Dungeons & Dragons is a game that’s supposed to look fun. It’s a group of people, strangers or friends, getting together to weave stories and laugh and throw dice and pretend to be elves for a few hours. At least, that’s the game that has made appearances in a multitude of pop culture formats, from cinema to TV. The 5th Edition of D&D fulfills the promise set by years of pop culture representation. It’s a fun, fast paced game that’s approachable for new players and has hidden depths for old veterans. It distills the clarity of purpose that the 4th Edition of the game had, but plays more like the 2nd and 3rd Editions of the game, faithful to the form of fantasy roleplaying from earlier eras. It has some strange game mechanics, legacies from older editions, that disappoint, but it’s a lovely game packed with hours of fun for you and your friends. Most of all, it’s a great game to get into fantasy roleplaying with.
Dungeons & Dragons has always consisted of three books: The Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Of those, the Player’s Handbook – colloquially called the PHB – has always been the keystone. It’s the book that ostensibly everyone should have read. From it, you could judge the depths of the game, and that’s no different this time around.
The book itself is gorgeous, stacking up to the highest quality material you can find for any game on the market. It’s full color, full bleed printing. The book is absolutely stuffed – but the publishers bound the crap out of it. You certainly shouldn’t expect it to fall apart any time soon. The interior illustration is superb, from sketches secreted in the corners to splash images thrown across chapter and section headings. The characters are a remarkable variety of people from every kind of fantasy imaginable, though all still recognizably D&D. The layout is great, with rules and examples of play kept well away from each other. The only thing that’s not nice about the book is the choice to separate the content into three parts: Creating a Character, Playing the Game, and The Rules of Magic. Those categories just clog up the bottom of the pages where there could have been more useful navigational details instead.
It’s clear that this book is for players – not just in the “Player Characters” sense, but in the sense of everyone playing the game. The rules here establish a base game, one that each person sitting down to the table should be conversant in. It’s the basic mechanics everything has to deal with. How to move, how to take actions, and how to interact with the core dice rolls. From how to go adventuring, how to use your character’s abilities, and how to fight in combat.
You can tell it’s the core rules because the section outlining the core rules is a short, sweet 27 pages. D&D hasn’t been this straightforward in decades.
The brevity is helpful for new players, sure, but this book isn’t going to be a good way to learn the game. Most RPGs –D&D included – are still mostly oral traditions. You are taught the rules by your friends or other gamers at stores. This book isn’t helping teach too much aside from how to make a character, and you can tell Wizards of the Coast is leaving the job of learning to play to the recently released starter set.
On the other hand, once someone has had a session at the table, this book is a superb resource for learning more about the game. The rules are laid out clearly, with little guff obscuring the precise wording. The tradition established in 4th Edition of being very clear with meanings is still alive, and that’s a good thing. The appendices describing the multiverse of D&D, its gods, and their place in the average game are also great background that’s very worthy for players looking to understand the culture of a D&D table better. Likewise, the frequent excerpts from almost 30 years of D&D fiction throughout the book serve as reminders that this is a living genre of fantasy beloved by millions of players. D&D is its own genre, and the parts of the book that help players understand that are not just well written, but invaluable.
Characters & Classes
The meat of the book is the character options, taking up about half of the total page count of the book, this is character races, classes, personalities, backgrounds, equipment, and customization options. There’s a lot of detail given to how to create a character, how to choose appropriate abilities for a character, and how to get your class right.
Some things are much the same as they’ve always been in D&D. Character race is a set of abilities that you get at first level, and not much beyond that. The inclusion of races like Dragonborn and Tiefling do push the “traditional D&D” mold a bit, but this is a greatest hits of D&D player races and powers from the last fifteen years of the game. Each race is split into two or more subraces, allowing players to go one of two ways in their interpretation of the classics. (Wise Dwarves or Tough Dwarves? You decide!) Drow – that’s Dark Elves – are back, for the record, and precisely as boring as ever. There’s even a sidebar explaining how Drow are basically only an option because of Drizzt. Yawn.
The real new component of character creation is the focus on character background and personality, with large chunks of the character sheet devoted to your character’s personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. That, along with a renewed focus on character alignments, give a forward-facing element to what was previously hand waved away in most D&D as “backstory.” It’s wise of the game to embrace a more roleplaying-centric view of play by giving players somewhere to keep track of that information.
The other new element of a player character in 5th edition is a Background package that gives the player a handful of skill proficiencies and tools – it’s about what your character did before becoming an adventurer. Backgrounds also give your character a feature, some power that ties them into the setting. A religious acolyte, for example, might have ties to their former church. A soldier might retain some privilege of high rank. The mechanical benefits of a background are great, and help players to think about what their character has done before the kickoff of an adventure. Otherwise, backgrounds provide lists of personality traits or ideals that are associated with characters of that type. While those are nice as examples, and to aid in fast character creation, the page space would have been more valuable as roleplaying instruction. Explaining to players how to build a rounded character and stick to that depiction over time would help more than a pile of examples.
The game’s classes are the absolute gem of design, though. They have a structured feel, with characters getting new powers and abilities at every level, but each manages to feel quite different from the others. They’re loaded with little gimmicks, with magic, and with unique game mechanics that other classes don’t use. On top of that, each class has a handful of specializations, meaning your bard can be the classic magical songsmith or a melee-combat reveling battle skald. Your call. Many of the 4th Edition’s powers make a reappearance as spells in one form or another, meaning that while the heavily delineated power structure is gone those cool legacy abilities do live on. A great example of this is in the excellently designed Paladin’s smite spells, which boost its melee attacks. It’s recognizably the powers structure from 4th, but built into classic D&D‘s spellcasting system.
That said, the structured nature of the classes does have its downsides. It feels like nearly every player will have a few pools of resources to keep track of, whether it’s the Battle Master Fighter’s superiority dice pool or the wizard’s spells per day. There’s a lot of currencies being used by all the characters. It’s a design legacy that carries through in all of Mike Mearls’ prior work – starting with Iron Heroes and really showing up in force here. Players always have lots of things to do. Each character has a large amount of resources available to them, and managing those is a big factor in play. That’s going to come down to individual player preferences, but it does make playing, say, a Sorcerer less attractive to players who just want to blow things up and not carefully spend their Sorcery Points making their spells better at key times. The upshot is that the resource game is well tended, and doesn’t seem like it will be an impediment to play. Even the most management-intensive classes like Wizard or Warlock have the ability to recover some power mid play to keep the flow of the game up.
There’s a few stinkers in the classes, and a few powers that work the way they do For Legacy’s Sake rather than for good play. The Barbarian’s rage, for example, lasts precisely one minute. Why? Hell if it’s apparent to me. The Champion variant of the fighter should get called out as well, because while it’s explicitly the class for hitting things with your sword, the Champion manages to make that the worst stereotype of boring Fighter play that D&D has. You hit things with your sword, and sometimes you hit harder. It lacks active abilities at all. The Ranger class also feels like a mess, with one variant getting a pet animal friend that seems less than effective, and another getting a handful of muted abilities that don’t seem to fit any particular flavor. That said, the core of the class is solid, with unique spells and magic filling out the suite of cool powers the Ranger picked up in 4th Edition – much like the Paladin.
Perhaps one of the slickest design tricks that the 5th Edition pulls is the ability score boost. Every few levels, more frequently for the Fighter and Rogue, characters can increase their ability scores, making them smarter or stronger or faster at general tasks. In lieu of these, characters can pick up feats, small packages of unique tricks – like being an expert at killing mages, casting spells in combat, or wielding a crossbow. They add a strong intersection of mechanics and flavor, but make sure there’s a tradeoff for being the most special flower.
Multiclassing is back to the way it worked in 3rd Edition, with players taking a level in a new class and getting those benefits. There’s a few caveats – you don’t necessarily get all the free stuff a new member of that class gets, for example. It’s a very simple system, and pretty easy to understand if you’re not combining a weak spellcaster with a strong spellcaster. Though it’s classified as an ‘optional component’ of the rules, it’ll likely get picked up by the majority of groups playing. Sort of a shame to see the elegant multi-classing of 4th Edition go out the window, but this system is relatively intuitive and works given the level structure of the game. It’s not setting off fireworks, but it’ll get the more niche character concepts onto folks’ tables.
Dipping into multiple classes aside, characters in 5th Edition are powerful. It’s not hard to build a character capable of absolutely destroying most challenges they come up against – but the game simply embraces the fun of powerful characters. Power ramps up over the first few levels, teaching you slowly how to play your character by giving you a few abilities and making you more robust and able to take more chances. By level 3, you’ve got a potent and dangerous character that’ll remind 4th Edition players of their starting hero. By level 5, you’ve got a character that hits what many would call the D&D sweet spot, able to best lesser foes in spades, but challenged by a dangerous single monster. We’ll see about the higher levels when we get a Monster Manual.
The rules themselves are rather easy to read and comprehend, but they’re conceptually dense. There’s a lot old work here, like rolling d20s early and often for nearly anything you need to do. You use the same old statistics – that’s Wisdom, Constitution, and the others – for many of the same things. The skills system has been reworked to be a little more straightforward, but it’s much the same. You’ve got a suite of useful adventuring rules, like who should roll to spot an enemy sneaking up on the party based on where every character is standing, or how light works in the dark depths of the earth. D&D is still a fat mechanical monster with lots of rules, far too many rules for a game that can be called truly quick – but its been streamlined quite a bit. Dungeons that would have taken five hours with 3rd or 4th editions of D&D or another fantasy system take half the time with this one.
A lot of that streamlining was accomplished by cutting away the fat of the game. Characters now have a simple proficiency bonus that scales as they level. If a character is proficient in a task – say, stealth – they add that bonus to stealth checks they make. Each character is proficient in a handful of areas and might get a couple more over the course of play, but there’s no fiddly deciding where to put individual skill points each level. The very restrained nature of those modifiers, along with your character’s limited ability score modifiers, allows the game to take place along a much narrower spectrum of numbers than some other editions of D&D have. Your 18 armor class is really good at 1st level and it’s really still good at 10th level – that’s stupendous. It keeps the game along a more comprehensible set of numbers which can be easily understood by people playing.
That said, there’s a certain problem with numbers you have that don’t scale while others’ do scale. Take, for example, players’ saving throws. Saving throws are mapped to the six stats, so you have a Strength Save or a Dexterity Save. Your class makes you proficient in a handful of saves, and so as your proficiency bonus goes up those saves go up. The other saves? Well, they don’t go up at all unless you put an ability boost into those statistics. Meanwhile, the number you have to make to resist your opponent’s magic spell does go up over time. And you can be sure that monster’s saves go up. It means certain characters are going to be very vulnerable to certain types of effects and magic – which might be quite frustrating if your group isn’t working as a team and compensating for others’ weaknesses.
Two great new mechanics show up in the Player’s Handbook, one a purely numerical conceit and the other a roleplaying reward – Inspiration. Inspiration is reward the game master gives you for playing to the bonds, flaws, and traits you said your character had during character creation. If you play those up at the table, make them part of your experience, or have them get you into some hot water, you get inspiration. Inspiration is a one-time reward you can cash in for advantage on a roll.
Advantage is the other new mechanic, and definitely 5th Edition’s killer feature. It’s another fat cutter, that removes mechanical cruft from the game. That cruft? The mental checklist of modifiers that you had to go through before attacking in prior editions. Gone are the “Am I flanking? Am I on high ground? Is the target in partial concealment? Is the target armed with a tower shield?” questions that slowed down play. Now, you just have advantage or disadvantage. When you’ve got one or the other, you roll 2d20 on an attack or ability check and take the higher for advantage and the lower for disadvantage. The mechanics of advantage aren’t perfect, they actually privilege someone who needs middling results to succeed. However, advantage speeds up the game so much that the lost granularity is a sacrifice players will be willing to make.
That said, there’s some oddness in the game still. Cover modifiers still exist, despite the existence of advantage. So you get a bonus to AC and Dexterity saves if you’re in varying stages of hard protection – hiding behind an enemy, a log, or an arrow slit. It’s literally one of the only things left to think about from that old mental checklist of modifiers – but there it is. Sticks out like a sore thumb.
The game’s half acceptance of grid-based play is its real failing. Everything is measured in feet, speeds are measured in feet, spells are shaped in cones and spheres – also measured in feet. Sure, there’s a game here that you can play with a theater of the mind approach, without maps and miniatures. It’s a fun one too, and a lot of the time you’ll float right past the fine measurements and not worry about them – but odd situations will come up. Someone will describe placing a spell just right so they don’t hit their friends. A combat in the woods will leave an archer confused about who they can and can’t target. In the end, you can’t get away from the desire to map it all out. To put down buttons or dice or plastic goblins and see what the precise measurement would come out to. There’s a brief sidebar in the combat chapter about “playing with a grid” – but the grid never left this game. It’s a game that cares too much about ranges and measurements – if it didn’t would it really matter that a dwarf is 5 feet a round slower than a human? Without the promised grid rules, forthcoming in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Player’s Handbook just doesn’t quite feel like a complete game. You’ll probably end up fudging your rules for grid play together using the given guidelines and waiting for a copy of the DMG to arrive.
In the end, this is a game that takes the idea of what D&D is and distills it. It’s engrossing and has all the bits you want – the angry barbarians, the explodey magic guys – and the rules that go with them. It doesn’t destructively reinvent D&D design, but it doesn’t tear out old rules bugbears and play issues either. It’s innovative for sure, blending some of the best lessons of the past decade of game design into a cohesive game that’s not just fun to play but also feels fresh and recognizable. Wizards of the Coast have built a game that’s definitely D&D – for good or for ill. There’s respect for the legacy of the game here, but in giving that respect it doesn’t innovate everywhere it should have.
Bottom Line: You can’t say that the new D&D is the best fantasy game on the market, but you can’t find many games better than this.
Recommendation: Faster, sleeker, and more fun. This is D&D-style fantasy play at its best. Ignore this game to your own detriment.[rating=4]
Designed by Mike Mearls & Jeremy Crawford. For Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Published by Wizards of the Coast. Released in 2014.