How 5th Edition Saved Dungeons & Dragons
My first taste of role playing games, Dungeons & Dragons in particular, came around sixth grade. I was introduced through friends to the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules Set: first published by TSR in 1983 this rule set included a sixty-four page Players Manual and a forty-eight page Dungeon Masters Rule-book; it quickly became known as the Red Box. The Red Box also included a set of six dice with different numbers of sides, truly a curiosity to me as I’d never seen anything other than the typical six-sided dice you might find in a random family board game.
The Player’s Manual started with a brief overview of what D&D was and jumped right into a single player adventure, a bit like a choose your own adventure story, to expose the new player to the concepts behind playing Dungeons & Dragons. The adventure starts with you as a fighter setting off on a hike to the hills near your home in search of treasure rumored to be hidden in the caves and guarded by monsters. You’ve also heard that a man named Bargle may live among the caves. Bargle was known as a bandit who stole money, killed people and terrorized the town; if you could catch him, you’d be a hero!
Your very first combat encounter begins with a surprise attack from a goblin shortly after reaching the dark and musty cave. The flavor text of the adventure reminds you that things like matches have not yet been invented and explains that you must light a lantern with your tinderbox. In hindsight it might feel a bit campy but re-reading the starter adventure still brings a smile to my face as I remember my sixth-grade-self’s awe and wonder at this introduction to medieval fantasy role playing games.
“Your First Adventure” continues through the next several pages of the sixty-four page Player’s Manual. It walks you through some of the basic concepts of the rule set, such as attacking and hit points, armor class and saving throws and introduces you to the idea of what an adventure is and how a role playing game story might be told. It was a great introduction to RPGs for me and for, I’m sure, thousands of other gamers around the world. It became, for me, a foundational cornerstone on what D&D was and how it should be played.
Flash forward a few years and I’ve found a group of friends that all play D&D together regularly. We’re using the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rules at that point. Until the recent release of the 5th Edition rules I can honestly say that 2nd Edition was my favorite rule set. 2nd Edition was not without flaws as thac0 and negative armor class values certainly weren’t intuitive, and despite 2nd Edition being my favorite, 3/3.5 Editions did improve on those specific flaws. However 2nd Edition still captured the essence of what I thought a D&D game should be: an adventure game focusing on exploration and problem solving, role playing and thrilling combat encounters.
3/3.5 Editions of D&D started to lose all of that. The rules became extremely bloated. In all the games I’d played with those editions, making characters became much more about min/max number crunching and game play was more about tactical combat with miniatures on a grid than it was about adventure, story, and imagination. After a while I dismissed this as a personal problem: maybe I’m getting older and losing my interest in the idea of make-believe. I just assumed I wasn’t capable of enjoying a tabletop RPG on that level anymore; maybe computer games ruined it for me? I wasn’t sure. I just know that I didn’t love the game like I once had.
I was so put off by D&D at that point that I didn’t even bother with 4th Edition. As I understand it, I didn’t miss anything anyway. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about how poorly implemented the 4e rules are and I can only imagine that it sucked the fun out of role playing games even more than 3/3.5 did. I’m probably fortunate for having skipped out on that edition entirely.
Enter Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition
I’ve played a fair bit of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition now and I can easily say it’s currently my favorite edition of the D&D rule set. I’m really impressed with what the game designers have done with this new edition, and I can’t wait for new source books, campaign settings, and adventure modules to be published.
The core set of books released for D&D 5th Edition include the Player’s Handbook (PHB), the Dungeon Master Guide (DMG) and the Monster Manual (MM). There are also a few campaign modules available for purchase, and there is the basic Starter Set.
This edition of D&D did two big things that in no small part rekindled my love of RPGs. First, it simplified the rules a lot. It’s not so much that they are easier (although in some regards they are), it’s more a matter of the rules being less bloated. It’s a bit more like they fixed and improved 2nd Edition’s rules than it is an update on the 3/3.5 (and I assume 4th edition) rules.
No longer do I feel like it’s merely a numbers game based around moving miniature figures on a combat grid. While the game does have optional rules for using grids for combat, it’s much more focused on creating a game in the theater of the mind like older versions of the game. It’s brought back the idea that imagination and fantasy are the best tools to use when you play Dungeons & Dragons.
Another great thing about 5th edition D&D, something that I have to commend Wizards of the Coast for, is that it has made the game accessible to everyone. They sell a simple Starter Set for around $20 that includes some basic rules and an adventure module entitled The Lost Mine of Phandelver. I haven’t had the opportunity to play the starter adventure yet but I’ve made a mental note to eventually try it. I’ve heard it’s a fun entry level campaign module.
Now, the real reason I brought up Wizards of the Coast making D&D accessible to everyone isn’t just the Starter Set, which is nice and inexpensive, but also that you can go to their website and download the basic rules in .PDF form for free. The basic rules don’t include all the character classes, feats or spells, but you can still play the game to a very reasonable level of satisfaction. I do applaud them for going this route and I hope it introduces more players to D&D and role-playing games in general.
One downside is that they still don’t sell digital copies of the books. I like having a hard cover printed rule book on my shelf, but I’d also like to have a digital copy that is capable of full text search on my tablet. I hope that in the near future they will make available digital versions of all the core rule books at minimal cost.
Another negative facet of the 5th Edition books, in my opinion, is that they aren’t laid out very well. Finding information on the fly is not as easy as it was in previous editions. Maybe it’s that there aren’t enough charts and tables for the most commonly used character statistics and variables but certainly a contributing factor is that they have opted to write the whole book in a style that seems a bit more verbose than is necessary; both factors have contributed to my time being wasted on numerous occasions when trying to reference a rule mid game.
The official Dungeon Master Screen product isn’t great. It’s a heavy card stock fold out screen, not too dissimilar to previously produced DM Screens. However, the information on the screen is almost entirely useless. You might think that a DM screen should be full of easy to reference commonly-used rules, statistics, and information. That’s not really the case here. The product functions adequately as a Screen, obscuring your players’ vision from private game notes and dice roles, but otherwise it’s not worth the money. If you’re anything like me you’ll probably pick it up anyway because you like collecting all of the published source materials, but you can do without this particular product very easily.
A good deal of the material in the DMG is also questionable. There’s all sorts of table lists you can use to randomly generate NPCs, story plots, and even campaign settings. I suppose those could come in handy to someone having writers block or looking for ideas, but I think most DM’s use pre-built campaign settings like Forgotten Realms and enjoy creating their stories and characters from scratch without out the help of random plot device tables. That said the DMG does cover some rules not found in the PHB; it includes the magical items list, and there’s a helpful table that organizes all the monsters found in the Monsters Manual into a list sorted by challenge rating.
The bottom line is that in the end Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is a huge win in my book. It brings imagination, excitement, and accessibility back to D&D and inspires me to want to jump back into tabletop role-playing like no other edition of D&D or similar game systems have in the better part of the last twenty years.
Here’s to hoping Wizards of the Coast keeps up the great work and continues to impress us with future Dungeons & Dragons updates and product releases.