Do I need anything else to the title of this post?
I’ve just had the chance to complete my first read through of the Starter Set box contents and the free D&D 5e PDF – which you should take a moment to download and read if you love RPGs and haven’t done so yet. Let’s not call what follows a review… let’s call it an exploration of my perceptions as I move through the material. I’m mainly going to focus on the Starter Set and occasionally reference the more complete PDF rules.
A disclaimer: I did not follow the playtest very closely. I kept it at the edge of my awareness but I did not play any games with rules, etc. I mention this only to say the new material was very new to me and not tempered by the playtest experience. Also, what follows is my own meandering ruminations and should be considered in that light…
The Short Version
If you just want the really short version… I like it. I enjoyed reading it and think that some of what has been done here is amazing, some of it is derivative, and some is “meh.” But overall, I really like what I’m seeing so far.
I’ll open with a petty complaint, just to get it out of the way and move on. The cover of the Starter Set proclaims, “Everything you need to start playing the world’s greatest roleplaying game.” So, here’s the thing… Sure, Dungeons and Dragons is basically the “brand name” of roleplaying. Just like every, single, adhesive strip with a little pad of gauze is a “Band Aid,” so too do we often find ourselves saying… “It’s a tabletop RPG, you know, like Dungeons & Dragons.” to our non-gamer friends. I get that. But this is – despite being labeled D&D – a brand new game. Sure, there was playtesting and sure it shares the lineage of D&D and some of the typical trappings of D&D, but it’s a “new” D&D. It’s a new game trying to put a Band Aid on a strangely festering wound in the gaming community… the awful resurgence of the Edition Wars that accompanied, 3rd/3.5/4th and so on. I suppose for me, the long-time fan, I’d prefer that they not market this as the world’s greatest anything. If that sounds petty – seriously – I know it is.
And I got it out of the way because that ends my complaining.
The layout is gorgeous. I love the simple style of the layout, the simple background of the page, the delicate bottom borders, the clear, useful headers, the color scheme… I have so much admiration for the layout and how much I just enjoyed the experience of reading the PDF and the Starter Set. The layout alone has me excited about seeing the Players Handbook…
I could mention that I’m not a big fan of some of the initial art in the Starter Set but that’s really about what style of art I prefer (and I’m not talking about content of art, just the painting style) and so is strictly a personal feeling. Mainly, I don’t like the blurry-edged painting style used in several places. I do however really enjoy the departure from the “so many straps, so many buckles” style of some older D&D art. So the art is a wash for me and that’s just fine. In my head, D&D will always look like the art in the early Endless Quest books so… who am I to judge?
During my initial read through I was thrown a bit by the compressed XP at early levels but I think that’s a reaction to the many years of D&D I’ve played before now. I think this new XP scheme will appeal to as broad a base of players as possible and that can only be a good thing. I may have just missed it but I didn’t see much discussion of assigning XP. Judging by the adventure it seems as if XP are meant to be awarded as you go along. Personally, I’m more of a fan of awarding XP in a lump sum at the end of the adventure/return to civilization but again, that’s a preference thing which is easy to account for at home tables and doesn’t factor into the quality of the game.
I want to take a minute to point out the tone of presentation of the rules. Look at the little inset text box on the bottom of page 7 of the Starter Set Rulebook. It’s about finding a hidden object and it really conveys something important. It conveys that no matter how you choose to play at home, no matter what skills you have on your character sheet, and no matter what the players around your table are like, the designers of the game were thinking about the player skill vs. character skill balance as they wrote this version of D&D. It’s a great nod to the descriptive, roleplaying style that some groups enjoy and sets an expectation… while not belaboring the point in the rules. I appreciated it as a reader even though I know it doesn’t really mean anything. But small touches like this are very important to shaping player/DM expectations and that makes me happy.
Attributes take center stage
That’s the first thing I noticed. And I like it. As someone familiar with the Bard Games Atlantean Trilogy and with Castles and Crusades, I see D&D adopting this method as a very solid choice. Attributes checks are key to skills again (which reminds me of 2nd Ed proficiencies) and Saving Throws are keyed to attributes; an excellent and simple change to the game. I will admit that one of the few innovations of 4E that I really loved was the “Single Saving Throw.” but I understand the change back to multiple saves.
It also seems that PCs have their stats capped at 20. This is a change which fills me with joy. I’ll mention this more when I get to talking about Magic Items but overall, this is a change that I can really get behind and which I hope stays solid throughout the core design.
You got your Barbarians of Lemuria in my D&D… That’s probably not a fair thing to say but as a big fan of the BoL games this was my first thought when I initially heard about the Advantage/Disadvantage rules and well… it still is. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is an elegant way to handle such mechanics and works just fine for the new D&D – heck – it opens up some awesome design space as they move forward while remaining very simple (see the way Invisibility works, for example). I just can’t help but feeling like the new D&D has become a bit like the English language, mugging other games in alleys and taking what it wants.
This is a polite nod to the story game crowd that I really like. You either have it or you don’t. It’s not points, it’s something you can give to someone else, and it doesn’t overwhelm other stuff that’s already integral to the system… it’s just a little thing, that might make a big difference some time. Again, it was a very simple, elegant corner of the rules that opens up so many chances for players and DMs to enjoy it. I can’t help but give the idea a big thumbs up.
This is long enough. I’ll dive back in again with more about 5e on Friday but for now, let me know what you think so far.
Thanks for reading.