Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Choose your battles

Over the last few months, I have introduced fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons to lot of folks who have only ever played fourth edition. In the new game, these players tend to make assumptions likely to get their characters killed. For players whose D&D experience starts with 4E, and those who picked up some dangerous habits, I have some advice that will help your character survive.

Choose your battles

Most public-play adventures open with a scene where a patron asks the characters to undertake some mission. The players may talk money, but whatever the terms, they always take the job. The scene is a formality. The characters took the job as soon as their players sat to play D&D. Sometimes I think fourth edition turned the combat encounters into the same sort of obligation. If an adventure budgets 1½ hours for a combat encounter, you may as well roll initiative, because you already chose to play. Certainly my D&D Encounters players tended to that outlook. More than once, I heard someone say, “Why are we talking to these guys? You know we will just have to fight them.” In public play, combat encounters so dominated game time that adding or skipping one upended a session’s pacing.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Dragon HatcheryFourth edition’s published adventures funneled characters from one encounter to the next, each presented with a little map that showed monster starting positions and a start area for the players. Sometimes my players broke this careful staging by sneaking, or talking, or simply walking around a wilderness encounter. In every case, the adventure’s designer completely overlooked the possibility that someone might choose to skip a fight. The game encouraged dungeon masters to craft encounters too precious to skip.

Fifth edition adventures encourage players to avoid some fights.

Fifth edition jettisons all this. A 5E encounter description consists of a monster name in bold. Adding or skipping a 20-minute fight won’t undermine the session.

You’re free. Avoid a fight by sneaking, or talking, or simply walking around it. Avoiding fights qualifies as smart play. Don’t worry about skipping past the adventure; plenty of monsters remain to fight, and your characters will reach them fresher.

As for the PC start areas, fifth edition drops those too. If you choose to enter a fight, try to start at an advantage. Set fire to the tents. Turn the tables. Hit and run. Surprise the DM. (I know you could do all that in 4E, but most of us just took a place in the start area.)

Despite this freedom, the new game offers new challenges.

Fourth edition proscribed strict recipes for building an encounter. Every combat encounter delivered just enough enemies for an lively fight, but never so many that a character might die. The next room never housed more monsters ready to storm in and tip the odds in favor of a total party kill where everyone dies. (Those of us who started playing before 4E, when such a thing could happen, sometimes abbreviate to TPK.)

Fifth edition encourages you to be wary.

None of this remains true in fifth edition. My Encounters group has started Horde of the Dragon Queen, I find myself starting every session with a warning that the adventure offers fights that the characters cannot win. I do this to discourage the players from, say, making a frontal assault on the raider camp based on faulty assumptions learned in 4E. All the 5E adventures I’ve seen include situations that invite reckless players to a TPK. Do not storm the feast hall of a hill giant steading.

Fifth edition monsters no longer have starting positions keyed on a map. The adventures return to presenting dungeons as dynamic places with creatures that move about. When monsters hear a clash of swords, they can join a battle. You may face enemies prepared to raise an alarm, or to retreat to join allies. Do not let the orcs sound their warhorn. Do not tease the drakes until their enraged roars summon a swarm of kobolds, then retreat into a cavern full of stirges. I do not want a repeat of last Wednesday night.

If you find yourself over your head, you can run away. The withdraw action and the limit on opportunity attacks makes fleeing much less risky than in fourth edition.

Next: More fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players

7 thoughts on “Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Choose your battles

  1. Don Holt

    Yeah! D&D has become an RPG again. But will 6th edition return to a battle miniatures game, while 7th returns yet one more time to a RPG?

    1. David T. Weber

      D&D is a set of rules just like any other game. Roleplaying comes from the Dungeon Master and the players.

      This has been true for every edition including 4th.

      1. Don Holt

        There are rulesets that encourage roleplay and there are rulesets that encourage miniature battles. Yes a good group can make any ruleset work, but why bother. It’s simpler to use a good ruleset from the beginning.

        And though the mechanics in this Forthright Open Roleplay is only marginally better than D&D, the philosophy expressed in the manual far exceeds D&D.

        The only flaw in their philosophy is that for mature playgroups, ones where the player characters can be at odds with each other, their healing mechanic fails. Other than this slight problem, the way of presenting a style of play is lightyears ahead of D&D.

        And from a RPG historical perspective their Resolve trait is surprising similar to Fatigue in a very old RPG.

  2. Mulliga

    To be honest, our group never had the encounter-sequencing problems with 4E that you’re describing (probably because we never used published adventures). I found that it was easy for me as the DM to allow the PCs to skip or bypass combat, or to start with massive advantages (or disadvantages) based on what they did outside of combat.

    As far as difficulty goes, both the Starter Set and “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” introduce some impossible combat encounters, which are greatly appreciated. Just having stuff like that in there, as you suggest, changes the tenor of the game.

    1. DM David Post author

      Thanks to the Starter Set adventure and “Hoard of the Dragon Queen,” I think I reached the point where I can stop warning my players to expect every fight to be mandatory–or winnable. Last week, my regular players may have been too cautious, avoiding fights even as some players grumbled about the lack of battles.

  3. Pingback: Hvad er forskellen mellem D&D 4th og D&D 5th edition? | Stemmen fra ådalen

  4. SiriusT

    “You may face enemies prepared to raise an alarm, or to retreat to join allies. Do not let the orcs sound their warhorn.”

    This is an idea I’ve used (in 4E!) to introduce players to fights they can’t win without risking TPK. They knew where the encampment was when they attacked the scouting party. That scouting party looked like easy pickins, but once their leader blows on the battle horn, I had an opportunity to make use of a Knowledge Skill Check in combat, and my PCs knew they had about 5 turns to retreat and evade… or face an ordered regiment.

    All of a sudden, it dawned on them that they wouldn’t be able to beat everything I might throw at them, and after play was done for the night I had the opportunity to ask, “Why do you guys always just attack everything on sight?”


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