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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Your Player's Handbook

It seems appropriate that for its fortieth birthday, Wizards of the Coast give Dungeons & Dragons a whole new edition. So it has. After more than a year of public play testing and the input of hundreds of thousands of players, the Player’s Handbook, the first book for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition has been released. The question is, has both the wait and the very public play testing been worth it? Is this a version of Dungeons & Dragons that you want to play?

The starting point for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is obviously Dungeons & Dragon Fourth Edition. The sad, but truthful fact is that in the future, Fourth Edition will be the version that nobody talks about. There is no doubt that it got things right about playing Dungeons & Dragons, such as giving each of the Classes something to do on each and every Round, but fundamentally, it did two things wrongs. First, it drew too heavily upon the then contemporary play model of the MMORPG as typified by World of Warcraft, for example, by classifying all of its character Classes into four types—Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker—and essentially making them feel all the same. Secondly, its adventure format took the two-page encounter format first seen to excellent effect in the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 adventure, Scourge of the Howling Horde, one step too far, focusing too much on combat and relegating roleplaying and skill use to lesser encounters. The result was a game that in drawing too much from contemporary models pushed it back to its war gaming roots and away from roleplaying. Indeed, an argument could be said that Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition remains a good Dungeons & Dragons-themed skirmish game if not a good roleplaying game. Ultimately whilst there will be those that enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, that version is no more and will receive no more support.

So what of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition? The good news is that it draws upon all of the best features of the versions that have gone before it and uses them to make it a game that is recognisably Dungeons & Dragons. Yet it also brings in innovations that make it an actual roleplaying game whilst also simplifying the rules and mechanics in order to emphasis ease of play. It also acknowledges that Dungeons & Dragons in the form of this new edition is a game with forty years of history, not a game that has sprung from nowhere… 

The Player’s Handbook is all about character, so the question is, what can you play? It offers the standard mix of Races and Classes, all bolstered by plenty of options. The Races include Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, Dragonborn, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Tielfling—with both the Dragonborn and Tielfing being retained from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. The Races are presented in this order because aside from the Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human, the other Races are listed as uncommon and do not appear in every fantasy world. In other words, they are optional. Most Races gain an Ability score increase and various traits, for example, the Gnome has +2 to its Intelligence, Darkvision, and Gnome Cunning (the ‘advantage’ on Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma saving throws against magic—see below). Like several of the Races—Humans being a notable exception—the Gnome has two subraces, of which a player must choose one. They grant a further Ability score increase and further traits. The Forest Gnome gains +1 Dexterity, is a Natural Illusionist and knows the minor illusion cantrip, and can Speak with Small Beasts, whilst the Rock Gnome gains +1 Constitution, has knowledge of Artificer’s Lore and gains a Proficiency bonus on Intelligence (History) checks about alchemical, magical, and technological items, and is a Tinker who can make small devices. In comparison, Humans simply gain a +1 bonus to all Abilities. Similarly, the Half-Elf, the Half-Orc, and the Tielfing are singular in the Traits and bonuses granted to them, whilst the Dragonborn vary according to their Draconic ancestry.

The expected Classes are also present—Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, and Wizard, whilst the Sorcerer is retained from Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition and the Warlock from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Like the Races in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, each of the Classes gives a player a choice of options at Third Level, each option a path that will further define a character as he gains Levels. For example, the Monk Class offers two Monastic Traditions, the Way of the Open Hand and Way of Shadow, while the Rogue Class has the Thief, Assassin, and Arcane Trickster archetypes. The Wizard selects a School of Magic to specialise in. Essentially these will define the type of character and variant upon the chosen Class that a player wants to roleplay in the game.

A character in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition still looks very much a character from Dungeons & Dragons. The six Abilities—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—are the same; a character has Hit Points and Armour Class and Alignment, and so on. 

Half-Orc, First Level Barbarian
Str 17 (+3) Dex 13 (+1) Con 17 (+3)
Int 11 (+0) Wis 12 (+1) Chr 11 (+0)

Hit Points: 15
Hit Dice: 1

Armour Class: 16

Alignment: Chaotic Neutral

Race Traits: Darkvision 60’, Menacing, Relentless Endurance, Savage Attacks
Class Traits: Rage, Unarmoured Defence

Skills: Acrobatics (+1), Animal Handling (+3), Arcana (+0), Athletics (+5), Deception (+0), History (+0), Insight (+0), Intimidation (+2), Investigation (+0), Medicine (+3), Nature (+2), Perception (+3), Performance (+0), Persuasion (+0), Religion (+0), Sleight of Hand (+1), Stealth (+1), Survival (+3)

Proficiency Bonus: +2
Proficiencies: Athletics, Intimidation, Nature, Perception, Survival; Light Armour, Medium Armour, Shields; Simple Weapons, Martial Weapons; Strength Saving Throws, Constitution Saving Throws; Navigator’s tools, vehicles (water)

Languages: Common, Half-Orc

Battle Axe (+5 Attack), 1d8 damage (1d10 2h)
Javelins (4) (+3 Attack), 1d6 damage
Plank (Shield)

Background: Sailor
My friends know they can rely on me, no matter what (Personality Trait); I’m committed to my crew, not to ideals (Ideal); I’ll always remember my first ship (Bond); I can’t help but pocket lose coins and other trinkets I come across (Flaw)

There are several noticeable details about this character. The first is the lack of Feats. Although that they are not a part of the character, they are part of the Player’s Handbook where they are included as an option. At Fourth, Eighth, Twelfth Level, and so on, a character can increase one of his Ability scores, but if the DM allows the optional rule, a character could instead take a Feat. The second is the inclusion of Proficiencies and the Proficiency Bonus, which are reminiscent of the Proficiencies and Skills rules from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. In Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition they reflect a character’s talents and aptitudes, not just in terms of his skills, but also his armour and weapon use, his saving throws, and the tools and devices he is trained in. These Proficiencies come not only from a character’s Race and Class, but also his Background. The Proficiency Bonus itself is a flat number that rises as a character goes up in Levels.

Perhaps the obvious difference between this and another edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the inclusion of Backgrounds. These are not mere extras that a player adds to round out his character, but an actual part of the character creation process. Further, whether an Acoloyte, a Criminal, an Entertainer, a Guild Artisan, an Outlander, a Sage, or an Urchin, the character gains further Proficiencies and even a special feature. For example, the Sailor possesses’ Ship’s Passage’ by which he can gain passage aboard his old ship wherever it is going. Each of the thirteen Backgrounds has ones of these features as well as tables suggesting appropriate Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. A character has one each of these and they are much more than roleplaying hooks.

In play, the core mechanic is still the roll of a twenty-sided die against a Difficulty Class or an Armour Class. Where previous versions of the game gave you a list of modifiers, Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition streamlines them down to whether or not a character has Advantage or Disadvantage in a situation. When he has an Advantage, the character’s player rolls not one twenty-sided die, but two, and then uses the best result. Conversely, if he is at a Disadvantage, he rolls two twenty-sided dice and uses the worst result. For example, a character is defending against an Orc that is climbing up a ladder to attack him. The character would be at an Advantage when attacking the Orc. When the Orc comes to attack the character, then he would be at a Disadvantage. In play, this is fast and simple, and reflects the streamlining of mechanics to speed up play. Yet the Advantage and Disadvantage leads to one further innovation.

That innovation is Inspiration. When a player roleplays his character according to its Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond, or Flaw, then the DM can reward him with Inspiration. Once gained, a player can use this Inspiration—or give it to another player character— but when he does use it, he gains the Advantage in a situation of his choice. The player then, is being rewarded for his roleplaying, which means that Inspiration is essentially a roleplaying mechanic. Which is something that Dungeons & Dragons has not had before in its forty year history. This is highly laudable, especially given the singular failure to support roleplaying in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Now in truth, this mechanic is hardly new, for example it can be seen in Evil Hat Production’s Fate Core, but it is a genuine innovation for Dungeons & Dragons, a roleplaying game whose design can be best described as staid and traditional.

Initiative in combat is handled by a Dexterity check and when a character acts, he can move and undertake one action. This can be a combat action or something else, but a character can also gain bonus actions or reaction actions under certain circumstances. For example, a common Trait for the Fighter is ‘Second Wind’ which gives him the opportunity to recover some Hit Points as a Bonus action. The most obvious type of Reaction is an opportunity attack, but it could also be a Dash, Disengage, or Hide under certain circumstances.

Characters begin play with the maximum number of Hit Points possible, equal to the Hit Dice for their Class, plus Constitution modifier. In addition, for each Level a character also has a Hit Die, equal to that of his Class. Whenever he has taken damage and takes a Short Rest—equal to an hour or so—he can expend these ‘temporary’ Hit Dice to heal Hit Points. Once expended, most of these Hit Dice and a character’s full Hit Points can be recovered with a Long Rest of eight hours or more.

As a party goes on adventures, it will gain Experience Points which will go towards each character’s next Level. Only 300 Experience Points are necessary for a character to go from First Level to Second Level, then 900 Experience Points for Third Level, and so on. Killing a Goblin is only worth 50 Experience Points, a Hobgoblin or Orc is worth Experience Points, and a Bugbear is worth 200 Experience Points—and this is typically divided amongst the party. In comparison with previous iterations of the game, this version of Dungeons & Dragons does lend itself to faster progression at the lower Levels, the aim obviously being to ensure that characters are being pushed to a level of competency as quickly as possible.

In terms of arms and armour, everything that you would expect to be present is in the equipment lists (the Morningstar is present, though no flail). The weapons list includes some interesting weapon properties. ‘Light’ weapons such as club or scimitar are used with the rules for fighting with a weapon in each hand; ‘finesse’ weapons like the dagger or rapier can be used with either the user’s Dexterity or Strength modifier for attack and damage rolls; and ‘versatile’ weapons, such as the quarterstaff or warhammer, can be used one- or two-handed and get a correspondingly bigger die for damage when used two-handed. The rule for the latter is really simple—light weapons only and only one of the weapons benefits from the Attack and Damage Modifier.

Armour is classed as being either light, medium, or heavy. Only light armour, leather or studded leather, grants the wearer full use of his Dexterity modifier to his Armour Class. Medium armour grants a maximum Dexterity modifier of +2 and heavy armour negates the use of the Dexterity modifier altogether. What this does is flatten Armour Class inflation. Even the most agile of characters, with Dexterity of 18 (+4 modifier) and wearing studded leather (AC 12) is never going to have an Armour Class of more than 16 without magical aid. Compare that to a fighter in medium armour like scale mail (AC 14), maximum Dexterity modifier of +2 and carrying a shield (AC +2) for a total AC 18 or in a heavy chainmail suit (AC 16) and carrying a shield (AC +2) for a total AC 18 for similar total AC 18, and it is obvious that the advantage goes to the wears of medium and heavy armour, but not by much. Further, the medium and heavy armours are obviously more expensive.

Hill Dwarf, First Level Druid
Str 15 (+2) Dex 11 (+0) Con 18 (+4)
Int 12 (+1) Wis 18 (+4) Chr 09 (+0)

Hit Points: 13
Hit Dice: 1

Armour Class: 13

Alignment: Neutral

Race Traits: Darkvision 60’, Dwarven Resilience, Dwarven Combat Training, Dwarven Toughness, Stonecunning
Class Traits: Druidic, Spellcasting (+6)

Cantrips: Druidcraft, Guidance
Spells Known: Longstrider, Speak with Animals

Skills: Acrobatics (+0), Animal Handling (+6), Arcana (+1), Athletics (+2), Deception (+0), History (+1), Insight (+4), Intimidation (+0), Investigation (+1), Medicine (+3), Nature (+3), Perception (+4), Performance (+0), Persuasion (+0), Religion (+3), Sleight of Hand (+0), Stealth (+0), Survival (+4)

Proficiency Bonus: +2
Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Medicine, Nature, Religion; Light Armour, Medium Armour, Shields; Battleaxe, Clubs, Daggers, Darts, Handaxe, Javelins, Maces, Quarterstaff, Scimitar, Spears, Throwing Hammer, Warhammer; Intelligence Saving Throws, Wisdom Saving Throws; Brewer’s tools, Herbalism Kit

Languages: Common, Druidic, Dwarf, Goblin

Stone Warhammer (+4 Attack), 1d8 damage (1d10 2h)
Leather Armour, Shield

Background: Hermit
I am searching for spiritual enlightenment (Life of Seclusion); I’m oblivious to etiquette or social expectations (Personality Trait); ‘Live and let live’—meddling in the affairs of others only causes trouble (Ideal); I entered seclusion because I loved someone I could not have (Bond); I enjoy keeping secrets and won’t share them with anyone (Flaw)

The last part of the Player’s Handbook is devoted to spells and spellcasting. All of the main spellcasting classes—Bards, Clerics, Sorcerers, Warlocks, Wizards—get Cantrips or 0-level spells that can be cast as often as a character likes. Some spells can be cast Rituals—this takes longer and does not expend a spell slot, but what is interesting is the difference between spells known and spell slots. Essentially a spellcaster does not cast spells and forget them so much as he casts spells and uses up the slots for that day. Further, lower level spells can be cast in higher level slots for greater effect. So for example when a cleric casts the Bless spell in a second level or higher slot, it affects more people. Thus certain spells do not get better as a character advances in Level, but rather he chooses to cast them more effectively at the time.

One last addition in the Player’s Handbook is the inclusion of its own version of the Appendix N that first appeared in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition in 1979. This was a list by the game’s designer—E. Gary Gygax—of books that inspired him in creating Dungeons & Dragons that he felt would also inspire his follower gamers (also known as us). Thus with the Player’s Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition we have Appendix E: Inspirational Reading, an updated list. Inspiration then until the new Dungeon Master’s Guide appears and hopefully thereafter…

The inclusion of Appendix E: Inspirational Reading is a sign that the authors of the Player’s Handbook and thus the designers of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, which also means Wizards of the Coast, are all prepared to acknowledge the history of Dungeons & Dragons—that it even has a history! Not always a fact that Wizards of the Coast was prepared to acknowledge, but in what is another innovation for the game, that past is pointed out and made clear. Most obviously in the inclusion of excerpts from Dungeons & Dragons’ fiction from the likes of R.A. Salvatore and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman heading various entries, but a closer read finds mention of specific Dungeons & Dragons settings—Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and so on. Read further and the Player’s Handbook also points each of the Race’s subraces at particular examples. Thus, for the High Elf subrace, the entry suggests that it models the Gray Elves and Valley Elves of Greyhawk, the Silvanesti of Dragonlance, and the Sun Elves of the Forgotten Realms. It does this for several of the subraces, and in doing so, it acknowledges that there have been previous editions of the game and it acknowledges the fact that the game does not exists in a vacuum.

As with previous editions, there is room for expansion beyond what is given in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. New Races, new Classes, and new spells obviously, let alone the campaign setting books, but the Player’s Handbook gives room anew for areas of expansion. In particular, new subraces, but also new paths within each Class, new Backgrounds, and Personality Traits, and they are also a way in which a world can be created and enforced.

Physically, the Player’s Handbook is a well-written book. In fact, it is an incredibly easy read, such the rules are very easy to understand. In terms of artwork, the Player’s Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition has a softer, more effusive look. In fact, there is very much less of drive to define things in the artwork, almost as if the designers are trying not to stamp a brand identity on Dungeons & Dragons—as was done with the artwork for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. If there is an issue with the artwork it lies in the illustrations for Halfings—they are just plain odd… An obvious omission is an example of play, something would have helped those new to the game, but there is at least an example character generated and some example choices are discussed during the selection of character Backgrounds.

Now the Player’s Handbook is not quite perfect. What is missing is a decent example of play. This is an odd omission given that the Player’s Handbook is designed to be complete, for the purchaser and player to need no more than its contents. It is also an odd omission given that this is the first book for the hobby’s only RPG that matters beyond the hobby and an odd omission given that no such example of how to roleplay is given in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set either… In fact, this omission from both the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook, is not just odd, it is absurd.

There is of course one issue in the writing that needs to be addressed. It is the disclaimer about sex and gender in Dungeons & Dragons, in which it is stated that the player does not need to be bound by binary notions of sex and gender. There have been complaints about its inclusion; there have been complaints about its language. In either case, those complaints and the issues that the complainants have with the disclaimer are their problem and not the problem or fault of Dungeons & Dragons, its designers, or indeed, of the publisher. There is only one response that can be made to the disclaimer. I am glad that it is there. Now move on.

My experience with Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is limited to a single session, and no doubt issues will arise in due course as the game is played at higher and higher levels, but playing the characters that we did—and this was with the scenario, the ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, we had fun. We enjoyed ourselves and we both roleplayed and gamed the scenario. The game felt like Dungeons & Dragons, it felt like a roleplaying game, and our characters felt capable, even at First Level. From this experience, it is a version of Dungeons & Dragons that I could not object to playing again.

Now the Player’s Handbook is another matter. This is the book to get started with beyond the confines of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, and whilst the Player’s Handbook repeats the rules presented in that box, it gives a whole lot more. Obviously a whole lot more choice in terms of characters—Races and Classes to start with, but also Backgrounds and options for both Races and Classes. All of them are interesting in some way and there is none of them which feels unplayable or like something that you would not want to play. Further, it is possible to see within the rules building blocks for creating certain character types and backgrounds with the rules to fit settings already published or those of the DM’s devising. For example, it would be possible to create a Dedaratlkói* from Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne using the Monk Class, whilst the Fighter would serve as a Bushi in Legend of the Five Rings with the right Background. Which points to the potential sophistication of the new edition’s design despite the relative simplicity of the rules.

*With thanks to Simon Taylor for digging this out of the Internet and getting me the right spelling.

Further, the rules in the Player’s Handbook feel as if they are compatible with nearly all of the previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons—‘nearly’ all because there may be some issue with Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition… Reading through the Player’s Handbook and it is easy to imagine that the GM could take them and use them to run any number of adventures from the game’s history, whether that is TSR’s U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh or DL1 Dragons of Despair, Judges Guild’s Dark Tower or White Dwarf’s ‘Irillian’, or TSR’s B2 Keep on the Borderlands or Paizo publishing’s The Shackled City Adventure Path, or Lamentation of the Flame Princess’ The Grinding Gear or Grognardia Games’ The Cursed Chateau. Adjustments would need to be made of course, but the familiarity of the rules is present in the Player’s Handbook makes this not as much of a challenge—and that only helps with their accessibility. What this also means is that Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition looks like it will be physically easy to write for, unlike the previous edition of the game.

Lastly, in acknowledging its history and in presenting a streamlined, easy to play set of rules, the book feels more welcoming, more inclusive rather than exclusive. Even if there had been no roleplaying mechanic present in the form of Inspiration, it also feels like a roleplaying game again. Experienced roleplayers will pick this up the new rules of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition with ease, whilst anyone new to roleplaying may struggle a little, for although the rules are clear and easy to read, the lack of example of play is fundamental omission. This odd absence aside, this is the Player’s Handbook that the hobby has been waiting for, it feels fresh and light, it feels fun, and it feels like Dungeons & Dragons is our game once again.