After about a year's hiatus from RPGs I've started a new campaign with D&D 5th edition. The setting is a weird, sci-fi-tinged take on Arthur's Camelot. This is my latest attempt at a sandbox campaign, something that has always eluded me in the past. The last time I tried it was with DCC, which I found a little too loose and unbalanced for it to really work in long-term play. 5th edition seems to hit the sweet spot between B/X's simplicity and 4E's tactical crunch.
I generally find session reports pretty boring so I won't go through a blow-by-blow account of everything that's been happening. I'll just point out some things I've been learning about the craft of DMing:
- My players like fiddling with mechanical widgets if they're there, but they don't really miss them if they aren't. Nobody cares that they don't have the "shift 1 square, 3 temp hp" type powers from 4E. Even when the fights devolve down into "I roll attack, you roll attack" they are still engaging, though eventually this might change.
- Random wilderness encounters take up a lot of time and are a bigger deal than I had anticipated. The second session consisted entirely of a single random encounter with some Space Vikings, after which the party had to go back to town and recuperate. However they did manage to score a sweet flying boat out of the deal.
- Trying to predict everything mathematically like you can do in 4E does not really work in a sandbox environment. I had planned to build the adventures around 5E's target of 6-8 encounters between long rests. To do this I had houseruled that the PCs could only take a long rest when they're at Camelot or another large town. All my assumptions about this were thrown out the window when they got the flying boat which would allow them to bypass most wilderness encounters. Rather than trying to bring them back in line with my assumptions, I think I can just roll with it.
- The deadliness of low-level 5E seems overstated. I fretted about accidentally TPKing them in a dumb way, but if anything I need to go harder on them.
- Talking to the players about expectations is really useful. In the 3rd session they were raiding a castle and I told them straight up that if they didn't play strategically, they would have a much harder time of it. After they failed their stealth rolls early on, they wisely retreated rather than wading into battle.
- I still wish there was a more formalised system for stealth rolls (and to a lesser extent, athletics rolls during chases). How many rolls they have to make is pretty much entirely up to me as a DM, so it feels a lot more arbitrary than combat. When I ran 4th edition I always used to heap shit on the skill challenge rules for being artificial and pointless. Ironically it's now that I'm running 5E that I want to use them for situations like the above.