This post started out with the germ of an idea to compare, contrast, and the adjust the slimes and fungi of 1e vs. 5e. I’ll still probably do that, but that idea itself was rooted in disbelief that (evidently) some people consider 5e more lethal that previous editions…
Clearly they never played 1e.
But it started me thinking about the “heroic character” as the model of the D&D adventure (even if, say, the characters are evil anti-heroes). In 1e, all character race NPC’s either map to “0-level” (of a single d8 HD, save for humans which are d6) or function as character class-leveled NPC’s. In 2e there was a development of non-adventuring NPC classes IIRC like Noble, or Craftsman, or whatever – and this was part at least of where I just simply washed my hand of the game. In 3e this was evidently taken to the logical extreme and there was at least some version of all humanoid and demi-human monsters being leveled in character classes.
I can’t make much sense of the couple of things I have for 4e when it comes to deciphering this.
In 5e there is, for me at least, a relatively radical switch to NPC’s being (largely) non-character class leveled, even if they are “powerful class types”. By this I mean that while a NPC might be a 9th spell-caster or warrior they do not have all the class features of their nominal class. The old-style 0-level characters, might actually have a couple of HD now, and usually have some type of feature (“Parry” for Nobles, “Keen Hearing and Sight” for Scouts, etc.) or they might not have anything at all (see Guards & Bandits).
In 1e, Player Characters were part of an “ecosystem” in that if they looked around, they could see examples of themselves at various levels of power to aspire to. There was a clear “endgame” (and a Domain-game at that) for everyone, it was baked into both the RAW and the demographics of the encounter tables and the Monster Manual. While the Player Characters were heroes, it was because they stood above the 1d6 HP (not HD), 0-level NPC’s and represented people with some better training and/or experience. For example you could easily explain part of the backstory of a basic Fighter as having been a Mercenary Sergeant (all of whom are 1st level Fighters) who was now striking out on their own. When you look through the various adventure modules of the edition this is born out – there are 0-levels, and the scattering of leveled NPC’s in various special roles.
In 5e, the Player Characters – even a first level Player Character – are manifestly different than NPC’s – by the time they reach 3rd level and have chosen a subclass (if it takes them that long) they are fundamentally beyond the ken of normal folk. More HD, multiple class features at this point, and perhaps they most significant (even at 1st level) they are especially lucky or divinely blessed because they get proficiency bonus on two saves – making them significantly more hardy than “normal folks”. It’s not that you can’t have a character-class leveled NPC, but they are far from the norm. They are as much of a stand out as the Player Characters themselves.
Some of this is rambling, my own game has hit a stage where the Player Characters are quite powerful (the top end of Tier 2 or start of Tier 3) and I’ve been working at bringing my campaign world forward into 5e. It is this fundamental difference that, I believe, has been a hidden piece of grit in the system. It’s not bad, I actually like it, but it changes the ways NPC’s function in the campaign setting and it changes how people view the Player Characters once their special status becomes apparent.
To wit, the most whitebread of PC’s is a 1st Level Fighter – who has both a Fighting Style and Second Wind, plus a Hit Die that puts them on par with a Large Creature! At second level they get Action Surge, and finally at 3rd they pick up the start of their Martial Archtype class features. All compared to a 1HD Commoner or a 2HD Guard/Bandit with no special features even a 2HD Noble simply gets a ‘Parry’ (which is basically a Fighting Style).
Pound for Pound, Player Characters are simply more effective than NPCs. They are going to inspirational (good or ill) depending on the viewer and their actions. This came up somewhat a few sessions ago in my game when the 9th Level Fighter (Battlemaster) and local Baron tried to pass off the dangerous threat the party discovered to “whatever the king’s ‘special forces’ would be” and I laughed and said “You’re it!” and explained that he was close to being one of the most powerful warriors in the kingdom. In retrospect, I might have to change that and say that he might very well be the most powerful warrior in the kingdom when you figure on all his class features.
In the past, in AD&D, I used to be pretty generous in handing out extra’s and freebies in the way of weird abilities and bonues as a way to show that the Player Character’s were often special and blessed (or cursed) but if I use 5e the way that the RAW is written up then that is not generally needed. You simply have to use (or create) the stat blocks provided – the already heady advantages the Player Characters have given the action economy and difficulty in actually dying become even more stark.