There has been something of a surge in tabletop RPGs over the past few years, and while a lot of systems have grown their player base, no one has gotten as big as DND 5th Edition. Driven by the popularity of shows like Critical Role, it isn't much of an exaggeration to say that this edition of DND has finally clawed the Wizards of The Coast property back onto the lofty perch it was knocked off of when they released the previous edition.
Since I like to check out popular games, I've played my share of DND 5E. I've also created content for it, which has necessitated going more than wrist-deep into the mechanics that make it work. As a gaming system, 5E is perfectly functional. It's fast-paced, easy to learn, and you can tinker with it relatively easily. With that said, though, there are certain aspects of it that I (as a player, an occasional DM, and a designer) absolutely hate.
And, as always, one player's flaw is another player's feature. So keep that in mind as you go through my list.
1) The Narrowing of Class Features
When I sit down with an RPG, one of the things that I enjoy is outright ignoring the stereotypes of a given class, and how they use their powers. Unfortunately, though, 5E has narrowed the functionality of class features to the point that character concepts which were simple to create in previous editions are outright impossible to make now.
I’ll give you an example. A barbarian's Rage now has the caveat that you have to either attack a foe or take damage pretty much every round in order to keep your Rage going. This reduces Rage to nothing but a combat-focused ability, taking away any other potential uses for the power. You can't use your enhanced strength to pick up fallen comrades as you flee from battle, for example, and you can't use it to give you an extra boost while climbing a mountain side. You can't use it to outrun people chasing you across the rooftops, and unless you're actively being hurt you couldn't even use it for something like rescuing NPCs from a burning building. Even winning an arm wrestling contest is out, by the rules as they're written.
This single-purpose mentality extends to a lot of classes, and it restricts play style unnecessarily. Rogues can only sneak attack with finesse weapons? Paladins can only use their smite on melee attacks? Was a paladin with a longbow whose hand is guided by the divine too game breaking?
And so on, and so forth.
The desire to be less flexible in terms of how abilities work, and thus to restrict character concepts, is one thing that turns me off hard about this edition.
2) Alignment Is More Pointless Than Ever Before
Nothing starts arguments faster than talking about alignment in tabletop RPGs, but at least back in the 3.0 and 3.5 edition of the game alignment had some kind of purpose. Certain spells might affect you differently based on your alignment, you had to be of a certain alignment to be part of certain classes, and there were weapons that wouldn't work for you if your alignment didn't match theirs. It wasn't the most important feature of your character most of the time, but it would have mechanical repercussions in the game.
I've played through a dozen levels in various 5E games so far, and alignment has never once come up. I haven't seen it mentioned in any spells I've looked at, nor in the descriptions of any magic items. There are suggestions in the class descriptions, but nothing happens to you if your paladin, monk, or cleric's alignment shifts away from what it was at the start. It doesn't restrict which classes you can mash up, either.
Which begs the question; why the hell is it even here?
While I'm sure there are a lot of folks who are extremely glad that alignment no longer impacts their in-game choices, if it doesn't actually do anything, then why was it included at all? Why not replace the pages talking about alignment with a deeper, more in-depth discussion of character beliefs and morality, since that's all been reduced to pure roleplay (as far as I can tell)?
3) An Overabundance Of DM Discretion
The Dungeon Master is one of the most important positions at the table; without them, there's no game. However, 5E is a lot more like the second edition of the game, in that it expects the DM to not just rule on what's happening (like a judge or a referee), but to actively use their discretion as part of the core rules.
I'll give you an example so you can see what I'm talking about. The wild magic sorcerer's description says that the DM may choose to make them roll a d20 any time they cast a spell of 1st-level or higher. If that roll is a 1, then they roll on the wild magic surge chart.
A core feature of a class is entirely dependent on the DM's discretion. If you have a DM who doesn't know, or doesn't care, then the sorcerer will never actually roll on that table, which means a big part of that class will never function. Why put that decision on the DM, instead of just writing a rule that made the sorcerer roll that d20 every time they cast a spell, thus making it both truly random and feel like a game of Russian roulette? Or why not instead offer expanded language that states that when the sorcerer is in a stressful situation, or is suffering from any conditions, they must roll the d20 then?
It's both one more thing for a DM to keep track of and it's asking them to put their nose directly into a player's core class feature.
This isn't the only instance of this thinking showing through in the rules, either. If you look at skill checks, there's no longer a chart showing the appropriate difficulty check for certain tasks. Not so long ago, if you wanted to make an appropriate knowledge roll to know what monster you were facing, there would be a formula for determining that DC (typically something like monster CR + 10), and you would be able to ask questions about it based on how high above the DC you rolled. There were similar formulas for determining the DC for making a certain jump, for successfully persuading or intimidating a target, etc. Now there's a footnote in the Dungeon Master's Guide regarding average DC level based on how difficult a task might be, but there are no specific tables for particular tasks and challenges, or for modifiers to them.
If you have a good DM, this isn't a big deal. If you have one who isn't mechanically savvy, or who decides to arbitrarily punish the group by setting nigh-impossible difficulty checks, then there's nothing in the rules you could raise as a point in your defense.
4) Big Gaps In The Rules
It's impossible to make a rules system that covers everything. Even attempting such an impossible task is to court madness. But with the exception of when I joined a second edition campaign, I have never seen a game where there were fewer answers in the official rules about things that will actually come up with a fair bit of regularity.
For example, we have some inkling of when certain races get older... but where are the age penalties/benefits (and if they don't exist, then what difference does it make how old you are)? We have rules for breaking objects, but no specific rules about trying to sunder the weapon, armor, or shield being wielded by an opponent. We have no set DC levels for given skills, as mentioned above, and there are no real rules for how you learn new languages. As a sample of the things that, while I was trying to build characters and figure out twists for an intro adventure, left me sighing and muttering, “Goddammit, 5E...”
Sure, these aren't insurmountable problems. But if someone tries to sell you a car, and that car has parts missing, you'd be understandably irritated as you find ways to fill in those gaps. Especially if you were in the middle of a long campaign when you realized a piece you figured would be there just isn't.
When I first came across the concept of archetypes back in 3.5, and then later on in Pathfinder, I thought they were a phenomenal idea. You took a base class like the fighter or the rogue (which already had a general, level 1-20 progression), and you swapped out certain abilities to make a more custom package of abilities. Maybe your fighter gave up heavy armor proficiency in exchange for additional damage with light weapons, making them into a duelist, or your ranger gave up spells in exchange for the ability to create traps. Archetypes were taking an already solid foundation, and providing you additional options you could use to better realize certain concepts.
The keyword there is option. Archetypes were not a required part of the game. Much like prestige classes, you could use them if they suited your concept, or ignore them if they didn't.
One of the most irritating aspects of 5E for me is that it kept what I can only think of as a holdover from 4E, in that classes much choose a particular archetype which more specifically defines their powers. Rogues have to make the choice between arcane trickster, shadow dancer, and assassin, for example. Barbarians can elect to go berserker, or totem worshiper. And so on, and so forth.
Yes there are more options than that now, but these are the choices you're faced with in the base book.
The problem is that there is no longer a foundation class; every class has branching paths. And the specificity of those branching paths often eliminates certain character concepts (perhaps just as much as the narrowing of class features I mentioned in the beginning). I don't mind their existence, as several of these archetypes are fun to play with; I object to them being mandatory. Because if they are optional, they give you additional tools to use for making your best game. If they aren't, then you're just being forced to cram your concept into one of these more narrowly defined paths which feels more like something out of an MMORPG like Diablo or World of Warcraft than the free-form universe of options and customization that tabletop RPGs have the ability to offer.
While you can make the argument that the DM can just change the rules at their own table, these criticisms apply to the rules as they're written, not how someone may modify them in their personal games.
For more of Neal Litherland's work, check out his gaming blog Improved Initiative, or take a look at his archive over at Gamers!
Picture Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUDJzEagqE0
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.