Sunday, 14 September 2014

Review - Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook

Player's HandbookLead Designers: Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford
Published by: Wizards of the Coast


One of the difficulties in writing a review of this product is knowing that the game itself has a hugely rich and diverse history. Many tabletop gamers have their favourite edition, they have their most hated edition, they have their favourite parts of certain editions and they have their hopes for future editions. That’s a hell of a mix – one of this game’s many trials is that it’s not enough for Dungeons & Dragons to simply say ‘These are the rules’ when there are a myriad of voices calling ‘But what about our edition, our loves, our preferences?’ Forty years and four editions – not to mention the huge collection of licensed games by other publishers - does that to a game, especially the flagship of the tabletop roleplaying industry.

And, love it or hate it, that’s what Dungeons & Dragons is; the industry flagship. The game may not lead the way in the way that it used to but the brand and the strength of it’s history is undeniable. That’s one of the many things, if not the thing, that makes this new edition important.

I have a very spotty history with Dungeons & Dragons. I broke into the hobby with the Basic D&D BECMI boxsets and then graduated on to AD&D 2nd Edition, which I simply didn’t like and drifted away from. 3rd Edition and 3.5 passed me by and I came back into the brand with 4th Edition, which I enjoyed at first but soon became a little tired of as it felt too much like a skirmish game that was in contention with the ever growing popularity of MMOs. I backtracked to 3.5 and then Pathfinder, which I enjoyed immensely, and then went back to a more basic form of D&D with 13th Age. After my chequered background with D&D and the fact that I had hit gold with two games that satiated my need for complicated D&D rules and streamlined D&D rules, did I really have to return to the core D&D franchise?

Before I continue - yes, I received my copy from Wizards of the Coast and no, I won’t be going into a detailed blow-by-blow account of how this edition differs from the others; this is mainly because that is not how I write my reviews as I’m more interested in how the game makes me feel and what the game does for me as a player, and not what it’s capable of mechanically. Also, comparing this to other editions is pointless as there would be so many points to cover that I’d need more than a couple of thousand words.

THE BOOK

So, I’ll start with the presentation. It’s a hardback 320 page book with full-colour glossy pages with clear, easy on the eye type. It’s a solid book and it sits open nicely when you need it to, and it’s a good size so you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. However, the choice of design is the first thing that made me feel that this book might not be for me as I do tend to judge books by their covers, especially gaming books. I need the initial imagery to set my creative mind tingling and in many respects it’s the first draw to get my interest.

I reviewed the D&D Starter Set a while ago and I had many problems with the design and, sadly, my opinion hasn’t really changed with this edition. I like the D&D logo but the oversized ‘Player’s Handbook’ and the little red blood splash down the cover with ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ on it just doesn’t really do it for me; it’s a little bland and uninspired. More importantly the choice of front cover image doesn’t really grab me at all; some mage getting in the face of a giant whilst a fighter looks on? It may have been a great image for a supplement or adventure concerning these three but for a D&D core rulebook it doesn’t seem to fit. There’s an image on page 9 that’s simply glorious, with a dragon, a selection of characters and a huge mysterious city in the background. It’s dynamic and inspirational and would have suited the cover in almost every aspect, covering the ideals of the game almost perfectly. The cover art simply doesn’t do it for me and I felt this when I first saw it long ago, hoping that having the physical book in my hands might diminish that viewpoint. Sadly it didn’t and, as good as the artwork is, the cover doesn’t inspire me at all.

It’s when you get into the book that you begin to feel the game. The art ranges from excellent to adequate so you’re never really pulled out of the atmosphere the game is trying to create. There’s a sense of reality to the artwork that I never saw in the two previous editions and they appear to have gotten rid of the insane high-fantasy designs of those editions and gone for something a little more reserved. Oh, you’ve still got your crazy armour and costumes in there – it’s fantasy after all - but it feels much more practical and grounded in a form of reality. It’s great art and makes the world tangible.

THE CONTENTS

So that brings us on to the meat of the book. After my initial indifference to the cover I was naturally wary of what I’d find inside. I had already expressed my like of the Starter Set rules but the main rulebook was where I’d cast my final verdict over if the game had done it for me or not.

Everything you would expect from D&D is there. It’s not that much different from what we have seen before and it’s concisely and clearly laid out. One of my first questions always is ‘Is it new gamer friendly?’ I’d have to say no. There are a few pages of explanations and an example, but nothing that talks you through the hobby. In my case I don’t have a problem with this as I’m game and hobby savvy so I usually skip those parts anyway, but new gamers might need to begin with the Starter Set to get full use out of this book.

 You’ve got a good selection of Races and Careers to choose from which you can use as designed or for other races you may have in mind. The starting Races are Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, Dragonborn, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc and Tiefling. The classes are Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock and Wizard. It’s a good choice and you can mix them up with multiclassing in the optional rules if that’s the way you want to go. There’s also Feats in the optional rules and you don’t have to use them but they do add a bit of flavour to the character.

In addition, I do I like the little creative flourish to the opening page of each of the Race and Career entries - there’s a neat piece of art with an example character and a background environment to suit the entry, along with some examples of personality and some hints at their relationship with other races. There’s some quotes from some of the D&D novels to add colour, too, such as Salvatore’s ‘The Crystal Shard’ and Weis & Hickman’s ‘Dragons of Autumn Twilight’. It’s a nice touch and somewhat reminds me of the atmosphere of the game from when these particular novels were first published back in the 1980s.

It’s all well written and has flavour, that much is sure, but I feel that it reads as if it has been designed for existing D&D campaign worlds, which it most likely has. I used to use D&D for generic fantasy games but with the history and existing settings it’s obvious that they would cater for the worlds that they have already created. Forgotten Realms gets a lot of attention in here only as examples, but it does give the impression that the game is rooted firmly in the campaign settings created for it. I don’t have much of a problem with this as I run D&D campaigns in D&D settings, but if you’re looking to use this for a setting such as Middle-Earth or for a world of your own design then it’ll need some tweaking. Such is the nature of the hobby but if anyone at Wizards of the Coast is listening then please save me some work and bring back the Birthright setting!

The rules feel very stripped back and there are some nice additions, for example:

- You have a selection of skills, but not too overbearing or detailed.
- The Saving Throw is now Ability based, so you have to roll a D20 plus your Ability modifier against a DC. Simple.
- There’s a cool Advantage/Disadvantage rule; if you have an Advantage then you roll two D20s and keep the higher score, and it’s the lower score for having the Disadvantage.
- Inspiration rewards players for roleplaying their character’s personality, traits and flaws well and gives a bonus to a chosen roll.
- There’s also a neat Background section in which you can choose a background, such as Charlatan or an Entertainer, and you a roll on random tables to build a suggested history and personality. It’s optional, but it does create some interesting characters that some gamers might find it a challenge to roleplay out.
- The Magic system is easy and is a simple case of using spell slots, which a rest and research replenishes, and the spells are as varied and as detailed as ever, giving spellslingers plenty of options.
- Combat is hauled right back and covers movement, actions and attacks of all kinds. It’s a short section of the book and the DMs Guide will no doubt expand on this, but it’s straightforward and easy to manage, and what I saw as the complications of 4th Edition are gone.

In all, the rules have been lightened and simplified and the additional rules add options and a bit more dynamism but no extra complication.

I like the rules. A lot. In fact, I think that these are the best D&D edition rules that are available as they take the game, trim the fat and make it much more playable. You still have your crunch but the rules feel modular so you can drop certain sections if you want. For example, I probably won’t use the Feats or the Inspiration rules. Will it affect the game? Not at all. Unless the players make a fuss of not having the option it won’t disrupt the rules at all. Would it unbalance them? Maybe. But I’ve never cared about game balance in any game I’ve ever played so that’s not an issue for me. These rules make the game as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.

The book is almost a full roleplaying game in itself. You’ll still need the DMs Guide and the Monster Manual – that’s a dead cert if you’re new to the hobby - but there are some beasties in the back you can use as templates and get a few games out of this book to wet your appetite for the following books. There’s nothing stopping you from using an old 3.0 or 3.5 Monster Manual if you want to do some low-level games, but the official 5th Edition manuals will no doubt be your best choice.

With brief appendices including Conditions (such as Grappling and Paralyzed), Gods (including the pantheons of Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Eberron, as well as real-world pantheons), the Planes of Existence, Creature stats, Inspirational Reading and an Index, the book has everything a player will need to get into a D&D game. As I said before seasoned gamers will be able to use this and get playing straight away but newcomers to the hobby will be better off waiting for the other two core books to really get into the game.

CONCLUSION

My thoughts about the cover presentation aside, D&D 5th Edition is a solid, well thought out game that I think really delivers. There were ideals that this edition would help to unite all editions and that D&D players will finally have a unified set of rules they can all enjoy and share. I don’t see much of that, truth be told, but I do see an attempt to strip away the complication and an attempt to return to a more streamlined simpler game system and a rulebook that promotes characterisation and roleplaying.

This makes it an attractive game to me, and the thought that I can simply drop entire sections of the rules to help simplify my experience even further really appeals. There’s nothing stopping me from running what would tantamount to a Basic D&D game. This was no doubt true of other editions, but this is divided up in such a way that I can completely ignore certain sections and not have to worry too much about the effect that the exclusion will have on the rest of the game, and maybe even re-introduce those options later on in the campaign.

Does it make me look back on the days of old when my BECMI days were King, and does it capture that atmosphere and sense of adventure and fun? No, not really. I think it’s impossible to do that and any attempt on mine or the game’s part to try and recapture those heady days of D&Ds popularity would be a little foolish. I don’t think this game has really tried that and it stands on it’s own merits without cashing in on the nostalgia factor. It was nice to read those old Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance novel snippets but that’s as far as it went, I think, and the game really has been designed for the here and now.

Would I recommend it to D&D gamers of other editions? That’s the real trick, isn’t it? I’d certainly recommend them to have a look, but the editions are pretty much entrenched, now, and gamers play the editions they love. Their preferred versions not going anywhere and the nature of an ongoing roleplaying campaign means that groups do not have to rely on newer or older editions to enjoy their chosen version. That’s a given.

I’d certainly recommend it to general D&D fans that have followed the game over the years and dabble in all editions. This just might be the edition you stick with permanently.

A couple of years ago I wasn’t enamoured by the thought of a new D&D edition but after reading this book I’m convinced that the flagship game is going in the right direction. Some decent support with adventures and sourcebooks are a must, and modular rules that do not have to be used in existing campaigns would be welcome so that games do not have to be modified as new material comes out, which would ultimately make the game bloated.

If D&D sticks along this track then I see good things for the future of the 5th Edition of the game.

Highly recommended.