First Impressions of D&D 5th Edition

It's a little late to be doing a review of D&D 5th edition. Be that as it may, I recently ran my first 5th edition game and it seemed a reasonable topic to give my first impressions of it.

This isn't a full review - a little googling will find a few gazillion of those.

First, some background. Earlier in the year we played some Dungeon Crawl Classics. It was a blast, at least until the total party kill. I'd gladly play again, but I felt free to allow my GM ADD to reign. We played Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. It's a game I enjoyed, but it's a bit of a mental shift from other game which had me doing a lot of legwork as GM. With me beginning my long delayed (part-time) pursuit of a Master's Degree this fall I wanted something that didn't require quite as much prep work. After some back and forth we kicked off a 5th edition D&D game set on Eberron.

So one of the goals of 5th edition D&D, as I understand it, was to bring players from older adventures back into the game. Though I've played all versions of D&D, I have to confess to some frustration with newer versions - 3/3.5 took far too long to prep for and while 4th edition was much quicker for prepping, we found combats lasted far too long for our tastes. The combats were a ton of fun mind you, just too much a time sink. I'm not going to run through every detail of 5th edition but some things stuck out for me.

First of all, the universal d20 mechanic of 3rd and 4th editions remains. For nearly everything you want to roll high on a d20. However, the extreme min-maxing that the 3.x editions encouraged is largely gone. Feats from the 3.x editions are still possible but are optional - every few levels characters have a chance to bump up two ability scores. In place of that a character can take a feat. Feats are considerably more potent as a result, but you can absolutely play without them without missing them a bit. Or have some players use them and others not.

One thing which did surprise me is the fact that some ideas from the 4th edition were used - for example, all characters get a proficiency bonus which increases as they level up. For things they are proficient with - spells, certain weapons (or all for fighters), certain skills, certain saving throws, etc. the proficiency bonus is applied to d20 rolls in addition to other bonuses. Otherwise it's just a straight d20 roll, modified by ability scores. One thing I found noteworthy is the proficiency bonus is modest - it starts off at +2 and maxes out at 17th level at +6. This greatly smooths out the power curve of the game. As a result, magic items are more modest as well and it wouldn't be all that difficult to run a game without any magic items or with very few - something that other versions of D&D would have difficulty with.

Prestige classes are gone. Instead at low levels characters make choices which can shape their character. For example, a 2nd level ranger chooses a fighting style and at 3rd level chooses and archetype (the Player's Handbook offers hunter or beast master for rangers). Multi-classing remains possible though not perhaps as necessary - for example there's a fighter archetype that gives access to some basic offensive and defensive wizard spells, in keeping with elven fighter/wizards.

Magic using characters have a bit more flexibility - a character can have a certain number of spells in memory and also a certain number of casting slots. When a spell is cast it uses up a casting slot, but no spell is forgotten.

As far as how it actually played - I'm still getting my feet wet. However I will say I was able to prep the first adventure we did from scratch very quickly and in a brief session we were able to get through some roleplaying scenes and multiple combats. No miniatures were needed though they might have helped a little bit - not so much for tactical usage, more for a clearer big-picture sort of idea. No deaths from our first adventure but one character came awfully close and more than one fell to zero hit points.

I haven't yet gotten a feel for the advancement pace of the game - leveling up to 2nd level was very quick, easily achieved after one session. I'm not sure if the pace remains fast or if it levels off like it did in older editions. I might do a little work on a spreadsheet to get an idea of how fast a party will level up when presented with challenges appropriate for the party's abilities.

Wizards of the Coast seems to be keeping releases for this new game to a minimum. A few large-scale adventures and a few sourcebooks/rules expansions, some of them outsourced. To be honest, I actually prefer this strategy - in the era of the splatbook the game you played could diverge considerably from other people playing the same edition of the game. From a business perspective, I'm a little unclear what that means - does Hasbro have more modest expectations? Do they want more of the business to come from other products such as video games, novels, etc.? One peeve is the lack of any digital version of the game - no pdf/epub/mobi version of the core books. Wizards of the Coast has begun rolling out pdf versions of older core books over the past few months, so there is hope they are now open to core books available digitally, but we will see if that extends to the current version of the game.

Regardless of the business side of things, my impression so far is it is enjoyable and smooth enough to keep running at least through my first trimester at Brandeis, after which we'll see. Call of Cthulhu always wants to be played and zombie apocalypses are always fun...

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