First Impressions Review: “Player’s Handbook” for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

PHB-Cover-FullI’m going to assume that if you’re here on Critical Hits, you know D&D. As such, I’m not going to go into the history of D&D editions, the open playtesting process, anything about nostalgia, etc. I’m just going to dive into my impressions of reading the book, and try to delve into some of the guts as far as I understand them (and I’ll probably get some stuff wrong.) Here we go.

Overall

The Player’s Handbook – and the D&D 5th edition ruleset as a whole- feels very polished. In fact, I’d go as far to say they focused on taking everything they had from previous editions and worlds, ran with it, refined it again, and so on. The downside to this is that there are areas where they aren’t quite as ground-breaking as they could be and leads to a few missed opportunities. At the same time, though, there’s so much that suffuses the book that seems familiar, with a lot of “oh, I see what you did there.” Previous descriptions of this edition pre-launch as attempting to be something of a “Greatest Hits” of D&D seem pretty on the mark, though each table is expected to supply some of what you feel ARE those greatest hits.

The Look

I say it flat out: I love the art in this book. Since it’s a Player’s Handbook, most of the art focuses on characters. This ranges from character representatives for different races and classes, to a small sampling of famous characters (a certain iconic drow ranger appears, for instance), to some characters that I swear are new renderings of existing D&D minis.

Part of what I love is that the book does a much better job of representation than in previous editions. More women characters in a variety of roles, more heroes of color, etc. It’s not perfect by any means, but I appreciate that there’s a much wider range of inspirational art for showing truly what the range of characters should be.

It also relies on a number of art styles, while still mostly fitting together. You’ve got more traditional character portraits, full page battle scenes, and sketches depicting conditions. There’s a few images that have that “computer generated” look to them (my chief complaint about a lot of the early 4e art) but I think the art works here. I was actually expecting to see a wider diversity of different edition-influences throughout the art (and more reused pieces), however, I think the choices they made here in the look was a much stronger choice.

The interior graphic design I’m a fan of as well: it feels like it has a modern layout similar to 4e that knows how to use space and headings, combined with some of the more “spellbook” background and flourishes prevalent throughout 3e. There is almost no wasted space in this book, right up to the tiny font size used in the index at the end.

Races

One of the first things I look for in D&D, and in most RPGs, is what all I can play. The available races in the Player’s Handbook cover what you would have seen in the PHB from the last few editions: dwarves, halflings, elves, and humans as base, each with their own sub-options, like the different flavors of elf, and humans getting a discussion on diversity of culture (and an optional ability variant.) Also included are more uncommon racial options: dragonborn, tieflings from out of 4e, and gnomes, half-orcs, half-elves as other returning favorites. (Bonus: non-gross backstory for half-orcs.) Most of the uncommon races have fewer options than the core races, as their niche often comes pre-defined. Each of the entries contains snippets from different D&D worlds, a good way to connect each one to the different D&D worlds of possibility.

Mechanically, the races work largely how you’re used to: they modify ability scores (with a lot more use of +2/+1 than before, but not all), they give you some abilities to use, if they can see in the dark, and speed.

Classes

Here’s the real meat of it. There are 12 base classes included in the book, each one containing multiple sub-classes. Some of the sub-classes feel like very different classes within it (one fighter has spellcasting), while some offer some small amount of customization you’re used to (like the wizard selecting a school.)

All classes get a proficiency bonus which goes up at a flat rate across classes, which is used for a variety of rolls including attack rolls, skill checks, and saving throws. (I’ll cover that more in detail later.) Every class also gets an ability score improvement every four levels, which as we find out later, can be optionally swapped out for broad feats to further customize your character. Fighters break this rule and get them more often, so if you’re not using feats, the Fighter is gonna be rocking multiple 20s in ability scores.

Classes are each built with different abilities at most levels, which hews closest to the 3e model of class design, and far away from the power-based advancement of 4e. There’s a few features which classes share, like the martial classes getting fighting style options, and preparing spells largely working the same across different spell-casting classes.

What you won’t see are alignment restrictions, multi-classing restrictions by class, and other similar rules that were so often house-ruled away.

Here’s the rundown of each class, and their associated subclasses.

Barbarian

Surprise: barbarians rage, which makes them extra good at killing things. Rages last exactly a minute (one of my personal pet peeves: a precise duration for a chaotic ability.) As they level up, they can rage more often each day, and they can do more rampaging activities, as you do.

Barbarian sub-classes are called Primal Paths:

  • Path of the Berserker: Do you want to be even angrier? Now you don’t just go into a rage, you go into a frenzy.
  • Path of the Totem Warrior: Channelers of animal spirits to gain aspects of that animal, choosing between bear, eagle, or wolf. But seriously, why would you ever choose anything other than bear? Bears are sweet.

Bard

They cast spells. They inspire others (in a different manner than the similarly named Inspiration mechanic later in the book.) They have a lot of skills. They do musicy things. The bard hits all the high notes (I am the 2,754th person to use this joke) and the subclasses help narrow in on two of the bigger archetypes of barddom.

Bard sub-classes are Colleges:

  • College of Lore: Focusing on the spell-casting side, and picking up more spells for your troubles (including more that are outside your class list.) It also gets the ever-popular Magic Yo Mamma Joke power.
  • College of Valor: You’re a battlebard focusing on mixing it up on the battlefield while singing about how your allies are great.

Cleric

The cleric continues its role of being the preeminent divine spellcaster, with some extra melee and spellcasting ability to boot. Carried through from 4e is one of my favorite implementations of divine abilities, the Channel Divinity ability, which lumps in the classic Turn Undead with other useful divine powers.

One core cleric ability I’ll call out is at 10th level, a cleric can try and invoke a direct divine intervention, using a d100 roll under your level to see if it works. It’s written purposely vague with the effect, with the only guideline being that a cleric spell would be appropriate. It’s one of the few core abilities that out and out calls for the DM to make a judgment call for effect, something 3e forward largely steered away from.

The subclasses are domains, specifically asking you to choose one aspect of your deity that your cleric embodies. There’s an appendix that lists deities across the established D&D worlds, plus the old school real world-inspired religions including Celtic, Green, Norse, and Egyptian. Domains give you extra prepared spells (I’ll talk about what that means later), additional ways to use Channel Divinity, and other abilities unique to that domain.

The domains available are:

  • Knowledge: Bonus skills, read minds and implant thoughts, and do some vaguely psionic-type things.
  • Life: More healing, and more healing, oh, and here’s some more healing. I should point out that clerics don’t have some of the extra free healing they had in the past, but the spell preparation system makes that a lot easier to handle.
  • Light: You really know how to light up a room. Also one of your domain spells is fireball.
  • Nature: Charm animals and plants, endure the elements, throw some elemental energy around, and continue to have a lot of conceptual overlap with the druid.
  • Tempest: Storm, sea, and sky, AKA I really want to throw lighting bolts around, which is hard to argue with.
  • Trickery: Illusions, shadows, and charm spells. Their main ability in combat is to make illusory duplicates of themselves, which I wish had a little more rules guidance to it.
  • War: In addition to being the only a domain that gets martial weapons and heavy armor, they can also channel divinity to give a +10 bonus to hit AFTER a die is rolled. The frontline “cleric of selfish healing” is definitely getting a big comeback with this domain.

Druid

The druids start with spells, and pick up wild shape at second level, with a full column of rules about what it means to shape shift. There’s also an appendix in the back of all kinds of animals to take the shape of.  My sense from reading the rules is that it stays a math-heavy process, of which you’ll need to do a prep work to make it go quickly at the table.

Druids have often had the issue of whether they should be more spellcasters or shapeshifters, so of course the subclasses (called Druid Circles) let you focus on one or the other.

  • Circle of the Land: This is the spellcasting focus, with the hook that the druid becomes tied to a type of terrain (like forests, mountains, or even a coast if you want to be a member of the Druids of the Coast.) Not only does this provide some bonus spells, it also has the ability to recharge spell slots mid-day to give extra spellcasting punch.
  • Circle of the Moon: The wild shape ability improves, both allowing more forms, making it easier to shape shift, and letting you eventually transform into pure elements.

Fighter

The fighter tends to be my litmus test in any edition of D&D or any game that looks like D&D. I love the archetype, and hate when it gets relegated to the guy who just runs up and hits things all the time. On the other hand, I know that style has its fans, including those that want an easy class to give to beginners.

You might know what I’m about to say then: the answer here is to give subclasses that represent both sides (plus an entirely other one I didn’t expect.) All fighters select fighting styles that let them carve out what kind of setup they want, including “sword & board”, big weapon, archer, or defender type. They get non-magical self healing (gasp!), an action point-style surge, and extra attacks when they level.

And while most classes get an ability score improvement (or feat) every 4 levels, every fighter get extra ones sprinkled throughout their advancement. As I said, that means if you’re not playing with feats and are a fighter, you’re going to have a lot of high stats by the time you get to high levels. Not that I would run a game without allowing feats anyway, but it’s one of those areas where it’s clear that there really is one preferred “build” here and then some options to drift that which kinda work.

Random aside: there’s a piece of art in the fighter section that depicts a battle scene by tapestry, and it goes to what I said about there being a lot of different art styles in the book that somehow fit together. This is one of my favorite examples of that.

The subclasses are Martial Archetypes, and they all feel very different:

  • Champion: This is your very basic fighter. They get several levels to improve their critical range. Overall they receive static bonuses to keep it going (including a continuous healing power later on), with their main combat options coming from the core fighter itself.
  • Battle Master: This is the fighter I wanted, getting access to a menu of maneuvers powered by superiority dice. Maneuvers are like powers, and let you turn superiority dice into various effects during battle. There’s no levels of maneuvers: the battle master just gets more of them as it levels up, and the dice involved get bigger. This is also the subclass that killed the Warlord and took it stuff, which is part of the breadth available to a battle master.
  • Eldritch Knight: The swordmage, a very popular character archetype, has never been available in an original Player’s Handbook… until now. The Eldritch Knight gives up better critical hits and maneuvers to get a small selection of spells, which go up to a maximum of 4th level spells, only from the abjuration and evocation schools. I don’t know at first glance how effective that is: classes like this have historically suffered by having spells that don’t scale up to the threats they face. Regardless, I was surprised to see its inclusion and I think is a great example of giving players what they want right out of the gate.

Monk

The monk starts out with a discussion of what ki is, and is the first class to use their own resource (ki points) to power class abilities. These kinds of resources are reminiscent of Iron Heroes (note the author of that) and allow for different powers to be weighted, so most abilities cost 1 point, more powerful abilities cost more points (especially relevant for the subclasses), and so on.

The core monk is closest to the 3rd edition version, with a hodgepodge of mystical and martial abilities: unarmed attacks, extra attacks, fast movement, deflecting arrows (implemented in a pretty clean way, for an ability that doesn’t come up all that often except in specific campaigns), stunning attacks, and more.

The three monastic traditions are where the more kung-fu movie inspired names come from:

  • Way of the Open Hand: Your martial arts expert subclass, that is the simplest to play. It leads up to the Quivering Palm AKA Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. For some reason, this ability includes a restriction to only use against creatures that stay on the same plane, because mystical death vibrations that can affect any creature CLEARLY can’t cross planar boundaries.
  • Way of Shadow: Explicitly calling this out as the way of ninjas and shadowdancers, these monks focus on darkness and invisibility. This is one of those subclasses that seems primed to try and make it work with a multiclass, but seems a bit underwhelming on its own.
  • Way of the Four Elements: Hadouken! Use ki to cast elemental spells, and abilities that are very spell-looking.

Paladin

I think this quite sums up this conception of the Paladin: “Although many paladins are devoted to gods of good, a paladin’s power comes as much from a commitment to justice itself as it does from a god.”

The Paladin assembles martial abilities (fighting style that other martial classes receive), divine spells, and their own abilities, largely no longer tied specifically to good or evil. For instance, Divine Sense replaces Detect Evil, registering the presences of celestials, fiends, and the undead specifically, not the shifty LE bartender. Likewise, Divine Smite is instead of Smite Evil, and is an all-purpose damage bump that also hurts fiends and undead more.

The aspect that stands out to me overall is how many different powers the paladin tracks usage for. Tracking spells you’ve cast is the big one. Divine Smite burns spell slots. Divine Sense is 1+CHA modifier. Lay On Hands is an HP pool 5x paladin level. And so on. With other classes relying more on other pools, it seems a bit disjointed.

The three paladin subclasses are different Sacred Oaths, taking the classic paladin and expanding the possibilities a bit, while also folding in some variant class concepts. Each one gives a Channel Divinity ability (another resource to track), additional spell options, and other helpful abilities. Guidance is also provided for that particular oath’s code.

  • Oath of Devotion: The most classic paladin of the bunch, this oath includes blessing weapons, turning evil, and protection spells.
  • Oath of the Ancients: Called “Green Knights” or “Fey Knights” by the text, the paladin oath has a nature warrior bent to it, and seems pretty new.
  • Oath of Vengeance: Explicitly called “avengers,” the oath focuses on punishing wrongdoers. The 4e avenger concept was one of my favorites, and this folds in that with a bit of the flavor of the older “anti-paladin” type avengers without going evil with it.

Ranger

The ranger is built a bit like the paladin, under the hood, combining fighter style options (archery and two-weapon fighting, of course, but also more) and spell-casting along with a few other nature-based and travel benefits. Favored enemy now only gives a bonus to find and recall their enemy type, and they get a similar feature for specific terrain.

There are two Archetypes for rangers:

  • Hunter: You’re better at killing things. There’s some background about how you’re better at hunting certain creatures to justify it, but this seems at first glance like a much stronger option.
  • Beast Master: You have an animal companion, chosen from the ones in the appendix. It takes your action to command it for most useful actions until higher levels.

Rogue

The rogue is right out of its 3e-defined playbook, where the sneak attack feature became its primary schtick. Sneak attack damage goes up every other level, and now is triggered by either attacking with an ally or possessing advantage (which, I suppose, encourages the rogue to try and take inspiration as much as possible.) They’re still the best at skills, but aren’t necessarily better at finding traps, opening locks, or other traditionally rogueish activities.

Rogueish Archetypes include:

  •  Thief: …And this is where those kinds of abilities come in. Bonuses to stealth, sleight of hand, using magic devices, and so on.
  • Assassin:  Bonuses to try and get the drop on targets, as well as cover identity abilities. Mix this with the shadow monks and you have the real ninjas. And I know something about REAL ninjas.
  • Arcane Tricker: Another popular archetype that makes its first appearance as a PHB class, mixing spells in with rogue abilities plus an extra wacky mage hand.

Sorcerer

Sorcerers in 3e relied more on their flexibility, to distinguish them from the more strict preparation of wizard. However, with the more flexible spellcasting system in 5e, that wasn’t going to be its mark on the world. Instead, the sorcerer is divined by its sorcerous origins like in 4e, choosing between draconic bloodline or wild magic. These subclasses are chosen at first level, unlike most other classes that choose at level three.

The flexibility of sorcerers is primarily represented by their pool of Sorcery Points, which can be used for all kinds of magical effects. At their base, they can be burned in exchange for more spells. They can also be channeled into metamagic abilties, like empowering spells, extending spells, or even forking spells for two targets.

Sorcerous Origins:

  • Draconic Bloodline: Choose a color of dragon to be your ancestor. Gain some elemental affinities related to that dragon, and eventually grow some wings.
  • Wild Magic: An old favorite of mine, complete with d100 wild magic surge table. If you like random effects, this is the class for you, and gain some abilities to manipulate dice.

Warlock

Even further along the flexibility spellcasting scale is the warlock. The warlock has very few spells known, but also has recastable cantrips with a bit more edge, that can be further enhanced by a number of “invocations.”

At 1st level, the warlock chooses an otherworldly patron, and at third level, choose a pact boon. The otherworldly patron determines extra features gained at each level. The pact boon determines how you do your warlockin': either through a summoned creature, a blade, or more spells. In combination with choosing spells, choosing patron, choosing a boon, and choosing invocations, there’s a lot of possible builds here. Most of the 4e options are represented here in various ways.

The otherworldly patrons you can choose from are:

  • The Archfey: Forging a bond with an ancient faerie entity, featuring beguiling and teleporting.
  • The Fiend: Signing a pact with a powerful demon or devil give you temporary hit points when you kill something, manipulate dice rolls, and toss your enemies into hell itself.
  • The Great Old One: The ever-popular Cthulhu-worshiping class, which even calls out him by name as a possible patron. Read thoughts, dominate minds, and throw some entropy around.

Wizard

Finally, the classic wizard. The wizard’s main feature is using the new preparation/spell slot system, with the ability to regain some spell slots mid-day by taking a short rest. Wizards also get ritual casting, further cementing them as the caster with the broadest range of utility options.

Each of the classic schools of magic is built out as a subclass. I won’t list them all here because there are so many of them, and if you’re familiar with the schools from previous editions, you have a good idea of what the specialist will do. The important takeaway is that it isn’t something simple like preparing an extra spell of that school. Instead, each one has a suite of abilities that relate to that school of magic: enchanters get more charm abilities, necromancers are better with the dead, illusionists make better illusions, and so on.

Other Character Details

Backgrounds & Inspiration

Backgrounds are a version of the “3rd pillar” of character creation, giving another foundation beyond race and class, which 4e embraced near the end of its run as themes. Mechanically, backgrounds provide a social benefit, as well as an extra training of two skills and one or more tools. They also provide a set of roleplaying hooks, including personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. There aren’t just color, either: the Inspiration mechanic means that roleplaying one of these in an exceptional way can give you advantage on a later roll. This is D&D at least partly embracing a core component of such systems as Fate, Cortex Plus, etc. where roleplaying your character is directly rewarded. Inspiration is not tied in to any other areas that I can tell, so if you don’t like that kind of thing, it seems pretty easy to remove. And on the flip side, you could give it a bit more bite where the conditions to get inspiration are a bit more strict (i.e. must directly put your character into harm’s way.)

All the backgrounds also feature random tables if you know which background you like but not all the details. Most of them give 6 options, though some are a bit longer because clearly they loved more of the ideas than they could bear to cut.

Backgrounds have an interesting feature in opening up possible campaign concepts. For instance, you could say that everyone must take the Soldier background, and everyone starts in the military, or everyone takes the Sailor/Pirate background. On the flipside, you could just as easily run the all-wizard (academy) or all-bard (traveling band) campaign, with backgrounds providing that extra bit of differentiation.

All the backgrounds also provide hooks “out” from the characters themselves, which also provides more campaign fuel. It’s subtle but well done.

Equipment

No surprises here either, with the “gold metric system” making a comeback of 10:1 exchange rates, except for electrum, which sits in the middle of gold and silver. Some aspects are cleaned up a bit (there’s only one kind of shield, for instance) while others use a lot of the same similar tags to describe weapons as you’re used to by now.

One new part is the tool section. Proficiency in tools grants a bonus to certain kinds of activities. It took me a bit to realize this, but this is actually a backdoor way to include skills like Perform, Craft, etc. without actually making them skills that may go neglected. If you have proficiency in the tool to take those kinds of actions, you get a bonus. Pretty interesting way to handle it since it means you don’t have to give up, say, an Alertness skill to be good at playing the banjo. Also, you have a new D&D insult to call your friends: “You’re a tool bonus!”

Feats

As you might have seen from one of the last playtests, feats are great simplified and expanded. Instead of being an automatic feature, they now (optionally) replace ability score improvements. They provide a group of benefits towards one specific concept, instead of being a granular multitude. For example, previous editions required multiple feats in order to be good at two-weapon fighting, often overlapping with feats granted by classes. Now you just take a feat called “dual wielder” and it grants you three useful abilities for fighting with two-weapons all at once. This also means that most (all?) classes won’t get access to any feats until 4th level.

There are 30 feats in total, each one with its own space. Some are a bit weaker on this- looking at you, Medium Armor Master- but most of them satisfy as character-defining options. After so many games of being punished for wanting to be a crossbow-wielder and needing to take a pile of feats to support it, I’m glad to see Crossbow Expert is supported here.

Skills, Saving Throws, & Ability Checks

Ability scores are king in this edition. Saving throws and skills are tied even more closely to them, as well as the proficiency bonus that all classes get for leveling. That evens things out a bit across classes for skills, while widening more the gap with saving throws. All six ability scores now have their own saving throw, and the ones more historically tied to saving throws are used much more often in the spell section. Reflexes are mostly Dexterity, Will is mostly Wisdom, and Fortitude is mostly Constitution. I see this as a bit of a missed opportunity, like making more charm effects be resisted by your natural force of Charisma and illusions not working as well on the really Intelligent. There’s some of this, but not as much as I’d like.

Skills are close to the same list as existed in 4e, but now explicitly fall under their tied ability score, and creating less of a gap between trained and untrained (and also being easier to calculate on the fly.) Skills each get a brief write-up under their associated ability score, along with some notes about common situations like group skill checks, aiding other, and using different ability scores with skills than the default. Skills are defined simply enough that swapping out another system, like Backgrounds from 13th Age, would be pretty simple.

The Rules

I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty here too much. Combat largely works on the same basic principles it has for a long time: see bad guys, roll initiative, go in an order, take actions. Your turn consists of a move and an action. You can split that move up, and you also get a free “interact with an object” on your turn, largely to cover drawing a weapon and so forth. You also get one potential bonus action during your turn and one reaction off your turn, which can be granted by other abilities. It seems like a bit less management than standard/move/minor while keeping the essence.

Along the lines of trying to clean up a turn, there is now only one action that provokes an opportunity attack, and that’s leaving a creature’s reach. There’s also far less in the classes themselves that interact with opportunity attacks.

Other bits that caught my eye:

  • There’s three kinds of cover, which is one too many for me.
  • Resistance and vulnerability is as simple as it has been in a while: either take half damage, or take double damage. Done.
  • No more negative HP, which is such a simple change I can’t believe it’s taken this long when “healing starts from 0″ has been a rule.
  • The combat chapter is very short.

Spellcasting

Spellcasting gets its own section, with how it all works. This is especially important because there is only ONE class, the barbarian, that does not have spellcasting ability when you factor in the subclasses.

I haven’t been paying close attention to the different variations of the spellcasting system, especially because “Vancian” spellcasting has never been my favorite. Too many situations I wasn’t happy with. I am thus pleasantly surprised that the spellcasting system, which all the spellcasting classes use roughly the same way, is so solid.

Spellcasters prepare a number of spells at the start of a day, determined by their class, which forms their “menu” of options to cast during that day. Some classes just know a smaller set of spells and don’t bother with preparation at all.

Then, each one has a certain number of spell slots that they can use to cast those spells. It is not fixed at the start of the day at all: your spell slots are not fixed into particular spells. A 1st level spell takes a 1st level spell slot. Simple. You can even expend higher level spell slots for greater effect for many spells. No more figuring out how many fireballs to memorize in a given day at the start of an adventure. You just choose fireball, and as long as you have 3rd level slots or higher, you can throw them all day. This solves so many of my issues with spellcasting classes it’s unbelievable.

Utility spells also get a boost since many spells have a Ritual tag that allow them to be cast without being prepared in advance. Rituals were one of my favorite aspects of 4e that didn’t get explored enough, and this system means that those kinds of spells will get used without having to make a trade off with fireball. It makes wizards feel more wizardy, and that’s a good thing.

So yeah, I’m a fan. Certain aspects came forward that I don’t have a strong attachment to, like five different areas of effect, verbal/somatic/material components, fixed spell ranges, etc. That’s personal taste, and is pretty easy to ignore most of the time.

Appendixes & Modularity

The back of the book contains a few appendixes: conditions (which are used a lot more sparingly overall), lists of gods and their domains, the planes of existence (which cover both the old great ring and newer planes), some basic animal stats, and inspirational reading.

One of the aspects most touted leading up to launch was the modularity of this version of D&D as a whole. This is the player’s book, and so its kind of modularity is to provide players different options. There’s only a few parts that stand out as broader campaign decisions: the small sidebar on using a map and grid to play, and using feats. I think it’s clear overall though that there really is one core set of rules that you’re expected to use, feats and all, with there only being suggestions of what’s easy to ignore and change.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide next month in November will probably be the place where you see more of the modularity in action. These are the new rules for D&D, make no mistake.

Framework

It seems like there was a basic framework of class design used to make all the classes. Nearly all the classes get their subclasses at 3rd level, except for the ones that have a much broader concept shift depending on those options. There’s also patterns to those subclasses themselves.

It’s possible that those frameworks will stay a trade secret, for when Wizards of the Coast starts putting out supplements, and other parties start disassembling what comes out. I really hope though that they put more of that information out in the public of how classes work. It would be a big bonus, and raise the quality of design for folks not at WotC, like home DMs and bloggers.

Playing it Safe

As I said at the top, this review expected you’re familiar with D&D. Why? Because that’s what this book does too.

The organization of the book and the content much more goes towards the person who has played D&D before. It encourages you to fill in gaps based on your experience playing the game. It features a wide breadth of choices that can easily be overwhelming for a new player.

Much moreso, there were so many times I found myself going “as you might expect…” as I wrote this review. That’s because it’s hammering hard on having elements that you remember from D&D. It is much more focused on having what you’re used to in it than making a lot of new choices and surprises.

That’s not to say there aren’t any surprises or there isn’t some genuinely clever design: there is all over the place. The refined spellcasting system definitely takes risks and took a while to develop, and comes out all the better for it. Including Eldritch Knights, Dragonborn, and Wild Mages all push some boundaries of what some consider “base” D&D.

There are places I wish it had taken some more chances. Not using all six saving throws to their fullest, or leaving barbarian rage at exactly 1 minute long. That kind of thing stands out, though probably is pretty minor.

Now, I don’t want this to be taken as a negative. This is supposed to be the D&D Greatest Hits album, and just from looking at the PHB, I’d say it succeeds. All your favorite tracks fireball and bard and elven sleep immunity are all here. This is a book that is deceptively packed with generations of D&D into one coherent game. It knows its audience: D&D players. As it says on the front, it stakes the claim to the “world’s greatest roleplaying game.”

It doesn’t push a lot of boundaries, and there’s still plenty to learn and cross-pollinate with other game systems to make your best game. Regardless, it is a game that I would am excited to play and run a campaign as soon as possible. And for that alone, I recommend it.

Wizards of the Coast provided a complimentary copy of the book for review purposes.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, the Geek's Dream Girl.

Comments

  1. I have to correct you about one thing. The DMG does not come out next month…that is the MM. The DMG comes out in November, the 18th I think.

  2. I’m much more excited for this book than I thought I was going to be. Something about the last few games I’ve been playing with the Basic Rules pdf just lit a spark in our group, we’re having fun without getting totally bogged down, making new discoveries, it’s great. I’m already hacking together dragonmarks-as-backgrounds and warforged for our new Eberron campaign.

    • Dragonmarks as backgrounds is good stuff. I saw someone else do Planescape factions as backgrounds too, so clearly it does a lot of setting work.

  3. There are a couple of holes in your review. One of which I will mention is that you claim that only the War domain for Cleric is the only domain that gives access to Heavy armor and Martial Weapons. In actuality, the Tempest Domain also grants access to Heavy Armor and Martial Weapons as well.

    This article is pretty well thought out. Good Work.

  4. From looking through the basic rules, and reading review like this, I think I would enjoy playing (especially DMing) 5th edition. However, I’m not going to (unless somebody else in my group buys the books). As you pointed out, they’re “playing it safe,” doing the expected. It makes a good game, but not really a new game. It really just looks like an updated 3.5 to me instead of a new edition.

    I want something new and interesting at the moment, mechanics-wise. I’m also a big fan of the way 4th edition worked over 3.5, and it seems like they are treating 4e as a learning opportunity (read, mistake) rather than a foundation for their next steps. I look forward to trying 5e one day, but not for the money it’s worth at the moment.

    • Same here. It doesn’t look like it’s worth $50/book, especially as I could just make a few houserules to the 3.5 srd and effectively get the same game.

    • It’s definitely not what, I’d call something new, admittedly. But, extended tactical minis rules notwithstanding, I think this has a lot of positive elements absorbed from 4e. I from like they realize 4e went too far away from traditional D&D for many people, but still did a ton of things worth hanging on to. The classes feel very 4e to me — pick a class, pick a path within that class, customize by choosing specific don’t-call-them-powers. Fiddly 3e skills are replaced with sane 4e-style ones. Managing your crazy leveling plan to nail your prerequisites and get the prestige class(es) and high-level feats you want at the right levels is 100% totally gone. Complicated class-levels-plus-templates monsters appear to be gone.

      To me, it feels like they did away with the frustrating parts of 3e and the frustrating (interminable combat) and homogenizing parts of 4e all in one swoop, while capturing most of (to me) the best parts of both. And in some of the way they’ve streamlined things, it’s also reminiscent of even older editions — there’s a fantastic OSR-style core game living inside the free basic edition, to which you could only add bits and pieces of the core books if you wanted, instead of the whole deal.

  5. Lou Wainwright says:

    Dave, the two biggest class surprises for me (since I always play spellcasters) were first that the Bard has the same spell progression as the wizard! Spells known is shorter, but much higher than sorcerer or warlock, and they can do rituals. It’s balanced a bit though by the fact that the spells knowable list is shorter, and includes almost no direct damage spells. I’m going to make a bard tomorrow.

    Second is the warlock, who has the weirdest of all spell progressions, and a very short spells knowable list. However, all spell slots are at max level and they get all spell slots back after a SHORT rest. Made a warlock illusionist for my daughter yesterday (conv a 3rd level wizard from basic) and it was fascinating.

    Love the new PHB.

    • Warlock I genuinely had to read through a few times to really get that their spell system was the same, and they had a bunch of ways to modify their spellcasting. Really interesting.
      Thanks Lou! Hope your kids enjoy the game.

  6. My group played 4e for about a year and we burned out. Maps and mini’s, 2 hour combats, min/maxing, as a DM it was a ton of work to make a fast paced challenge. Played two sessions of 5e starter pack and everyone likes the simplified mechanics and spell system. I’m a 5e fanboy and I’m proud to say it. It’s brought me back to RPG’s.

  7. I just can’t believe that you heal all your hit points during a long rest. That is ludicrous in IMO. It certainly speaks to a playstyle I’m not interested in. When core class features like the fighters second wind (non-magical healing) are not optional it’s clear that the game was not designed to bring my group back to playing D&D.

    • Yeah, not only that. You also have “hit dice” which is a nerfed healing surge, you have your level in dice to spend in healing after combats, and you replenish half the total having a long rest. In fact, the concept of encounter is still there, now they call short rest, so many skills replenishes after every combat.
      For me it just feel like a weird blend of 2e, 3e and 4e trying to appeal to everybody.

      The game is clearly oriented to combat quite often.

    • Ed Wilson says:

      The playstyle you seem to be espousing here is favored by a quickly narrowing band of consumers, and I’m sure Wizards’ survey data reflected that. While your choice of favored playstyle is yours alone to make (and I completely respect that and know several gamers that would agree), for Wizards to design the game specifically for your frankly minor rules gripe would be ludicrous.

      The rules are, as ever, guidelines. If this is your only complaint, house rule it away, as you have doubtless done with several things all the way back to 0e. Do not dismiss the entire ruleset just because one small rule subset that is easily altered isn’t designed to sync exactly to your sensibilities.

    • There were widely divergent ideas about hit points and healing during the playtest feedback, and no one solution is going to satisfy everyone. Worse yet, healing and hit points go a long way toward defining the entire feel of the game, from games where death lurks behind every door to heroic fantasy where the players charge fearlessly ahead, knowing they will always best the forces of evil in the end.

      In his playtesting columns, Mike Mearls basically said that there were going to be several different optional rulesets for this in the DMG, calibrated to different kinds of games. So if you are looking for a different style, hopefully they’ll have you covered there. We’ll see in November.

  8. I’m a huge 4e fan, and I was very hesitant about 5E when the play test rules first came out. It seemed like WotC was going too far back in the opposite direction from 4e, making 5e very old-school. But the game has come a LONG way since the initial play test, and now I love it. I’ve DM’ed the last two D&D Encounters seasons with 5e, and it plays fast and fun. They took the old-school feel, seasoned it with some 4e innovation, and baked themselves a delicious treat.

    If you’re an old-timer who was disenchanted with 4e, check out the new edition, it’s tops.

  9. An early article I read said that stat bonuses were going to be “flatter” in the new edition, to stop attack/defense bonuses from spiralling out of control and giving the game a different mathematical feel at high levels. How did that turn out? Also does it effect how dangerous monsters are as you level up? Eg in 3rd ed an Ogre is deadly, and then a few levels later, no threat at all, due to the power curve. This was the one aspect of DnD that seemed really far removed from Fantasy fiction as I like it. (and pretty much the only aspect of 13th Age I didn’t like).

    • The power curve looks much flatter to me. I’m no math wizard, but an adult red dragon from the DM Basic Rules (CR 17) has an AC of 19. Your average 1st-level character will probably have a to-hit bonus between +4 and +6 (+2 proficiency, +2 or +3 attribute, possible other small bonus). This is enough to hit said dragon about 1/4 of the time. Of course, the dragon would trash a 1st-level party, but the power ramp up seems to come mostly from its pool of hit points, number of available actions, and control abilities (multiattack, legendary actions, lair actions) rather than from sheer number bloat.

      An Ogre in 5e has AC 11, so not too hard to hit for anybody, but a decent sized pool of hit points (7d10+21, 59 average) and CR 2, meaning it should be a “challenge” for a 2nd-level party. Its Greatclub attack clocks in at +6 to hit for 13 (2d8 + 4) damage. From the core classes and equipment outlined in the Basic Rules PDF, I would say average AC at 1st-level is probably 13-16 and would top out at 18-19 if wearing armor well beyond 1st-level means. Carrying a shield adds +2 on top of those values. I see no inherent way to increase your AC by much until you acquire magic armor, and even with magic it will be tough for many PCs to get much higher than AC 20, as magic bonuses generally top out at +3 (not positive about this, based on an old playtest doc).

      This means an ogre’s average damage of 13 can swat a first level fighter for most or all of its health (1d10 hp, maxed at first level, +3-4 for high Con score) and easily one-shot any other Basic Rules class. Adding 1-2 levels worth of hp would let most characters weather a hit, but maybe not two.

      Kick that fighter up to 5th level taking the average 6 hp + Con per level instead of rolling and it will have 49-54 hp. Even with AC 22 (+1 plate, shield, Defense fighting style), the ogre would have a better than 1 in 4 chance of hitting, and its average damage would certainly make a dent. A single ogre may no longer be a “threat” to a party of 5th-level characters, but mixed with some allies to get easy Advantage on attack rolls, one or more ogres could still be a significant part of an encounter at that level. Given more hp and a small +hit increase, an ogre could be useful for many levels.

      @BrainClouds on Twitter has been posting some mathematical simulations of 5e combats over the past few days if you want to check that out. Interesting stuff!

      • Thanks for the detailed response Shaggy. That sounds very promising indeed. As much as I loved 1st-3rd ed I was always disappointed that the “effective window” of so many of the classic DnD monsters was so small. Unless you resorted to “in the cave is 10 orc chieftains!”

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