Here’s the short review. I’m a fan. The basic system design is solid, the classes are just cool, and the new magic rules make me very happy.
When I got ahold of the 5th edition Players Handbook I was already excited by what I’d read in the free PDF released by Wizards to whet our appetites and provide a solid amount of playable material to the waiting fan-base. I had been very ambivalent about 5th edition. After the struggles of 3.5 power/splat creep and the troubled 4th Edition era, I felt that I’d mostly “moved on” from D&D. I had so many other fantasy games I could run and practically the entire back-catalogue of previous editions available in PDF. What motivation did I have to invest in yet another edition? While I hoped that 5e would be good, I wasn’t invested anymore.
I’m happy to say that I’m invested again.
The Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Players Handbook is a great start to what promises to be an excellent new era of D&D. The first thing that really struck me when I first got my PHB was that it was a fairly small book. Even though it clocks in at about 315 pages it feels compact. I realize that it is only one third of the total “Core Rules” but I appreciated that it didn’t feel imposing as I dove into it.
Let me start by echoing some of my previous praise that I had for the Starter Set and the PDF. I love the layout of this book. The graphic design and simplicity of the layout are elegant and fun to read. I had fun just skimming through it initially. When I got into heavy reading I found the experience comfortable and well, I just enjoyed the layout.
I’ll reiterate my criticism as well. I’m not fond of the art. Not the content of the art but the style. It’s just not for me. As this is a criticism I’ve read in a few other places as well I feel like I’m not the only one but we’ll have to see if the art direction holds beyond the three core books. Overall, this art makes me less enthusiastic for the Monster Manual… which is sad.
The Preface and Introduction were simple and well-written. I appreciated the tone and thought it did a good job of explaining the system and being accessible to new players. But as you’d expect from the Player’s Handbook, the meat of the book is the next section, which is all about character creation.
Part One: Creating a Character
The first thing that struck me about character creation was the way attributes have been scaled back. Sure you can make a random character by rolling your stats but if you want to use Point Buy then you can’t actually start with an attribute higher than 15 (before race modifiers). Looking at the Standard Array offered and trying out different combinations of using the Point Buy method I’m pleased with the way it allows you to spread your attributes out a little more without feeling like you are missing out on that big 18 (or even 20) as a starting character. As someone who always laments the attribute inflation of 3.5/Pathfinder (one of my least favorite parts of those systems) I found myself smiling a lot as I read the attribute section. Knowing that PC stats cap out at 20 is a cool feature of 5th ed and I hadn’t even made it to the races and classes yet.
The character races represent a solid selection of choices drawing from the gamut of D&D’s past. I enjoyed seeing the Dragonborn and Tiefling kept in the core book. I was a big fan of these two races in 4th edition and was happy with the representation of them here. Gnomes got a great write up which harkened back to their 2nd edition appearances. They are one of the races where Sub-races are a welcome addition to the official core of the game. For those of you who haven’t seen the book yet, most of the races also have a selection of sub-race choices (so Dwarves can be Mountain dwarves or Hill dwarves) and these distinctions are all interesting and well-crafted throwbacks to the older days of D&D. Of course, this means that elves have a Drow option right in the PHB but anyone who is surprised or disheartened by this should just let it go. Drow have become the “Wolverine” of Dungeons and Dragons and fighting it is just too much work for this DM. Just ban them at your table if you hate them that much. I mean, you knew it was coming – Big D is the iconic character displayed for the Elf entry in the book… oh well.
Then you move on to the Classes. I could write thousands of words about the classes but I just want to hit some high points and low points and leave the rest a surprise for you to read for yourselves. First, the basic structure of all the classes works such that you take a basic class –Barbarian or Monk or Warlock – and then you choose an add on of some sort – a Primal Path or Monastic Tradition or Pact – to go along with that (usually around 3rd level) and these two choices set most of your class abilities. Some classes have more choices than others, especially clerics and wizards, where their domain choice or school serve as that second part of their class package.
In most cases, these are fairly what you’d expect if you’ve been enjoying D&D for the last 15 years or so. Monastic Traditions for example allow you to create three types of Monks, a very traditional OD&D style monk, an element-shaping monk, or well, a ninja. Fighters have options that allow them to play a very straightforward Champion-type, a Battlemaster type that has more fiddly bits if that’s your thing, and a gish-like Fighter/Mage type. I’ve seen some analysis of this which questions why you’d ever take this over the idea of multi-classing Fighter/Wizard and the bonuses/penalties of each choice. It’s worth pointing out that from my estimation both options have merits and flaws but also, Multiclassing is an optional subsystem that may not exist at all tables so the baked in Fighter/Mage archetype made me very happy. It just seems to reflect the thoughtfulness of the design which shows in almost all aspects of this new game.
A couple of points worth mentioning. I was surprised (and admittedly quite happy) when I read the Druid that they had cut the animal companion from the class. Animal companions were one of the most awkward parts of 3rd and 4th editions and are still problematic in Pathfinder. So their absence seemed a well-considered decision which allowed the druid class to refocus on other aspects such as spellcasting and shapechanging – both of which are well done in the new edition. But then I got to the ranger. The ranger is probably the only class in 5th edition that I’m disappointed in. Not only does it seem less interesting than the other classes but it has some very odd arbitrary restrictions which glare off the page (such as the oddly restrictive terrain stuff and the fact that favored enemy has almost no combat benefit). They also return to the animal companion problem.
One of the options for Rangers is Beast Master. This allows you to have an animal companion but strangely, in 4th edition style, you have to give up your action in combat to give the companion an action. Over time this restriction gets mitigated a little but still interacts with the action economy of the game (especially the two-weapon fighting version of the ranger) in odd ways. Obviously, again, there had to be a companion having ranger (see “Drizz’t”) and I’m fine with this but it shows how this design space is still awkward and uncomfortable for the writers of D&D and how balancing this mechanic is still a source of difficulty. Overall, I think this option will still see play and isn’t “bad” but just one of the more awkward parts of the system for a class that is uninspired by the standards of the new edition.
For me, I can’t wait to play in a 5th edition game because I want to make a Warlock right now. The warlock seems to take the best parts of the 4th ed warlock and the best parts of the 3.5 version and makes something really good with the whole.
Backgrounds are the next part of character creation and the newest element of 5th edition. I was skeptical of the implementation of backgrounds. I’m so used to these systems being built around the hard math that my natural reaction was to think that backgrounds would just become formalities with every martial character taking soldier and every cleric taking Acolyte, etc. Luckily, this is not the case and the Background options serve as excellent compliments to race and class without constraining choice. I’ve always enjoyed playing non-cleric characters with religious backgrounds and now I can do that and feel perfectly good about playing a fighter or rogue with the Acolyte background which helps my concept come to life mechanically rather than feeling like doing something like putting skill points in Religion was somehow wasted. And rather than being restrictive, the proficiency options attached to Backgrounds allow a player to simply replace redundant options with another of their choice. The freedom to mix and match and create backgrounds which really play to concept rather than becoming mechanical traps is a huge strength for 5th edition and a part of the game I see as fertile design space for individual groups and future products.
Overall, I think between the presentation of races, classes, and backgrounds that players have a host of amazing choices which will lead to a lot of great D&D play over the next several years.
I want to write about the system mechanics and magic but this is already so long that I think I’ll need to break it down into three parts the same way the PHB is broken down. So next I’ll work on discussing “Playing the Game” and then “Magic” where some of my favorite innovations of 5th ed show up.