D&D 5th Edition: One Year Later

It’s been a little over a year since my gaming groups started playing D&D 5th Edition. We began with the D&D Basic Rules when they were released in July 2014 and quickly moved to the core rules (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual) as they released. My Sunday group ran two playtest campaigns during this time: Obsidian Frontier, a sandbox game, and Heart of Darkness is a level-per-session story-driven game.

After 13 months and more than two dozen sessions, it’s safe to say we love 5th Edition.

It has done what Wizards of the Coast said it would. It simplified and streamlined the rule set, synthesized the best rules from prior editions, and brought lapsed D&D players back into the fold. Two years ago, this all seemed impossible. My group had written WotC off after D&D 4th Edition; while some in our group liked that version of the game, enough didn’t than we moved on to other games, including Star Wars: Saga Edition, Savage Worlds, and Numenera. There was a lot bad blood over WotC’s dismissive treatment of older editions during the 4E roll out, and overcoming that required an exceptional game.

Fortunately, that’s what we got.

I can’t say our play testing was comprehensive. We’ve probably touched all the core rules, but there are a handful of classes we haven’t tried yet (barbarian, monk, paladin) and there are many subclasses in each primary class we haven’t used. We play twice a month, which is a far cry from the four times a month we used to playtest D&D 3rd Edition. That said the playtest lasted far, far longer than our 4th Edition one, which was abandoned after a handful of sessions.

So why do I think it worked for us?

Speed: The game is fast. Granted, most D&D variants are fast at low-level, but 5th Edition is particularly speedy, and looks to retain that speed at higher levels. This is largely thanks to eliminating earlier editions’ plethora of bonuses and penalties in favor of substituting Advantage (roll 2d20, keep the better result) for bonuses and Disadvantage (roll 2d20, keep the worse result) for penalties. Killing attacks of opportunity in almost every circumstance was also a huge time saver. Admittedly, my campaigns are only just now hitting 5th level but these changes have allowed us to fit 4-5 combats into a four hour gaming session. That’s something we’d seen in Savage Worlds but rarely in D&D.

Flexibility within a Framework: It says a lot about 5th Edition that a few weeks (maybe days) after the Player’s Handbook was released our group was already talking about how to convert our high level characters to the new system. One of the things we enjoyed most about Star Wars Saga Edition is that it never introduced new base classes. Instead, it new options — feats and talent trees — within the framework of the core classes.. This allowed you to have a base “solider” class that could branch out into melee weapon combat, ranged combat, or hand-to-hand without having to create whole new classes. 5th Edition looks to be doing the same — we may see a few new base classes (like the psionic mystic) but those look to be the exceptions. Would I like to see more options? Hell yes. Am I happy with what we’ve got? Pretty much so.

Plug and Play: As a dungeon master I love how modular the system is. I can easily add in things like critical hits, hex-based battle maps, flanking and other optional rules without breaking the game. Going back to Saga Editon, I loved how you could take the base rules, add in a campaign book (e.g. Knights of the Old Republic) and a rules supplement (e.g. Scum and Villainy) and have everything you need to run a shadowy Star Wars campaign in one of my favorite settings. D&D 5th Edition appears to be going the same route, only they’re combining the optional rules with their biannual adventure books.

Bounded Math: This plays into speed, but the bounded math of D&D 5th Edition has played huge rule in its popularity at my table. In 3rd Edition and its variants, it was possible to get to ridiculously high bonuses through a combination of class abilities, feats, and magic items. It made it increasingly difficult to come up with skills-based challenges for players, and it created a sort of arms race as the PCs boosted key skills like stealth, and the NPCs (at least the named ones) needed to have comparable skills to compete. It also meant that as players leveled up, low-level monsters like goblins and kobolds stopped being a threat. Simultaneously low-level magic items like that trusty +1 sword you found on your first adventure were often discarded in favor of more powerful versions. In a world with +5 dancing frostbrand broadswords, that lowly magical blade just isn’t worth keeping

D&D 5th Edition fixed this by setting an upper bound for ability checks, armor classes, and other key values. This means that low-level monsters — particularly when massed — can still be a threat to higher level characters. It means that even high-level characters might have difficulty opening a moderately difficult door and when the best magical sword you can get is +3, that +1 weapon is suddenly a hell of a lot more valuable.

This is an adjustment for us. We’ve created some pretty cool magic items over the years, and our magical economy in Greyhawk tended more toward high magic as we moved through D&D 2nd and 3rd Editions. That said, I think the group’s enjoying the more constrained nature of magic items in the current edition, but I think the true test there will be if/when we convert our legacy characters to the new system.

Vancian Magic 2.0: I know some people hate the fire-and-forget Vancian magic systems of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions, but my group loves it, and 5th Edition brings it back. The new system does feature a number of improvements. Every spell casting class gets cantrips, and many of these pack an offensive punch. Spells like firebolt, produce flame, true strike, ray of frost, and sacred flame keep spell casters in the game longer and avoid them having to fall back on daggers, darts, and light crossbows (or, more likely, doing nothing when their spells were done for the day). It’s a legacy of D&D 4th Edition and it’s one that works for my group. We also liked how 5th Edition relaxed how wizards’ prepared their spells — they can now pick from a list and then cast the spells on that list as many times as they have spell slots. It avoids scroll caddy problem (in which spell casters simply scribed a whole bunch of utility spells for use in the field).

We also like that more of the lower level spells scale. They’ll do a base amount of damage at 1st or 2nd level, but then if you spend a higher level spell slot to cast that same spell, it does more damage, lasts longer, or has some other substantive effect. This helps avoid the proliferation of duplicate spells at higher levels that exist simply so you can have a higher level version of a lower level spell. It echoes what Savage Worlds does, and its a welcome change to the system.

Lack of Splatbooks: Some how, some way, Wizards of the Coast has avoided the splatbook conga line in which new rule books are published every month. We’ve seen some new content via their “Unearthed Arcana* columns and as supplemental rules in their adventure path books, but WotC’s avoided flooding their own market with material. This in turn has helped avoid power creep in the rules, and that’s kept the game focused on its core mechanics.

Targeted Errata: Under D&D 4th Edition, WotC treated errata as software patches, and released frequent updates to the rules to address real and perceived balance issues. It hurt more than it helped; Diablo III and The Old Republic can get away with those kinds of updates because the computer is doing the math. With pen-and-paper you end up with a hundred sticky notes added to your rules books, and nearly as many arguments about what the rules are. Not so 5th Edition; they’re targeting things that are actually wrong, the way errata should be.

Indexes. Beautiful indexes: Every core rule book has an functional, multi-page index. We may not always agree with how it’s organized, and a few of us would like to have seen a larger font used in the Player’s Handbook, but they are indexes, and they do work. This is a far cry from the pathetic, malnourished, mostly useless indexes with seen in 4th Edition (and yes, I have irrationally strong feelings about indexes).

Backwards Compatibility: This is probably more my thing than my players, but I’ve been happily surprised at how backwards compatible 5th Edition is. Unlike 4th, which basically scrapped the core rules, and 3rd, which added a tremendous amount of complexity, 5th Edition harkens back to earlier editions of the game. I’ve used magic items, monsters, and NPCs from my 1st and 2nd edition books more in the last year than I have in the previous 10 combined. This makes up for the lack of splatbooks because truthfully, I already have all the splatbooks that WotC might publish.

The Year Ahead

We’ve been enjoying D&D 5th Edition tremendously. we’re getting to the point where my group is eager for more content – maybe a true campaign book for Forgotten Realms that we can pilfer for Greyhawk as we did for 3rd Edition, or a new Monster Manual to bolster the infernal ranks of our enemies.

We’d like to see some version of an Open Gaming License so that other companies can start to publish third-party content but I think we’re all aware of how that can go badly (see the glut of such material for 3rd Edition).

Truthfully though … we don’t need those extra books. The game is running well without them, and while I think most of us wouldn’t say “no” to a new source book or two, we’re doing just fine without them. As things stand now I can easily see running our current campaign through 2016, perhaps with a pause or two to re-visit Savage Worlds or try out a new game that strikes our fancy. No matter what happens, Dungeons & Dragons has earned back its place at our table.