I try not to be negative or harp on negative things on this blog, but this has been gnawing at my brain for the past week or more and I figure writing it down would be good for me. The original plan was just to write it down and not post it, but then I came across this article from The Alexandrian, and it got me thinking that my big problem with D&D 5e may not just be a personal quirk, but a larger problem in general. Perhaps then adding my own $0.02 to the discussion will be helpful to someone looking to make fixes. More importantly though, maybe it will be found by a new GM and in explaining some of the places the system hiccups they'll see that it's not just them not getting it, but there are places where 5e prepares you well for the game and places where it does not prepare you at all.
The Obligatory Disclaimer
Before I go into this I want to be clear, I like D&D 5e as a system. It has done a tremendous job of not only re-introducing D&D to the RPG market and reclaiming WOTC's market share from Paizo, but also in expanding the hobby of playing RPGs to new people. Now, not all of this is pure Wizards of the Coast or 5e. The boom of streaming culture - including standout shows like Acquisitions Incorporated and Critical Role - also helped bring D&D to new markets and people. But 5e has done - for the most part - a decent job of embracing those new people as a system. Well...most of the new people. GMs are a little left out, which is a shame and a major failing when you consider just how important the GM is to what could be the first experience for the entire table (including the GM) with a new group.
Three Pillars Or One?
While the Alexandrian does a good job of pointing out where they see the decline of D&D in that it does nothing in new editions to teach you how to setup a dungeon, or run people playing through one, my issue lies in the same vein but in a different direction.
D&D 5e talks about being built around three pillars of play. Those three pillars are the core experiences that people should experience during a campaign. Those pillars being: Comat, Social Interaction, and Exploration. The idea being that in a D&D campaign your party will explore magical lands, interact with interesting people, and get into fights that scale from holding the balance of some random merchant's cabbage cart to deciding what god/eldritch being rules the world/planes of existence.
The problem with that is there is no real support in 5e for Exploration or Social Interaction. There are mechanics for environmental hazards like pits, extreme weather, etc, but nothing for how you setup or run exploration so that it is interesting or fun. In fact, with how easy it is to access spells like Goodberry that entirely defeat an entire part of exploration (the survival part of it) the system seems to want it to not really be a thing. The same holds true for social interaction. Sure, there are the Persuasion, Intimidation, Deception, and Insight skills but there's no real support for how to setup a social encounter, how to navigate a king's court, how to handle intrigue, or any of those things.
A Good GM Can Handle It
"A Good GM Can Handle That" or "They left it for the GM to handle" are the most common responses I see when I mention the lack of support for 2 of 5e's 3 pillars of play. And you know what? I absolutely despise those answers.
It's simple. A good GM can handle anything. A good GM doesn't need a combat system and they can make it work. As long as you have the basic skill resolution system for the game you should be able to manage a fight just as easily as you manage a conversation or exploration. By definition a good GM doesn't even need the system. They are, afterall, a good GM.
What about the rest though? What about the new GMs picking up the books for the first time? What about the people who are good at mapping dungeons and setting up fights, but want to branch out into intrigue? What about people looking for levers to use in their game that aren't just combat but are unsure what to do? These aren't empty questions either. These are the reasons people have left D&D - or said they graduated from D&D in some cases - to find other games over the years.
If Your Game Calls It a Pillar It Should Support It
The long and short of it is, if your game says that something is one of the central pillars of play there should be more support for it than just the simple "skill roll resolution" system. And it should not be left up to the GM to figure it out - the GM is there to figure out how to handle things that are not the central pillar of play. At the minimum there should be a chapter of advice - if not mechanics of some sort - to help govern how Exploration and Social Interaction are handled. Advice for setting them up, running them properly, keeping them fair and balanced, and so forth.
But even failing the minimum I'd accept some basic mechanic. Legend of Five Rings (before it's 5e) could be said to have as its mode of plays: combat, dueling, and politics. In turn, there was mechanics for dueling. Mechanics for combat. And mechanics for politics. The politic mechanics were simple. They boiled down to a Social Status stat and Honor stat that basically governed how well other NPCs would react to you, and the mass combat rules. Built throughout those was advice for how the Rokugani courts worked, how politics worked, and what kind of challenges you would see there. Dueling was also a big part of politics as any social interaction could result in a duel so you had to be ready for it. As a GM you were prepared to handle the main part of those core pillars by the system. If a player was rude to the wrong person, that could be an honor or glory hit. Or it could be a duel. A person giving a good gift could be an honor gain. If you ended up starting a war, there were rules for how to handle the big battles and what happened to the PCs on the battlefield. Did every GM use all those? Not at all, but they were there to give an idea for the GM and each GM could choose to use or not use them as they saw fit.
That is not a choice D&D gives you. Instead it tells you that 2/3 of your game should be these two big things (Exploration and Social Interaction) but leaves you to figure out how to do those on your own. Or buy their adventures which supposedly will have them incorporated, but considering some of the community responses to the latest offerings maybe they didn't include those sections because that problem the Alexandrian talked about is true in WOTC now. The oral history is done. The passing of knowledge for how to handle those two pillars is gone, even from the developers of the game.
I hope not. But WOTC has done little to persuade me otherwise of late.