Bits of 5th have been online for a while, and it officially launched at Gen Con. I have my PHB (and nothing else yet) and was thinking of gradually walking through the book, a review in parts. Let’s start with some general notes.
First, while I understand some of the business reasons for not dropping $200 worth of books on people at the same time, the staggered release still feels odd. If nothing else, Wizards of the Coast is training players to play without the official books, although I presume someone in their business office has run the numbers on that.
As has been noted widely, 5th is a throwback after the new direction 4th Edition took. It looks a lot more like 2nd Edition, so one hopes it contains enough new and interesting to justify using it instead of just going back to 2nd Edition. I have a lot of 2nd Edition books.
A moment of D&D history: 2nd Edition works like you might expect an RPG to, where characters pick a class and level in it. Options are mostly constrained beyond race and class, although many “accessory” books grafted on options. Linear fighters and quadratic wizards is its problem at higher levels, whereby 1st level fighters can swing swords and 1st level wizards can cast a spell or two, but 20th level fighters can swing swords really hard while 20th level wizards can rewrite reality itself. 3rd Edition’s big change was to modularize class levels. While you might simply be “Wizard 20,” you could also “shop” other classes (and prestige classes) for abilities, so you might instead be a Wizard 5/Rogue 5/Arcane Trickster 10, and optimized builds might visit a half-dozen classes. 3rd edition has an even stronger quadratic curve for primary spellcaster classes, while fighters got some slightly stronger options in the last few books. 4th Edition brought everyone back to more straightforward classes and gave all of them linear progressions. There were still customizations to be had, and more elegantly than 2nd Edition’s kits and specializations, but not 3rd Edition’s game-breaking flexibility. 4th Edition was also a much more tactical game, emphasizing cinematic combats using miniatures, while previous editions had a lot more “trash” fights and greater encouragement of role-playing.
As I said, 5th reminds me of 2nd, with the customization options from 4th. 5th Edition encourages single-class characters with different option packages that take the place of prestige classes or paragon levels. Everyone chooses a specialization that determines which abilities are awarded at various levels. Players do not shop for levels. Using miniatures is explicitly listed as a variant rule, while “theater of the mind” is the favored approach.
5th Edition has many races and classes, and both have that specialization. There are 9 races and 12 classes. Most races have at least 2 subraces, which get slightly different bonuses. All classes have at least 2 ways to specialize. This edition’s release is front-loaded with favorites from previous editions, presenting more options and more carefully channeled options.
This also lends itself to expansion. While the classes may not be modular in the sense that they were in 3rd Edition, you can see the sockets where next year’s books will plug in subraces and class specializations. I expect every past class, prestige class, kit, variant class, etc. to appear in some form, and the players will make them if Wizards of the Coast does not.
I have one final note comparing editions before I sign off this week: I am not thrilled with the art direction in this book. I want to say that the art is worse, but maybe it is just not to my taste. There are certainly some nice pieces, but I find a certain vagueness about it. I love Wayne Reynolds art. I enjoyed the bold, comic-like art of 4th Edition. Older editions of course have that classic Larry Elmore touch. This PHB’s art just looks weaker to me. I can elaborate upon that if there is interest, but I should probably leave that to someone more visually inclined.
I am interested in this variation on the classic D&D formula and seeing how it shapes up to its many competitors, including its predecessors which are still seeing play. Let’s explore.