After many years of trial, error, and reformation, the original genre creator returns to claim its place as the lord of high fantasy. Wizards of the Coast has had a rough decade, fighting a sometimes losing battle with challengers to the throne fueled by dissatisfied fans; after some soul searching aided by a full two-year playtest we are left with something both old and new to bring us back into the fold. Fifth edition is at the same time a return to form, delivering everything key to the love behind the game, and a bold new way to forge ahead, using new market trends and player expectations to inform its design. What we have is a product that is imaginative, well-crafted and, most important of all, a ton of fun.
The book is 320 pages of high-gloss pages that seems to have been the work of substantial scrutiny itself. Flipping through the book alone is enough to provide one with a sense of fantastical adventure, the pages the color of scrolls and text popping out of them but not clashing. The book’s art (while of questionable quality in very few places) is both iconic and evocative. Every new sight brings one into the world of high magic and dark dungeons, and even before reading the system you can tell there is quality to this work.
An old trope delivered with enough flavor and skill to excite.
The game itself is designed around some key tenets that elevate it beyond the flaws that drove former fans to Pathfinder and Fantasycraft. Simplicity, bounded accuracy, and a focus on roleplay keep the rules in service to a play experience and not the other way around. The rules, from character creation to combat, are fast and comprehensible. Even a brand new DM could wrap their head around (and in many places intuit correctly) rules for specific scenarios. Through the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, whereby a character with a situational help or hindrance rolls twice, keeping either the better or worse result, a DM can immediately add tension, reward creativity, and resolve possible modifiers. No longer do we need to concern ourselves with stacking bonuses or different qualities of penalties. Character creation is fast and easy, without an overload of options at the outset. Learning the game is easier than ever before. New mechanics and abilities are introduced slowly over the course of the first few levels, giving new players a chance to understand them at a more appropriate pace.
Bounded accuracy commits the game to keeping the numbers within a comprehensible maximum. No matter how many levels you progress or magic items you locate, your character will only ever grow so much…at least numerically. See, Wizards of the Coast has found ways to keep you feeling powerful and dynamic well beyond tossing you extra +1’s. New feats, class features, and magic items grant exciting, flavorful abilities to keep your character relevant without having to break the game’s math to do so.
With simple rules the game has found substantial yet unobtrusive ways to bring your thoughts to roleplay without enforcing rigid methods of keeping in line with an archetype. Alignment, long a source of empty moral quagmires and endless unsolvable debates, has been downplayed as much as possible without complete removal. I suspect the only reason for its continued inclusion is to satisfy the devoted fans who, disregarding the pointlessness of the rule, would riot were it excised. Every character has a background consisting of a simple descriptor such as Charlatan or Soldier, some extra equipment, gold, languages, skill proficiencies, and a single extra ability to affect gameplay. In mechanical terms the impact is minimal, but it requires everyone to take a moment to stop and consider their character’s history. The inspiration mechanic requires they also keep the character’s goals and ideals in mind: for acting in accordance with your character, your DM can choose to grant you a point of inspiration which may later be used to grant yourself or a teammate advantage. Without fundamentally breaking the game’s flow, the designers have managed to subtly change its focus for everyone involved.
Everyone starts with character creation, giving you the option of generating base ability scores by differing roll methods, points buy, or a few sets of standard arrays to make things fast and easy (especially for new players). Continuing in the vein of keeping the game comprehensible for everyone, we come to skill points…or rather we don’t at all, because they have been completely removed. Skill points and saving throws have been retooled to save everyone time and headaches. Now both are handled through ability modifiers and a character’s “proficiency bonus.” Class, background, and race grant use of the proficiency bonus, which increases at certain levels, to certain skills, ability saving throws, and using equipment like a longsword or disguise kit. The three saving throws have been eliminated, base ability throws taking their place. Proficiencies are only different for armor, where lacking proficiency prohibits their use.
The racial list is largely the same as it has been, except for the inclusion of Tieflings and Dragonborn, possibly controversial additions that I believe add some worthwhile options to the existing list. Each race has the usual ability score bonuses (no penalties to limit class options) as well as darkvision and languages, but each also has extra abilities appropriate to the race. More importantly, many of them have subraces to further add customization and diversify the races. Elf players, for instance, can choose between high elf, wood elf, and (where games allow for such a decision) Drow. The differences are slight, but enough to make the subraces unique.
Classes have received a similar treatment, each providing several subclasses to increase options upon reaching higher levels. The class list includes the old standards as well as Warlocks, servants of one of several powerful patron entities who grant them their magic. While customization has been reduced with the removal of skill points and retooling of feats (which will be covered later), classes have been boiled down to their essential roles for ease of play and, more importantly, the true feeling each class is supposed to evoke. Rogues might not have as many varying thief skills, but their various options make any player feel like a sneaky, stabby, tricky bastard. Later on, the three class options specifically diverge for players more interested in being sneaky, stabby, or tricksy in their bastardry. While the mechanical backing of the game is never threatened (as in something like original Deadlands or Shadowrun, where each archetype has its own set of rules), each class feels distinct and unique. All of this succesfully bolsters ease of play, keeping the DM and players aware of their options without much effort.
Combat no longer requires miniatures, and it seems “theater of the mind” is the preferred method of play. Specific miniatures rules are saved for the Dungeon Master’s Guide for those interested. The system has been simplified as well, but let no one be foolish enough to believe that “simplified” means “dumbed down.” The bevy of options that previously bogged down combat have since been reduced to a few key action types. Every turn, you are limited to a move action (which may be broken up if you need to) and an action, such as an attack or whatever your DM believes makes sense. Throughout the round players make take a single reaction, such as an attack of opportunity, a bonus action granted by special abilities, and a free action like speaking or dropping an item.
The simplicity of the actions, as well as the removal of a lot of rough edges (attacks of opportunity, for instance, have been heavily streamlined), make combat more fast-paced and clear than ever. There is a clear list of actions that may be taken during combat and how to adjudicate them. In order to keep things creative, the advantage and disadvantage mechanics make it effortless to make encounters exciting and dynamic. Conditions influencing combat, such as poison, blindness, and cover have also been made as clear and simple to implement as possible without removing their mechanical flavor.
The equipment list has been slimmed down as well, removing many redundancies in previous editions. This is the place you are most likely to feel surprised at the reductions. There are only around twelve armor types in the game. The shield types have been reduced to the following: shield. +2 to AC. Those seeking to diversify their characters will have to do so by means of class and background choices. The truth is that this is not an enormous loss. Whatever need you have is filled, without an overabundance of minor modifiers. Trip nets and throwing javelins are as present as more typical weapon choices. Admittedly, one weapon is often really the only appropriate choice (rogues will use rapiers and…not much else), but there is nothing preventing the DM from modifying weapons to other types. To keep things creative, there is an extensive list of other useful dungeoneering items. From ball bearings to caltrops to pontoons, the creative player will enjoy perusing this list to find a key situational item.
Spells, which take up a substantial amount of the book, offer all the feel of old incantations with new options. This is definitely where most of the customization of the game comes in, especially because most of the classes have spellcasting options. Magic missile and wish are still key features, but there has also been a commitment to utility spells for out-of-combat encounters. Utility design is essential to foster player creativity and roleplay. These abilities, as well as backgrounds, keep characters from being mere combat engines. Players will make sure to attempt combat options and act in character instead of forging ahead as crazed murderhobos.
Feats are an optional inclusion that most games will be sure to incorporate due to the options they add to play. At every four levels a character can get two ability score points or choose to forego them for a feat. The significance of ability scores is crucial, so this is a powerful sacrifice. However, the options these feats offer may be well worth the loss. They are far more limited than the vast string of slight adjustments feats offered in previous editions, but even a single feat can make for bold new character options. Each of them contain new abilities that can inform character building. Some add flavor and depth to your character, making them a polyglot or inherent navigator, but most supplement character archetypes directly. Your tank can optimize his choices with the Shield Mastery feat, your wizard can wade into battle with the Battle Mage feat, and the arcane trickster can cast discretely with the Spell Sniper feat. Given their rarity and the high price they exact, I have trouble believing some of them will be chosen over others. The ability to learn multiple languages is useful and flavorful, but to my mind it does not compete with other feats; Luck, for example, allows free rerolls throughout the day to skyrocket the odds of success. This doesn’t make the feat system useless, so much as it makes some of them highly unlikely choices.
Dungeons and Dragons has returned to the top in the best way possible. This game is well designed, clean in presentation, and most importantly of all, extremely playable. Slimmed-down design makes for a game new players can jump into effortlessly, and experienced ones should be more than occupied with the options available. Moreover, the handbook shows love for its legacy. The adventure section goes far beyond explaining travel and survival rules. It devotes time to the great wheel and pantheons of old. It is far from a primer on D&D settings, leaving not much information for DMs to work with, but the show of good faith leaves me feeling hopeful for future releases.
Lots of love has been given to the series’ roots and history.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual are also necessary for a full game, making this product more of an investment than other games. That unfortunate fact may turn others away who prefer a single, complete product to be able to play. That said, this return to form shows the best in audience appreciation, design, and good old fashioned adventuring fun that RPGs can offer. This game is fun, simply put, and guaranteed to pull new players into the fold. Dungeons and Dragons is back, and this time it intends to stick around.
Published by Wizards of the Coast
Currently in print.