Thoughts On... Dungeons & Dragons (5e) Basic Rules

Type of Hobby: Roleplaying Game
Number of Players: 3+
Authors: Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford et al
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Price: Free

D&D - Reincarnated or Resurrected?

So, six years later, here we are again. And I mean that both figuratively and literally, for this edition of Dungeons and Dragons is both brand new and everything we knew. It's also free, in a basic set of rules that anyone can download. This is a smart move, I think; I know a lot of people have been on the fence, or even outright hostile, about this edition and letting people just look at what things are going to be like for free will at least let Wizards of the Coast put their hand on the table. So, go on, download them, have a flick through. You might like what you see!

What you'll find is an edition that has gone right back to AD&D 2nd Edition for inspiration, whilst in many ways being almost a complete revert back to the 3rd Edition. Aside from a few little touches, 5th almost completely ignores 4th Edition, giving it no legacy at all. That isn't to say that there are no modern features, but this is a game steeped in nostalgia.

I'll try to reference my current love, 13th Age, as little as possible, but in some places comparison between these two contemporaries is inevitable.

A Lot of Character

Character creation is largely incredibly familiar and full of surprising amounts of detail despite being a set of 'basic' rules. You see this immediately in the writeups for the races. There are only four in this document, the stalwarts of humans, dwarves, elves and halflings, but there's a lot to get your teeth into. Physical descriptions, descriptions of culture; there are even descriptions of how each race views the others. There's more to get your teeth into here in this basic document than there is in the entire 4th Edition or 13th Age core book. This is a game that desperately wants to reclaim the title of roleplaying game.

Still, I actually think there might be a little too much detail here, having five or more things you need to keep track of just for your race could lead to a little too much bookkeeping, or at least things being forgotten at the table. In most cases I love detail, but there's a lot of mechanics attached to these races.

The classes (fighter, cleric, rogue, wizard) are also very classic feeling and offer few surprises to D&D veterans. There's a nice customisation option available to each class, allowing you to take each one down a specific path (martial archetypes and arcane traditions, for example). It's nice to see each class have different options, but this does feel a bit limiting and reminiscent of the worst parts of 4th editions class builds. I'd like to see more mix and match abilities, like the talents in 13th Age, so that you can truly make your character your own.

I initially had some concerns that we had returned to the bad old days of the all powerful spellcaster, but a quick look at the math suggests to me that a fighter or rogue should be able to keep apace of the Wizard or Cleric, especially as those classes have returned to a more or less vancian system. That's an improvement over 3rd, certainly. That's not to say that the spellcasters aren't considerably more versatile and in that respect powerful; spells still exist to counter almost any situation the wizard might find himself otherwise deficient and with more spells promised in the Players Handbook, that might get worse. Of course, that same book is going to have lots more options for the humble fighter too! I'd have to see a party in play myself over a reasonable period of time to really see how it works out, but my first impression is that party balance is not as bad as D&D has been in the past, but not as good as it was in 4th Edition. However, that balance in 4th came in the form of class homogenisation, which many really hated.

There are some nice innovations in character generation - or at least, innovations for D&D. 5th Edition asks you to make some choices about your character's personality and history, some quite interesting, some less so.

I like the idea of choosing an ideal; something your character strives for, it's a nice idea that gives the player somewhere to go with the character right out of the box. It also gives the DM something to work with, something to tailor adventures and encounters to his players desires. That's really good.

I also like bonds, something your character is connected to in the background. They're like a very basic implementation of the Icons from 13th Age. It's another tool for the DM to work with, another important fact he can work into the story to help the player feel more connected. I'm always in favour of that.

Less interesting to me are the ideas of personality traits and flaws. Personality traits are just fluff that reminds the player to roleplay. It's useful for new players, but most experienced players are either going to roleplay character traits or they're not. And flaws seem out of place in an ostensibly heroic game, but that's just a personal taste thing.

The mechanic that drives all these myriad traits is inspiration. When you're inspired you can choose to claim an advantage on an attack roll, skill check or ability check.  A DM rewards inspiration when you play your character well according to the traits you've written down on your sheet. In this respect it's quite similar to nature and demeanor in old World of Darkness. I worry that this mechanic may simply reward more extroverted players and leave quieter players in the dark. Weirdly, you can choose to reward your own inspiration to another player, in lieu of the DM doing so. I have no idea when a player would willingly give up their own inspiration though - surely if a player is deserving of it, the DM should be rewarding it?

I like these things, even if they're not as decisive and exciting as the similar ideas in 13th Age. They just feel a bit forced in places, almost a little out of place or like an afterthought.

Tying these personality traits together are backgrounds. They do remind me a little of the old kits from 2nd Edition, but without any real mechanical benefit they're just a collection of sample personality ideas. Which is fine, but I'd like a little more crunch here.

Alignment is back, although it just feels like a strange concession to the past. Without the mechanical crunch of detect alignment spells, it's just a strange and outdated personality compass. I think they'd have been insane not to have included alignment, but it's something they seem almost frightened of implementing properly, which is almost understandable considering the controversy the idea has attracted over the years.

The last element of character generation to discuss are skills. They're terrible, and that's really the kindest thing I can say about them. They're pared down like in 4th Edition, but in an edition of resurgent detail they're utterly lacking. Nothing about this incredibly basic list excites me at all or makes me think 'Yeah, that would be a cool thing for my character to be good at!' After the exciting and liberating backgrounds of 13th Age I find it hard to look at these without total disappointment.

Lastly, although the rules for it are not available in the basic rules, multiclassing in the style of 3rd Edition has returned. I've always been torn about the 'take a level of this, a level of that' approach, as it intrigues me mechanically but narratively it's often a nightmare, especially if you feel you have a strong concept for a multi-classed character from the get go. It's a part of D&D history though, and it's tried and tested. I expect a lot of fans will be glad to see it back.

Equipping Yourself

There's an awful lot of things your character can buy in this basic document, covering everything from adventuring gear to the cost of boats. This is all classic D&D stuff and it's nice to see it returning, although the lifestyle expenses rule seems like an exercise in bookkeeping that most will skip. I've always liked the idea of making everyone keep accurate track of their money and, while its nice that this can be simplified down like this, by the time you're a high level adventurer whether or not you've spent 1 or 4 gold at the inn seems a little irrelevant. This is a problem that D&D has always had, however - and it won't stop me loving to hand out treasure to my players.

Your weapons and armour are the usual fare, with weapons being priced as seems historically accurate and given appropriate damage dice. The same seems to apply to armour. This is traditional. but now since being spoiled by 13th Age's abstraction here, I don't think I could go back. It seems absurd to me to have options that are simply not as good, putting players off taking what they think might be thematically cool. I suspect most players will simply gravitate towards the weapon that does the most damage. On the other hand, I wouldn't expect D&D to take such a radical step as abstracting weapon damage, as much as I might prefer it.

Running the Game

Throughout the basic rules pdf the rhythm of play is spelled out in very simple terms, and in a way I've never seen before -

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of their actions. 
This is of course, really simple. For new players though, ones who have never roleplayed before, this could be a godsend. All too often games designers write paragraphs and paragraphs trying to explain what a roleplaying game actually is, usually supplying long examples, but this just puts it in the most simple terms possible. I really like this.

Running the game otherwise is more or less standard d20 D&D, which veterans will be utterly at home with. It still works. By default though, Wizards of the Coast have taken the brave choice to make combat gridless. Not mapless, but definitely gridless. (although the grid is an option). This harkens right back to the 2nd Edition and earlier. However, the level of detail and reliance on exact distances in this latest edition of D&D might mean that the grid is still very useful - just as it was in 2nd edition, even when it wasn't a core part of the rules.

Another core mechanic, which I really like for its simplicity, is advantage/disadvantage. If you have advantage, you roll two dice and take the highest. If you have disadvantage, roll two dice, take the lowest. It's a useful tool for both the game designers in designing abilities and DMs, who can use it to simply adjudicate situations. Fighting at the top of the stairs? Advantage! Fighting whilst on a swinging chandelier? Disadvantage! Dynamic and simple, this mechanic is really great.

It's D&D!

Overall all there is to say about these basic rules is that it's D&D. You're not getting the full experience, as I'm sure the Players Handbook will come with the rest of the classic classes and races, but you're getting the core experience. And I like it, for the most part. I'd definitely play it if someone chose to run it in my group, and I think I'd have a great time. If nothing else, reading through the pdf was making me incredibly nostalgic and I expect that's exactly what Wizards of the Coast were going for. If you want to play D&D, you could do a lot worse than this. On the other hand, because it's just nostalgia D&D I could just pick up my old 2nd Edition or 3rd Edition books and play or run from those, and I'd get that same effect. A few nifty mechanics and problems fixed won't change that. Certainly it hasn't usurped 13th Age as my fantasy game of choice with this pdf because it simply doesn't feel brave enough or different enough. Personality traits and inspiration are nice mechanics, but I've been spoiled now by the One Unique Thing and Icons. Nothing in these rules come close to those as tools a DM can use to craft great, player driven, campaigns. 

Where 4th Edition D&D felt radical and new, this simply feels nostalgic. 3rd Edition felt like it was trying new things and fixing old problems, whilst staying true to the feel of D&D. 5th Edition does neither of those things - it just feels like a minor rules update to 3rd Edition - and I think that might be a problem for Wizards of the Coast. That game already exists; it's called Pathfinder.