Instead of shifted balance, I took the liberty to talk about my experience in previous editions (and Pathfinder, also called D&D 3.75e) and which aspects of the editions I didn’t like and how they got fixed or otherwise handled in 5e. This is (like all my posts) my personal opinion and I do agree, that I’ve a lot of fun playing these systems, but in the end there is a reason, why I enjoyed the test play and the result of it so much.
3e, 3.5e, Pathfinder
In the end, I don’t see too much differences here, most problems are in one version more present than in others, but in the end they’re almost identical, so I spare time and space and sum them up.
- First of all, 3e and 3.5e had dead levels, levels in classes where you gained nothing from your class, this is not an issue in 4e or Pathfinder and 5e got it fixed, too.
- The customizing options resulted into a broad field for power-gaming and every rulebook made it worse. In 5e you can still customize, but there are some restrictions at the basic level (like ability score cap or concentration spells) and even though further rulebooks might bring options, which are simply better than existing one, we’re still at the beginning of this edition. Will take a while.
- Dump-Stat Charisma for most classes, in 5e Charisma is a bit better off, since any ability can be a saving throw and some of the nastiest effects for non-maincasters (like being send to another plane) are CHA-saves. Maybe Intelligence might get an occasional dump, but on the other hand, players aren’t that clever most of the time.
- Most rules were too complicated to explain them new players, without testing them, if they’re willing to become nerds. Since there were so many tables, so many different rulings for different circumstances, it became somewhat more realistic, but less fun. Now I get my standard set of rules, which comes in handy in about 90% of the cases and will be helpful for the remaining 10%.
- Too many buffs made a combat encounter to advanced bookkeeping, especially since not all bonuses stacked. And since there were lots of more spells per day possible, you didn’t hold back too much. Now with less spells and the concentration spell mechanic, the number of buffs a character can get is much more limited and generally spells stacks as long they’re not the same.
- Debuffs were usually bad choices, since they always trigger saving throws, often with no effect on a successful save. Even though the saving mechanism remained, spells are generally harder to resist and while the corresponding buff often targets only 1 ally, the debuff gets multiple enemies (haste gets one, slow gets up to six creatures).
- Obvious (feat) choices were always kinda annoying, since a Rogue should always get his DEX high and chances to sneak attack in range were slim, weapon finesse were almost a no-brainer choice. There are some others, like Power Attack to re-use all resources you got to hit as damage or some class specific choices like archenemy humanoid (humans), since most enemies you’ll encounter will be… MAN! I like to think, that 5e will do it better and on some regards they do, like giving finesse weapons instead of thieving a feat out of the Rogue, less hard bonuses or real choices (you can get +10 damage with the Sharpshooter or Great Weapon Master, but the -5 on attack rolls are pretty harsh: it will definitely decrease your accuracy by 25% most of the time).
- Monsters were too complicated: To create monsters meant to give them feats, skills, etc. and drove you insane, while you had to get a good memory to handle the Monster Manual fluently. It wasn’t the difficulty of the task, but the time consuming factor, which got me really annoyed.
I’ll leave it with this and go to over to the 4th edition.
- Half level bonus is great in theory, but annoying in reality, you have to erase your felt half character sheet, all bonuses let normal enemies be worthless and decreased this way the sense of danger. There are still bonuses which increased, but only hit points and hit dice do so every level and even a 20th level fighter shouldn’t take on a hundred goblins without some magical back-up, since your AC might not be enough to prevent hits on less than natural 20s.
- Rituals were nice, but since they always cost components, players didn’t use them much. The spell system is back again and take on most Rituals, which were meant to cover spells like Teleportation or Raise Dead, which couldn’t be handled as a power.
- The inflation of magic items is over now! In 4e you need magic items (weapon, armor, neck) to remain competitive with the enemies, but a 5-headed party will find 80 non-consumable magic items over the course of 20 levels, another 40 to 30th level, while selling their old ones. They needed the +X bonus, daily item powers and such were just whelming. Now with less options to get your attack and damage high, you’ll be smiling like an idiot after finding a magic weapon, because magic items are not really necessary in 5e, so they’ll make your hero indeed much stronger.
- Grinding battles were boring at some point. In 4e at around the paragon levels about every standard encounter becomes an unending terror of grinding, since powers were used, regained, used again and the opponent’s and PCs still had a bunch of hit points and PCs were healed quickly. In 5e combats are more of a quick and dirty thing.
- Too many non-actions due stunning and dazing effects were always kinda sad, especially after every class got those powers. You could have one elite monster, which couldn’t use a single power, since it always got hindered until the end of someones next turn or had to save at the end of its own turn. Still possible, but much harder.
- Too many balancing issues in the late-game kinda overshadowed my only campaign which went to 30th level. Every player had at least one defense a monster could hit only on 17+ (or in one case natural 20), at least one defense could be hit by 2+ and other issues, this was due the right choices of equipment, feats and the fact that in epic everything gets higher bonuses. Again, less stacking bonuses and more restrictions here and there seem kinda helpful.
- Essentials. I liked the fact that the classes got balanced by using the same standard structure. After some rulebooks I foresaw that the balance was unbalanced and Essentials was the final kick to the balls to it. 5e didn’t fix the existence of the Essentials, but make it easier to forget them.
I have to say, I’ll miss some mechanism in 5e, like Minions (even though I can use weak monsters, since getting AC high is a trial), Experts or Solos (latter will be regulated by Legendary Actions and something I’m looking forward: Lair Actions!!!), but I think I might stay a long time in the new edition. Especially after recalling why I got so unhappy with the previous ones.
If you reconsider your D&D system because of one of the upper reasons, I hope you’ll find what you seek at 5e. Be flexible, try it and maybe you and your gaming-group will find something they missed since a long, long time ago.