Mid-August Review Week continues with my review of Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules version 0.1 (Wizards of the Coast, June 2014).
NOTE: After publishing this review, I’ve been informed that the Basic Rules are up to version 0.2, with a separate DM book including some basic monsters. I will review the 0.2 Basic Rules at a later date. So now, on with the show!
D&D is the roleplaying game that needs no introduction. For most RPGs, when you’re introducing them to a new person, very often you will say the words, “It’s like Dungeons & Dragons, but with [fill in the blank here].” Or if you’re introducing Pathfinder, “It’s like Dungeons & Dragons.”
In this case, you don’t have to, because it literally is Dungeons & Dragons.
These are the stakes
It’s the opposite of a secret in the gaming world that the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons did not do well in the market. Coming off of a bungled launch publicity campaign, 4th Edition never found its feet in the post-3.5 world and, with former Dragon and Dungeon publisher Paizo, Inc. announcing its own fork of D&D, Pathfinder (an expanded “3.75” version of the 3rd Edition D&D rules) picked up the D&D ball and has become inarguably the most popular RPG on the market right now.
What the Basic Rules represent is an attempt by Wizards of the Coast to “make good” on the bungled 4th Edition by offering understandably wary gamers an opportunity to examine the new rules set without sinking the $50 cover price into the books.
What does 5th Edition offer?
5th Edition, like the editions previous to it, is an attempt to riff on current trends in the gaming world, while remaining true to the core of D&D. 4th Edition ended up being the “New Coke” of D&D – it was an attempt to draw in a market that was loyal to a different product (online role-playing games), at the expense of the market that was already loyal to D&D. Now, a lot of D&D players still enjoyed 4th Edition (I did, despite some misgivings – I still have my copies of the 1st printing core rulebooks and the D&D Essentials Monster Vault and Rules Compendium). However, the overall impression of 4th Edition was of a system that had lost its way, an impression that was not helped by the weakness of later rulebooks (the PHB3 and Monster Manual 3 were lackluster and the promised DMG3 never materialized).
Starting in late 2012, Wizards of the Coast began circulating public playtest materials for what they were then calling “Dungeons & Dragons Next.” It was the clear deathknell for 4th Edition; no additional 4E rules material came out after that time, instead Wizards republished the Core Rulebooks and certain supplements from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition and Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, and new adventures were multi-statted for D&D 3.5, D&D 4th Edition and the D&D Next playtest.
I spend three and a half paragraphs describing the shortcomings of Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition, because it’s necessary to establish the background into which D&D 5th is entering.
What are the Basic Rules?
The Basic Rules are a pared-down version of the rules set designed to facilitate character building with a limited set of character races and classes (the classics for each – Dwarf, Elf, Halfing and Human for races and Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard for classes) and a limited spellbook (but still containing spells from levels 1-9) for the magic-using classes, Cleric and Wizard. Character building is quick but effective.
Following the example of Paizo Publishing, Wizards of the Coast mentions in Chapter 4, Personality and Background (page 33 if you’re following along at home) that characters do not have to be confined to binary conceptions of gender. While this is pretty good, Wizards has also lagged behind the times a bit in this regard. But it’s nice to see that their traditional mass-market squeamishness has been overcome. There are also more character traits emphasized – at last alignment is not the only nod toward a character’s attitudes toward other creatures in the multiverse. Backgrounds and personality traits are – and this is a distinct advantage – baked into the core rulebook, which means that for the first time in a D&D game, you don’t have to find and print an “expanded” character sheet to get all the information for your character in one place.
The production values of the PDF are fantastic. It’s colorful and looks like a cut-down version of the Player’s Handbook. I can’t note physical construction as such with this PDF because I printed it on my black and white laser printer using normal toner and 20 pound printer paper.
Although it’s not mentioned explicitly in the text of the file, Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition represents the third major edition of the D20 System – although Wizards of the Coast deprecated the use of the D20 System branding about halfway through 4th Edition. A change this edition is replacing dynamic bonuses or penalties with an “Advantages or disadvantages” system. If you have the advantage in a given situation, you roll 2d20 and take the higher of the two dice. If you have the disadvantage, you roll 2d20 and take the lower. If you have neither, you roll 1d20 and take what’s on the die.
There are no longer “powers” in 5th Edition as such. Instead, each class gets a slate of class abilities that improve in some way at every level (like Pathfinder, and eliminating the problem of “dead levels” that was a major difficulty in D&D 3rd Edition)
Saving throws are back to rolls rather than static defenses that an enemy must roll an attack against. In this case, characters save directly using an ability score, rather than a derived save – most, but presumably not all, saves are Dexterity (formerly Reflex), Constitution (formerly Fortitude), or Wisdom (formerly Willpower).
So a Golem and a Dragon Fight It Out in a Dungeon
You may notice, if you’ve been following along, that there’s really nothing in 5th Edition left of 4th. Instead, 5th Edition now represents a fork of 3rd Edition. This is an interesting move because many of us who either stuck with 3rd Edition or switched to 4th and then reverted are already playing Pathfinder (and it’s of critical note that a depressing amount of the pre-release publicity involves “why you should switch from Pathfinder to D&D,” which sets up a problematic note of competition between Wizards of the Coast and Paizo).
I’m pretty secure with my Pathfinder collection, so Dungeons & Dragons, while well-designed and thoughtfully created, is not a book I am particularly planning on picking up. At some points in the D&D Next playtest, I was concerned that 5th Edition would be a simple reaction against 4th Edition that would revert the game to 3.5 or even all the way back to AD&D 2nd Edition; I am pleased to report that this is not the case. Dungeons & Dragons is a new game that offers distinctive continuity with the past while acknowledging that gaming has moved on since the 1980s. If you have been invested in the Dungeons & Dragons Next playtest, if you’ve kept playing Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, if you never stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there are some pretty solid reasons to update to Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. If your regular game is planning to convert to D&D, once again, you’ve got a pretty solid reason to switch. And of course, the Basic Rules are a pretty painless way to test the waters – they’re free, after all, and provide a decent cross-section of the player’s interactions with the rules.
If you’ve never played an RPG before, the D&D Basic Rules are probably not your ideal starting point – for that you will probably want to check out the D&D Starter Set ($20) or the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box ($35) (these are suggested retail price – on Amazon they are respectively $12 and $25 – and the prices were corrected from an earlier misstatement).