The new fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons comes at a critical time for the D&D brand. After a successful and acclaimed run with the 3/3.5 Edition starting in 2000, the 4th edition arrived in 2008 to decidedly mixed reviews. While many enjoyed the cleaned-up mechanics and simplified adventure creation available in 4e, many more found the game’s newfound focus on tactics and simplicity over roleplaying and overall flavor to be a turnoff – I’ve heard from a number of people who simply quit playing D&D because of the radical shift in rules.
But, while 4e was a clear attempt by the folks at Wizards of the Coast to try and bring in players more familiar with online MMORPGs (some reviewers took 4e to task for being too much like a video game, with a design aesthetic mimicking World of Warcraft), 5e premiers in a decidedly different gaming environment.
MMORPGs are no longer the major force they once were, and tabletop gaming has seen a massive renaissance. While in 2008 D&D essentially stood supreme among pen-and-paper RPGs, in 2014 that’s no longer the case. The advent of Kickstarter has brought numerous other games to the fore, and tabletop RPGers have many other ways to roll the dice: Savage Worlds, FATE Core, Numenera, 13th Age, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and the massively popular Pathfinder (which, by some accounts, has eclipsed D&D in sales) to name just a few.
The question then becomes: Can D&D make itself stand out again at the world’s preeminent RPG?
After reviewing the free 100-page Basic D&D PDF available via the Wizards of the Coast website, as well as the recently-released fifth edition Starter Set, I’d have to say that they’re on their way. It retains the streamlined simplicity of 4th Edition while re-injecting the flavor and atmosphere that made 3.5 so popular and strong. Indeed, in many ways, the new rules set seems to ignore that 4e ever happened altogether.
One thing that becomes immediately apparent upon reviewing the Basic Rules is an effort to make the game understandable and easily played. While 3.5’s virtue was in infinite customizability and a sense of story and environment, it faltered in excessive complexity, often expressed by an overabundance of, and reliance on, tables and charts. The Basic Rules have few tables, and those that are included are easy to follow and visually appealing.
Further, mechanics that had been problematic in previous editions are either simplified or excised completely. Gone is the highly controversial “powers” system from 4e, replaced by class features familiar to the 3.5e player. There are no longer Fortitude, Will and Reflex saves or defenses, which had been staples of the last few editions. In their place, saves are accomplished with rolls using particular skills or abilities.
Particularly interesting to me is the creation of the “Proficiency Bonus.” 3.5e and 4e struggled with how best to simulate a character’s advancement in attack ability and skill points as they gained levels; 3.5e used a rather cumbersome Base Attack Bonus and skill point systems; 4e used half of the character level applied to attack rolls and skill checks, as well as a one-time bonus applied to proficient skills.
The new Proficiency Bonus combines those ideas: The number, which increases every few levels, is applied to certain attacks and skills with which a particular character is “proficient.” It solves a couple of problems and synergizes those areas.
Also new is the idea of solving “advantage” or “disadvantage” in combat or other situations by having a player roll two d20s and using the higher or lower roll depending. It’s simple, clean, and elegant.
Honestly, I didn’t see a lot of relevant changes to the four races provided in the Basic Rules – Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human. They largely mimic the way they’ve been portrayed in the last couple of editions. As with 4e, there are no “negatives” or “penalties” to ability scores for any of the races (as there were in 3.5e where, for instance, Elves had a minus in their Constitution score because of their lighter, frailer physiques), which I think detracts from flavor. As usual, D&D struggles to figure out exactly what to do with Humans, which tend to be “blah.” In 5e, they’ve decided to give Humans an automatic +1 to all of their ability scores to make up for the lack of special abilities that Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings enjoy.
The Basic Rules provides enough information to create and play Fighters, Clerics, Wizards and Rogues up to 20th level, across four heroic phases (a concept introduced in 4e). They’ve clearly gone out of their way to make sure that each of the classes has their own identity.
I’m particularly fond of Clerics, and was happy to see that the class has returned to it’s flavorsome roots. While in 3.5 the Cleric was clearly a healer and had facility in dealing with the undead, those abilities got muddled in the 4e powers system. However, in 3.5 turning undead was horribly complicated, and the Cleric was often restricted to being the “med-kit” of the party and rarely got to cast spells beyond “cure _____ wounds.”
5e settles this problem by simplifying turning (undead are affected if they fail a Wisdom save), and allowing cure spells to be among the Cleric’s extra domain spells. A fine compromise.
Fighters are innovated by allowing them to choose a fighting style (want to build a tough archer, for instance? There’s a style for that). They can also heal themselves in combat (a leftover of the Second Wind that all classes had in 4e) and at some times perform additional actions in combat.
Rogues may have the strongest flavor of all the overhauled classes. No longer just the “backstabber,” Rogues now have some nifty-sweet innovations, like the Thieve’s Cant, a special language only other thieves can understand (there are some super roleplaying possibilities here) and the Cunning Action, which the Rogue gets at 2nd level, allowing him to sneak off or do other Rogue-like things in combat.
Wizards may be the least-changed of the included classes overall; they feel very much like the Wizards in 3.5. One commendation I can give them: the Arcane Recovery ability, allowing a Wizard to recover a spell slot once per day and re-cast a spell.
I’m most disappointed with the lack of change in the spellcasting mechanics in 5e from those in 3.5. Similar to 3.5, spellcasters don’t get a 3rd-level spell until 5th level, which I think is ridiculous. I know that it’s to prevent “power creep” for spellcasters (who infamously could basically be demigods in higher levels in 3.5), but for a player it’s frustrating. The 4e power system actually worked very well in that it balanced out power for spellcasters, and I’m disappointed that more of that spirit didn’t attach itself to 5e.
One frequent complaint about 4e is that it was too focused on tactics. 4e almost required the use of grid maps and tiles and miniatures.
Well, no more. Heck, the Basic 5e rules don’t even suggest that a grid system with miniatures be used in combat (they discuss doing so in a discreet text box as a “variant”). While I miss the 4e simplicity of area effects in combat (it made offensive spells easier to decipher), the more free-form approach will attract gamers who like the so-called “theatre of the mind” approach to battle.
There area a few sea-changes in the Basic Rules for combat, though.
First and foremost: there don’t seem to be any rules for attacks of opportunity. This is huge, as they’ve proven to have a dampening effect on combats since I’ve been playing the game. So now characters can run up and hit a baddie, or run away, with impunity.
Second: characters in combat can move, attack and continue their move, something that has never been seen in recent editions. Wow.
The emphasis on combat and the somewhat austere simplicity of particular aspects of 4e made some commentators express that roleplaying in 4e was difficult to do. While I personally think that’s silly (roleplaying really depends on the players, not the rules), 5e has gone out of its way to try and give players the tools to role-play effectively, and even encourage it.
Players can choose backgrounds, flaws, and other features for their characters, and there is an entire section devoted to roleplaying in the Basic Rules. Further, the concept of Inspiration, I think, really makes roleplaying a mechanically fun part of the game. A DM can award Inspiration to a player who has been roleplaying particularly well, allowing them to have advantage in an upcoming encounter. I think this is a great way to make roleplaying fun and relevant to the rules set.
Looking at the Starter Set itself, you inevitably have to compare it to those that went before. The 3.5e and 4e starter sets were flashy: they included nifty add-ons like minis, map tiles, powers cards, and other material. However, they also contained what I can only best describe as the “tinker toys” version of the game rules – stripped-down, bare bones mechanics that often bore little resemblance to the actual way the game was played.
The new D&D Starter Set includes an abbreviated rulebook (aimed at DMs – there is no information here about how to create characters), a set of nifty electric blue dice (d20, d10, d12, d8, d6, d4), an Adventure book (the Lost Mine of Phandelver), and five pre-constructed character sheets (2 fighters, and one each of rogue, cleric, and wizard).
The Starter Set is fairly stripped down. There are no additional materials. No maps. No minis. And I honestly don’t miss them at all. The rules are clear and thorough, the Adventure looks like a lot of fun. It feels like a more focused set, with the rules taking center stage.
The production values are very nice – both the rulebook and adventure book are colorful and well-organized, with great illustrations. The character sheets are easy to read and follow, and provide nice suggestions for roleplaying the characters. Overall, the materials hold the hands of first-time DMs and helps them through the necessary rules.
Today’s post was written by Peter of Pop Culture Cube. You can follow him on Twitter right here.