So far, my admiration for 5e D&D has probably been pretty obvious on my blog. I’m really enjoying the game I’m running and overall, my perception of the way the game plays is very positive.
But I do have, I suppose, one complaint. It’s a really personal complaint so I don’t expect it to resonate with everyone… But it has been a stark moment for me.
My complaint stems from the seeming death of low-level play in 5e. Basically, I’m about to run my fourth session of the game this weekend and I expect – at the end of that session – my PCs will all make 4th level. First level just flew by, second level as well, and now we’ll be dispensing with 3rd level nearly as suddenly.
I’m not sure what the design goal behind shortening the low-level experience is. I could speculate about player desire for greater power, the deadliness of low-level play, etc. But it would just be speculation. There could be a million reasons they decided to set the level curve as they have for 5e. I just regret it.
Discussing this with one of my players, she said to me, “I don’t really feel like I have a grip on my character yet and we’re already gonna be 4th level.” This highlights for me a big reason why I love the low-levels of play in D&D but there are a lot of good reasons to love low-level play that I want to articulate a little.
I feel like this is, perhaps, the most important and least important of all my reasons for loving the early levels. But while we are learning a new edition (5e) and trying out different character types, it feels like those early levels where you start to get a handle on the new mechanics, start to understand your role in the party, and how your powers work just flew by. We have second level spells and magic items, and all kinds of stuff before we even have a firm grip on the basics. For me, low-level is a time to learn and experiment. It’s low-stakes play – just coming to terms with what being a Monk is, you know?
Speaking of low-stakes – that’s another major advantage of low-level play. It’s very personal. It’s vital. Life is constantly dangerous and saving a village is exciting. Something that seems to have evolved as a conceit of D&D across 3rd and 4th editions (to me) is the idea that the scope of the game gets necessarily bigger as the game goes on. That is to say, you broaden your games beyond the prime material and explore the planes, you delve deep into the underdark. That sort of thing. I much prefer the older model (which doesn’t make it better, it’s just what I prefer) of basic dungeon-delving, which gives way to a certain amount of wilderness exploring, which broadens out to involve the affairs of domains, and the planes and gods and all that stuff is part and parcel of the whole experience rather than being relegated to an idea of “tiers” or expectations. Again, this is just my preference but I prefer the stakes in a game to be personal rather than broad. A good modern example of this is the Shackled City adventure path. You get the planar stuff, the wacky high-level stuff, but at the end of the day it all comes down to Cauldron and the people who live there. And I feel like the low-levels are where you build this, bake this, into your game.
I mentioned this already and I won’t belabor the point but this really hit home to me as I was planning out some monsters for my current game. I was populating a few dungeon spaces when the realization hit that my players have already far surpassed the basic dungeon dwellers. Three sessions, three levels. It’s downright mind-boggling for me. I realize that the “cool stuff” for 5e characters happens for them in that window of 2nd-3rd level when they pick up their “sub-class” and start to explore their unique powers but, for me, it still happens too fast for it to be comfortable.
Anyway… At the end of the day, I just like low-level stories. Maybe it’s the number of times I’ve gotten to start over with new groups. Maybe it’s a fondness for all the low-level adventures I played as a kid. Maybe it’s a fondness for the type of stories those adventures tell. But at the end of the day, I find myself mourning the loss of low-level as a time of bonding and exploration, and danger, and simple expectations.
And, as always, thanks for reading.
P.S. – I know that I can simply ignore the mechanics and stretch the low levels out a little when I run 5e again. This was just something that came up for me as I realized how quickly it had happened in the game I’ve already started.