Lots of people are talking about 5th Edition, D&D Next, or just simply “Dungeons & Dragons” per WoTC, which is utterly confusing for a brand that has put out different editions and variations of the same product. Anyway, if you were somehow unaware, the newest iteration of Dungeons and Dragons is live. The free basic rules are available as a PDF from Wizards of the Coast. The Starter Set is also available for purchase ($20). The perennial triumvirate of core rule books will not start their staggered release until August (PHB).
So I wanted to do the summary first and then speak about the specifics from the free basic rules.
It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a solid rules system, but that’s about it. The newest edition will allow you to play enjoyable sessions. It does nothing poorly thus far, but conversely it does nothing great either. In the end I’ll play it, but I’m always going to listen to the full list of rules system alternatives before deciding on it.
Trying to describe the new rules I would say it fits somewhere between 2nd & 3rd edition with some retooling of the mechanics with smart RPG design from the last two decades, D&D and otherwise.
What Once Was Will Be Again
It’s interesting to see the cyclical nature of D&D development reach arguably full circle. The development of third edition was greatly tied to the fan base wanting a more specialized, more intricate game. Enter feats, a robust skill system, and a big jump in rules minutiae. It allowed its players to cover almost any situation that came up. It was also a candy land for power gamers.
I think two major points spurred the development for 4e.
Aging fan base: New blood was absent from the hobby, video games and especially MMOs were/are stealing the young demographic
Time: People did not like how long it took to play a lot of third edition. Fans complained about how long it took to do combat, and that’s without difficult rules quandaries like grappling.
Streamlined: faster to play and lowered the barrier of entry by using mechanics more similar to video games. The classes were also similar so fighters were as interesting to play at level 10 as wizards. In addition the system was designed with DM’s in mind. Often a thankless job, 4e even with all its problems, is a breeze to run behind the screen.
Problems arose with 4e of course and a lot of valid finger pointing can be done to a lot of different responsible parties. Upper tier game play was an absolute mess most easily summed up as option and feature overload.
So 5th edition, D&D Next. Two plus years of R&D, extensive play testing from the public, and now it’s live. It’s a return to roots, a prodigal design that scours through the life of the brand to distil the quintessential when people think of D&D. Unfortunately I think this is an idea borne of the edition wars, that a rules system either can or cannot be D&D enough. But there’s no measuring board and D&D has mutated, changed subjectively for better and worse over four decades. It’s like saying Cherry Coke isn’t Coca-Cola enough. Of course this is the same thinking that upsets people when Final Fantasy games aren’t Final Fantasy enough.
But from the development history of D&D I find myself wondering if there’s not a reason to return to the D&D Basic and AD&D framework. There are two polarizing factions. One faction of the target audience wants simpler rules and fast play. The success of things like Savage Worlds, FATE, OSR, Fate, and others show that pretty clearly. On the other end of the spectrum you still have a significant audience who loves the complexity and ‘crunch’ of 3.X, Pathfinder, and other systems. So why not do that, support two separate lines? Right out of the box you almost double your supplements and thus revenue opportunities as a developer. I think it also may be able to save some of the vitriol that’s so pervasive in the hobby’s community.
But for anything like that to happen WoTC needs to make some changes. First and foremost I feel like they need to find someone with a plan to actually run the brand. Let’s look at their management history real quick:
1997 – Purchases D&D brand
2000 – Releases D&D 3rd Edition w/ OGL
2003 – Releases D&D 3.5
2005 – Begins development of 4e
2008 – Releases 4e, Drops support of all prior editions, no OGL (thanks Pathfinder)
2010 – Releases D&D Essentials
2012 – Begins D&D Next development, Re-releases prior D&D edition materials from the Disney Vault back catalog, Kills all 4e/Essentials future supplements
2014 – Releases D&D (D&D Next, and I believe no OGL)
WoTC does an about-face with the D&D Brand every 2-3 years, hard ones. Like doing a jibe when sailing and not telling your friend and laughing as the boom swings around and violently hits him in the head and knocks him out of the boat. Hard not to be a disgruntled consumer considering the treatment we’ve collectively received.
Particulars of Dungeons & Dragons (seriously, it needs some sort of identifier)
Things I Like:
- Proficiencies, I like the across the board flat bonus.
- Exploration & Social Interaction Mechanics, Finally some reference on how to run/resolve the other 2/3 of the game that’s not combat.
- Multiclassing, I like 4e but it’s multiclassing was useless.
- Gain a Feat OR Ability Increase, Options for how to run your games and how players can develop their characters that actually involves a tradeoff. Also +1 to 2 or +2 to 1 ability makes ability increases always useful.
- Human Racial Benefit, Viable mechanical benefit to play a human, it even offers a variant!
- One-Size-Fits-All Shield, Shield or no shield, there is no buckler (…yet)
- Advantage/Disadvantage, Who doesn’t like to roll more dice?
- Attack of Opportunity, Only provokes when moving away from an enemy
Things I Dislike:
- Vancian Casting, It’s improved but you can only varnish a turd so much
- Too Many Situational and Too Few General Purpose Spells, A cornerstone of Vancian casting systems so you can play the ‘guess what kind of trouble you’ll get into today’ mini game with your DM.
- Healing Spell Preparation, I think you should always be able to default cast a heal spell without wasting a prepped spell selection on it
- Sneak Attack, I want one devastating alpha strike, after that leave all the fighting glory to the FIGHTER
- 3×3 Alignment, Silly vestigial trope. Alignment only matters for divine classes and even then it can be replaced by common sense
- No Reflex Bonus From Shield!
- No 4e Disease Framework, Hopefully shows up in the DMG
- Inspiration, Feels tacked on. I wish it had beneficial options other than just granting advantage
So yeah, it’s good; not great, but good. I think there are better options depending on the specifics of the campaign you’re trying to evoke, but it’s a solid entry for the brand and should be pretty easy for new players and veterans alike to pick up and enjoy.
Enjoy it now, you may only have 2-3 years before WoTC completely ruins it.