Back in the early days I played a lot of D&D. Most memorable was a lengthy campaign that started off using first edition AD&D, eventually progressing to second edition. After than I drifted away to more “realistic” systems such as Runequest and GURPS, and later still to various rules-lite systems tuned for one-shot convention play, the only gaming I do much of nowadays. I did buy the third edition at Gencon UK in way back in 2000, but passed on 3.5 and the controversial fourth edition entirely.
The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons comes at a time when the D&D community had become fragmented. The fourth edition was a radically different game, emphasising tactical combat and set-piece battles at the expense of roleplaying, and has been described as being closer in spirit to Magic:The Gathering than to earlier editions of D&D. That alienated a significant part of their market, many of whom deserted the game in favour of rival systems based on the open-sourced rulesets of earlier editions. The highest profile of these was Pathfinder, derived from 3.5, and various OSR (Old School Renaissance) small press games based on much earlier editions.
The fifth editon’s purpose is to get everyone excited about D&D again. It’s been created with the aid of literally thousands of playtesters, with a goal of being the best edition of D&D. Under the leadership of Mike Mearls, they’ve taken something of a back-to-basics approach, trying to capture the flavour of earlier editions of the game, keeping some of the best features of later editions but cutting back on the accumulated cruft.
The Player’s Handbook is an impressive tome as a physical product. The layout is clear and readable, it’s all in English rather than Epic Gygaxian, and the artwork, all full-colour paintings is very impressive and evocative. You can tell they’ve made an effort to ensure that the default characters are not white and male. The one exception is the halflings, who just look ridiculous. Although small children do apparently love their bloated heads and spindly legs.
But what of the system itself? What follows is really the first impression gained from one reading without having played the game, and with a product of this scope the devil will be in the fine details. But the overall feel is a streamlined version of Second Edition with a few elements, especially races and classes brought in from Third and Fourth Editions. The Players Handbook covers not just character generation but contains all the core mechanics of the game, including combat, and it’s just about possible to play the game with just this book.
Characters generation is quite straightforward and doesn’t need a spreadsheet to create a character: Choose a race, class and background, roll up your Ability Scores, determine your weapons, skills and spells, and go!
The book presents three ways of determining your ability scores, the standard Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution and Charisma that have been part of the game since the very beginning. Either roll 4d6 six times discarding the lowest roll each time, then assign the results as you wish, assign 15, 14, 13, 12, 10 and 8, or use a points system (which caps ability scores to 15). The only way you can have an ability score of more than 15 is to roll them randomly. There are also racial bonuses; each race gets +2 for two specific scores, while humans get +1 to all six, and scores also increase as the character advances in levels.
Races include the old-school dwarves, elves, halflings and half-orcs, but also the later additions dragonborn and tieflings. Classes include the traditional fighters, rogues and wizards and clerics alongside newer ones such as barbarians and warlocks. There are no restrictions on combinations of race and class; anyone can be anything. Indeed, the illustration for the paladin class depicts a half-orc.
All classes now have sub-classes, and a few “classic” classes, such as Assassin and Illusionist have been folded into them. In many cases you don’t need to choose your sub-class until you’ve gone up a couple of levels, which is the point where many of the more powerful class-based abilities appear.
Backgrounds are a new addition, layered on top of classes and races; they’re far more just flavour, granting significant mechanical benefits including additional skills on top of those you get from your class and race. The list is a little limited, and I can imagine later supplements adding a lot more of these; it’s the sort of thing than can add a lot of setting flavour.
Skills themselves have been greatly simplified. Rather than having levels in individual skills, either you have the skill or you don’t. If you have the skill, you get to add your proficiency bonus (which depends on your level) to ability rolls. Rogues are an exception, being skill specialists they get double their proficiency bonus to some but not all of their skills.
Proficiency bonuses go up quite slowly, so ability scores themselves are a lot more important in this edition. Saving throws are also renamed, instead of the Reflex, Will and Fortitude saves it’s simply Dexterity, Wisdom and Constitution saves.
Feats are now optional, and presented as an alternative to attribute level rises on gaining levels. Gone are the lengthy pre-requisite trees, instead each feat is stand-alone and relatively potent. Feats grant special powers, significant bonuses or in one or two cases abilities from other classes. They’re all intended to be character-defining features. Feats include things like “Tavern Brawler”, which grants +1 to Strength and Constitution, proficiency in improvised weapons and some bonuses in unarmed combat. Or “War Caster”, which improves your ability to cast spells in the middle of combat.
Multi-classing is also presented as an optional rule, and work in a similar way to third edition, with levels and bonuses stacking. The combination of backgrounds and feats allows more character concepts to be represented without resorting to multi-classing. For example, you no longer need to multi-class to be a rogue who knows a couple of spells, or a mage who can wield a sword; there are feats that allow things like that.
Finally, alignment is back to the old three-by-three Law-Chaos and Good-Evil matrix, so Lawful Evil and Chaotic Good return to their rightful place in the game. What exactly was the reason they took them out?
Character generation takes up roughly half the book, and after than we move on to the rules for playing the game. Unlike the fourth edition, you do not need miniatures or a combat map to play, much like you don’t need a spreadsheet in order to create a first-level character.
As in third edition, all actions are resolved the same way; roll d20, die roll plus bonuses to beat a target number, whether it’s ability checks, attack rolls or saving throws. The Advantage and Disadvantage rules are one of the best new innovations. If you’re at an advantage for an action, you roll the die twice and take the best roll. If you’re at a disadvantage, you also roll twice, but take the worst roll.
Combat still has the evergreen armour classes and hit points, so armour still makes you harder to hit rather than absorbing damage, but that will always be a D&D sacred cow. What happens when you run out of hit points has changed many times from edition to edition. This time you’re down and unconscious if your hit points reach zero, but only die if the excess damage exceeds your original hit point total, which makes higher level characters hard to kill in a single blow unless something does a lot of damage in one go. Once at zero hit points you have to keep making saving throws against Death until you either stabilise (three successes) or die (three failures), or someone either administers first aid or heals you with magic.
Spell-casting has been revamped; it’s still Vancean in flavour in that spellcasters must memorise spells in advance, but the number of spells they can cast at each level is independent of the number memorised. For example, if you can cast four first level spells at your level, you might memorise three different first-level spells, but could cast one any of those up to four times to use up your four slots. There’s also ritual magic, which lets a caster use a spell they know but haven’t currently memorised, but takes a long time and can only be done outside of combat. Every class has its own spell list, some spells being unique to specific classes, other common to many. The spells themselves are listed in alphabetical order irrespective of class, which cuts down on duplication.
So does the game live up to all the hype? On a first reading, I think it does, and what I’ve said so far just scratches the surface. From a perspective of somebody who hasn’t played D&D for years, it certainly feels like old-school D&D, but with a more modern sensibility to the rules, drawn in the light of the successes and failures of later editions of D&D, and innovations from other games. It’s a sort of game that I’d actually be interested in played occasionally, even if it will never completely replace those new-fangled story-game systems.
Update:Now corrected the attribute-rolling method, which I’d misread on the first reading