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I’ve been playing 5th edition D&D (5e) on and off since September, which, for me, has really cemented the divide between roll vs. role-playing and player vs. PC skill.

My one-and-only exposure to 5e before this was at a convention during the D&D Next playtest period, about six years ago. So even though my memory is hazy, I don’t recall thinking that we were rolling skill checks all the time. Maybe it is the DM (and maybe other 5e DMs can chime in here), but nearly everything we do in the 5e game is based on a roll, tied to some stat on our character sheet. We roll constantly. “I search the sack… OK, roll an investigation check” or, “I examine the fireplace, looking for cracks or anything irregular about the stone floor and sides… OK, roll an investigation check” or “We move down the hallway, trying to be quiet… OK, roll a stealth check”. So the old-school primer is accurate in that regard, and I find it distracting during play. We’re constantly looking at our character sheets to see what it is we can do in any given situation. It also seems that the player is making most of the rolls – which is fine sometimes, but in a lot of cases this encourages meta-gaming when the other players see a poor roll and want to try the search or listening at the door or whatever it is themselves.

I also notice the power creep. At 2nd-level my Druid was already able to shapeshift into animal form, and had three cantrips he could cast at will, one of which is the well-known Shillelagh, which gives him a magic staff with +5 to-hit and damage (his spell attack bonus) that lasts for 10 combat rounds. At 2nd-level the party’s Ranger could already cast spells and had +6 to stealth checks. Again at 2nd level, the Warlock could telepathically communicate with any creature within 30′, regardless of what language they speak, and had the Poison Spray cantrip, which does 1d12 damage on a failed save (I mentioned the powerful cantrips in my convention report, so that at least did not change from the playtest).

All that said, the combats are fun – 5e combat does not seem overly complex or slow, although there is not the ever-present fear of death that pervades old-school games. It is very easy to regain lost hit points, and the multiple saves versus death mean PC death must be pretty rare (it hasn’t happened to us yet). And with the aforementioned power creep, we’re doing significant damage on each attack round. Finally, with its reliance on character skill, 5e is far more forgiving of bad play and tactical mistakes than the old-school games I’m accustomed to.

For an old-school gamer, I think the key is playing 5e for what it is and not worrying about how you might do it in your own games. It is still fun. But I don’t think I would enjoy running such a game. I would try to make it too much like OD&D or whatever and in the end, I’d think to myself “Why not just run OD&D?”.