Friday, March 20, 2015

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Now that I've had plenty of time to play the game and digest the book contents, I'm going to start the review of it.  Since D&D has had its core rules split into multiple books since its inception and the books these days aren't particularly small, this is a three part article.

First things first.  Wizards of the Coast has provided players with a free 'basic' set of rules here.  It includes the four iconic character classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) and all the basic stuff you need as a player to play.  It also has a second document that includes all the basic information and tools that a Dungeon Master needs to run the game, including magic items and monsters.  So, if you read this article and think to yourself that you'd like to try D&D 5th Edition, you don't have to plunk down your cold hard-earned cash right away.

There's all sorts of commentary I could go into about why Wizards did released free starter rules but that's not really the purpose of this article.  I could also go into a long discussion about edition numbering and how many editions of D&D there really have been (lots, as it turns out), but this isn't really the place for it.  I know there were quite a few complaints about how Wizards of the Coast released the books over a span of months instead of all at once.  Let's put it into perspective here; releasing all the core books at once is not normal in D&D's history and AD&D 1E players had to wait three years to get their Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide (in that order no less).

Today I'll cover the Player's Handbook. See you after the break.

My first impression when I first started reading the 5th Edition Player's Handbook is that Mike Mearls and the other designers for D&D 5th Edition took a lot of the hard-won lessons learned from prior editions of D&D and took ideas from other D&D relatives that have emerged since 2000.  In many ways, this is the fantasy RPG I've been struggling to write myself but never quite knew how to put together.  So I admit I may come across as bias in the review since this really is the game I've been looking for.

The game emphasizes simplicity and elegance, streamlining many of the mechanics that players might have found unwieldy in the past.  You might notice (assuming you have read some of the rules), for example, that there aren't a whole lot of modifiers to remember anymore.  The smaller modifiers have been either eliminated entirely in favor of ad hoc modifiers assigned by the DM and the larger/more important modifiers replaced by the advantage/disadvantage mechanic.  That mechanic is pretty simple to explain.  If you have advantage on a roll, you roll two d20s instead of one, and you keep the highest roll.  Disadvantage means you roll two d20s, like advantage, but you have to keep the lowest roll instead.  Advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out as well, meaning you can't have advantage and disadvantage on the same roll because they cancel each other out.

I mentioned that D&D 5th Edition took some mechanics from related games.  Well, there are two major ones that I spotted (maybe people who are more widely read have spotted more?); archetypes and ability saves.  The ability saves, where each ability score is a type of save, is something I first encountered in Castles and Crusades.  It gives me flexibility as a DM in figuring out what kind of save to call for and it makes the characters more nuanced in that what they're good and bad at is more varied.

While Pathfinder's archetype system has roots in AD&D 2nd Edition in the form of class kits, Paizo refined the idea enough for the idea to replace the prestige classes that 3rd Edition introduced.  D&D 5E takes that idea one step further by reigning in many race and class options into a handful of 'core' races and classes and then telling you to pick a variant.  As an example, you have the traits common to all elves and then the game says 'There are three kinds of elves.  Pick one and write down these additional things unique to that kind of elf'.'  Similarly, you have the core traits for a class, and then around 3rd level you get to pick one of about three (there are more for Clerics and Wizards) archetypical routes for that class.  Fighters, for example, can aim for physical prowess (the Champion), martial prowess (the Battle Master), or blend magic and weapons (the Eldritch Knight).

At the same time, the game is recognizably D&D.  Which is very important given that D&D 4E's greatest failing was to fall into a very strange uncanny valley where it wasn't recognized as D&D.  It manages to blend elements and key concepts from BECMI D&D, AD&D 2E, D&D 3/3.5, and even manages to sneak in a few good ideas from D&D 4E.  In terms of overall philosophy, D&D 5th Edition seems to lean strongly on BECMI and 2nd Edition, emphasizing on the spot rulings with some guidelines to promote fairness; rulings over rules as a far more clever author than I has put it.  The primary basis for the mechanics remains 3/3.5, and I suspect that's because having a unified universal mechanic promotes streamlined rules and makes ruling on weird situations a lot simpler.  There are two takeaways from 4E that I spotted; unlimited at-will spells (5E made cantrips at-will spells much like 4E and, more explicitly, Pathfinder did), and the rapid recovery of HP from rests.

I won't lie and tell you  there are no changes to some of the iconic spells and classes.  There are plenty of changes to like and dislike.  True strike became a cantrip you can cast all you want as a wizard, but it doesn't grant +20 to hit anymore; it grants advantage instead.  Strangely this actually makes it more useful, since you can cast true strike and cancel out a disadvantage you would have on that attack.

Obviously I can't cover all the changes in one review.  That would require me to write a novella and frankly I feel half the fun of a new edition of a game with shiny new rules is discovering things yourself.  I do feel overall that the changes found in 5e are entirely positive in nature and that even if you are a fan of other RPGs, you should at least read and try out the basic rules.  They're free, so you don't have much to lose other than paper, ink, and some time with your friends.  And who wouldn't want to waste time with their friends?