Sunday, January 31, 2016

RPG Review: "Dungeons & Dragons" Fifth Edition Players Handbook

It's hard to believe that the D&D Fifth Edition Players Handbook been out since August of 2014. That's how long I've been trying to do a review of this thing. Wow, I suck.

In retrospect, though, it's good that I've had plenty of time to goof around with this new system. Reviewing an RPG system without playing it is like declaring a scientific theory sound without testing it.

But I credit Fifth Edition for all of the D&D in my life right now. In fact, his you hopped into a time machine and told fourteen-year-old me that he'd be running and / or playing in no less than four different D&D campaigns in the distant future of 2016 he'd laugh politely at the gray-bearded wind-bag and then bolt out of the room.

But there's a sound reason for this. Read on and I'll endeavor to explain why this version of the game might very well be my favorite edition yet.

I've broken things down to chapter-specific notes and observations and I'll polish everything off at the end with some final thoughts. Let's get started, shall we?  

Chapter 1: Step-By-Step Characters
My first Fifth Edition D&D character: Braemar "Bugslayer" Barrelhouse, the stout halfling ranger, gone on to some thrilling exploits.

  • The Ability Score Summary is a handy, at-a-glance description of what each stat means, what Class it's most handy for and which Races get a perk from it. This is very handy for getting started.  
  • A +4 Ability Score Modifier for an 18 brings shades of AD&D's exceptional Strength to mind. 
  • I was blown away by how easy it was to get to Level Two. But, then again, if you're lookin' to attract new players with short attention spans I suppose it makes sense to give them a cookie as soon as possible.  
Chapter 2: Races
  • Humans get a +1 to every single freakin' Ability Score right across the board, unless they start with the Variant Human Trait which bumps up only two scores but also includes a starting Skill and a Feat. I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around this one since it results in some pretty stacked characters up front, especially in conjunction with the "roll four 6-sided dice and add up the highest three results" rule. I'd be tempted to re-institute the olde skool 3d6 cold roll again if not for the fact that only Humans get this incredible starting boost.
  • The Proficiency Bonus incorporates so many oddball modifiers and simulates improving skills so easily.
  • Fuck all you haterz I'm happy to see Gnomes back as Player Character. Not only is it oddly reassuring for me to see these guys come back, the new Forest and Rock flavors actually makes them pretty tempting to play. 
  • Knowing that Dragonborn and Tieflings were added to Fouth Edition in a blatant attempt to attract  people who want more "badass" characters, I really don't care one way or the other. The bottom line is: I'm not one to bitch about having more options rather than less. 
Chapter 3: Classes
  • Well, color me surprised when I discovered that the answer to that age-old adage of "when Barbarians fly" turns out to be "Level 14". Granted its more of a mystical leap but it still seems out of step with what should be a grounded (no pun intended), down-to-earth (pun intended), martial, anti-magic class like Barbarians. 
  • Sorry, but Bards still make absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. As a DM it's virtually impossible to describe powers like "Cutting Words" without making the whole thing sound super-deewby. The Colleges improve things marginally, with Lore Bards coming across as a combination of Woodward and Bernstein-style journalists armed with the put-down capabilities of a Louis C.K. or a Bill Burr.
  • Mercifully "Turn / Destroy Undead" has been simplified as a Savings Throw. "Channel Divinity" also dovetails nicely with the well-thought-out Domains. Players and DM's can run riot with powers such as "Divine Intervention" and "Object Reading".
  • I like that a high Wisdom improves how effective spells are for Druids and Clerics and it also determines how many Spells they can prepare.
  • "Wild Form" lets a Druid shape change almost right away and the rules govern these transformations rather elegantly. Also Land Circle Druids have tons of options. I like how their Circle Spells actually fit in with their origins. For example, if you wanna be all claw / claw / bite and less spell-casty go with a Circle of the Moon Druid.
  • The varied fighting styles for Fighters are simple and evocative. Martial Archetypes add even more customization options plus loads of complexity. So, if you've played a crap-ton of Fighters in your long and storied adventuring career, you'll love all the new options provided by the Battle Master. On the other hand, newbies will dig the clean simplicity and raw power of the Champion. Abilities such as "Know Your Enemy" really rawk and Superiority Dice / Maneuvers offer a lot of potential for clever application.
  • I'll always prefer the original classes best since they have antecedents in real world history and / or classic fantasy yarns. Conversely, the newer classes have a lot more pop culture antecedents and, as such, they come across as cheesy fan service sometimes. For example, whenever I read the Eldridge Knight description I get a GRAVE DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE. Again, I don't wanna bitch too loud since I just created an Eldritch Knight character that's half Kylo Ren and half Darth Vader as he appears in this classic Eddie Izzard bit. 
  • I still maintain that Monks would be more at home in an "Oriental Adventures" campaign. Like the ridiculous concept of airborne Barbarians, powers such as "Shadow Step" nudge these once-martial characters dangerously close to the realm of the silly. As a side note: "Way of the Four Elements" is about as Avatar: The Last Airbender as you can possibly get without a cease and desist order.
  • Since they aren't completely shackled by the "Lawful Stupid" alignment anymore, Paladins actually look like they'd be fun to play now. And look at all the different options here! If you go the "Oath of Devotion" route you can play as a Cavalier. "Oath of the Ancients" will give you a "Gawain and the Green Knight" sorta vibe. If you want a Batman / Inigo Montoya angle then take the "Oath of Vengeance" path. Just like many of the other classes, powers such as "Avenging Angel" dip a toe into the crazy pool but at least this doesn't happen until Level 20.
  • Rangers can add an additional Favored Enemy, preferably based on their recent run-ins. With that comes improved lore about your mortal enemies and the ability to track them more effectively. "Natural Explorer" creates no less than eight different branching paths. The four fighting styles (Archery, Defense, Dodge and Two-Weapon Fighting) give you four more customization options. In other words, you can start your career as a woodland Archer that hates aberrations or you can be a dual-cutlass-wielding seaside dweller who despises water elementals. Archetypes customize this even further. I know that some of this comes across as "Fouth Edition-y" but it actually works here. All of these features mesh surprisingly well together and, at the very least, gives the DM plenty of inspiration fodder to run cool, descriptive combats. "Escape the Horde", "Multiattack Defense", "Volley" and "Stand Against The Tide" are all a blast to play out in game. Bonus points: "Beast Master" is basically Dar from a certain cheesy 80's fantasy movie of the same name. "Primeval Awareness" is the only Ranger power that feels kinda "airy-fairy" but even that would be cool to see played out during a hex crawl. "Hide in Plain Sight" also has some fun ninja-esque qualities to it.
  • The Rogue's "Expertise" makes Thieves Tools a Proficiency so going down the criminal path certainly isn't mandatory. Hey, I'm just an innocent lock-smith, okay? On the other hand, if you wanna go all Oceans 11, then the "Thief" Archetype will have you a-heistin' and a-pilferin' quicker then you can say "YOINK!". Then there's "Fast Hands", which will give your character the sort of deftness that Indiana Jones would be totes jelly of. And words can't describe how happy I am to see the Assassin back in some shape or form. DM's and players alike will have a blast with "Infiltration Expertise" and "Imposter". Unfortunately I think "Death Strike" could be a tad deadlier. "Arcane Trickster" is like "Loki the Character Class". "Mage Hand Legerdemain" could have a lot of interesting applications in the hands of a creative player. "Magical Ambush" looks like fun but "Spell Thief" totally breaks the knob offa the ol' Batshit-Insane-O-Meter. 
  • I like how the Sorcerer's "Flexible Casting" hints at fluctuating and unpredictable sources of power. A Sorcerer doesn't have to have draconic lineage anymore, but if they do go this route it's been properly quantified. Again, what's with the freakin' wings at Level 14? Just because you've got a little dragon DNA in you why do you start turning into one a la Seth Brundle in The Fly? I assume stuff like this was left in to appease the half dozen people or so out there who actually liked the Fouth Edition. And before you start sending me pissed-off emails, I actually think Fourth was a good rule set, just not for D&D. Great for a super-hero game, yes, just not D&D. Of course, even crusty old grognards like me have to admit that "Draconic Presence" is actually pretty durned cool. Plus, I'm a huge sucker for random percentage die tables, so the "Surge" chart is pure money to me. 
  • Then there's the Warlock / Witch. If you're having a hard time picturing this great new addition just think "dark priest in eternal servitude of some unnamable elder god". "Chain Pact" brings Familiars into the mix, "Blade Pact" is a bit too Green Lantern-ish for my taste and "Tome Pact" is toadly "METAL". The "Archfey" Patron sprinkles the Warlock with a dash of Druid, the "Fiend" Patron is also pretty durned "METAL" while the "Great Old One" Patron dares to invoke the name of Cthulhu himself. Which begs the questions: how many hours did the WOTC legal team pore over this to ensure that the Lovecraft estate wouldn't sue them into oblivion? Under this particular Patron, "Entropic Ward" is all "Nyah! Right back atcha!". By my estimation, a tiefling warlock with a Tome Pact and a Great Old One Patron is just about the "METAL-ist" PC in D&D history. And not only is "Eyes of the Rune Keeper" a pretty sweet power it could also be the title track of your character's debut album. 
  • Copying Spells is now a clear and easy process for Wizards. Your Intelligence modifier plus Level equals the number of Spells you can prepare. The class features showcase an increasing familiarity with magic and they dovetail perfectly with the player's personal preference. The different schools of wizardry feel even more "Hogwart-y" than ever. "Portent" is fun as is "Instinctive Charm" and "Illusory Self". "Alter Memories" is basically a Jedi Mind Trick. "Sculpt Spells" could come in very handy while "Potent Cantrip" and "Overchannel" can give old Spells a new lease on life. Plus there's a ton of role-playing potential with things like "Illusory Reality". Since I've used Necromancer villains in my 3.5 campaign before, I'm delighted to see them properly represented as a formal school here. "Grim Harvest", "Undead Thralls" and "Command Undead" are all super sa-weet, with the latter ability in particular coming off as "Power Turning". With a clever player at the helm, Transmutation Wizards can use "Minor Alchemy" and "Master Transmuter" to become as powerful as Molecule Man from Marvel Comics, if not slightly more dorky. The Transmuter Stone could also have a lot of creative in-game applications.
Chapter 4: Personality and Background

    • Gender has absolutely no impact on stats, as it should be. In a move that's also designed to enrage hordes of neck-bearded yahoos: your character's sexual orientation is entirely up to you. Simple, progressive and common sense. Pity it took so long to say it and double the pity that it had to be said at all in the first place.
    • I actually like the specific examples taken directly from various D&D campaign settings like Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance. And why now show off a l'il swagga? It really drives home the rich history of the game and the examples are right on-point.
    • Providing Dwarven and Elvish script is super-handy for DMs who want to come up with some cool-looking props, drawings, puzzles and whatnot.
    • Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws really inspire newbies to role-play their characters. Inspiration finally gives players a palpable reward for portraying their characters as something less than "paragon".
    • Backgrounds should've been in the game ages ago if only to account for a Character's initial skill set. They also provide great potential adventure hooks for the DM as well as awesome role-playing fodder. For example, the Hermit's "Discovery" Background is rife with potential. I sure wish that the "Sailor" background existed when I came up with my first character circa 1984. The "Dread Pirate Roberts" / "Bad Reputation" combo also looks like a real hoot.
    Chapter 5: Equipment
    • Not that I haven't always played it like that before, but I like how Electrum and Platinum pieces are officially considered rare and exotic now.
    • A minimum Strength is required to avoid Heavy Armor movement penalties. Smart! Ergo, Rogues can wear Heavy Armor if they want to but Disadvantage and Dexterity caps will apply. The whole "no Dexterity bonus at all for Heavy Armor" kind of freaks me out a little bit even if it does make perfect sense.
    • I really dig the "Finesse" attribute of rapiers and daggers.
    • Advantage is such a simple and easy mechanic that it can be used to give tangible benefits to equipment like crowbars and magnifying glasses.
    • Starting Equipment Packs = time-saving genius!
    • I like how Tools are required to get your Proficiency Bonus. Stuff like this just makes the game feel more "real" to me. 
    • Even though I tend to role-play stuff like this, Lifestyle Expenses are an easy, catch-all way to cover those pesky in-town costs of living. Just like so many other things in Fifth Edition, the designers took this as an opportunity to encourage role-playing!
    • The "Trinket" chart is just about the greatest thing ever.
    Chapter 6: Customization Options
    • Multi-Classing is ludicrously easy to the point where determining available Spell Slots amongst two or three different Classes a super-simple.
    • I live that Feats are now an optional branching path for character development and customization. The odd thing is that Feats like "Athlete" and "Actor" allow you to pick up one free Ability Score increase  plus get a free special ability. Seem a tad O.P. to me, but, frankly I'm glad the system has imbalances. This gives veteran dungeon crawlers a chance to play challenging characters while noobies can min / max up the perfect meat shield.
    • A wily player might be pretty dangerous while armed with the "Keen Mind" Feat.
    Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores
    • Did I mention that the Advantage / Disadvantage system is awesome? 'Cuz the Advantage / Disadvantage system really is awesome.
    • I just realized that the art isn't exactly plentiful in the Players Handbook but what there is of it is head and shoulders over previous iterations of the game, particularly the Second Edition.  *shudder*
    • Ability Checks use a Difficulty Class which mirrors 3 / 3.5. This is good.
    • Basing Saving Throws on the six different abilities make sense but I'm thinking that Charisma saves are gonna be pretty rare.
    • Under "Lifting and Carrying" the Encumbrance rules are refreshingly simple
    Chapter 8: Adventuring
    • Time, movement and environmental effects are easy and intuitive. As a side note, it's kind of amusing for me to see the two styles of role-playing finally quantified as either "descriptive" or "active" for the very first time ever. Like sloped floors in movie theaters why wasn't this done ages ago?
    • "Rest". *Ugh*  Of everything in Fifth Edition this is what I like the least. It still feels like re-heated leftovers from Fourth Edition's sad attempt to ape World of Warcraft. I'm sure my opinion of this will continue to evolve as I keep playing but right now I think it's ridiculous. Sure, you aren't getting max Hit Dice back every time you take a Short Rest and you have to burn an hour to do it, but the idea of getting all of your freakin' Hit Points back after an eight hour nap is completely ludicrous to me. Again, it makes the characters feel super-heroic and it also devalues the Cleric as a clutch member of the group.
    • I really dig the ease and practicality of the Downtime Activities. Crafting items now feels do-able, you can work to make money, recuperate from a disease or an injury, do some Gandalf-style research, try to learn a new language or become Proficient with a set of Tools.
    Chapter 9: Combat
    • It's no co-incidence that the D&D Encounters program started during Fourth Edition since a single tilt  in that version could easily take up an entire session. Mercifully things are back to being super-streamlined in the Fifth Edition. How's this for a Surprise-determining no-brainer: "If neither side tries to be stealthy they automatically notice each other". Well, d'uh...why didn't we just put it that way sooner?!? Initiative is essentially 3 / 3.5. This is also good. Miniatures are not required but I'm still rockin' 'em 'cuz I like the tactical aspects of the game. Attacks of Opportunity are still a thing but can be offset with a Disengage Action. You can also Help an Ally gang up on an enemy to achieve a Combat Advantage. "Ready Actions" are also clearly defined.
    • Diagonal Movement counted as a single space is total horseshite so I'm still using 3.5's movement costs. I haven't gotten there yet by I presume that the exact same rule is floated somewhere in the Fifth Edition DMG.
    • Full Actions in battle are clear cut. You can either Attack, Cast a Spell, Dash (I.E. double move), Disengage, Dodge (impose Disadvantage on your attackers), Help someone gain Advantage on a task or while fighting someone, Hide, Ready an Action, Search or Activate an Object. Easy peasy.
    • Grappling is soooooo much simpler now. To the point where I'm tempted to create a wrasslin' Monk just for shits and / or giggles. How cool would that be?!?
    Chapter 10: Spellcasting
    • Spell Slots work frightening well. I like the idea of expending a higher level Spell Slot to beef up lower level Spells.
    • As before, Cantrips can be cast an unlimited number of times, keeping magic-users in the game long after their Spell Slots have been exhausted. Side note: casting spells as a Ritual takes longer but it doesn't expel a Spell Slot.
    • Back in the day, if a magic-user took any damage at all, their Spell was instantly borked. Now they can Save versus Constitution to complete the spell, the base Difficultly Class being 10 or half the damage you take, whatever is higher. Nice touch.
    • The Difficulty Classes to avoid Spells is 8 + the spell caster's Ability Modifier + their Proficiency Bonus + any temporary bonuses. The relevant Ability Modifiers remain the same with Wisdom for Clerics and Druids, Charisma for Sorcerer and Intelligence for Wizards. The new kids on the block, the Warlocks, use Charisma like a Sorcerer. 
    Chapter 11: Spells
    • Spell descriptions are more brief, economic and to the point than they've ever been before, which is awesome. Oddly this hadn't led to very many Spell effect debates, but then again I don't play the game with anal-retentive rules lawyers. 
    • Many Spells like "Alter Self" or "Hallow" have multiple applications. Others scale in power according to Level like "Acid Splash" or they can be beefed up with higher level Spell Slots like "Arms of Hador". This sort of fluidity will keep veteran spell-slingers amused for years.
    • Simple and elegant rules easily govern once-complicated Spell effects. For example using five different size classes for "Animate Objects" or using an invisible "sensor" to define the awareness of "Clairvoyance". Many of the Spells, particularly the new ones, just seem like a ton of fun. "Awaken", "Curse", "Bigby's Hand", "Calm Emotions", "Contingency", "Compel Duel" and "Glibness" are just a few of the Spells that are rife with dramatic potential. On the other hand, some, like "Banishing Smite" seem a tad overpowered. Conversely, "Enlarge / Reduce" looks sorta Nerfed if only due to the Spell level it was assigned to. And to be filed under the "WTF?!?" category...why does "Fire Shield" produce a cold affect?
    • Using Hit Points versus Hit Dice to determine how many creatures are affected by spells like "Color Spray" is a very simple way to determine whether or bigger or higher level creatures are affected.
    • Thanks to the Necromancer school, the "ick"-factor has really been cranked up with "Contagion" and "Harm". Spells like "Eyebite" also have a lot of creatively sadistic applications. And, hey, "Finger of Death" gives you a free zombie buddy!
    • I like how the Advantage / Disadvantage system has actually inspired new spells such as "Enhanced Ability".
    • The whole "cast a spell on the same spot for year and it'll be permanent" thing is pretty bizarre. I mean, how boring is your D&D campaign if you actually manage to pull this off? 
    • Petrification as per "Flesh To Stone" or the Indigo effect in "Prismatic Spray" use the same "three strikes and yer out" Dying mechanic, which gives you a fighting chance to dramatically power your way out of the effect. Cool!
    • Spells that impact specific stats like "Ray of Enfeeblement" simplify things by imposing relevant mechanics instead of reducing the Ability Score itself. This is a lot easier then temporarily lowering your actual Strength or Constitution number and then putting the game on hold in order to figure out your reduced modifiers.    
    Appendix A: Conditions
    •  Once again, the Advantage / Disadvantage mechanic comes to the rescue and simplifies so many of these things, some of which used to require multiple paragraphs of text. Now many of them have been boiled down to a few bullet points. Here's a great example for "Prone": "an attack roll against the creature has advantage if the attacker is within 5 feet. Otherwise the attack roll has Disadvantage." Perfect.
    • The charming little sketches that illustrate each Condition amuse the crap outta me.
    • Curiously enough, you can't just hit Paralyzed targets automatically, but you do get Advantage and score a crit if you hit them. Makes sense. Sort of.
    • The six Levels of Exhaustion is elegant and intuitive. 
    Appendix B: Gods of the Multiverse
    • Too lazy to create a pantheon of your own? No worries, this section of the Players Handbook has got ya covered. If you just need a cool-sounding name of a trickery god just pick the one that sounds the coolest. Examples of Alignment, Suggested Domains and the god's Symbol might even inspire new DM's to craft their own deities. 
    • The radically different examples of pre-existing D&D pantheons might convince veteran DM's to think outside the box when it comes to inventing their own campaign religions.
    • Since (A) the only campaign settings that existed back when I first started playing D&D were Greyhawk and Dragonlance and (B) we were too cheap to buy anything other than the core books and (C) we were too lazy to create our own pantheons, we started out by using the Greek and Norse gods. Knowing how integral the Deities & Demigods / Legends & Lore hardbacks were to DM's of yore, the designers provide economic little summaries of the Celtic, Greek, Egyptian and Norse pantheons. Like everything else in the Players Handbook, the descriptions are brief, concise and surprisingly well-written. 
    Appendix C:  The Planes of Existence  
    • The new Planes of Existence diagram is a helluva lot slicker than the one I first laid eyes on in the AD&D Players Handbook! The names of some of the Planes have been altered, presumably to steer sensitive souls away from real-world belief systems. That's sort of a shame if that's the case since  "Nirvana" and the "Happy Hunting Grounds" are both considerably more evocative and appealing than the generic descriptors of "Mechanus" and "The Beastlands". *yawn* 
    • The Feywild and the Shadowfell are relatively new concepts to me and the descriptions tease economic and evocative details that makes you want to learn more about them.
    • Honestly, these realms are just as challenging to wrap your head around as any modern religious ethos or existential belief system. Everything makes an odd sort of sense, that is until the Sigil and the Outlands are mentioned, which comes across as the ramblings of friend of yours who's waaaaay too high right now. Conversely the scant details about the Far Realm feel like a mandatory high-level adventure hook.  
    Appendix D: Creature Statistics
    • Short, sweet and right to the point...this is how you do monster stat blocks properly!
    Appendix E: Inspiration Reading
    • Words can't describe how delighted I am to see Gary Gygax's original "Inspirational Reading" list back and, better yet, expanded to include modern genre classics such as George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series. Even if it succeeds in showing just a handful of kids that this fantasy stuff didn't just start with World of Warcraft this page has done an admirable thing. If it turns them into avid readers, so much the better.

    In summary, I'm really enjoying this latest version of D&D. In many ways it feels like a "greatest hits" package, combining the simplicity of the Rules Cyclopedia, the thematic chrome of AD&D and the relatively-grounded tone of 3 / 3.5.

    Right now I'm running two campaigns: an original setting 3 / 3.5 game (with waaaay too many players) and a 5'th Edition game using the "Lost Mines of Phandelver" to test-drive the system. Even though I'm having a blast with the module I'm also hesitant to migrate my original campaign over to 5'th mainly because it's just so durned easy for me to Google any random question and D&D Wiki will answer it for me.

    Which begs the question: how badly is WOTC still kicking themselves over the whole Open Gaming License idea? After all, Paizo lured a major chunk of players away with Pathfinder (I.E. D&D 3.75) and if not for the lingering online support for earlier editions we'd probably all be drinking Fifth Edition-brand Kool Aid right now.

    Having said that, the failure of Forth Edition, the competition of Pathfinder and the rise of the OSR movement certainly forced the designers to brainstorm a new, innovative and user-friendly version of the game in a sincere bid to lure lapsed players back into the fold. And I think they succeeded in this quite admirably. I can personally attest that twenty-somethings are playing this version of the game in droves, and for many of them it's their first experience with D&D ever. I can't think of a higher testimony than that.

    One major reason for this is how approachable the rules are. For example, thirty-five distinctly different Skills in 3 / 3.5 really baffled new players. Fifth Edition reduced this number to around eighteen and it's all the richer for it.  At this stage I really don't need a specific rule to govern every single contingency. I'd rather just pick a Skill, make up a DC on the spot and get players to roll for it. Or just role-play it out if I think that'll be more fun. As long as neophyte DM's don't let their players bog the game down into an unending stream of d20 rolls, you should be alright.

    But perhaps the most important thing to note is just how much fun this version is to read. Lead designers Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford have given us a compulsively-readable tome that falls somewhere between the florid yet evocative prose of Gary Gygax and the precise rulespeak of Monte Cook and company.

    All told, I give the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Players Handbook five pips outta six with a healthy tilt up towards Elysium!

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