Friday, 3 March 2023

Hex Crawl 23 # 62: Fifth Edition's Role Dilution

Five hexes north of Alakran.

Are there tumbleweeds? There are if you want them to be, in this pan-continental desert biome. And here they are tumbling across this blank stretch of dry plain, tumbling right past the soapbox from which I continue my ranting about running 5th edition D&D in the Alakran campaign.

Today it's role dilution. 5th ed. characters inherit from 4th a greater spreading of capacities across character classes. 2/3 of the core classes can cast spells, and those who can't often have spell-like action systems like the monk or the Battlemaster fighter. Fighters can self-heal. Feats have also raised complaints of role blurring

But actually, even though I am an advocate of well-defined roles to match various player styles, the spreading out of power is not as annoying as the role dilution that comes from the much-remarked flat d20 skill rolls. Characters who are supposed to be bad at skills are still not that bad that they can't give it a shot. 5e skills also don't distinguish between things that can be attempted without training (like climbing), that need training (like lockpicking), and that are just brute applications of force (like opening doors).

Concretely, let's take a "weak" character with below-average ability and no special proficiency in the skill, who gets a -1 to their skill roll. And another "strong" one who gets a +5, either because they have an excellent ability and proficiency, or a superhuman ability with no proficiency. These two attempt some task with DC 13, side by side. If your naive guess is that the "weak" one should never succeed if the "strong" one fails, that's not what 5th edition D&D says.

Looking at the grid, the strong one doesn't even succeed over the weak one's failure in half of the scenarios, and the weak one succeeds over the strong one 12 % of the time - enough of a chance to try. 

The problem is that a "great" skilled character only has a bit less than twice the chance of success of a "bad" skilled character. This means that characters can try all kinds of things they're not really suited to, especially if there is no downside to failure. Sure, you can mess around with the math and the DCs and the system, but then why not just play another RPG that has these things better worked out?


  1. I've noticed this too.

    The trend emerged slowly over modern editions, part of a deliberate effort to drive engagement at the table by allowing every player a fair shake (of the bones) at a problem, no matter how removed from character expertise.

    I'd call it a direct consequence of the reductionism framing every problem encountered as tackleable by a roll instead of rewarding lateral thinking, which all players at a table already could engage in.

    It has come to be thought that, if your character isn't getting a certain amount of rolls in, you're not playing, or not getting as much out of the experience.