Some days, all I really want to do is throw aside all of my current Dungeons and Dragons campaigns in favor of returning to what I always call the “simple roots” of the game. My main campaign is a complex game with political intrigue, long-term mysteries, a fully customized world, a huge history full of references for my players to explore, a whole range of villains the players can kill or continuously encounter, and is an absolute delight to run despite being completely exhausting. I put a lot of work into keeping the campaign running smoothly and making sure my players are enjoying themselves, so I often fantasize about running something a little simpler. Something smaller-scale, really.
I have a tendency to let my imagination run away from me so even something I’ve described as a “shiggles” (shits-and-giggles) campaign winds up with a complex political landscape and more customizations than I can easily manage without a lot of reference work. My main campaign was supposed to be a simple campaign, focused around a small area and with tons of adventure for the players to find without pulling in politics and “Grand Adventure Across the World!” so I could enjoy running without constantly exhausting myself. That plan lasted maybe half a dozen sessions before I thought of a great story I could tell my friends. I don’t regret it and I enjoy running my campaign, but I’m starting to crave something a little simpler again.
Starting to play the fifth edition of D&D has magnified the craving. The system is set up much more simply. For example, the numbers are easier to manage across the board in fifth edition versus any prior edition. My main campaign, using the 3.5 edition set of rules, has a rogue with an Armor Class (how difficult it is to hit someone with an attack) of 19 and a scout/ranger with an AC of 31-35 depending on how much he’s moved during his turn. Depending how much effort each character puts into their AC, this gap could shrink to nothing or grow to be even larger. As a result, it is difficult to give my players enemies that are a threat to the higher-AC characters without being over-powering to the lower-AC characters. The same goes for attack bonuses (the bonus a character gets when attacking that contributes to their attempt to overcome their opponent’s AC) since the Paladin can get a bonus of 20 or higher while most other characters of the same level are working with something in the 10-14 range. This also complicates things for the same reason the AC disparity complicates things.
In fifth edition, the bonuses don’t get much higher than 15 and ACs rarely hit 30 for anyone. There’s very little ability for a focused, driven player to get their character’s attack bonus or AC to a level that would make it almost impossible for an enemy to fight them. In fifth edition, it is super easy to fudge numbers as I need to since the players will have a smaller range for me to consider. In 3.5, it can be difficult to fudge numbers because they fudge for everyone and all stats were NOT created equal. This means I need to spend more time on the front end making sure the encounters are balanced so that the low-AC rogue who turns invisible before literally every attack (which means he can only attack every other turn at most) has the ability to not only survive the fight but contribute to the damage at a level that at least comes close to the amount the scout/ranger and Paladin can dish out in their frequently optimal situations.
In 5th edition, all I’d really need to do is make sure I’ve got a general idea of the location and purpose of whatever the players decide to explore. I can make up numbers on the spot, fill in encounters as dictated by the players’ ability to handle them, and even make an easy encounter a bit more difficult by just making everything a bit tougher. I’d be able to focus on maps and letting my players explore than needing to quietly direct them behind the scenes so they wind up someone I’ve got prepared for them. Hell, I could build the entire thing early on and just give them a continuous string of “the mayor’s daughter was kidnapped” and “there’s some gnolls out in a cave who’re raiding merchant caravans” quests until they got tired of playing or have literally bought the entire country they lived in with all of their fabulous adventurer wealth. The whole story would be about creating their legacy and achieving fame and fortune rather than some problem in the world that only they can fix.
In my mind, that’s classic Dungeons and Dragons. I’m willing to bet D&D has always been a pretty even mixture of the simpler style stories of just wandering around a world full of danger and treasure and of being sent on a quest to defeat a series of sequentially stronger Big Bad Evil Guys. I just have a tendency to run campaigns that are mostly the latter and hear about wonderful, fun campaigns other people played in that are the former. I want to run one of the simpler style campaigns, or maybe even a pre-made campaign. It would be interesting to be able to focus on the stuff specific to being a Dungeon Master instead of a story creator when running a game. I bet I’d learn a lot about what makes for good tabletop storytelling.