I’ve run the same 4 hour adventure twice using Swords & Wizardry White Box (a D&D 0e/White Box Retroclone) and now with the D&D 5th Edition Starter Set rules. Combat takes about the same amount of time regardless of system and there was very little difference in the speed or (in my opinion) the overall feel of the game.
A couple of years ago I wrote an adventure called “The Amulet of Shinkara.” I ran it at North Texas RPG Con and at a home game using Swords & Wizardry White Box rules. This page weekend I ran the adventure using the newly released D&D 5e Starter Set rules and pregens. Taking out time to assemble players, introduce characters, review rules, and time for breaks (which takes about 45-60 minutes for that), the actual real gameplay takes about 3 hours, regardless of edition. Altogether all game sessions ran about 4 hours including breaks and non-play time.
Even though this adventure is a mini-dungeon with several paths, in each of the three times I ran this game, people tend to go down the ‘wisest’ path (avoiding some dangerous looking doors and tunnels) and end up with the following the same seven encounters during the three hours:
- Bridge and orc guard post (exploration)
- Orc guard room (combat or negotiation)
- Tunnels with chambers of orc women and children (combat or stealth)
- Orc cook (roleplaying)
- Garbage heap with broken ‘statues’ and rat swarm (exploration and combat)
- Basilisk (combat)
- Medusa (combat)
Combats generally took 10-15 minutes, regardless of edition. The final Basilisk/Medusa ‘boss’ scene runs about 30 minutes total, being essentially two back-to-back exploration/combat encounters strung together. In the 5e game, we ended up with four different combats during the three hours of roleplaying.
When I ran the 0e/1e games, I ran them at 3rd level. When I ran the 5e game, I started players at 1st level, then bumped them up to 2nd level after 1.5 hours (since it was a demo game). I don’t think the level differences had much effect on game speed.
In all game sessions, combat was theater-of-the-mind with no grid except for the last scene, which had a complex scene. For this last scene only I broke out the minis (and again, this was the same in all sessions).
I’ve been playing the 5e play test nearly weekly for about two years. I’ve played mostly at the 4th to 6th level range. I don’t think combat slows down a lot at higher levels; the HP progression and power curve are very flat, meaning combat time doesn’t ramp up dramatically the way it does in 3e or 4e. (Edit: this design technique is called ‘Bounded Accuracy’ — read more about this here. It’s a fairly amazing design technique in my opinion!).
In my 5e game, one player was new to tabletop RPGs — this game was his first time playing. We used the Starter Set pregens and rules but my custom adventure. The amazingly easy-to-use pre-gen sheets and clean, concise 30 page or so Rules booklet was the perfect thing for a newbie to pick up the game.
I noticed two differences in the feel of the 5e game:
Unlike 0e/1e, in 5e Magic Users and Clerics both have cantrips (minor at-will powers that don’t count against your spell slots). Both Magic Users and Clerics have an attack spell as part of their cantrips — Ray of Frost (Magic Users) or Sacred Flame (Cleric) — which do minor damage compared to fighters, but let the spell casters continue to use magic instead of using up spells and having to fall back, and do little save throwing a dagger. I like this feature — 5e has more satisfying play in my opinion vs. 0e/1e.
The other difference is the default lethality. 0e/1e is very lethal at low levels (or all levels, arguably). Gary Gygax in his later years started players at 3rd level just because of this lethality. 5e has ‘death saving throws’ so that if you fall to 0 HP (assuming you didn’t die outright due to damage from a single hit equal to your highest normal HP) you get death saving throws. Three successes mean you stabilize, three failures mean you really, truly die. I’ve been play testing for 2 years and had multiple situations where I was on the brink of death but managed to make the third saving throw. A great way to introduce suspense but minimize the actual odds of dying.
Now, many folks will like a more lethal game, or otherwise see these minor differences as something they don’t want in their game. Not to worry — the Dungeon Masters Guide (due out Nov.) will be essentially a ‘hackers’ guide with lots of dials to emulate the game feel of your choice, be it more lethal games, slower healing, slower XP/leveling, etc. In my opinion, having played all the versions of D&D, this it the most hackable, house-rulable version I’ve every seen.
My verdict? This is my favorite version of D&D. I loved 0e White Box and 1e. Didn’t play much 2nd edition. Played some 3.x and 4.x but both were too crunchy and miniatures oriented for my tastes. 5e is everything I liked about the original version, with improvements which I happen to like, and the option to house-rule away any differences not to my taste.
While it may not end up being everyone’s favorite edition, I would suggest it could at least become many people’s 2nd favorite edition. I really do think it delivers on the promise to bring people of many different play styles together at one game table in a very satisfying way. Also, in my opinion this is hands down the best introduction-to-tabletop-RPG product ever produced, easier even than the Pathfinder Beginner Box or old Red Box to ease new players into the hobby. Having a great, modern gateway system like this does the entire hobby a favor by introducing new players to the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying.