Wizards of the Coast just put up the basic rules for D&D (5E, Next, etc.) for free. I’m going to skim over them and see what jumps out at me.
The book starts with a decent overview of what roleplaying is and how the game is played – nothing new here. One of the very first things you’ll read is an example of play, which is a great choice, as it immediately conveys what might be unique about playing a roleplaying game – the freedom to do whatever you want.
There’s a small warning sign in the list of chapters; chapter 1 is character creation, chapter 2 is how to play the game, and chapter 3 is all magic. I consider that troublesome because D&D has always had an issue with the spellcasters outshining the sword-swingers, and now the table of contents declares that magic is a full 1/3 of the game. We’ll see how that pans out in the actual chapter.
The basic dice mechanic is still 1d20, add modifiers, try to beat a DC number, round down if necessary. The newest thing here is advantage and disadvantage: if you have advantage, you can roll 2 dice and take the better; if you have disadvantage, roll 2 dice and take the worse. It’s a great idea, a simple mechanic that’ll cover a lot of situations.
Part 1: Creating a Character
Chapter 1: Step-by-Step Characters
I’m just going to note what I find new and different, rather than running through the whole system.
Ugh, Hit Points are back to being random, based on a die roll. I firmly believe that randomness has a place in play, but it has no place on the character sheet. Easily houseruled.
Instead of a weapon giving you a proficiency bonus, your class has a proficiency bonus that you can apply to a variety of things you’re proficient in, including attacks, spells, skills, and saving throws. I’ll have to look into that more; this could be a clever way to roll a lot of modifiers into one number.
Ability scores are suggested as 4d6, take the best three, and an array of pre-set scores is listed as an option, with point-buy as a variant. This is the opposite of 4e, where point-buy was standard, and 4d6 best three was an option. Again, I don’t think randomness belongs on the character sheet, but at least both options are presented.
For Ability scores, you still have a score and a resulting modifier, such that only even numbers really matter on your Ability scores. I’m a little disappointed there; it’s such an archaic system, I don’t know why you don’t just have a single number for each Ability, your total modifier, and be done with it.
The level chart goes from 1-20. There’s a note about tiers of play, but unlike 4E there don’t seem to be any special rules associated with the tiers. They’re just the design team saying “This is where things start to escalate.” I appreciate that.
Chapter 2: Races
The racial sections give a large amount of information about the race’s culture, attitudes, and religion before they give any mechanics or stat information. That’s a good shift, at least suggesting that character is more important than stats. However, I do find the descriptions a bit more constraining than 4E; they seem to declare things more directly (Dwarves love jewelry, dislike boats, and distrust elves) and thus suggest that a player create a ‘normal’ Dwarf, or at least have a good reason why they’re not like the rest of their race. Along those lines, races now have suggested alignments.
Races seem roughly as complex as 4E, maybe a bit more. It feels like a shift back to 3E and earlier, where races had a laundry list of modifiers and things to write down. But at least I haven’t found any of the overly-specific traits from before, stuff like +4 AC against Giants. The traits that are available are generally useful, and don’t depend on a specific enemy type.
Four races in this chapter: Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human.
Chapter 3: Classes
Four classes are listed in this chapter: Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard. They’re definitely presenting ‘classic’ D&D in these free rules.
I mentioned Hit Points being random earlier, but it looks like you can also take a fixed value at each level. The fixed value actually looks like a better option: it’s the average value of the die, rounded up, which means that it’s on average .5 HP higher per level than rolling. I’m guessing that WotC just did that to make the math clean, but I also like to imagine that they wanted to make it seem like D&D is going back to randomness, while actually making the fixed numbers a better choice.
The Cleric’s class table could have come straight out of 3E. A growing list of spell slots, an increasing proficiency bonus, and a class ability every level or two. Their main tricks are their spellcasting and their ability to turn undead, both of which improve at a good rate and don’t seem too complicated.
Clerics also get a neat option to call for divine intervention starting at 10th level, asking their deity to pull their fat out of the fire. It’s a nice option, an “oh crap” button for when the Cleric realizes things are going south, but not something to be used all the time.
The section on Divine Domains is a bit odd; it talks about how you’ll choose a domain that will guide your character’s growth, but only the Life domain is presented in these rules. I understand that these are just the basic rules, but come on, if you present something as an important choice, you’ve gotta give at least two options. Anyway, domains seem surprisingly important, granting special powers and upgrades throughout your entire adventuring career. It feels like a Life Cleric and a Knowledge Cleric will feel entirely different in play.
Fighters can choose from a number of offensive and defensive fighting styles, including one that allows the Fighter to give disadvantage to attacks they can intercept. They also have the unique ability to take a second wind, and to take an extra action once per encounter*.
*Note that I haven’t seen the word ‘encounter’ yet. But you can’t use the ability again until you rest, which is the same thing.
I should note that I’m already getting confused about the system behind this. They’ve mentioned using your action, your reaction, and the Fighter entry just mentioned an additional action and a bonus action. I’m not sure why they’re avoiding the language of move/minor/standard/immediate that’s been established, but maybe I’ll find out later.
Fighters have an archetype, just like a Cleric domain, and the same issue: they say this is an important choice, then show only one option.
At 5th level, Fighters can attack twice, three times at 11th level, four at 20th level. It looks like this will stack with their ability to take an extra action, so a Fighter could potentially surge forward and strike six times as soon as combat begins. Is that as good as what an 11th level spellcaster can do? We’ll see later.
Overall, I’m impressed with the Fighter: they hit hard, they hit often, they hit well, and they don’t fall down. Still, I haven’t seen a lot of options for the Fighter other than “I run forward and hit it as much as I can,” which is what’s always made them a little boring.
Rogues get four skills, while everyone else gets two. In 3E, I really disliked different classes getting different numbers of skills, but when it’s a unique thing to make a particular class the skill class, I’m fine with it. They also have the unique ability to apply their proficiency bonus to their use of thieves’ tools.
The description of Sneak Attack gives some insight into the combat system, and unfortunately, how convoluted the language has to be in order to avoid suggesting the use of a grid. “You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.” All this is saying is “You can Sneak Attack a flanked enemy.”
At 2nd level, Rogues get a free action every turn that they can use to run, evade, or hide. This is pretty cool; it’s a low-level ability that will make a Rogue feel completely different from a Fighter, dodging and weaving and evading.
Unlike the Cleric and Fighter, who got 2-3 abilities that improved as they leveled up, the Rogue’s class entry is a grab-bag of unique talents that seems cluttered. Expertise at 6th level, Evasion at 7th, etc. I think the Rogue’s player is most likely to have a sheet just covered with descriptions and rules for all their little tricks…but hey, if that doesn’t appeal to you, don’t play the Rogue.
Wizards, on the surface, seem pretty simple. They cast spells. Their abilities help them regain spells, cast spells better, cast bigger spells, and cast uniquely empowered spells.
Chapter 4: Personality and Background
Nothing dramatic here. The nine-alignment system is back (it never really went away in 4E, it was just set aside a bit). The other slightly new thing is Inspiration, which is just a way for the DM to reward you for roleplaying: you get a little token, and you can spend it later for advantage on a roll.
Backgrounds are significantly expanded; rather than just giving a +2 to some skill, they now give you proficiency in two skills, a new language, new equipment, and perhaps a special contact or unique feature. On the one hand, it’s cool that your background really shapes your character, especially at level 1. On the other hand, I find that stuff like this tends to pigeonhole characters. With these basic rules, your adventuring party will feature only Acolytes, Criminals, Folk Heroes, Sages, and Soldiers. Even if D&D expands this list to include 100 Backgrounds, that’s still forcing players to fit their character’s history into one of 100 pre-defined slots. Of course, you can always just write up a new background, but I think it’s important to judge a game system based on what they give you, rather than what you can fix on your own.
Chapter 5: Equipment
Armor is a little simplified. Using armor you’re not proficient in gives disadvantage to Strength and Dexterity checks. Heavy armor has a Strength requirment; if you’re below that Strength, you move 10 ft slower. Many pieces of armor give Disadvantage on Stealth checks.
Nothing too complicated on weapons. Crossbows and blowguns have the ‘Loading’ trait, which just means you can only make one attack per action, regardless of any other bonuses. But a heavy crossbow is a reasonable combat option now, if you don’t mind having your hands full. It was way too slow to use before.
There’s a section of miscellaneous items, which ends up being just a long list of special rules about how to use each item. A paragraph of rules on using Caltrops, Antitoxin, Healer’s Kits, Hunting Traps, etc. I feel like this kind of granularity slows the game down.
Lifestyle expenses remind me of Shadowrun; it’s a flat GP cost to reflect how well you live in the world. I wonder how many adventurers will live at the Poor or Squalid levels just to save a few GP.
Chapter 6: Customization Options
This chapter could be interesting. Let’s see.
…sadly not interesting, because it’s only a page long. Multiclassing can be freely done, as in 3rd Edition, but the rules are in the Player’s Handbook, not these simple rules.
Feats are also in the PHB, and changed in an interesting way. Whenever your character would be eligible to increase an Ability score due to gaining a level, they may forgo that improvement to take a Feat instead.
These Feats had better be amazing. Ability scores are the core of your character, and giving up an improvement there is pretty significant.
Part 2: Playing the Game
Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores
The basic system is pretty familiar. Skills, however, work pretty differently. Rolling your basic Ability modifier is much more common now, and a character with a high Ability score will be pretty good with everything under that Ability. If you have proficiency in a skill, you can add your Proficiency Bonus, which starts at +2 and eventually reaches +6.
I’m a little conflicted here. I love the simplification of the system, and taking the emphasis away from the skill list and back to the character’s own abilities. On the other hand, the math just doesn’t work that way. Let’s take a Medium DC, 15. A average person succeeds 25% of the time. A character with a high Ability score, maybe 16, succeeds 40% of the time. And adding a +3 proficiency bonus makes it 55%. So a reasonably skilled, trained character will fail a moderate task 45% of the time, and will only succeed 30% more than your average joe.
I may be missing something about the system, but the problem here is just the d20. It’s too big, offers too much variance. I guess maybe the point here is that you should really try to get advantage on your roll before you do anything important.
Saving Throws are now based on each ability, so you’ll have Dexterity saving throws, Charisma saving throws, etc. Makes sense and I don’t know why they didn’t do it this way all along.
Chapter 8: Adventuring
Blah blah text I skipped a bunch. Rules for walking, holding your breath, making stuff and talking to people. Seems well-written, nothing revolutionary.
Chapter 9: Combat
The rules here seem similar to 3E and 4E, with a lot of the names changed, and no direct reference to miniatures or a battle map. Opportunity attacks are still here, and the trigger has been simplified yet again: now, you only get an opportunity attack when a creature leaves your reach. Ranged attacks don’t provoke opportunity attacks, but you have disadvantage on ranged attack rolls when you’re engaged with a hostile creature.
One thing I noticed, you can break up your movement, moving both before and after your action. Getting up from prone costs half your speed, so it’s not as debilitating as earlier editions.
Part 3: The Rules of Magic
Chapter 10: Spellcasting
We’re on page 78, about 2/3 of the way through this document.
Spellcasters have 0-level spells, Cantrips, that they can use as much as they want.
Some spells can be cast as a ritual, which takes much longer but doesn’t expend the spell. That makes it more reasonable for a Wizard to keep, say, Water Breathing and Knock memorized, and use them whenever there’s an appropriate obstacle. But that also makes it reasonable for the Wizard to use his spells all the time, marginalizing the Rogue or other non-caster classes.
…I say that, but I don’t actually see Knock or Water Breathing on this list, and in fact I see very few Ritual spells. So few, in fact, that there isn’t much point to the rule at all. I’m sure more Ritual spells will be released over time.
Some spells require Concentration, which just means that you can’t cast another Concentration spell at the same time, and you might lose the spell if you take damage. Looks like Constitution will actually be an important stat for spellcasters.
And, ugh, spell lists. I hate this part of making a spellcaster – looking through the spell list, finding an interesting spell in the alphabetical list, trying to remember the details while looking at the other spells and trying to pick the ones that you like the most.
Plenty of save-or-die spells like Dominate Monster, Sleep, and Otto’s Irresistible Dance. It looks like spellcasters are going to dominate combat again, although there’s no monster listings in this document so I don’t really know.
Okay, that’s pretty much it. I glossed over some stuff, didn’t really read many of the spells, but I think I got the idea.
I like some of the simplifications they’ve done, such as for skills, and the advantage/disadvantage system. Fighters and Rogues have unique abilities and feel distinctive and ‘meaty’ – you get extra actions, extra attacks, bonuses to critical hits, and other significant, permanent effects at very early levels.
On the other hand, I feel like a lot of the frustrations of 3rd Edition and earlier are present, with no effort to acknowledge or respond to them. Weapon-users still take a back seat to spellcasters who can shut down an entire battle with a thought. Character sheets will have pages of notes on special abilities and special features of items.
I’m asking myself, would I rather run this or 4th Edition D&D? I’m not sure. 4E had a real emphasis on game balance and usability at the table, and the fact that this new D&D is trying to distance itself from those ideas is a concern. It does seem like it’ll flow better, and that everyone will have very unique characters and playstyles as early as level 2, but I’m worried that those playstyles will become less and less interesting as the spellcasters continue to level up.
Right now, I’m not feeling overly inclined to switch over to this new edition, but I don’t think I’d hesitate to join in a game that someone else was running.