Monday, 2 February 2015

5th ed Dungeons and Dragons - first impressions

We've been playing the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons for the best part of six months, and I thought that now we have completed not one, but two mini campaigns, the time has arrived to deliver some opinions on the rules. I won't make comment on the actual campaigns, which were both published products from Wizards of the Coast (Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Lost Mine of Phandelver) as I feel our real reason for playing these was to get a handle on the new system.

By way of background, I have been playing D&D regularly since 1983, when I started with the TSR Red Box edition, before being side-tracked into Call of Cthulhu in 1989. I returned to D&D when I moved to Sussex, shortly after 3.0 was released and have really been playing this more than any other game ever since. Overall, my experience has been broadly positive, and I can see the good bits of 4.0, even if it failed to meet my expectations (I wanted a game that resembled Burning Wheel but got something that looked more like Warhammer Fantasy Battle).

We had dabbled a little with the play test version of D&D Next, as it was then called, but Hoard was really our first serious attempt at the new game with first level characters, and that with no Monster Manual or Dungeon Master's Guide to speak of, as they had yet to be published. As a group we had been playing a great deal of Pathfinder, having become disenchanted with 4.0, but were struggling with the vast corpus of additional crunch that Pathfinder brings to the table, and the exponential curve in character power past 12th level. That's not to say that we don't like Pathfinder, and I am still ruminating about using it for a mini-campaign in D. M. Cornish's Half Continent setting, but that is a tale for another post (not to mention the fact that it would require an entirely new magic system).

5.0 retains much of what we love about D&D, and is less of the combat monster that its predecessor wanted to be. There are actual role playing mechanics here. I know, shocking, isn't it? There is more focus on character background and profession, and you can use role playing to earn inspiration points to aid your comrades. We didn't spend too much time on this side of the game, to be honest, and seem largely to have ignored it as we focused on fighting and killing, although we did have some intriguing character back stories on a par with those we created for our 13th Age campaign, which bodes well for the future. Role playing mechanics were a much-needed addition to the game, and I hope future Wizards releases will support this trend, rather than focusing on loot and monsters.

Combat has been simplified, and it can be hard, as Pathfinder veterans, to wean ourselves off the more complex, grid-based mechanics of a Pathfinder battlefield. Still, the combat system has yet to attain the cinematic dynamics that Iron Heroes achieved, which IMHO still stands as the best d20 combat system yet devised. I like the advantage / disadvantage mechanic 5.0 offers, which replaces + / - adjustments in 3.0/Pathfinder, and battles seem speedier to resolve, which is no bad thing.

Characters strike me as generally not as powerful as their Pathfinder or 4.0 equivalents. A 3rd or 4th level party is simply not as muscular, and encounters seem that bit deadlier. A pack of orcs can be more challenging, even at 4th level, while in Pathfinder orcs and gnolls can increasingly become cannon fodder if not reinforced by some character level officers, spell casters, or a few bigger monsters. I also like the way each character class is sub-divided into different sub-careers, allowing players to choose which path they want to take their persona - e.g. for Rogues, they could focus more on the cat burglar aspects, or on the stealth / assassin elements.

As a group, we are often presented with situations where we are missing one or more players, so having the scope to be able to run another player's character as well as your own, without becoming weighed down with the complexities of a particular character class' sub-game, is a boon, and is probably where 5.0 outscores something like 13th Age. Whether this will still work as smoothly at higher levels - e.g. 10+ - is an open question.

There are numerous other elements that tended to be game breaking in Pathfinder that don't exist here - you can't seemingly summon hordes of monsters to fight by your side, and the ability to buy or mass produce magic items has been curtailed (although potions of healing seem to be very common). It is also harder for spell casters to have multiple continuous effect spells in play. There are many points in the last campaign where I would have loved to have my Pathfinder Gloves of Navigation to hand, but appreciate the game breaking capabilities they introduced.

There is nothing here in 5.0 that I could say I actively dislike. It is a good, competent offering and should be able to hold its own against previous editions and the various pretenders to the throne. Mechanically, it does not have the 'wow' factor that some other games still offer, but the likes of 13th Age can afford to take risks in ways that I think D&D, as the industry benchmark, cannot. My kids, who have spent a long time playing Pathfinder, still seem to be wedded to the Paizo offering, but they have younger, fresher brains!

Like Warhammer 40,000, I think D&D can still be a great entry point to the hobby, and can still add enormous value in helping to recruit new blood. The only problem for D&D now is that there really are so many other variants out there (e.g. Labyrinth Lord, Fantasy Craft), all with their own selling points, and that the community it once served has become somewhat fragmented. Wizards will be able to add more value by re-launching some of their much-loved campaign settings, and winning back players that way (e.g. Planescape, Dark Sun, Eberron), a strategy I sincerely hope they adopt.


  1. I am liking it. It needs get better support and sadly WotC don't seem interested. Good news is that now we have the core books it is possible to sandbox with it. When Józio starts sleeping better I will return to creating my 4th level+ urbancrawl of Ptolus. :)

  2. I enjoy playing it much more than I do running it. From the GM side it seems a bit dull, but I can't put my finger on why. I think I may be a bit spoiled by the way 13th Age goes out of its way to make GMing fun and unpredictable, and there's none of that built into D&D5, although there was more of it in the playtest versions.

  3. I think this says more about the need for the granddaddy of D&D to stick to a mainstream path with Pantsdelver.

    I would expect splat books to open up the game.

    Moreover they are attempting to move back to a monster just being 1 flavour rather than many as in 4e.

    Hopefully with the one shot jungle game I will prove Stuart wrong and show how 5e can do insane stunts and fast and furious combat.

    Plus explore 5e in a different setting than the generic vanilla of FR.