I had a few thousand words written for this post that I just erased, mainly because it represented a look at the Player’s Handbook in a far too clinical fashion for my taste. I don’t typically review something in that manner and it dawned on me, during the write-up, that 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t read that way either. 5th Edition represents a far more narrative bent to the game I know and love than a mechanical one, which I explain throughout.
The most recent iterations of the game, 3.X and 4th, were heavy on the mechanics and represented huge changes in the way the D&D was played. Grid combat was a must, min/maxing could easily become a focus for the gamer, and (especially in 4th) some of the magic of the game was dulled in an effort to balance the play. I absolutely loved 3.X and 4th edition both, albeit for completely different reasons, but I am quickly finding 5th edition to be my favorite version of the system.
Before getting into the piece by piece review I want to talk about the artwork. With the glaring exception of the really weird looking halflings this book is gorgeous. I haven’t seen something as beautiful since the Numenera books. You have male and female characters of every make and size splashed throughout the rule-book by a cornucopia of talented artists. Nothing feels out of place, it just flows around the page with delicacy. It’ll certainly be up for an ENnie at next year’s Gen Con for art alone.
PREFACE & INTRODUCTION
Mike Mearls’ preface sets the tone for the whole rule-book. We are looking at a game to help us tell stories. We are told to focus more on the narrative play of the game than to fiddle with the rules. Not that they aren’t important, more that we are told that we “don’t need to read all the rules” to enjoy ourselves. Per Mike all we really need is a few people to play this collaborative game with, and the rest will follow. You’ll learn the rules, you’ll learn to create, and you’ll likely have fun doing it. You’re likely to even make a few new friends in the process. I don’t know about you but it’s a nice message and one that strikes true to me, I’ve certainly gained plenty of close friends thanks to this hobby of ours.
If you’ve seen a players handbook for any version of D&D you’ve seen the basic format for this book. You have an introduction to the basics of the system, a lengthy section on making the characters, a section on playing the game, the large chunk of spells and their descriptions, and the final pages of Appendixes. It’s an old formula for a reason, it covers everything a player truly needs, and everything seems to flow very well. I really like equipment falling into Part One of the book where we create the character, it is certainly more of a character creation piece than, say, part of the Playing the Game portion. I’m also just going to say right now that I am ecstatic to see Magic Items removed from the Players Handbook. In my opinion, they never belonged there.
The introduction portion of the book may seem old hat, “this is what a role-playing game is” etc. etc., but it is here that a few important details are mentioned. Mainly Advantage and Disadvantage. By now most anyone paying attention to the gestation of this system are familiar with Advantage and Disadvantage but just in case a virgin eye crosses my page I’ll explain what I feel may be the most important new mechanic of the game. It is simple, rather than attribute gobs of excess, differing in value, bonus points to a roll when someone has a situation arise that is either advantageous or less than ideal we use the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. The player will roll two 20-sided die and choose either the best roll, when they have Advantage, or the worst, when they have Disadvantage. It’s such a simple concept I honestly can’t believe it’s never been implemented before (if it has let me know). If we ever have a new edition of D&D again I can easily see Adv/Dis continuing to be a standard for the game.
PART ONE: CREATING A CHARACTER
Part One is 162 pages in length and covers 6 of the 10 chapters. It is the largest portion of the book. If you’re like me you’ve made so many D&D characters in the past you may have gone into the game wondering how they could possible come up with a new paint job for something that has been recreated time and time again. They pulled it off though, and they pulled it off by picking up things that have worked in the past and tweaking them together to form something altogether new.
I see pieces of nearly every old edition in the framework for character creation, granted some editions I remember better than others. We get a narrative presentation and simple initial characters we saw in the 1st and 2nd editions as well as slimming skills and saves down to just ability modifier rolls, there’s a bit of dabbling with a few feats like we saw in 3.x, characters can have Bonus Actions that are basically Minor Actions from the 4th edition of the game. You’ll see plenty more of this cribbing as we go along.
Race and Character Class flow the same as they have for the past few editions but I think Character Class is where some real work on creating flavor went in. Character Class is going to play a huge role in defining players which I call a huge detraction from the last two systems. In 3.x you were defined mostly by the feats you chose and in 4th you were defined first by your role (Striker, Defender, Controller, Leader) and then your class choices. In 5th we see very different styles of play between the classes further broken down within the class by certain pathways the character can take. I imagine we will see more and more of these paths in future supplements, they’ll be easy to craft and slap on. Expect to see a “Martial Pathways” book or something to that tune in the future.
Of the bigger changes we have Personalities and Backgrounds worked right into the Player’s Handbook as a core mechanic. They were added on in 4th edition and can really add a flare to character creation that gives the player a guiding hand of sorts into knowing who their characters is. This could have been handled poorly by writing these backgrounds in a way that points to who the character currently is, but in a smart move the focus is actually who the character was. To clarify, the team behind Personalities and Backgrounds didn’t want to tell you who your character is, that’s for you to decide. Instead these help shape a little of where you may have come from and how it might play into who you are but the present is for you to shape.
Equipment is largely similar to older editions but there are nifty changes there as well. I don’t see any Armor Check Penalties and I am certainly not crying over their absence. Instead armor may grant it’s wearer Disadvantage if they try to do something that the armor might honestly get int the way of. A good example of this is trying to sneak in Full Plate, you’re just going to have a harder time doing it. Currently there are only Simple and Martial weapons, though it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Exotic variety show in the future. Many of the weapons have interesting properties attached to them and because feats don’t grant any extra proficiency, it could be easy to use a variety of them without feeling like you’re missing out on an extra bit of “To-Hit” or damage. The equipment chapter is well stocked with the remaining items beyond Weapons and Armor as well. We have tools, adventuring gear, mounts, even a table set aside for something call trinkets where the player gets to roll at the very beginning to add a weird little item to their possessions. Mad Adventurers already made another Trinket Table and I imagine many others will follow suit.
Something else I like is how multiclassing and Feats are handled. For multiclassing it isn’t so much that there’s a lot of new material there, it’s mostly because the rules are so wonderfully simple! I kid you not, the rules take up three full pages and barely a quarter of a fourth page. They are straight to the point, there are no real downsides beyond missing out on the progression in your old path, and it actually makes me want to consider trying it out. Feats are really cool, as they have always been, but they are also wildly different. For most character, every 4th level, with the exception that 19 gets it rather than 20, a character can choose to either plug two points into an Ability Score (up to max 20) or they can choose a feat. Some characters, like the Fighter and Rogue get this option more often. Many of the feats add an Ability Score point on top of their extra benefit so you essentially end up trading one point for a cool ability. Of course, you don’t even have to do this or multiclassing, they are truly additional customization options. I expect to see a number of supplements adding in new Customization in the future.
PART TWO: PLAYING THE GAME
Much of this edition relies on ability scores alone, with the addition of a scaling proficiency bonus that fits every character across the board. Starting at level 1 anything you are considered “Proficient” at you get an additional +2 to the roll. Beyond and ability modifier and the proficiency bonus there is very little that adds to a roll. This is a very streamlined approach compared to the bonus happy editions we’ve seen in recent memory.
Skills and Saving Throws no longer have an arbitrary bonus attached and are now regulated to essentially being differently named Ability Checks. You honestly don’t even need the Skill names on a character sheet, beyond the ones your character is already proficient at, if your good enough to know what Ability a skill may utilize. Saving throws are much the same. Certain classes grant proficiency in certain saving throws, rather than adding a variety of bonuses to them. It is also worth noting that multiclassing does not grant you proficiency in any saving throws but it does net you a skill from that class. Passive checks are also back from 4th edition, a good idea so you don’t have to hint away a creature in hiding.
Resting in 5th edition borrowed a bit from 4th edition with the Short Rest concept, only they lengthened how long that rest needed to be in order to gain its benefits. You have to take an hour’s time to spend one or more Hit Die, an amount equal to a character’s level, in order to regain a few hit points. 5th edition hit points are pretty low numbers, especially near the beginning. Things are going to be dicey for a while and it is nice to have this little heal up available. A long rest, eight or more hours, just heals you up completely but you can only do this once every 24 hours. It is implied that your characters have means of treating wounds, either by magic or otherwise, that takes care of this without having to actually micromanage it.
Combat has been simplified to the point where simple fights can easily be played out grid-less but not so much that a larger fight won’t benefit from the grid. D&D still relies on an initiative method of determining order and honestly looks very similar to versions past, with the exception that it is far more streamlined. On a character’s turn they may Move and take one Action. If a character has one they may also take one Bonus Action a turn. That’s all there is to it, many of the other fiddly bits we’ve dealt with in the past are gone. You can draw weapons for free, pick up a weapon for free, pull a leaver, etc. the idea is that characters are in constant motion in combat and there is no reason they can’t do some of these things with the momentum they have. I agree, why wouldn’t a trained swordsman be able to pull a sheathed sword as he advanced? It just makes a lot of sense.
There’s a helpful list of various things that constitute actions beyond just “Attack” and you are given permission (though did you honestly ever need it?) to form your own actions. I like that you can Disengage while moving away from an opponent to avoid opportunity attacks or even Dodge to make the opponent have Disadvantage when trying to strike you. The named Actions are actually well thought out. Attacks are as well, even Grapple has been slimmed down to a simpler form of its original behemoth form.
In the damage and healing portion the only thing that really stands out as interesting is the portion on dropping to 0 hit points. Looks like they decided to crib a bit from both the crowd who wanted a more lethal game and the crowd that didn’t want to just flat out die at 0. They compromised. Now if you drop to 0 HP you get to use the three saves method from 4th edition. However, if you take enough damage that you surpass your maximum HP on the negative side, you are deader than a staked vampire. Seems there are some Temporary hit points floating around as well, which I didn’t know until I just now flipped the page. Nice to see those, I liked them from 4th.
PART 3 THE RULES OF MAGIC
I’ve always loved spellcasting in D&D and if I’m to be honest the way it was handled in 4th edition did not appeal to me. I’ve always found myself drawn to the Vancian system and in 4th spells just felt like any other power held by the other classes. I know that isn’t exactly correct but it is how it felt to me. What we have in 5th is a return to form with a Vancian system but with some common sense thrown in by expanding the number of cantrips known to expand what you can do per day because they don’t exhaust spell slots. Due to this you’ll never truly be without spells.
We are back to only two forms of magic Divine and Arcane, kind of sad to see Primal go but it wasn’t a necessary thing. All the spellcasters work differently too. Every on is unique in some fashion and it’s excellent across the board. I’m especially intrigued with the Warlock’s mix of spells and Eldritch Invocations creating a sort of unique hybrid of a Wizard and a Sorcerer. I’m really impressed with the way all the spellcasters are set up, none of the spell lists added to a class fell tacked on. They feel core to the class’ identity and fully useful.
The spells themselves are basically the one’s we’ve grown up with but with some added items that make them unique. There is a simple system for casting a lower level spell in a higher slot which will increase the Save DC and in some cases have an added effect detailed in the spell itself. Some spells have material components again, which are easily ignored if you’re like me and never wanted to fiddle with it. We also have some ritual versions of spells that don’t expend spell slots, yet another nod to 4th edition.
Mostly I believe spells work the way I personally want them too and have even exceeded my expectations. Every class has a unique approach, as mentioned above, and the paths you choose to follow further add interesting styles of play. Take the Wizard for example. You choose your path based on one of the eight schools of magic (i.e Abjuration, Enchantment, etc.). Choosing a school will immediately net you a benefit in the style of the school without the historical drawback associated with choosing a favored school we’ve seen before. One of the more interesting benefits I’ve seen is the “Grim Harvest” ability you gain by choosing to focus on the School of Necromancy. With this feature you “Harvest” Hit Points from the enemies you slay with your spells, additional HP for kills with Necromancy based spell too.
APPENDIX A: CONDITIONS
I love this Appendix, mainly because of the artwork surrounding the conditions. I also love that it is an Appendix rather than placed somewhere in the combat section. Now we have a specific place mentioned boldly in the Table of Contents. The conditions themselves are all one’s we’ve likely seen before and are well explained through the filter of the new system’s rules. Advantage\Disadvantage is everywhere.
APPENDIX B: GODS OF THE MULTIVERSE
This section is far larger than I expected, written with an eye to the future I imagine. You have gods from all over the place here. Historically D&D Pantheons nudge up against a few tables of other mythological Pantheons from our shared history of stories.
APPENDIX C: THE PLANES OF EXISTENCE
An interesting delve into the outer planes for those who are into that sort of thing. Hopefully we get some other supplements that further flesh this out, but this is a good taste!
APPENDIX D: CREATURE STATISTICS
Some animals for the DM to use as wild creatures to fight and for the Ranger and Druid classes. Rangers get animal companions and Druids can really do a lot with Wild Shaping into animals, Hell all they have to do is see an animal and they can potentially change into it later, it’s a Challenge Rating based thing.
APPENDIX E: INSPIRATIONAL READING
This is cool, a little send up to the many authors out there that write material we can easily use to influence better games. Plus, I’ve already found a few books and authors I’d never heard of or read before! I do find it really odd that Ed Greenwood isn’t listed here, his works only inspired the entire damn setting for 5th Edition. If someone can tell me something I’m missing please let me know, it’s a head scratcher.
I know I’ve only seen the Player’s Handbook thus far but if it is any indication of where things are going with 5th Edition this is the version of Dungeons and Dragons I want to play and run. In fact the only problem I see thus far beyond little finicky nit picks is that right now the classes look so damn fun I would almost rather play the game than run it! Characters are defined by their classes in this game, I know I’ve likely overstated it but it is such a core aspect of play. They are all unique and hold tons of character in themselves. I can also honestly say that despite my appreciation for the Basic rules and the Starter Set, the PHB is the first item put out that really got me excited about this edition. Well, I liked what I saw with DungeonScape too.
I anxiously await the Monster Manual and Dungeons Master’s guide so I can really get some stuff going with monsters and magic weapons. I’ve heard some good things about the Monster Manuel and can’t wait to dig in when my review copy finally gets here. Be expecting another lengthy review around that time!
Let me know your thoughts on 5th below or hit me up on Twitter!