You have to have heard of Dungeons and Dragons. It’s been around for forty years at this point. It’s defined an entire genre of gaming. It’s history is pretty well told. There’s dungeons. There’s dragons. There’s a lot of stabbing things, slinging spells, saving throws, thrilling heroics and vile skullduggery. It’s all been covered before conceptually. Four times in fact. One might say that when you’re at a fifth edition of a thing, there’s nothing new to be done. And, maybe that’s true at a high level. But when something has been around as long as D&D has, there’s also constant improvement.
And after finally setting down to play this past weekend, I can say that D&D has made a turn for the better.
The Rise of the Edition Haters – What Came Before (4th Ed.)
Someone over at Wizards of the Coast in years past decided that someone was taking their money. In fact, not only had someone gone and taken the money they felt they should have, they had spun it into a global powerhouse that brought in millions of players, all paying monthly, who slavishly devoted themselves to sword and sorcery adventure. World of Warcraft, had out-D&Ded the original property. They looked at their Third Edition and the Open Gaming License that had come of it and realized that they could try to get in on some of that sweet, sweet Blizzard action. And, this time they wouldn’t have to count on third parties to push their brand – they could get all of it (or at least most of it) with the right presentation. So they took D&D back to the drawing board and applied every conceivable kind of MMO trope to it they could. They introduced analogues to tanks, DPS, healers, and buffers (Leaders, Strikers, Healers, and Controllers). They threw away the idea of just attacking and ensured that there were easily used powers that refreshed at different rates. They got really into the concept of aggro. They even had a service that if you paid them by the month you could have all of the system crunch from the books available online with an integrated character generator.
At first, this seemed positively great – there’s a big cross section of gamers who play WoW because they played D&D. And the game was fun. But after you played it for a while, you could see the way that putting WoW into D&D didn’t work exactly as well as it could have. It led to a style of play where there was distinctly a right way and a wrong way to play. It encouraged min maxing. It had about as much dramatic interaction as WoW did – which was to say stories were generally designed to run on rails and anything that wasn’t combat was severely downplayed from a development stance. There was number bloat that caused what should be simple fights with orcs to twist into prolonged four hour combat sessions that resolved only a single fight.
It was fun in a very statistically driven, strategic way – much like Chainmail, D&D’s wargame progenitor created by Gary Gygax. But it had some glaring problems, and the gaming community in general voted with their wallets to go with Pathfinder, which allowed for more versatility with a lot less bloat or a heavy focus on square-by-square slugfests.
After a couple of years of 4th Edition though, Wizards learned one really important thing – it had a huge community, and that community was willing to talk. So, much like an alcoholic adhering to the Twelve Steps, Wizards, hat in hand, came to their fans and said ‘we know we did something that made you feel wronged – how can we do right by you?’
And the fans spoke.
With this wave of feedback, what was at the time called D&D Next was born. It was a collaborative build process from top to bottom. It started out with a return to roots (though thankfully not so deep a return as to involve THAC0) and moving from there. They released a lot of material (along with plenty of NDAs) at first, and with each playtest session, they collected the feedback, went back and revised, then released another information packet for the playtesters. Slowly, the group of playtesters grew until two years ago at GenCon, they released basic rulesets and scenarios for convention play. Basic rules went out online. People were playing it even before the hardback books could come out. Then, this past GenCon, the Player’s Handbook (PHB for short) hardback was released into the wild in all of it’s high-quality, beautiful, glossy glory.
It didn’t take Dan, our GM, very long at all to get into the planning and prep phase. We’d all got the PHB more or less on release day, and Dan bought it and consumed the content quickly. Within a few months, we were ready to play.
The Rundown – Character Design
It started, as it always does, with character creation. For those familiar with the game, it sticks to the tried and true rolling of the basic six statistics. No changes here – everything is more or less as it was in 4th edition, assigning attributes to Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Then the selection of character Race and Class. The PHB this time around was a little more inclusive on races – the Gnome was a starting race as opposed to being put in a later supplement, and they introduced the subclassifications for the standard fantasy races (i.e. sun elves, stout halflings, etc). The classes were also slightly broadened, including the Barbarian, Druid, and Monk right out of the gate. After that, you get the bonuses afforded by race and class, your proficiencies and gear. In fourth edition, this is where you’d usually stop. You had everything you needed.
Everything except any kind of background. One of fourth edition’s weaknesses was that it strangely ignored anything that smelled like roleplaying. It set zero dramatic hooks. It didn’t even imply that it was in any way important. Your class was your character – end of story. Old hand gamers such as our group usually fall back on character personality being a part of the game, but the rules could quickly eclipse that. Going against type made the game lethal, not interesting. When you have a room full of dead player characters, the game ceases to be fun for anyone.
I think this is why the 5th Edition character creation process has Backgrounds as a narrative hook. They’re a bit of a compromise really. They flesh out what you were before you were a professional adventurer and provide personality quirks, ideals to live by, connections to that old life, as well as personal flaws. you can create any of these without playing ‘by-the-book’ but if you’re not inspired yet, pick up a D8 and roll for them on their suggested list. The result is that instead of a Tiefling Rogue, I became Spektor Harrow, a former career burglar, brought up by the Thiefmaker. Spektor is on a quest for revenge against the dragons to killed his biological family. He believes it’s not what you steal, but who you steal from. And if people don’t give him the respect he feels all people are due, he’s not above robbing them blind to give them a change in perspective. When I as Spektor’s player behave in concordance with the above, Dan has the option to grant me Inspiration – a mechanical benefit which lets a player roll at Advantage (rolling two D20 and selecting the higher result). It marries dramatic aspects of the game with mechanical reward.
It’s good thinking, and long overdue I think.
The Rundown – The System
The system isn’t really all that different in terms of finding Difficulty Classes and simply rolling to meet or beat them. If you’re climbing a wall with passable handholds, the DM assigns a difficulty (15) and you roll D20 plus your strength modifier. If you meet or beat the DC, up you go. The same goes for Hitting opponents – meet or beat the Armor Class and you hit, which is simpler than 4th edition which involved four separate ways to target a strike.
Magic has gone back to mostly just happening. There’s no need for rolling to hit, and as a result there should be fewer cases of missing on that cool Daily power – though some spells allow for saving throws to mitigate or nullify some effects. Unfortunately though it also returns you to the spell book spell selection method – you choose your spells each morning and hope you picked ones that will be useful. This is somewhat countered by Cantrips – level zero spells you can cast all you want all day. Some do damage, but most do not.
Saving throws have also reverted to their 3rd edition roots – namely that you don’t always get any kind of bonus or even the option to make them. Race and Class afford you certain saves inherently – for instance, Spektor can save on Dexterity and Intelligence due to being a rogue. Since he’s a tiefling, he also gets inherent resistance against Fire effects. The death save mechanics are slightly altered, allowing for the possibility of instant kills if there’s enough damage.
As for Combat, Initiative is more or less as it was in 4th edition, though it focuses on clumping groups of bad guys together, making mobs far more lethal. In the very first round, a group of low-level Kobolds rushed out sorcerer and he’d have gone down like a sack of potatoes had he not been a Half-Orc with the ability to go from zero hit points to one hit point once per fight. They also did away with flanking as a way to get bonuses – combat advantage is granted by the GM, and with that said it puts less focus on having to ‘be in the right place’ all the time. It frees players from the ‘one way to play’ game theory into being able to be more fluid with options.
Ultimately in sum up, the systems have adapted to move out of the way. You handle them quickly and can move onto the next player, and the next player after that quickly. The game is uncluttered and flows in ways the prior edition did not.
Wizards seems to have learned from the mistakes of the past largely with the 5th Edition rules. I’ve only had opportunity to play once so far but very much look forward to continuing the adventure Dan set us on and learning more from the upcoming Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s guide. Wizards seems to be on the right track to getting things right this time around.