D&D 5th Edition is much better than I anticipated

When I had a look at the first public playtest documents Wizards of the Coast released of then-called “D&D Next” I was cautiously optimistic. But over time I lost interest in the game. I still thought that Wizards was on the right track, but I was just not convinced that they would be able to excite me. Then came the ridiculously cheap Starter Set. It was just a great deal, I couldn’t ignore it. But still my excitement was pretty low.

Things changed when a friend offered to run the adventure included in the Starter Set for us. I looked over the pregenerated characters and immediately picked the Dwarf Cleric. I loved the idea that he was more of a soldier or mercenary than a priest and that he was wondering if the gods actually cared for the world. This totally blew my mind. A pregenerated character for the new D&D with some interesting ideas and a background ripe with roleplaying opportunities – that was something I hadn’t expected.

Since we only have two players in our party, the DM ran a short introductory adventure for us to help us level up a bit before we ventured forth. I was surprised how well the rules worked. The game definitely feels like D&D but is much lighter rules-wise than the last two editions. But it didn’t feel overly simplistic. For me it felt like a combination of the best elements from OD&D, D&D 3E and D&D 4E. The spell casters’ cantrips are now basically at-will powers like in D&D 4E. Rituals are back – which I love – and feats are more like talents in other games. Each feat is actually something cool your character can do instead of just being a +2 bonus to a skill roll. One of my favorite mechanics in D&D 5E is definitely the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. It’s simple and effective and if I am not mistaken is similar to a +5/+5 bonus but with no math involved.

I recently got the new PHB and it totally blew me away. The artwork is probably the best I’ve seen in a D&D product. It not just looks great but WotC also made sure that there’s much more diversity in the archetypes shown. The times of bikini chainmails and an all white cast are obviously over. I was also surprised that there was finally a section in the book that explained how roleplaying works. And I am overjoyed to see that the new D&D actively supports roleplaying. Especially backgrounds are a cool addition to the game and will help new and veteran players to come up with interesting characters.

All (or at least most of) the classic classes and races make their comeback. The available races are human, elf, dwarf, gnome, halfng, tiefling, dragonborn, as well as half-orc and half-elf. In most cases you have to pick one of several sub-races and even the Drow are available from the start. The available classes are the fighter, rogue, wizard, cleric, monk, paladin, ranger, warlock, barbarian and sorcerer. All of the classes allow various playstyles and don’t feel shoe-horned into any roles like in 4E. I was especially excited to see that the PHB now allows players to make interesting choices for their characters pretty early on in their career. So can fighers choose between several martial archetypes including one of my favorites – the eldritch knight. This is no review, so I won’t go into more detail here.

Overall I like the new D&D a lot. There are a lot of things it does right. The rules feel like D&D but are definitely streamlined and overhauled. A lot of the elements in the book harken back to older times but still retain a modern feel. For the first time in years I am actually thinking about running a D&D game again. I haven’t had the time to read the rules thoroughly yet, but my first impression is way better than I anticipated a couple of months ago.

Last but not least I want to talk about the D&D Basic rules. The one thing that will probably help D&D more than anything to get into the limelight again is the availability of a free and pretty complete ruleset in the form of the ever-evolving D&D Basic rules. Basically it’s possible now to run a game of D&D 5E from level 1 to 20 just using the material freely available from WotC. If you want more options in your game you can buy the PHB (and other products), but you’re not forced to. I am pretty sure that a lot of people will use the Basic rules to try the game out and if they like what they see, get the PHB as well. The Starter Set also fits neatly into that strategy. The adventure included is long enough to get you hooked and wanting for more.

I have to admit I was extremely skeptic about D&D 5E at first. The playtest gave me some cautious optimism, but failed to rekindle my excitement. But I have to say that playing the game changed my view of the game almost completely. We had a lot of fun and the mechanics work great and never felt in the way of having a good time. Heck, I am actually thinking about running D&D again.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

16 thoughts on “D&D 5th Edition is much better than I anticipated”

  1. I haven’t cracked open my 5e PHB yet… but you’re definitely making me want to. If it really pans out to be like you’re saying, it could be the “miracle” I’ve said it would take to put D&D back into the “primary/go-to RPG” spot that Pathfinder took over for the last 8ish years. It will be interesting to see.

  2. Sadly it does not do it for me as much as I thought after the Basic Rules. I am in the middle of reading the book, and it has a ton of great ideas with Backgrounds, Bonds, Flaws etc) as well as Advantage/Disadvantage. But in the end, it is still DnD. So yea, I think they succeeded in creating the best DnD since a long time, it reads great and seems to play even better. But I fear I am totally burned out on DnD like rulesystems. Wich annoys me to no end, because I want to love it and be excited to run it but I just am not. I look forward to play it at some point though.

      1. Lighter ones like Barbarians of Lemuria and it’s derivatives, D00lite as on Covert Ops. The only one that I would consider DnD like that I do not cringe of when I think of DMing it would be Numenera due to its simplicity. But yea, BoL and D00lite are the 2 on my mind at the moment.

        1. I haven’t played a variety of rule systems, so I’m curious: What characteristics make a rule system “D&D”? What qualities of a rule system have caused you to burn out?

          1. Interesting question. I think rigid class structures with zero to hero progression by levels with fixed rewards. Spell lists with hundreds of spells. Magic items as part of the leveling system. Monsters with various fixed abilities and power levels as well as a need to prepare encounters on the Gm side.

            DnD5 got rid of a lot of the stuff that 3.5 and 4 did but it still feels like a lot of things that where true about encounter balance are still there.

          2. I think it’s not something as easy as a definition, but an emergent property of many little subsystems interacting, a particular design style and goal, and the gameplay experience. The caveat being, of course, that it also is a completely subjective impression.

            There are many things in this new rules system that have already appeared in 4th Ed , yet it would have been a deal-breaker there, like Daily Powers, Action Surges, Second Wind, Healing surges, etc. Here you still have it in well-placed corners of the system, eased up as particular class traits, or dressed up in slightly different prose.

            You can also spot several rules that are just there for the sake of carrying on with the legacy. (hellooo Encumbrancy rules!).

          3. For me, what makes D&D “D&Dish” is:

            a) The 6 Attributes (those 6 specifically, with a tolerance for a 6th Attribute of “Comeliness”).
            b) Levels
            c) Strict classes … which carry a ton of baggage (mainly in the minds of the fans, and not necessarily in the mechanics itself … for example, there’s nothing even remotely wrong with ditching the Paladin and just having a Fighter/Cleric, moving some of the Paladin’s abilities around …but suggest that in certain fan circles, and they’re incapable of treating the Cleric in generic enough terms to have it overlap with the Paladin … even though, contrary to 1e mechanics, the Paladin is absolutely a subclass of the Cleric).
            d) weak skill system (3e probably had the strongest skill system (before 5e, not sure about 5e), but it still didn’t put attack abilities under skills; D&D skills tend to feel like this second class citizen thing).
            e) a strong differentiation between how monsters are built vs how characters are built (3e tried to bridge that, but it always felt awkward).
            f) spell slots (probably the reason 4e felt very unD&D to me).
            g) hit points, and the hit-point/healing-magic economy, and their odd implications about abstractions wrt to damage vs luck vs fatigue (ie. a hit is not always a “hit”).
            h) Armor Class, how it’s handled, and its implications.

            All of those things together typically spell a D&D-ish game, to me. And you typically find those sorts of things in D&D knock-off games (not just retroclones, but actual knock-offs). But, those things all vary when you cross over to, say, Rolemaster (weak classes, strong skill system, armor and “hit points” are completely different, no spell slots anywhere, and a very different Attribute system … but still very level based and still with a strong differentiation between monsters and characters). And, mechanically, Rolemaster doesn’t feel very D&D-ish (to me) at all… even though it started out as a set of extensions for D&D.

          4. (I meant this to be a quick addendum to my list of D&D-ish things, but it turned into a much longer essay — sorry)

            Oh another thing that makes D&D “D&Dish” to me, which sort of continues on the “weak skill system” is that fighting ability and spell ability are completely independent of the skill system. This is a legacy of how attack ability and spell casting ability were tied to class, and somewhat to the way the first skills (thieving skills) were a completely separate mechanic … and then later expanded by yet a 3rd mechanic (non-weapon proficiencies).

            Again, using RM/SM has a counter example (because it is also class and level based), non-weapon skills and weapon skill are both part of the same skill system (it’s just easier/cheaper for fighting classes to develop them). Spells also have some skills that are part of that same skill system, and knowing a spell at all eats some of your skill points as well. So, spells are also, both directly and indirectly, part of the skill system (or skill point economy). Even hit points are part of that same skill point economy.

            Other games are typically even more uniform/regular about combat ability vs spell ability vs other skill abilities. D&D has historically just been rather odd and irregular about how it implements these three things. And that’s part of what gives D&D it’s feel, to me — the lack of ability to directly interchange fighting ability, magical ability, skills, and potentially hit-points.

            This next bit is more cultural than systemic, but it is also partially systemic. AD&D (1e) started things down the path of codifying everything, and fixing how things are done within particular rules. This also made things less flexible, and less left open to interpretation … and that has implications about the stories you can tell with AD&D, and also the stories you can (or can’t easily) adapt to AD&D’s lineage.

            In D&D (in general, not just AD&D’s lineage) Fighters and Thieves are two different things, not just a “non-spell caster who leans more toward fighting or more toward subterfuge” (for example, before the official AD&D Barbarian class was released … there were endless debates about whether Conan was a Fighter or a Thief, and he couldn’t be both because he was human, and not really “dual-classed” … and the only way to really fix it was to put a bandaid on it by creating a new class (an admission that the existing classes weren’t sufficient)). That has an effect upon the stories you can tell, because the story has to fit that false dichotomy. Similarly for wizards vs clerics. Or, more strongly, for clerics vs druids. Or having to fit your fiction around the idea of spell slots (and dealing with inconsistencies about modeling fiction that doesn’t work with spell slots). These false differences then creep into everything.

            Every game has that to some degree, because the system defines the “physics” of the game and thus the game-world. But D&D’s quirks have, in my experience, more directly “gotten in the way” of those things. The result is that D&D based game worlds all have similar feels to them, partially imposed by the quirky mechanics. Whereas, game worlds based around less-quirky game mechanics seem to be easier to adapt to other less-quirky games (and not as easy to adapt to D&D)… that sort of feeds into what makes things “D&D-ish”.

            To give you an example of D&D rules that don’t fit this pervasive presence of false dichotomies: around the time 3.5e came out, Unearthed Arcana published 3 “generic classes”. I never met anyone (other than myself) that viewed them as actually playable classes, as opposed to a way to build a new class. Yet, these classes were in fact completely playable, as long as you shed the typical quirky mindsets of D&D. You don’t need two or three different spell casting classes, “Spellcaster” is enough. You don’t need N different fighting classes, 1 class that focuses on combat is enough. And the paladin is just someone that multiclasses between Spellcaster and Fighter (more toward Fighter). But, no one really embraced that because it didn’t feel D&Dish to use those rules in a “rules as written” way. Which supports what I’m saying about the quirky and somewhat arbitrary dichotomies in how D&D does certain things: if you get rid of those dichotomies, even within the D&D system itself, you lose the D&D feel. And that doesn’t get embraced by the D&D core fan base. (and, I think that’s somewhat what happened with 4e, as well)

            I’m not knocking D&D, mind-you. The 3e family is still one of my favorite RPG’s ever. Even with its clear limitations. I’m currently on a bent to mix FATE and OSR, because I think the BECMI D&D had some superior wisdom compared to AD&D, and is a fine boilerplate for RPG’ing in general. I wouldn’t be bothering with that if I didn’t feel that D&D was positively influential upon the history if RPG mechanics. But, that doesn’t mean I ignore its quirks, or what makes D&D feel “D&Dish”.

  3. I was content with D&D Basic. The release model and level of structure of the rules (i.e., less “crunch” then 3.5 and 4) are positives. However, the stylization of the D&D world is something that continues to agitate me. The extra sub-classes and races that have been added over time don’t seem to be compatible with my apparently reactionary sensibilities. Half-demon and half-angel and half-serpent characters rolling around in a party of highly specific classes that have specific rules made for them. Considering the PHP emphasises the extras, I’m unsure if I will buy it. That is no fault of its own, though, for I just have different preferences. Fifth edition has been a move in a healthy direction for the franchise.

    1. Unfortunately, I can’t edit my post (sorry for the spam). I was reflecting on my post, and I wanted to clarify with a realisation that I had. I’m okay with diversity. We don’t need to be Tolken purists (I’m not). For me it needs to be believable. Some type of dragon kin are believable, as is nearly anything else, if viewed in relative isolation. Let’s have a world where nearly everyone is that type, and then others are various types of lizard folk. That makes sense to me. Similarly, if we are going to have diversity within one community, which is difficult because diversity in fantasy is ~diverse~, then I need to see political structures that support that, from settlement to governance, and there need to be mechanisms for any tensions (something other game systems do well). These questions need to be applied to the party: How did these beings come together? How are they similar? How are they different? Are there any incompatibilities?

      If players really wanted something that broke the world, I would probably allow it because the purpose is their enjoyment. However, I really strive to have a world that functions and makes sense by whatever standards have been established. These standards can be anything, but they need to have some level of consistency within the world, itself.

  4. I’m presently running an online game of DnD for 3 players. The last time I DMed the franchise was fifteen years ago with AD&D. Although I’ve read and enjoyed some material from Pathfinder and D&D4E, I never care myself to play again. I chose instead other games, like classic/new World of Darkness, Fate, Savage Worlds, etc.

    I like that it seems as easy to play as it is easy to run. There are plenty of choices for the player characters, yet at the same time each subsystem is clear and simple by itself, and they play along nice enough in rules-intensive situations like combat.

    If I were to pick a favorite part though would be the new backgrounds, trait, ideal, bond and flaws. They’re simple an unobtrusive enough that you can ignore if you wish, yet they can provide a strong platform for building and roleplaying your character. It’s not “indie” mechanics, not by a long shot. But for D&D, it’s a giant leap.

  5. I have been GMing a campaign since the final playtest. 5e is by far my favourite edition. For the GM it makes a lot of things much easier. The scale at which the mechanics work is smaller, so you know that a DC 25 is always going to be a challenge. Less so in higher levels, but a challenge still. And advantage/disadvantage is just a boon to GMs. When in doubt you can always grant one or the other.

    Another thing I like is that NPCs are no longer assumed to be complete characters in their own regard, with class levels and strict abilities and such. It leaves room for you to treat them as monsters, in the you can give them the stats and abilities you want.

    I also dig that magic items are not as prevalent. In my game so far I’ve only given the party odd and unusual items with marginal uses, so my players need to get a bit creative. It’s been great.

    So I’m quite happy with this edition, and I share your sentiments fully.

    1. “Magic items are not as prevalent” … I don’t think that’s necessarily an edition issue. I ran a 3e game that was VERY scarce for magic items of any kind. It does foster creativity and caution on the part of the players, but none of it was about which edition of the game was being played.

      1. It was possible to play like that but the rules and the mechanical balance always assumed that you had magic items in 3.x. 4 was even worse, since magic items were tied into the progression of characters quite explicitly, like a video game basically.

        5e no longer assumes magic items are part of the natural progression of a character. That does make a difference, though you are entirely correct that there was nothing to stop you from running an item-light game in previous editions, but it meant going against the system.

  6. Just wanted to say, I agree with your assessment completely. I was pretty much “over” D&D and stopped even listening about it, until I actually looked at the new rules in the Starter Set, and the more I looked at them, the better I liked them. Now I’ve got the PHB in hand and I’m absolutely jazzed.

    As grateful as I am to Pathfinder for getting me through the “dark times,” I am definitely burnt out on using such a crunchy system, but I could never get my players interested in Savage Worlds. But 5E is simple and fast, but still robust, and I am very pleased with it, and I think my players will be too, once we all get on the same page.

    -The Gneech

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