To be honest I hadn’t played D&D for twenty years until a few weeks ago.1 I completely missed 3rd edition and I picked up the 4th Ed books shortly after they came out … mostly because of nostalgia and because I really liked the look of them but not having a regular gaming group I didn’t get a chance to play 4th at all. And then the opportunity came up in the past couple of weeks to join a new group playing 3.5, so I jumped in.

And then the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook was released this week. So I thought I’d get it and see what I thought.

The short version is that I quite like it and am looking forward to the next books over the coming months.

The long version is that there are a lot of individual parts of it that I was quite impressed with and had opinions about … so this quickly turned from a few hundred words into a few thousand.

Editions in Context

3rd edition (3.5) to me felt like a complex beast that has grown organically overtime, a lot like AD&D 2nd Ed in my opinion. What started as a simple game with a few rule systems (magic and combat) slowly accreted exceptions and new systems until it was too complex for new players to get a grasp on easily. The D20 rule system does unify mechanics somewhat, but you still end up with special rules and tables of modifiers for so many situations. And the Players Handbook was an horrible eye-bleeding mess of high contrast patterning on the paper with small type, fullly-justified columns of text, poor use of whitespace and a useless index.

4th edition was a complete reboot. A very modern and sleek game with excellent presentation. Redesigned from scratch, it dramatically reduced the number of rules systems and complexity and was very approachable. The “powers” system provided both consistency for class design and a sense of class balance that D&D had never had before. However the total emphasis on miniatures for combat, the obsession with balance and the “powers” system made it feel less like a tabletop RPG and more of either a board game or a computer RPG. It was a game was greatly divided the D&D community, you either loved it or hated it.

5th edition takes the lessons learned from 4th and applies them with “old-school” sensibilities of what a tabletop RPG should be. Mechanics feel like an evolution of D20, but eliminating complexity instead of adding it. The rules feel simplified but flexible. Less to learn, but more that you can do with them. And the combat rules make no mention of miniatures or battle grids with the exception of one side note about how things would translate if you wanted that.

Production quality

Firstly the production values of the 5th Edition Players Handbook meet the expectations that I have from 4th Edition. The book is nicely laid out with clear typography and spacing. The text is of a nice size and the columns are left justified. Very nice to read. The pages do have a print background (unlike the white pages of 4th) but it is a parchment like print and doesn’t distract from or interfere with the text.

The artwork is almost exclusively character art as I would expect in the Players Handbook and varies in style but is mostly good. It also shows a lot of diversity in gender and ethnicity of characters. The chainmail bikini cliche artwork seems to a thing of the past thankfully although I did spot two exposed female stomachs and no male equivalents. Well technically there is one shirtless barbarian type (facing away and leaping towards a Fire Giant which is the focus of the picture) which is not really in the same category. So small steps, but steps indeed.

Simplified, flexible mechanics

Ability checks are now the primary mechanic, they even replace saving throws (although they still refer to them as saving throws). For example, there is no more “Reflex save”, it’s just a dexterity check. Simple. Characters now have a proficiency bonus (starts at +2 and goes up every 4 levels or so) which replaces a lot of different modifiers like combat bonus and skill ranks.

Characters still have skills, but there are no skill ranks and no-one makes “skill checks”. You just make ability checks, and you get to add your proficiency bonus if you have the relevant skill. Ability checks are usually written as ABILITY (SKILL) e.g. Dexterity(Acrobatics) to indicate the skill that could apply a bonus. Proficiency bonus also replaces combat bonus. This gets added to attack rolls (as you might expect) but only if you are proficient in the weapon being used.

An interesting suggested variant is to try different ability/skill combos. Some of the examples given are swimming long distance - Constitution(Athletics) - and using feats of strength to intimidate someone - Strength(Intimidation).

One thing I did find a little disheartening was that the Rogue open-locks/disarm traps skills have been reduced to proficiency with Thieves Tools. This means that these abilities are just dexterity checks with proficiency bonus for rogues. This makes sense but I would have liked a a little more, perhaps some enhancement for this in the Thief archetype? There was also a lack of detail about performing these acts, which I guess could be covered in the DungeonMasters Guide, but it would have been nice to have more specifics in this book for the players.

The skill system only contains 18 skills, expect that to be expanded overtime.

Advantage, Disadvantage and Inspiration

Certain situations (or DM ruling) can grant a player advantage (or disadvantage) on any ability check (including an attack or saving throw). If you have advantage, roll two D20 and pick the higher roll. If you have disadvantage, roll two D20 and pick the lower role. Simple as that. Are you fighting an invisible enemy? They have advantage and you have disadvantage. Using a range weapon at extreme range or against a melee attacker, disadvantage. This rule eliminates a great many modifier tables for different situations in the game.

DMs can also grant a player “inspiration” as a reward for good roleplaying or any other reason. A player can then trade in their inspiration to get advantage on a single roll. A player can also give their inspiration to another player as a reward for good role-play, a good idea, or just doing something really cool.

Encouraging the diversity

There are no race or alignment restrictions on class choice. Race restrictions were removed in 3rd Edition but now alignment restrictions are gone as well. There are also no negative ability modifiers for race.

While the norms for each race is discussed, players are encouraged to create characters that are different from what is expected. After all the characters are expected to be different in terms of being heroes, why not make them truly distinct and challenge the norms of their society as well. Gender is also discussed as another area that can be used to define interesting characters. One example being a male drow cleric forced from drow society into a life of adventuring. It also mentions the ideas of non-binary gender as well as characters of one gender presenting as or being often mistaken as another.

Backgrounds

The Backgrounds section provides a set of templates to choose from or customize that define the history of your character prior to becoming an adventurer. There are thirteen included backgrounds including such things as Hermit, Sailor, Folk Hero, and Criminal. Guidelines are included on how to tweak backgrounds to your liking.

Each background provides additional proficiencies, languages and equipment but also four characteristics to help shape your characters personality. These are: a personality trait, an ideal, a bond, and a flaw. There are about a half-dozen of each of these per background, each described in a single sentence. They provide a fantastic way to kickstart a character.

Alignment

I’ve never been a big fan of the good/neutral/evil + lawful/neutral/chaotic alignment system but it is kind of a fixture of D&D. Personally I think alignment tries to make the world black and white, while I think it’s more interesting to challenge the players over these issues rather than let alignment decide them.

It’s included in 5th Edition in it’s old-school glory but it seems to be less relevant. Especially with the removal of alignment restrictions for classes. And even spells like Protection from Good and Evil and Detect Good and Evil aren’t alignment based anymore. Nor are Paladin abilities.

Feats are optional

Feats are now an optional part of the game. At level 4, 8, 10, 12, 16 and 19th level you get 2 points to increase ability scores (up to a maximum of 20). However optionally you can take one feat instead. Even if you choose to use them, they don’t bring complexity into the beginning of the game.

Character Paths

Each class has two or more specializations that characters have to choose from at around level two or three depending on class (level one for warlocks). What these are called varies by class, barbarians have primal paths, bards have colleges, fighters have martial archetypes, wizards have schools of magic etc. Each specialization provides a different set of abilities at different levels. I would expect these to be expanded over time.

I do like how this takes some of the decision making about character creation and defers it a few levels into the game.

Magic

Magic has always a been a pretty big part of D&D but I was never a big fan of the “vanican”2 magic system used all way up until 3rd edition. It just made spell casters suck at low levels in exchange for being game dominating later on. I liked the approach that 4th Edition took with the “powers” system, and 5th Edition takes the lessons learned from 4th Edition and applies them to vancian casting to create a much more fun version of the old school system.

Almost everyone can get access to spells in some form. There are five primary caster classes, Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard. Rangers, Paladins and Bards have some secondary spell casting ability. Rogues and fighters have paths that grant spells, Arcane Trickster and Eldritch Knight respectively. Only barbarians and monks do not gain spells - monks can gain spell-like abilities using their own Ki point system instead.

All of the spell-caster classes use basically the same system with some classes having slight variants.

The basic change from the 3.5 system is that you don’t allocate spell-slots to prepare spells. You can just prepare a number of spells of any level you have access to. Spell slots are expended when you cast a spell. You choose which slot is used up and it has to be at least the same level as the spell. You don’t have to prepare spells multiple times to cast them more than once. This means you can actually be versatile instead of just memorizing magic missile a bunch of times.

With the exceptions of Paladins and Rangers, each caster class also gets access to a number of zero level spells AKA cantrips. Cantrips do not require preparation and do not use up spell slots when cast. Cantrips function a lot like the “at will” powers of 4th Edition. Many cantrips also have effects that increase according to caster level.

The general scale of spell damage seems to be bumped up across the board. The wizard cantrip Firebolt deals 1D10, and the cleric cantrip Sacred Flame deals 1D8. These are good solid attacks that these casters can make every turn. Not like the wimpy 3.5 Edition cantrips dealing 1D3 or 1D4. And when you choose to expend spell slots, you are pulling out the big guns. First level Witch Bolt deals 1D12 and if it hits it can be be sustained to deal 1D12 per round for up to 10 turns. First level Burning Hands deals 3D6. Ouch.

Many attack spells now require attack rolls instead of hitting automatically and requiring a save, but the modifier for spell attack rolls is based on the class, so Wizards use intelligence, Clerics use wisdom etc. This puts primary casters on a more even footing with other classes in combat at low levels.

Also, remember how you have to spend a spell slot of at least the same level as the spell being cast? Well some spells (particular damage and healing spells) have increased effects if they are cast in higher level slots than they require. For example Burning Hands gains another D6 damage per slot level above one. It’s worth noting that this mechanic both keeps low level spells useful for longer, and eliminates a whole bunch of redundant spells. For example Cure Wounds which heals 1D8 per slot level. This eliminates the need for all the different Cure Wounds spells (Cure Light Wounds, Cure Medium Wounds, Cure Serious Wounds, Cure Critical Wounds etc) you just need one and higher level casters can cast more powerful versions of it. Again fewer things, but more utility.

All of these things are a great step forward for magic in D&D.

Powercurve

5th Edition has a different power curve than the previous ones.

First and second level characters are much more fragile than in 4th edition, but can dish out more punishment than 3rd edition. And they level faster initially, but then slower. The XP for second and third levels are super cheap compared to previous editions. I guess those are intended as the training-wheels levels, especially since level three is when most classes pick their path/archetypes etc.

A lot has been written about the XP curve in 5th edition based on the D&D Next Playtest. Two of the more interesting articles found are:

D&D Next Monsters: Part 9: XP Curves & KpL

XP CURVES ARE WEIRD

There are definitely some oddities, some appear to be minor errors, others are kind of dependent on seeing the upcoming Monster Manual to see how they will work out.

Equipment

As you would expect, armor and weapons galore. But there are a few nice surprises.

Some weapons like rapiers, daggers and shortswords are marked as Finesse weapons. This is a lot like the Weapon Finesse feat from 3.5. A finesse weapon allows you to choose to use your dexterity modifier instead of strength for the attack and damage rolls. Very nice for rogues.

Most armor except a couple of light and medium types gives the wearer disadvantage when trying to make stealth related ability checks. Good example of how nicely advantage/disadvantage works to reduce modifiers.

Tools are also a nice addition here, things like musical instruments, thieves tools, herbalism kit, cartographer’s tools, etc. Several classes and backgrounds provide proficiency with different types of tools which works as you might expect by allowing you to add your proficiency bonus to the relevant ability check.

$50 or free?

At $49.95 US some might consider it too expensive. However if you aren’t quite sure, then the “basic rules” are available for download as a PDF. The basic rules cover a decent subset of the game. More than enough to determine if it is something you want to go with.

the Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons is a PDF (over 100 pages, in fact) that covers the core of the game. It runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options; in addition, the rules contain 120 spells, 5 backgrounds, and character sheets.

You can download them from http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/basicrules. I think it’s worth a look.

  1. I played some D&D Basic & expert and a lot of Dragon Warriors in high school (1988 to 1991). Then (changing schools) I played a little AD&D 2nd Ed, and discovered Vampire for a short while. Then I got involved in a lot of Warhammer 40K and related games (Space Hulk, Necromunda, BloodBowl) and discovered Magic The Gathering (just after The Dark) which devoured all my gaming attention for a few years. Then moving to a different town I fell out of gaming for a few years and then moving to the “big city” I got involved in the MTG tournament scene for a year or so before getting out of that. I picked up the D&D 4th Edition books (PHB/DMG/MM) when they came out but didn’t have a group to actually play with). It’s only in the past month that the opportunity came up to join a group playing D&D 3.5.

  2. As I recently discovered, the term “vancian” refers to the author Jack Vance and specifically his The Dying Earth novels first published in 1950. These stories, and the depiction of magic in them were core inspirations for Gary Gygax when creating the magic system of D&D. This was written about by Gary Gygax for Profantasy magazine in 2001.