Category Archives: reviews

Pathfinder 2e Playtest Retrospective

Well, we played through the Pathfinder 2e “Doomsday Dawn” adventure through 7th level (the first three scenarios, The Lost Star, In Pale Mountain’s Shadow, and Affair at Sombrefell Hall).

It was… fine.  It’s not super different from Pathfinder from a 10,000 foot view. The main changes were:

  • the “three actions a round” thing – you get three actions, which can be any mix of attacks at iterative -5s, or moves, or spells, or whatnot. made rounds take longer, but probably at higher levels cuts down on time since you can’t do 20 attacks.
  • how crits work – if you beat what you need by 10+. More crits but more math.
  • how magic weapons work, with plusses adding whole dice of damage.
  • Spell Points for everyone to power whatever innate abilities, but not spells, which kept confusing us.  Why not Power Points?
  • Random slight spell changes
  • A weird baseball diamond icon used to indicate how many actions something takes instead of just using a damn number
  • encumbrance simplified into “Bulk”
  • magic item slots simplified (?) with “Resonance”

It didn’t seem better or worse really, just different. You may recognize some of these specific rules from 5e, 4e, and other RPGs, none of it was real innovative.

Unfortunately, that is a bit of a deal-killer for us.  We have loads of PF 1e stuff, more than we can ever play.  We play other games too.  There’s no killer feature in PF 2e that makes us say “I really want to play this!” It’s unexciting.  And from running through the adventure, it’s not just on paper – in play it’s the same thing, like Pathfinder 1 but just with some warts removed and some new ones added. Huzzah?

I was leaning on Hero Lab hard for the deep NPC work in Pathfinder.  They’re (Wolf Lair) apparently not carrying on with existing Hero Lab, they’re abandoning it in favor of a new subscription-based online service (Hero Lab Online) that I’d get to pay for new and differently, despite investing probably near $1000 into HL over time. Again, starting over for “different but not better really.”

I mean, I don’t *dis*like the game – but it’s telling me “abandon all previous thousands of dollars of product, for something that’s… like it but slightly different.” And I’m not clear what I’d get out of that.

I love Golarion and their Adventure Paths (I got into it from being a Dragon and Dungeon subscriber and converted over).  They know how to write adventure and setting for sure.  In Pathfinder 1e the mechanics weren’t too revolutionary, but as they went on they had a knack for picking good and iconic classes instead of the weird junk WotC had been doing even in 3e/3.5e.  “Witch, Alchemist, Cavalier”, makes sense!  “Acolyte of the Skin! Candle Caster!” No. The archetype system allowed a lot of class customization and that was cool. Fun game, played it a lot, though I must admit over time the extreme amount of rules content caused us to play other, lighter games about 50/50 (they call it Mathfinder for a reason).  But heck, I’m still running a 5 year old Pathfinder campaign, it’s a good game. They’ve had good instincts and business practices. I wish Paizo well.

To really make PF2 a success like PF1 they’re going to have to come up with something besides “inertia of PF 1e players” to drive adoption. The kids nowadays are moving to D&D 5e. If I’m going to coast, I want to coast on the existing game.  For a new Pathfinder to get me to keep subscribing (to the tune of a lot of $$ per month), I need *something* new and exciting.  It could be more rules light, but doesn’t have to be, it could be anything really innovative. But it’s pretty clear they didn’t have a huge innovation in mind that drove them to make 2e – they just figured it was time and started cobbling something together. Is the setting new?  No, same setting I have 100 supplements for, they’ll just re-release the exact same content with some new stats so I won’t really get anything new.  Do the new rules unlock any new actual kinds of classes or characters?  No, so all the new supplements will just be “and now here’s the witch with some different rules.” What am I supposed to be looking forward to?  There’s not really messaging on that.  Check out their Web page – it’s just like “playtest this now.” It’s not even trying to hype me on something.

When D&D went from 1e to 2e to 3e, each time was a really big change and improvement. Hit tables to THAC0 to DCs level improvement. I just don’t see anything like that in Pathfinder 2e.  If it was released 10 years ago as “our new D&D killer” instead of 1e, I would have loved it and played it and it’d be in the exact same spot as 1e is now, like I say, there’s nothing wrong with it.  But after 10 years, a new edition should be something to really move the needle on your gaming, and after giving it a fair shot at play – it’s just not.  At least not in the current playtest form.  But I don’t have a lot of hope it will change dramatically from the playtest – I mean, I’m sure they’ll fix some of the issues, but you don’t fix “it’s not really that innovative” in a playtest.

I fear the net here is “I and the gamers I know here will keep playing PF 1e, just a bit less each year; we’ll wish Paizo well but not buy much.” Starfinder didn’t grab me (science fantasy isn’t my thing), and PF 2e isn’t grabbing me.  Maybe they’ll put out another RPG that’ll draw me in eventually, but thus far looks like I’ll need to pack up my love for Paizo products, put it in a box, and bring it out and remember it from time to time.

Fantastic Fest 2015 – The Frustrating

Part 3 of my Fantastic Fest movie reviews. Spoilers abound, so be warned. Sadly there’s a lot of movies in this category this year. Most of them had promise and aren’t all bad, but took a wrong turn – one of several common wrong turns, interestingly enough, so rather than just skip over them I’m going to call them out in an attempt to correct some of the common cinematic sins I’m seeing.

I get it, struggling filmmakers.  You managed to get some footage out of a couple thousand dollars and you’re putting it together into a film. You can’t bring yourself to cut out that 20 minutes of pointless noodling in your third act because that footage was so hard won. But you need to. In edit, build your movie together out of what you have and then stop when it’s complete, don’t just have more for more’s sake. I wanted to fall asleep in the third act of a full 1/3 of the movies at the fest this year and that’s just plain ridiculous.

Few films at Fantastic Fest are ever just plain bad (well, except for those intended to be that way). Except for “Balada Triste,” which I hold a grudge against to this day. All of these had something good going for them, but managed to squander it somehow.

Artsiness Does Not Prevent Your Movie From Getting Boring

RUINED-HEART-1500x816Ruined Heart – a Filipino movie about a street level gangster and his girlfriend. It was ambitious – virtually no dialogue, very impressionistic. But I’m afraid its reach exceeded its grasp;  it was interesting but then as it drug on the approach started to come apart at its seams and become tiresome. It went from “impressionist” to “what’s going on now?” to “I don’t really care any more” as act 1 moved into 2 into 3.

La-GranjaLa Granja – A similar issue was to be had with La Granja, a movie about the slums of Puerto Rico and the crazy degenerate stuff its inhabitants are subjected to. It was fine and interesting, but used the technique that this Fantastic Fest taught me to dread, the “we’ll show you the movie as one series of events from 3-5 different persepectives!” technique. Apparently everyone decided this was the artsy thing to do this year, but in this case the additional tellings didn’t really add much new in terms of texture or information to the story, so once you were past a couple of them it became boring to see the same stuff retreaded. It could have had a couple perspectives removed without hurting (and therefore subsequently improving) the film. Also, the nurse’s baby-stealing seemed like it was outside of the core arc of the movie.

darlingDarling – A movie about a chick who moves in to be caretaker of a big ol’ New York mansion/apartment and then some combination of it’s haunted or she’s crazy or whatever. In black and white for artsiness.  But just not that much happened over the course of this movie. It is a short in feature length clothing. I don’t mind some moodiness but the ratio of moodiness to anything freaking happening was very poor.

Laura Ashley Carter doesn’t do a bad job, but the combination of writing and direction is not sufficient to the intended result of being a study of a descent into madness, and the hints at supernatural agency are hamhanded. Another third act sleeper (to be fair, we spend a lot of time watching her sleep, so it may be intending to make you drowsy for some reason).

Pacing, Please Learn It And Use It

baskinBaskin – a Turkish movie about a minivan full of roving Turkish cops that get called to a spooky-type village and a spooky-type house with mutated cultists in it. It starts out very interesting, with some weird experiences and dream(?) or flashback (?) sequences, to the point that I was trying to figure out if this was all really happening or if the young cop was just in Purgatory or what. And then they all just get caught, strapped to pillars, and tortured to death by mutants for the entire third act.

I was very disappointed in this – I mean, if you want to do torture porn, fine, but the pacing of a heretofore decent movie was just completely blown out by this.  Simple fix – capture one, torture him to death, have the others still running around, grab another one of them… But slamming to a stop and just doing 45 minutes of grotesque sitting in place is tiring to the point of being nap-inducing. I would love to see the first 2/3 of this movie with a completely, totally rewritten end 1/3 on it.

LUDO-620x400Ludo – an Indian (Bengali) movie about four roving Indian teens looking for a safe place to drink and screw, who after zooming around the city on their two mopeds and being turned away from every fleabag motel in town (apparently they’re serious about their morality laws there) hide out in a shopping mall till after hours. I liked all four characters and the actors, even though the montage of trying to find hotels could have had 10 minutes cut out of it. Then they meet two spooky old people also in the  mall after hours and then they all get Parcheesied to death.

OK so I get the Parcheesi thing, it can come across as a little silly here where Parcheesi is more of a kid’s game, but over there it’s the “game of kings” so one can mentally substitute playing chess or something. But again, in this movie the pace comes to a dead stop, since the game board just hypnotizes everyone into sitting around it like zombies playing till they get eaten.

They try to compensate for this, I guess, by having a long long long long long flashback to when the two old folks originally found the magic Parcheesi set back in long ago India (like, rocks and clubs level long ago). Yes, the two characters who we don’t give a shit about, unlike the four characters we’ve spent the last hour growing to know and care about. Like, it goes beyond flashback to full fledged subplot about them and some witch and other stuff it was hard to follow and/or care about.

Just like Baskin, I’d like someone to take the first 1/2 of this movie and then write an ending that a) involves the original damn characters and b) maintains some kind of momentum.

Sometimes Retro Is Just Bad

dangerousmenDangerous Men – A single guy, John S. Rad, made this movie over like 26 years. He’s director, writer, songwriter, and about everything else. It’s hilariously retro, with a bunch of “interesting” (read: psychotic) plot and casting and set and music and everything else choices. It starts out being about a chick whose boyfriend gets murdered by bikers and she gets carried off and then she kills them and goes on a serial killer spree focused on male predators. Then a cop shows up and goes on a completely unrelated biker-shooting romp (apparently the actress got fired 2/3 of the way through) and then he gets beaten into a coma and then a third character, the police chief (I guess?) tracks down the ’80’s wrestler looking bad guy Black Pepper (NB: not black) and arrests him.

So the cluelessness and bad ’80’s stuff is entertaining for about a half hour. But then it turns the corner to just “hey this is pretty bad.” Especially when the plot completely changed. I get it, Kung Fury etc. and retro making-fun are all big right now, but this is an incarnation of it only someone in full hipster mode can stand behind. Not every single-person retro junk movie is “so bad it’s good” – sometimes it is just bad. The audacity of its badness is good for a while but then it wears off.

Goddamn Germans

germanangstGerman Angst – Three nearly unrelated German shorts. Short 1 – a girl has her dad (?) strapped to a bed and castrates and kills and mutilates him.  She owns guinea pigs. Then she leaves. Maybe it didn’t happen. The end.

Short 2 – Some deaf-mute hiker lovebirds get death-stomped by a mostly German gang. But they have a necklace that might do soul-swapping in bodies, as a tale the man signs to the woman indicates, he got it from his… mom? Grandma? Who used it to get away from the Nazis in wartime Poland. (Or did she…) This is kinda interesting as a setup but it gets super annoying with just the yelling and carrying on and stuff for so long. Whoever the blond screamy gang chick is I wanted her to die of leukemia, I got so sick of hearing it. Then this winds up with the head skinhead giving a lengthy looking-at-the-camera apologia for their behavior, blaming their Polack-killing on the “granite weight of guilt” of still being identified with Nazis. This is done in such a way that it’s pretty transparently A Message To You From The Filmmakers. My response to that is “Fuck you.” You get to not get Nazi stigma once everyone who got stuck in one of those camps has passed away, and everyone that had to fight in that war has passed away.  Act right for one human lifetime (and you’re doing great so far) and then we’ll all stop using the N-word.  I think that’s fair payment in kind for millions of lives.  Till then STFU and take it. (N.B. I am of German descent myself so see no reason to beat around the bush here.)

Short 3 was better but I was still pissed off from shorts 1 and 2. A guy joins some kind of sex club but then it starts to become clear they are probably mating with some weird mandrake-based plant creature, but woot the orgasms are great, so it’s quite the dilemma of what to do. Would make a good “Twilight Zone” episode for a HBO-type Twilight Zone kind of program.

Except for a very very slight effort at relating the three stories in any way, they really are completely separate and very inconsistent in tone and nature. This is less a movie and more of a sampler pitch. And, the granite weight of guilt, my balls.

Fantastic Fest 2015 – The Best

There were four movies that I unreservedly enjoyed this festival. They are the best of the ones I saw (of course one person can only see a minority of the films at Fantastic Fest). Spoilers are included, so be warned (though not too many, since these are good I am leaving most twists and endings unstated).

jeremy-saulniers-green-roomGreen Room is a movie about a punk band playing at a skinhead-infested venue who accidentally witnesses the aftermath of a murder and things go bad. It’s written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier who also brought us the recent Blue Ruin. It’s got a great cast, including Anton Yelchin (Chekov from the Star Trek reboot and the main kid from the Fright Night reboot) and Sir Patrick Stewart as the skinhead group’s leader! Along with a bunch of other experienced folks (including Macon Blair, the lead from Blue Ruin).

It was taut and well-paced; the writing was really good and the kills were brutal. It was done in a very realistic manner – you really buy the ensemble as a punk band teetering on the edge of viability (“I wanted to buy them all a sandwich and a glass of milk,” said Chris.) All the characters were solid and well-defined and made good, realistic decisions – not overly stupid in the face of danger but also not cranked up to Maximum Riddick, you felt the danger and appreciated the protagonists’ attempts to get out of their situation. And it was definitely gory, the several women to my right were covering their eyes during several scenes – but it’s not torture porn, and the suddenness of the brutality kept the audience electrified. Little bursts of humor were well received as tension releasers. And there was an extensive punk/metal soundtrack with everything included from Dead Kennedys to Slayer. (They kick off their set in the skinhead club with the former’s punk anthem “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” just to tweak them.)

The first showing was mobbed and the buzz off it was hot; at the second showing they expanded to two screens and it was still full to capacity with folks in standby lines hoping to get in. This is the kind of movie that when I see it at FF I ask “why is this not in normal theaters?” I guess maybe Hollywood will only show us horror movies that are either super-supernatural Sinister/Insidious/etc. or torture porn like Saw 29, and any thriller or action movie has to be PG-13 related to make all the tasty money.  Anyway, this is a great movie and I strongly urge you to go see it (assuming you can deal with some bloody deaths).

februaryFebruary is a smart horror film that managed to keep me guessing what the heck was going on, no mean feat nowadays with all my horror movie experience.  Starring Emma Roberts (from America Horror Story and various movies) and Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper from Mad Men, et al.) it features two girls at an all-girl’s Catholic school who are left there over a break. Very suspenseful, it moves at a steady pace and reveals events from three perspectives, gradually unfolding the total story. This was done skillfully – I have to say, some of the other films at the festival did this in a more hamhanded way, either wasting your time extensively with scenes you’ve already seen, or just messing with the timeline to confuse you, or other poor handling of their attempt to be “artsy.” They should all watch this movie and then go back and re-edit their own movies with what they’ve learned.

I kept trying to guess what the heck was going on. “She’s a ghost!  No that other chick is a ghost!  No the parents are!  No, they all are!  The priest is a molester!” They didn’t use misdirection gimmicks, it was just using enough genre tropes but presenting them somewhat flatly and letting you run with supposition. I really liked the evolution of your understanding of the plot and thought the ending was a pleasant twist.

The acting of both of the girls was great, a lot was conveyed just through silence and micro-movements of facial features. Very different from the old school stage acting, it made me reflect on the subtlety of the newer form of HD close-up acting. And the cold, bleak mood was handled very well. In the end it wasn’t innovative, using tried and true plot and mechanisms, but it was very skillfully executed.

April and the Extraordinary WorldApril and the Extraordinary World (aka Avril et le monde truqué) was a cool animated movie that’s family appropriate, something almost unheard of with FF films. It’s based on a graphic novel by Jaqcues Tardi, set in an alternate steampunk France in 1941 where the world wars didn’t happen and oil etc. hasn’t been discovered so the entire earth has been denuded of first coal and then trees for charcoal. The government forces all scientists to work for them, and the movie starts with a raid on a scientist family where mom, dad, and grandpa all beat feet or are disappeared and the girl, April, escapes and then grows up in isolation, trying to reproduce their experiment, an elixir of health and immortality. And then there’s intelligent lizard cyborgs and a plot to save and/or destroy the earth!

The cat was a big hit as a character and the alternate timeline (double Eiffel Towers! A cowboy Statue of Liberty!) was interesting (if perhaps not bearing a lot of close inspection from a scientific realism point of view). The characters were interesting and the conflict between April’s parents was a nice touch. I do feel that a little should have been cut out in the third act – this is an animated film, you don’t have to reuse the sets, characters wandering back and forth to and from the laser-cages in the jungle got a little tiresome. So not perfect, but a fun movie.

thewaveThe Wave – a Norwegian version of a standard Hollywood big-budget action movie by Roar Uthag, though with more restraint than those usually have, making it more pleasant than 2012/The Freezening/One Or The Other Volcano Movie/etc. It’s about a geologist working to monitor a mountain near a fjord because when it drops the resultant tsunami will wipe a resort city off the map in 10 minutes. He’s a rebel and is the only one who believes it’s happening!  And his family is in danger! The usual fare, but I enjoyed the rest of the cast, especially the other geologists, not being dumbasses (including Fridtjov Såheim from Lilyhammer). And though there was a race away from the wave, it wasn’t the unrealistic “running 45 minutes with the disaster right behind you” crap they do in Hollywood. So like a Hollywood disaster movie but better. Not revolutionary but serviceable, and frankly just not actively pissing me off was enough to hit a high point with me by this point in the festival.

Fantastic Fest 2015 – Overview

I just happened upon Fantastic Fest on a lark back in 2009 – I had a bunch of vacation to use or lose, saw an ad for it, thought “a genre film festival here in Austin?  OK, done!” It was a great experience and while I haven’t been able to go every single year since, I try to get to most of them (you can find writeups from some of them on this blog). And as also sometimes happens, fellow gamer Chris attended as well.

At a high level – this was a decent Fantastic Fest.  They have finally gotten a ticket reservation procedure that’s a pleasure to use… I remember having to rack out early after being up till 2 AM to drive all the way across Austin to wait in a line to get tickets to shows you wanted to get into (while already having a festival badge), then having to go burn a couple hours before the movie starts… Now it’s a nice little Web app open the day before and it slots you in.  I’ve gotten into everything I registered for except for the specials. I went on a daytime badge (have to tend the kid in the evenings) but had a lot of success just waiting standby on evening shows on days I was free.

The volunteers always run a great event – I always like seeing Winnie at work, she makes things happen!  My one suggestion is that most movies are shown twice. But ones shown in the day tended to have both showings in the day, and those at night at night. As a daytime badge holder this sucks, because towards the end you’re looking at slots with a lot of movies you’ve already seen in them and no chance to see some.  I assume there are other people that can only come at night, and have the same problem. Need to swap second showings day<->night. The new South Lamar venue is nice though there’s heavy construction going on in the surrounding blockhouses of condos. There’s a lot of good food choices within walking or short driving distance, and parking is free if pretty full up.

The down side was – well, hate to say it, but the movies.  The programming was not at all strong this year. Some years there’s been a huge amount of great stuff. This year, while they’ve been some good ones, it’s been a lot more sparse. Big waves of Japanese and Nordic movies have come and gone, even Korea’s not making much good stuff any more – they’re farming Turkey for new blood this time and just in general it seems like a lull year for genre films.

And a lot of the films weren’t that good. A large number suffered from the “third act problem” of putting me to fricking sleep in the third act. I imagine maybe if you’re an indie filmmaker that made your film on a $9000 budget that you don’t want to “throw away” any of your hard earned celluloid but I watched so many movies that needed 20 to, honestly, 45 minutes cut out of their runtime mostly in the third act and/or brought their pacing to a grinding halt 2/3 of the way through the movie this year that it was really frustrating.

Here’s a breakdown of the movies I saw at the fest. I do spoilers in these reviews as they are not just for you the curious moviegoer but also are feedback to the filmmakers and I think precision there is important.

THE BEST

THE DECENT

THE FRUSTRATING

D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 8: Adventuring

adventureAnd now we get to the Adventure!  Welcome to this installment in my D&D Fifth Edition PHB readthrough and review. This time, Chapter 8: Adventuring.

First they reiterate the D&D Decision Loop (DDDL) from earlier:

  1. The DM describes the environment
  2. The players describe what they want to do
  3. The DM narrates the result of their actions

Firmly establishing the trad playstyle.  I’m actually a little ambivalent about this, I like some player participation in limited environment narration and especially action narration but I can see they’re setting the baseline here.

Then we get the usual sections that have been in every PHB since time immemorial. Time, Movement, Vision and Light… It’s all pretty straightforward.  6 second rounds like the kids use nowadays. Crawling and swimming and stuff are simplified to just use 2 feet of movement to go 1 foot. Skill checks are described as being binary – you might make Strength (Athletics) checks to be able to climb or swim, but then the speed is invariant.

I like the “Interacting with Objects” section, instead of a big chart of substance hardness and hit points like in 3e it just says “DM will decide, and if he says you can’t cut a rope with a club, then that’s the way it is.”  I could see a DM advice book with things like the 3e hardness chart as “Here’s some guidance, if you don’t happen to personally know where bone fits vis-a-vis wood and stone in the hardness follies” but I like it being kept out of the core rules for simplicity.

But wait… Then a section on Social Interaction and Roleplaying?  What’s the world coming to? Isn’t D&D just torches and swords and orcs and Cheetos? They describe third person (“Descriptive”) roleplaying and first person (“Active”) roleplaying, and correctly note the second is more immersive. Affecting NPCs is a mix of roleplaying with the possibility of Charisma checks.  This is great, like a lot of things it moves the dial back to Basic/1e/2e times before affecting NPC attitudes was a completely rules exercise where “Diplomancers” could min-max happily enslaving anyone they could talk to with their +50 Diplomacy skills.

Next resting. Like 4e there is a “short rest” (1 hour, and you can roll up to your level in Hit Dice to heal) and a “long rest” (8 hours, and you regain all your hit points and 1/2 your Hit Dice).  This is the primary healing mechanic, which is pretty – perhaps overly – generous (on average, you can heal 2x your entire hit points in the first day). So don’t expect much in the way of lingering wounds.

Then there’s a between adventures section involving lifestyle expenses (from Chapter 5) and downtime.  This is very similar to the Pathfinder downtime system – options include making money from crafting or professions or doing research or training or recuperating from diseases or other effects.

This chapter’s a bit of a laundry list but it is a necessary laundry list of how you do what you do when you’re not murdering.

D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores

beholderWelcome to this installment in my D&D Fifth Edition PHB readthrough and review. We are entering “Part 2: Playing the Game” with a chapter on using ability scores.

First they reprint the Ability Scores and Modifiers section from earlier, in penance for their questionable organizational skills. They explain advantage and disadvantage, one of the big new mechanics in 5e – in many cases, instead of an additional bonus or penalty to a d20 roll,  you roll twice and take the best or worst die result instead. Advantage and disadvantage cancel each other. Simpler and elegant, though they’ve retained enough bonuses/penalties and other stuff to track that it doesn’t hugely simplify the system.

Finally they kinda explain skills.  They try to keep skills on the down-low in this version, basically you generally use ability checks but you can add your proficiency bonus to skills you have. Since proficiency bonuses really only range from +2 to +6 that means that, barring other abilities, there’s not a huge difference between having a skill and not having it.

They also describe passive checks, which is just taking 10 on the die, done when you’re doing it repeatedly or the GM wants to do it in secret (different from 3e’s taking 10 and 20). And working together, which provides advantage.

Group checks have an interesting mechanic – everyone makes the check and if half or more succeed, the group succeeds.  This removes the shitty “everyone makes a roll and one person is going to fail/succeed because probability” problem in earlier editions, very elegant.

Next they just go into what you use Strength, Dexterity, etc. for.  None of this is all that new and surprising, except DEX gives you bonuses to both attack and damage with ranged and finesse weapons, 4e-style. A sidebar on hiding sweeps away hundreds of pages of rules lawyering from previous editions, just saying “you can’t hide if someone can see you – but if you’re hidden you can sneak up on someone if they’re distracted, at the DM’s discretion.” You know, like all sane people have done it. (Google “The Rules Of Hidden Club” if you want to see how pathetically insane rules lawyers have gotten on this topic.)

And then saving throws are just ability checks (plus proficiency if applicable).

So the general message is… Ability checks! Roll them!

D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 6: Customization Options

customWelcome to this installment in my D&D Fifth Edition PHB readthrough and review. We’ve reached the end of the Character Creation section.  Now it’s time to customize.

By customize, I guess we really mean “some more spare rules.”  We start with multiclassing. It works like 3e where you can add levels ad hoc in whatever classes.  It has the additional twist of having ability score minimums, which is an interesting and IMO satisfying middle ground between the 1e “you need this much ability to be this class” and 3e-style “minmax however you want.”

Then there are feats. Feats are optional in 5e, you take them in place of an ability score advance (every fourth level). Since you have fewer of them than in 3e, each one is pretty buff.  In fact, oddly, some give you one point of ability advance anyway. Even the “skill” ones are good – let’s take “Actor,” which would be +2 to 2 skills in 3e (yawn).  Here, it gives you +1 Charisma, advantage on deception and performance checks, and an ability to mimic someone’s speech. Many are of course combat focused, like Dual Wielder gives you +1 AC and the ability to 2-handed fight with non-light weapons, and the ability to draw or stow 2 weapons at once.  I like how many of them add those little details (like the draw/stow) that show they’ve thought through the little details. A couple are boring (Skilled – Gain proficiency in 3 skills!) but that’s the minority, and they’re designed to help you push in some character direction you can’t get by class min-maxing in the new regime. And, they’re not strictly better than the +2 to a stat (though since the limit is 20, if you put a high number in your primary stat, a couple advances probably cap you out and you are looking to diversify anyway).

There’s only 42 feats, but each one is meaty, and you’re only going to get a fistful with any character, and I’m sure more will come (whenever they decide to publish anything else…).

And we’re done with character generation!  Solid all in all. Streamlined and not as fiddly as 3e, but more consistent and customizable than 2e. And a real role-playing game and not a pure tactical boardgame like… Uh… Some editions.

D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 5: Equipment

tenfootpoleWelcome to the next in the series of my D&D Fifth Edition PHB readthrough and review. I know there’s been a little time gap, I had some bidness to attend to.

The equipment chapter kicks off with the basic monetary system and starting gold.  The electrum piece (worth 1/2 a gold piece) has returned from the sands of time. Ah, nostalgia, I remember you fondly.

Then they talk about selling treasure.  Undamaged gear is worth 50% of the list price, but monster gear is usually junk.  Then they finally breach the 3.e/Pathfinder bugbear, magic items – magic items are expensive and rare and selling anything but the most common is problematic, let alone buying them.  This is happy and leads me to believe that the “magic item economy,” which resulted in “Christmas tree syndrome,” one of the least delightful things about mid-range D&D editions, has been swept away.

Armor is somewhat simplified and has the interesting design decision that light armors allow full Dex bonus to AC, medium half, and heavy none. On the one hand that compensates nicely for different approaches, on the other hand it tends towards “everyone has AC 16-18, period.”

Weapons are simpler than in some editions, more complex than in others. They have one damage rating that is a die and type (e.g. 1d8 bludgeoning) – never any “1d4+1” or the like. Then they have some keyword-properties like the kids are into nowadays that indicate special uses – heavy, two-handed, reach, finesse, light, etc. Finesse weapons use DEX for both attack and damage in this edition, making the uber-strength fighter a less automatic choice.  There’s no such thing as a masterwork weapon but you can silver one for 100gp.

Then they have other gear. You know, cook pots, paper, and the ever-popular ten foot pole. This is mostly “like every equipment list ever.” There’s a couple points of interest, like “Basic Poison” that requires a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or take 1d4 points of damage. And a potion of healing – at 50 gp – that will heal 1d4+2 hit points. So they don’t conflate healing with the hit dice thing (like 4e did with healing surges). I’m not sure how I feel about that, seems like “heal a Hit Die” mechanic is pretty smoov, and it would be simple to reuse it whenever being healed from other sources, but whatever. There’s sub-tables for barrels and ships and stuff.

The Tools are interesting. They claim that tools “help you do something you couldn’t otherwise do” – but mechanically they just let you add your proficiency bonus.  So if you’re a fighter, you can try to pick a lock without a proficiency or tools and just up and make the Dex check. But if you have the skill proficiency *and* the tools, you can add your proficiency bonus. As proficiency bonuses aren’t that large overall that seems a little odd.

A final cool part is the lifestyle expenses.  I remember this from Living campaigns back in the 1990s. Basically there’s a listed cost for living at certain social levels – from Wretched to Aristocratic.  They kinda wuss out and have no mechanical hook to those except to say “Well you know if you’re po’ then nobles won’t like you but thieves might.”

Similarly to the “magic items aren’t bought and sold like cattle” dynamic, even getting spells cast for hire is noted to be difficult – you can get a common level 1 or 2 spell in a major city for 10-50 gp but past that it’s DM fiat and quests, baby.

Then there’s two semi wasted pages on “trinkets” – a new character gets one!  Roll 1d100, you have “a single caltrop made from bone.” Seems gimmicky to me but I get that they’re trying to provoke some kind of “you are a real and unique person” roleplaying using it so that’s fine. Till you’ve made a bunch of characters and it gets repetitive.

All in all I like where they’re going!  Next time, Customization Options!

D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 4: Personality and Background

4 personality types farsideTwenty pages of actual roleplaying-related information in a Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook?  What’s the world coming to?

Welcome to the next in the series of my D&D Fifth Edition PHB readthrough and review. We ground through all the classes last time; now, a lighter chapter.

In many earlier editions of D&D, the extent to which personality and background were covered could be described as:

1. A sentence or two telling you to “make one up”

2. The alignment section – “What else do you need?” Maybe religion and height, weight, and hair color, if you consider those “personality.”

I think both 2e (“alignment only”) and 3e (half a page saying “make up a personality and background and maybe have some tattoos or something”) could be fairly described in this way.

Now, don’t get too excited, hardcore immersionists – since this is D&D, we have to hook rules to this stuff, don’t expect 20 pages explaining the actual art of creating a realistic character or anything.

So first we have a page of name, sex, height/weight, distinguishing marks and scars, just like your PC’s eventual rap sheet. In a move towards inclusivity, in the Sex section they mention that you can be something other than simple M or F, and/or be gay or whatever.

This couple sentences has caused a good bit of squabbling online.  I’ll just say:

1. This is a good thing. Back in the 2e days you couldn’t be black or gay in D&D, so this is a pretty big change. (I joke… Kinda.)

2. If you don’t think this is a good thing, STFU. I am not looking to host a comment war from the anti-gay/woman/tranny/whatever contingent (or the “I’m not anti, I just don’t understand why it has to be brought up…” contingent). Comments below in that vein will be deleted, period. Go talk about it somewhere else if you need to.

Alignment is back to the normal alignments from every edition except 4e, with independent law/neutral/chaos and good/neutral/evil axes.  I wish it said out loud “alignment is a [descriptive] tool, not a [prescriptive] straitjacket” like it does in 2e; the best they do is to note that “individuals may vary.” I assume the arguments about “you’re not playing your alignment!” will continue for another decade. That’s a missed opportunity.

Languages!  You can learn them.  Apparently druid language and thieves’ cant are back, but not, blessedly, alignment languages.

Now to personality.  Besides a couple sentences with some guidance about what makes a good personality trait, you choose Ideals (things you believe), Bonds (relationships), and Flaws (personal problems). Well, one of each at least. The Backgrounds that are to come suggest some of each of these.  Borrowed from modern indie games is the concept of Inspiration; basically you can get a free “use this to get advantage on a roll” token (limit one at a time) for acting according to  your ideals, bonds, or flaws. This is a pretty tentative step – you only pick one of each and it’s up to the DM whether it’s really ever going to come up or not – but I think it’s a healthy, positive step to helping people build characters that are more than a collection of kill points.

Next we have backgrounds, which are mainly bundles of proficiencies, languages, equipment, and suggested characteristics. For example, “Acolyte” or “Entertainer” or “Soldier” or “Urchin.” Or you can “Customize” one (kinda like make up your own, but more oddly worded).

An Aside On Proficiencies

Basically “Proficiency” usually just means “you can add your proficiency bonus to the roll” in 5e, so you don’t have to have skills to try something – but having a skill makes you better at it, and a toolkit lets you do something you couldn’t do otherwise. Many things you’d think of as trained skills aren’t actual skills – if you want to be a woodcarver, you don’t get proficiency in woodcarving, you get proficiency in a woodcarving toolset (though  you can use it without the proficiency, you just don’t get to add your bonus).

This is a little confusing because they don’t have a “Skills” or “Proficiencies” chapter – they just mention all this in passing in various other places. The definitive list of 18 skills finally shows up later in Chapter 7. Proficiencies in armor, weapons,  and tools are explained in Chapter 5 (wearing armor you’re not proficient in gets you disadvantage on attacks and STR/DEX checks and you can’t cast spells in it – yes, if your wizard is proficient in plate you can cast in it fine; weapons and tools just lack your proficiency bonus), and saving throws are explained in Chapter 7 as well.

Anyway, for example, the Urchin background grants proficiency in Slight of Hand, Stealth, Disguise kit, Thieves’ tools, and some gear.  You also get a single special “Feature,” in this case ability to move twice as fast while travelling in the city. Suggested personality traits include”I ask a lot of questions” and “I don’t like to bathe,” suggested Ideals include “Respect” and “Retribution,” suggested Bonds include “I’ll fight to defend my home” and “I owe a debt I can never repay,” and suggested Flaws include “I’ll run away if outnumbered” and “I’d rather kill someone in their sleep than fight fair.”

Oddly, the Ideals get tagged with alignment ties – “Respect” is good while “Retribution” is evil – but other things don’t (“Kill someone in their sleep?”) I wish they hadn’t done that, especially because these all are on random tables for if you want to roll.  If you’re LG and roll “Retribution” what do you do?  I’d expect you’d come up with a LG-complaint version of its “eat the rich” concept, but the alignment tag raises unanswered questions of “So can I not take that, or what…?”  My advice is to ignore that alignment tag on the Ideals.

In conclusion, this is a good chapter and really helps raise the bar on roleplaying in D&D.  My only meaningful concern is that they don’t explain clearly enough that all this – alignment, but the rest too – is all helpful description of a real , complex fictional person and not something a character “must do” – there will be an unlimited number of arguments over “You’re not playing your Urchin right/Lawful Good right/retribution right/etc.”, just because that’s how many clueless gamers have done it over the last 40 years. Recently in 4e we saw this with the roles – “You can’t be a Striker and do X!” I think they should have learned from history and couched this a little better, just so people have to put up with 20% fewer twerps in their future. Any noobs reading this – please just treat these as approximate descriptions of someone’s personality and NEVER EVER get into squabbles of “you can’t do that it’s not your alignment…” You make the world dumber when you do.

D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 3, Classes

Welcome to the third part of my Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition readthrough and review of the Player’s Handbook.  Last time, we got through the race section, and now it’s time for 112 pages of character classes!

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Chapter 3: Classes

Well, they sure don’t want to repeat what they did in 4e and make you wait till a later supplement for your favorite class to appear. They pack in twelve of them – barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, warlock, and wizard. It lacks only the marshal from 4e.

Here’s the general format.  Each class gets saving throw proficiency in two saves (which means you add your proficiency bonus to those but not the third). It gets proficiencies in some armor, weapons, and tools and some number of skills (usually 2-3).  Hit dice and hit points are as in previous editions, though they list the average hit point roll and say you can just take that instead of rolling.

In a manner parallel to the subraces, every class has several paths or specializations under it which are mandatory to take at (usually) level 3. For many classes it’s a couple different paths; for wizards it’s school specializations, etc. This is one of the major expansion-content points in the game. There are 20 levels and you get something at most of them – a core class ability, a path feature, or at every fourth level an ability score improvement (which can be swapped out for a feat, if you’re using the optional feats rules).

Let’s dig into the classes, and I’ll point out interesting approaches as we go.

The barbarian is a raging wild fighter with d12 Ht Dice; their abilities are things like rage, reckless attack, and brutal critical – getting better attacks while taking risks. Rage is really boss – damage bonus but also melee damage resistance. “Resistance” (they wait to define this way later in the book, I’m not sure why they didn’t put it next to advantage) means half damage, period! You get a limited number of 1 minute rounds until you take a short rest. They have the Unarmored Defense feature (you’ll see it more later) that gives you CON bonus to AC when unarmored. At fifth level they get an extra attack, but this doesn’t also go up at 10th and 15th like it did in 3e – you get that one extra, and that’s the dealio. That’ll keep it cleaner at high level.

The barbarian’s paths are Berserker (rage is better) and Totem Warrior (choose a totem spirit, get some related buffs).

The bard is as usual a magical singy person with d8 Hit Dice. They get spells to cast off a custom spell list and have limited spells known. They have Bardic Inspiration, which is a bit of a disappointment from e.g. 3e; they can play at you and then you get a d6 bonus “inspiration die” to use. But instead of being able to buff the whole party, you can only do this a number of times equal to your Charisma mod until a long rest.  So… You get to give out 3-4 d6’s a day? Boo.

The paths are College of Valor (add the sucky inspiration d6’s to damage instead) and College of Lore (subtract an inspiration die from an enemy).  Maybe I’m missing something, but the extreme hobbling of how many times you can use Inspiration make it kinda terrible.  Instead, the bard becomes just a gishy “can fight OK and also has enchantment spells” person. I remember in Second Edition people would always try to give up the musical part of the bard with kits (e.g. gypsy bard) because it was so pointless and awful.

Aside: Spellcasting

Spells in 5e for all classes are “not quite Vancian” – you still have spells known and slots and levels, but you can use a slot to cast any spell you know of that level or lower on the fly instead of having to tightly specify “2 Cure Lights, 2 Bless…” This comes in two flavors; the “limited spells known, but you can cast any of them with those slots” model (the bard, sorcerer) or “you have access to a large set of spells, but for the day you have to choose a (level + stat mod) number you can cast using those slots” (the cleric, druid).  Save DCs are now 8 + proficiency bonus + stat modifier.

The cleric is a warrior healer with d8 Hit Dice. They only get up through Medium armor by default. They have spells off a custom list too. Unlike most other classes you have to pick your variant, in this case a deity, from level 1. You get a domain with powers and spells from that, and your ability to channel divinity to turn undead and/or do other stuff varies based on it. In a very First Edition callback, at 10th level the cleric starts to be able to use Divine Inspiration to call on their god for aid once a week by rolling percentile dice under their level. Make it and sha ZA something good happens. There’s only like 7 domains (Knowledge, Life, Light, Nature, Tempest, Trickery, War) but it almost says “insert splatbook here” under the entry. Hint, Life is what turns your channel into Pathfinder style channeled healing. You can only use the channeling once between short rests though.

The druid is a nature-loving, spell-casting person who can turn into an animal, with d8 Hit Dice. They get spells of the “choose what you can cast today off the full list” type. Wild shaping into an animal starts at level 2 so the fun kicks in early. You can’t cast spells in beast form till like 18th level though. Oddly, there is no animal companion for the druid (despite what both pieces of art would have you believe). They don’t get many specials besides this – the wild shape is kinda cool because it loses its own hp till you turn back to yourself, but overall this still seems like it’s the third “d8 HD, can do a little fight, and casts spells” class in a row.

They have two path choices, Circle of the Land (recover some spell slots with a short rest, some extra spell choices based on terrain) and Circle of the Moon (faster, more violent wild shaping).

The fighter fights. And has d10 Hit Dice. At first level you pick a fighting style (archery/defense/dueling/great weapon/protection/two-weapon). He gets some nice little once-between-rests boosts (1 HD hp regain; 1 extra action). The fighter does extra attacks at levels 5/11/20.

The martial archetypes are Champion, Battle Master, and Eldritch Knight.  Champions get an extra fighting style and better crits and Battle Masters get combat maneuvers (trip, parry, disarm, there’s a page full of them) that use “superiority dice” – 4 of them, replenished at a rest. Eldritch Knights get spellcasting! It’s limited, basically going up a spell level every 6 levels (no fireball till level 13!) but there you go. Armor doesn’t inhibit spellcasting in 5e so no need for powers around that.

The monk is a ki-powered martial artist with d8 Hit Dice. They get a nice Dex+Wis unarmored AC. They can also use Dex for attack and damage, so Strength need not apply. They can make another attack as a bonus action, can make another 2 by spending a ki point (flurry of blows)  and have unarmed damage that goes up some over time (just d4 to d10 at 17th level). They get all the traditional monk stuff – deflect arrows, slow fall. Their stunning fist just uses ki points, only comes at level 5, and stuns for a round if they fail a save.

Their two path options are Way of the Open Hand, Way of Shadow, and Way of the Four Elements.  Way of the Open Hand is pretty hardcore, whenever you hit with a flurry you can trip or push 15′ or deny reactions. Eventually you get Quivering Palm, which no one has ever failed a save against in 30 years at my gaming tables – maybe this’ll break the streak?

One complaint, instead of instant death it does “10d10 necrotic damage.” They kept some of the 4e damage keywords and they sound just as out of place in 5e as they do anywhere.  “Necrotic?” “Radiant?” “Psychic?” What are we, in a CSI lab now? They seem to have worked hard to make most of the rest of the rules non-jarring English, but this bit fails that test.

Way of Shadow is ninja/shadowdancer-ey, spend ki to do darkness or silence or stuff, jump from one shadow to another, eventually become invisible in shadows. Way of the Four Elements gets you a big long list of Dragonball Z/Book of Nine Swords style special moves you can spend your ki on.

The paladin is a holy warrior with d10 Hit Dice and limited-level spellcasting (like the Eldritch Knight). They get spellcasting like the EK, some fighter maneuvers, “divine sense” which is detect evil just for fiends and undead and such, and lay on hands for healing. You can burn spells to add damage as a “divine smite.” It’s pretty similar in concept to earlier paladins.

The paths are Sacred Oaths which come with a code of conduct – Oath of Devotion gives you power to make your weapon holy and turn fiends, Oath of the Ancients is weirdly druidy, and Oath of Vengeance is like Solmon Kane LG murderhobo style.

The ranger is a wilderness fighter with d10 Hit Dice. You get a favored enemy type (dragons, elementals, etc etc), you have advantage on checks against – but not combat, knowledge and survival and stuff. You can choose from a handful of the fighter fighting styles and get limited spellcasting. Senses and movement are a big thing.

The archetypes for the ranger are the Hunter and the Beast Master. The Hunter gets special moves against certain form factors of foes – like Giant Killer is for foes bigger for you. Beast Master gets an animal companion.  It doesn’t get more hit points as you level up which is odd, but it does get your proficiency bonus to attack and damage. Seems like it’s going to die a lot.

This, unfortunately, is where a bad bit of 4e-ism creeps in. Apparently, you have to use your action to command the animal to “take the Attack, Dash, Disengage, Dodge, or Help action.” But, like, every turn.  This is a clear “but we’re worried about the action economy” gamist move – I can see using an action to sic Rover on someone but then he’s damn well going to attack each round without me “spending an action to power him.” House rule time.

The rogue is like a thief and has d8 Hit Dice, but hews to the new post-2e world where of course it has to get sneak attacks all the time. It is limited to once a turn, but can happen basically if the person is in melee with anyone (or you have advantage from any other source). There’s also some skill boosts with a couple skills (double proficiency bonus) and various escape/evasion themed abilities.

Rogue archetypes include the Thief (no really 1e players we love you too!) which has some pocket-picking and second-story work, the Assassin which kills, mildly – advantage in surprise rounds and auto-crit on surprised folks, and the Arcane Trickster, which is mainly just low level spellcasting – there is a “spell thief” feature but it’s not till level 17.

The sorcerer is a self empowered magic machine with d6 Hit Dice. I was interested to read this; given the hybridization of spellcasting there’s not as wide a gap between the “kinda prepared” and “kinda not” spellcasting now – wizard vs sorcerer was frankly a somewhat arguable distinction in 3e and here it becomes quite the same unless they zazz it up somehow. This has the same standard 5e limited-spell-list model as the bard. But they go back and add extra flexibility with some “sorcery points” you can spend for spell slots (cost: level+2) or put metamagic on spells to make them longer, larger, badder, quieter, etc.

The archetypes are Draconic Bloodline and Wild Magic.  Draconic makes you a little tougher and boosts damage for your related element, and eventually sprout dragon wings.  Wild magic has a full page wild magic table.  This is a little weird because the way it’s stated is “Immediately after you cast a sorcerer spell of 1st level or higher, the DM can have you roll a d20. If you roll a 1, roll on the Wild Magic Surge table…” So that’s not “roll it all the time,” I guess the intent is for the DM to dial it back when it would be annoying or force the issue (well, 5% force at least) for critical things?

The warlock is some dark force’s butt puppet (not saying that’s a bad thing), and has d8 Hit Dice. Limited-list Charisma-based spellcasting but super limited, like “here’s 2 spell slots.” And then the star is Eldritch Invocations, which you choose from a big list of supernatural abilities that you can use either at will, or sometimes need to recharge with a rest.  Most are just spells, which is disappointing, but some are cooler.

The splat factor here is your otherworldly patron – the Archfey, the Fiend, the Great Old One. The abilities are themed predictably.

And finally, the wizard, the spell-chucking bookwork with d6 Hit Dice. Lots of Int-based spellcasting, learn spells and put them in a book, traditional 1e-3e flavor. You can recover some spells once used – which seems strangely exactly the same in effect, if different in implementation, than the sorcerer extra-spell-slot thing. They don’t get much in the way of specials, “let the casting do the talking” is the plan.

The paths are arcane traditions, in this case schools – abjuration, evocation, etc. (the full 8 from earlier editions are represented). Each one makes it cheaper and faster to get those spells, and then gives you a couple minor related superpowers.

Analysis

Well, that was quite a slog!  Going through this chapter in depth, I feel a little ambivalent about the overall feel.  The classes are fine, I guess.  Not many of them gave me any wow factor of “OMG I have to play that now!” The barbarian with their damage resistance did tempt me, though. Of course they are specifically trying to not innovate too much but bring back “what you all remember” in the classes, so that might be expected.

At times I felt like they strayed over the line to 4e-style “dang these classes feel all the same a little too much,” but after thinking about it I think that might just be a 1e and 2e thing as well – classes had less variation then (“You leveled?  Have a couple  hit points.  Move along!”), and the more extreme variation in 3e had its own problems (see Some Thoughts On 2e and 3e’s Legacy for more). The special abilities are nice, and often aren’t just a dinky “+1 to something,” so they really matter.

But many of the powers that aren’t just “get a proficiency” are very, very limited in number of uses. That’s very much not 1e/2e – you didn’t get cool new powers with each level, but the abilities you had you could use all day long. With spells it’s one thing, but I don’t like feeling like “sorry, you’ve used all your powers today” when that power seems like something you could do, you know, anytime. “Sorry, you already disarmed someone today, no more for you!”  A couple classes (ahem, bard) really suffer from this badly. And again, one of the problems with 4e was that suddenly it became a resource management game for everyone, instead of the more traditional approach of people that like resource management self-selecting into wizards and people that didn’t self-selecting into fighters.

But, I don’t know.  Am I just too used to 3e/3.5e/PF and so am jumping at shadows? I’ll withhold judgement for now. There’s only a couple things I specifically and acutely found objectionable in the writeups and they’re easily house-ruled; I hear happily that we’re “allowed” to do that again.

D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, The Beginning

Buckle up as we start our review and readthrough of the Fifth Edition PHB!

Design

5ephbThe 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.

Preface

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.

Introduction

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!

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Breakdown

D&D on WhiteAs regular readers of this blog know, I’m a long time RPG player and have played every version of D&D since Basic in the 1980s. I was not a big fan of what Fourth Edition did with the game, along with what turned out to be the majority of the market, and have been playing Pathfinder for my D&D fix for the last 6 years. 

I’ve been following the news of the upcoming Fifth Edition with interest.  I read the free Basic rules and shared some initial impressions, but waited until the Player’s Handbook came out to really go into the rules in depth and see what I make of them.

So stand by – you’ll get a PHB readthrough and review (probably in several parts like the 4e one), a Hoard of the Dragon Queen review, and a comparison to all the previous versions of D&D! Will 5e get a passing grade, and will WotC do right by D&D’s deceased creators’ legacy? Stand by to find out!