This is a review of the Player’s Handbook for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s taken me a while get my sweaty fingers on the book… a long while. In the meantime there have been plenty of reviews and the great majority are overwhelmingly positive.
But what does this mean?
I’m a roleplayer who’s preferred each generation of D&D over the one that came before. I did not like the original D&D sets and only started to play the granddaddy of the hobby until it evolved into 3e.
I didn’t like all the inconsistent, often unnecessary, rules nor did I like the fact you were simply handled a randomly generated algorithm which you had to guide through algorithmically challenging landscapes. That’s to say; I’m not a min-maxer. I appreciate that’s the challenge for many gamers – building a character that survives the horrors the DM throws. It’s not for me; I need a sense of creation and ownership.
I preferred 4e to 3e. Wow! Makes me a loner, huh?
I liked 4e because it was designed that no one was a fifth wheel. I pushed that concept to the limit by being a Warlord (a buffer of others) in a three party group. I still had plenty to do. D&D 5e manages this trick too. When I tried AD&D after playing 3e for a bit the situation was the opposite. My character would just be an accessory until he levelled up.
I saw no downside to the suggestion 4e had learned from the millions of dollars and millions of new players from the world of MMOs. The good news is that D&D 5e still has also this wisdom plus the hindsight of D&D 4e.
However, the OSR movement bloomed. I’ve no problem with OSR but I just don’t get it. I’ve asked many OSR fans what it is – and get different answers. OSR stands for (most of the time) Old School Renaissance. The concept is that RPGs have strayed too far from the path that made them great. It is time to go back to how they used to be.
In my Arrows of Indra interview with RPGPundit he described OSR has unpretentious. I took from that the hint of a suggestion that newer games might struggle with that a little. He said;
But another reason why old-school is so big (big enough that WoTC has hired known advocates of Old School as consultants for their new edition of D&D, or reprinted their older editions and opened up their pdf catalogue to huge sales results) is that this type of RPG is more relaxed, faster (character creation takes a couple of minutes instead of sometimes hours), unpretentious, generally more casual and thus more suitable to gamers who don’t have time to pore over 30 books in order to figure out how to play a game or “build” an “optimized” character, and tremendously fun.
Geek Native ran a survey on OSR and what it means to gamers. The polls still live and you can answer here and affect the study.
The issue of being pretentious was examined again. As I write this blog post today some 32 out of 36 gamers said OSR was about making RPGs less pretentious. D&D 5e does not feel pretentious. The game, however, does encourage gender and sexual equality and moves away from chainmail bikinis. Does that make 5e pretentious?
At the time of writing 35 out of 41 said OSR is about making gamers simpler. D&D 5e certainly feels simple. Is it simpler than D&D 4e? It’s about the same… before you add in any extra books.
The last stat I’ll pull out of the survey was one which asked whether OSR was about roleplaying games that do not require high levels of commitment. 30 out of 34 agreed. D&D 5e certainly doesn’t demand your soul. You could play a game of D&D 5e in the same amount of time as you could D&D 4e or the Storyteller System, Savage Worlds or Fate Core. In fact, 5&5e proves that neither system nor theme has much of an effect on the levels of commitment needed for a game.
It’s worth noting that I’m picking survey answers here when the OSR community had some agreement. Most of the time there wasn’t. 50/50 splits on what is OSR and what is not OSR are common.
So, why do I think D&D 5e suggests that OSR is just a construct – a scarecrow of an argument to artificially create good and bad tropes? After all; there is no “New Style”.
D&D 5e feels entirely modern and yet it appeals widely to many of the OSR stalwarts. It is one of the evolved RPGs in terms of flavour and rules. That said; D&D 5e draws on the previous editions of the game.
After an introduction of a few pages (Wizards of the Coast are lumped with the responsibility of introduce roleplaying to newbies) we start with Creating a Character. Pick a Race, Class, Determine Ability Scores, Describe Your Character, Choose Equipment and Come Together.
There are loads of classes in D&D 5e. Pretty much all the iconic types of characters are here; Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock and Wizard. You’ll find something there. Here’s a prediction; there will be new classes in later books. Psionics, for example. I’m confident of this because I’m sure Wizards of the Coast will introduce setting books later on and these seem to be the perfect route to add in more core classes.
The same is true of races. Pick from dwarf, elf, halfling, human, dragonborn, gnome, half-elf, half-orc and tiefling. There are sub-races for many; hill dwarf and mountain dwarf. There is a good reason to play a human – all your ability scores get a boost.
The classic alignment system is back. You can be lawful good through to neutral and on to chaotic evil. Mixed feelings about this as the Old Testament approach to motivation is a bit simplistic but, yeah, I suppose this is archetypical D&D 5e.
Alignments are part of the fourth step of character generation – backgrounds. This entire chapter feels like WotC trying hard to ensure that D&D characters are more than algorithms. You can be a male drow cleric (despite that not being normal) but players need to think about why and how such a character needs to exist. I don’t think this is pretentious. I think this is what good roleplaying is about.
Backgrounds have a tangible impact on game play too. They are more than flavour – offering skill proficiencies, equipment and language modifiers. This slows down character generation but not terribly much. There are even random tables for personality trait suggestions. For example; your acolyte could be prone to misquoting sacred texts given half a chance.
Ability Scores, by default, are rolled. Players should roll 4d6 and take the best 3 dice. This roll is done for each ability. The result, of course, is a character that’s better than average but with some bumps. I’m not so sure about this but D&D also allows you to assign the values 15, 14, 13, 12, 10 and 8 instead. I think assignment would be quicker and fair by Wizards of the Coast have given us the choice.
This key section of book is entirely modern. It takes an enlightened view to character generation. It does not hark back to the min-max challenges of early RPGs. You could put an OSR and a storyteller at the same table, with these rules and they’d still enjoy creating a character. How’s that for success?
Playing D&D 5th edition
Part 1 of the book is all about creating your character. It takes 6 chapters. It takes half as long to describe the rules of the game; chapters 7 to 9.
The second third of book kicks off by describing how these newly generated ability scores actually work in the game. The new mechanic of Advantages and Disadvantages is a favourite of mine. Got an Advantage? Roll 2d20 and take the best one. Suffering a Disadvantage? Roll 2d20 and use the worst.
Chapter 8 is all about “adventuring”. Wizards don’t call this “mutual theatre” or anything like that. They’re clear; D&D 5e is about adventures. We’re concerned with issues like keeping track of time, social interaction and what happens between adventures.
It’s good to see the Between Adventures section but this is not Ars Magica. The Player’s Handbook does not naturally lend itself to multiple characters per player and legacies.
The rest of this section is about combat. Combat tends to be the most common peril in the adventure – you know; the dragons part of Dungeons & Dragons. Once again 5e takes the OSR-approved approach to including as many of the “core rules”, no matter how unlikely, in the same book. As a result we’ve their finally tuned combat system which includes sections for mounted combat and even underwater combat.
Thoughts on the system so far – it works very well. The Advantages and Disadvantage 2d20 didn’t at first feel very much like D&D. Everything else did. Now I’ve played a few games the extra dice system feels like a perfect fit for the game. Characters take risks and chances to earn that extra d20. It actually encourages storytelling in otherwise dull melee as players describe manoeuvres.
At this point in the book there’s not much more to add – and yet there’s more than 100 pages to go. So what fills up the rest?
Magic and Spells
The last chunk of the Player’s Handbook discusses magic. This is a return to a “spell slot” system to magic – harking back to D&D that oldies like myself will remember.
There’s a twist or two though as these are expandable spell slots. In other words; you can put lower level spells in higher level spaces and enjoy the rewards. This creates a whole sub-game of spell mastery and planning that’ll put off some but appeal to others.
I think the addition of cantrips is a brilliant idea too. These are low level spells that you can cast again and again. I had a dwarf cleric that terrorised a bunch of goblins by forcing them to save again and again or take a zap. The situation meant that those pesky minions had to be pro-active and plot to get me.
Cantrips aren’t big in power but they are big in flavour.
It doesn’t take a hundred pages to explain how the magic system works. The rest of section is full with lists of spells. This approach means that future books will certainly include new spells. I think it’s an easier approach.
There are important bits and bobs in the book that don’t fit into these main sections. There’s a light scattering of gods, for example.
A big plus in favour of the Player’s Handbook is the book itself. This is a hardback wonder with a strangely tactile back cover. The layout is impressive; dauntingly so for others in the industry. The art is first class and liberally implied.
It’s easy to see why D&D 5e is impressing people.
D&D 5e isn’t OSR. It does not remind me of old RPGs; it feels entirely modern. This isn’t a step back but does carry forward the feeling of old D&D.
I think D&D 5e rather proves that there is no such thing as OSR. There is nostalgia. There are gaming styles that suit certain game designs but those styles aren’t trapped in one time zone or another.
I suggest that the word “adventure” is what fond memories of early RPGs conjure up. It’s not about the time to create a character or how long you have to play for. D&D 5e is designed so that you can feel a great sense of ownership of your character without having to have a degree in mathematics to create her. D&D 5e’s Player’s Guide is designed so that the focus of the game is on the adventurers the group’s characters have.
Overall? Strong recommendation.
The video tour of the D&D Player’s Handbook below was created with Google’s Auto Awesome. Colour filters and effects have been applied to the art.
Update: Predictably, this post has drawn some welcome commentary from the OSR community. I wrote “I think D&d 5e” rather proves there is no such thing as OSR.” and in hindsight would like to unpick that further. There’s clearly the OSR community and movement.
I think OSR is best defined by that group and the tastes therein. That definition copes with the fact that members within the group may have mutually exclusive ideas of what their OSR is. I don’t think there’s one united, agreed on, definition of what counts as ‘OSR’. OSR is a movement and I think D&D 5e shows that you can design RPGs that appeal to that community without having to be a retro-clone of a 30 year-old game. As such, I don’t think there is a set of game construction rules called OSR.
My copy of Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook was provided for review.
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