D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 1-2, Character Creation and Races

Welcome to the second part of my Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition readthrough and review of the Player’s Handbook.  Last time, we dispensed with the introduction, and now it’s character generation time!

Chapter 1: Step-by-step Characters

This chapter walks you through the process.  Choose a race, choose a class, determine ability scores, describe your character, choose equipment, come together, you’re ready to rock.

You get proficiencies from your class and other sources, and those proficiencies all share your class proficiency bonus. That’s an interesting streamlining – in 3e, you got a wide array of “your bonus to everything is different.” In 4e you got “+1/2 your level to like, everything.” This threads between those extremes; providing a more simplified general number you add to things you can do while differentiating between things you are skilled at vs not – weapons, nonweapon skills, spellcasting, whatever.  They list the proficiency bonus in each class table but that’s weird because it looks like it’s the same for all of them – it’s +2 and goes up by 1 at levels 5, 9, 13, 17. What is that, ceiling(level/4)+1?

Besides your hit points you actually record your Hit Dice because you’ll use them for healing too. This has confused a lot of 5e newbies online already.  I remember reading Dragon Magazine when I had just started gaming and was playing Star Frontiers, I bought it for the Ares section and would look at the rest with interest – I could figure out what a lot of the D&D part meant except “what the heck is a Hit Dice?!?”

It’s the standard six ability scores – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, in their new-as-of-3e ordering. Ability modifiers work like 3e and are +1 for every 2 points (=(score/2)-5). I hope their other changes rein in the min-maxing enough; I would have been tempted to take this back to the lower-scaled bonuses and penalties of Red Box Basic (BECMI).

The primary method of generating stats?  ROLLING THEM LIKE A REAL MAN. 4d6 drop lowest, arrange how you like.  Or if you are weak, they do allow for a standard array or point buy (“If your DM approves”!). At least they say rolling is the primary method. A la carte point buy, along with unrestricted magic purchase, is one of the biggest cause of the problems with Third Edition (including 3.5e and Pathfinder) as it allows high precision min-maxing.

Armor Class (AC) is 10 + Dex + armor as it’s been in every version since 3e.

One notable change is that they just simplify and say Strength is + to hit and damage for melee weapons (and thrown weapons) and Dexterity is + to hit and damage for ranged weapons (and finesse weapons). That’s kinda how it worked in 4e, though layered under their arcane power lingo.

And then, there’s a single XP table for all characters.  The fact that there’s just one doesn’t surprise anyone who’s played the game since 3e but FYI if you’re a pure old schooler. The numbers seem scary low – 300 xp for level 2? I haven’t gotten to how they’re awarded, so it may even out, but that’s an order of magnitude reduction from the standard Pathfinder table.

They do define “tiers” of play and tell you what you might expect, but unlike in 4e they refrain from giving them names and note that “the tiers don’t have any rules associated with them,” which is good.

Chapter 2: Races

chuckThey don’t want to leave out anyone’s favorite. There’s nine races, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, Dragonborn, Gnome, Half-elf, Half-orc, Tiefling, and most have sub-races.  This is a maximal set of races from the various PHBs.

Some of the fiddliness of 3e is removed here. For example, instead of age modifiers to your stats, you are told you could “use your age to explain a particularly” low or high stat.

Each race gets 2-3 pages for a core writeup then a page or so of subraces, representing the various traditional ones – like elves have high elf, wood elf, and dark elf. You tend to get a +2 to a stat from the base race and then a +1 or +2 to another from the subrace (picking a subrace is mandatory). They also go to lengths to point out what these subraces map to in various campaign worlds – “the shield dwarves of northern Faerun are mountain dwarves,” for example.

They mention that races do vary per campaign world, and mention kender and cannibal halflings of Dark Sun as examples.

Dwarves are what it says on the tin. Female dwarves do not have beards (I bet the newbies wonder why I’m saying some of these seemingly totally random things… Suffice to say that any weird statement I make like this is because there’s some major historical debate among gamers on it.) They get +2 to Con, darkvision (low-light and darkvision have been merged), poison resistance plus advantage on poison saves, and some proficiencies.  Hill dwarves get +1 Wis and more hit points; shield dwarves get +2 to Str and armor proficiency.

Elves are the slightly-shorter type, not the slightly-taller Pathfinder type. They get a +2 to Dex, darkvision , proficiency in Perception, and charm/sleep resistance.  I like that they state these abilities directly but without having to resort to too much gamespeak. “You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep.” High elves get +1 Int, proficiencies, and a cantrip, wood elves get +1 Wis, proficiencies, +5′ move, and can hide in the wild. Drow get +1 Cha, longer darkvision, some magical abilities, and are sensitive to sunlight (plus they dress super sexy). I’m happy that the made-up-sounding “eladrin” has been demoted to a froofy name for a high elf.

Halflings are the Hobbit type not the murder-thief adrenaline junkie type. They get a +2 Dex, -5′ move, are small (which isn’t as big a deal in 5e), are lucky (reroll 1’s!), brave (advantage against being frightened), and nimble (can move through spaces of larger opponents). Lightfoots get +1 Cha and can stealth behind someone and Stouts get +1 Con and advantage/resistance against poison.

Humans are, you know, us.  They can even be black now, which wasn’t OK pre-3e.  (OK, I’m kidding… Mostly…) Humans get +1 on all their ability scores, an interesting interpretation of the “they’re the polymaths of the races” vibe they have. In a sidebar they basically say “or you could play third edition!” and take +2 to two stats, a skill, and a feat. Humans don’t have subraces in the same sense of the other races, but they do list a bunch of Forgotten Realms ethnicities as examples (no abilities or stat changes are tied to them).

Everyone knows these are the “big 4” – in fact, the PHB goes on to say that the other races are “Uncommon” and may not appear in all worlds and even when they do, they are rarer – they even describe what commoners might think of them if they haven’t encountered them before.

Dragonborn are dragon guys of a vaguely Klingon ilk. They get a +2 Str and +1 Cha, resistance to a given damage type linked to their color, and a breath weapon – at will, 2d6 +1d6 every 5 levels after 1!  a 30′ line or a 15′ cone. That’s nothing to sneeze at. (Get it?!?) But you have to rest to recharge it. They don’t have subraces per se, just color bloodlines. (The [rather silly] issue of whether female dragonborn have breasts is not addressed.)

Gnomes are tinkers and adrenaline junkies. And into nature, and illusions.  For most of the races it didn’t hurt too much that they decided to combine up every other edition’s concepts of them into one, but since gnomes have varied so much, it makes this description a little schizophrenic. They get +1 Int, are small, -5′ move, darkvision, and advantage on all Int/Wis/Cha magic saves. Forest gnomes get +1 Dex and illusions and speak with critters; rock gnomes get +1 Con, knowledge, and tinker (make a couple doodads – not very interesting out of the box but I assume the list of possible devices will grow without bound in splatbooks).

Half-elves are diplomatic outcasts (squint real hard and it makes sense) and get +2 Cha, +1 to 2 scores of your choice, darkvision, charm/sleep resist, and a couple skills.

Half-orcs are, you know, half orcy. +2 Str, +1 Con, darkvision, proficiency with Intimidate, one free “pop up to 1 hp when reduced to 0 hp” reimplementation of ferocity, and an extra damage die on crits.

Tieflings are devil people. Well, anywhere less than half devil. Horns, tails, the whole deal. They get +1 Int, +2 Cha (what is this, a Lords of Acid album cover?), darkvision, fire resistance, and some minor spells.

Overall a good spread, and described decently. I don’t disagree with any of the implementations, except that there seems to be a weird lot of charisma boosts for races that could fairly be described in lore as “feared uggos.”

The thing I thought was the most impressive was how the game terms took the background.  They were still there somewhat – Small size, advantage, resistance – but when they could describe something without resorting to sounding like a lawyer, they did, and I think the rules are more robust for it.  “Magic can’t put you to sleep” is way more definitive than “immune to things with the sleep keyword” or whatever – over time you get these things that “are exactly like that but don’t have just the right keyword” – plus it sounds more like natural freaking English.

By this point in 4e I was starting to get pinpricked by weird stuff – movement in squares, super magical racial abilities like eladrin teleporting, rules being keyword-driven to the point of incoherence… But so far, so good here. Part of me wants to gripe about there being no racial stat penalties, as an obvious sop to the helicopter-parented self-entitled kids of today, but… eh. 5e, where all the children are above average.

Next time – 112 pages of classes (gulp)!

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7 responses to “D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 1-2, Character Creation and Races

  1. Yes, I can see why “hit dice” is confusing to some; they’ve held on to a classic D&D term for nostalgic reasons but it doesn’t make much sense in context. “Healing dice” or “recovery dice” would have been better.

    As for experience levels, the idea is that levels one and two are for practice so players get used to how things work before the game proper begins at level three; the progression is faster up to that point because it’s supposed to be a preview. My group has only played a couple of sessions and our characters are at level two so I can’t say how well it works yet.

  2. I must chime in to say that I enjoy your style and I look forward to the next parts of your review. I’m a Pathfinder player but will give 5e a shot when I can. I like some of the streamlined mechanics.

    I second your dislike of “keyword” design prevalent in 3.x and 4e. Just recently I was a bard in a Pathfinder adventure and was unable to help my party against a gibbering mouther’s gibbering, because its statblock didn’t say that the gibbering was a “sonic” effect. Ugh.

    • Thanks man!

      Yeah, I like the general tenor of especially their rules responses on Twitter. “I’d rule that this would happen…” “You could do it this way…” very much not legalistic.

      I’ve been on the wrong side of that with Pathfinder a lot. “Sorry, ranger, it’s not technically an *animal*…” “Oh, death ward doesn’t protect against that, it doesn’t say it’s a whatnot…”

      • That’s not necessarily a bad thing — the keywords are in there for a reason, usually to attain some sense of balance. As a GM, I find myself enforcing the strict interpretation sometimes, but at other times it doesn’t “feel right” for a situation so I make an ad-hoc exception. It’s a tricky thing, that.

        • Yeah last Reavers game a player tried to use *repel vermin* on some giant millipede things some derros were riding (No Response from Deepmar) – they were “magical beasts.” I was like “this poor bastard is actually keeping *repel vermin* around, and these are big vermin, of course it works.”

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