Game Review: D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook

PHB 5E
I wanna get this out of the way, I’ve been excited to get my grubby hands on this glorious book! Thanks to being one of the few whose FLGS (or “Friendly Local Gaming Store”) got it early, I had the chance to dive into this player’s guide to the new edition. Let’s turn the page and get started!

Right off the bat, we’re treated to a new D&D. Just look at that cover! It says a return to a more classic heroic fantasy model found in the so-called “old school” rule sets. That said, it has many elements of the epic fantasy seen in more modern games. You could say the new art reminds readers of the later 4th Edition art a la Heroes of the Feywild; a sourcebook for 4th Edition that gave heroes faerie-inspired player options. The art of this book brought with it a departure from the cartoony art seen in the first player’s handbook. You could say it paved the way for a more inspired look seen here! From the cover to the back page, you see detailed yet stylized pieces that embody that atmosphere of D&D’s adventure. Beyond the art, the format looks clean, still pretty easy on the eyes, makes for a quick read. But, the meat and potatoes of the D&D game lie far beyond mere visuals!

One of the things we see early on in designing a character is something slightly different from what you’d expect! Like in the Basic D&D book, Wizards created a somewhat short passage on how the game is an all-inclusive one. No gender or sexuality is off limits for your character and you should be respected for the choices your character develops. Considering how far we’ve come (see also: harlot tables from AD&D), this is truly some amazing stuff. Since other posters have been excited over this passage as well, I figure a review wouldn’t be complete without my own 2 cents. To me, this shows that Wizards doesn’t want players to feel left out. Sure, you could always play whatever you feel, but this passage says you’re never invalidated for the personal views and lifestyles of your character. Also, something like gender and sexuality shouldn’t be the cause of judgement at your table, as it’s just another part of who your character is and where they come from. In the end, it doesn’t matter if your character is male, female, gender fluid, transgender, or what have you. It’s all about defending towns from marauding bandits and stopping sinister cults and evil monsters from corrupting the peace. Beyond a passage on inclusive gender, sex, and sexuality; the art direction takes a unique direction as well. The races and classes display multiple cultures throughout the D&D universe without coming across as hokey or stereotypical. Representation matters in the Player’s handbook, through the art alone. And here, we see heroes come from all backgrounds. On top of that, female representation is stronger than 4th edition. Instead of being plastered with bad anatomy and chainmail bikinis, these women warriors are armed with correct armor and ready to fight! All of this truly fits with D&D 5e’s design goals in being inclusive. It’s not just playstyle that matters, it’s gamers as a whole!

Since we have to talk about the crunchy bits too, let’s talk about races. Since the beginning, D&D has evolved the notion of race. In earlier games, campaigns were human-centric and plots revolved around the human struggle. Eventually, “outsiders” emerged to join the fight against evil. These races weren’t too different from the dwarves, elves, and hobbits seen in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe. More settings and options made way for the Gnome, half-races, and even the Minotaur of Krynn! Pretty soon, D&D wasn’t just a game of humanity. Other creatures throughout the material plane and even the other planes themselves took up the mantle to stop evil… or join it! Hippo-like Giff from Wildsplace shoot magical smokepowder at Githyanki pirates, Tieflings and Aasimar exchange harsh greetings in Sigil the City of Doors, half-dwarven Mul and insectoid Thri-Kreen fight for their lives in an Athasian arena, and a rebellious Drow fends off Lolth’s chosen. These stories and more became capable in the D&D worlds. But, nothing has become more sacred to the game’s basis than “racial core”. 5th Edition has decided to shake things up a bit. While Half-Orcs, Half-Elves, and Gnomes have been core for quite a while, they’ve been moved to “Unusual Races” alongside the D&D 4th Edition add-ons; Tiefling (which has more to do with the Asmodean race from 4th edition than it does with planetouched) and Dragonborn (which also became its own unique creature in 4th Edition core.) Unlike its previous edition, 5th states that these races are not so much a general assumption, but examples of rare and unique beings that might walk through your fantastic world. I find this approach much more satisfying than “Everything is Core.” Instead of shoehorning concepts into every nook and cranny, we’re given an easy example at handwaving. And even so, there is no guilt to avoid/use what you like/don’t like. While it’s a matter of semantics, it can still matter to many gamers.

While the unusual races may come across as quite powerful, they are no more powerful than the “Basic Core Four” presented in the Introductory Box-Set/PDF. And while 5th edition opts to continue avoiding negative modifiers, it’s safe to say while some races are better suited at some practices/classes, no one is invalidated. So you can have Dwarf Wizards, Halfling Barbarians, and Gnome Paladins and not feel gimped for it. In terms of racial specifics, nothing really changed over that much from the last playtest. One of my only gripes is giving a dwarven sub-race a +2 bonus instead of some minor racial boon in addition to armor proficiency (which is useless in the case of most classes.) However, giving the Human more options than just +1 Bonus to Every Stat opens up flavor that has rarely been seen in the human race. For ages, humans were always the boring race with nothing inherently unique about that beyond what a player could craft up in story. But races are just one matter, classes are another.

From this book alone, we have a huge list to choose from; a whole 12 classes in one book! And don’t get me started on the sub-classes/archetypes which allow players to emulate countless other classes from there! As mentioned, each class gives a path for the player to choose. For casting classes, it’s choosing a source of power (for divine characters like druids, warlocks and clerics) or a magical power focus (like wizards and sorcerers), while martial characters have a means of expertise. Some of these martial training have a multi-class style magic approach. This rolls prestige classes like the Bladesinger (ELF ONLY), Eldritch Knight, Assassin, Shadowdancer, and more into basic class options without throwing out balance. And in a sense, they match up with the Kits found in AD&D 2nd Edition. The casting classes have a strange old-meets-new approach by meshing “Vancian Style” slot casting with the At-Will power style of Paizo Pathfinder and D&D 4th Edition. This is indeed a fair approach for some, but I’m hoping a pure modern power caster and pure Vancian caster will be available later down the line. Also similar to PF and 4th edition is gaining abilities every level, as well as attack bonus progression. For the sake of streamlining, base attack bonus is dictated by level rather than class, making things like multiclass much easier to handle. Also, abilities gained almost every level encourages the player to stay in their current class and reap the rewards and maintaining their path. Beyond this, resource management has become a greater aspect for many of the classes. As pushed by Mearls’ “Iron Heroes”, as well as later 3rd edition into 4th, players must play use their resources wisely. Otherwise, they will quickly blow their stamina and risk their usefulness once exhausted of potential. In a way, this harkens D&D back to a less overtly epic fantasy genre and more towards a Sword and Sorcery landscape of yesteryear. That isn’t to say characters aren’t still powerful. While PF seems to have a greater power creep, 5e’s heroes are still plenty fortified. With their own ways to drive themselves on will power and adrenaline alone, these characters prove to be ready for the forces of evil that dare to challenge them. That isn’t to say evil is a walk in the park. Now, there’s more fun to be had into creating a character than just sifting through class abilities and deciding your character’s occupations and strengths.

With backgrounds, feats, and more, expanding your character has become all the more easy within one simple book. Charts for motivations, flaws, and the like allow your character to flesh out their personalities, desires, needs, and more. For new players, this is a great way to push their character forward and allow them to think in-character more. Backgrounds help fleshing out even more, by giving your character an idea on their day by day life when they’re not called to assist in a daring task. Maybe they manage a farmstead or run a tavern. Perhaps they’re guarding royalty or finding ways to steal from it! As long as you use the background boons as reference, there’s even the chance to forge your own background to detail your character’s fascinating life. On top of that, you’re given another option to build your character, feats. That’s right, feats are no longer ingrained into the games math, they’re merely a campaign option! In previous editions, feats became an extra bit to focus your character around various builds. Feat trees sprang up, granting gradual boons through various levels. But, in this approach, the system became bloated with random and typically useless tidbits of mechanics that can create a DM’s nightmare. Hopefully, those days will be gone and 5th edition won’t suffer from system bloat for a long, long time.

Equipment is pretty straight forward. You gain the proficiency bonus with what your trainings have made you accustomed to. Sure, you’re welcome to try to wield something you haven’t used, but you’ll do pretty bad with it. The equipment gives you quite the list of weaponry to fiddle with, each ranging in weight, size, and damage. For armor, the approach is also pretty simple; the higher the base AC, the lower the dex bonus. At a certain point, you just get a solid score as your AC. No fiddly math bits outside of magically enchanted armor! That said, some class abilities will grant bonuses to armor and make it harder to hit as a result. These progressions almost remind me of AD&D’s thac0 progressions honestly.

Beyond that, we look at things like ability scores. The scores determine how capable you are outside of level. Saving throws, skills, attacks, whatever! If your stat isn’t capable, neither are you. This chapter dives deeper into how your stats factor into each of these abilities and more. All in all, pretty general and nothing that’s supposed to pop out. Past abilities, it’s time to take up arms and FIGHT! This goes into combat. And luckily with 5th edition, combat easily accommodates for both tactical tile games and “theatre of the mind” freeform games. In recent editions, the latter has become more and more of a challenge to tackle. One mechanic that stands out for this edition as mentioned here is “Advantage/Disadvantage.” While very simple, it has been the source of much acclaim since it was used in the early playtests. The way the mechanic works is certain situations will make it easier or harder to succeed a roll. When this happens, you must take the higher/roller of two rolls, depending on whether or not the odds are on your side. While hitting a flanked enemy will grant advantage, hitting an enemy in the confines of magical darkness will grant disadvantage. Gone is the nonsense of “1 + 2 + 1 +1” for situational bonuses and here is a replacement system that adds just as much bonus to probability. Easy enough, right? Good. Since the game has laid out the basics for combat, all we’re missing is MAGIC! Luckily, part iii has you covered! All of the classic spells are back, with some new ones to fill the cantrip role! Magic has been streamlined from its previous incarnations of Vancian and encounters-and-dailies. This mix of the two has a static save based on 8 + your level bonus + your stat’s bonus. Compare to countless saves versus this, that, and the other thing, it’s bound to speed up how magic works at your table.

With all these rules down, it’s all about bringing things together to fill that character sheet. With the combination of streamlined math and an easy to use sheet, character generation is certainly a lot faster than it’s been for the past 10 years or so. Despite this very new style of gameplay, you can see aspects from several editions that helped to mod what was once referred to as “D&D Next.” And perhaps this is for the best, as older gamers will find their playstyle to be recognized while newer gamers can easily adopt the quick to learn rule set. So, if you’re looking to give the new game a shot but aren’t sure if this is for you yet, you’re better off looking at the Basic D&D boxed set (and FREE PDF!) If you’re amped to see where you can take your game and your characters, check out the player’s handbook! You can find the PHB in several locations near you on Tuesday! Happy gaming!

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