D&D 5th: first impressions

August 24, 2014 at 1:03 pm
filed under Roleplaying
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Somehow D&D 5E, née D&D Next, snuck up on me. Really, I hadn’t much intention of picking it up. Some of the rumors I’d heard put me off, and I’d more or less fallen out of love with roleplaying. (We grew apart, you see.)

Just as a note, if you’re curious, you can get most of the rules (“basic rules”) for free from Wizards’ site. The PHB has the most core of the core classes — fighter, cleric, rogue, wizard, with one archetype each — and the DMG contains information about encounters plus a long list of monsters. If you buy the PHB, this seems like it’s enough to play even though the DMG doesn’t come out until November, after the Monster Manual.

When a friend picked up the 5E PHB and posted about it, I just couldn’t resist. This is D&D we’re talking about. White Wolf might have been my favorite. D&D was how I started. In a sense that’s almost as important. It’s not simple nostalgia— nostalgia is undeniably a factor, but it’s not the sole or even primary appeal.

D&D satisfies the kid in me, who makes up games and does make believe with swords. It’s playful. It also satisfies the adult in me who appreciates complexity and choice.

My wife loves D&D, too. She discovered it later in life than I did. Whereas I started as a freshman in high school, she played in a pick-up “tournament” in college, where people died glorious and/or hilarious deaths en-masse. She’s been hooked ever since. Whereas I’ve always preferred spellcasters or light fighters, she’s gone in for barbarians and fighters. And dwarves or half-orcs.

Rolling dice to kill things and take their stuff appeals to her bloodthirsty nature, I suppose.

So it happened that my wife and I took our six month old son to the gaming store. It had been at least a year since my wife and I had visited, on account of having moved in 2011 and my interest in RPGs having waned. It was his first trip, so we commemorated it with his first (jumbo-sized) d20. 5E had sold through two shipments, apparently, and another one wasn’t due until the next day. We returned on Friday to acquire a copy of 5E.

I’ve pawed through it with an axe to grind to answer lingering questions and satisfy my curiosity, but I haven’t read it cover to cover yet. Here are my brief impressions so far.


WotC has been paying attention to Pathfinder while avoiding the same pitfalls. 5E doesn’t look like 4E, but in spirit it reads like 4E. Whereas Pathfinder and 3.x requires abilities to even out to +0, 5E carries forward the idea that everyone gets +2. And they avoided a ton of complexity in favor of elegance. 4E was heavyweight in many respects. However, when it came to weapons, feats, skills, actions, DCs, and so on, it was fairly elegant. 5E uses a lot of that wholesale.

Another example would be short rests and long rests. Some powers “recharge” after a short or long rest. You heal completely after a long rest rather than– what, your hit die plus Con as it was in 3rd? And characters can “heal” themselves with a system similar to healing surges (“hit dice”). Healing spells are orthogonal.

Spell memorization is back. I’m still not happy but the implementation is good. I don’t think there’s a way I could really love it, so let’s say that it’s good enough for me. Instead of guessing, at the beginning of the day, what will be useful and erring on the side of the best combat-oriented spells, you make a list of spells you “reserve the right” to cast throughout the day. Only at casting time do you “spend” a spell slot. You can up-slot spells, and some are more powerful when you do.

I will miss a lot of the 4E classes. The matrix of role vs power source was perhaps a bit too obviously game-y for some people, but to me it wasn’t interesting in itself. It was what it implied. What does a martial leader look like? A divine striker? An arcane defender? Powers were simultaneously restricting and liberating. Attack rolls based on Wisdom? Constitution? Powerful attacks predicated on a weapon with otherwise uninteresting properties? These were all doable. They may show up again. Arguably classes in 5E are “cheaper” in that you don’t need to provide an exhaustive list of powers for a class.

The class list in the PHB is, of course, much like 3E’s. It was a bit disappointing and a bit pleasing to see all the old 3E classes there. It’s been 14 years since 3E, so maybe nostalgia will win out on this one.

I worried that with the absence of powers for “martial” classes would revert the world to 3E-style boredom. I still worry. You pick a fighting style and you get various perks evocative of the class, plus perks you accrue from your archetype. They’re a lot like 2nd Edition kits if they had been essential. It’s a damn sight better than 3E, which relied heavily on feats. I’ll have to give it a chance.

I don’t know how magic items work in 5E, but it’s clear that 4E is nowhere to be seen here. I’m not sad about that. It didn’t bother me so much to see the obvious items commodified— weapons with cool tricks, amulets with passive bonuses, and so on. In some ways, these items were more intriguing and evocative than a lot of 3E items, just because their mechanics were often quite elegant. The game didn’t prohibit items that didn’t fit, but those long lists of orange items certainly crowded out some of the less mechanically obvious items.

Gnomes are back in the core book. Dammit.

For some reason, the DMG isn’t going to come out until after the Monster Manual. This strikes me as odd, but the


All in all, this is probably the edition which would have pleased more people had it come out as 4E. Personally, rather than regret 4E, I mourn it. But this does seem like a step in the right direction. I’m relieved this is more like a 3E/4E hybrid than another iteration on the 3.x model.

What’s holding me back from playing is my usual RPG apathy. And the fact that I have a baby now. Video games are an easier fit for my life presently.

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