D&D 5E – Checking In With An Old Friend

I’ve been getting back in touch with an old gaming friend, one I imagine most of you know: D&D. It’s our hobby’s alpha (with no omega in sight), the common Eve from which all tabletop RPGs descend. It was the first RPG I ever played, and it remained a steadfast constant of my gaming table for many years, many stories, and many friends.

Eventually, the unlimited flexibility and versatility of GURPS ensorcelled me, and for 25 years I’ve trifled with nothing else. (Nice try, Fate! Almost got me! More on GURPS in a bit.)

This year, though, I’ve become increasingly interested in D&D Fifth Edition, culminating in finally reading the core books and even DMing a quick start to a small campaign.

D&D 5E

I feel like my arrival at 5E is the polar opposite to that of most gamers. The majority of us start with D&D, of whatever edition happens to be in print when we start, and either set up shop there permanently or at some point branch into other games. That is, most GURPS players I meet have come from D&D at some point in their past, where as I’m coming (back) to D&D after nearly 30 years of GURPSin’. Second edition/2E (AD&D) is my favorite, and the last edition I DMed regularly, so I imagine that will color large swaths of this post.

After poking around for awhile on various online communities and browsing the free Basic Rules, I took the plunge and got the core D&D 5E books: Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. As usual, the MM is a gorgeous, full-color cornucopia of critters to ravage your PCs with. Likewise, the DMG remains bursting with advice on creating and DMing your own adventures (and monsters, and spells, and magic items), with even less required book swapping than 3E (an edition I read for nostalgia but don’t recall playing).

But the real gem is the PHB. After reading through, I came away very impressed with the system. It’s solid, well-presented, and inviting to new and old players alike (I realize this is all obvious and common sense — D&D is presumably the driving force of the hobby for a reason — but I still didn’t think I would find it as much fun as I did). It very much reminds me of 2E, though contained in a single volume, streamlined, and with a much more modern design. It was a great read, and I look forward to doing it again!

Some random thoughts:

  • The appeal of rolling multiple polyhedrals shouldn’t be underrated.
    I have felt this lack in my GURPS games for quite some time, and often use converted polyhedrals in GURPS for damage rolls and such. The tactile sensation of chucking a handful of different shapes is an integral part of the D&D experience for me.
  • Pedantic or not…
    I rarely tire of playfully “correcting” people learning the rules comparing D&D to video games. “Yeah, I know, hit points, armor ratings, monsters, it’s just like World of Warcraft.” Technically, World of Warcraft is like D&D. Delicious. 🙂
  • Minor Suggestion #1:
    I personally find the font size problematic in a lot of the current D&D material, both digitally and on paper, but I’m willing to chalk that up to my old eyes. But the combination of the tiny font size with the page number colors being so close to the background color of the pages seems like a huge problem. Even if I can decipher the Morse Code that is the index, actually finding the correct page in the book is harder than it should be.
  • Minor Suggestion #2:
    I would much rather the PC speeds, and maybe even the spell ranges, be given in “squares” than “feet.” I understand the intent, but anecdotally to me it seems that way more groups use maps than don’t, so the extra step of converting should be on the minority who are doing theater of the mind to multiply by 5 rather than the majority who aren’t having to divide by 5.

I’m sure I’ll have more questions and things that stand out on deeper review, but that’s really about all that bothered me so far. Bottom line, I think it’s a fantastic game.

Our First D&D Games

I happened to mention to my sister and sister-in-law that I was checking out D&D and “…might run a quick game sometime down the road” if they were down for it. Once I recovered from the “Scott Pilgrim”-style avalanche of enthusiastic sound effects and shouts of anticipation, we immediately muddled our way through creating our first party. Here’s the first draft of Brik the Half-Orc Fighter and Lierin the High Elf Wizard.

I had already purchased “Waterdeep: Dragon Heist” as our first campaign to get the PCs to level 5, and to hopefully pick up “Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage” later to bring them all the way up to 20, but I hadn’t yet read it, so instead we just did some mock gladiator fights between the PCs and a few low level critters.

The initial fight was against a single Giant Frog, who hopped into the arena and menaced the PCs. We rolled initiative, the result being Lierin would go first, then the frog, then Brik. Lierin charged the frog to smack it with her quarterstaff and — with the very first combat roll of our very first 5E campaign — rolled a natural 20. It remained alive, barely, with a single hit point left. I rolled for the frog to bite her back — and also rolled a natural 20, nearly slaying the wizard. As we laughed at the crazy luck, Brik rolled to finish off the nearly-dead frog — and also rolled a natural 20!

Not lottery-winning levels of luck, I know, but still (I think) 8,000 to 1 odds, made even more awesome in our eyes because all three of us, on our very first “official” rolls, knocked it out of the park with critical hits. It was pretty great.

We did a few more rounds with different critters for awhile, leading to my second favorite moment of the night when the delivery guy dropped off our pizza, craned his neck in the doorway, and I could clearly hear him say, “Ooh, y’all playing Dungeons and Dragons? That’s cool! I got to play one time, it was super fun!” (If it wasn’t our first game, or 2019 L.A., I may have invited him to pull up a chair.)

The next morning, much to their credit, the players at least waited until the sun was up before knocking on the door and innocently asking, “Sooo… what ya doing today?” We of course played even more mock combats and had a great day, but my favorite combat was the very first. We were fondly remembering our crazy luck from the night before as two Dire Badgers strutted into the arena. They won initiative and each badger attacked a different PC. Our very first dice roll for that second day? You guessed it! I rolled double 20s for the badgers.

The massive difference in dice mechanics from what I’ve been used to for so long leads nicely into…


As noted, the results of dice rolls between GURPS and D&D are very, very different. Without delving too far into it, the chance of a natural 20 on a d20 is 5%, while the chance of a natural 3 on 3d6 is just less than half of one percent. Having criticals happen that much more frequently in D&D is neither better nor worse, but it definitely changes the feel of the story to be much more epicly cinematic than most GURPS games default to, and it’s one of the first things I’ve really had to adjust to.

The bigger difference, though, is that in GURPS, someone successfully smacking you with a broadsword is likely to kill you/severely wound you regardless of how ‘powerful’ you are, while in D&D you can reach a level in short order that leaves you nearly impervious to harm from any threats from those not at your level. Again, not better nor worse, but definitely different and important to keep in mind. GURPS tends towards a much shallower power curve: you create the hero you want, and slowly build from there as the game progresses. D&D is in the “zero to hero” mold, where you start weak and ramp up to earth-shattering levels.

As far as comparing the relative difficulties of learning the two games, I’m even more confused by the accusations that GURPS just has “too much” in the Basic Set and can be overwhelming after reading D&D. Both games have huge swaths of material for reference that you can simply ignore until you need it, whether it’s encyclopedic lists of spells or alphabetized lists of skills and traits, with the underlying rules framework elegantly simple (“roll low on 3d6” or “roll high on a d20”). GURPS is kind of like taking all of the strictly codified abilities of every race, class, and background from the Player’s Handbook, tossing them in a blender, and breaking them down into component traits that can be individually chosen regardless of things like “class” or “race.” Just because you’re a Human Wizard doesn’t mean you can shoot a ball of fire across the room, or that you can’t wield a longsword or wear armor. The menu is wide open — if you want to be a GURPS Wizard that hurls fiery death while wearing plate armor and swinging a sword, you just pick the traits that let you do that.

At this point, I feel like I should clarify one thing explicitly because so many people have asked about it, so… I am absolutely not stopping with GURPS! I adore GURPS, I still think it’s the best TTRPG on the market, and the only reason I’m comfortable posting my recent experiences with D&D is because my decades of GURPS passion and support put my continued playing of it beyond doubt.

My GURPSin’ isn’t going anywhere!

Without question, GURPS remains the best universal system for me, and I will continue using it for every game I GM except possibly in the “sword and sorcery” genre. And even within that genre, I still find GURPS much better for “realistic” or “gritty” campaigns. Basically, I plan to use D&D for playing D&D, and continue using GURPS for literally everything else. So for most of you reading this? Probably no change whatsoever.

I mention this as preamble to allay any confusion as I now talk about something harder to put into words; namely, how refreshing and energizing “being a D&D gamer” can be.

This is not a criticism of Steve Jackson Games or GURPS — I fully understand the resources and market forces they’re dealing with, and I trust them to continue running the company and its game lines as well as they have for decades. Nor is it anything particularly novel — I imagine anyone who has come to join us in GURPS from D&D already knows this.

But being a D&D gamer, specifically, is incredibly “liberating” in terms of access to community resources, system support, and third-party products. D&D continues to be the dominant RPG, by far, and that means nearly every single map, token, diagram, counter, dice, miniature, t-shirt, mug, adventure, blog post, anything at all aimed at our little niche RPG hobby is going to work with D&D by default. Amazon is awash with D&D products of every shape, size, and color, as are DriveThruRPG and all other RPG markets. Fantasy Grounds has an official 5E license, as does Roll20. Hero Labs has a module for creating PCs with the freely available 5E SRD (that’s right — SRD). Oh, and the dedicated marketplace in the DM’s Guild for producing and selling your own D&D products. I mean, I can actually get other DM’s guides and suggestions to running official adventures. Cards of every spell. Monsters, too.  D&D Beyond offers digital versions of every 5E product, and not just PDFs but actual e-books that reflow and can change text size. They’re also extensively hyperlinked, and don’t forget the character builder program as well.

There’s just no comparison, it’s night and day. It’s like Betamax vs. VHS — better isn’t always better than first. D&D is everywhere that gamers are, whether playing face to face or online, and it is relentlessly inviting. They make it easy to start playing, and even easier to keep playing, with a tsunami of material and community outreach. I’ve been using GURPS to create my own material for so many years, it’s just become my ‘normal’… but it truly is a refreshing delight to take a break from all that and just dive headfirst for a bit into the very deep pool of today’s D&D.

GURPS. D&D. Amber Diceless. 52 Pick-Up. Whatever ya like, just follow the fun!


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  1. Re: chucking handfuls of dice in D&D.

    But you don’t, really. You usually just throw one die at a time. The only time one typically throws a handful of dice is when one rolls 3d6, or 4d6, for ability scores.

    • I was more referencing the polyhedrals themselves than the amount, but I can’t disagree.

      On occasion, we roll damage dice along with the attacks (a holdover from our GURPS games), so on an attack with advantage that’s 2d20+1d8. Not bad, esp. if they’re metal. 🙂

  2. Re: distances described as squares instead of feet

    They tried this in D&D 4th Edition. It was hated by most. I think fewer people use maps than you may think.

  3. Re: power levels and zero to hero

    There’s nothing in GURPS preventing you from playing it in as much of a zero-to-hero style as D&D. Start characters at, say 75 points, and the players can’t just make the exact hero they want. They have to go on adventures to build up to hero status. The GM can regulate the acquisition of character points to set the pace of advancement as desired.

  4. I’ll just make a blanket reply, as I think you may be ‘defending’ things I’m not attacking. My whole point was they’re both fun games. I wasn’t picking on either one of them, in fact I was celebrating.

    • Not exactly defending, and I didn’t think you were attacking. I’ve seen that particular dichotomy between power levels for the two games before, and I think the only basis it has is people’s belief in it. It’s the people who play GURPS who have the tendency you describe, not GURPS itself.

  5. This is spot-on. I’ve really wanted to see SJ Games provide access to more merchandise. T-Shirts, mugs, hats, etc. to carve a bigger niche into gaming culture.

    I too had fun with 5th edition D&D but a lot of that fun was submerging myself in nostalgia. Pretty soon I began feeling the chaffing of artificial constraints like Alignment, Character Class, and Levels.

    I really feel that GURPS’ Dungeon Fantasy has a real chance at carving a greater market share as serious role players emerge from the D&D crowd looking for more.

    Merchandising is advertising and I’d love to drum up curiosity in gaming communities about GURPS.

    I have noticed an increase in new players, and that’s a good sign.

    Nice insights in this article!

  6. Great article and well thought out. You’re curtious writing style in this age of social media is a breath of fresh air.

    I do think SJG should find a way to modernize their character builder. The D&D Beyond products are the gold standard and i think that is the exact place for technology in TTRPG, that is to support the table top game and its players/GMs. SJG could really begin to demistify GURPS with anything similar.

    What do you think?

    • Agree on all counts, Sam!

      My first thought when I read about D&D Beyond was “Why would I need that to run a tabletop game?” Now I know — top-notch and 100% character builder, digital books that I can actually read without pinch and zooming every column, even an encounter builder if I ever feel like getting a subscription.

      I realize that D&D has all that because they are backed by actual deep pockets, but still — a man can dream.

  7. Spot on comments! I love GURPS but wish they had the gobs of “stuff” that’s available for D&D. Granted, I can (and do) convert D&D modules etc, to GURPS, but it’d be nice just to pull adventures or what not right off the shelf. By the way, one of the first and best GURPS write-ups I saw were the GURPS combat examples you wrote up. Very helpful for my friends (and myself too!).

  8. Good article. I agree with your points. I won’t buy any D&D “stuff”, because I am invested in both GURPS and The Fantasy Trip. And, I really don’t have the room.
    I have to admit it would be nice if SJG published more “stuff”. Ready made starships for GURPS Prime Directive would be wonderful. I have seen and heard about GMs running uninspired games when using a module.
    I have have become used to writing my own adventures. Back in 2002, I recall someone running a GURPS 3e event at a con I was attending. I couldn’t stay, my ride was leaving. But another friend did and told me afterwards that the GM ran it straight from the Harkwood module.
    On the other hand I would like to write a wildly popular module. And no, I am not holding my breath.
    Polyhedral dice are fine. I use a dice shaker like the one in your GM kit, I no longer receive the tactile feeling rolling polyhedrons.

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