D&D 5th Edition: The Return of Wizards
Believe it or not, I know 5e has been out for over a year already, mostly because I’ve been playing in a game since it came out. But I wanted to wait for a while to discuss it, since any experienced tabletop player knows the supplementals are nearly as important as the core. Since it officially embraced the open game license, however, I thought it was time to go ahead and let people who’ve been on the fence know if the system is worth getting invested in.
A Little History
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition (sometimes called D&D Next, mostly by bad marketing executives who have no idea what’s going to catch on) is the newest version of the D&D system, released around November 2014 and opening up to OGL (Open Game License) in January of 2016.
Now, updates are always a big deal, but this one was crucial, because 4e (D&D 4th edition) was widely considered by most of the tabletop community to be a complete piece of shit. There will be people who disagree, and even I can admit they did make some good decisions like streamlining combat and giving classes more options, but essentially it was a system designed to reach out to a more casual audience, with a big focus on the World of Warcraft crowd. As a result, the complex system we were used to was severely paired down, making a game that was easier, but lacked the robustness and flavor that made the previous editions so enjoyable. Gone were hours of hunting through spells, finding optimum combinations to squeeze the most from each slot, or fun stupid magic like making a ship sail upside down underwater. Instead you just picked from a few options every level based on your class, and that was that. It wasn’t necessarily a bad game, but it wasn’t a D&D game.
Added on to this was the fact that, during launch, Wizards had promised a shitload of online features to come with 4e, allowing gamers from all over to play online (this was 2008). Come launch day, none of that stuff was around, and while we would eventually get things like Roll20.net years later, the bait and switch paired with a terrible new system left a bitter taste in a lot of mouths as far as Wizards and D&D were concerned. This is also where Pathfinder gained such a foothold, as it was basically D&D 3.5 expanded, taking market share from the audience Wizard had cast aside.
So then, is 5th edition enough to redeem them? Well it certainly helps that…
5e is a Return to Form
First and foremost, the complexity that was yanked out of 4e is back in 5e, maybe not quite as sprawling but still there. I’ve been playing a warlock, which is one of the more straightforward classes, but for fun I’ve also built a monk and a druid as backups (my DM enjoys putting us in dangerous fights). You can whip one together quickly if you want, or you can spend an hour going through every option and skill available to tailor one perfectly to you.
Robust spell lists, interesting feats, and a variety of classes with different roles and options, 5e has given us back the wide swath of choices that we expect in a real D&D system. Now, they aren’t churning out supplemental stuff as fast as they did with 3.5, but after a year of playing I’m beginning to think maybe that’s a good thing. While I loved all the crazy shit you could do in 3.5, the speed at which it hit the shelves meant some stuff wasn’t properly play-tested, and quickly became game-breaking if your players were diligent enough.
I’m okay with supplementals coming out slowly, so long as it means they are properly tested and don’t disrupt the existing mechanics. And the reason I’m okay with that is…
5e is an Improved System
As much as I was with the mob wanting to burn down 4e, and holy shit I was, that doesn’t change the fact that 3.5 still had some serious issues. Aside from supplementals that introduced game-breaking mechanics pretty easily, there was also the issue of bloated power, where at high levels (epic even more so) a character’s AC would either be impossible to miss, or hittable only with a natural 20. The spectrum skewed so wide that it became harder and harder to create balanced challenges, at least without building custom enemies every time. And all classes were definitely not created equal. The bard, while useful in lower levels, petered out quickly among higher damage dealers, and that’s to say nothing of how unfun they were to play. Meanwhile, clerics had so much power that I saw more than one DM outright ban them from games, at least until supplemental add-ons shored up the other classes’ abilities. And, while fun as hell, don’t even get me started on some of the ridiculous variant creature-races that got allowed with ECLs far out of whack.
5th Edition isn’t perfect, no system is, but it has come a long way in balancing out the game. Every class, at least every class I’ve played or seen played, is useful and fun. Our bard consistently deals a shitload of damage, and he’s able to choose actions other than playing the lute for the 6th round in a row. My warlock rains magic, and the monk I’ve got teed up is going to be whipping around the battlefield, which is all the more enjoyable because combat runs a lot smoother. Gone are ten pages of extraneous rules and conditions, the mechanic is boiled down to advantage and disadvantage. Now that might seem too 4e at the outset, but if you’ve ever spent 10 minutes trying to assess terrain conditions in 3.5 to argue between a 20% cover and 50% cover, you know that some streamlining was needed. It makes the turns go faster, the combat more quick paced, and keeps too many players from using extraneous rules to break the game to their advantage.
Aside from just the actual mechanics, 5e has done a good job pulling the bloated power structure we saw in 3.5. There are CR20 monsters with ACs in the low 20s, because that makes them a challenge while staying hittable. Gone are the expectations that you’ll be geared from head to toe in god-sundering armor, while there is equipment a lot more focus is put on character abilities. And, with the smaller scale, every improvement matters more, turning what might have been a “who gives a shit” +1 into something that can make a serious difference.
Also worth mentioning, feats have been heavily retooled. Now, you have to give up ability score improvements to get them, which means they are far more rare. However, they balanced that by making them so much more powerful than before. There are feats that allow you to knock back anyone who gets close, allow you to cast with a shield, allow you to double the range of every spell you have, and all of them come with extra perks on top of the main one. Instead of 500 feats of which most are pointless, there are around 20, but each is powerful when used with the right character build.
All in all, I love 5e, and was overjoyed when they went OGL. If you want to look through the system, check out the SRD here to see if it’s up your alley. While I won’t go so far as to try and get the team to switch systems on Authors & Dragons just yet, 5e is slowly becoming the new default for games I start.
If you loved 3.5, or if you’ve never played D&D and want a good system to start with, then this is worth your time.