First Impressions : 5th Edition

Thank you to Dan for the email which inspired this post. If you have any D&D questions, use the contact button to send them my way.

5th edition has finally completed its slow roll out with the Dungeon Masters Guide finally releasing in November. Now that the three core books are out, we can finally get a full view of everything 5th edition brings to the tabletop.

I’m a 3.0 enthusiast. It’s the game I first role-played in; the first system I DM’d. I love the dinky 80s drawings, invoking that Conan period fantasy. I love the open ended spells that allow for player innovation and creativity. I love how every monster is a one-on-party challenge. I even dig the tome-like book exteriors.

The subsequent iteration of Dungeons & Dragons attempted to integrate all the mechanics of tactical video games, like World of Warcraft, into the RPG system. This grabbed the interest of a lot of my video gaming friends, and I ended up running a three year long 4th edition campaign with, at times, up to eight players. The system worked well for this group, and the years were full of memorable stories of adventure, hilarity and intrigue, but interspersed among them remain the haunting visages of multi-hour long combat encounters. With all the new status effects, grids and miniatures became a requirement. Keeping track of all the marks, combat advantages, flanks, prones, trips and saves would have been nightmarish without visuals. This made an excellent tactics-based board game which worked well for my friends’ focus on balance and proper encounter difficulty. This all came at the expense of the most versatile role-playing tools available. Feats, powers and spells became highly restricted.

Take, for example, the 4th edition wizard daily spell Chillstrike. It targets one creature, does cold damage and dazes. Can a wizard produce the spell outside of combat? Does it have to be a creature? Could you freeze a river or cool a drink with it? It’s ultimately up to the DM’s discretion, but this takes creativity away from the players. How do you describe dazed? Everyone knows the status effect, so you just end up saying it, making it pretty hard to keep mental imagery and tension building over an hour of combat. Even more so, players are so focused on the grid for their information, it’s simply easier to break character and talk stats. How upsetting to turn what could be an awesome role-playing experience into “poisoned, save ends”. What could have been the slow discovery of a vile poison coursing through your companion’s veins is instead immediately explained, reducing any threat it had into a status effect.

5th edition has given a lot of the old power back to the DM. I got the opportunity to play as a wizard in the short campaign included with the 5th Starter Set. My first shock was that matching an opponent's AC is now a hit rather than a glancing blow. There are a multitude of small game changes like this throughout, but there are some big ones too.

Basic stats like hit and AC change very little over a character's progression. Even a low level character might be able to hit a high level monster, but the damage they do is insignificant to the monster’s health pool. In this way, any monster is appropriate for the party. A group of goblins is a significant challenge to level 1’s, but works well also as a group of minions for level 10. This means level 1 is a pretty dangerous place, helping combat hold players’ attention. It’s also a lot quicker, and once you know what your players can take, it’s very easy to improvise encounters.

Spells have returned to their 3.5-like descriptions but with a few changes. Spellcasters have been given some decent cantrips they can use anytime in combat; components, focuses and reagents are back if you care to use them; and the player’s handbook is once again full of spells that encourage role-play.

Two great additions to the DM toolbox are advantage and inspiration. Advantage covers everything from attacking a tripped opponent to drinking antitoxin. You roll two D20s and take the higher result. For disadvantage, you take the lower. Many class abilities in spells give advantage or disadvantage instead of hard to keep track of status effects. Inspiration is a reward the DM can give a player for effective roleplaying. The player then gets an advantage to spend on a roll of their choice. Meanwhile, the DM has reinforced behavior he wants to see in his games.

For those looking for a new game, 5th edition is a great system. I wish they would have returned to a less textbook-like layout, but I understand its effectiveness. The story of the Starter Set was no substitute for a homebrewed campaign but gave a decent tour of common D&D sights that captured some retro nostalgia.