Dungeons & Dragons: Players Handbook, 5th Edition

Section: 

“Why do we have to move?” I asked.

In my head, I can hear the tone of my voice. It’s hard to listen to. I’m actually whining.

“It’s not fair!” I screamed, and stormed out of the house. I grabbed my backpack from the station wagon and headed down the hill, across the field, and to the horse barn. I scrambled up the hay elevator and found a corner by the window. It was hot. The air was full of hay dust. It stung my eyes. I told myself that’s why they were wet.

It didn't matter much. I opened up my backpack and grabbed the book.

In 1978, the single most important happening of the year was getting my hands on the Players Handbook for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I revered the book so much that I convinced the school librarian to cover it in the same plastic they used for all the shelved books. I stuck stickers of my favorite character (a dwarf named Torga) and my favorite monster (Green Dragons of course) in the front, instead of my name.

If I’m honest, I probably played far fewer hours of D&D at that age than I recall. I had essentially one good friend who played with me (and who remains one of my best friends today). We played occasionally in that first year, but not regularly. I’d had the original three books in a white box, when I was even younger, but only actually played full games a few times before AD&D as well.

Mostly what I did was make stuff up in the hayloft. Graph-paper dungeons. Countless characters. Even when I did get together with friends, half the time, we’d just spend the afternoon making characters and dungeons and traps and plot hooks, and then maybe do an encounter or two, using pipe cleaners and Sorry! pawns for our board.

And then in 1979 we moved from the small town I grew up in to a boarding school 100 miles away. My dad, ever drunk, couldn’t keep a teaching gig for very long, and finally he exhausted all of the local schools and had to move to a new unsuspecting school. Already a geeky kid, I felt extremely lost and lonely in the new world of this giant boarding school.

But I still had D&D. And eventually, I found another faculty brat on campus my age, and we lost ourselves in a year of actual play. We waded through the City State of the Invincible Overlord for a year, bolting on nearly every classic adventure of the era, from the Giants to the Tomb of Horrors.

Since then – nearly 30 years ago – D&D has been a part of my life. Years have gone by when I haven’t had a regular group to play with, but I’ve faithfully bought all the books, and never regretted a penny of it.

All this is to say: It’s hard to not have enormous rose-colored nostalgia glasses about D&D. In a room full of non-gamers, I’d be the worst kind of proselyte for Role Playing Games. I’d go on about how they made me a better, smarter person. How they teach problem solving. How they get shy kids out of their shells.

But between you and me, the actual rules for D&D? They’ve generally kind of sucked. That original Players Handbook for AD&D that I cherish so much? It’s just riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. Nearly every page of my PHB has notes in it saying “See Dragon Issue 63 Page 26” or something similar. It was, at best, a sketch of how to run a game, and at worst, an unplayable mess.

And then Second Edition came along. It cleaned up a lot of the unplayable stupidity, but added levels of complexity that birthed a thousand rules-lawyer arguments around the table. Just how many ways do I need to win a fist fight?does a thief need to pick a pocket anyway? And now I have percent dice for strength?

And along with 2nd Edition came an endless series of expansion books that modified the game, making any one-shot session a negotiation.

Third Edition tried to clean all that up, and succeeded, but broke enough to make them issue a “patch” release, in the form of 3.5, which should really tell you how complex it got. Towards the end of 3.5s time on earth, the “endless books” problem had exploded to the point where there were hundreds of skills, spells and feats for every situation, so no two characters were ever the same. Sounds great, until you try and run a game.

And then there’s Fourth Edition, which, as much as I admired what they were trying to do, was a “baby with the bathwater” solution to the crushing complexity of the older games, making every character a superhero with a few “I win” buttons to press over and over again.

So where does this new version fit in? This new Players Handbook that Wizards of the Coast shipped to my doorstep today? It belongs in the hayloft.

In the hayloft, the rules never got in the way. In the hayloft, the rules never mattered, because it was just me and my imagination, and a framework I could play in. The players handbook was just a sandbox.

When Wizards of the Coast decided to re-imagine D&D this time, they did a few things very, very differently than in years past. They spent years asking people what they wanted. Through an extensive playtest process involving, apparently, over 100,000 people, they fiddled with a new take on D&D. The “new take” is very much old school in its feel – simple mechanics, rules that mostly get out of the way and let you have fun, opportunities for heroics and clown-car defeats.

Over the last year, I’ve been part of that playtest with a weekly group. We’ve watched the rules evolve. We watched power curves and spells and combat systems change. We submitted feedback. It felt like they listened, in general, and sure, that does give me and I imagine all the playtesters a sense of ownership, and involvement. But every decision they made seems to have come from the same core question: Does this rule — does this system — does this idea actually make the game more fun?

Fun. Not “realistic.” Not “complete.” Not "perfect."

Fun.

The final package, as delivered here in the Players Handbook, shows their commitment to having the game be fun, and fun for everyone. The style of the book is far more approachable than in versions past and includes an enormous amount of good artwork, depicting not just Hollywood stereotypes of medieval fighters, but men and women of every race and class being total badasses, in pretty equal measure.

It’s also worth pointing out that the core of D&D is actually now free. They took everything you need to actually know to play the game and put it out in a PDF: http://media.wizards.com/downloads/dnd/DnDBasicRules.pdf

Everything that they’re selling for fat coin ($50 a book) is gravy. But nearly everything that I’ve been playing for over a year in the playtest group is in that PDF, and it was the best roleplaying experience of my life.

There are dozens of places on the internet you can go to get the details of “what’s different” (http://www.polygon.com/2014/7/9/5882143/roll-for-initiative-understanding-the-next-edition-of-dungeons-dragons) or how it works, but honestly, when they publish stuff like this for the low, low cost of nothing, you can just go read it and see if it’s for you.

And if it is, this new Players Handbook will be waiting for you.

So what’s my review? My genuine feeling is that Wizards has finally gotten D&D right. Lead Designers Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford have lovingly climbed up into my hayloft in the summer of 1978 and figured out what was so awesome about that time, and gently excised anything that got in the way and stuck it back in the nostalgia boxwhere it belongs. At the core, I feel like they finally (finally!) get why D&D mattered so much to so many of us so long ago. From Mike’s introduction to the PHB:

Just as D&D can strengthen your friendships, it can help build in you the confidence to create and share. D&D is a game that teaches you to look for the clever solution, share the sudden idea that can overcome a problem, and push yourself to imagine what could be, rather than simply accept what is.

Hells yes, Mike. Hells yes.

Comments

YES!!!

My copy cannot get into my grubby little hands soon enough. And once it is, I need to find a group (and time) to play with online.

Super excited for this! I get my mitts on mine soon... very soon.

I could wax poetic about this for paragraphs - but here's the short of it: For me, this is a return to glory days. I stopped playing during 2nd edition, some 20 years ago. I returned just in time for the "beta" and am loving the changes. It's so good to be home. I can't wait to sit down the with the Player's Handbook in a comfy chair.

Awesome. I debated about 5e since I have a lot of 4e books and experience through online GWJ groups, but grabbed the Starter Set to run my family through the campaign. While we haven't had a chance to start yet I'm really impressed with the feel of it now. Just distilled gameplay.

For the record I went from original AD&D to 4e.

*Packs the PDF on wife's Kindle for the weekend*

I haven't even run a scenario with 4th edition yet.

At least it's free to play.

I has my books, local stores got copies faster than Amazon! Reading through now really like what they've done.

I'm quite excited to think that this is the version of D&D that I will be DMing for my son and his friends.

Ugh. I know this is an unpopular position but I really, really hate the Vancian magic system. Having to chamber spells like rounds of ammunition every morning never sat well with me and I doubt it ever will.

Maq wrote:

Ugh. I know this is an unpopular position but I really, really hate the Vancian magic system. Having to chamber spells like rounds of ammunition every morning never sat well with me and I doubt it ever will.

It's unpopular? I figured most people disliked it but used it for its functionality.

You can play a Warlock or a Sorcerer then ...

Awesome write up Julian! I have the exact same feeling about the new edition, and for pretty much the same reasons. I actually chose 5th Edition as Ravenwood's August Game of the Month earlier this week, although my write-up doesn't do it justice.

I've got to admit though, I'm a tad jealous (ok, hugely jealous) that you've got an actual copy of the PHB to work with! I'm looking forward to GenCon next week for a whole lot of reasons, but right up there at #1 is my plan to pick up a copy for myself.

rabbit wrote:

You can play a Warlock or a Sorcerer then ...

...Again. As I have for the last 30 years. I guess I was hoping for a little innovation in that space.

Maq wrote:

Ugh. I know this is an unpopular position but I really, really hate the Vancian magic system. Having to chamber spells like rounds of ammunition every morning never sat well with me and I doubt it ever will.

You might be pleasantly surprised at the new wizard then. You have a set number of spells committed to memory, and a set number of spells you cast per day at each level, but apart from those restrictions you can any memorized spell as many times as you want. It's a little bit Vancian, but not as Vancian as it used to be.

*Looks at 2nd Ed Psionic's Handbook*

*Nopes right back to Vancian magic*

I've actually always preferred the Vancian system to be honest. It lends a bit of strategic thought to being a spellcaster. Forces you to think about what you might need to do today, and prep your spells accordingly.

One thing I'm not sure I like about the new system though is the ability to cast a spell at a higher level slot. You can choose to cast a first level magic missile spell using a third level slot, for instance. Doesn't bother me as a concept, but the fact that your magic missile only gets more powerful if you choose to use a higher level slot bugs me a bit. I prefer the concept that as you become higher level, your spells work better and hit harder - even the lower level ones.

Elminster's magic missile ought to hit harder and hurt more than Weeblo the Wizard's, even if he's just casting the basic version.

Aha. I missed this key sentence when skimming over the rules:

Casting a spell does not remove it from your list of prepared spells.

OK, I can totally get behind that. Phew.

I've actually always preferred the Vancian system to be honest. It lends a bit of strategic thought to being a spellcaster. Forces you to think about what you might need to do today, and prep your spells accordingly.

Magic isn't about thinking, it's about going "Pew! Pew-pew-pew!"

I don't play magic users.

wordsmythe wrote:
I've actually always preferred the Vancian system to be honest. It lends a bit of strategic thought to being a spellcaster. Forces you to think about what you might need to do today, and prep your spells accordingly.

Magic isn't about thinking, it's about going "Pew! Pew-pew-pew!"

I don't play magic users.

that is what it is about now. "modern" game design sucks.

I'm excited for the new edition but it will be hard to get me to move on from 2nd Ed.

Ulairi wrote:

I'm excited for the new edition but it will be hard to get me to move on from 2nd Ed.

THAC0 for the win! I can't tell you how hard it was for me to unlearn THAC0 when I picked up 4th Ed. and Pathfinder a few years ago. What do you mean a high armor class is a good thing?

Whenever I played a MU back in 2nd Ed. I always hated spell components. We pretty much did away with them unless the component was incredibly hard to acquire or was very expensive (ie: diamond dust).

Julian, are you saying 4th edition was too simple compared to 5th? I find that really odd given they've made some specific refinements to 5th, like reducing magical item bloat, and that 4th edition characters have far more tactical combat options (for physical classes, at least).

Which leads to what looks like another problem with 5th; this is caster supremacy all over again. A melee attacker can do some things well and hit hard, but we're back to wizards (and other spell-casters) have enormous spell lists of things that often overlap with what other classes do and verge on making them irrelevant at high levels. That was a huge beef I had with earlier D&D (excluding 4th, which was somewhat balanced) and it even leaked over to games based on D&D. I -HATED- that not paying close attention to your wizards in Baldur's Gate and BG2 was basically gimping yourself.

I do like that D&D has tried to squish out some of the endless number-crunching of 4th edition high-level play, but it seems to have come at the cost of once again making martial classes little more than window dressing at high levels. I'm also puzzled about why, in a game that is supposedly trying to go the route of "roleplay not rollplay" there are very few actual rules for non-combat scenarios. Now granted, I haven't seen the final version of the rules yet, but they were missing from the playtest and not mentioned in the free preview so I'm assuming there's no innovation to speak of on that front.

For the last year and a half I've been running Star Wars: Edge of the Empire with my group, and it's really disappointing to read D&D 5th edition rules compared to EoE. It's a weird combination of a few new ideas sprinkled on top of some very, very old core concepts, and to make matters worse they've forgotten everything that 4th Edition did right to get rid of what it did wrong.

I just...don't see the point anymore. 13th Age or Dungeon World is better if you want actual roleplay, and if you want tactical combat, then 4th edition is superior. 5th edition doesn't excel in either.

I had kind of given up on D&D after 4th edition, but this article and some of the comments have inspired me to explore 5th edition!

I'm actually really excited that the classes are unbalanced. One of 4e's biggest pitfalls was that everything ultimately felt like the same thing with a different label slapped on it. I always found the power curves of classes really interesting in earlier editions, and if you aren't a power gamer it doesn't really matter which class is ultimately more powerful.

Thank you for an awesome article, Julian. Now, if you pardon me, I'll be in the hayloft...

So, I know some folks really dig 4e, and thats cool. My issue wasn't that 4e was either "simple" or "complex" it's that there never felt like there was any difference between classes. Everyone had super powers they used for EVERY attack. Nobody ever just moved and rolled, and once you were about 5th level, everyone had tremendous analysis/condition paralysis.

I get some people dug it, and hey, thats awesome! It just never clicked as "D&D" for me. It clicked as "Star Wars" (the system it was built from).

As for 5E being magic supreme -- I just did a full run from level 1-7 with a straight up wizard, and I can tell you it's simply not true. Our party's fighter stood there and laid out ENORMOUS amounts of damage over the course of a combat, and a crit from our thief shooting from the shadows was often the killing blow.

As an 6th level wizard, I got three shots a day at casting a big spell. Sure, I could cast level 1 2 and 3 spells, and had about 20 to choose from, but I had to pick 8 on any given day to have at my disposal. By big bad was Lightning Bolt, which does do a *lot* of damage for sure - 8D6, about 2/3 of the time. On average, thats 24 points of damage, 12 on a failed save (the 1/3 of the time).

My main weakness was I went down nearly instantly if ever hit, and once i'd used my big bad, I was done. Sure, if we did 1 encounter every 24 hours, I could nuke, but that never happened. I was constantly having to keep resources back. And in a long encounter with say a dozen mooks, two captains and a boss? My big bad just wasnt gonna with the day very often.

To put that in perspective, the rogue in my party could evade damage all the time, and did 3D6 + 1D8 almost every round (13 points average).

Sure, I could make some interesting stuff happen, but it never ever felt like I was "doing the rogues job" or "doing the fighters job" and the tissue paper nature of wizards is very much intact. Plus, fighters and rogues get some CRAZY fun stuff now at later levels. And barbarians -- oof.

Maybe you don't like that either, but really, I'm not seeing how 5E wizards are some how crazy overpowered.

Now, I haven't played at level 15 or whatever, but honestly, I've never cared much for that level of play, and well likely reset when we hit 10-12 for that reason. It just gets silly.

I jumped ship to Pathfinder when 4e came out as it was far too combat and MMO focused. It just didn't lend to my style of play. Does 5th ed change that out? Is it still mostly a combat system with "role playing" elements?

It's really just a framework, like all these things. It probably bears more in common with Pathfinder now than it does with 4e, but probably has the most in common with 2nd Edition (minus about 100 tables).

Pathfinder (which I do like a lot) seems to suffer from 3.5 rulesbloat, but I know for most folks, they just use the bits they like and leave the rest alone.

The other thing about 4e that was strange to me was just how SLOW it was. I think the analysis paralysis you talked about had a lot to do with that, but for a system which was supposed to streamline rulesbloat, there were a ton of pluses and minuses flying around, even after the superpower decision was made.

5e is nothing if not quick. One evening we did a dungeon crawl around 4th level with seven substantial encounters in about 2.5 hours. We generally could do 3-4 in a session with a lot of role playing in between. And drinking. Lots of drinking.

It wasn't the super powered nature of the abilities in 4e that bothered me, though I didn't care for that so much either to be honest. What really bugged me is that 4e, and even Pathfinder to some extent, seemed very much about telling you exactly what you could do as a character. You can use this power, or this power, or that power. Almost as if you were choosing which button to push to make your MMO character attack.

That always seemed limiting to me. As I watched or DMed beginners over the last year or two, I could see it having an affect on their play too. They always seemed to feel as if they had to choose from one of these specific powers, rather than using their imagination to come up with something that made sense in the context of the particular combat.

Maybe I'm remembering things with rose colored glasses. Maybe I just got lucky and had amazing DMs when I was younger. Or maybe this has always happened with beginners and I just never played with many newbies. Whatever the reason, I don't remember the earlier edition rules acting as limitations on what we could do. They seemed much more of a framework for allowing the players to come up with something cool, and the DM to determine how or if it was possible.

parallaxview wrote:

I jumped ship to Pathfinder when 4e came out as it was far too combat and MMO focused. It just didn't lend to my style of play. Does 5th ed change that out? Is it still mostly a combat system with "role playing" elements?

Speaking as someone who hasn't read ALL the rules, it appears as though the skill use in 5th Edition is closer to 4th edition than 3rd (which is basically Pathfinder). Everyone gets their Stat modifier on skill rolls, and if you are "proficient" with a skill, you get a set bonus with it that is determined by your level.

So, basically, if you have two Rogues that are proficient in the same skill, are the same level, and have the same stat that applies to it, they have the same bonus. There's no "My Rogue put points into Haggle every level and so is amazing in it" vs. "My Rogue put points into it, but only every other level, so he's very good, better than untrained, but not as good as Rogue 1."

If the lack of granularity on skills doesn't bother you (and it CERTAINLY doesn't bother me) then you're good to go.

Because when it comes down to it, the "Role playing" in RPGs is not a function of the system.

Teneman wrote:

What really bugged me is that 4e, and even Pathfinder to some extent, seemed very much about telling you exactly what you could do as a character.

Yep, that's the eternal struggle between "crunchy" systems and "light" systems. Everyone has a spot on the line that they like best it seems. If you really love improvisation in combat (and out of it) you'll be much better served by a system like FATE Core. However, if you like shopping for lists of superpowers and equipment, and a real sense of character improvement that is codified.. well that's what systems like 4th Edition D&D or GURPS or Hero are all about.