D&D 5E First Impressions

On July 3rd the free PDF of the D&D Basic Rules went up on the WotC site, and the Starter Set went on sale at local game stores (with a wider release to come on the 15th). I’ve had a rather unusual relationship with the game, as it’s something I only ever really engaged as an adult hobbyist. For me D&D doesn’t have any particular nostalgia, and it was always one of many, many possible games to play. That some people act as though it were the only RPG in the world is just plain baffling to me, and I probably would not have stuck with this hobby for 20+ years if there were only the one game to play. That’s the kind of attitude I come to this with, so this first impressions thing isn’t going to be hugely positive.


With the Starter Set and Basic Rules on hand, 5E isn’t all that bad, but the parts I actually find interesting are hiding in odd corners, more useful to me as potential stuff to try in other games. Granted these versions of the game deliberately have simple baseline versions of the classes (well, as simple as they’re willing to let the wizard and cleric get, which isn’t very simple at all), but they’re the four most cliche D&D classes, and the fighter is the staggeringly boring “I hit it with my sword” guy. If I play the game before the PHB comes out, there won’t actually be a single class I particularly want to play, and about the best compromise will be shoehorning my 4E warlord character into a cleric.

There are a few things of note not directly related to the game itself first.

In Japan a company called Hobby Japan has been publishing D&D for the past 10 years. They’re a pretty well-established company, and while in Japan D&D doesn’t have the ridiculous dominance that it does in the US (it has serious competition from games like Sword World and Arianrhod), they’ve made D&D successful in both 3E and 4E. On July 2nd they posted up an announcement (here’s a translation by an ENWorld poster) saying that WotC had told them that they would not be offering licenses for translated versions of the game, not only in Japan but worldwide. Having followed D&D very closely through most of the 4E years I’ve come to see WotC as an object lesson in how not to handle PR, and this looks like yet another example of them casting Wall of Silence and leaving everyone to wonder what the heck is going on. There are any number of possible reasonable explanations for this, whether they’re taking a wait and see approach, planning to handle localization themselves as they do with Magic, or any number of other things, but they’ve left us with nothing. On Twitter someone got a vague promise to talk about it at a later date. How that will ultimately shake out is anyone’s guess, but I do know that Andy K has been telling the Japanese publishers about games like 13th Age and Numenera.

One kind of glaring thing about D&D5E for some people is the list of consultants in the credits. It includes some pretty awesome people like Robin Laws and S. John Ross, but it also includes two of the very most toxic personalities in the RPG scene. I don’t want to waste too time talking about them, but they’re two guys who do a hell of a lot to generally make the online RPG scene less pleasant, and they’ve been deservedly banned from most every RPG forum that does bans. Everything non-toxic they’ve done has also been done a hundred times over by less terrible people, and everything legitimate that they might’ve provided to the development of 5E could’ve been provided by any number of less awful people. For that reason it’s with decidedly mixed feelings that I’m engaging the game at all, and there is no reason to fault anyone who wants nothing to do with the game because of them. It’s important to remember: not buying something is the default. WotC didn’t start out with a claim to people’s money that was unjustly taken away. They made a luxury item that strictly speaking no one actually needs (and for which there are a ridiculous number of alternatives, most of which will cost significantly less) and they did some things in its creation that resulted in a failure on WotC’s part to convince some people to buy it.

The flipside of that dark note is that the text includes an attempt at inclusiveness in the section on characters’ sexes, effectively saying that any kind of LGBTQIA+ characters are perfectly fine. The attempt is really nice, but a lot of people have taken issue with the wording. The grating thing about it is that simply asking a trans person could’ve cleared that up in minutes. It’s not as bad as the game on Kickstarter about Indians fighting zombies, where despite all the effort put into it the creators apparently couldn’t be troubled to so much as look up Native Americans on Wikipedia and resorted to spitting out a wad of pop culture stereotypes, but still. Hopefully since the Basic Rules are supposed to be a “living document” they’ll take the opportunity to fix this.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the actual products.

The overall aesthetics are pretty good, though I question the way they’ve been formatting the text on the covers of things. The artwork seems like an evolution from the styles of 3E and 4E, a bit less spiky and glowy, but a little more stylized too. The layout likewise feels like a natural evolution, though with less things in boxes and more things in tables.

The Starter Set is in a box practically as a formality, and a cardboard spacer takes up literally half of its volume. Inside are the starter rulebook (32 pages), the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure module (64 pages), character sheets (5 of them, double-sided with the non-spell crunchy bits included on the back), a basic set of dice, and a flier for Encounters. I didn’t do more that flip through the adventure a tiny bit since I may end up playing it with someone else running it. Since positioning type stuff is no longer a part of the core rules they felt no need to include any maps or miniatures, which is reasonable from a game design point of view but makes the box that much less necessary. It retails for $19.99, though it’s currently $12.65 on Amazon.

The current Basic Rules PDF meanwhile is 110 pages, with the same layout style, but the only illustration is the one in the back on the page with the blurbs about the other D&D products and services. Although future versions will supposedly add monsters and such, at present is’s effectively a stripped-down Player’s Handbook.

For both versions of the rules the introductions are particularly well-written, and I think they do a good job of presenting the basics of role-playing and D&D. (Though I’m sure some crazy people will get mad about how it explicitly calls D&D a “storytelling” activity.) The basic action resolution rules will be extremely familiar to anyone who’s played 3E or 4E. The two major additions are the advantage/disadvantage concept they’ve been talking about, and “proficiency bonuses.” Advantage/disadvantage means that certain circumstances call for you to roll 2d20 and take the higher or lower roll, which avoids dealing with quite so many modifiers. The proficiency bonus is the same for all characters of a given level (+2 at 1st level and rising to +6 by 17th level), and in place of spending skill points a la 3.x or adding 1/2 level and other bonuses in 4E, you add the proficiency bonus to things your character is considered proficient in, including skills, attacks, saving throws, etc., and don’t get to add it when your character isn’t proficient. Ability scores are pretty much exactly how they were in 3E and 4E, the only exception being that for no good reason the point buy and stat array methods only allow stats as high as 15.

The four races in the Basic Rules are dwarf, elf, halfling, and human. It is amusing and entirely appropriate that each starts off with an epigraph from an R.A. Salvatore Forgotten Realms novel, though it leaves me with the feeling that the snake is gnawing on its own tail even harder than before. Each race has roughly two pages of text, including a bunch of background info, their attitudes toward other races, example character names, racial traits, and (except for humans) two subraces. Racial abilities are pretty standard classic D&D stuff, translated into 5E terms where appropriate (e.g., dwarves have advantage for poison saves rather than a flat bonus).

The four Basic Rules classes are cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, and they’re supposed to be the game’s more basic versions of these. (The Starter Set meanwhile has a set of 5 premade character sheets, one of each plus an extra fighter.) Clerics have a Channel Divinity feature that resembles the 4E version, but otherwise look a whole lot like the 3.x cleric with spell slots. The fighter is for the most part the boring “hit stuff” fighter, though you do get to pick a Fighting Style, which among its options has a watered down “Protection” ability that lets you impose disadvantage on an attack on an ally who’s within 5 feet of you. The options for the included Champion fighter archetype get pretty beefy (including auto-healing if you’re below half HP starting at level 18), but they’re mostly either passive bonuses or more opportunities to deliver basic attacks. For combat, rogues have sneak attack damage dice, and a bonus action that can only be used for certain movement/stealth type actions. Out of combat they get more skills than any other class, and a selection of abilities for rogue type stuff. Wizards meanwhile have arcane spells and a few abilities that let them cast arcane spells more/better/differently, and that’s it. Of course, both clerics and wizards get to pick some cantrips that are basically at-wills, and which include some utility type spells but also lesser attack spells that can dish out a d8 or d10 damage.

The combat rules are a lot like what you’d get if you took the basic combat rules of 4E (which were themselves an evolution of the combat rules of 3E) and took the positioning element out. Instead of the action economy, characters can move and take one action. The rules treat movement sort of like a currency, and you can spend it before and/or after your action, and you can spend half your your movement on getting up from prone (also that one dancing spell forces victims to spend movement on dancing). Concepts like attacking, opportunity attacks, cover, death saves, etc. are very similar, though subtly simplified in certain places, like resistance and vulnerability halving or doubling damage rather than affecting it by a fixed amount. It also has the concepts of hit dice and short and long rests, which strongly resemble toned-down versions of the 4E healing surge and rest mechanics. (Or to put it another way, they’re a lot like the Recoveries mechanic in 13th Age.)

Equipment likewise is very familiar, with some minor simplifications and tweaks, like how using armor without proficiency gives you disadvantage on certain rolls, and being proficient with a weapon simply lets you add your character’s proficiency bonus. Weapons also have damage types (slashing, bludgeoning, piercing), which are like fire/lightning/etc. in that they apparently only matter when a special effect says they do.

The “personal characteristics” section has a fairly nice set of ideas for fleshing out characters. The game asks you to note down Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws, and has a rule called “Inspiration” where the DM can award you Inspiration based on good RP of those (you can only have one Inspiration at a time) and you can spend it to get advantage on a roll. The game also goes back the 9-point alignment system, which I’m pretty neutral about.

5E’s take on backgrounds is one of the single most interesting things in the game so far. Each background is a bit more involved than in 4E (though less involved than a 4E theme), granting proficiencies and equipment, and possibly languages. Each also has a feature, which is some kind of social advantage it grants (such as the Folk Hero being able to get shelter from the common folk), and random tables (ranging from d6 to d10) to roll on for the Personal Characteristics stuff. The basic rules include Acolyte, Criminal, Folk Hero, Sage, and Soldier, though one of the fighters in the Starter Set has the Noble background as well.

The “customization options” chapter covers how to do 3E style multiclassing, but refers to the PHB for a bunch of key things, so that you can’t actually multiclass with just the Basic Rules. It appears to work something like 3.x multiclassing, but with some changes to what abilities multiclassed characters get that we’ll have to wait for the PHB to see.

Both rulebooks have cleric and wizard lists by level and then all of the actual spells in alphabetical order. They’re a whole lot like bog standard D&D spells. It returns to having spell components–the sort that people have been glossing over for basically the entirety of the time D&D existed–but it does also have kind of an interesting thing where certain spells get extra effects if you prepare them with a higher-level spell slot. On the whole the section makes my eyes glaze over, but where I do look more closely there’s some interesting mechanics here.

The biggest takeaway of this is basically, “Yup, it’s D&D all right.” As I said, D&D was never a special game for me, so for me personally the game merely pulling off Generic D&D is at best neutral. It will be a selling point for a lot of people, but on the other hand anyone who wants generic D&D has a pretty ridiculous wealth of options to choose from right now, with or without “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover. I don’t want to be unduly harsh on the game, especially since I haven’t actually played it yet (something I will probably fix before too long), but my honest impression from the Starter Set and Basic Rules is a pretty emphatic “meh.” D&D is so influential that it forms a baseline for RPGs and a big chunk of the fantasy genre in other media, and a basic, status quo version of it is necessarily going to be largely made of ideas that have been done completely to death over the past 40 years. I could see it becoming more of a game that actively interests me with the addition of more and better character options (a warlord equivalent, a balanced and not-dry-as-dust fighter, etc.), but given the overall design sensibilities of it, I would be pleasantly surprised if what I really want came from WotC.

The thing that makes me a bit optimistic is that although those of us who do stuff with other games don’t have anything like the marketing budget or brand recognition of D&D, we can run circles around it in so many other ways. It is now about as easy as it’s ever been to out-design D&D, and we can very easily make games that are fresher and more interesting thematically, since we’re not confined by the expectations of a 40-year-old game.

And now what I really need to do is put all of that out of my mind, because I have a ton of more important things to work on.


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