Thoughts on Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

I played D&D at GenCon, got in a few playtests with my regular group, and bought the three corebooks: the Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide. As I write this, my Sunday gaming group is playing D&D again for the first time since 2008. My lunchtime group is playing it.

And everyone is enjoying it. Given the four-year fallout from the Edition Wars, that tells you everything you need to know.

Check out the D&D Basic rules, run a game, and you’ll probably feel the same way.

Digging deeper, Dungeons & Dragons is, well, D&D. There aren’t many surprises here — in many ways it combines the best of each of the editions that came before it (yes, even D&D 4th Edition). There’s a lot that is familiar: six key attributes (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma), saving throws (your ability to resist physical, mental, and magical attacks), armor class (how hard you are to hit), and hit points (how much damage you can take), and skills

There’s also a lot that isn’t here. THACO (To Hit Armor Class 0) from 2nd Edition didn’t make the cut. Neither did 4th Edition’s powers (at least not in a form you’d recognize) and 3rd Edition’s point-buy-based skills. The complicated mess of subsystems that were 3rd Edition’s grappling, tripping, and disarm rules have been been simplified away (if not outright ignored).

Other rules made the cut, but in a modified form. Feats are still around, but feat trees (in which you had a base feat, and then many feats that built on it) are gone. Instead each feat represents a distinct new ability, independent of other feats. Skills still exist, but they’re more like old-style proficiencies that grant you a flat bonus to certain kinds of checks. Vancian magic from pre-4th Edition games is back, but in a more flexible format. Wizards and clerics can now choose to memorize a slate of spells that they know for the day, and then cast any of them using their allotted spell slots.

There are also entirely new mechanics, the most important of which are advantage and disadvantage. These are the core of D&D’s streamlined play style, and they’re a large part of what makes it possible to run 4-5 combats in a four-hour session.

In previous editions of D&D, you rolled a twenty-sided die (d20) and added in any bonuses (from skills, magic items, spells, or just being awesome) and subtracted any penalties (from adverse environmental conditions, spells, curses, or other distractions). The result was that many checks could spawn several minutes of rules consultation and debate as people did the math … only to extend it even further when they remembered a forgotten class bonus just before rolling the die. It slowed things down tremendously, and not just in combat. Anything involving a d20 roll — diplomacy checks, saving throws, trying to hold a door shut against an ogre — could trigger this familiar dance.

D&D 5th gets rid of all that. Instead, you either have advantage (roll two d20s and take the better result) or disadvantage (roll two d20s and take the worse result). Advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out, no matter how many of each you have. If you have three possible ways of getting advantage (standing over someone, casting truestrike on yourself, another player helping you) but one that gives you disadvantage (low light), then your advantage is negated and you’re back to rolling one die.

This is huge. Absolutely, positively, huge. Years of arguments are swept away by this simple mechanic. Moreover, advantage and disadvantage have a clear and obvious impact. Having advantage is really good, and having disadvantage is really bad. In practice, advantage is nice to have, but disadvantage is essential to avoid. One combat fought in twilight without any torches or magical light is enough to demonstrate that.

Skill checks, an essential part of the game in 3rd and 4th editions (and in the d20 offshoot Pathfinder), are still around … but different. Skill checks have been replaced with ability checks. Need to lift something heavy? Make a strength check. Want to see if you are being followed? That’s a Wisdom check. Need to puzzle out that cryptic reference to the Suel Imperium? Intelligence check.

The checks are made by rolling a d20 and adding whatever bonus or penalty is associated with the ability in question. If you’re bright wizard with an Intelligence score of 18, you’d get a +4 bonus when researching that cryptic reference. The none-too-smart fighter (with an Intelligence of 9) whose decided to do his own research would have a -1 penalty (the specific bonuses and penalties are spelled out in the rules).

Rather than using the old point-buy skill systems of 3e and 4e, 5th edition resurrects the idea of skill proficiency. If you are proficient in a skill, you get a flat bonus to your related skill checks. This bonus levels with you; it’s not something you can dump more points into to bump up, though certain class abilities can improve your skills. As a result the days of the ninja with the +50 stealth are done, and I’m glad to see them go. The new approach is called “bounded accuracy”, and it keeps skill bonuses from getting ridiculous. It keeps the bonuses and the target numbers needed for checks relatively low through a character’s adventuring career, and it prevents the arms race of a guard needing a +50 Perception skill to be able to see the aforementioned impossible ninja.

Saving throws also get an overhaul. They’re now tied to ability scores — you have a “Strength save” or a “Wisdom save” rather than a Fortitude or Wisdom save (or if you want to go real old school, a Save vs. Petrification). It feels a little weird, but given that Fortitude, Will, and Reflex saves were really just proxies for ability scores anyway, it makes sense.

As the game master, no wait — as the dungeon master — what I like most about this edition are its speed and its common sense. I can count on getting in 3 to 4 combats a night, where a “night” is about 3 to 4 hours. That’s actually conservative — we’ve had nights with 4-5 combats. A comparable 3rd Edition or Pathfinder scenario would likely have to be broken up over two 3-hour sessions, if not more. Although it’s easy to attribute this to the advantage/disadvantage system and the gutting of the bulky bonuses from previous editions, that’s only half the story. The other half is the rules new-found respect for common sense.

Our old games often broke down over rules discussions as people broke open their books to look up some obscure rule or hunted for a missing bonus. Moreover, 3rd Edition, and Pathfinder never met a subsystem they didn’t like. Grappling, tripping, combat maneuvers — they all required an inevitable rules look up.

Fifth Edition takes the opposite approach. Every time it has the opportunity to complicate things … it doesn’t do it. Take opportunity attacks — in previous games the list of things that could trigger an attack by an enemy was nigh near endless. In 5e, it’s one thing — moving out of a threatened area, and even that can be avoided by the disengage action. This is big. Just this one change speeds up the game by eliminating frustrating rules lookups, but more importantly it liberates players. They don’t have to worry about paying an opportunity tax to do something — they can just do it.

There’s plenty more I like about the game, and I’ll be writing about that in coming weeks, but what you need to know is this: D&D 5e is good. It’s fast. It’s fun. You should play it.

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