At last, a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook has been released. This version of the world's first RPG wants to satisfy old-school gamers and draw in newcomers at the same time. With its classic feel, combined with buffed and polished rules, it just might succeed.
It's been six years since the polarizing 4th Edition of D&D was first released. That edition was bold and innovative and, ultimately, a failure – by the end of its life, planned releases were being canceled left and right because of poor sales. This edition was announced and developed in a very public way, with open playtest documents that allowed players to try out various iterations of the rules, then comment on them so the designers could see what was working and what wasn't. It felt like a lot was riding on this edition of D&D, like maybe if this edition bombed, parent company Hasbro would let the game sit idle for a long time.
Well, there's no worry about that at this point. On the day of its release, the 5th Edition Player's Handbook was the number one selling book at Amazon. Not the number one selling RPG book or game. The top selling book, period. Of course, sustaining that kind of success once everyone owns the core books is the tricky part, but at least D&D is strong out of the gate.
The hard kernel of rules at the center of 5E (the combat and adventuring rules) takes up exactly 25 pages in a 300-page book. Wizards of the Coast uses the word "streamlined" a lot when they talk about 5E, and it's really true. It's not a dumbed down version of D&D by any means, but a lot of the jagged edges and needlessly complicated elements have been filed and sanded down. I talked to D&D Lead Designer Mike Mearls at Gen Con last week, and he told me that a lot of rules decisions came down to driving the action to the table rather than to the books. That meant cutting down on rules that required brute force memorization and felt more intuitive to the players.
How have things been streamlined? In a lot of little ways. There are no separate values for saving throws – a saving throw simply uses an ability score. If the DM says, "Make a Dex save," you roll a d20 and add your Dexterity modifier. Instead of a menu of skills in which you purchase ranks, skills are tied directly to ability scores (and there are fewer skills overall). There's a flat proficiency bonus that applies to a bunch of different rolls, so you only ever have to know if you're proficient with something or not. Using a weapon you're proficient with? Add your proficiency bonus to the attack roll. Using a skill you're proficient in? Add the bonus. Not proficient? Then just use your ability modifier. The proficiency bonus starts at +2 at 1st level and gradually increases to +6 at 20th.
Feats have been improved significantly. For one thing, they're optional. Classes get boosts to their primary ability scores at certain levels. You can forego the boost to take a feat instead. The feats have been consolidated, to great benefit. In 3rd Edition, you had to take a chain of related feats to specialize in something. In 5E, a single feat lets you be great at mounted combat or fighting against spellcasters. This means feats are much more powerful, individually, and instead of just being yet another thing your character can do, they really help define who the character is.
One of the biggest changes is the removal of static bonuses for most rolls. You'll still find the odd +2 bonus here and there, but those have mostly been replaced by advantage and disadvantage. On those rolls, you simply roll an extra D20, and take the higher of the two if you have advantage (take the lower for disadvantage). It's a really fun way to boost a roll, doesn't require bookkeeping or remembering a bunch of variables, and really speeds up play.
There are a lot of other small tweaks like this, things that maintain the feel of classic D&D, but remove a lot of the parts that made things less fun (no flanking rules, and only one way to trigger an attack of opportunity). Having read through the Player's Handbook thoroughly and having played several sessions using these rules, I have yet to find a rule a actively dislike.
5E feels most like 3rd Edition, if you need to compare it to something. Classes gain new abilities as they reach each level, gaining more options for dealing with whatever strange things they encounter. While characters do get more powerful as they level up, there is no "attack bonus treadmill." That is, there's less artificial scaling up of power levels to match equally scaled up monster power levels. Some monsters are a lot tougher than others, of course, but to beat them you'll need to use your best spells or cleverly utilize special character abilities. You gradually get better at things, but there's no whopping attack bonuses to match ridiculous monster AC.
The available classes cover a lot of terrain: barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, warlock, wizard. The concept of paragon paths or prestige classes has been folded into the core classes. You generally pick these archetypes at 3rd level (is your paladin a classic holy warrior, or more of an avenger? Is your rogue more of a thief or an assassin?). This gives players a lot of room for character customization built right into the core classes, without having to worry about multi-classing. Multi-classing if certainly available, and mostly straightforward, for more advanced players.
And there are plenty of crunchy rules to exploit if you're a hardcore min-maxer who enjoys building powerful characters. I've already discovered that an Eldritch Knight (a fighter archetype) becomes really powerful at 7th level, since she can cast the at-will cantrip True Strike (which grants advantage) as a bonus action – that means advantage on every single attack! It's also not too difficult to build a heavily armored spellcaster, since casters don't have arbitrary restrictions on armor use. It's based on whether or not you're proficient in the armor, and careful race selection, feats, or multi-classing can result in a wizard in full plate, no problem.
What's particularly interesting is that a lot of the rules are intended to push players in the direction of role-playing. How much players get into character and story of course depends on the group, but when the system nudges you in that direction it really helps. Character backgrounds are an integral part of character creation, instead of an optional add-on that was easy to forget about. Each background gives a character a couple of extra skill proficiencies and a nice bonus feature, plus a set of related equipment. There are tables to roll various personality traits tied to each background. Are these things necessary for a good RPG? No, but having them present in the core book, and tied to tightly to core characters, puts the idea front and center that this game is about telling stories with interesting characters.
The art is a major part of any RPG. One of the things that drew me in when I was a kid was the amazing paintings of adventurers and monsters. I'd stare at them for hours imagining what stories and adventures had lead to that moment. The art in the Player's Handbook is excellent. There are a lot of contributing artists, each with a slightly different style, but it all feels very cohesive. There's a lot of action and expression, each piece acting as a gateway into another fun adventure or exciting moment.
This edition of D&D goes out of its way to be inclusive. For instance, character creation emphasizes that gender choice doesn't "come with any special benefits or hindrances," and that characters can explore ways in which they defy stereotypes. There's an entire paragraph describing ways to reject binary ideas about gender, and specifically says, "your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide." That vibe is carried through in the art. A pretty wide range of races, skin tones, and body shapes are depicted, including some of the iconic images that accompany the core classes. The women tend to wear reasonable, practical armor and cloaks, and there's certainly no gender division in terms of class or ability. There are badass warriors and wild-eyed spellcasters of all kinds.
Wizards of the Coast has licensed with Trapdoor Technologies to produce digital tools for use with this edition. At Gen Con, I was able to attend a demo of these tools, called DungeonScape (full disclosure, Trapdoor treated press to a nice steak dinner at this demo). It certainly made character creation a breeze, but then, character creation is really easy with 5E to begin with. What's nice is that the app (built for tablets and web browsers) allows customization to a lot of elements, so if you're using house rules or creating your own magic items, it's really easy to adjust things to fit.
DungeonScape has in-play management tools for players and DMs. It will track party initiative, for example, and allow the DM to send secret instant messages to individual players. The developers at Trapdoor are definitely serious gamers, so there was a lot of discussion about the right way to use digital tools without ending up with players staring at their devices and not at their friends or the action on the table.
All of that is neat, but nothing several existing apps can't already do. What's most interesting is that 5E adventures are incorporated directly into the app. So if you buy Hoard of the Dragon Queen within DungeonScape, it will give you the maps, NPCs, monster stats, everything all within the app. You can even make notes that stay with the adventure to remind you that the players killed this NPC or already rescued the merchant prince. I spoke with Trapdoor founder Chris Matney (who brought out his stack of 1st Edition D&D books to prove they were true gamers and not just some random tech company hired to make an app) about adventure integration. I was musing about how it's probably a pie in the sky scenario, but bringing in classic D&D adventure modules into DungeonScape would be awesome. He surprised me by saying, "It's not a pie in the sky, it's something that's going to happen because we all want it to happen."
The pricing model for the app hasn't been released, but the demo build suggested a sort of a la cart model, where you could purchase access to individual classes and races. On one hand, I hate microtransactions like that, but if you're a casual player who just needs basic access to one or two classes, that might make things cheaper in the long run. We'll have to see how it all plays out.
But Is It Fun?
I've run the Starter Set adventure with two different groups now (using pre-generated characters and ones we created), and it really is a lot of fun. The streamlining lets you enjoy the good parts of the game while spending less time bogged down in esoteric rules. The baked-in character backgrounds drive interaction and storytelling. I also love the Inspiration rules, whereby the DM can award a D20 to a player for playing their character really well or just doing something creative and awesome. That D20 can be used to give advantage to any roll, or awarded in turn to another player. I bought a bunch of really bright, neon green D20s at Gen Con so that the Inspiration dice will always be really obvious at the table.
Despite how smoothly it runs, this version of D&D is not dumbed down. I asked Mearls about one of my pet peeves, the goofy way that spell levels and spellcaster levels never match up. If you're a fifth level wizard, you're casting third level spells, and that never made sense to me. Mearls told me it was an intentional choice to leave some of those jagged edges to keep everything from feeling too generic. Elements like spell levels and skills are part of D&D lore, so they kept some of those in (one iteration of the playtest rules had no skills at all, just ability proficiencies). This allows D&D to feel organic and a little weird, and call back to those earlier editions that we often loved because of their flaws, not despite them.
How do you sustain interest in D&D once the core books are out? Past editions have just tacked on more and more. More feats, more powers, more monsters. That well inevitably runs dry. It looks like 5E is going to tie things to big adventures to a large extent, probably with splatbooks adding new features and player options to go along with them. Mearls wasn't clear on those plans, but he did tell me that Wizards would be putting out fewer D&D releases overall. They want each release to be a big event, something that RPG culture discusses and gets excited about. Every 5E book will be a milestone of some kind.
This edition is also very expandable by design. When the Dungeon Master's Guide comes out in a few months, it will act as a sort of hacker's guide to D&D. All the rules to play the game are in the Player's Handbook (you might need a published adventure for now, since there's only a handful of creatures in the PHB), so the DM's Guide will show you how to customize and adapt and create things yourself.
But there's also room for entirely new, optional systems. Mearls told me that he really likes a background based skill system like the one 13th Age uses (so instead of picking skill ranks you just assign ranks to a background like, "Former pirate of the Midnight Sea," and you can use those ranks when you navigate, steer a ship, untie a knot, appraise treasure, or anything else you can think of that fits). But that system was too far from the core, familiar way skills usually work in D&D, and is a little tough for new players to handle. It's a perfect system for a future book for more advanced players, however.
There's no such thing as a perfect fantasy role-playing game. Everyone has different tastes, different play styles, and different nostalgia that makes them love a game for different reasons. But this Player's Handbook lays out an adaptable, easy to learn game that carries with it much of the flavor and history of 40-odd years of Dungeons & Dragons. My gaming group seems thoroughly won over by our initial sessions, and I'm personally excited about D&D like I haven't been for quite a while.