D&D 5th Edition: You always try to be everything to everyone

I think if the role-playing game industry has proven anything over the last couple of years, it’s that RPGs are a viable form of paid entertainment without their former flagship product, Dungeons & Dragons. You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted a guardedly positive review of the D&D Basic Rules, a cut-down version of the Player’s Handbook (if you don’t recall that, please go re-read that review). In the time since then, I’ve had the leisure to peruse the Player’s Handbook itself, and my opinion of it, surprisingly, is somewhat less than my opinion of the original Basic Rules.

Credit where credit’s due: The art is fantastic.

The problem is, this is an RPG, not an art book.

Some people have called 5th Edition D&D the game that should have been made after 2nd Edition. I can see a point to such a designation, but it’s also kind of a gloomy review of the thing. D&D 5th Edition grudgingly includes some of the things that made 3rd Edition (feats) and 4th Edition (special abilities for non-casters) great, but it only felt like a grudging inclusion, and it made a point of stripping away the skill system from 3rd Edition. Skills were something Lizards on some Toast clearly never really liked, and clearly felt more like pushing back on rather than revising, given that Paizo made a sensible skill system out of the original D&D 3rd Edition skill system that rewards system mastery and understanding your class skills while not making cross-class skills useless by level 10.

The problem is, 5th Edition D&D REALLY wants you to use Magic. It wants to push Magic into the archetypes of EVERY SINGLE CLASS, whether it fits or not. It gets tedious to have to use Magic as the primary way of interfacing with and getting around the normal limitations of the rules.

Not EVERY archetype works this way – the Maneuver system from Book of Nine Swords makes a more muted return appearance; the Barbarian makes extensive use of maneuvers as Rage powers; the Fighter’s Battle Master archetype uses them as well, as does the Monk’s Way of the Four Elements; but generally speaking magic is the order of the day, not martial maneuvers.

I want to like D&D on some level. The hobby got started through D&D and I believe that gaming would be poorer for not having that specific connection to our roots.

With that said, my overwhelming impression of D&D 5th Edition is of what is not there. It feels like a step backward into gaming history and while I suppose that’s ok for people who were active gamers during that part of gaming history, to me it just reminds me that gaming as a hobby is aging and greying, and that roleplaying games are growing more detached from the people who originally created and sustained the hobby. D&D is not something new and cool (and the fact that there’s an editorial online saying, “D&D is NOT dumbed down!” – I am serious – indicates that there’s a certain problem perceived with 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons that it’s simplified to a point where people are perceiving it as dumbed down.

Did the battle grid as a primary aspect of a roleplaying game really need to go? Yes, absolutely. The battle grid focuses an RPG on combat in an unfortunate extent. But what we’ve lost with the battle grid, I’m not sure that that was worth the removal of a part of the game that in some ways is detrimental to the play of the game.

I want to like this game. I really do. But what I’ve read suggests that my opinion of 5th Edition D&D is likely to go downhill. I’m just not happy with the things that are gone from 5E.

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