The cat has been let out of the bag, and Wizards of the Coast has finally given us a glimpse of what they have in store with the latest iteration of the world’s most popular roleplaying game—Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition or D&D Next. The Basic Rules for D&D 5E are available for free from the WotC website and gaming circles and blogs have been flooded with news in regards to the new rules, old throwbacks, and new callouts. In a few days, when the Player’s Handbook releases, I’m sure there will be a lot more. Meanwhile, I’ve been pouring over the rules, talking with friends and gaming buddies, and even came across something purported to be an alpha PHB, although for all I know it is a collection of the most recent beta playtest rules. I not only do not hate this most recent system, I like it. In fact, I am excited for it. I am bummed I have to wait for the books to come out. Hey, Wiz, shut up and take my money already!
Now that that’s out of the way—this is actually a bit of a surprise, even to me. I got in on the D&D Next playtest early. And, right off the bat, I wasn’t impressed. Truth be told, I had been severely disappointed with 4th edition. It’s not that it was a bad game in and of itself; it just wasn’t the game I was hoping for, wasn’t the game I wanted to play. To some, I’m seem like a neonate and to others I’ll seem nearly venerable as I say that I started out with AD&D Second Edition. It was a fun game and—while my age plays tricks with my memory—I remember it being either the first or second RPG I ever played. (It shares that slot with Palladium’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness). Anyhow, I enjoyed AD&D 2nd Ed., but it was missing a bit of codified customization for me. First, the group I played with and I would often fudge details to have the characters we really wanted to play without breaking the game. Then, I invested heavily in the brown and blue books—you know the ones I am talking about. But, it was still missing something. It didn’t have the skill list of Palladium’s games or the powers of Champion.
Then, Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition came out. Now, there was a lot of customization here. The OGL and d20 license made it even moreso. Then, there was the glut of new books, spells, feats, etc. Plus, the rules were so much more intense. There was a sheet as long as my arm for combat maneuvers and modifiers. It was a very basic system with a base set of rules—with tons of exceptions to those rules. I played it and was happy for quite some time. The Pathfinder RPG carried on this tradition and it is good for what it is.
When D&D Fourth Edition came out, I was excited. There were a bunch of promises the developers made—like your race mattering and making a difference as you levelled up. There were going to simplify things. They were going to get back to the essence of Dungeons and Dragons, but still have meaningful customization. In a way, they did this. For me, it played much more like a tactical minatures games—which was the basis for D&D all those years ago. It also allowed customization by making some things more or less general—a fighter could be the swashbuckler, ninja, or traditional sword and board warrior. It all depended on how you described things and the powers and feats you took. But now, not only did I have a bunch of feats to choose from, but also powers. And, if I wanted to have a character that was good at something there weren’t powers for, I was screwed, really. Lots of people played it—and still do—and loved it and still do. That’s great. It’s just not my cup of tea.
When I got the first playtest documents for D&D Next, I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t see what they were trying to do. They were presenting a bunch of rules options without any substance. Beyond that, my personal life had a LOT going on. I just couldn’t dedicate the time I wanted to keeping up with all the updates, community news, etc. You know, it came as a shock to me when I logged online one day to find out I could get D&D Next Basic Rules for free? Beyond my lack of interest in and my lack of time to dedicate to the playtest documents, I took place in a couple of playtests over the past two years or so. I hated them—absolutely hated them. The games were run badly, I came to realize. DM’s often told players that there characters couldn’t do things, because there weren’t rules for that. Come on, back when I was a kid playing Se3cond Edition I knew better. The lack of options also bothered me.
That all changed when I downloaded that gloriously free PDF.
I had seen a few people who normally don’t play D&D mention wanting to give the game a try and these were people I often play with, so I was immediately curious. How much had they changed this game? Was it even still D&D?!? Only one way to tell for sure—so, I started reading. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly impressed. And, I’ll tell you why.
Free Basic Rules
This was a brilliant move on Hasbro/Wizard of the Coast’s part. It’s not the first time it’s been done, but it’s the first time I can remember them doing it on such a grand scale. I bet there were fist fights in the office over this one. You want us to give stuff away—for free?!? Well, the power of good won out and it was for the better. People have downloaded it and the internet has spoken. People are playing the game, already creating homebrew rules and hacks for it while clamoring for the paid products to be released. It isn’t all just brand recognition and loyalty either.
The Old Meets New
There are a lot of familiar things in this version of Dungeons & Dragons. Everything from the base system to how you find your character’s attributes, make saving throws, and more and going to be instantly familiar to those already familiar with D&D. Before you ask—No, there is no THAC0. However, they changed things up a bit. The way racial stats and abilities are done is different. The standard bonuses to attributes are out the window and new, more creative abilities have been added. The brought back the idea of advantage and disadvantage, which players of the all but forgotten Alternity RPG might remember, but simplified.
At the same time, the rules were written in a more relaxed, less text book form. The writing was actually very well done. It was more fun to read than previous editions of the rules. This is what a lot of the so-called new school RPGs are doing these days. So, an old dog can learn new tricks. They also went ahead and brought over some more concepts—concepts that have been there all along, but were not necessarily expressly pointed out. They talk about being lenient and ruling in favor of story, not having to define everything down to infinite minutia. A lot of online media has been sure to point out WoTC’s “newfound acceptance” of gender identity/diversity/etc. This isn’t really anything new, but it’s the first time it’s been spelled out in their books. Of course, that may be simply because it’s become such a big issue these days or now it is finally acceptable to print such things in mass market publications. You can read about that a whole ton of places on the internet. Instead, I’m gonna talk about some of the pieces that have really made this a special game for me.
The basic rules have a number of backgrounds you can select for your characters. These backgrounds include such things as suggestions for who your character is bonded to, their history, and even extra equipment to start their adventuring careers with. Backgrounds are a nice way to customize your character and there’s only a limited amount available in the basic rules, but more are sure to follow and homebrew versions are already popping up online. One neat thing they use here is small, random roll tables. What old school gamer doesn’t like random tables? Sure, you can choose or otherwise customize those collections, but these tables can give you some great ideas and unique combinations.
Each of the classes has some sort of archetype to choose from by the time they reach third level. In the Basic rules, only one sample is given, but the PHB is sure to have more. Wizards will focus around their school of magic it appears such as evocation and incantation. Fighters so far have the champion, which appears to be the basic, athletic fighter—other versions will probably be based on fighting styles such as swashbuckling, heavy defense, etc. These will give the characters bonuses to certain things and help define them from others.
From what I have seen of the beta playtest materials, D&D 5E offers exponentially fewer feats. There are several hundred available in 3x and Pathfinder games. So far, I’ve seen about 20 for D&D Next, although they are only mentioned and not listed or described in the basic rules. From what I have seen, though, feats are much more unique, more powerful. No more long feat trees to get that one added boost.
Choices and Limitations
Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition provides a number of options for players to choose for their characters in the beginning and throughout the campaign. Unlike earlier versions of D&D, though, the choices are limited. Yeah, you choose a background—but, you do that once. With a small number of backgrounds okay. If there are a hundred backgrounds, it’s still okay, because you’re only making the choice once. Feats you choose less frequently and, as they are optional, you may opt instead just for a stat increase rather than yet another feat. For me, it seems to bring a near perfect balance between customization and a simplified rules system. Even right down to the combat maneuvers there were once so many of, there were now less. Everything had been turned down a notch in terms of complexity. It wasn’t that the rules were complex before, but there were just so many exceptions and options to remember and be aware of, it was a bit of a chore.
Of course, I’ve played in some other games since then and there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re looking at running or playing D&D Next. First of all, you will get new players simply because it’s new and Wizards of the Coast and Dungeons and Dragons still has the market cornered when it comes to brand recognition. Also, keep in mind that this is a new edition. What was true in previous editions is not necessarily true in Fifth Edition. Finally, it is a game and it is perhaps more modular than previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Take what you want and leave the rest.