Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and Player’s Handbook Review

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, step right up, finally your favorite RPG blogger (I am your favorite, right?) will get around to reviewing the new edition of D&D, and specifically the Player’s Handbook!

Strap in kids, this is gonna be a long one!

Let me begin by saying that I approached 5e with the expectation that I would not like it. I’ve said this several times before, but my introduction to D&D was 3.5, and in my mind that has been the definitive, correct version. I could give a list of reasons I didn’t like fourth edition, but they all boil down to dammit, it’s different from 3.5! That makes it wrong!

Well folks, I like fifth edition! I think it’s a nice blend of what made 3.5 great and what they were trying to accomplish in 4e; or to put it another way, they’ve achieved the streamlining and accessibility they were trying to achieve in 4e while still achieving a very 3e feel to everything.

In thinking about how to do this review, I considered a few different approaches; chapter by chapter, individual mechanics, etc. I think what I’ll do is break this down into things I like, things I’m not sure about, and things I don’t like (no system is perfect, after all). Being the negative Nelly that I am, I’m going to start with…

Things I Don’t Like

Skills and Proficiencies

I won’t go into to much detail, because a) I’ve already talked about it, and b) I don’t dislike this as much as I did when I first perused the basic rules document, but I’m less than thrilled with how skills are being handled. It’s not really for practical reasons, but for personal taste. A friend of mine and I have an ongoing debate about the importance of skills; my point is that a long, diverse and detailed lists of skills is important in customizing a character, making making your 5th level rouge different mechanically from every other 5th level rouge. My friend’s point is that no game system can account for single thing that a character might ever do, and that having a long list of skills makes a system needlessly complicated, so it’s better to have fewer but more flexible traits. This debate of ours is like XTC Vs. Adam Ant: neither side is better than the other, we’re just approaching the question from different perspectives.

The 5e approach to skills is on my friend’s side. Skills (and there aren’t many of them) are just specific uses of ability checks. Characters have a proficiency bonus based on their character level, and gain proficiencies from race, class, and background on skills, saves, tools and weapons. When you’re making an attack with a proficient weapon, using a proficient tool, making a save with proficiency, casting a spell or making an ability check in which a skill proficiency applies, you get to add your proficiency bonus. This makes the system more flexible and easy to understand. From a practical viewpoint it works great. If you’re like me though, you might think the system is a little confining in your options during character creation and advancement. Content versus form. There is no right or wrong.

Feats

In 3.5, and in fact most other systems I’ve played (including terrible ones with broken systems like Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space), the system gives you a small number of special traits that give you bonuses or unique abilities to further set you apart from other characters, specifically in a way that makes them more awesome, like ambidexterity, extra hit points, special senses, etc. In some games their simply called Traits or Advantages, World of Darkness calls them Merits, and in D&D their called Feats.

Well, I got bad news, Feat lovers, but Feats are now an optional rules variant that come at the cost of an Ability Increase (which, incidentally, is now a function of class level instead of character level, but more on that later.)

Halflings

Halflings are my favorite D&D race. In the two games I’ve played that lasted more than a session or two I played Halflings, and in both games my fellow players kept teasing me about being a Hobbit.

But Halflings are not Hobbits. It’s not just that they’re from different settings, there are key differences. In short, this is a Halfling:

Lidda, from 3.5 Player's Handbook, image found at http://danddgame.blogspot.com/2010/05/main-heroes.html

Lidda, from 3.5 Player’s Handbook, image found at http://danddgame.blogspot.com/2010/05/main-heroes.html

… and this is a Hobbit:

Proudfoot, from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; image found at http://www.theargonath.cc/characters/proudfoot/proudfoot.html

Proudfoot, from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; image found at http://www.theargonath.cc/characters/proudfoot/proudfoot.html

Pretty clearly not the same race, right? Yeah well…

Most of the images of Halflings in the new PHB have them looking distinctly Hobbit-like; that is, fat and/or jolly, singing and drinking and not acting like the stealthy rogue favoring race they’re supposed to be. I know, it’s just the art work, they haven’t made Halflings more Hobbit-like mechanically, but still, I don’t like it.

Racial Ability Score Penalties

There aren’t any! So races are good at different things, but there aren’t any races that are bad at stuff? Dwarves aren’t dinged on Charisma from being all secluded in their mountain kingdoms? Elves don’t take a hit on Strength from their light frames? Most folks probably wouldn’t see this as a negative thing, but it just makes sense to me that if you can have bonuses from your race, you should also be able to have penalties.

Things I’m Not Sure About

Advantage and Disadvantage

This is an interesting new mechanic, but until I’ve actually gotten to play a 5e game and see it in action, I’m not sure what to think about it.

Some situations give you either advantage or disadvantage on a check, save or attack. When you have either you roll two d20s instead of one. With advantage, you use the higher die, and with disadvantage the lower.

The thing that’s got me scratching my head is I can’t really see how this affects the outcome. Does this really make success in an action more or less likely? I mean, imagine that you have advantage or disadvantage on a check with a DC of 15, and both dice come up 16 or higher. Did having advantage really help you? Did disadvantage hurt you? The result is the same regardless of which die you use. Alternatively, if one die is a success and the other a failure, than does having advantage do more than give you a (I think probably) false sense of having dodged a bullet, and does disadvantage only serve to make the failure more annoying? I’m sure someone who knows more than I do about probability math can see what, if any, effects this might have, but for the time being I’m not sure if I consider this new mechanic a good or bad thing. (By the way, if you can clear this up for me, please do so in comments.)

Update

I just found this by a guy who knows stuff about probability, and according to him advantage and disadvantage make significant differences in check results. He’s even got graphs and shit. So I guess we’ll count it as a good thing.

Odd Numbered Racial Ability Score Adjustments

Some of the bonuses to ability scores granted by race are +1 instead of +2. That’s strange to me. Ability scores are usually (though not always) the part of the ability that matters least; what really matters is the modifier it grants, and those modifiers increase on even numbered scores (-1 at 8, +0 and 10, +1 at 12, etc.). Because of that, I think odd numbered adjustments are kind of pointless. For example, if you’re playing a Drow, and as such get a +1 to your Charisma score, and the number you rolled, picked, or purchased (depending on the method your DM is having you use) is 12, that increase from 12 to 13 doesn’t change the modifier and is therefore not all that helpful. Yes, I understand that gets you one step closer to 14, and thus a higher modifier, but I’ve always thought that racial score adjustments should always be even numbered so that they always change the modifier.

That being said, I do like that Humans, instead of having no ability adjustments (as in 3.5), get a +1 in all six abilities, so over all I can’t say I solidly like or dislike the odd numbered adjustments.

Things I Like

Combat

The combat chapter in the 3.5 PHB was 57 pages. In the 4e book, it was 31 pages. In the 5e book?

Nine. Nine pages. That’s it. Nine!

That ought to give you an idea of how streamlined and straightforward combat is in the new system. Sure, it’s more abstract and less realistic, but I’ll happily trade that for not having to spend 20 minutes figuring out the outcome of a grapple, or explaining to players how opportunity attacks work. It’s all easy and understandable. The pointy end goes in the other man.

Also, it leaves things more in the DMs hands than in the system, which is always a good thing. Right?

Ability Score Improvement

In the new rules, ability score increases (now called improvements) are granted by class level instead of character level, as in 3.5. At first glance this seems like a positive, but then I had a thought and looked at the Score Improvements for each class. Lo and behold, they happen at the same levels (4th, 12th, 16th, and 19th) for every class except for Fighters, who also get one at 6th, 8th and 14th level. So why make it a function of class? Why not keep it a function of character level (the way proficiency bonuses are) and make a Fighter class feature that gives extra improvements at 6th, 8th and 14th level? Is this, in fact, a pointless change?

Then I realized the benefits to a multi class character! If you have 4 levels in two classes, you get two ability score improvments (three if one of those classes is Fighter) when a single class character would only have one. So yeah, it’s a good thing after all!

3e Style Classes and Spell Casting

This, more than maybe anything else, is what earns 5e it’s official Spelunking RPGs seal of approval, because one of my biggest complaints about 4e was the way spells worked; specifically that they worked the same way as non magical effects. I really believe that the mechanics of magic should be different from other kinds of actions. Furthermore, the whole idea of having the special abilities of every class work the same way just seemed weird to me, and was probably the clearest indicator that 4e was trying to cash in on the popularity of MMOs.

Now, instead of the at will, per turn, per encounter and per day powers from 4e, classes are structured in a very third edition-like way, and the mechanics for spell casting are almost identical, though in both cases things have been cleaned up and made more understandable. It’s good! It’s really, really good!

The Artwork

It kicks ass (except for the way they’re depicting Halflings). Seriously, it’s a beautiful book.

The Disclaimer

From the copyright page:

“Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of splitting the party, sticking appendages in the mouth of a leering green devil face, accepting a dinner invitation from bugbears, storming the feast hall of a hill giant, angering a dragon of any variety, or saying yes when the DM asks, ‘Are you really sure?'”

Summary

I was going to go into more individual points but I’m already at about 1900 words on this thing and I’m sure neither of us wants to be here all day, so I’ll wrap it up. The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons combines the style and format of third edition with the accessibility of fourth edition, capturing the best of both worlds. I like it a lot, despite the few complaints I have, and I think I’m actually ready to accept it as my new difinitive version. I eagerly await the realease of both the Monster Maual later this month, and the DM Guide next month, and will probably be doing reviews of those books too.

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Dragons Over Normandy Update: Orcs (or, Why I’m Not A Racist)

A while ago I talked about an idea I had for a game based in a modern version of a D&D world which is going through a global conflict similar to the first and second world wars, and was also seeing the same kinds of political and social changes the real world was seeing during the early to mid 20th century. I haven’t talked about it in a while, but I have been kicking some ideas around. As one might expect, a lot of these ideas are centered around which D&D races would serve as analogues for which real world countries and cultures. Though I didn’t get this here on the blog, some of my friends who I told about this face to face had a knee jerk reaction to one of these in that they found it kind of racist, and that was my idea that Orcs would be this world’s answer to Native Americans. It didn’t occur to me until someone had this reaction, but I know realize that it kind of looks like I’m saying Native Americans are evil barbarians. That’s not the case at all.

On the social/political changes side of the whole project idea, I wanted to reflect the way that the major industrial powers of the early 20th century were undergoing changes in the way they treated certain ethnic minorities. Being an American, the racial tensions that first come to mind is African-Americans (specifically the long terms effects of slavery) and Native Americans (specifically the long-term effects of the U.S.’s genocidal treatment of them). So to find analogues for them in D&D, we need races who are typically seen as evil, worthless, and totally OK to kill and victimize, and who are also very familiar. The two races I think of first who fit that bill are Orcs and Goblins, and I decided to make the Goblins the race who were under the yoke of slavery and the Orcs the ones who were fighting to preserve their own land from foreign invaders. The idea here is not that Native Americans are the way people think of Orcs being, but that Orcs should be seen the way Native Americans actually were: dehumanized victims of racist, military expansion.

Here’s a rough idea of the story of Orcs in this world:

At some point in the pre-industrial eras of this world, the various races were by and large consolidated and separated into their own lands; The Dwarf Kingdom gathered into the world’s largest mountain range, the various Elf sub races unified under a single empire in the eastern woodlands (except the Drow who remained in the Underdark), the Humans came together in the large wintry northern territories and became very isolated, secure in the knowledge that no one can mess with them unless you are the Wild Elves, and so on and so forth. At first the were still a lot of unclaimed, and thus more or less neutral, areas, and it was here that the nomadic Halflings thrived. The one race who had already existed like this, however, were the Orcs, who originated on a very large island (or perhaps a very small continent) west of the great mountains (now home to the Dwarves) and accessible through various island chains. In earlier parts of history the Orcs maintained a presence on the mainland, and much of the world’s history is marked by wars with the Orcs. But as all this nationalizing and solidifying of kingdoms happened, the Orcs withdrew to their own lands.

As time went by, these various kingdoms began to expand, leaving less and less unclaimed space for the Halflings. They began to realize that they need to abandon their nomadic ways and found a kingdom of their own, but by this point that was almost impossible to do as the few unclaimed territories left were all hotly contested by kingdoms that they didn’t have a chance against in a conflict. Then their leaders had a neat idea; the Orcs have this giant island, and everybody hates Orcs and are worried that they may come back, so we could probably get support from at least some of these kingdoms to invade Orc Country and turn it into Halfling Country.

And so it came to pass. The Halflings biggest backer by far were the Dwarves, who initially used their military might and superior technology (the Dwarves led this world’s industrial revolution) to establish a set of colonies for the Halflings in Orc Country, originally under Dwarven rule, but they eventually gained independence and spread across the island/continent thing in a kind of “manifest destiny”.

What this meant for the Orcs was centuries of warfare trying to repel these invaders that cost millions of Orcish lives and led to their near extinction. By the time of the Great War most of the Orcs are living in reservations and resisting societal efforts to make them more like the mainland races. One Halfling famously said “kill the Orc, save the man.

And this sets the stage for Orcs in the modern era, as the world is entering the largest and most brutal war it has ever faced. Orcs are being asked to fight and die on behalf of the very government that has been killing them, literally and figuratively, for centuries. They are burdened by the common notion that they are evil, savage, and barbaric. Their ancient societies are deemed chaotic and uncivilized, and the Orcs themselves are thought to be servants of an evil and brutal god (although the word “slave” would be more accurate). Dwindling numbers, fierce racism, second class citizens in their own homeland.

So you see, it’s not that I have a low opinion of Native Americans, it’s that I have a high opinion of Orcs.

 

On a completely unrelated note, I want to apologize for last week. Usually when I have nothing for you I tell you, but I was silent last time. I have no excuses, so I’m not going to pretend to. I’m just very sincerely sorry that you nice folks you decided that this little blog of mine is worth following were forgotten and ignored last week. Please forgive me, and I hope this post makes up for it.