Impressions of D&D Fifth Edition

(Though out of date, you could read my three D&D Playtest articles: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3)

What I’ve Played

My first D&D 5E play was on the day the Player’s Handbook released to retail stores, which was early August. We gathered a group and played a whole ton of of Hoard of the Dragon Queen over the next few days, with me as DM and with 4 players (Druid, Cleric, Fighter, Bard).  That game is around level 4 and 5 now.

After that I started playing (as a stock Fighter from the basic game) in a friend’s game.  We just hit level 4 in that game.

I also ran an all-day dungeon delve for my friend’s birthday, for which my wife and I made pre-gens (and level up plans up to 4) for all of the PHB classes.

More Background

Character backgrounds were the early surprise for me.  My first group had lots of fun rolling random traits on the background tables.  We often had backgrounds that pulled a character in different directions.  What makes a cleric a sailor? What kind of druid makes for a shifty smuggler? Those required some creativity on our part and helped us have nuanced characters from day 1.

One smart part of the background system is its prominence on the character sheet.  These prompts are one or two sentences, such as “If there’s a plan, I’ll forget it.” or “I’m convinced of the significance of my own destiny and blind to the risk of failure.” When a player needs a quick piece of advice on how his or her character should act, there’s usually a piece of inspiration in those four traits.

Level One Experience

I like the character creation experience.  Backgrounds are great, races have cool sub-race variety, and the classes are well distinguished.  The core 6 stats still feel pretty straightforward: pump your primary stat and then weigh the power of your secondary stat with Constitution. Saving throws are more prominent in 5E, which helps reward other stats, but not enough to make it worth watering down your class abilities.

There’s a gigantic gulf in complexity between characters that can cast spells and characters that can’t.  All level one spell casters have around 20-30 spells to read between cantrips and level one spells.  Each caster class also has somewhat different rules on how many spells they should pick. Clerics can pick anything each day, wizards pick everything up front, warlocks have all encounter-based spells instead of normal slots. I do think this is good variety, but since it’s all similar-but-not-the-same, most players have been confused at first.  In contrast, Characters that can’t cast spells from the start are very simple at level one.  At best they have a melee and ranged attacks to choose from but not much else.

Levels Two and Three

One of the smartest things about 5E is how quickly characters advance to level two and three.  Getting a new (usually simple) power after the first few battles is a nice reward.  Then, probably after the first arc of the adventure, everyone hits level three.  At level three, most classes pick between one of several paths for their characters.  Fighters can opt between straight forward crits, tricky combat moves, or light spell casting.  Paladins choose between upholding good, protecting nature, or seeking vengeance against great foes.  I think it’s great that these big choices only come after players have had a few sessions to practice their character.  Loading all of it at level one would be overwhelming.

These customizations are cool, though some classes (and choices) seem underdeveloped compared to others.  Barbarians about a page and a half of these level three paths, whereas wizards have many pages devoted to their various choices.  Even some paths within the same class compare poorly against each other.  The fighter path that leads to double crits mean that (on average) every tenth attack does double damage instead of every twentieth.  The alternate choice deals double damage (plus cool effects like tripping, healing, moving) on up to four attacks per battle.  That’s way more powerful than the critical hit choice and more tactically interesting, too.  I appreciate that there’s an option to pick a straightforward head-smasher, I just wish it was reasonably close in power level.  It’s no fun letting your group down.

Everything Is a Bit Different

I’m happy with the rules for 5E overall, though it’s been odd getting used to them.  Everything seems to be tweaked a bit.  When do Opportunity Attacks trigger?  What happens when you cast a spell in melee range?  How do you get combat advantage?  What happens when you assist on a skill roll?  More things are free actions, but which spells are bonus actions and which are full actions?  Does that spell last for a minute or until the caster fails a concentration check?  Is your “proficiency bonus” the same as your “attack bonus”?

None of these are hard to look up, but they all seem different than past editions.  Each one takes up time at the table, if  players or DMs are curious enough.  As gamers open up to a wider variety of editions, switching between each set of little rules can be distracting.

Overall, however,  I like 5E’s balance between approachability, depth, and respect for D&D tradition.  I’ll be playing more of it and would generally choose it as my “default” for a new campaign or one-shot adventure.  More impressions to come in the future!