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Behold 5th edition

My son Erik, 11, joined me for a visit to Ulf’s in Göteborg (Gothenburg), for a one-night session of play. Ulf was kind enough to run things and to include his daughter Alice and son Franke, as well as another adult, Andreas, and Erik really wanted to try 5th edition D&D for his first time role-playing. We played in English, although I was the only one at the table who “needed” to, and I think I might have made it through in simple Swedish. Next time perhaps.

Any posting about D&D is fraught, especially regarding whatever is purported to be the current version, when it should be considered “a,” that is, singular game with its own design. This session is full of distinct topics for me which I can only list as clickbait, or at least, as desired separate topics in the comments.

  • The game as such: “old school,” my pink ass. It’s Fudge.
  • Inspiration Points tie directly to my consulting sessions with Tor (Proto-concept from D&D play; The merchant's wife); I call your attention to Erik’s interest in experience and leveling up, as the rest of us ignore it in our attention to Inspiration and hit points.
  • Characterization, features, Inspiration; the primary roles of performance amusement and black comedy.
  • Published campaign packs: abominations, especially Waterdeep, which I regard as one of the worst things masquerading as a setting that I have ever seen, in concept, design, implementation, and experience.
  • Good-hearted play full of humor, characterization as enjoyment, and general attention to the imagined fiction, i.e., no Murk. But toward what end?
  • Everyone except me already knew exactly what the plot and back-story were, even Erik, who had picked up everything through his perusal of D&D texts over the past year or two, and even I had reluctantly picked up enough through previous encounters with the setting to recognize everything.
  • Consider the necessary shutdowns of Erik’s spontaneous play moments, and that I’m the one who does it.

So, let’s see ... we played the probably very familiar first session of the Waterdeep campaign as published for this edition. I have not included our character creation, although I might do so in the comments if I get the chance to finish editing it. The different characters’ features (background, flaw, etc) were the primary point of attention, including Erik’s beholder. He had originally wanted to play it as an NPC or monster as Ulf’s “assistant,” but shifted it to be a player-character along the way.

Franke made up an elderly wizard, profoundly bookish with a nominal lust for knowledge, but who evolved immediately in play into a dodderer, although not quite a dotard. Andreas made up a dwarven fighter named Bob, played as a kick-it-in bad-ass, and, apropos of the Monday Lab: Halfbreed discussion, I made up my half-orc rogue Locinda II. When Alice arrived, she took up a sheet that she had played before, a slightly disturbing log-lady sort of elf cleric.

So: a fighter, a rogue, a wizard, and a cleric; respectively, a dwarf, a half-orc, a human, and an elf. And then there’s Erik’s beholder, named Behold, who is very much his player-avatar in terms of personality. This emergent setup did remind me strongly of the late-70s old days, in its familiar array of race and class options + one person who insists on a monster character.

I stress that everyone played these very quirky and potentially anarchic characters neatly in tune with scenario-provided objectives and party togetherness. That’s worth discussing too.

  • Part 1 (embedded below) combines or sort of trades-off between “how we know each other” as the end of character creation and “you’re in the tavern when a guy comes up” as the start of the adventure
  • Part 2 is our “let’s go and do this” moment, introducing Alice’s character and also featuring my character’s solo venture to expedite the clue-finding
  • Part 3 is the other characters’ visit to the Purple Curiosity Shoppe or whatever it’s called
  • Part 4 is “this must be the place” and a little bit of tactical fight-starting
  • Part 5 is fighting and magic! We all get to roll things and do stuff.
  • Part 6 is fighting and magic too! Pay attention to the failed roll for my stunt.
  • Part 7 finishes the fight and gathers the odd clue
  • Part 8 is mostly decompression, acknowledging bit by bit that we’re done, and resource management

The session was well above the gold standard for good will, attention to the imagined situation, energy and appreciation toward one another’s characters, general following of mechanics and system options, and a nice combination of low humor plus self-awareness of it. I thank Ulf and everyone else greatly for their hospitality and welcoming attitude for Erik.

That said ...

This game is caught like a writhing insect in The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast. If I play my character, in the sense of all this characterization and agency that the creation process fires up, then the DM cannot create the story, which is what everything about DMing and especially the published scenarios and campaigns emphasizes. And vice versa, perhaps especially, vice versa.

To unpack that: everything for the player presumes a DM who isn't actually the DM as written/encouraged, and everything for the DM presumes players who aren't actually those players as written/encouraged.

For long-term or naively text-trusting play, the group must pick one or the other, and ignore, as in obviate, reject, abandon, defy, reverse the text and most of the rules concerning the one you didn't pick. Given effective and good-willed play using a firmly-plotted campaign pack (as we have in this case), the net effect is always the same: the players are reduced to posturing, establishing and repeating tropes, and (eventually) goofing in order to enjoy themselves, as the DM waltzes them through fights that lead to clues, and clues that lead to fights.

But that solution founders given even the slightest confusion about which side to diminish into mere colorful performance, which itself then turns into raw agenda clash about relative power at the table. Therefore the more usual outcome is to play into roadblocks of sudden disappointment or frustration, while insisting loudly online that this is the most awesome thing ever, then to limp along wondering about or resigned to the necessary outcomes of the Impossible Thing, and eventually to shift into lonely fun with one's extremely expensive purchases.

Actual Play


I agree with your premise that the Players Handbook and "How you build your character and how you play" has very little (or nothing) to do with the way the DM is tought to do their job. (I'm using "their" and/or "they" in third person singular here to avoid any gender-discussion, hope that's ok.) 

I agreew that in a sense these two are on oposite ends of a spectrum where player freedom is more limited to closer to DM teling their story you go.

I'm not sure I agree with the somewhat (imo) hyperbole conclusion that these two can never meet. The way you describe it makes me think you see this in absolutes. Black and white. It's one way or the other. If that is the case (I'm leaving the possibility of me missreading this, open here) Then I do not agree. I think there are infinite ways to find a compromise and end up at any give intersection somewhere between these two abolutes and mutually exclusive end points.

In fact I think very few of us pla exclusively in one or the other, but somewhere in between. Some games are very far towards one or the other "pole" but there are always boundrays.

I would like to point out that both DM guide and the published adventures have a lot of guidance for character building. Suggestions if you will, about how to create a more invested character. It's not perfect, and it's not enforced but it's probably better than what we did, which was basically just "jump right in and create whatever character you want. (which, granted is what the PHB says you should.)

In a published campaign the creative freedom of the Player is limited. That is true. Most of the time it's going to be a railroaded journey. Maybe there's some options here or there and maybe we can go along side the tracks for a while, but the track are there in 90% of the cases. But the freedom is not completely gone. You can still choose and play and improvise around these tracks, inside the boundray that the campaign set up. So it's far from nullified IMO. The question then becomes what sort of freedom do you as a player evaluate. What is important to you. That will guide where you would like to end up on this sliding scale.

Not sure where I was going with this, but I wanted to get it out. :)


Ron Edwards's picture

A video response will arrive soon!

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