Tuesday, 12 August 2014

D&D 5E Player's Handbook Review Part 1 - First Impressions

New editions of D&D are a very special time for this geek. I've run and played dozens of different RPG's, but you can never get away from the fact that D&D came first. Every time I play something that isn't D&D, I'm asking myself: how does it measure up? What's different about it? What's the same? By D&D shall all these pretenders be judged. I make no apologies for it... after all, most gamers are defined by their earliest experiences.

Shiny! No, seriously. Very difficult to photograh.
At the end of what seems like a very long and public journey, D&D 5th Edition has finally arrived.

In absolute terms, it's actually ahead of schedule, with "D&D Next" announced only four years into 4E's rocky tenure. On the other hand, as changes in the gaming landscape and commercial pressures have forced the rights-holders into ever more frequent re-thinks, you could say it's pretty much on the curve. Basic to AD&D was an early blip at a mere three years; AD&D 2E arrived twelve years after that; 3E eleven years later; 4E eight years after that; and now 5E lands a mere six years on from its predecessor, with two years of open play-testing built in to that. (That list doesn't include mid-cycle "refreshes" which I don't consider different or exciting enough to qualify as a new edition.)

From a gamer's point of view, these new editions have all brought different things to the table. AD&D 2E was very much a tidy-up of a ragged but beloved set of rules; 3E essentially rejuvenated the whole brand, which was dead in the water after years of mismanagement, bringing a ground-up re-design which combined modern thinking with all the classic D&D tropes; and 4E, the most recent incarnation before today, was then arguably a response to d20's/OGL's market saturation, introducing a radical new mechanical approach but in doing so sundering the community -- and its paying punters -- into multiple camps. Consequently, the 5E Player's Handbook lands for the first time in a market where D&D isn't necessarily the biggest name in town.

Immediate first impressions are that the book is absolutely gorgeous, possibly the best-looking PHB of them all.

It's a dense 300+ pages wrapped in a beautifully tactile cover with stunning art by Tyler Jacobson, which serves as a fitting prelude to the diverse and painterly illustrations to be found within. Inside, the designers have wisely avoided the bland, textbook-like approach of the 4E rule-books and returned to the faux-scroll-page look of 3rd Edition, suggesting Wizards agrees with some of its more vocal fans who maintain that the rule-books should be as much for the coffee table as the gaming table; good-looking and evocative tomes which reward the browsing player or DM. Personally, I found the 4E books more usable than any of their forebears in-game, but on balance, I've come around to the "rule-book as an end unto itself" way of thinking as well. Previews of upcoming releases such as the Monster Manual only reinforce that view.

Inside, we're in familiar territory, with a heart-felt introduction by this edition's lead designer Mike Mearls, followed by the usual fake session transcript for those who don't yet know what proper role-playing is (:smiley face:), and from there into character creation and the rest of the game

Cleric. Best class evah.
Avoiding detail for the moment (until part 2 of this review, in fact), a few things stand out as you're flipping through the book. For the first time, Wizards has made surprisingly liberal use of its massive fiction catalogue with many sections prefaced by excerpts from D&D tie-in novels. This is neat. More than that, there are regular call-outs to the many D&D settings which have been created over the years; Tika and Artemis from Dragonlance, for example, are used to illustrate how different characters can emerge from the same background. With Forgotten Realms now the de-facto campaign world for the D&D game, it's nice to see an inclusive approach to other campaign settings incorporated this early in the core rules. Whether we'll actually see these campaigns re-released for 5E is still an unanswered question at this point.

Did he fall or was he pushed? Oh, it's a dwarf. Just drunk then.
As I continue to rifle through the pages, I'm struck again by the design and layout, with copious art and illustrations on what seems like every page. Of course, it's not every page, but you'd be unlucky to open the book randomly and not see a full colour spread or some other incidental piece. There is probably more art in this PHB than ever before and it's never less than great. Check out the laugh-out-loud Conditions Appendix for an example of where no expense was spared.

Magic on the right. Rest of game on the left. Hmm.
There's also a lot of meat to the rules. System upon subsystem supports a dozen distinct and varied classes. The combat infrastructure looks, as expected, rich and satisfying, and now without a single miniature or 5-foot square in sight (at least not yet...the battle-mats will be unrolled in an advanced combat system to be revealed later-on). There's also the truly massive spell-book, which eats up about a third of the page count. Evidence of a game which has learned none of the lessons of 4E and still treats melee classes like unloved step-children? Probably more like a game that realises just how important this relic of old-school D&D design is to a large portion of its player-base, but we'll see. Fighters and Rogues certainly seem to have a healthy menu of combat options in this edition.

Now those are some great looking prismatic sprays.
No-one has ever accused D&D of being rules-light, and there's a lot of text here, doubtless as intimidating as ever to the new player, but it's all cleanly presented and extremely well-written. At the risk of sounding trite, D&D is what it is. Anything less than a 300-page PHB would have caused an outcry, and on first blush, those sections of the book devoted to what matters most in a role-playing game -- that is, creating and developing an interesting character -- are correctly proportioned in a way which, in my opinion, no other edition can match.

5E's best-of-breed Great Wheel.
Lastly, one of the real surprises of the 5E PHB is its selection of appendices. Two are devoted to pure game mechanics: namely conditions, and a selection of beasts and familiars to help druids and spell-casters run their characters in the absence of a Monster Manual. The third, in a veritable orgy of inclusivity, describes a whole suite of pantheons from across the D&D universe (the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Eberron all get their deities listed). The fourth describes 5E's approach to D&D cosmology, which is a kind of best-of-breed combination of classic Gygaxian Great Wheel and some of the better bits of 4E's multiverse. And finally, in a heart-warming throw-back to the very earliest days of D&D, Appendix E lists "inspirational reading" drawn from Gygax's original suggestions in the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide melded with a wide range of modern (and not-so modern) classics. I'm sure everyone will be able to think of at least one author they believe should be on that list and isn't (no JK Rowling? Tad Williams?), but that's a personal thing, and in the spirit of showcasing the breadth of fiction from which fantasy role-playing draws its life-blood, it succeeds admirably.

To close this first look, it's safe to say I'm extremely impressed. The 5E Player's Handbook is not only a great purchase in its own right, but appears to tick all the right boxes from a design stand-point as well. Will it be a huge, unifying success story the way that 3E was and that 4E, unfortunately, wasn't? Only time will tell.

In the next part, I'll take a closer look at the new rules in the context of what has come before, to see how close the designers have come to creating a system that accentuates all the positives of AD&D, 3E, and 4E while eliminating all the negatives.

If you're interested in my personal views on what I want 5E to learn from 3E and 4E, you can check out some previous blog entries here and here.

1 comment:

Jimmy West said...

Loving this article mate. Hoping you get around to finishing it.