Yesterday was the official release date of the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. It won’t hit my FLGS for some time yet so I haven’t got my hands on a copy. I did celebrate the release by picking up the Starter Set and downloading a copy of the rules from the D&D website.
My recent D&D related experience has been with Pathfinder and the retro-clones of the Old School Renaissance. I was not a big fan of the fourth edition. It pretty much killed my interest in D&D.
It wasn’t that the fourth edition was badly done. It had all the usual WoTC virtues of high production values, beautiful art and excellent writing. And it wasn’t that it didn’t work. It did what it did very well. It was just that it was not what I wanted from a RPG.
Fourth edition always felt like the answer to a business problem rather than a gamer problem. It seemed more about selling miniatures, battlemats and rules expansions to the fanbase than making the game fun.
It focused on a battlemap with minis rather than on what was to me always the point of D&D – being inside an epic fantasy tale with my friends. It drew my attention away from the movie unfolding in my head and towards that grid, that board.
After a few sessions I gave up on it. I stalked away muttering that if I wanted to play a board game, I would play a bloody board game. I wanted to visit a magical somewhere else with my friends. I wanted to run that epic fantasy movie in my head.
That for me was always the point of D&D. I still remember my first encounter with the game 37 years ago. In no way do I exaggerate when I say it hit me with the force of a revelation. To a teenager raised on Tolkien and S&S novels it was like discovering a gateway to Narnia at the back of the wardrobe. It’s hard to convey quite how big a thing that was to a generation raised on the everyday miracles of Halo and World of Warcraft. It changed my life and gave me a career.
That’s a lot of baggage to bring to the table for any game. Anyway, to get to the point, D&D Fifth Edition –how does it measure up?
Based on my cursory readthrough, it’s great. It’s pretty much how I want D&D to be. It is clear, simple and can be played without miniatures. It focuses on getting you into that other place and it makes the most of the virtues of pen and paper RPGs. It does not try to be an ersatz miniatures game or computer game separated from cyberspace. It plays to its strengths.
The rules are clear. They’ve cut a lot of the dead wood that Pathfinder shares with the third edition. There are few die roll modifiers. Most of them can be summed up by the concept of the proficiency bonus. This starts at +2 at first level and reaches the heady heights of +6 at level 17. If you want the basic formula divide your level by 4, rounding down and add 2.
This bonus applies to everything that you are proficient in: hitting things, making skill rolls, saving throws etc. That is pretty much it.
With such flat modifiers for levels ability bonuses play a much bigger role than in third edition. They remain more or less the same as they were there. They start at +1 for an attribute of 12 and rising by +1 for every two points in the attribute you have above that.
Saving throws, skill rolls, to hit rolls are all based on your proficiency bonus if it applies and your attribute bonus. Roll a d20 and add them, meet the target number and you’re done. Rather than have a stack of modifiers you have advantage or disadvantage. Things that in previous games would have given you bonuses or penalties now give you one or the other. In both cases you roll two D20s. If you have advantage, you pick the highest. If you have disadvantage you take the lowest.
Hit points are pretty much as in the third edition, based on hit dice type by class and increasing with level. Damage uses all the familiar dice.
Spell slots are back. You use them for powering spells in much the same way a third edition sorcerer would. You can prepare your level plus your attribute bonus in spells per day and cast them as long as you have the slots to power them. Damage spells no longer scale with level. You need to power your fireball with a higher level slot to increase its damage. Simple and fair.
I could go on but I think you get the picture. The trend with this edition is towards simplicity and ease of play focusing on roleplaying and adventuring. A lot has been borrowed from the Old School Renaissance and, for me, that’s a good thing. I am impressed.
The Starter Set has a nice box. It contains pregenerated characters, dice, and two magazine-style soft cover booklets. The first booklet is a summary of all the rules you need to run the game to fifth level. The rules for the characters are all on the character sheets. The second book is a very nice looking low level campaign called The Lost Mine of Phandelver. It should see your group all the way up to level 5. I’ve not run the adventure. It seems well written and has a lot packed into it. You could do a lot worse if you want to introduce new players to the game.
I am excited by this edition. It makes me want to play D&D again. After fourth edition I did not think that was possible.