Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition: A review by zedarkknight

The latest edition of D&D is finally out. Most people reading this blog are at least passably familiar with the concept of D&D. If you don’t know D&D is, it’s a role-playing game, and pretty much the first of its kind. Players of the game write up in-game avatars using number stats to describe what they can do, and then play through adventures by making decisions for those characters: Do I go left or right? Do I fight the dragon or try to sneak past? Will I give my money to the local temple or spend it on spirits and negotiable affection? The players are lead by a special player called the Dungeon Master, or DM. The DM’s job is to run the game, adjudicate rules, decide the actions of monsters and villagers, and decide what to do about special situations.

So what does the Overencumbrance blog think about it? Find out under the break.

dnd-phb

It’s good.

Okay, I suppose it’s fair to say why it’s good. For that, I want to step back a few editions.

A History Lesson

Fourteen years ago roughly…Really? Wow, I’m getting old…3rd edition D&D came out. D&D had been around for sometime by then, but was really starting to show it’s age in some nasty ways. Newer, more popular games looked almost nothing like the grandfather of RPGs. The crop of games at the time were heavily skill based, sometimes with long dry lists of skills. D&D previously focused very little on character skills, with most characters being the same outside of how well they went stabby-stabby and how well they dealt with being stabbed. Similarly almost all of the then current games had a great deal of customization for characters built into them, and D&D characters had a terrible habit of being very samey. It was possible to customize to a degree, but these were usually optional rules found in source books and supplements that generally weren’t very well tested or approved, and nor were they very well balanced. Older editions also frequently included non-unified rule sets, with lots of little rules exceptions here and there, and occasionally needlessly confusing calculations such as THAC0. THAC0 was a number you needed to roll on a d20 to hot a monster, but first you had to subtract it’s Armor Class (AC) number. It didn’t help that AC could be negative back then. It was not hard math, but it was always needlessly complex for what they were trying to do.

3rd edition tried to change that. It implemented a skill system that went across all classes, and made those skills a core game element. It added a system called “feats” that allowed for a greater degree of character customization, and introduced “prestige Classes” which were character classes that held some sort of special, elite position that had to be earned. Math was straightened out and the system was mostly unified. It was pretty cool. There were also some other nice benefits to the rules. For instance, under previous editions low level wizards were extremely helpless; they had a weak spell or two they could cast, very few hit points, and no real way to defend themselves. Under the new edition wizards became a little bit more viable by now being able to use crossbows and getting a few basic spells for free. It was good…

…until it wasn’t. Many of the ideas brought up in the 3rd edition were good conceptually, but sprung out of control in execution. Feats started off as an excellent way to model binary abilities, but quickly turned into a quagmire of complex trees and flowcharts of feats. Numerous feats worked to be newbie traps that would wind up making players vastly different in effectiveness at later levels. Severely feat trees were too effective. Reading through feat lists was incredibly dull, with names like “Improved Advanced Two-Weapon Martial Fighting” that really barely described what the thing even did. Each feat usually offered some meager benefit that was completely dull on it’s own, and only when taken in a complex chain of feats could suddenly become impressive. Personally, I dreaded working with feats.

Skills had problems as well. It was good to have a skill based system, but skill splitting is an art. What to make a skill and what to make two or more skills is really a balancing act for any game, and D&D 3e dropped the ball on this one. Hiding was a different skill than moving quietly, even though it would simply be one skill named Stealth in any other game. Sight and hearing were two different skills. There was skill for tying knots, and that’s all it did. Notably, the skills that would let you jump across pits, balance on ledges, and climb sheer surfaces cost the same as the skill that let you make clay pots and whittle. The skill system worked out to be more complex than it needed to be.

Prestige classes blossomed until everything was a prestige class. Gladiator? Prestige class. Inquisitor? Prestige class. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker? All prestige classes. I must have seen a dozen “Apothecary” style prestige classes, when there was no need for such a thing. Things were being made into prestige classes that either were just normal professions, or were minor variants on a class that should have been possible without making an entirely new class. Prestige classes were just another part of the game that started as a good idea, and then spiraled out into madness.

There were patches to these rules. Eventually a 3.5 came along, which didn’t make any grand changes but patched hundreds of smaller rules, and later this would become the basis for the RPG Pathfinder, which is still played and enjoyed to this day. D&D decided it wanted to take things in a different direction. That direction would be the 4th edition.

4th edition could charitably called controversial. I’m still not exactly sure what the goal was under the new edition. I have heard that it was supposed to be a simplification of the rules. In some ways that was true. The skill system was reduced greatly in overall complexity. The alignment system was also greatly simplified, although I feel this was to the game’s detriment: the alignment system has always been one of the more interesting parts of D&D, even when it’s sometimes irritating, and neutering it is worse than simply excising it entirely in my opinion. Likewise, character multi-classing was simplified. The rest of the game I could not call simple however.

I have heard that 4th edition was trying to attract MMO players and players of other games like collectible card games and table top war games. There is some weight to this theory, although I do not personally subscribe to the argument that “4th ed is trying to be an MMO!”. There may have been some ideas taken from MMOs at the time, but frankly I don’t think that is what ruined the game for me.

Some of these ideas were actually quite good. Wizards in 4th edition were now not only much more viable, but also much more magical; since you had at-will use of some magical abilities even at first level, you could use-shock and awe-fucking magic to defeat your enemies rather than plinking away like a common crossbow-person. Useless magical items could be broken down to enchant newer, better items, or used to power ritual spells; you no longer had to either tailor items to players or just have them suck it up. 4th edition introduced the idea of the Adventurer’s Pack, which was just a large collection of all the items adventurers normally buy anyway, which vastly simplified the equipment buying step of character creation.

For every good idea though, there were dozens of things that didn’t go as well. Characters classes all had abilities called Powers; these were supposed to help balance out classes like the fighter and rogue that normally did not receive any real special abilities. Unfortunately what this did was turn every class description in to this long slog of very repetitive, mainly combat oriented powers. These powers tended to not be terribly exciting, either. “Do 2[W} damage and take a 5 foot step.” says one. “Pull an enemy five feet and spend a healing surge” says another. All of this very very boring.

Some things 4th edition definitely did not simplify. Feats were already of of control by the end of 3rd edition, but 4th edition turned feats into a thousand headed shit spewing hydra, where feat tress went on forever in increasingly bizarre combinations of combat powers. You were at least given the option to retrain feats that turned out useless at later levels, which was another gem hidden in the rough, but it was too little to deal with the cyclopean labyrinth that spread across all 30 of the game’s levels. Prestige classes burst from optional rule to mandatory, and gained an ugly step-sister called epic destines, all of which you were supposed to plan out to take even before the game really began.

In the end 4th edition really had three major problems. Firstly, the game was just way too combat focused. Taken by itself, 4th edition could be a fun little tactical miniature combat game, but this was not what people wanted out of D&D. In some ways this was a step backward in D&D’s progression from a miniature wargame. Too much of the character’s abilities were combat focused, and too little information was given for non-combat purposes. I would see monsters in the Monster Manual that had full combat stats, but which I had no idea what the Hell they were or were supposed to be, because the game had decided that wasn’t important.

Secondly, and this is a cardinal sin for me, the game would sacrifice flavor for balance. Now I am in general in favor of game balance, although it’s sometimes a nebulous concept. There are times I don’t want it though. Is it unfair that a medusa can just turn me to stone on a lucky roll? Yes, but that’s part of the thrill of fighting a medusa. Having my character be just fine at the end of the fight because it wears off is a let-down.

Thirdly…the game was just a little too epic. I like high fantasy as much as the next husky nerd, but you have to have some grounding in reality. Characters could never just fight a venomous cobra, it had to be a Ice-Razor Cobra. You could just fight giant rats, they had to be Blazing-Death Rats. You couldn’t just get wool from sheep, you had to get it from Steel-Wool Thunder Fucker Sheep. It got silly, in short order. You couldn’t really relate to much of the setting, because it was entirely alien.

4th flopped, and on came…

5th Edition

Okay, so with that out of the way, we have the 5th edition of the game, which is sometimes called D&D Next and sometimes simply called Dungeons & Dragons. As of this writing only the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual has been released, so I will only really be reviewing the rules changes in those books. So with that in mind:

What is the same?

-Characters have six ability scores, rated from 1-20. The actual rating of these isn’t as important as the ability bonus that the rating provides, which is equal to (rating – 10)/2, rounded down. This is a pretty standard feature of D&D and not likely to go away soon. Ability scores can be generated randomly, bought via points, or placed in standard array.

-Characters have races, which provide various benefits. The classic elf, dwarf, half-elf, halfling, savage half-orcs and mostly harmless humans are all featured in this edition. Returning to the corebook we have the gnome from 3rd edition and the dragon-born and tiefling from 4th edition. Both of the 4th edition races are welcome additions that I’m glad to see were kept; I am told by my editors that I shouldn’t dwell too much on my anti-gnome bias and thus I shall leave out my statements on that for another time. Eladrin have remerged with elves, although I am a little sorry to see them go.

-Characters are all have classes, which describes their skills and abilities. The Player’s Handbook features twelve classes. Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, and Wizard all of course return for this edition. Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk, and Sorcerer make their way back to the core in this edition as well. 4th gets a little bit of love though getting one class introduced in it’s Player’s Handbook in-the Warlock. Classes all determine what weapons, skills, magic, and special abilities a character can use, and determine hit points. Some characters can have more than one class. Multi-classing characters work more like 3rd edition characters.

-Characters have levels, which grade their raw power, and characters gain new abilities each time they earn a level. Levels are gained with experience points, which are earned when characters overcome a challenge.

Alignment comes back, featuring the full law/chaos and good/evil axis. The alignment system now also features “Unaligned” for creatures who would ultimately be incapable of moral decision such as animals or magical constructs.

-Characters are proficient with certain weapons and armor, based on class, which make them easier or harder to use.

-Players still make checks by rolling a twenty side die and adding their ability bonus. Usually this will be against a static number they are trying to beat, like 15 or 20. Other times they will try to roll higher than the person directly opposing them. Bonuses to these rolls are a lot more limited in 5th edition, which we’ll talk about more under what’s different.

-Character’s still attack by rolling a twenty sided die and try to beat an enemy’s Armor Class. If they succeed they roll the dice listed for their weapon’s damage and subtract that amount from their opponent’s hit points.

-Character’s still have hit points. Hit points are determined by rolling hit dice, which are determined by your class, and adding your Constitution modifier. This goes back to the 3rd edition way of handling hit points, which is was likely chosen because 4th edition gave things too many HP usually, which resulted in sluggish fights. Losing all of your hit points is bad.

-Many of the classic spells, from Fireball to Polymorph are all here.

Herobrine THAC0 is still gone.

What’s different?

Everything.

-Ability scores are limited to 20 for PCs. This has to do with the designers trying to compress the game’s range a little bit. 20 is supposed to be a pretty phenomenal score…so when your average PC shoots past it, it becomes meaningless in short order. This seems to me like a good way to try to keep high scores special; a character with mostly 11s 12s, one 13 and a ten for their stats doesn’t seem very impressive compared to what some folks are used to in D&D, but would represent quite an exceptional person statistically. It also gives characters some encouragement to spread their development out a bit, since you can hit that cap fairly easily after a few ability increases.

-Characters get ability increases every few levels. This isn’t really new; D&D has been doing it this way since 3rd. What has changed is that the increase is larger: a character can increase an ability score by +2 or two scores by +1, which means that you should be able to see a meaningful increase every time this happens.

-A few character races now come with sub-races, which are little definitions of the base race. Dwarves are now broken down into mountain dwarves and hill dwarves, which grant different abilities depending on what the player chooses. Elves may be high elves, wood elves, or chaotic good rebel drow.

-Classes don’t give “powers” anymore, but all of the classes give a list of abilities characters can get as they advance in level.

-Classes now all have optional sub-paths between them, so classes can be customized a bit. Fighter, rogues and rangers have archetypes. Barbarians have paths. Bards have colleges. Clerics have domains, etcetera. These fulfill the role of the old school character kits in a way, and I’m quite fond of them; they promise to be quite fun to home-brew. My only complaint is some classes are a little light on options compared to others, but that can be solved with a little creativity.

-The concept of proficiency is really extended in this edition. Instead of just applying to weapons or armor types, proficiency now applies to languages, skills, and non-weapon tools. Character’s also receive a proficiency bonus based on their level. Proficient with a weapon? You get your bonus to your attack rolls. Proficient with a tool? You get your bonus when rolling to use it. Proficient in a skill? You get your bonus when performing that skill. I like this because there is a certain level of consistency across the board with this approach. It also helps tidy the skill list without gutting it.

-Speaking of skills, the skill list has been cut down. This edition favors 4th edition’s smaller, binary skill list rather than the sometimes confusing nature of 3rd edition’s skill systems. Rather than forty-odd skills, there are only eighteen. Redundant skills, like Look and Listen, are replaced with a more generic Perception skill. Use Rope is gone (Yay!). Most of your craft skills, and skills like Pick Locks or Disable Device are now represented by taking proficiency with the appropriate tool instead. Sense Motive is also replaced with it’s 4th edition equivalent, Insight, which makes it seem more like a skill and less like a super power. I appreciate this approach personally. Large skill lists are problematic in a way I will likely discuss in another post, but for now let’s just say that a tight skill list is a happy skill list.

-Characters can now have backgrounds in addition to race, class, and alignment. Backgrounds are less about a character’s abilities and more where they fit within the setting. Backgrounds help further define a character’s skills and who they know. Peasants can expect help from the common folk, nobles will know other aristocrats, and outlaws know other outlaws. It gives PCs a bit more flavor without necessarily making them more powerful, and it’s a useful way to get them into the setting. It’s also going to be one of the more fun things to home-brew.

-Equipment can now be bought in three separate ways. First, you can go the traditional route, and roll for gold pieces and buy equipment piecemeal. Secondly, you can buy equipment in packs, which expands on the concept of adventurer’s packs from 4th edition. Characters may buy a scholar’s pack, or solderer’s pack, or diplomat’s pack, or other similar options; each of these packs provides a ready made selection of equipment. Finally, you can use ready-made equipment by combining equipment recommendations from your class and background. Also in a nice role-playing touch all characters have a small personal item which can be determined by the player or rolled off a random table. The table provides a nice selection, and is has some cute stuff for role-playing purposes. It’s makes the character’s stuff seem a little more special, and I like that.

-Characters can now purchase Lifestyles, which show how well the character lives. This is a rule imported from Shadowrun, and it’s a good one.

-Feats have now been made completely optional. Yay! I cannot hide how thrilled I am at not being forced to deal with feats. However, if you do choose to deal with feats, they have also been scaled back significantly. Feats now almost always provide multiple benefits, and now no longer come in trees or chains. You take a feat instead of an ability increase. It’s good.

-Rather than having dozens of modifiers are complex rules about what stacks with what, 5th edition applies advantage and disadvantage to rolls. If the situation is overall favorable to a character, the player has advantage. They can then roll two dice a keep the highest number. If circumstances are against the character, then they are a t a disadvantage, and have to keep the lower of two rolls. This manages to clear out a LOT of clutter and a lot of difficult to remember situational bonuses. Ultimately almost every roll is going to be Ability+Proficiency with advantage or disadvantage as needed. Advantage cancels out disadvantage and vice-versa; multiple instances don’t matter.

-Rather than having specialized stats with different names for saving throws, characters simply have x saving throws, where x is the name of a given ability: Strength saving throw, Dexterity saving throw, etcetera. Much like skills, certain classes have proficiency with certain types of saving throw and thus add their proficiency bonus to those rolls. It’s a bit odd that the concept is so central to the game, but there is very little page space devoted to it in the PHB. I have read the book cover to back and again and I still can’t tell you when a Charisma saving throw would normally be required, for example. I’m not sure I like the change, but it is one less thing to have to track.

-Hit points no longer go into the negative. Instead, when a character hits 0 hit points, they start rolling death saving throws. Pass three, and your character revives. Fail three, and your character dies. This was change from 4th edition that I’m glad they kept; it lends a certain tension to things that I really like.

-Healing has changed significantly in this edition. Old school D&D had characters heal one HP per day, which grew to be painfully slow at higher levels. 3rd edition characters healed their level in hit points each day, but this was still slow and sometimes wonky. 4th edition tried to rectify this with healing surges, which let characters heal a little bit in between encounters but still regulated things. However, healing surges worked out to be somewhat clunky in execution. 5th uses the character’s hit dice to determine how much they can heal up between encounters, and characters can regain all of their hit points after a long rest. I like this, because it means that parties don’t have to spend a significant time resting and healing up from adventures, so it’s easy to keep pushing them forward.

-A lot of “attacks of opportunity” are now gone. Now, characters only get these attacks against opponents that try to move out of their reach, greatly simplifying the rule.

-Movement is not an action, so a character can break up their movement however they want over the turn, running, crawling, swimming, sidling, you name it.

-Characters may interact with one object for free during their normal action. This means a character can charge into a room, draw their weapon, and attack all in the same turn. They can swing on a chandelier and attack at the same time (you might be a disadvantage though). The options really open up. No more are you going to have to spend multiple turns to do simple things. I have a feeling this will lead to more dynamic combat, and less “I attack/use my encounter power until it falls down.”

-Characters with spells now get a small selection of spells they can use repeatedly without limits. This a feature that both 4th edition and Pathfinder included, because it lets magic using characters stay magical without being overpowered.

-Many redundant spells are gone from the game. Instead of learning four or five slightly better versions of the same spell, casters can now cast a spell at a higher slot instead, thus boosting it’s effects.

-There are overall fewer spells in 5th ed. Whether that is a good thing or bad thing is up to you, although I feel all the classic spells are represented. There are also a handful of spells making a return from 4th editon.

-Magic item creation may be no more. While 3rd was slightly more subtle about it than 4th, both prior editions made it clear that magic items were just something you just needed enough gold for. Magic item shops were everywhere, and merchants would happily sell you a +4 Longsword any time you liked. Pretty soon you would be dripping in +1 and +2 weapons that you would in all likelihood just break down for magical dust. Going along with the “Turn Down the Epic” theme for 5th edition, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. While some magical items do still seem to be available for ready purchase (notably the potion of healing) the book mentions that finding anyone capable of casting spells higher than 2nd level will usually require quite a bit of questing and personal favor. We won’t know the full story on magic items and how hard or easy it is to craft them until the new Dungeon Master’s Guide comes along, I suspect.

The Monster Manual

The new Monster Manual is a solid offering containing over 150 monsters and variants. The book introduces an interesting new concept of the lair, where certain powerful monsters warp the very environment around them. The book then dives into a number of monsters. Each monster is given an easy to read stat block, much like how they were done in 4th edition. Unlike 4th edition we don’t have to rework stats for every minor variant of monster, and Steel Wool Thunder Fucker sheep are gone. We also see a lot more word count given to description and placement of these creatures in story terms; I’m not finding anything that I have no idea what it is anymore. Many monsters are deadly again; medusa can permanently petrify again, although it is a bit more fair in that you have to fail two saving throws and not just one to be petrified, which seems to me to be a solid compromise. The book includes a section of normal..ish animals, as giant animals (like a regular animal, but giant) are included, but many of the selection are standard real world fare. Finally there is a section for ready NPC stats, including bandits, thugs, cultists and guards. It’s a really nice addition.

Summation

All in all, I think it’s a good game worth playing. It’s not perfectly balanced, but it is pretty close, and it does a good job bringing the game back to it’s classic roots. I feel that older players of D&D should be able to appreciate this edition especially. I will caution that people who have really enjoyed the the higher power levels of previous editions may be a bit disappointed. I for one am glad for the new “turn down the epic” approach, but people wanting campaigns that go to 11 may have to wait for supplements.

I plan to run my first few games of the edition in December, once the DMG comes out. I’ll give a full run down on that book then, and maybe even post the highlights of my session. Until then, it’s a great time to go play D&D. Go enjoy it!

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