I got the Player’s Handbook (PHB) for the new Dungeons & Dragons for Christmas. I bought also the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and the Monster Manual (MM). I read them all during the Christmas vacation, and had some thoughts. The last products in the TSR D&D line I have bought have been Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition. Its PHB was published in 1989, so there’s 25 years of game development between the versions. I have read D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, and some Fourth Edition D&D material, but I have never played them, so here I’ll also compare the 2E and 5E.
The first impression from the 5E game is good. The production values are obviously good, with color pages, and the layout is at least good in that it doesn’t distract or annoy. The concepts of the game are explained in the PHB, as is usual. The PHB also has all the player stuff – how to create characters, how the game system works and for the D&D paradigm, a long list of spells.
The DMG has a lot of good gamemastering advice, especially for beginning Dungeon Masters. I think this game has potential to be the first roleplaying game for many people – Wizards of the Coast and more imporantly Dungeons & Dragons are still known names even outside the roleplaying community, so I think the advice is good. The DMG also has advice on how to modify the game rules and assumptions to have a different game from the PHB default. This is a good thing in my opinion, and I think the most fun can be had by trying out different things, and not just play “vanilla” D&D.
The Monster Manual has most of the staple monsters, and some surprises, at least to my 2E sensibilities. Darkmantle and Grimlock are not that common in the older AD&D material, and the inclusion of many planar monsters, for example the Gith (the Githzerai and the Githyanki) and the Slaadi, indicate a more higher power game than for example the basic AD&D 2E, where the planar monsters were in a separate appendix. There are a lot of useful monsters, and each of them has also multiple story hooks written. I think of monster books as a starting point, and this is a good one for that, but if the DM doesn’t have the time to fiddle with the monsters, the monsters are perfectly usable directly from the book.
I haven’t yet played the game, but it looks like a solid product. Compared to the 2E, it’s a more high-power game with more dedication to the characters. The process to generate the characters is more involved and more geared for generating just the character the player wants to play. This is of course in contrast to the original D&D idea of rolling something up and seeing where it goes. The power level is seen in more special powers, which also work out to lessen the “linear fighter, quadratic mage” problem in the 2E and earlier games. The spellcasters still seem to be a powerful force, especially the cleric, the mage and the sorcerer, but now there are things for the fighter to do other than hit things with other things.
The one change I probably would change in my own games is the healing rate: every character heals to full hit points after a “Long Rest”, which is basically a night’s sleep with no interruptions of more than one hour. I think the newer D&D games (3.X E, 4E, Pathfinder) all have some mechanics like this to make healing faster, and the old D&D way of healing one or two hit points per day was too slow. I am not sure how I would change this, but making long rests hard to perfom in wilderness or dungeons might work.
The spells have also changed. The durations of many spells is Concentration, and one spellcaster can’t have more than one Concentration spell active at the same time. This limits the available boost spells quite a bit. The old “fire and forget” spell system where all casters have to prepare all their spells (like “2 magic missiles, one grease, three fireballs”) every morning has been changed: now the main spellcasters prepare a spell list and can cast spells from that list as many times in any combinations as long as they have available spell slots. This makes for a more streamlined optimization and prevents “we really could have used that one spell but I used it earlier today” problem present in the old games.
The power level in general seems to be set for fast advancement and heroic adventures. This is probably a good thing, because there is much fun in playing fantastic super heroes. I still played in one very good AD&D campaign where after a couple of real-time years of playing, some characters got to the second level. There is of course the possibility to play intrigue adventures, and the background you choose for the player feel modern in the way that the characters should even by the book be something else than just a collection of numbers.
One thing I thought I would find in the DMG but I couldn’t was estate management rules. In the AD&D 2E game most characters were assumed to build a castle or a stronghold at some point in their careers and become more involved in running things, and all this was missing. The Mentzer box editions of D&D had even rules and prices for building castles and this was fun for us when we played it, years ago. Now the characters probably should be “adventurers” for their whole lives, that is, to take on bigger threats and go where normal people don’t.
I have also bought a couple of games modeled after the original (rather, the boxed Mentzer editions) D&D, There is a larger movement behind these, the so-called Old School Revolution (OSR), and more games than I have had the time to read. I have two of them, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon Crawl Classics. They are in a way a divergent line from the Mentzer D&D – they are the modern reimagination of that game, as much as or even more as the D&D 5E.
The philosophy between who adventures and why seems to be different in the OSR games and 5E. In 5E the adventures are superheroes, capable of feats impossible for the common people. They know it and they are admired for them. They adventure because they can and it’s expected of them. In contrast in OSR games the characters have powers, but they might be ostracized for them, and mostly they adventure because they have to. Also the attachment to first-level characters is very different – a D&D 5E character is the product of a clear vision and has had a lot of choices made, whereas an LotFP character can be generated in five minutes. This of course means that the lethality is (probably) different: it’s not that big a thing to lose a LotFP character, because not that much has been generated for it before the game, but on the other hand losing even a first level D&D 5E character means more time and effort making a new one..
Both these types of games can be fun, and I have enjoyed them both. It’s still fun to see the two different game types. I also think that the D&D 5E could not be, or at least could not be what it now is, without the Old School Revolution. The Pathfinder RPG is also partly responsible for the D&D 5E – after the not very well received Fourth Edition, Wizards of the Coast might have just said that the market is not there. The OSR and Pathfinder both showed that there is a market for this kind of thing, and I think the D&D 5E team took good things from both OSR and Pathfinder for their new game.
All in all, a solid product. It does its basic game well, and the rules seem simple enough to modify if needed to accommodate different stuff. There are of course power differences between the classes and races, but I think they are more of a matter for any particular group – if the people want to minmax and optimize their characters, the possibility is there, but it’s also possible to just pick whatever seems fun and play that.