8. Using Ability Scores
There are all kinds of rules scattered throughout the Player’s Handbook, but the section dedicated to the core mechanics of Fifth Edition is actually quite succinct. Within thirty pages, the entirety of the game is laid out before the player. The chapter on “Using Ability Scores” is where this exploration begins, focusing on the nuts and bolts of the system before diving too far into fluff. Unfortunately, this makes it one of the driest chapters in the entirety of the book; a dilemma that is eased by its slender duration.
It’s very likely that this version of D&D is the most rules-light since 2nd Edition. Everything feels paired down to reduce crunch without eliminating the strategic complexity that makes the game so popular amongst roleplayers. Instead of dragging its heels with assorted modifiers and equations, 5e introduces Advantage and Disadvantage: a simpler means to enhance or degrade a player’s roll. To put it simply: when a character finds himself with an upper hand over an opponent, say having the high ground with a bow and arrow, he rolls two dice and takes the higher of the results. If, on the other hand, the character is trapped beneath a boulder and attempting to defend himself, he would roll two dice and take the lower result. Similarly efficient, proficiency bonuses are now static across all classes, creating a standardized system that’s easier to interpret and anticipate when advancing in level. It’s a singular number that represents an overall growth in abilities, the sum total of a character’s adventurous experiences. These – and other small innovations – even read with a bit more fluidity than in previous incarnations; though I’m sure they’ll really shine at the table.
Of course, you couldn’t name the chapter “Using Ability Scores” without addressing the statistics that have come to define Dungeons & Dragons: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. There’s nothing new or shocking to be found about these classic mechanics, but the text does a good job of summarizing their meaning for new players. What little freshness there is comes in the form of the Contest, which is used to resolve out-of-combat opposition between the heroes and their enemies. For example, if a character presses himself against a door to keep an Orc from crashing through, they might roll separate Strength checks; with the winner succeeding in his efforts. It’s a clever tension builder that can liven up chase scenes, bar fights and sometimes even standard combat encounters. Skills and saving throws are also addressed, but they remain mostly untouched by 5e’s improvements.
Alas, I’m afraid that the brevity of this section might sacrifice a degree of clarity for new-comers. A lot of the phrasing seems open to interpretation and for someone who isn’t used to RPG terminology, the instructions might not be direct enough to fully grasp the actual flow of the game in play. The concepts are well defined, but the way they’re connected isn’t always made clear. Still, this is an issue that’s plagued D&D from the beginning, if only because there’s really no other experience to compare it to. It’s a minor gripe, one that can be easily overlooked in the shadow of the game’s clever new mechanics.
Despite outward appearances (especially in the tactics-heavy 3rd and 4th Editions), Dungeons & Dragons is not a game that revolves around the epic battles between powerful champions and scheming monstrosities. While combat is certainly intrinsic to the experience, the heart of D&D lies within the freedom that player’s are given to explore an arcane world and all of its magical mysteries. It’s often the moments between the clashing of swords that become the most memorable: surviving the ice cold wilderness of the Great Glacier, negotiating room rates with a humorous innkeeper, or sneaking through the shadowy chambers of the Underdark. This brief chapter underlines these narratively driven rules for D&D; addressing topics as varied as the passage of time, long-ranged movement and downtime activities.
Again, there’s not much here that’s going to revolutionize RPG mechanics. This section is more devoted to addressing situations that are likely to arise during a plot-heavy session. Players are likely to pick and choose which of these rules will affect their group. If realism is important, then there are tables defining the effects of a character’s pace of travel, his hunger, and his thirst. If you’d rather take the more expedient approach, cutting between connected “scenes” without worrying so much about the minutiae of survival; it’s equally viable and you can largely ignore much of this chapter’s number crunching. In fact, a lot of this content seems subjective, making it incredibly difficult to have a strong opinion about.
There are a few essential tidbits scattered throughout, however. Resting is incredibly important between battles, because it allows the character to regain their lost hit points. During a short rest, player’s can spend their hit dice to heal themselves; while a long rest results in a complete return of all HP and half of the expended hit dice. The chapter also dives headlong into different styles of roleplaying, the impact of vision and lighting, crafting, research, and practicing a profession separate from adventuring. It’s a diverse set of rules that demonstrate the wide range of possibilities available to those who tell stories using a D&D framework.
While many of D&D’s rules are only as significant as your group needs them to be, the life-or-death consequences of combat require a more detailed system of guidelines and mechanics. This is where the “game” behind the improvised narrative begins to make its appearance, as most of the other rolls only serve to enhance plot tension and determine the consequences of the group’s actions. But when the blood spills, D&D’s origins as a war-game are on full-display and this chapter reiterates many of the conventions that have existed throughout its history.
Truthfully, the combat of Fifth Edition is driven more by omission than innovation. The extraneous ideas of previous versions are simplified or removed entirely, leading to an elegant and refined rules set that’s as easy to learn as it is to interpret. It’s rather minimalistic in design, which might alienate players who prefer intense grid-based tactics; but the openness of the system has some great potential to inspire creativity at the table.
The first major change is the removal of the minor action, a Fourth Edition invention that allowed players to take a swig of a potion, cast a utility spell, add some extra dice to a damage roll or initiate a number of other small effects. Minor actions did add a new layer of strategy to combat, but often at the cost of efficiency. Players would pour over their character sheets trying to find the best way to maximize their turn with a well-timed minor action; a huge roadblock to 4E’s already lengthy encounters. The truth is, you won’t even notice the mechanic is gone. It’s an exclusion has an incredibly subtle effect on the flow of a battle, speeding up the process by eliminating a third – mostly insignificant – choice from your turn.
Instead, there are only two options a character can take per round: a movement and an action. As always, movement is determined by speed and this chapter does a wonderful job of specifying how a move can be broken up, how creature size impacts a character, and how difficult terrain affects combat. Actions are a bit broader in scope, as they encompass just about anything that requires significant effort to accomplish. Making an attack, casting a spell, aiding a fellow warrior, or dashing across the battlefield; your character’s most important decision in a round is how best to use their action. Still, compared to the dozens of powers offered to martial (non-magical) classes in 4E, combat options in Fifth Edition feel stripped down and basic. Yet this doesn’t diminish the strategy of the game; it merely serves as a means to condense encounters into a more digestible length. It should become very rare that an instance of combat take up the entire length of your gaming session.
Occasionally, a class feature or spell will include a third “bonus action”, such as the Fighter’s extra attack, but these are only made available on a per case basis. They’re clearly outlined in the text of the ability and much easier to implement than the minor actions of old. Here, bonus actions represent a character’s increase in experience and skill, as opposed to trivial modifications to combat that anyone can make.
This chapter is so replete with information that it’s difficult to discuss without becoming a tedious recitation of the rules. In fact, most of the concepts are enough aligned with previous editions that they’re barely worth a mention. You still roll to attack, add your proficiency bonus if applicable, and then compare it to your enemy’s Armor Class. Upon a hit, you roll for damage. Throughout its history, very little has changed in Dungeons & Dragons’ core combat rules; and that’s mostly because they were solid from the beginning. For veterans, this section will likely feel like a reminder or a retread, but new players should find it welcoming and instructive. Everything from healing to character death to underwater combat is contained within these few pages and by the time you’ve scanned through it, your knowledge of D&D will be mostly complete.
11. Spells & Spellcasting
The beating heart of Dungeons & Dragons has always been magic. There are plenty of tabletop RPGs that dabble in realism or futuristic technology, but it’s the multitude of arcane spells and rituals that have kept this game in the popular consciousness for more than forty years. Something is joyful about flipping through the almost eighty pages of enchantments; taking the time to imagine the raw power that will be flung from your character’s fingertips. Binding a celestial angel to the material plane, hurling a massive fireball at your enemies, or dominating the weak mind of a kobold chieftain, there are literally hundreds of options to bolster your wizard, warlock, sorcerer, druid or other student of the mystical arts.
But Fifth Edition’s magic system isn’t effective because of its variety. Instead, its reverence to tried and true ideas builds a straightforward set of mechanics that – like so much about 5E – simplifies and refines the role of a spellcaster. Gone are the days of the at-will, encounter, and daily powers, replaced by the spell slot: a number that represents the total amount of spells that a character can expel before resting. This isn’t a new mechanic, but will likely be greeted with open arms by long-time players. It’s intuitive, yet complex and offers the chance to experiment with a character’s magical abilities. For example, casting a low-level spell using a high-level slot may lead to extra effects or higher damage. Spell slots ultimately balance a wizard or cleric by limiting the potential of their seemingly god-like influence over the world while simultaneous encouraging the player to engage in their greatest power fantasies.
Another tweak, or rather reimplementation, is that spells are (more or less) assumed to succeed automatically. A warlock casting Circle of Death need not roll for her attack. The orb of necrotic energy is conjured from the ether and it’s up to the opponent to succeed on a saving throw or suffer the ill effects of the hex. As such, magical characters feel more competent, as it’s rare for their spells to backfire or miss. Instead, monsters and enemies are forced to dodge, resist, or ward off the arcane might of the player characters; a task that makes much more sense within the confines of Dungeons & Dragons.
Unfortunately, many of the text blocks for the spells themselves lack the kind of flavor that is present in earlier chapters of the Player’s Handbook. The whole thing reads as rather bland and utilitarian. While this approach certainly cuts down on length (thus, allowing for more spells), some short, flagrant descriptions may have brought a little spice to the chapter. I suppose I just wish that it was more entertaining than a reference guide, but I imagine that Wizards’ point is to encourage the players to envision their own take on how the spell would emanate from its caster. Too much flavor text, after all, can be stifling.
12. The Appendices and a Final Wrap-Up
The Player’s Handbook is absolutely bursting with content and at this point, I think you can gather just how much I adore this new system. Even as the book comes to a conclusion, the appendices bring an added layer of fun and information: a definition of various combat conditions complete with hilarious sketches, huge lists of deities from a variety of pantheons spanning D&D and the real world, stat blocks for summoned creatures, and a brief outline of 5E’s multiverse. It’s a final dash of flavor that goes a long way and will likely win over new players with its creative implications. More exciting is the mention of classic campaign settings like Greyhawk and Dragonlance that will no doubt spark rumors of an imminent return to these fantastically detailed worlds; worlds we haven’t explored in many editions.
Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is a faithful and innovative attempt to bring all of the things that players love about this game under one roof. There’s a reason that words like “simple” and “elegant” have been uttered so many times in this review, because 5E is fueled by a design philosophy that emphasizes a kind of complex minimalism. There are still loads of satisfying choices to be made, but they all carry more weight than in previous versions. They matter. Fifth Edition trims the fat, but leaves a familiar game that is explicitly and undoubtedly D&D; perhaps the definitive version of the first and most important tabletop RPG. The open playtest paid off and Wizards’ delicate attention to detail ended in genuine success.
With its openness and modularity, there are many directions for this game to take. Sourcebooks dedicated to new classes, races, spells and features could easily bring fresh and exciting options to players and Dungeon Masters alike. Campaign settings could contribute vast, living worlds to use as a sandbox for imagination and storytelling. Bestiaries could populate these worlds with horrible monstrosities and noble NPCs. Regardless of the next step, the Player’s Handbook has got me suitably excited for the future of this franchise.
Buy this book. Grab some friends. Play Dungeons & Dragons.
Final Grade: 8/10