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Dungeons and Dragons – 5th Edition

PHB CoverYou 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.

Dungeons and Dragons - Friends don't let friends use Silverlight

And oh MAN did they back the wrong horse on Silverlight powering their online tools…

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.

D&D Next

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.

Dungeons and Dragons - Now With More Dragons

You need the gloss to make sure the blood doesn’t soak into the pages.

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.

Dungeons and Dragons - Tiefling

I AM NOT A NUMBER. I AM A TIEFLING!

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.

PLEASE DON'T TELL MY SUPERVISOR I WAS SLEEPING!!!

PLEASE DON’T TELL MY SUPERVISOR I WAS SLEEPING!!!

 

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.

The Verdict

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.

rate5

Burtacamoose is a guy that likes to write. He likes to write a lot. Whenever someone will let him, or better yet pay him, to write he’ll do it. Sometimes, he even blathers on at his own site: ossua.com between writing his novel and short stories and working his dayjob. As a member of the thirty-something generation of gamers, he enjoys retro-titles, platformers, RPGs, shooters, puzzles, word games and things that are flat out weird. He has been writing for HeyPoorPlayer since early 2011. Favorite Game: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
  • Steve

    Magic Missile is not a cantrip in 5E Burt. Also, magic can miss. A lot. Some spells roll as attacks, but others are saving throw checks against a specific stat, like the one I used in our adventure was a save against Dexterity. It missed one of the kobolds. The offensive spell Jake used missed.

  • Jacob

    The section on the genesis of 4E confused me.

    “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.”

    I don’t think any of that is remotely true. First off the first huge MMO was Everquest which debuted the year before 3rd edition of D&D, four years prior to 3.5. Were those releases in response to EQ? Remember WoW was functionally a second generation MMO that launched using an existing property. All the basic tropes in MMO already existed and Wow was more of a refinement of concept using a hugely popular property as its selling point. 3.5 came out the year after WoW launched as well.

    Also Remember, The D&D license was used for an Hybrid MMO that was released in 2002, Neverwinter Nights. So they already had a finger in the MMO pie. On top of that they released D&D online in 2006 using 3.5 rules.

    So the D&D license was already pretty deeply enmeshed in MMO’s and MMO gameplay so if 4E was somehow a reaction to WoW’s subscriber base rather than their own MMO’s it would be pretty bizarre as they already had several products that were in the MMO market space.

    ————

    “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). ”

    You wrote a history of RPG’s here not too long ago so I know for an absolute fact that you encountered the concept of tank/healer/DPS tropes. It’s all based on original D&D ideas. Hell GAUNTLET used them. These are old tropes MMO’s used, not tropes created by MMOs in any fashion. If anything the numerous hybrid classes in MMO’s try to get away from them.

    ——————

    “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.”

    This is kind of the same in all D&D editions they just changed the name. For instance my cleric has 3 cantrips that are functionally at-wills, and 2 spells I can use once a day. All they really did was standardize the refresh rate and give more classes combat abilities. Remember, you could absolutely still just attack in 4E, it was just less beneficial than in the past. Opportunity attacks were generally melee basic attacks.

    Tanking and aggro has always existed. They just formalized it more. So I’ll give you that this is a mechanic more born from video games than RPG’s (formalizing it, not the concept itself, a warrior standing up front and two wizards and a cleric standing behind him = tanking which as stated is not a remotely new to 4E concept).

    —————–

    “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.”

    This isn’t related to MMO’s, this is because it came out in 2008 and not 1988. Hell, my car radio is a subscription service…

    —————–

    Pat has had this complaint in the past about 4E being an MMO and I just have year to hear a good argument for why that’s the case other than it came out in the decade MMO’s basically owned. I just don’t think it’s convincing argument that because it had a higher focus on miniature oriented combat that it’s remotely similar to MMO’s or in answer to them.

    I honestly think 4E had it’s roots in trying to pair down the rules and make the gameplay easier and less esoteric for beginners. In that sense you could compare it to WoW in that it took an existing concept and dumbed it down a bit so it was fun right from the start and took a lot less time to get going out of the gate. The best thing to my mind about 4E was that you didn’t have to hind under the cart after you fired off your spell. It was playable by everyone at level one and slowly built up the crunch as you went. Heck look at the board game versions of it, which were even more dumbed down and streamlined.

    I also think there are elements in it that are similar to CCG’s which are/were WoTC’s bread and butter, if you want to look at its inspiration in other game types.

    TL;dr – The WoW critique of 4E doesn’t make sense to me, and I don’t think there’s any way at all you can call 4E a response to WoW or MMO’s in general.

  • Jacob

    Also, is it just me or is every article on this site in a very light grayish font on a white background. It makes it hard to read.

  • Dan

    It is hard to read!

  • Burtacamoose

    Steve – corrected the magic stuff. Thanks for the catch.

  • Burtacamoose

    Jacob, so noted – you’re entitled to your side of the semantic argument. But this is just how I feel about the way fourth ed shook out. Patrick has something when he notes the similarities to WoW and MMO. My experiences with 2nd Edition just didn’t have the MMO elements – perhaps this was due to the groups I played with or the DMs running them. The evidence I saw lead me to believe that the reason Wizards emphasized the structures they did was to play into Blizzard’s top-grossing money maker – a smart decision that played out poorly. It’s not right or wrong to do it, but it smells that way to me.

    • Jacob

      In what fashion though? I’ve heard Pat say its like playing WoW a lot but never particularly give a reason for that other than the combat was a little more complex than ‘I shoot it with my arrow’.

      Which MMO elements did 2nd edition not have? If we’re just talking about the attack powers, all they really did was vary melee abilities. Casters still have spells, some more power than others, that they can use are varying refresh rates.

      So which structures played into Wow? Most structures in MMO’s come directly from RPG’s and D&D specifically, so I’m curious to see what folks mean by this. You mentioned the Tank/DPS/Healer structure in Wow, which directly comes from D&D (Fighter/Wizard/Cleric) and basically every fantasy RPG video game ever (I looked up Dragon Warrior 3, the ORPG video game series for you. The Classes are: Hero, Warrior, Martial Artist, Priest, Mage, Dealer, Gadabout, Sage, and thief – all pretty familiar).

      I’m not trying to be obtuse but I played Wow a lot and I played 4E a lot and I just don’t get the comparison other than melee classes having combat abilities other than I hit it with my hammer.

      I will say that there isn’t even a little bit of evidence that 4E was in any way a reaction to Wow unless there’s something in 4E that’s Wow specific that I’m missing. Like I said, there’s nothing original in Wow itself in terms of gameplay or mechanics that wasn’t in prior MMO’s. Wow’s success was built on simplifying everything, removing any penalty of failure, and instancing. Basically they made it easier for new people to jump right in. So if that’s what you’re referencing, ok. I’ll agree with that. D&D 4E made an effort to make it more fun out of the box. But based on what you’ve said and what Pat have said I don’t think that’s your argument, although I could be wrong.

      For reference:
      Wow was release in 2004
      D&D Online was released in 2006 (using 3.5 rules)
      WoW – Burning Crusade 2007
      4E was released in 2008

      I think if anything 4E was released as a reaction to D20’s over-complexity.

      • Burtacamoose

        The complexity thing is directly from WoW in terms of the number bloat. 2nd Edition D&D could start you out with a wizard with a single hit point. Numbers got kept small, both HP and damage output. They were easy to juggle. It didn’t have to get complicated. Well, THAC0 was stupid complicated in that it required a chart – but I digress.

        In 4th Ed, you started out with HP in the tens mostly. And from there numbers got bigger. Same for damage output. Now, I’m numerically impaired in the first place, so I don’t like bloat at all, but in WoW you see the same thing. You start dishing out more and more damage but you have the computer instantly calcing it for you. In WoW it’s easy, in D&D that presented an issue for me.

        WoW has lip service story – but it all comes down to what you killed and what loot you got. Fourth edition really downplayed the story, but devoted lots of page space to charts for loot and plunder. You’d get small bits of ‘fluff’ compared to page after page of combat rules (typically in another book – little setting info was really included to help you find a place for your character with just a player’s guide out of the gate). Maybe it’s a ratio thing – acting like people should be instinctive, but crunch takes explanation, perhaps?

        While you and I and our group roleplay as the default setting, there’s no emphasis to play to your character’s personality in 4th edition up until (weridly) Dark Sun, where they brought in professions which only kind of gave a reason to roleplay. What 4th Ed. DID do was give a hell of a reason to play to your stats and NOT worry about anything else – much like raids tend towards. Know your role and do it. Multiclassing left you some room for versatility, but the system was cumbersome to do.

        At-will, Daily, and Encounter spells also smell a lot like the WoW abilities. Press 1 for fireball, press 2 for Mage Bolt, Press three for this and four for that. The spell and maneuver cards were essentially your buttons. You can press this card/button, but your cooldown then starts and you cant do it again until the next encounter/day, though you have niftly smaller spells you can do all the time with a short cooldown. It felt less like the original AD&D. AD&D spells were one and done. you got it back at the start of the next day when you memorized your spells again (provided you reselected it) – there wasn’t any refresh before day’s end or at-will apart from cantrips which typically didn’t do any damage. This was right up to 3.0. 4.0 busted out a stuff-every-round ethos that I actually liked (it made 1st level wizards fun and awesome right away) which has NEVER been a part of 3.0 or further back. By my observation, this was powerfully WoW inspired.

        • Jacob

          So basically you’re using Wow as a euphemism for ‘video games’? Ok, I get that if that’s the case because nothing said is wow specific, pretty much every video game ever involves pushing buttons to use certain abilities. If you just mean the specific format used in 4E ‘Spell cards’ I’d suggest it has for more to do with MTG or another CCG than WoW.

          I totally disagree with you on the role-playing aspects of 4E, but I guess that’s another discussion. I don’t really quite understand what you mean by “there’s no emphasis to play to your character’s personality in 4th edition” other than maybe you thought combat took too long.

          Also as a side note ‘Number bloat’ from a White wolf guy seems odd to me. I remember rolling like 35 dice and having like 9000 numbers to juggle on those character sheets.

          • Burtacamoose

            Exalted and Abberant were the outliers there. WoD is a lot more streamlined.

          • Jacob

            Was mostly referencing Werewolf. That said, in order of complexity in the games I’ve got experience with, 4E would be the second easiest to pick up and run with (only Cthulhu was easier among games I’ve played). Hardest being Shadowrun in terms of raw number juggling and generalized pita of the character creation process.

            My favorite is obviously Dresden. But I still don’t understand most of Dresden’s crunch. I just like the character creation a lot.

  • Burtacamoose

    Also a note on the just attacking thing, Steve: you’re totally right. And the only reason we ever found for it was to make attacks of opportunity. It was one of the nickel and dime powers that we never used because at-wills granted so much more advantage. The 5th edition goes back to basics where those attacks are still useful – at least at low levels. It’s cleaner, and there’s less ‘what do I do?’ moments like I had in 4th ed. Though, admittedly, Void pretty much was gonna miss no matter what he did. ^_^;

  • steve myers

    A couple more nit picks I noticed in your copy B:
    “They introduced analogues to tanks, DPS, healers, and buffers (Leaders, Strikers, Healers, and Controllers)”

    That’s not really analogous. Tanks were Guardians in 4E. DPS were indeed strikers. But Leaders were the healers in 4E. And Controllers weren’t buffers. In fact the most buff and debuff oriented character you got to see in action was The Quon, a cleric. Buffs were spread throughout the classes. So the sentence structure needs some work. I’d probably say “They introduced analogues to tanks, DPS and healing in the form of Guardians, Strikers and Leaders.” Keeping it restricted to the trinity. However, the trinity does indeed come from D&D so I’m not sure where you’d go from that point. Just you know, you have leaders and healers in your 4E side and the leaders were the healers.

    Also, ” and the gaming community in general voted with their wallets to go with Pathfinder,”

    To this day that’s a heavily debated point. You’re going to have to cite your stats, as the ones I’ve seen posted are fuzzy at best. Pathfinder was super competitive. But neither Wizards nor Paizo really offered up compelling sales figures to sway that debate. Definitely want to cite your figures if that’s the comment you’re going to make.

    • Mostly I’m basing that statement off of the folks I knew who were really big into 3rd Ed. They either stayed with their present systems and kept going, or they went to Pathfinder. Pathfinder also has a slew of support and products that came out at a rate that more or less crushed Wizards in terms of production.

      A second source are the local game stores. They seem to support more Pathfinder events and generally have groups looking to play Pathfinder more than looking to play 4th ed.

      The sources I suppose could be squishy or personally biased – but ultimately, I see more stuff selling better for Pathfinder in general between players and store owners.

    • I did find this though from a company that reports on sales figures for the tabletop industry though: http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/27068.html

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