Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Few Thoughts on D&D 5th Edition

I will preface all this by saying that I have no real substantive point of comparison for D&D 5th edition other than my recollections of playing 1st edition AD&D 25-30 years ago. And no current basis other than having read, pretty thoroughly, the Basic rules that are now downloadable from the Wizards of the Coast website. This means that the release of the 5th edition Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual are all out there in the future, being slated for staggered release over the remainder of 2014. So what 5th edition really is in some respects remains to be seen.

A few quick Google searches make it obvious that the web is overflowing with preliminary reviews of the new edition, along with lots and lots of opinions and fallout from the massive worldwide beta playtesting that has occurred since early 2012. Most of these are from D&D veterans who can comprehensively compare it to editions 2, 3, 3.5, 4, and the even earlier versions that many of us still remember. I can't do that. What I can do is give a few first impressions and comments on how this seems to me compared to what I know, or more accurately, what (little) I remember...

[Assume all of this is prefaced with: "compared to 30 years ago..."]

The first thing that strikes me on reading the first few short chapters on the basics and character creation is that there is a tremendous amount more flexibility than there was way back when. In 1st edition (1E), character classes were in many (or most) cases restricted to certain races. Now, any race can be any character class, although there are certain innate benefits to certain races that make them better suited to certain classes than others. 1E said things like "while there are dwarven clerics in the world, you can't be one...". 5E says "sure, you want to be a dwarven cleric, be a dwarven cleric". Dwarves might have racial tendencies toward higher strength and constitution (which are fighter attributes), whereas the primary attribute of clerics is wisdom, but there isn't a restriction. Moreover, while clerics may normally only be proficient in "simple weapons", i.e. the mace of old, the racial trait of dwarves being proficient in axes and warhammers trumps this, and so your dwarven cleric can march to war swinging his trusty battleaxe. I think this is absolutely great for a fantasy roleplaying game; be whatever you want to be.

There is also a ton of flexibility within the main character classes of how you choose to specialize as you advance. Fighters and rogues have "archetypes", clerics have "domains" and wizards have "arcane traditions". These can all be considered sub-classes, and strongly influence the bonuses and benefits you gain as you advance in levels, and allow for many paths of skill/spell specialization and character development. Wizards, for example, now have 7 or 8 different arcane traditions, allowing a focus on illusions, evocation (think "war magic" like fireballs and lightning bolts), conjuring, necromancy and a host of others. Very cool. Assuming that the Basic Rules that I have access to present the "plain vanilla" flavor out of all that will be available (and there are many hooks embedded in it that refer to the "real" books coming later), I am anxious to see what comes next. Whether or not I ever end up playing....

Cantrips and spells. The magic system also seems much more flexible than what I knew. Cantrips are a class of "level 0" spells which spellcasters know that do not count against the limited number of level 1+ spells that they can cast in a day. They are not insignificant spells. Take for example the clerical cantrip "Sacred Flame". This brings down "holy fire" on your enemies, and causes 1d8 damage, with a dexterity saving throw allowed, to one creature within range. It can be cast turn after turn. Wizards have similar. In the old days, once a low level cleric or wizard cast their few spells they were allowed per day, they were basically useless. Now the spells just keep on coming; not any more powerful than being able to keep swinging a sword each round, but better than firing off a couple of magic missiles and then spending the next 20 hours just hoping not to get killed. This is how it should be, I think, and will make playing lower level spellcasters much more appealing.

Damage, death and dying. In the old days, when you got to zero hit points, you died. At low levels, unless the Dungeon Master fudged things a lot (and we did), one good (bad) unlucky sneeze could kill you. Low level characters spent much of their time dying and undying. They have a much more elegant (and logical) way of dealing with this now. In short, unless taking catastrophic damage, when you reach zero hit points you become unconscious and "not stable." As long as you remain in this unconscious/unstable state, you make "death saving throws." If you pass three of these before you fail three of them, you become "stable", otherwise you really do die. There are rules for characters with the wisdom-based "medical" skill to apply first aid in the hope of circumventing the death saving throw process and stabilizing the knocked out character. Once stabilized, if no healing spells/scrolls/potions bring you back sooner, you will wake up with 1 hit point restored after 1-4 hours. I absolutely LOVE this. I have visions of hard fought, nail biting encounters where the outcome hangs in the balance. Characters begin to go down. By the end of the fight, several members of the party (or maybe even most) are down and out, but not dead. The victorious adventurers hold the field of battle, and tend to their wounded friends. You regroup, rest up, heal, and continue on, thankful that a few of you were able to hold on to see the battle through.

Rules for healing and restoring hit points, restoring spells and related things all seem more logical if also more player-friendly.

Levelling up. I saw an entry on a blog somewhere comparing the experience points needed to advance levels in various editions over the years. The end result of this comparison was the undeniable conclusion that the XP thresholds have been adjusted to make the lowest levels of characters advance much more quickly, but then to make the highest levels at the other end harder to attain. In other words, they want to get you into the mid-levels more quickly but then keep you there longer. I actually like this. I texted some of the usual suspects the other day with a simple "anyone wanna play some new edition D&D?" The response was (a little bit surprisingly) "sure, but maybe we don't have to start at level 1..." Given the new rules, I think we could start at level 1 but only be there for a couple of encounters. Perhaps the best of both worlds.

The end result of all this reading and blog surfing? I really want to try playing some D&D for the first time in 25+ years, and it seems like that might actually happen.

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