Published on December 9th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen2
A Flumph is a Beholder Designed by a Committee
A Review of D&D 5th Edition
While the Player’s Handbook released in August last year, today marks the one year anniversary of the complete Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th edition core rulebook launch. Originally announced as “D&D Next” in 2012, a scant four years after the release of D&D’s divisive 4th edition, the 5th Edition (5e) underwent extensive public playtesting and was met with generally positive reviews when it launched.
The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was largely influenced by designer Mike Mearls’ desire “to listen to the entirety of D&D players” and produce a “fast, flexible, and easy-to-play” D&D experience. This fast and flexible approach is in direct contrast to the incredibly deep character customization of the 3rd and 4th editions, the complex simulationism of 3rd edition, and the lengthy grid-based combat of 4th edition.
Mearls wasn’t the first D&D designer to realize that the fast and flexible approach was what fans all over wanted from the game. A full year before 5e launched, Rob Heinsoo (lead designer of 4e) and Jonathon Tweet (lead designer of 3e) had already collaborated to publish their very own streamlined fantasy game called 13th Age. The same year, Monte Cook (designer, 3e) released his slim sci-fantasy game Numenera. A year before that, Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel published Dungeon World– an indie RPG that replicated a lot of D&D-isms while using a sleek, modern RPG core as opposed to a version of D&D’s legacy system.
Unlike other designers, who were working on their own games, Mearls was constrained by the fact that he was working on D&D. The fourth edition was being rebooted so soon after launching partially because the game itself was polarizing and targeted just one section of the D&D fanbase, alienating the fans of the previous edition to the point where they just stopped buying D&D products. The design goal wasn’t able to be just “make a streamlined D&D”, but must be “the D&D that will please everyone.” To that end, D&D 5e is the ultimate compromise edition- an attempt to get all of the wayward children of Gygax back into the same fold.
Recently I took some time to play some D&D, talk to friends and poll people at local game stores in order to see how they liked the game, and to see if the design goals of D&D 5e really delivered in the eyes of the fans.
Art/ Page Layout
The best thing about D&D 5e is the art and page layout of the books. From the full-bleed covers (be still my heart) to the flowing interior layout and the digital paintings inside, I have no problem with the books visually. It looks like the art direction has started to steer to a more painterly style, which I am all for.
I liked 3e and 4e and Pathfinder’s art direction, though they all made different art choices. Going for a colorful but painterly style lets WotC put out a bright, eye-catching project but allows them to look a bit more older than the more stylized Pathfinder.
The characters in the core book also show more diversity than they have in the past. The iconic portrait of a human character in 5e is a black woman, which might seem small in the large scheme of civil rights, but it’s good to acknowledge the power of vocal activists who finally got through to the executives and marketers that make such decisions. Many people I talked to about 5e mentioned the art as one of their favorite parts of the game.
While only a couple of people mentioned that 5e was their favorite D&D edition, many stated that it was the only version of D&D that everyone in their group could agree to play. Fifth edition is the first game since Dungeon World that’s I’ve seen draw pre-3e D&D fans into playing non-OSR games. None of the mechanics seem to draw the ire of any particular D&D fan base, which is in and of itself a small miracle.
It seems to be universally accepted that monsters in 5e are “bags of hitpoints” with not much that makes them interesting mechanically. Well designed monsters are few and far between, and it’s mostly up to the DM to give monsters a spin that differentiates the various goblinoids, where as in previous edition monsters all had unique tactics or powers to make them feel different.
Add to this that monster now use spells, which means having to pull open another book just to look up what their power does (instead of giving you the info all in one spot like 4e). In addition, Challenge Ratings are meaningless and the layout of the monster stat block has reverted to the pre-4e version, which really just means it has little to no layout and it’s a mess.
The spells and the way that they’re organized in the book is absolutely atrocious. While I very much disliked 4e’s method of giving you page upon page of power blocks, at least you could say that they were effectively organized within their books. When making a Bard you have to flip between the Bard section of the book, the Wizard section of the book and the spell lists just to make sure you’re picking spells you’re allowed to have from off the list. It’s 3e’s spell organization problem all over again.
Caster Dominance is back
Speaking of spells… Remember back in 3e when casters were able to be better at everyone else at almost anything, and how 4e completely fixed that? Well, it’s not nearly that bad as it used to be, but spell-caster dominance over non-spell-casters is back. If you are a caster, you’re probably more effective in battle than a fighter (due to range, and to non-AC targeted effects) and you generally have more out-of-combat tricks and tasks to do as well.
Is D&D 5e Fast?
Yes. Fifth edition has a fairly low barrier of entry from “sit down to make your character” through to “roll your first dice in-game.” While it’s not quite as simple as rolling 3d6 in order and picking a class, there is no where near as much fiddly customization as there was in either 3e or 4e. Most classes will have you pick a class feature or two, with spell casters being more complex to make than a fighter, but if you’re taking a long time to make your character you’re probably thinking about the process too much.
Combat also resolves much more quickly in 5e than it did in either 3e or 4e. This is mostly because combat is less complex in the newer edition: you have less powers/abilities than in 4e, and less rules-dictated options compared to 3e. Fighting tends to be a bit “swingy”, but brutal when you connect. Melee is not a place you want to be, and spellcasters definitely have an atvantage- both in range and in their ability to inflict status effects or induce saving throws.
Is D&D 5e Flexible?
I’m going to take “flexible” to mean “able to display a variety of characters and situations.” In that case, yes. Fifth edition is able to handle situations that aren’t combat in a way that feels much more natural to roleplaying than 4e’s Skill Challenges or total freeform RP (on account of 4e having no real RP rules to speak of). I’d go so far to say that combat is not a main focus of 5e, and rather that it tends not to emphasize any one play style over another.
That said, this lack of emphasis isn’t necessarily one of D&D 5e’s strengths. One reason 4th edition was so polarizing is that it made strong design decisions that killed a lot of D&D’s “sacred cows” and was emphatically unapologetic for that fact- but that is also what helped make its fanbase so fervent, the changes were dramatic and bold. By staying away from making strong designer lead decisions, 5th edition feels unfocused and bland.
Is D&D 5e easy to play?
Yes. It’s the most simple version of D&D to play since the Rules Cyclopedia was re-released. The basic rules are available for free if you want to take a look yourself. You could even play a bit with the basic rules if you want, to get a feel for the system, though the corebooks will expand your options a lot more.
The rulebooks guide players through making their characters well, and I like the tables in the Backgrounds section that help players who don’t know what to play select some archetypes for their role. The Dungeon Master’s Guide for this edition drops the ball a bit, in that I feel like it fails to make clear what the framework of the game is intended to be.
Fourth edition was mainly constructed of cinematic set-piece battles with down time mostly abstracted into short and extended rests, which were used as resources by the party. Non-action gameplay had almost no rules support and was mostly abstracted or done as freeform roleplaying. The mechanics were built around this assumption of set-piece battles, and if you tried to play 4e outside of this set up then a lot of the mechanics broke as the character resources became improperly regulated.
Third edition, on the other hand, had systems and subsystems for almost anything you could think of. As the simulationist version of D&D, there was more attention to details and there was a specific rule for most aspects of the game world. And if WotC didn’t make the rule for it, someone else would under the d20 license (anyone remember The Book of Erotic Fantasy? NSFW, obvs). While some of these rules were of questionable value, the idea appeals to someone who wants a simulated world to run around in. By offering neither the high level of detail of 3e, or 4e’s strong gamist elements, 5e sits rather bland in the mouth.
Third edition is like a deli salad bar- if you don’t know what you want going into it you’re likely going to end up with tapioca pudding on top of your caesar salad. But if you have a clear understanding of what you’re doing, you can make some great salads out of those available ingredients.
Fourth edition is like kimchi jjigae- it’s served boiling hot, it’s made from fermented cabbage, oyster sauce and tons of garlic and it’s incredibly spicy. Kimchi jjigae isn’t for everyone, but those who like it, love it and it’s because of its bold flavors. But it’s those same flavors that make some people dislike it as well.
Fifth edition is a boiled chicken breast. There are few meaningful player choices to make, so you can’t accidentally pick something awful. While there isn’t anything wrong with the taste, it’s not something you’d get excited to have to eat.
Dungeons & Dragons 5e is likely everyone’s second favorite D&D game. While I find 5e to be uninspiring and catering to the most “middle of the road” fantasy fan, there are less things I dislike in it than any edition after my favorite. That said, it doesn’t do any one thing particularly well. If you are in the market for a rules-medium fantasy game based on D&D-isms then there are several other RPGs on the market I would recommend to you before D&D 5e:
I find that 13th Age is very similar to 5e in a lot of respects but with a focus on telling cinematic stories with high action and adventure. The background system informs your character’s skills, reinforces your character’s ties to the setting and gives them built in reasons to want to change the world.
Dungeon World gets the feel of old school, explore/dungeon delve style D&D better than any other game on the market. It’s laser focused on its design goals and it achieves them through innovative and effective mechanics that I’d never seen used in a dungeon delving game before.