In September of last year, my friends started a campaign using the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition rules published by Wizards of the Coast (WotC). We all had prior experience with 4th Edition (some more than others), and in some ways that may not be a good thing. Regardless, here is my impression of 5th Edition after acting as DM and player over the last year.
Game: Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Players: 2+ (best with 4-6)
Genre: Fantasy RPG
Time: 2+ hours per session, best to continue over many sessions
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a fantasy-themed world known primarily for its tabletop role playing game of the same name. Players assume one of two broad roles within the game. One player acts as the Dungeon Master (DM) who creates the setting, controls Non-Player Characters (NPCs), and officiates the rules of the game. All other players control a single Player Character (PC) within the story, narrating their thoughts and actions, improving characteristics and equipment, and guiding them through the setting created by the DM. Games are broken into Campaigns, which are a series of smaller gaming sessions which compose a single (or multiple) story arc(s).
In order to play a game of D&D, you and your group need AT LEAST the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook (PHB) and Monster Manual (MM). Luckily for you, both of these have been provided as FREE PDF downloads. Yes, Fellow Gamer, I said the magic “F” word. That means that you can go out and start playing in a game of 5th Edition D&D TODAY (well, finish this post first). So what do the books give you that the PDFs do not? Access to additional race and class options, in depth combat and magic rules, more spells, more character backgrounds, gear… are you catching my drift? LOTS OF STUFF! “So what?” I hear you ask. “Why would I want all of that?” It’s hard to explain unless you’ve played a few sessions, but after a while you start saying “I wish I could do/have ,” and the books provide that. Other books in the line include a Dungeon Master’s Guide (great for newer DMs and those interested in where all of the magical loot is hiding), and pre-made adventure settings. The adventure settings are not necessary as you can create your own adventure from scratch. However, if you feel like you lack creativity or need a source of inspiration, they are worth a read.
The books are beautiful. In fact, I think the exact word I used when first showing it to my friends was “gorgeous”. The art on the cover and within is very well done, raw, and not cartoonish or childish in the slightest. The pages are thematically decorated to pull you into the theme of a medieval fantasy world filled with elves, dwarfs, and giants. Each section of the books are clearly labeled and fleshed out with numerous examples, anecdotes, and stories to help the new player begin to understand the game. That being said, this is not a game for new players to undertake on their own. The three “core books” (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and DM’s Guide) total just under 1,000 pages of material. Luckily you don’t have to memorize or even read most of the pages, as they are all well indexed, and having the books on the table or nearby during gameplay is encouraged.
Many people complain about the order in which material is presented within the Player’s Handbook. They believe that they have to flip too many pages in order to fully create a character. While I will agree that you need AT LEAST 6 bookmarks while making your character, these complaints feel a little short sighted. While it would be nice to make an in-depth character all from one page, there is little way (at least that I know about) in a game setting like this to appease all possible character types and combinations other than how these books were organized. Besides, character creation only occurs once per person per campaign (unless your character is killed), so I don’t see page-turning as a long-term issue.
My view on the rules of the system are mostly positive:
- Rules are simplified and streamlined to reduce large mathematical equations and bookkeeping
- Multiple talents/abilities/effects can be simplified into terms like Advantage/Disadvantage
- Good Role Playing is rewarded through Inspiration
- Many actions are made intentionally vague to allow for “theater of the mind” play rather than being limited to a tabletop combat/strategy experience.
I really do like this ruleset. For a large game (in scope and number of pages involved), actual gameplay feels rather simple and straight forward. There is little need for complex math and seemingly endless modifiers added to skill and combat checks. The flow of play is as follows:
- The DM sets up the scene
- The Players tell the DM what they would like to do
- The DM has them roll a d20 and add appropriate modifiers (based on a skill or attack) and describes what happens based on the results
That’s it. Almost everything else falls within this framework, regardless if you are in combat, social encounters, exploration puzzles, solving traps, you name it. This 3-step approach to gameplay is the reason that players themselves don’t have to memorize every rule. DMs, on the other hand, should be familiar and comfortable with any and all rules that *might* come up in a session. Why do I say *might*? Ask anyone who’s been a DM before: the players never go along with everything you had planned. If something comes up you didn’t prepare for, just look it up, or make it up and refer to the rules later.
My favorite aspect of this edition is Advantage/Disadvantage. Simply put, if the situation presents itself (either mechanically or through the narrative), then either of these effects takes place. During step 3, the player will roll two d20s instead of one. With Advantage, the player will take the higher of the two rolls, while Disadvantage forces the player to choose the lower of the two. This eliminates the math involved in situations like flanking, different spell effects (no more “-1 to checks”), etc.
So what are the downsides? Actually, not that many from my perspective. We found a lot of times that different rules or situations were either not fleshed out really well in the PHB or not readily understandable (which of course I can’t think of any off hand…), in which case one of my players would say “Well, in 4th Edition…”
RANT ALERT: This is also why I believe that having a lot of experience with 4th Edition is a bad thing, as the two are very different games. 4th Edition, while being more fleshed out simply due to the number of supplement books released, played like a tabletop combat or strategy game with some roleplaying on the side. 5th Edition, however, very much FEELS like an RPG should. If you want to have miniatures and a map on the table, great. If you want to close your eyes and just imagine what your Mountain Dwarf Fighter looks like running up to the giant Owlbear, great.
In the end, I think the need to refer to 4th Edition for guidance will end soon as more books and supplements are released by WotC.
In the end, I really like 5th Edition. Granted, it’s the first RPG I’ve spent a lot of time in, as well as the first game I’ve been both a DM and Player, so my field of comparison is pretty low. But I like how the books look and feel, how the rules make play easy and enjoyable, and are able to get out of the way of good storytelling if necessary. There are a few areas like magic and magic items that could have been reworked to be more understandable to a newer audience, however. All of that aside, I’ve enjoyed 5th Edition, and look forward to playing again soon.