When playing Dungeons & Dragons, players often divide their time between role-playing—where the rules typically take a back seat—and combat, when the knowledge of what your character and your enemies are capable of is the key to success. I’ve divided this column in a similar way. If you’re a novice or casual player primarily interested in what playing the latest edition is like, check out the “For everyone” first half. If you’ve played previous editions, particularly 3.5 and 4th, and want to see how the rules have changed, you’ll find your answers in the second half of the story, though I encourage reading the first half as well for essential flavor and context.
Wizards Of The Coast released the Player’s Handbook for its fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons in August, but you won’t find the words “5th Edition” on any of the marketing materials. Same goes for “D&D Next,” the designation the game was given during its extensive period of public play-testing. That’s because Wizards seems to be aspiring to produce something other than just another set of rules. The final product keeps many of the components implemented in D&D 4th Edition, which was discontinued just a few years ago, while resurrecting the aesthetic of 1989’s 2nd Edition. The new system—called simply D&D—is designed to reach a broad swath of players, innovating on its legacy to produce what might as well be called something like D&D: Eternal.
Much like it was in actual medieval times, early life in D&D can be dangerous. That was less true in 4th Edition, which gave characters more health and healing options. Here, the road to glory is paved with dead low-level adventurers. When most characters in a party have less than a dozen hit points, you’re very vulnerable to an unlucky roll of the dice and can be pretty much screwed if you roll poorly or an enemy hits the maximum damage jackpot.
While playing through the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, we attempted to stealthily approach a cave filled with goblins. But we were spotted, our fighter was filled with arrows, and we had to unceremoniously drag him away. The first boss in the adventure, a bugbear with some goblin minions, nearly wiped out our party. Even after defeating them, my character—a cleric—went from perfect health to unconscious and dying by simultaneously falling while climbing and being sniped by a nameless goblin.
The first level of Hoard Of The Dragon Queen, the first full adventure released for the new editions, is even more intense. Things start with a bang as your party must try to save a town under assault by a dragon far too powerful to be slain by fledgling heroes. We saved as many civilians as we could from vicious kobolds, mad dragon cultists, and hardened mercenaries that were thoroughly looting the place. When we finally made our way to the relative safety of the town’s fort, we found plenty of other tasks in need of doing, including clearing out a drake blocking an escape route and stopping cultists from burning down the town mill.
The game does a great job at creating urgency. You can rest and heal, but doing so comes at the cost of one of the possible quests and the experience points you would gain for completing it. But players who want to do everything are setting themselves up for failure. One quest actually leads you into an ambush by cultists looking to stop your party’s meddling. If you don’t see it coming, you’re in for a really hard fight.
The adventure also makes the bold decision of starting your heroes off as losers. The best you can do is mitigate collateral damage and annoy the dragon enough so it gives up its assault—slaying it is completely out of the question. Once we did that, its sword-wielding half-dragon champion marched out threatening to kill hostages if we didn’t send someone out to meet him in single combat. I somehow got nominated: The fight was quick, ending with my character unconscious and dying while the champion, satisfied, held up his end of the bargain and led the retreat. I’m sure we’ll be seeing him again soon, and I’m hoping the rematch goes better.
You might notice a trend here. It’s easy to get attached to your characters, but you might want to wait until they level up. While the game has gone back to the brutality that was present in 2nd Edition, Wizards Of The Coast has worked hard to streamline the game to make it easier for novices to pick up. For better and worse, this edition of D&D is much lighter on math than its predecessors. You also have fewer decisions to make while leveling up.
But while it cut back on some rules, it hasn’t skimped on the flavor. There are new spells and abilities that give characters a fun, goofy, mystical feel without having any real effects on the game. Clerics can cause claps of thunder and make their voice boom like Moses passing judgment. Some creepy warlocks can read minds without casting a spell. Sorcerers using unpredictable wild magic can accidentally turn themselves into a potted plant or summon bizarre monsters like flumphs and modrons.
The game also encourages all players to flesh out their characters with a bonds system, which represents things they feel strongly about. Both the Dungeons & Dragon Starter Set and Hoard Of The Dragon Queen use these to hook characters into the adventure and create entertaining party conflict. For instance, out party was very surprised to learn that our jovial halfling rogue was actually a former member of the murderous gang that had taken over a village we were trying to protect in the Starter Set adventure. In Hoard Of The Dragon Queen, our bard was convinced he was actually a golden dragon cursed to live as a humanoid until he died nobly. It made him a bit suicidal but an interesting companion to my character, who hated all dragons because one had destroyed her home.
Flavor’s all well and good, but most seasoned D&D players I’ve talked to are interested in how the game’s systems have changed. Let’s dig in.
The new D&D is a much cleaner version of the 3.5 edition, with a few ideas borrowed from 4th Edition. The new rules have largely abandoned variable bonuses and penalties. It used to be if an ally helped you staunch someone’s wound, you might get +2 on a heal check, or if you were lying prone you had -4 to attack.
Now, all of those statuses manifest as either “advantage” or “disadvantage.” If you have advantage, you can roll two 20-sided dice and take the better result; if you have disadvantage you roll twice and take the worse result. If you have two things that give you advantage, you still only roll two dice. If you have three things that give you advantage and one that gives you disadvantage, you don’t have advantage and roll one d20 as normal. That’s it.
That simple solution does help avoid the long delays too often caused by trying to figure out exactly what modifiers apply to your attack—especially after a near miss—but it’s disappointing that some sources of bonuses have been done away with altogether. Flanking an enemy no longer gives you any benefits, removing a big component of the tactical movement once so important to the game.
While 4th Edition proved short-lived, largely abandoned after only five years on the market, Wizards Of The Coast clearly views it as a learning experience rather than a failure and works hard to make sure that players who enjoyed it don’t feel abandoned. Dragonborn, a race of humanoid reptiles invented for 4th Edition, appear as an “uncommon race” in the new Player’s Handbook. The warlock class is nearly identical in flavor to its 4th Edition version as spell-casters who draw their power by making pacts with powerful beings of ambiguous or outright evil morality. Players can still take a short rest to recover some abilities and heal. Spell-casters are always capable of using some minor magics, meaning you’ll never see a wizard forced to take up a crossbow. Clerics, who were often relegated to spending all of their actions casting healing spells in 3.5, are still capable of both keeping the party alive with a quick spell, then rushing into combat to smash some enemies in the face with a battle hammer.
Just like in 4th Edition, there are several versions of each class, which provide a high level of diversity in the party. For instance, a monk can be a stealthy ninja or focus on conjuring elemental powers in a way that’s reminiscent of the martial arts-themed magic of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Fighters can be a straightforward damage dealer as a champion or wield a variety of combat tricks as a battle master.
But the different character classes play far more like 3.5 than 4th Edition. Instead of various fancy strikes that can be used a certain number of times per day or encounter, fighters are back to just hitting things with weapons. Wizards have returned to choosing a certain number of spells each day from their spell books. Building a character that dabbles in both paladin and rogue is as easy as taking a few levels of both classes. Many of the classes have been radically improved. There isn’t a single leveling up where the only benefit is a few more hit points. Each new benchmark unlocks some new component of your class, rewarding your dedication to one path over the course of the game’s 20 levels.
Wizards Of The Coast also took pains to eliminate or tone down some of the things that made the game unbalanced. Higher-level parties were often covered in buffing spells that could provide them with everything from big attack bonuses to immunity against various ill effects. Now, many of those buffs require concentration, meaning that each caster can only put up one at a time. If your wizard or cleric gets stabbed, they might lose focus and drop the spell. Casters have far fewer spell slots, so those buffs are always going to be taking up a spot that could also house more directly offensive powers.
Along with providing good fuel for role-playing, the bonds system has in-game benefits. When players emphasizes their traits, the dungeon master is encouraged to reward them by providing the character inspiration, which they can use to gain advantage on a future roll for themselves or a friend. Bonds are also used to integrate characters into published adventures, giving the option to choose some exciting ties to the game’s world for your characters.
These are just my early impressions, and I’ve learned from experience that there are often spells or abilities tucked into D&D’s rules that, when used in a certain way, can break the game because they’re just too powerful. There are likely classes that, when played side by side, will prove to be of radically different efficacy. I haven’t found any of those big problems yet, but I have found a lot to be excited about. I just hope my character can survive long enough to experience what the game has to offer.