by Mike Shea on 28 July 2014
This is a rather lengthy article so here's a quick summary of tips for 4e DMs who plan to run D&D 5th Edition.
Since the release of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5e), beginning with the Starter Set and Basic Rules, there have been dozens of reviews of this new addition of D&D. This article is not one of them. Instead of reviewing the system, this article focuses on helping 4th Edition (D&D 4e) Dungeon Masters understand some of the changes between 4e and 5e and offer tips for running a D&D 5th Edition game. This article will avoid opinions on the core principals of 5th Edition or how they compare to 4th. If you're interested in understanding more of the inner workings of 5th Edition, here are a number of excellent reviews:
If you're interested in the changes a D&D 4e DM might find in 5e, read onward.
It takes a long time to fully understand the inner workings of a new roleplaying game. Even with a two year playtest, we're still figuring out how D&D 5th Edition runs at the table. This article represents what we know about the game right now but our understanding is likely to change as we run more games and read more D&D 5e products.
For now let's take a 4th Edition DM's look at the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons based on our current understanding.
As mentioned in a discussion of the D&D Starter Set between myself and Enrique Bertran, the lack of a tactical battle map may be the first thing a 4e DM will notice. There are no maps, no tokens, no miniatures, and no visual tactical descriptions of the combat encounters included in the D&D Starter Set. This doesn't mean you can't run tactical battles. Instead, it means we have many options for running combat encounters, both on and off the grid. Here are some example ways we might run combat in 5e.
Because 5e D&D is flexible in how it approaches combat, any of these styles can work well and give you option for faster abstract combat or lengthier and more tactical battles.
"I wouldn't say that. They're more like farmers with sticks." - Rosa Moonshadow
The PC power curve of D&D 5e is very different than 4e. While 1st level 4e characters had a lot of hit points and options, 1st level 5e characters are more vulnerable and have fewer options in combat. Because of this, 4e DMs must understand the fragility of 1st and 2nd level PCs and go easy on the monsters at these levels. It only takes a couple of orcs to cut down a 1st level party and an ogre would wipe the floor with all of them. As a 4e DM running a 5e game, go easy on a group of 1st level PCs. They won't start to feel more durable until they reach level 3 or 4.
To compensate for these lower levels, D&D 5e speeds up the leveling process between 1st and 3rd level. A 1st level PC should likely hit 2nd after killing a cellar full of rats and having a couple of stern conversations. Reaching 3rd level shouldn't be much harder. Once a PC hits level 3, they'll start to feel more like the 1st level 4e character you might be used to.
If you want to begin with more robust PCs, you can begin them at level 2 instead of level 1. Because of the flatter math curve (more on this later), starting at level 2 won't push monsters or adventures into obsolesce. This works very well for one-shot games where you might want your PCs to be a bit more empowered.
In summary, go easy on level 1 and 2 PCs and get them up to level 3 fast. Alternatively, you might want to simply start them at level 2 to start out with more robust PCs.
DMs running 5e have two tools at their disposal to reward good roleplaying and improvise during a shifting story.
The first tool is "advantage". When granted advantage, a character can roll twice on a d20 roll and take the better result. 5e DMs can institute this mechanic in a variety of situations or environments such as moving to high ground, conducting a well planned bit of subterfuge, or spending some time to plan a first strike attack. Advantage is a powerful bonus when given, roughly equivalent to a +3 to +5 bonus depending on the target DC. You won't want to give it out all the time, but when you do, it will really matter to the PC's action.
The second tool is "inspiration". Inspiration is a reward for good roleplaying. When a player has their PC act true to its character, even if it's not the optimal choice from a gameplay perspective, the DM can give the character "inspiration" which, when used, gives them advantage on a d20 roll of their choice.
These two tools give DMs a great way to empower PCs and reward players for coming up with creative and unplanned solutions to their problems. These tools build trust with our players and empower PCs to act beyond the mechanics of their character sheet. They reinforce the basic idea that D&D is a game about interactive storytelling focusing on action, exploration, and interaction.
D&D 5e focuses on three main elements of the game: exploration, interaction, and combat. Because combat in D&D 5e can take significantly less time than D&D 4e, we have a lot more room to focus on exploration and roleplaying. Dungeons can get more vast. We can throw in a lot more puzzles and hidden lore than before. Groups who enjoy it may spend a good deal more time negotiating with NPCs than before. Even our combat encounters may change. Combat encounters can be based on the reality of the situation rather than a perfectly balanced encounter for the PCs' level range.
This room also gives us the opportunity to hone our improvisation skills. More than ever we'll want to have the tools on hand to help us add in interesting locations and NPCs for the PCs to interact with.
In short, you'll want to prepare more opportunities for exploration and interaction than you might be used to in your 4e games. Because combat is so much faster, you can pack a whole lot more game into a three or four our session than you have in the past.
If you're not used to it, the spell system in D&D 5e may look quite foreign. You'll want to spend some time understanding how spell memorization, preparation, and casting works in 5e D&D. Though the spell lists look intimidating, there are fewer spells in 5e than there are magical powers in 4e. Take the time to read up on the magic system, and the spells themselves, before you run your 5e D&D games. It may take some time up front to learn what each spell does, but once you do, you and your players aren't likely to have to look them up that often.
The same goes for spell listings on monsters stat blocks. 5e monster stat blocks don't describe the effects of the spells for those monsters who possess them, but it won't take much time to figure out that a fireball throws out 8d6 damage in a 20' radius once you've seen it a few times.
Like many D&D rules, you can delegate one of your players as the "spellmaster" whose job is to look up spells cast by PCs and NPCs alike. It's a good way to make your life as a DM a little easier and keep your players off of their cellphones during the game as an added bonus.
You'll also want to pay special attention to "concentration" spells. Certain spells that have ongoing effects require concentration to keep going. Any caster can only keep up one concentration spell at a time. Think of it like a single slot that can only take one spell at a time and must dump that spell to take in another. If you're not paying attention and neither are your players, PCs might accidentally cast and keep up multiple concentration spells which will throw the power balance way off.
In short, spend some time understanding the 5e spell system and don't worry too much that spell descriptions aren't in every stat block. You'll get used to them soon enough.
5e D&D has no minion, elite, or solo category for monsters like 4e D&D had but this turns out not to be much of a problem. In order to understand this, it's important to understand 5e's flat math. PCs and monsters in D&D 5e don't scale their attack and defense scores by level. Instead, PCs have a proficiency bonus that goes up only four points from level 1 to level 20.
This flat math system means that low level monsters can still hit higher level PCs. It also means that lower level PCs have a chance to hit higher level monsters. Instead of having solo or elite monsters, we simply have monsters with higher or lower challenge ratings. For example, an ogre could be considered a solo monster for a party of level 2 PCs, or an elite for a party of level 4 PCs. For level 8 PCs, a group of ogres might be considered balanced. When a group of level 20 PCs face ogres, they start to look like minions.
For some very powerful monsters, D&D 5e has a category called "legendary" monsters. Powerful solitary creatures like liches, beholders, dragons, and the like gain special abilities often tied to their lair. These creatures dish out the battery of actions we're used to seeing from solos in 4e. Many of these extra actions from the lair in which you battle a monster itself. We'll know more about how this works once the D&D 5e Monster Manual comes out.
As mentioned, we're still beginning to learn all the inner workings of this new version of D&D. It will take us dozens or even hundreds of games to learn about all the nooks and crannies. With a few basic ideas, though, we can bring a new feeling to the game we love.