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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: Of Death and Polearms

by Ken Newquist / September 25, 2016
An adventurer in the foreground confronts a looming fire giant. Fire illuminates the backgorund
Cover art from the D&D 5th Edition Player's Handbook. Credit: Wizards of the Coast

After a few months of talking about the game, my monthly Saturday gaming group decided to give D&D 5th Edition a try. Rather than run a playtest campaign like the Blackrazors, our dungeon master is running us through a series of combat encounters at different levels. This lets everyone get a feel for the combat-centric rules and helps the DM get experience with encounter design.

My Saturday group has been together for decades, the same as the Blackrazors, and we've played a number of D&D variants over the years, starting with D&D 2nd Edition, moving on to D&D 3.5, then switching to Pathfinder before landing on Castles & Crusades. Campaign-wise, we had one set in the Scarred Lands, another set in a home-grown setting, and now we're making our way through the classic Judges Guild setting Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

There were no constraints on our playtest characters, so I decided to try something I've never played before: a dragonborn paladin. Introduced in D&D 4th Edition, the dragonborn were one of the groaner races in that they were included specifically for the people who wanted to play a dragon. It's a very middle school kind of race, but hey, after watching Stranger Things I'm in a middle school state of mind.

Building Character

I decided name my dragonborn Bharosh Goldenscales and make him a paladin of Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon and god of all good dragons. He's be on a mission to redeem the world, and as such, was more about wading into the fray and slaying evil than hanging back and playing a defensive role. This would later prove to be his undoing, but more on that later.

He focused on great weapon fighting -- halberds and great axes -- with javelins as backup for ranged enemies. His backstory had him being descended from a race of dragon rulers, so I gave him the "Noble" background. That, combined with the paladin class, gave him a decent mix of combat and role-playing skills.

I equipped him using the standard build options from the Player's Handbook (Amazon): the aforementioned weapons, plus chainmail, and adventurers kit, and his aristocratic trappings from the noble background. I took "gold dragon" as his ancestor, which granted him an energy breath weapon attack and resistance to fire. First level paladins don't get spells and can't pick an oath, so I was pretty much done.

The Level 1 Fight

Our playtest party consisted of three characters, my gold dragonborn paladin, a halfling wizard, and an elven warlock. The first encounter, involved three Level 1 characters: a paladin, a wizard, and a warlock. They went up against three zombies and a level 3 spellcaster. Bharosh isn't one to hide from a fight against evil, so he ran up, readied his halberd, and waited fro the zombies to engage. The thought was the halberd -- as a reach weapon -- would let him get in a hit against one of the zombies when they closed with him. With luck, that would be enough to take one of them down.

I was wrong on many levels. First, being able to attack an enemy entering within reach required a feat -- Polearm Master -- that my dragonborn didn't have. Second, as the zombies surrounded Bharosh, he got out his great axe and landed a competent blow in the 8-9 point range. The zombie did not go down.

The battle quickly went down hill from there as one of the zombies moved on from Baharosh to attack his allies. They did their best to strike back, but things quickly went down hill. Despite repeated hits from spells and axe, the zombies refused to die. We didn't have that problem; the horde quickly took out my paladin and the warlock. That's when we got the opportunity to do a deep dive into rules for coup de grace and death saving throws.

I've been running and playing D&D 5e for two years, but coup de grace isn't something we've seen a lot of. Technically we still haven't seen it because what we were encountering was attacks against creatures with 0 hit points; a coup de grace attempt assumes you're attacking an uninjured foe, and the mechanics are different.

Enemies attacking a fallen hero -- one with 0 hit points who is making death saves to avoid his or her doom -- merely need to hit their enemy. If they do, they add another failed death save to the character's tally; there's no need to keep track of negative hit points as in earlier editions. The article "How does one dispatch a helpless opponent?" at Stack Exchange was very helpful in figuring this out, though it's covered in the core rules as well (once you know where to look ... and take the time to really grok what it's saying).

The attacks against the fallen Bharosh had advantage, but even with that the zombies had a hard time chewing past the paladin's chainmail armor. It took them several rounds of attacks before the dragonborn finally died.

After that, we paused the combat and did some math ... or at least, had a website do some math for us. The encounter was a lot tougher than the dungeon master had intended, after running the encounter through Kobold Fight Club the reason why was clear: just the three zombies alone were considered a "deadly" encounter; adding in a leveled spellcaster just made matters that much worse. The big thing with the zombies was their hit points -- each one has 21 hit points which means (rightly so) that they can absorb a heck of a lot of damage before going down.

The Level 3 Fights

For our second fight, we leveled up our characters to Level 3 and re-did the encounter math so it was something more balanced. For three 3rd level characters, that meant fighting five zombies.

Bharosh at third level was a lot more capable than at first. He'd picked up the Great Weapon Fighting style, Spellcasting, and Divine Smite at 2nd level, all of which considerably increased his damage output. I particularly liked the Divine Smite ability, which let me burn a spell slot to do extra damage.

At 3rd level he got his Oath of Devotion, which yielded two Channel Divinity power options:

  • Sacred Weapon: Using this ability allowed him to add his Charisma modifier to attack rolls, allowed the weapon to shed light, and made it count as a magical blade.
  • Turn Undead: The classic ability that forces undead to make a Wisdom saving throw or be force to run away.

I really liked the way the paladin came together at 3rd level in 5th Edition. My last paladin, Sir Samuel, was built under Pathfinder rules and while I loved playing that character, it was a very crunchy build with a heck of a lot of options. The 5th Edition paladin still has a good number of options in combat, but they're more manageable.

I can't say I paid too much attention to how the other characters leveled up, other than to note that the wizard took the Evocation school of magic. That allowed him to shape area effect spells to be less damaging to his allies. It would have worked a lot better in the subsequent combats if my paladin made his Dexterity saving throws, but it was still a nice tactical ability to have.

The leveling up process went quickly, and made all the more so when our warlock player found Squire, a 5e character generator for Android. It's step-by-step interface made character creation and updating exceptionally easy, and it even allowed him to manage his character's conditions (e.g. if he was sickened, he could not that and then the app would make all the appropriate changes to his character sheet in real time). Unfortunately, the app doesn't have an iOS counterpart.

We also learned -- as the pages fell out of our DM's book -- that disintegrating Players Handbooks is a known phenomenon. I have two PHBs, one for me, one of the table to share, and the second one started falling apart earlier this month. Until seeing my DM's binding issues, I'd assumed it had been just me, but apparently a number of books in the PHB first print run had bad bindings. Fortunately Wizards of the Coast will replace them; read "So Your D&D Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook Has Fallen Apart..." to learn how.

The second fight went much better for us. Kobold Fight Club rated it as a medium encounter. It felt a bit easier than that, thanks in no small part to Bharosh using turn undead to drive off three of the monsters. From there it was just a question of piling damage on the remaining zombies.

Our last encounter of the night was against three orcs and an Eye of Gruumsh, which put us back into "deadly" territory (that was my fault; I accidentally calculated the encounter for 4 player characters instead of three). This time though, we were more cautious. My character used bless to give everyone an extra d4 to roll on attacks and saving throws for 1 minute, and we hung back, letting the orcs come to us. It was a tough fight, using up a lot of our resources, but went considerably better than the zombie one.

Advantages & Disadvantages

The group's reaction to D&D 5e was positive, with at least two players (myself included) who loved it, and two who liked it. There were a lot of comparisons the lack of customization compared to Pathfinder and the level of streamlining compared to Castles and Crusades.

The two biggest things that the newer players had issue with were feats and skills.

With feats, the problem was that there's no way for a non-human (elf, dwarf, dragonborn, etc.) to get a feat at 1st level; you have to wait until 4th level when you can trade ability score bumps for a feat. Humans, on the other hand, can choose to sacrifice their "get a +1 to every ability" benefit for a more limited bonus in exchange for a feat.

In my Blackrazor campaigns this hasn't been a big issue -- we've grumbled about it, but accepted it -- but there are times when it would be really handy (say, with my dragonborn paladin, who couldn't use his halberd as effectively as he might like because of the lack of a feat). As a house rule, it might be sufficient to say that the non-human race give up its starting racial ability bumps in exchange for a feat. They all get such bonuses, and it's a lot easier than trying to figure out what combination of sacrificed racial skills, proficiencies, and abilities are equivalent to a feet.

With skills it's more a function of the once-and-done nature of picking skills. In Pathfinder, you can increment your skills every level, emphasizing a small subset of skills or picking up new area of focus as you go along. It allows for organic growth of your character -- e.g. my clumsy rogue is better at picking locks then evading swords. After a close call trying to tumble past an ogre, he decides he better get some training in acrobatics ... and fast!

That kind of growth, either through the character or through metagaming the campaign, isn't possible in 5th Edition except in the broadest strokes: you can take the Skilled feat in place of an ability bump. That will allow you to learn new three skills, but it doesn't help improve the ones you already have. This is all by design of course -- one of the issues with D&D 3.x and Pathfinder was the open-ended bonus system for skills. Even at low levels, you could easily get characters with +15 to +20 bonuses to skill checks thanks to a combination of skill ranks, ability scores, and feats. Add in magic items and feats and it got a lot worse.

D&D 5th Edition uses bounded math, so there is a ceiling on how high the bonuses go, and they are harder to get. Your skill at all things increases over time because your proficiency bonus -- the default skill bonus you get just for being a player character -- increases with level. But there's no way to double down on a particular skill unless you are a rogue.

It's not a showstopper (or at least it wasn't for the Blackrazors) but I would like to see a more flexible skill acquisition and advancement system. I've thought about implementing some sort of "Skills College" optional rule for my campaign, in which you could spend gold and time to acquire a new skill. In order to prevent abuse, it'd need to be expensive, and get more expensive as you add more skills. So maybe the first additional skill is 5,000 gp, the second is 10,000 gp, the third is 20,000 gp, the fourth is 40,000 gp etc. I'll need to go back and look at the rewards-per-level chart in the DMG to come up with a decent progression, but it could be a nice way to build out the academic side of the campaign while simultaneously giving higher level characters something to spend their gold on.

We're continuing the playtest next month with levels 6 and 9. I'm not sure what lies beyond that -- I, for one, would be interested in continuing our adventurers in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy using my playtest paladin (especially since i already worked out a backstory for him ... but more on that next week).