The Good Nostalgia – 5e PHB

The new edition of D&D is starting to trickle out, as I mentioned yesterday, and I am really excited. I had held off on any emotion until I saw the actual rules. I’ve been playing D&D now for 20 some years, and I’ve been through it all. I started with my dads AD&D set, and was amazed when I moved down to Maryland and met people who played this mysterious “second edition” game. I played that system with a fervor for 4 years before 3rd edition was announced. We looked over it, and disregarded it. We saw no use in this edition. I finally got picked to play in an adventure with a friend (it was some sort of raffle), and absolutely fell in love with 3rd in early 2003. Later that year D&D 3.5 came out, and we embraced it heartily, playing it for another 5 years until 4th edition was announced. This time, I wasn’t going to be late to the party, I wanted in at the ground floor. I even bought my friend his own PHB! While we played it for some time, it was not what I had bargained for. 4 years later, after a number of tried, 4e just kinda died. We played Gamma World, tried Dark Sun out, and eventually played the Iron Kingdoms RPG, which was a blast. We’d fallen out of love with D&D, it just wasn’t the same. Wizards eventually caved, and in May of 2012 started their 2 year long beta test of the next edition. I was cautiously optimistic, burn me once, shame on me, burn me twice, well… you know the end.


So, here we are, August 2014, 2 years and  just a scant 3 months after the beta test started, and I have finally purchased and looked over the PHB, the only available rulebook.

I think I might be falling in love again.

See, 2e was that first girlfriend you have. You clung on to her a little longer than was good for you, it was your first love, and you only remember the good parts of the relationship. All the negative has slowly faded away. 3e was the one that got away. You caught her at a dance one time, and had an extremely good evening, but it wasn’t meant to be, and she moved away. 3.5, though is the serious one. She reminded you of the one that got away so much. You stuck this one through, and boy was it rewarding. You made plans, you got engaged, everything happened so fast and you were swept up in the romance. Then, she broke your heart. She left you, forever, for someone else and there was no going back. Now, 4e was the rebound girl. She was vaguely fun, and it was enjoyable for the first little while until the novelty wore off, but you kept at it, trying to make it work until finally, you gave up. You realized this wasn’t good for anyone, and you ended it. You float around for a year, maybe two. You flirt with all sorts of girls and have tons of good times. Nothing sticks, though. Nothing matters. Each one has its own flaws. 5e, though. This one might be the one. She’s like your first love, and brings back all those same feelings, but she is also like the serious one. She’s got everything going for her, at first look. But you’re wary. The rebound has you worried that maybe its all just novelty. Maybe it won’t stand the test of time. but you hope it will. You just hope.


Huh, I just rode that analogy train right into the crazy station. I’ll let it go, though. Right. Back on track.

the 5e PHB is a hardbound, rock solid thing:316 pages of information related to playing the game, and nearly all of them are for the player. When I opened it up, I immediately went to the fighter class. One of my big problems with 2e/3e was that the fighter was brutally simple. There was little to no room for fancy maneuvers and other sorts of flourish and I really enjoyed that 4e game him a ton of things to do. The Fighter in 5e isn’t initially more versatile, to be honest. Its level progression chart is impressively simple.

Straight from the new book!

Straight from the new book!

There is a glimmer of hope, though, in that they get to choose a fighting style: Archery, Defense (Tank), Dueling, Great Weapon (2h), Protection (bodyguard) and Two Weapon. Each gives a specific bonus to the player while they are wielding the appropriate weaponry. They get a few other semi-active abilities, but at the end of the section they have the Archetypes. They are very similar to prestige classes, but available to the class on reaching 3rd level. Each archetype takes the class in a slightly different direction, with archetype abilities granted at certain levels. For fighters, that is 3rd,7th,10th,15th and 18th. Each Archetype is really intriguing, as well. A Champion is a brutal warrior, the Battle Master is a devotee to the art of war, and the Eldritch Knight is the fighter-mage. What is extra interesting is that the champion is simple, straightforward and brutal, while the Battle Master is full of choices, complexity and options. The class can easily play for both types of players.

I was cautiously optimistic at that point and bought the book, took it home and gave it a quick glance over. I even posted to my facebook that it was a love child of 2e and 3e, which didn’t necessarily garner love, which is fair.  Now, though, I can take my time and try to project my meaning much better, and less in small tidbits while running around.

To me, 2nd was focused on playing the game, and discarded the numbers game, sometimes much to its detriment. there were numbers in the game, don’t get me wrong, but I feel that they were somehow more malleable than the numbers in 3.5 and 4e. The numbers in 2nd edition weren’t there to create balance, they were there to represent, as much as one can, the idea into the game. One of my general commandments of RPGs is that not all things are created equal, and so the game should not be. I don’t think that you need to validate fluffy bits in your rules, but I do think that they shouldn’t directly compete with combat bonuses, and 2nd edition did that well with its weapon and non-weapon proficiencies. It surely wasn’t equal, but it was separate. This edition also didn’t worry about the players breaking the game. Bonus types didn’t exist, and characters were allowed to do what they wanted, within the reason of the DM. Final arbitration of many, if not all, of the elements of the game were left up to the DM. Gygax many times would refer to the DM as the referee who was there to settle disputes during the game because someone had to be there to perform the task in the inevitable times that players disagreed, either with each other or the DM. This meant that the DM many times had to rule against his own pieces, and needed to be someone who was bent more towards story teller than rules lawyer in their position. Magic Items and stat lines also played a much lesser part of the game in 2nd than it did in the 3e generation of games. Your stats could only reach 18, and it was amazing when Dark Sun introduced the player character stat of 20 as something easily attainable, instead of something that only monsters had.

My version saw so much more use

My version saw so much more use

I know that all of that looks like I have rose colored glasses on, but that’s not true. I saw the need, and still do, for 3e to come along. D&D had been around in the same form for just over a decade and had seen a vast shift in both popularity and the way players played the game. It was overburdened by sourcebooks, rules and piles of options that didn’t mean anything in the overall scheme of the game or of roleplaying in general. Handicapping yourself is only useful if its fun, and many of the games options were either so optimal that no other options could exist, or so terrible that taking it wasn’t an option. Towards the end of the games life span characters had gotten so out of control that even the might dragons were not a challenge to many of the characters in the game. Finally, many rules were simply outdated and ignored. I cannot remember a time when we restricted character class, level or HP. We rolled Hit dice until the character stopped gaining levels. Optional rules like Multi-classing and Dual Classing were taken as given rules with no way around it, and characters were often “created” with multiple 18’s using tons of randomly rolled stat blocks because anything less than a 16 in any given stat wasn’t going to do you any good.

3rd, by contrast, is a numbers game. There are plenty of ways to make fun, enigmatic, fluffy characters, but by and large was driven by the numbers. Monsters HP was out of this world. Armor class and to hit bonuses became unlimited. Magic Items became the staple way of making sure that your character kept pace with the monsters of the world. Everything in the book became numbers driven and most choices a character could make were combat numbers. Combat and non-combat skills were combined into a single pool for simplicity sake and non-combat choices were nearly always shunned for the combat choices. What good was it to have +2 on Tumble and Acrobatics checks if you didn’t take that +2 to hit feat and got smurshed by a monster in the first two adventures. The game also had a rule for everything, and plenty of them. This change was the most insidious, as it was the one sunk its tendrils in the deepest and is the hardest to excise. who doesn’t want the game to be fair to all players, across all classes. Who wants to have an argument with the DM about how your character could totally jump that 25 foot chasm. Now, you have a rule for all of it. Everything in its place, and a place for everything. But, as I found out, that is not what happens. Instead, it erodes the DM’s ability to tell a great story. Players become “empowered” to show you the rule book and show you “right here” were the rules say that they can do this. With all the rules in place, and the game build for balance, you start accepting that they players can do whatever they want and you become, instead of a storyteller, and adversary. I tried to build the nastiest encounters and drive my players to the edge every time because that’s how the rules worked. I had become a slave to the rules, and it was terrible. I never had less fun DMing than at the end of 3rd.

one of my favorite editions

one of my favorite editions

I won’t only harp on the downsides of 3rd though they are many and varied. There is also a staggering amount of fantastic groundbreaking work that was done with the 3rd edition system. Player choice, once stifled behind arbitrary limits, was unleashed. Prestige classes and feats were invented to let players advance their character with options beyond their first level, and the games popularity skyrocketed. The monster manual became less a puzzle box and more of a tool box with simple, tweakable encounter creator mechanics and clear challenge ratings for the monsters. Classes such as the Barbarian, the Bard, the Warlock and the Monk became part of the core concept of D&D instead of some shunted away option. It was a glorious time to play the game, but as more stones were added to the mountain, it became harder to feel you were doing the right thing.

5th grabs the best of both of those philosophies and consolidates them into a system that, at first read through, embraces the best of both worlds. Gone are the bonus types of third edition, and there is no mention of how bonuses work together: they just do. The corollary to that, though, is that most of the bonuses to hit are gone as well, replaced with either advantage (roll two, take the better) or extra HP. Damage seems to have taken a few steps back, as well, with most bonus damages reigned in. Gone is the insane complexities that come from having negative HP, replaced with the death saves. Saving throws have undergone change again and are based on the action causing them, not static, or even deterministic stats. Options abound, with each class having between 2-9 archetypes to choose from to customize their class. Oh, and there are 12 classes: Fighter, Monk, Rogue, Wizard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Bard, Druid, Cleric, Barbarian, Paladin, and Ranger! Stats are a big part of the game, determining many of your actions, but are capped off at 20. Armor class has become more reasonable than 3rd, and more understandable than 2nd. Magic Items have finally taken a back seat to the character class itself, and from the complete absence of their mention I assume they are not as necessary.  Measurements are made in feet, and the game makes no mentions of the figures and models, making the game more accessible and easier to adjudicate for those on the fly fights. The game is definitely worth picking up and giving a read through, though the $50.00 price tag is a touch steep. I look forward to giving the game a few spins, and may even talk more about the classes as I go along discovering what I can and cannot do with he game.

Though I am excited to play the game, I do have to say I am still wary of what it could turn into. I was all gung-ho for 4th, and I feel burned from the game. Its not a terrible game, when taken in a vacuum, but it is most assuredly not a RPG. I really hope my enjoyment of 5e isn’t misplaced. If it is, I probably won’t play another Wizards RPG  ever again.