. I believe that is an optional rule in the DMG, but not sure? The players did not seem to mind and the combats flowed nicely. The game mechanics overall flowed smoothly, and it made my job as a GM easier. I will do a full session write-up on SKT in another post and will link it here.

                Saturday was B/X and venturing into the Caves of Chaos in B2: Keep on the Borderlands (KotB). As in comparison with SKT, this took very little time to prep. Players made two characters each, and everyone was done in about 20 minutes, and I glanced over the module in prep. There is no real plot in KotB, the assumption is that you are people that want money, and the Caves have money. Your job is to get that money. It pitched it, as many do, “You all could be farmers, but you do not want to shovel shit forever, so you think it is worth the risk to steal from monsters.” I like the idea from LotFP that ALL adventures must be a tad “off” in order to go into caves with literal monsters for profit. For those that do not know in many older editions of D&D experience was HEAVILY tied to money. You received 1 XP per gold piece you retrieved from the wild. XP for monsters is drastically reduced. This leads to a system that rewards getting money without combat. This comes even more into play, because combat is extremely lethal.

Possibly the most played module in history.

                The players in my game were confident and ventured into the caves. The first room they explored was the Ogre lair, and dispatched the Ogre with some reasonable tactics and a bit of luck. They managed to trick the goblins, steal some of their loot, negotiate with Hobgoblins, and get back to the fort. They rested for a week, stocked up on some supplies, the looked over some retrieved items, and headed back to the Caves. By this time the Goblins had betrayed the Hobgoblins to the Orcs and Orcs were raiding Hobgoblin territory. They agree to kill the Orcs for the Hobgoblin chief for money. The plan went well, till it didn’t. One player early in the adventure tasted a potion and discovered it was an invisibility potion. He found a second potion and tasted it, and died due to the poison. They pressed on and fought four Orcs, with the help of six Hobgoblins. A single Orc with 1 HP left managed to take out half the party in a few lucky rounds. There was only one PC left and they took the money and retired. We could have gone one, but our time for the game had ended, and this seemed appropriate.
                Now to my favorite part, the compare and contrast. 5e has a lot more to hang your hat on as far as mechanics go, and that has its pluses and minuses. It is nice as a GM when a rule already exists and is reasonable to use. 5e is full of these types of rules. This requires little thought on my part, and it allows me to focus on bring the plot points to the front. The issue is when you run into a situation not covered by the rules because two things tend to happen. One, someone always remembers that there was a rule for it “somewhere” then the search begins, books are opened, Googles are checked. This all takes time, and bust the flow of the game. Two, if you have to make a ruling there are plenty of moving parts in 5e to try and take account of and trying to make a decision. Is it a skill check? A stat check? A saving throw? What about special abilities? Etc. This can also slow things down, and as Dune says, “Slow is the game killer.”
                B/X in general asks the DM to make a lot of calls because the rules do not cover as many situations. There was an expectation that each game would house rule a lot and figure out how to run it in that particular game. Because the game does not have all the moving parts, making a call is generally easier. There are just less factors to take into account. DMs end up making more of these calls over the course of a game, but they take far less time to resolve generally. The DM becomes mostly a rules arbiter in the game as opposed to a storyteller. I think in 5e those roles are reversed with the story taking precedent and rules arbiter falling in at second place.
              Lastly, it cannot go without mention that the lethal nature of the B/X edition comes into decision making all the time. The party in the KotB scenario did not use bad tactics, but things can go south very fast in B/X. Life is cheap in B/X, and you have to learn to roll with the punches. When players play tactically in 5e, there is absolutely nothing that can stop them. I will go more into detail in my full SKT write-up which should come out tomorrow.

Get'em boys!

                Both of the games are excellent, and generally lend themselves to a certain style of play. I think both can also be used to recreate any style of play, but you might just have to work a bit harder to do one over another. One thing that I was considering was doing KotB in every edition of D&D and write-up how they feel. I believe KotB has been done for every edition. If this is a thing, maybe I can try this in the near future.

I went ahead and created a Facebook group for the blog, if you are interested the link is here.


  1. As a player in one of the games, it is interesting to see your write up and take on this. Funny to see the aspect of older editions making it's way into the scenario I did not think much of it, but as the rules arbiter it at times falls to the dm to know all the mechanics in 5e. Looking at this write up, I find it interesting and well done on your part to resolve something with a roll of the dice, bringing in a factor of luck. I believe it was a d 6 and a 50/50 scenario but rather than pulling out the rules or reading to see what might be in place u uses your own judgment to create an adhoc fair dynamic and keep the ball rolling. That was extremely well done and I missed it as the game kept rolling.

  2. Thanks for playing first off, and thanks for the compliment. You are welcome at my table any time!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to do a write up on your experience. I've had a similar experience running a game in Basic Fantasy RPG while also running a 5e campaign. When running a game in BF, I felt liberated to just make calls according to the situations. It definitely made the game run more smoothly and kept the narration moving with little disruption for rules lookups as happened quite frequently in my 5e games.

  4. Thank you for the compliment and taking time to write a comment. I agree, but there is something to be said about the ease of saying, "Roll a Athletics check." That is quick, it only slows down a lot for me when the action falls outside the general bounds of the rules.

  5. Interesting, I find it the opposite for stories, which is why I don't play 5e if I can help it. B/X-BECMI-RC has so few rules that the game flows better, quicker. Fights are shorter. It is easier to stay with the story without hour long encounters. Also, less fighting due to high death rate and therefore more concentration on story/avoiding combat. Combat in 5e seems to be like watching the computer code for a video game scroll past. Saving throw/ability check/skill check for everything. Extra moves for almost every turn. It takes forever and is boring IMO. I like it when it is take action, roll, monster does same, repeat. As I said, I think that leaves much more space for the story to develop. B2 isn't much for a story unless you make it so. Looks like your players were close by teaming up with the hobgobs. Could have been a lot of sessions with that and who knows how far it could go.

  6. I've seen many people say combat in 5e is slow, but our average combat last 3 or 4 round. Longest combat I had on Friday too maybe 5 minutes? I don't know what the difference is in our games?