This is not a system discussion.
I expect no RPG system has ever been as thoroughly debated, described, praised or damned, analyzed and explained as this one. Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is the 600 pound gorilla in the RPG store, the most-played of all systems, the most visible of all systems, and it has many, many people who know it infinitely better than I, so I will leave the in-depth analysis to those.
Instead, I will just offer two quick personal thoughts about differences between 5e and older Dungeons & Dragons versions, or even other Fantasy RPGs in general.
DnD 5e is obviously a “high magic” system, but magic is still claimed to be “rare” in most sources, and random villagers are claimed to be “afraid” and “distrustful” of magic-users or non-humans. This makes very little sense, as magic permeates every fibre of every implied or published setting. It is front and center in the rules. It takes a lot of effort to make a character with no magical ability, and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a magic user.
There is an avalanche of non-humans milling around in every wood, cave, or small town. The idea of frightened, xenophobic, dumb villagers is a very Coastal-American one. They think of the central and mountain states (“Flyover-America”), which they know only from TV, and imagine a bunch of morons who don’t know how Uber works and who still use Windows 95.
But the truth is, if something is sufficiently common — like magic in 5e — it is as normal as cars or electricity.
The inhabitants of South Dakota may not be the biggest Uber-customers, but they have smartphones and they drive cars. They may not call an Uber the first minute they visit Seattle, but they will not run away screaming if they see one, and they will not holler insults and throw rotten apples at it either.
Why is magic so common: It is because every class has access to it, there are lots of Cantrips, lots of magical items, and lots of temples with priests who also work magic. You do not deny the existence of gods if one of them has killed your cousin and another one had his paladins heal the village when everyone was sick from cursed water. And you don’t freak out about magic if your nephew goes to wizard school and your neighbour has brought home a magical sickle from travelling, your innkeeper is a retired dungeon-delver and especially not if there is an adventurer group made up of dragonborn, elves, tieflings and gnomes passing through every second Tuesday.
Rules wise, DnD 5e spells are very thoroughly described and have precise durations, ranges, and damage effects. They are so detailed there is almost no mystery left, they are basically technology, quickly accumulated with level-gains.
Older editions had no cantrips, and magic users had to transcribe spells for weeks before they could use them. Magical loot was no flat sword +2, it was maybe a sword that could communicate with its wielder and tell him about secret doors and traps, and sometimes lied.
Such magicks are weird and strange, and it makes sense that Apple-Pete from Shallow Cove is a bit reserved when he meets a magic-user. Also, in 5e four out of five adventurers are non-humans, so you get used to armed half-orcs saving people and slaying monsters. In 5e, orcs are to humans what Quebecois are to people from Oregon: They talk weird and eat strange stuff, but are otherwise just the guys next door.
In older editions, the landscape was much more hostile and deadly. An orc lair had 30 to 300 orcs and to party of 4 with 6 retainers they were dangerous as hell, if they were not lucky and met 20 to 200 elves in the area. If you were low level — and you leveled considerably slower than in 5e, one or two arrows would end you. So it was wise to take cover if you saw an orc. Those who decided not to judge prematurely didn’t come home to tell the tale.
This brings us to…
5e is said, and often derisively, to be extremely non-lethal. I do not think that is true, per se.
What IS true is that you reach level 2 after one or at the latest after two sessions. Everyone has dozens of hit points (even the monsters) and fights take a good long time whittling away HP, not unlike cutting down an old oak. Very rare is the sudden hit that takes you to zero and below. Once a player falls, he has three death saves, with a 55% chance of success each. If he makes them, he recovers. There are First-Level-Spells that stabilize you at once. Clerics have spells and cantrips at Level 1. And if a guy who barely made his death saves, all alone in a dirty cave, sleeps for six hours, he is as fit as he was when he woke up in a comfortable bedroom in an expensive Inn, long before his near-death-experience.
There are many arguments about that, with both sides pretty entrenched. “HP do not represent health, just a mix of blah blah!!!1!11!!” is one common one. “You are precious coddled little snowflakes blah blah!!!1!!11!!!” is another one.
But in the end it comes down to how the GM or DM handles the situation. You *can* calculate “CR” to make sure your party will be *just* strong enough to win the encounter with some scratches that are overcome with a short rest on a bench. But you can also just populate your dungeon and let the critters play smart, use ambush tactics, employ traps, take cover, call in reinforcements, protect their casters, and be just as tactical as the players are — focusing all attacks on one guy first, then on the second after that, play to the NPCs’ advantages, use weather, encumbrance, difficult terrain, and bring in the rules for exhaustion levels*, etc — and you will see PCs go down too.
Slower, yes. But they will fall nonetheless.
Room for different games
All things considered, the main difference between ODnD, B/X, and 5e, is flavour.
ODnD is a world of unknowns, where a player character lives in a largely undefined world, and every conflict can be over very quickly and go either way. 1d6 HP per level and 1d6 damage with any weapon, these factors make life and death rather hard to predict. Just like the spells, which are comparatively vague in their description. Just like the foes, who each have half a paragraph to describe them loosely, and that is it.
5e has a ton of rules and a player who studies them with great intent has a very good chance to calculate his or her odds in any situation. There are feats and items that give great details about what they can and cannot do. Spells are defined well, and monsters have stat blocks with exact WIS and CON values that give a clear picture about their strengths and weaknesses.
B/X falls somewhere in the middle between these poles, with more detailed descriptions and, in 99% of games, with variable weapon damage, but also with d8 monster HDs and relatively short paragraphs about monsters; but with more comprehensive stat blocks than in earlier games.
They are different games, for different tastes … or maybe even only for different moods that can make one player enjoy 5e on Tuesday and ODnD on Thursday.
There is an RPG scene outside of D&D, as you know
The hobby is big enough to have room for all three of those styles, and for many more. There are, outside of D&D, storygames, and GMless games, diceless games, and dice-pool-mechanics. There is cinematic play with superheroes or Wu-Xia action, there is deep character development, and class-less GURPS that does all of those, and there are percentile mechanics, and even “powered by the Apocalypse”, which I personally do not love, but which I see described very favourably by fans.
The RPG scene used to be an outsider scene for weirdos, until White Wolf came along and opened it up for the myriads of black-trenchcoaty teens with nose piercings and those who wanted to be like that. “World of Darkness” broke down the barrier between nerd-dom and cool cats, and it is therefore the pioneer that made the mad mainstream success of 5e possible.
There is room for different games, different tables, and different playstyles, and that is as it should be. Variety in games systems ensures that more people find a system (or more than one) that speaks to them and that they enjoy playing.
Interestingly, random thoughts can really move people, and stir up emotions. This is a reaction to the above post. 🙂
Image: 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, cover photo; Illustrator being one Tyler Jacobson.
* Seriously, look at those rules about exhaustion levels. They are much neglected.