Buckle up as we start our review and readthrough of the Fifth Edition PHB!
The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook is 350 pages, hardback, and full color. It is clearly noted as “fifth edition” on the rear cover, which is much preferable to the confusing “we’ll just say it’s D&D, for I’m sure this is timeless!” approach that was teased. The vivid cover art depicts fire giant King Snurre fighting some lady. Not as clearly iconic as the Elmore Basic set dragon painting or as arcane as the 1e AD&D PHB “big idol” cover art, but better than the 2e, 3e, and 4e PHB cover art for sure. I’d say it ties with the Pathfinder Core Rulebook at #3 of all-time D&D PHB cover art.
The interior art is varied and attractive – a lot of the pieces really strongly remind me of the aesthetics of the Second Edition PHB interior art. There’s a lot of full page color plates of PCs doing things. It’s definitely not the line art of 1e, the sketch art of 3e, or the “Corporate said these pictures all have to look the same” of 4e.
The two-column graphic design is legible; fonts, headers, and sidebars are attractive and functional.
Normally I skim Prefaces and Introductions and that sort of thing, but these were worth it because they try to explain the approach this edition is taking to the game. The preface stresses that this is a game of collaborative creation – you mainly need friends and a lively imagination, and that the players are what makes D&D come to life. All sounds good, nothing terrifyingly groundbreaking. I’ve gamed for too long to put myself properly into the “I am a complete noob what does this do to my fragile little mind” mindset to understand how this’ll start out new players but it seems like a good setting of expectations.
The introduction does some introduction of basic terms. They kick off with a super short “what is roleplaying” example, and go on to mention terms – though a little inconsistently; they bold “campaign” and “multiverse” so you pick them out as meaningful nouns of the game but not “player” or “Dungeon Master” or “adventure?” Odd. Anyway, it gives the basic 411 and notes that having fun and making a memorable story is how you “win.”
They move away from the 4e “points of light” default setting and go back to the “multiverse” concept, and specifically shout-out to the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Eberron, etc. This section starts a nice theme, which is that they put some of the control back in the DM’s hands – e.g. “Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign world and its setting, even if the setting is a published world.” Empowerment of the group to make the game theirs and the DM to rule on the setting, rules, etc. as theirs is echoed many times. This hearkens back to the attitude written into B/X D&D and Second Edition AD&D (see Rule Zero Over The Years for an exploration of the textual attitudes to the relative primacy of rules, players, and DM in various D&D editions).
Then they lay down the basics of how to play. “The DM describes the environment, the players describe what they want to do, the DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.” Simple explanation of the ‘trad game’ process, though it has some subtle guidance in it (note that players describe what their characters try to do, but the DM decides what happens – yes, no, or what to roll; as opposed to “players make random checks against the stuff on their sheet and tell the DM”).
They explain polyhedral dice, and that usually d20 + modifier vs target number is the core resolution mechanic. Then they mention “advantage and disadvantage,” which is new in this edition – basically rolling 2d20 and taking the best (advantage) or worst (disadvantage). From the designer chatter previous to the release, this is supposed to be used in conjunction with fewer/lower bonuses to provide “bounded accuracy” – if you’re really good, you can hit what you can hit more reliably, but you’re not getting a huge +8 bonus to your rolls that starts to play into the balance, optimization, and encounter tuning issues that plagued Third Edition. They then clarify how specific rules supersede general rules, something that everyone understood but didn’t need spelled out prior to 3e. And, you round down. Simple enough.
Then they describe adventures, and make an important statement – the Three Pillars of Adventure are exploration, social interaction, and combat. This is important to note; especially in 3e/4e, for many people combat had become the sole defining characteristic of the game, reigning in either primacy or solitude, and people would seriously argue that “D&D is only about combat it’s unsuitable for those other things.” A statement explaining the role of all three will hopefully balance expectations of players and DMs of the future.
Magic is described as core to the D&D experience – they do note that “practitioners are rare” and “common people see it on a regular basis, but minor stuff” which helps set some core setting expectations that I’ve seen argued on the Internet far too much.
It’s all good stuff and I don’t have problems with any of it. But the Introduction is a little laundry-listy, though not as bad as 4e’s was. I personally would have pulled the dice and advantage and stuff part back into the rules section and made this a more coherent, punchier statement about adventure and what you could expect D&D play to be like. “You should expect imagination, rounding down, and magic!” isn’t, like, a super coherent message for new players. For grognards like me – OK, got it, on to character generation!
Next time – Chargen and Races!
I saw your review of 4th edition, and that you hated it because it completely changed the history and landscape of Dungeons and Dragons. I would like to know what you think, overall, of 5th edition. Would you say that it brings back the classic lore as if 4th edition never happened?
Yes, it definitely removes the blot that is 4e from the historical record. Full disclosure though, I’m not playing it… Since I was into Pathfinder so long, I have been playing that, and then when my group wanted something lighter – well, 5e’s kinda lighter… But Dungeon World is a lot lighter. So we have been doing all our recent D&D-ish campaigns in that. I’d play 5e if it came up, but so far it hasn’t been compelling enough to burst back into the rotation past all the other games. (currently: Unknown Armies)