Last  week I had the opportunity to play an extended session of D&D 5th Edition, using the pre-generated characters and adventure from the starter kit. We had three players so I played two PCs: an elven wizard called Althiel Moonwhisper (Chaotic Good, indeterminate gender, overly elegant in speech and manner but completely lacking in empathy or social skills); and a human fighter called Xander (Lawful Neutral, fancies himself a noble, but turns into a savage, violent bastard when fighting with his great axe). This post gives a few of my first thoughts about the newest version of our old and faithful system. I didn’t have the rules myself, nor did I read them, so what I report here is based on my experience of the rules as played and as dictated to us by the GM, who assured us he wasn’t house-ruling anything – but we’re a fairly rules-light gaming group so we didn’t kill ourselves trying to answer questions about rules. The rules can be downloaded from here.

First of all, it’s good; and secondly, it’s not really very new. It is essentially a backward step into 2nd edition in feel, using a stripped-down version of the 3rd edition rules and keeping almost nothing from 4th edition. It retains the d20-and-skills structure, ascending armour class and base attack bonus of 3rd edition, but with major simplifications and reorientations to rebalance power. Skills and weapons work on the basis of a d20 roll vs. target DC, modified by an attribute plus proficiency bonus. Proficiencies can exist in weapons and skills, so my wizard had about four skill proficiencies (from memory) and a range of weapon proficiencies (from being an elf). The proficiency bonus at first level for all of us was +2, so depending on attribute bonuses we got total modifiers ranging from +1 to +7 in our core skills, and -2 to +5 outside of them. Proficiency bonuses increase by +1 per 4 or 5 levels, so it’s no longer the case that you’ll have a fighter at 9th level with a +9 Base attack bonus. Essentially attack bonuses scale more slowly than they used to, which keeps them more in line with armour classes. Fighters are the only class that get extra attacks, and I think they also get other attack bonuses and damage bonuses, so the reduced increase in attack bonus is made up for (we thought). Thieves also have less advantage at first level (recall in 3rd edition the skill system meant thieves could get up to a +4 base bonus in a range of skills if they had good intelligence). The skill system has also been stripped down so there is a smaller and more manageable number of skills (only a few more than Warhammer 3, by way of comparison). The reduced importance of the proficiency bonus means that if you need to do something directly covered by these skills, a simple attribute test will do the job. So that makes the GM’s job easier (though maybe this will become more problematic at later levels).

Most of the ideas from 4th edition have been dumped. Things like daily/at will/encounter powers are gone, and the idea of short/long rests introduced. There are no “recoveries” but fighters can recover d10+lvl HPs once between short rests, and once a day a wizard can recover some spell slots in a short rest.  The short rest is a really good idea, enabling parties to partially regroup once in a day, which seems consistent with how I can imagine adventuring groups actually working (and, incidentally, we really needed this short rest). This short rest/single recovery approach keeps the basic idea from 4th edition of being able to regroup and recover some of your damage, without making it so flexible and powerful that the challenge drops out of the game, and does open the possibility of a group of PCs taking on a fairly lethal adventuring task without a cleric, and having some options other than skulking around and running away, since if a brave assault goes pear-shaped they have something to fall back on.

The biggest system change I could see was in the way magic works. In overall style it is a flexible mix of 3rd and 4th edition, but consistent with the feeling of 2nd. Wizards have spell slots, arranged by level, and they are quite restrictive (my first level wizard had 2). They can memorize something like their lvl+Intelligence bonus in spells per day, and these can be of any level they know. They can then shuffle these between slots as they like. For example, my wizard had 6 spells in his/her book, but could memorize 4; he/she could use 2 slots a day, taken from any of these 4 spells at will. This gives flexibility without borking the idea of spell slots, and without quite going all the way into power points. Any spell can be cast out of combat as a ritual without using a slot, so Althiel didn’t bother memorizing detect magic. This gives wizards flexibility as utility casters, but doesn’t suddenly give them the ability to do anything in combat. The best improvement, though, was to give wizards cantrips at will, and to make the combat cantrips more powerful. This essentially means that a wizard has a basic attacking power that does 1d8 damage and hits on an intelligence check vs. AC, but which doesn’t scale with level. It was also cute to see that the Sleep spell and been reset to 2nd edition power: it affected 5d8 hps of enemies, which was just great when we entered the goblin caves, and really brought back that feeling of the wizard as once-per-day artillery. These change meant my wizard could participate in every combat effectively, but without the destructive power of rogues or fighters, so he/she could deploy bigger spells without fear of being completely useless once they were used. The short rest recovery option got him/her back one slot, which meant that Althiel could be useful three times in the day. This makes playing a wizard fun from first level, without making them indestructible artillery. There is no sense of controller/striker/tank as was often complained about in 4th edition: wizards and clerics have gone back to their utility roles, and although the rogue’s backstab is more frequent than in 2nd edition (it works whenever an enemy is engaged with someone else), it is not a multiplier, just a +d6 per couple of levels, and the rogue is very much a glass cannon – ours died in the third combat. In fact our rogue wasn’t so useful – trying to explore a goblin cave complex with a halfling rogue who can’t see in the dark is pretty challenging, and we couldn’t find any evidence that the rogue was particularly good at finding or disarming traps (there is no disarm traps skill!) I think the rogue would be more useful at higher levels, and for scouting in a more suitable environment (the rogue’s stealth skill was quite awesome).

The system has also responded to the way people actually play in some minor but polite ways: any PC can sense that an item is magic by touch, we could check the use of potions by sipping them, and in general the rules on actions and movement were a little looser than in the horrors of 4th edition. Battlemaps are no longer essential, though the rules are still structured around them. Movement rates were relevant in our battle map, but we didn’t spend long periods of time fiddling around with the details of movement. Combats were over relatively quickly, without huge amounts of fiddling, though this will likely change at later levels. This edition of D&D also seems to have dropped the hideous complexity of feats, one of 3rd edition’s clunkiest and most unbalancing aspects. Each class gets a few bonus powers and special abilities, but feats don’t really enter into the development of the class. As I understand it you get a feat at 4th, 8th etc. level but you have to forego an ability score modifier to get it. That enables players to avoid a huge set of complex and frustrating decisions that can really unbalance the game (though at the cost, I guess, of some degree of character diversity at low levels), and makes character creation faster. Also I think when feats do arise they’re going to be big game-changer moves. D&D and AD&D both had relative conformity within character classes (all members of the same class were very similar at first level) and this version of D&D has returned to that, but with a little bit more diversity through skills and unique starting abilities based on package choice – the core rules we used specify only one domain for clerics, but each cleric domain will have slightly different spell choices and some difference in abilities, which was most noticable in the fighter (which had five different starting types available, each with its own skill – Xander was a defender, meaning he gained +1 to AC when wearing armour). I think this idea of broad brushes with small changes in detail that are primarily fluff – due to small differences in skill, and background character descriptions – is more consistent with older brands of D&D, but doesn’t make characters as completely cookie-cutter as they were in those older systems. So, again, a nice balance between the complexity and chaos of 3.5, and the wargaminess of 2.

This edition of D&D has also introduced the dice mechanism of advantage and disadvantage, which replace +2 bonuses/-2 situational modifiers. This system requires the player to roll two twenty sided dice and take the larger or the smaller of the rolls, respectively. Andrew Gelman’s blog has a discussion of how much difference this makes to outcomes – suffice to say it’s huge – but it is a nice way to enhance attacks and I think will retain its power across levels (as opposed to a +2 bonus, which loses value at later levels in 3rd edition, especially for fighters). There are other small changes too, but overall it feels like a fast-flowing, relaxed and less finicky version of 3rd edition, dialed back perhaps to the freewheeling feeling of 2nd edition, without the deep nerdy clunkiness of that old-fashioned game. It has still kept a few of the basic problems that i think make all versions of D&D look a bit dated:

  • Uniform distributions for skill and damage resolution make long chains of bad results and good results inevitable, and make it hard for players to make plans on the assumption that PCs will be able to do well what they are meant to be good at on average
  • The step from 1st to 2nd level still contains that huge power leap as your hit points double
  • It still has that strange incongruity between the combat mechanics and the explanation of how hit points are supposed to work – e.g. at 4th level the fighter gets an extra attack rather than just rolling once and doing more damage, even though combat is supposedly abstracted, so that the d20 roll doesn’t reflect a single discrete attack
  • It has still stuck to the general principle of spell slots, which I still find restrictive and dumb – a system that keeps the richness and diversity of 2nd edition spells, but makes wizards fully functional as spell-users would be much better, in my opinion

Overall though the system is broadly functional again, retaining the best aspects of 3rd edition/d20 but stepping away from the depths of complexity that were beginning to make that system a fractal nightmare (and which have, in my opinion, turned Pathfinder into a form of intellectual interpretive dance rather than a RPG). It has gone back to the simpler days of basic D&D, with the adult feel of 2nd edition but the sense and practicality of 3rd edition. Fortunately, 4th edition has basically been dropped: we can all breath a sigh of relief and put “that little unpleasantness” out of our minds for good.

A word on the introductory adventure too: it is a rich and detailed little gem, starting off with a goblin ambush and opening up slowly into a whole sandbox built around a town undergoing something of a renaissance, but under threat from complex and apparently inter-related forces of human and demi-human evil. It has side adventures, a cast of characters that the PCs need to interact with as more than just purveyors of level-appropriate treasure, and enough detail to form a mini-campaign by itself. It is also linked to the process of learning the rules, so that as you step through stages of the campaign you are introduced to more complex and detailed aspects of the game (e.g., random monsters don’t occur at the beginning of the adventure, so the GM has time to get used to the system before having to handle that most irritating of distractions).

Overall I think this system is a good forward step in the D&D oeuvre, though hardly a radical advance in game design. It’s a return to the solid and respectable traditions we all know and understand, recognizably D&D again but with enough sense to revise some of the old-school version’s weakest points, and enough wisdom to realize that game design really has advanced since the 1970s. I will certainly be trying to play it again, because it rekindles some of the enjoyment I felt when I first returned to D&D through 3rd edition, before its complexity blew into orbit. It will be interesting to see how Pathfinder and the Old-School rip-off world respond to this system – it could be the death knell for both of them …