D&D 5th Edition Basic Rules Review

A review from a 4th Edition apologist

Inspired by a recent Roundabout, I decided to download the newest rule sheet for Dungeons & Dragons.  The next edition has its full launch on July 15, but there’s a free version for those who want to get a party going right this very second.  It’s about 1/3 the size of 4th edition’s first Player’s Handbook, but there’s a surprising amount of choice within the 110 pages, allowing for fairly deep customization, given that there’s only 4 races and 4 classes. I have to say that if Wizards of the Coast wanted to give out a rule set that could stand on its own, yet get freeloaders to want the full D&D5 experience, they rolled a proverbial critical hit.  It’s definitely worth some of your bandwidth to get, and I’d argue that the basic rules should be an example to other companies (tabletop or otherwise) of what a demo product should be.

If you came for a completely objective look at the game, that above paragraph is as good as you’re going to get.  Reading it over myself, you would get the impression that this is a 6th gear product, and I would agree with that objective assessment.  The problem is all reviews are subjective and this is where the teaser subhead of being a “4th edition apologist” comes in.  My experience with WotC’s RPG system comes in four distinct flavors: D&D 3.5, Star Wars d20, Star Wars: Saga Edition, and D&D 4th Edition–I’ve also played with the most recent iteration of Gamma World, but I consider that part of 4th–and my assessment is going to be based on my experiences with each  I liked 4th edition better than the others for what it tried to do in streamlining micromanagement and providing clear and diverse character options.  There are obvious places where the execution faltered (e.g. not every class power needed an extra effect and spells felt really marginalized) but as a whole, it was a great way to reduce  busywork and increase accessibility.  After all, the point of creating a D&D character is to play D&D, and a good sourcebook should strive to get the players to that point as efficiently and painlessly as possible.

A lot of that efficiency is lost in the new edition, which tries to undo many of the changes done from 3.5 to 4th.  This shouldn’t be too surprising to me, since D&D Essentials was trying to marry the two game states together, but it’s still disappointing.  Powers are gone; the interchangeable class progressions are gone; the standard attribute array went back down from 16 through 10 to 15 through 8 (another hidden plus from 4E was that your Level 1 hero was actually competent from the start); hit dice, spell slots, and saving throws are back, the latter now applying to all 6 attributes, and it’s all rather disappointing.  On the bright side, there was some retention of 4th Ed. ideas.  Passive scores are still around, as is the idea of diagonal movement only costing one square (everything is back to being measured in feet, but there are alternate rules for grid play) and the list of skills is not only in its pared down state, there is no sign of skill points.  Death saving throws are also still around, albeit slightly altered to ramp up the drama.  So for a 4th ed fan like me, all is not completely lost.

Here’s how character creation works: first, you pick a race.  If it’s one of the three non-human races (dwarf, elf, or halfling) you can also pick one of the two subraces available.  Then you get a choice of Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard, each coming with four either/or choices in equipment and some further customization based on class.  Then after rolling stats, you get to fill in around the edges.  There are 5 backgrounds provided in the Basic Rules, each have a feature as well as random assignments for specialties, personality, ideals, bonds, and most importantly, flaws.  It’s a great idea for those who lack talent for characterization and adds further customization to the game.  Speaking of which, if I merely take the choices of race and subrace, class and equipment, and background I’ve listed, there are over 1.7 million character permutations available, and that doesn’t include feats (that are not included in these rules).  Not bad for a free demo.

Dice rolling in D&D hasn’t really changed since the death of THAC0, but there are some tweaks.  Skill training from 4th Edition is gone, but in its place is an all-purpose proficiency bonus that grows over time.  if your proficient in a skill, or with a weapon, or with anything else, the bonus applies.  There are also now situational advantages and disadvantages where you roll two d20’s and which result you take is based on what side of the coin you’re on. For the 4E haters, skill challenges are gone and replaced with something much more elegant. As far as combat goes, it’s back to 1 move/1 action that 3.5 preferred.  Movement itself is altered slightly in that you can now do a number of things while on the move, standing from prone only costs half of your speed, and at least from my reading, you can now safely strafe a melee opponent, which could lead to both interesting strategies and some amusing RP moments (especially if one of the characters thinks they’re The Flash or something).

Overall, despite the many good things that the Basic Rules offer, I’m still generally disappointed in the route WotC decided to take.  In a world where simpler games like FATE and Golden Sky Stories are starting to take hold, D&D’s next edition is vying for the hard-core audience that left for Pathfinder.  There’s nothing wrong with complexity and depth of play, things that the Basic Rules offer in spades, but you can have those things without making the game itself feel dense and inaccessible.  That being said, the book is still free and with 1.7 million character permutations, this is still a worthwhile entry into your gaming library.  It’s not a critical, but it’s still a solid hit.

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Rating: 5th gear