Dungeons & Dragons 5E
I and some other members of the Dungeon Crawlers Radio staff had the opportunity to beta test the new Dungeons & Dragons game. Thousands participated in the worldwide beta test and everyone had an impact on the end result. Now that it’s out, many of us geeks are excited to see what Wizards of the Coast has done with this decades old icon of a game. I had the opportunity to read over a copy of the new Player’s Handbook, and for this review, I am going to assume that you all know at least a little bit about D&D.
The Player’s Handbook , and the D&D 5th edition ruleset as a whole, feels very polished. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they focused on taking everything they had from previous editions and campaign settings, ran with it, refined it again, and so on. The downside to this is that there are areas where they just aren’t quite as ground-breaking as they could have been which leads to a few missed opportunities. At the same time, though, much of the book seems very familiar, with a lot of “oh, I see what you did there” moments. Some beta testers described the earlier editions as having something of a “Greatest Hits” feel, which does seem about right.
I’ll say it flat out: I love the art in this book. Since it’s a Player’s Handbook, most of the art focuses on the playable characters. It includes character portraits for different races and classes, a small sampling of famous characters (a certain Drow ranger, for instance), and some illustrations that I swear are from existing D&D minis.
This book does a much better job than previous editions for representing a wider range of character traits, such as more female characters, more heroes of color, etc. It’s not perfect by any means, but I appreciate that there’s a much wider range of inspirational art for showing truly what the range of characters should be.
It also relies on a number of art styles, while still mostly fitting together. There are more traditional character portraits, full page battle scenes, and sketches depicting different conditions. There are a few images that have that “computer generated” look to them (my chief complaint about early 4E art), but I think the art works here. I was actually expecting to see a more art influenced from previous editions, as well as some reused pieces, but I think the choices they made here result in a stronger presence.
I like the interior graphic design as well. It has a modern layout and “feel” similar to 4E that uses space and headings well, combined with some of the more “spellbook” background and flourishes prevalent throughout 3E. There is almost no wasted space, right up to the tiny font size used in the index at the end.
One of the first things I look for in D&D, and in most RPGs, is what all I can play. The available races in the Player’s Handbook are just about what you would have expected: dwarves, halflings, elves, and humans as base classes, each with their own sub-options such as the different flavors of elves. Also included are more uncommon racial options: dragonborn, tieflings, gnomes, half-orcs, and half-elves. (Bonus: non-gross backstory for Half-Orcs.) Most of the uncommon races have fewer options than the core races, since their niche often comes pre-defined. Each of the entries contains snippets from different D&D worlds, a good way to connect each one to the different D&D worlds of possibility.
Mechanically, the races work largely how you’re used to: they modify ability scores (with a lot more use of +2/+1 than before, but not all), and they give you some abilities to use such as darkvision and speed.
There are 12 base classes, each one having multiple sub-classes, some of which are very different from the main class (e.g. the spell-casting fighter). Each class gets a standard proficiency bonus used for attack rolls, skill checks, saving throws, etc. Every class also gets an ability score improvement every few levels, which you can swap out for feats instead.
Classes are each built with different abilities at certain levels, similar to the 3E model, and very different from the power-based advancement of 4E. There are a few features that classes share with each other, such as martial-style classes getting options for their fighting style, and spell-casting classes using similar mechanics for preparing their spells. There are no alignment restrictions, multi-classing restrictions by class, or other similar rules that were often house-ruled away.
It seems like Wizards developed a basic framework and then used it to design each of the classes. Nearly all the classes start out pretty vanilla, and then get their subclasses with customization options at 3rd level, except for the ones that have a much broader concept shift depending on those options. There’s also patterns to those subclasses themselves.
Here’s the rundown of each class, and their associated subclasses.
Big surprise: barbarians rage, which makes them extra good at killing things. Rages last exactly a minute (one of my personal pet peeves: a precise duration for a chaotic ability.) As they level up, they can rage more often each day, and they can do more rampaging activities as they do.
Barbarian sub-classes are called Primal Paths:
- Path of the Berserker: Do you want to be even angrier? Now you don’t just rage, you go into a frenzy.
- Path of the Totem Warrior: Channelers of animal spirits to gain aspects of that animal, choosing between bear, eagle, or wolf. But seriously, why would you ever choose anything other than bear? Bears are sweet.
They cast spells. They inspire others. They have a lot of skills. They do musicy things. The 5E bard hits all the high notes (I am the 2,754th person to use this joke) of previous editions, and the subclasses help narrow in on two of the bigger archetypes of barddom.
Bard sub-classes are Colleges:
- College of Lore: Focusing on the spell-casting side, and picking up more spells for your troubles (including more that are outside your class list.) It also gets the ever-popular Magic Yo Mamma Joke power.
- College of Valor: You’re a battlebard focusing on mixing it up on the battlefield while singing about how your allies are great.
The cleric continues its role of being the preeminent divine spellcaster, with some extra melee and spellcasting ability to boot. Carried over from 4E is one of my favorite implementations of divine abilities, Channel Divinity, which lumps in the classic Turn Undead with other useful divine powers.
One core cleric ability I want to highlight is this: at 10th level, a cleric can make an attempt to invoke a direct divine intervention, using a d100 roll under your level to see if it works. The effect is vaguely written on purpose, the only guideline being that a cleric spell would be appropriate. It’s one of the few core abilities that out and out calls for the DM to make a judgment call for effect, something largely absent since 3E.
The subclasses are domains, specifically asking you to choose one aspect of your deity that your cleric embodies. There’s an appendix that lists deities across the established D&D worlds, plus the old school real world-inspired religions including Celtic, Green, Norse, and Egyptian. Domains give you extra prepared spells, additional ways to use Channel Divinity, and other abilities unique to that domain.
The domains available are:
- Knowledge: Bonus skills, read minds and implant thoughts, and do some vaguely psionic-type things.
- Life: More healing, and more healing, oh, and here’s some more healing. I should point out that clerics don’t have some of the extra free healing they had in the past, but the spell preparation system makes that a lot easier to handle.
- Light: You really know how to light up a room. Also one of your domain spells is fireball.
- Nature: Charm animals and plants, endure the elements, throw some elemental energy around, and continue to have a lot of conceptual overlap with the druid.
- Tempest: Storm, sea, and sky, AKA I really want to throw lightning bolts around, which is hard to argue with.
- Trickery: Illusions, shadows, and charm spells. Their main ability in combat is to make illusory duplicates of themselves, which I wish had a little more rules guidance to it.
- War: In addition to martial weapon and heavy armor proficiency, they can also channel divinity to give a +10 bonus to hit AFTER a die is rolled. The frontline “cleric of selfish healing” is definitely getting a big comeback with this domain.
The druids start with spells, and pick up wild shape at second level, with a full column of rules about what it means to shape shift. There’s also an appendix detailing each animal that can be shifted into. My sense from reading the rules is that it stays a math-heavy process, so you’ll need to do a prep work beforehand to make it go quickly at the table.
Druids have often had the issue of whether they should be more spellcasters or shape shifters, so of course the subclasses (called Druid Circles) let you focus on one or the other.
- Circle of the Land: This is the spellcasting focus, with the hook being that the druid becomes tied to a type of terrain. Not only does this provide some bonus spells, it also has the ability to recharge spell slots mid-day to give extra spellcasting punch.
- Circle of the Moon: The wild shape ability improves, which allows more forms, makes it easier to shape shift, and lets you eventually transform into pure elements.
The fighter tends to be my litmus test in any edition of D&D, or any other game that looks like D&D. I love the archetype, and hate when it gets relegated to the guy who just runs up and hits things all the time. On the other hand, I know that style has its fans, including beginners who just need something simple.
WOTC’s answer is to give subclasses that represent both sides, plus an entirely different one I didn’t expect. All fighters select fighting styles that let them carve out what kind of setup they want, including “sword & board”, big weapon, archer, or defender type. They get non-magical self healing (gasp!), an action point-style surge, and extra attacks when they level. And while most classes get an ability score improvement (or feat) every 4 levels, fighters get even more, so it behooves you to make use of feats.
The subclasses are Martial Archetypes, and they all feel very different:
- Champion: This is your very basic fighter. They get several levels to improve their critical range. Overall they receive static bonuses to keep it going (including a continuous healing power later on), with their main combat options coming from the core fighter itself.
- Battle Master: This is the fighter I wanted, getting access to a menu of maneuvers powered by superiority dice. Maneuvers are similar to powers and let you turn superiority dice into various effects during battle. The battle master gets more of them as he levels up, and the dice get bigger.
- Eldritch Knight: The swordmage, a very popular character archetype, has never been available in an original Player’s Handbook before. The Eldritch Knight gives up improved critical hits and maneuvers to get a small selection of spells of up to 4th level from either the abjuration or evocation schools. Classes like this have historically suffered by only having access to certain spells that don’t scale well to increased threats, so time will tell if it proves useful.
The description of the monk starts out with a discussion of what ki is, and is the first class to use their own resource (ki points) to power class abilities. These kinds of resources are reminiscent of Iron Heroes (note the author of that) and allow for different powers to be weighted, so most abilities cost 1 point, more powerful abilities cost more points (especially relevant for the subclasses), and so on.
The core monk is closest to the 3rd edition version, with a hodgepodge of mystical and martial abilities such as unarmed attacks, extra attacks, and stunning attacks, as well as fast movement and arrow deflection.
The three monastic traditions are where the more kung-fu movie inspired names come from:
- Way of the Open Hand: Your martial arts expert subclass, which is the simplest one to play. It leads up to the Quivering Palm attack, AKA the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. For some reason, this ability includes a restriction to only use against creatures that stay on the same plane, because mystical death vibrations that can affect any creature CLEARLY can’t cross planar boundaries.
- Way of Shadow: I’m explicitly calling this out as the way of ninjas and shadowdancers, these monks focus on darkness and invisibility. This is one of those subclasses that seem primed to try and make it work with a multiclass, but seems a bit underwhelming on its own.
- Way of the Four Elements: Hadouken! Use ki to cast elemental spells, and abilities that are very spell-looking.
I think this quite sums up this conception of the Paladin: “Although many paladins are devoted to gods of good, a paladin’s power comes as much from a commitment to justice itself as it does from a god.”
The Paladin assembles martial abilities, divine spells, and their own abilities, largely no longer tied specifically to good or evil. For instance, Divine Sense replaces Detect Evil, and it registers the presences of celestials, fiends, and the undead specifically while ignoring the shifty Lawful/Evil bartender. Likewise, Divine Smite replaces Smite Evil, and is an all-purpose damage bump that hurts fiends and undead.
The three paladin subclasses are different Sacred Oaths, taking the classic paladin and expanding the possibilities a bit, while also folding in some variant class concepts. Each one gives Channel Divinity abilities, additional spell options, and other helpful abilities. Guidance is also provided for that particular oath’s code. The aspect that stands out to me overall is how different and complicated the paladin’s resource tracking is, which seems a bit disjointed from the other classes.
- Oath of Devotion: The most classic paladin of the bunch, this oath includes blessing weapons, turning evil, and protection spells.
- Oath of the Ancients: Called “Green Knights” or “Fey Knights” by the text, the paladin oath has a nature warrior aspect to it, and seems pretty new.
- Oath of Vengeance: Explicitly called “avengers,” the oath focuses on punishing wrongdoers. The 4E avenger concept was one of my favorites, and this folds in that with a bit of the flavor of the older “anti-paladin” type avengers without going evil with it.
The ranger is built a bit like the paladin under the hood, combining fighter style options (archery and two-weapon fighting, for example) and spell-casting along with a few other nature-based and travel benefits. The Favored Enemy ability now only gives a bonus to either find or recall their favored enemy type, and they get a similar feature for specific terrain.
There are two Archetypes for rangers:
- Hunter: You’re better at killing things. There’s some background about how you’re better at hunting certain creatures to justify it, but this seems at first glance like a much stronger option.
- Beast Master: You have an animal companion, chosen from the ones in the appendix. It takes your action to command the animal for the more useful actions until you reach the higher levels.
The rogue is right out of its 3E-defined playbook, where the sneak attack feature became its primary focus. Sneak attack damage goes up every other level, and now is triggered by either attacking with an ally or possessing advantage. They’re still the best at skills, but aren’t necessarily better at finding traps, opening locks, or other traditionally rogue-ish activities.
Rogueish Archetypes include:
- Thief: …And this is where those kinds of abilities come in. Bonuses to stealth, sleight of hand, using magic devices, and so on.
- Assassin: Gives bonuses to getting the drop on the enemy. Also allows you to create faux identities in different areas. Mix this with the shadow monks and you have the real ninjas. And I know something about REAL ninjas.
- Arcane Tricker: Another popular archetype that makes its first appearance as a PHB class, mixing spells in with rogue abilities plus an extra wacky mage hand.
Sorcerers in 3E relied on their flexibility to distinguish them from the wizard’s strict spell preparation requirement. However, with the more flexible spellcasting system in 5E, that wasn’t going to work this time. Instead, the sorcerer is defined by its sorcerous origins like in 4E, choosing between the Draconic Bloodline or Wild Magic subclasses at first level.
The flexibility of the sorcerer is represented primarily by their pool of Sorcery Points, which can be used for all kinds of magical effects. Essentially, the sorcerer can use them in exchange for casting more spells. They can also be channeled into metamagic abilities, like empowering spells, extending spells, or even forking spells to multiple targets.
- Draconic Bloodline: Choose a color of dragon to be your ancestor. Gain some elemental affinities related to that dragon, and eventually grow some wings.
- Wild Magic: An old favorite of mine, complete with d100 wild magic surge table. If you like random effects, this is the class for you because you’ll gain some abilities to manipulate dice.
The warlock is even further along the spellcasting flexibility spectrum. He doesn’t know many spells, but he can re-cast his cantrips with a bit more edge, and can be further enhanced by a number of “invocations.”
At 1st level, the warlock chooses an otherworldly patron, and at third level, chooses a pact boon. The otherworldly patron determines extra features gained at each level, and the pact boon determines how you do your warlockin’: either through a summoned creature, a blade, or more spells. There are many possible builds here, and most of the 4E options are represented in various ways.
The otherworldly patrons you can choose from are:
- The Archfey: Forging a bond with an ancient faerie entity, featuring beguiling and teleporting.
- The Fiend: Signing a pact with a powerful demon or devil gives you temporary hit points when you kill something, manipulates dice rolls, and tosses your enemies into hell itself.
- The Great Old One: The ever-popular Cthulhu-worshiping class, which even offers him by name as a possible patron. Read thoughts, dominate minds, and throw some entropy around.
The wizard’s main feature is using the new preparation/spell slot system, with the ability to regain some spell slots mid-day by taking a short rest. Wizards also get ritual casting, further cementing them as the caster with the broadest range of utility options.
Each of the classic schools of magic is its own subclass. There are too many to list here, but if you are familiar with the schools from previous editions, you should have a good idea. However, the system is still different from previous versions. Each subclass has a suite of abilities that relate to that school of magic: enchanters get more charm abilities, necromancers are better with the dead, illusionists make better illusions, and so on.
Other Character Details
Backgrounds & Inspiration
Backgrounds are a version of the “3rd pillar” of character creation, giving another foundation beyond race and class. Mechanically, backgrounds provide a social benefit, an extra training of two skills, and one or more tools. They also provide a set of roleplaying hooks, including personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. They aren’t just for color, either. The Inspiration mechanic allows the players to gain Advantage on a future role if they role-play one of these in an exceptional way. This seems like D&D embracing, at least partially, a core component of other systems such as Fate, Cortex Plus, etc. where the actually “role”-playing your character is directly rewarded. Inspiration is not tied in to any other areas that I can tell, so if you don’t like that kind of thing, it seems pretty easy to remove or tweak.
Backgrounds open up a number possible campaign concepts. For instance, you could say that everyone must take the Soldier background, and everyone starts in the military, or everyone takes the Sailor/Pirate background. Or you could just as easily run the all-wizard (academy) or all-bard (traveling band) campaign, with backgrounds providing that extra bit of differentiation.
No surprises here, the “gold-metric system” makes a comeback with its 10:1 exchange rates, except for electrum, which sits in the middle of gold and silver. Some aspects are cleaned up a bit (there is only one kind of shield, for instance) while others use similar tags to describe weapons you’re probably used to by now.
One new feature is the tool section, where proficiency in tools grants a bonus to certain kinds of activities. It took me a bit to realize this, but this is actually a subtle way to reintroduce 3E skills like Perform, Craft, etc., without actually making them into skills that would probably just go unused. If you have proficiency in at tool, such as Thieves’ Tools, you get a bonus when taking certain actions with those tools, such as disarming traps or opening locks. This means you don’t have to give up, say, an Alertness skill point just to be able to play the banjo. You also have a new D&D insult to call your friends: “You’re a tool bonus!”
Feats are greatly simplified and expanded, and optionally replace your ability score improvements that you receive every 4 levels. This means that most, if not all, classes will have to go without any feats until at least 4th level. Previous editions required multiple feats in order to be good at particular abilities, such as two-weapon fighting, often overlapping with feats granted by classes. Now you just take a feat called “dual wielder” and it grants you three useful abilities for fighting with two-weapons all at once.
There are 30 feats in all, and most are satisfying as character-defining options, but some are still weak (I’m looking at you, Medium Armor Master). After being punished so many times by having to take a pile of feats to be a crossbow-wielder, I’m glad to see that Crossbow Expert is already here.
Skills, Saving Throws, & Ability Checks
Ability scores are king in this edition. Saving throws and skills are closely tied to them, as well as the proficiency bonus that classes get for leveling. All six ability scores now have their own saving throw, and the ones historically associated with saving throws are used much more often in the spell section. Reflexes are mostly based on Dexterity, Will is mostly Wisdom, and Fortitude is mostly Constitution.
The skills list is almost the same here as in 4E, but they now explicitly fall under their associated ability score. This creates less of a gap between the trained and untrained stills, and also makes them easier to calculate on the fly. Skills each get a brief write-up under their associated ability score, along with some notes about common situations like group skill checks, aiding other, and using different ability scores with skills than the default. Skills are defined simply enough that swapping out another system, like Backgrounds from 13th Age, would be pretty simple.
Without getting too much into the nitty-gritty, combat works on the same basic principles it has for a long time: see bad guys, roll initiative, go in order, and take actions. Your turn consists of a move and an action. During your move, you move your speed, which you can split up (e.g. move, attack, move again). Your action will usually be an attack or a spell, but could also be a dash, disengage, dodge, help [another], hide, ready, search, or use an object. During either your move or your action, you also get one free “interact with something” opportunity, which could be drawing or sheathing a weapon, or opening or closing a door. Finally, you may also have a bonus action during your turn, and a reaction out of turn, either of which can be granted by other abilities or conditions. This mechanic keeps the essence of the standard/move/minor mechanic while being a bit more manageable.
Speaking of being more manageable, there is now only one action that provokes an opportunity attack: leaving a creature’s reach. There are also far fewer abilities that actually interact with opportunity attacks.
Other bits that caught my eye:
- There are three kinds of cover, which is one too many for me.
- Resistance and vulnerability are as simple as they’ve been in a while: either take half damage, or take double damage. That’s it.
- No more negative HP, which makes more sense than the “healing starts from 0″ rule.
- The combat chapter is very short.
The spellcasting section is especially important because there is now only ONE class, the barbarian, which does not have any spellcasting ability once you include the subclasses.
I haven’t been paying close attention to the different variations of the spellcasting system, especially because “Vancian” [memorization-based] spellcasting has never been my favorite. Too many situations I wasn’t happy with. I am thus pleasantly surprised that this spellcasting system, which each spellcaster uses roughly the same way, is so solid.
Spellcasters prepare a number of spells at the start of a day as determined by their class. This forms their “menu” of options that they can cast during that day. Some classes just know a smaller set of spells and ignore preparation entirely.
Each class has a certain number of spell slots that they can use to cast their spells, but these spell slots are not fixed to a particular spell after a long rest. A 1st level spell takes a 1st level spell slot, and that’s it. No more figuring out how many fireballs to memorize in a given day. You just choose fireball, and as long as you have 3rd level slots or higher, you can keep throwing them as often as you have slots. You can even expend higher level slots on some lower level spells for greater effect. This is almost unbelievable to me because solves so many of my issues with spellcasting in other editions.
Utility spells also get a boost since many of them have a Ritual property that allows them to be cast without being prepared in advance. Rituals were one of my favorite aspects of 4E that didn’t get explored enough, and this system means that those kinds of spells will get used without having to sacrifice an extra fireball. It makes wizards feel more wizardy, and that’s a good thing.
So yeah, I’m a fan, for the most part. Some aspects came forward that I don’t have a strong attachment to, such as the five different areas of effect, the verbal/somatic/material components, and fixed spell ranges. But that’s personal taste, and is pretty easy to ignore most of the time.
Appendixes & Modularity
The back of the book contains a few appendixes: conditions (which are used sparingly overall), lists of gods and their domains, the planes of existence (which cover both the old great ring and newer planes), some basic animal stats, and inspirational reading.
One of the aspects of this version of D&D most touted leading up to launch was its modularity. This is the player’s book, and so it’s kind of modularity is to provide players different options. There’s only a few parts that stand out as broader campaign decisions: the small sidebar on using a map and grid to play, and using feats. I think it’s clear overall though that there really is one core set of rules that you’re expected to use, feats and all, with only a few suggestions of what’s easy to ignore and change.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide in November will probably be the place where you see more of the modularity in action. These are the new rules for D&D, make no mistake.
Playing it Safe
In the first paragraph of this review, I mentioned that I was going to assume that you, re reader, were already familiar with D&D. Why? Because that is what this book does too.
The organization and content of the book will be much more accessible to readers who have already played D&D before. It purposely leaves some gaps and encourages you to fill them in based on your experiences playing the game. It features a wide breadth of choices, which may be great for veteran players, but they may be overwhelming for a new player. There were so many times I found myself thinking, “As you might expect…” as I wrote this review because it’s hammering hard on having elements that you remember from classic D&D, and not so much in making a lot of new choices and surprises.
That’s not to say there aren’t any surprises or genuinely clever design choices because it’s all over the place. The refined spellcasting system definitely takes risks and took a while to develop, and comes out all the better for it. And Eldritch Knights, Dragonborn, and Wild Mages all push some boundaries of what some consider “base” D&D. There are places I wish it had taken some more chances, such as not using the six saving throws to their fullest, and having the barbarian’s rage at exactly 1 minute long, but those are probably pretty minor.
Now, I don’t want this to be taken as a negative. This is supposed to be the D&D Greatest Hits album, and just from looking at the PHB, I’d say it succeeds. The front cover of the book stakes the claim as “the world’s greatest roleplaying game.” This book is deceptively packed with generations of D&D melded into one coherent game. It knows its audience: D&D players. It doesn’t push a lot of boundaries, and leaves plenty of room to adapt and cross-pollinate with other game systems to make your best game. It is a game that I am excited to play, and I hope to run a campaign as soon as possible. And for that alone, I recommend it.
Wizards of the Coast provided a complimentary copy of the book for review purposes.