Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Look at things

Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons emphasized combat encounters at the expense of role playing and exploration. The Dungeon Master’s Guide encouraged, “Move the PCs quickly from encounter to encounter and on to the fun!” (p.105) Not-fun aspects of the 4E game included overlooking treasure the PCs needed to keep pace with the game’s math, and failing to spot clues leading to the next encounter. In 4E, no one needed to find the fun because adventures put everything in plain sight, or at least within reach of a group perception check. As I wrote in “Is it noticed? How to run alertness,” if everyone can attempt a perception check, someone invariably succeeds.

magnifying glassThis approach trained players to chase obvious leads without examining anything. Meanwhile, DMs wind up hinting that someone might want to check the bodies because apparently the loot doesn’t just drop from your kills video-game style.

The fifth edition designers recognized that exploration makes as big a part of D&D as combat. Clues and treasure may be hidden. You have to look for them, and you must tell the DM where you look. The basic rules say, “In most cases, you need describe where you are looking in order for the DM to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Wisdom (Perception) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.” Do not step into a room, make a great perception roll, and assume you found everything. Instead, look for interesting features, and tell the DM that you want to examine them.

Hidden traps make a return too.

Back in “Fourth edition gives traps a new design,” I described how 4E attempted to replace old-school traps with battlefield traps that worked like monsters—immobile, indiscriminate monsters. Although a few hidden traps slipped into the 4E game, they dealt inconsequential damage. As you move from fourth to fifth, you may be surprised, and killed, by the deadly snares hidden in fifth-edition adventures. Forget about blundering from room to room until the dungeon master launches a skill challenge or drops a battlemap. Start by checking for traps in obvious places such as doors, chests, and the jewel eyes of demon idols. Hint: In adventures published so far, kobolds and goblins favor trapped passageways and stairs.

5 thoughts on “Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Look at things

  1. Shinken

    It would be great it 5e’s skill system actually supported investigation and mistery, instead of being almost completely reliant on blind luck.

    1. Don Holt

      Not having played 5e, I’d like to know the game mechanics to which you refer. Can you give me an example of what you mean?

    2. DM David Post author

      Hi Shinken,
      In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, perception worked by a simple system: To find hidden objects, players said where they wanted to look, and the dungeon master said if something was there. This method has advantages: It rewards player skill and ingenuity and allows the players to engage with the game world. The features of a location become more than fluff to be glossed over in favor of a search check.

      If you want to rely on the players’ investigation skills rather than characters’ skills and luck, you can use the say-where-you-look system and avoid using skill checks for virtually everything.

  2. Alphastream

    Nice point on the difference in stated approach, though a lot of this was and is about DM approach. “Tell me what you are doing” is really important when done to create cool tension and interaction (not to create “gotcha” moments). It’s really about creating the narrative, so it feels like you are really exploring even if the roll was an easy one or the information meant to be found. AD&D was filled with the far extreme – stuff like a shield inside the belly of a lizard or a ring that could only be found if the player states very specific stuff. None of that is about the narrative, and falls as flat as the 4E DM that allows a passive perception to reveal everything with no interaction.

    On traps, we need to see more. 3E had some beautiful traps that could be set pieces, could allow rogues to shine, and could double as puzzles. 4E had some really bad traps initially (low damage affairs requiring 4 actions to disarm), but grew to have some fantastic high-pressure traps that really could add Indiana Jones type elements to rooms. They also added greater diversity, often working as one or more other foes and allowing the encounter to feature living and non-living opposition in a very cool way. I hope the DMG ends up allowing a bit of all of this with some robust construction rules. If not, I hope that gets added soon.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Alphastream,
      As you say, a lot of the differences come down to the DM’s approach. 4E and 5E imply different DM styles, but I favored something more like 5E. In public play, that meant that I needed to be careful not to frustrate players who expected a non-interactive approach. Mainly that meant communicating the scope of the players efforts as they looked. “When you pace the room, your keen perception enables you to spot a suspicious seam in the wall by the chest. You haven’t paused to make a close inspection of the pile of straw or the idol.”

      I suspect you’ve used similar techniques.


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