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D&D 5E PHB Review
Review: Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition PHB

 “I am the dungeon master, your guide through the world of Dungeons & Dragons…”   These words that brought to my attention the realms of the Dungeons & Dragons Pen and Paper Role Playing Game over 30 years ago, and today I have the opportunity to review the 5th edition of the worlds most recognized RPG.  Dungeons & Dragons has been the archetype of role playing games since its inception.  Sadly, the game lost some of its draw with the release of the 4th edition.  RPG games had become more the realm of computers and consoles, and the king of the electronic MMORPG’s--World of Warcraft, has claimed that it will reach 100 million subscribers globally by the end of 2014.  In Dungeons & Dragons 4th Ed, Wizards of the Coast appeared to be trying to appeal to the online MMO crowd.

Some Characteristics of the Previous (4th) Edition

  • The game was an entirely new system, holding only a few mechanics and an broadly modified terms from its preceding incarnations.

  • As with MMORPG games they broke the classes into ‘Roles’, on line the roles include Tanks, Damage (DPS), Healing and Control/Support.  4th Edition took this approach by creating Defenders, Strikers, Leaders, and Controllers

  • In MMORPG’s your powers (spells, attacks, special abilities) recharge at set rates of speed, while they may or may not require a resource to fuel them - that resource is also usually quick to regenerate.  4th Edition eliminated the time consuming and tactical nature of spell selection and regaining spells by introducing powers that have fixed use/recharge; at will, per encounter, daily, and utility(out of combat).

  • An on line game wants creation and concept to be quick - fairly uniform and with minimal true deviations from the ‘Paths’ that a given class is aligned to… In emulating this the 4th Edition eliminated the many and interesting ways characters could be customized and made unique.

  • Combat is a core focus, and takes much longer to resolve than in most prior editions,  The use of a battle-grid and miniatures is part of the core rules, so integrated that movement and ranges of powers were given in squares rather than actual measures of distance (Feet, Meters)

  • Another hallmark of D&D 4th edition was the primacy of their subscription based online tools, particularly an online character builder that integrates content from all the supplements and plans to create a "virtual tabletop" as well.

Most gamers are as divided by a preference for a specific edition of the system, and clearly my comments do not speak fondly of the 4th edition, a sentiment clearly shared, during the era of D&D 4th Ed. a product based on the Open Gaming Licence content of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 named Pathfinder took the crown of the Pen and Paper RPG Kingdom.  From the fusion of distant past, 4th edition inspirations and player sourced new ideas it’s pretty clear to that Wizards is now hoping this new version will call the faithful home, and reunify the version factions.


Exploring the New Realm of Dungeons & Dragons

It takes a long time to fully understand the inner workings of a new roleplaying game. Even as someone who followed the two year playtest (D&D Next), I know that D&D 5th Edition runs differently at the table then 4th, and very differently than the playtest.  Thanks to the active participation of over 175,000 playtesters delivering feedback, ideas, and suggestions, even the final release of playtest materials were very different from what I saw in the early playtest downloads.

There is a lot more emphasis on story and role in this edition of the game including Personality Characteristics which feed into one of the new mechanics, Inspiration. Inspiration allows the game master & other players to reward you with an advantage for playing up to your backstory, flaws and goals.  An increased focus on non-mechanical backgrounds and personalities, and "feel" rather than "legalism." with far less need for tables and charts of rulings and far more attention to creating a story, and and adventure that brings people together.


Inclusivity at the heart of the system

Another part of allowing more diversity in both in creating and playing your characters is the elimination of Gender from the character sheet, and from having a rules specific influence.  They invite the GM and Player to decide what roles and expectations their world will have as regards gender, sexuality, and it goes as progressively far as to state that players “don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender” a considerable change from the traditional view held about RPG and non-heteronormative men and women.

The Nine Alignments make a return, thankfully not the limited 3 that were presented during the playtest, and a great improvement over the 5 given in 4th edition.  Additionally the ‘True Neutral’ alignment is more akin to 4th edition's 'unaligned,' which means you are not one who considers moral quandaries, and instead does what seems best in the moment.  The traditional True Neutral, where you held to the precariously small place directly in the center of Order, Chaos, Goodness, and Foul Evil, was at best impossible to play, and philosophically unable to make any decision of impact.  Unless you have helped yourself to a serving of the Starter Set, you will probably begin your journey at Character Creation.


Ethnic Diversity In 5th Edition

5e returns to it’s roots as far as core races, Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling are highlighted as the primary 4 races present in the gaming world. It also includes sub-races for the non-human core, and 5 uncommon races; the Dragonborn, Gnome, and Tiefling and the culture crossed Half-Elf and Half-Orc races born of mixed human and demihuman parentage.

The racial descriptions are brief, and descriptive, explaining the traits and traditions of each race, and variations for the 3 demihuman primary races.  Each race is preceded by excerpts from one of the many books set in a D&D game world, and the artwork is exceptional, and far better in many regards to any prior edition.


A Class System

The 10 classes in 4E return with the absence of the Warlord and the addition of the Barbarian, Bard and Sorcerer.  The classes are better balanced to maintain balance between different classes, while giving each a niche or two where they will shine.  Gone are the Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies, and in their place is a system that allows you to make a more personalized character, where their background matters, and the ability for each class to choose some archetype within its first 3 levels, that guides and improves it in thematically appropriate ways.  Welcome is the return of multiclassing, and the ability to better customize your character without destroying the functionality of both classes.

Each class begins with a Quick Build guide, a review of the class features Equipment that your class would start with, and descriptions of the various Archetypes (Primal Paths for Barbarians, Colleges for Bards, Divine Domains for Clerics, Druid Circles, Wizard Traditions, Monastic Traditions for Monks, and Sacred Oaths for Paladins)


Backgrounds, because everyone comes from somewhere

Backgrounds give the characters some of their starting equipment, possibly languages and additional proficiencies, as well as suggested (and random tables) for personality characteristics to inform playing the role of your character.  Backgrounds will also have a Feature that provides some tangible in game benefit to the character and his companions.  This harkens back to the secondary skills and professions of AD&D and AD&D 2E.  Some of the backgrounds have a variant, such as Sailor offering you the optional variant of Pirate.  Reading on into the equipment section of the book gives you information on each characters random Trinket, a starting item that can be worked into their background, and usually will bear some air of mystery.


Customization Options

Multiclassing and Feats, as well as leveling are discussed in this final chapter of Part 1.  5E brings back Feats that have impact and allow you to better customize your character, more powerful than many feats in 3.5. These are opportunities to represent a talent or expertise your character has, but cost you one of your ability score improvements.


System Mechanics

Dungeons & Dragons 5E also returns to the AD&D emphasis on the six ability scores above all else.  Skills have all been bundled into proficiencies, and come as a part of your character creation decisions, and are all tied to the relevant statistics (and level based proficiency modifier)  Skills do not exclude or penalize their use by one not proficient, for example anyone can make an attempt at stealth by rolling a dexterity check, but a rogue, or someone who’s background was that of an urchin is particularly good at being sneaky and therefore adds their proficiency modifier.  The skill of Insight (or Spot, Listen and Search for 3.5E) is rolled into perception,

The rule system is based around an ethos of rulings and common sense not rules. Rule modularity is a key element of the system, and each of your ability scores is used in saving throws, and in the determining of Advantage and Disadvantage.  When a character has Advantage or Disadvantage they roll two D20 instead of one, in advantage they keep the superior roll, in disadvantage they are stuck with the lesser roll.


Magic Old and New - and all better…

Spell casters no longer have to fear the use of low level spells as they face more powerful foes - your proficiency bonus makes that Bane or Burning Hands just as hard to fight off as a 10th level caster against a CR10 foe as it was when you were a 3rd level caster against CR3 enemies.  And using a low level spell in a higher level slot now frequently carries a bonus to damage/healing or effect.

One benefit of this change is well appreciated by healers, who no longer have to learn Cure XYZ wounds, the 1st level Cure Wounds spell scales adding an additional D8 of healing for each spell slot above 1st that it is cast using. Another feature in this vein of thought are spells with variable effects, for example the 4 infamous hand spells of the wizard Bigby are now combined into one spell, again making more space for diversity by consolidating these spells into one master spell.

One of the positive aspects of 4th edition - Ritual Magic remains in a more versatile format.  Spells designated as rituals can be cast in combat using a slot, or out of combat as a ritual by expending time, rather than spell slots.  Additionally a character who is not a spell caster by trade but who perhaps is a Warior Scholar, or has the Acolyte or Sage background might decide to take the Feat Ritual Magic User (Cleric) or Ritual Magic User (Mage) enabling them to cast spells outside combat such as Alarm, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, or Rary’s Telepathic Bond - useful to any adventurer.

Multiclassed spell casters determine the spells known and prepared based on each class, but their spells slots are determined by aggregate level,  often making available slots higher then you have the ability to cast (but now that spells can scale by casting from a higher slot - this is a useful feature.


Bounded Accuracy

Rather then try and explain myself, I will instead simply provide the words of the developers:

"Bounded accuracy means your attack bonus/defenses don't automatically increase with level (and thus force monster attacks/defenses to also increase with level).  In theory, bounded accuracy lets you take a monster (say, an orc) and pit him against pretty much any level of hero, knowing that the monster will still have a decent chance to hit and dodge.

To go along with this, magic weapons and armor typically won't give more than a +1, with +3 being the cap and representing things of artifact power.  That way, they can still have an impact (a +1 is still a +1) without causing a large imbalance.

Your stats [do not] have any affect on accuracy.  Accuracy would purely be a function of your class.  So, for example, a 1st level Fighter might have a +6 with weapon attacks (and +0 for spells), while a 1st level Wizard might have a +2 with weapon attacks and a +6 with spell attacks.

Your stats still determine damage bonus, and so a Fighter with a 20 strength still has an edge over one with a 16 strength (just not a 10% increase to accuracy on top of the +2 to damage).  That Belt of Storm Giant Strength is still a mighty item, as it gives you +4 to damage and the ability to lift incredibly heavy objects."

This makes sense given the idea of bounded accuracy: players would be more free to make non-standard characters (halfling fighter, half-orc wizard, etc) without worrying that they will hit less often (hitting less is way more painful than dealing less damage).

I LOVE this… No more item stacking and ability maximization to the end of players having a double digit bonus to hit because of creative interpretation of the rules.


Changes for the Better in my Opinion:

1. No more healing surges.  As powers were intended to make adventuring less limited, healing surges were a limiting factor on play, as each character could only be healed a certain number of times between long rests (until high level powers became available) each healing a character 25% of their maximum hit points.

2. ‘Powers’ are no longer the basis of magic, spell lists, spell progression and depending on your class - limits on the spells you know are back, but better than ever before (more on that later)

3. The return to a more traditional view of Feats, and real Multitasking instead of using feats to gain access to, and exchange powers from your class for those of another.

4. Classes are more versatile, instead of climbing to level 10 just to differentiate yourself you can multiclass (dedicating experience to a second, or third class) and each class has an Archetype that it may follow beginning at 3rd level.

5. As you raise in level you gain a proficiency bonus, this applies to the skills of your class, Ability checks, Saving throws and Attack Rolls.  It makes a higher level spell casters spells harder to resist, and easier to hit with for example.

6. There are no more Minions, Solos and Elites.  Creatures have a Challenge Rating compared against the party that tells you if they will be a cakewalk (minion) or a hard fight (elite)

Places to pay close attention if you are an experienced gamer:

1. Spend some time reading up on the spell system in D&D 5e. It's very different than 4e, and easy to mistake as being the same as 3/3.5e, and it's used a lot in this edition of D&D.

2. Turns in combat happen faster than you and your players might expect. certainly faster than they did in 4e, or at high levels in 3.5.

3. Because combat is fast, you need to plan your sessions for exploration and roleplaying. Be prepared with more material for interesting NPCs and adventure locations.


In Summary

D&D is back! And I like what I see. I can tell you based on the players handbook; I plan to buy into the system.  The focus on role play rather than roll play brings the attention back to story, and the elimination of grids, on line tools and power cards with a polyglot of Key Words allows the game to return to it’s proper venue, the Theater of the Minds Eye.

The Players handbook is detailed and yet focuses on a comprehensible system of gaming clearly designed for new players to grasp quickly, but still rich with detail and color. References to classic D&D Worlds such as The Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Sigil the City of Doors, Dragonlance and Eberron give the promise of revisiting favorite locals.  The inclusion of not only the pantheons of these lands (and the human cultures of the Forgotten Realms) as well as the godly pantheons of many real-world historical pantheons gives both a great start and a cultural nod.

These rules are elegant, simple to explain, and easy to understand, the developers have forged an excellent fusion of old and new, straightforward and fairly easily comprehensible. Gone are the delineated Free Move, Minor, Swift and Standard actions on each turn, replaced with simplified Move and Action rules that will be very familiar to players of D&D prior to 2008. The math is simple again, with only a few modifiers being added to most rolls, and very few of those relying on things external to the character or monster and therefore requiring an extra step of thought.

Although I mentioned it earlier, I feel that these four sentences need to be recognized for their value in bringing gaming out of the dark ages that we fantasize in the game.

"You don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon's image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide."

There have been hundreds of Facebook posts and Tweets about this paragraph expressing gratitude and relief at its inclusion. Stories of people who wanted to play homosexual or transgendered characters only to be told “Those don’t exist in Forgotten Realms/Greyhawk/etc.”

I recognize that there has been a huge issue in gaming culture involving gender issues and gaming.  As a non-heteronormative individual I applaud the sensitivity and acknowledgement of the writers and publishers of this game in recognizing that while there has never been (I own ever edition of D&D printed) a specific discussion of sexuality, non-binary gender (except for a bit in the AD&D 1st Printing of Deities and Demigods) or rules that barred them, this statement makes it clear that in the future if someone says “Those don't exist!” the issue is their issue - not the games.  It is a RULE in D&D that heteronormativity is NOT the rule and that everyone is welcome. This is an amazing thing and I agree with many others that Wizards of the Coast has earned praised for taking up valuable print real estate making it clear.

As I said I am glad that I have my copy of the D&D PLAYERS HANDBOOK 5th Edition, and I look forward to getting the MONSTER MANUAL on September 19*, and the DUNGEON MASTER’S GUIDE on November 7* at Phoenix Comics and Games, I hope to see you there.

Ismael 'Izzy' Gerena  -  Storyteller, GM and Role Player for more then 3 decades...

* Note from Editor - Phoenix is an advanced plus level WPN retailer and receives our product early according to Wizard's Early Release Date Schedule.


5 Responses

  1. While I know D&D has been getting a lot of attention for the paragraph they printed regarding inclusiveness and diversity, such is not new to the hobby. Pathfinder has had a policy of being inclusive of LGBTQ characters and players for years. Check out this list of just 50 of them since Pathfinder started. So I think it's nice to point out that D&D 5e is adding this to their game, I do think placing it within the context of where the industry is already going is important.

    Full disclosure: I am a Paizo employee, and am thus biased, but I do feel that it's only fair to note that D&D is not the first nor only RPG system to address the issue.

  2. Brendan Leber says:

    I have been reading the PHB I picked up from Phoenix (Thanks guys!) and I have to say I'm excited to play D&D in a way I haven't been in a very long time. These new rules bring back the core of the game I loved so much with a welcome update to some of the crufty edges of the 2nd Edition rules.

  3. Local Gamer says:

    I'm legitimately stoked for 5th Edition and I'm glad you've had a positive response to it. I am sad that you had to start your review with a bunch of inflammatory stuff about 4th. I know it's controversial but we're never going to get past the Edition Wars as a community unless we stop using the same tired talking points over and over again to discuss this stuff. Let's be friends. I'm really, really tired of trying to convince people 4th was not an MMO. Let's talk about how cool 5th is instead!

  4. Steve says:

    I read the developer comment on Bounded Accuracy you included and was pumped to see they had taken away ability bonuses from the to hit roll. Unfortunately, page 194 of the PHB does state the ability bonus is included as part of the attack roll. Now I'm a little disappointed but I'm still keeping an open mind regarding the rest of the system.

    • Jon says:

      Yes ability scores are added to attack rolls and skill checks, but at least regular ability score increases are capped at 20 with a bonus of +5. It puts a bit more emphasis on ability scores, similar to attacks and non-weapon proficiencies in 2nd edition, but without the ridiculous bonuses you can get in 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder.