First off, apologies for all the reviews I’m behind on. I did, however, cave and pick up the D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, and given my vocal anti-D&D stance, I’ve actually been asked by a few people to do a review, so here goes:
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: First off, this book was not provided by Wizards of the Coast as a comp. You can get it at your local game store for $50, or on Amazon for noticeably less. You can also download the basic rules from the D&D website, which covers the four iconic races (elves, dwarves, humans and halflings) and the four iconic classes (fighter, wizard, rogue and cleric).
The next thing you should probably know is where I come from: If you haven’t been reading my #RPGaDay posts, I got started with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition, and I used to have a massive collection across most of the campaign worlds. I tried the earlier versions (I don’t like “Race as Class”), and I DMed 3.5 for a while (and it is entirely too much work for the reward for me). I’ve read 4th edition but only played the 4e-based board games (which are crazy amounts of fun). I signed up for the playtest but never really got a chance to take it seriously, though I was impressed with the speed of character creation. I played a session online with a group, which was alright, but a) I’m not used to playing online and b) I’m not used to being a player instead of a DM/GM. Of course, I read the basic rules but they left me flat.
For some reason, despite preparing a 13th Age game to scratch the D&D itch, I caved and got the Player’s Handbook.
One thing that is screamingly obvious is that D&D is completely shaped like itself now. It makes references to D&D literature from the past (especially Drizzt and Dragonlance novels), drawing specifically on what came before as much as it does things like The Lord of the Rings or Lankhmar.
In addition to dwarves (hill and mountain), elves (high, wood and dark), halflings (lightfoot and stout) and humans, the Player’s Handbook adds dragonborn, gnomes (forest and rock), half-elves, half-orcs and tieflings. The additional classes are barbarian, bard, druid, monk, paladin, ranger, sorcerer and warlock.
There are no race or class minimums or restrictions, and even classic alignment restrictions are removed, so you technically can be a Chaotic Evil Halfling Paladin if you so choose.
Now, and this raised a stink among some folk, the first two levels are generally easy to blow through. Level 2 is only 300 XP and level 3 is only 900, but this is by design…essentially, they are “training levels”, and every class makes a meaningful choice at (generally, but not always) 3rd level that causes their character to branch out. Barbarians adopt a Primal Path, Bards join a College, Clerics…okay, they’ve already made their big choice, Druids join a Circle (at 2nd level, not 3rd), Fighters adopt a Martial Archetype, Monks adopt a Monastic Tradition, Paladins swear a Sacred Oath, Rangers adopt a Ranger Archetype, Rogues select a Rogueish Archetype, Sorcerers reveal a Sorcerous Origin at 1st level, Warlocks make a pact with an Otherworldly Patron (at 1st level) and Wizards embrace an Arcane Tradition at 2nd level.
Gone are Prestige Classes, and class progression is much closer to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with customization coming in the form of the path you take your character down, as well as one of my other favorite mechanics: Backgrounds. What were you before you were an adventurer? An Acolyte? A Charlatan? An Entertainer? A Sage? A Hermit? A Noble?
See, this version of D&D totally eschews Starting Age and aging bonuses/penalties, so your characters aren’t necessarily assumed to be fresh-faced kids off the farm…they just hadn’t made the leap from what they were before to exceptional beings out to shape the world…and while some classes and backgrounds mesh together very well, there is nothing forcing you to take High Elf Sage Wizard. Maybe you wanna be a Half-Orc Folk Hero Ranger or even a (and this is the first character I rolled up with the PHB) Human Paladin with a Criminal background (who would be taking the Oath of Vengeance at 3rd level). Each background gives you specific skill and tool proficiencies, as well as additional starting equipment and a series of tables you can roll on or pick from, giving you a defining personality trait, an Ideal, a Bond and a Flaw. If you roleplay those traits well, you get Inspiration, which can be used to gain Advantage (in which you roll 2d20 and take the higher roll) or cancel Disadvantage (in which you would roll 2d20 and take the lower result).
Which is another thing: Advantage/Disadvantage largely does away with slews of situational modifiers altogether. You get Advantage or Disadvantage. No fuss, no muss, no book keeping.The 9 point alignment grid is still around, but it is no longer the overbearing force it was in earlier games. Paladins no longer Detect Evil per se, they detect Celestials, Fiends and Undead. Protection from Good and Protection from Evil are now combined into Protection from Evil and Good and actually protects you from Aberrations, Celestials, Elementals, Fey, Fiends and Undead. It’s a very interesting paradigm shift. Alignment is described as most humanoid beings choose good or evil, while a lot of “evil races” have it thrust on them by their Gods, and beings from another plane are actually made up of the essence of their alignment.
Multiclassing is still present, and it’s closer to the 3rd edition version…but not exactly. You don’t have a “favored class” and you don’t have experience point penalties for class disparities…but you do have to have a score 13 or higher in the main stats for both the class you are in now and the one you are wanting to multiclass to. (This is explained as requiring the natural aptitude to bypass the presumed training starting characters had in the class).
Feats are still a thing, they are just fewer in number than in 3rd edition, and they are completely optional. At five points in the 20 level progression, you can either take an Ability Increase or a Feat, with Feats being things like Polearm Master (which lets you attack with both ends of the polearm AND you get an opportunity attack on creatures entering your reach), Magic Initiate (which lets you dip into a spellcasting class without actually taking a full level), Linguist (which gives you +1 to Intelligence, three new languages AND the ability to create ciphers) and Great Weapon Master, which allows you to either make a second attack if you take a foe down, or take a -5 to your roll in exchange for +10 damage.
The addition of Hit Dice is one of those controversial elements, essentially natural healing used during rest. The way Hit Points are described in 5e is that you show no real wear and tear until you’re at half your maximum HP. At that point, you start showing scrapes and cuts, bruises and abrasions. It’s that 0 HP hit that REALLY gets you. As you begin to die out, you make Death Saves…fail three, and you’re dead. Get reduced to your maximum HP in negative HP, and you’re dead regardless. That said, this isn’t 2e, in which you top out at rolling hit dice for 9 levels, then get a flat bonus…so I could see higher levels having very bloated HP, without the scaling damage of a 13th Age to counter balance it.
WHAT WORKS: That old feeling is back. The Player’s Handbook lit a spark in me that the playtest, the Starter Set and the basic rules failed to accomplish. The customization options in such a streamlined package just feels a lot like the successor to 2nd Edition I always wanted and never got. It seems like it will be exceedingly easy to expand (hopefully without power creep) by adding new backgrounds and Archetypes/Oaths/Colleges/Etc. The free support is amazing. There’s already a nice amount of monsters available and the Monster Manual is still a month out. Oh, and the book is *gorgeous*, to boot, with sensibly dressed female adventurers alongside one of the most diverse set of characters I’ve seen in an RPG book. Grids, maps and minis are 100% optional. No more planning out your path of advancement from the beginning and navigating arcane multiclassing rules to get into your chosen Prestige Class. No more Skill Points. They got me to buy into D&D for the first time in over a decade.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK: I’m not sold on the Ranger’s Beast Master build. I literally hate that the Help action requires being within 5 ft of the foe you’re helping with, when chucking a rock as a distraction should accomplish the same thing. Not sure those races are balanced, either. Dragonborn look particularly rough. The Edition Wars are still rearing their ugly head. There is nothing here that’s going to sway you if you’re already dead set against class and level.
CONCLUSION: So far, so good. I’m putting faith back in the Wizards crew for now. I can’t go back to AD&D2e. I’ve played too many games that are far too elegant to do that again. This book doesn’t make me nostalgic to play D&D…this book makes me want to play *this* D&D. They could screw it up with the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master’s Guide…but so far, it’s off to a great start. No more Prestige Classes and road mapping your characters from the beginning. No more bean counting skill points and trying to remember if this is a full rank or a half rank. Yeah, if you and another player in the group both play Fighters who both become Eldritch Knights at first level, you’re going to have a lot of similarities (especially if you also took the same Background)…but the same is true in Savage Worlds if you both pick Frenzy and Sweep and so on.
I have been vocally anti-D&D for a lot of years now. Even been downright snobby about moving on to “better games”…and don’t get me wrong here: I ain’t giving up Savage Worlds. But I am ready to eat crow. I am ready to be proven wrong, and to let D&D scratch the D&D itch for me. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.