Excalibur's Zone

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First Ever Review: Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, an Introduction

Hello, everyone!

Welcome to my first blog-based review! Why don’t we start off with a little bit about me and why I’ve chosen the newest edition of D&D to kick kick everything off?

I’ve been playing games far longer than my memories serve me. The first, absolute first, non-Paker Brothers or Milton Bradley owned game that really sucked me into the hobby was Dungeons and Dragons. We’re talking about the original version of D&D, or OD&D, back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. But my fantasy-based role-playing didn’t start there. It actually started when my cousin, brother, and I heard about D&D and started creating adventures ourselves using construction paper and dice from Monopoly. Monsters were Xs and we were Os. In much the same way that a sports coach lays out plays, we would describe what we were doing with lines, arrows, and narrative dialog. Then we’d roll some dice and determine what happened. I don’t remember the specifics, but for about a year, or most likely the entirety of a summer vacation, we had a blast!

Shortly thereafter, we somehow got a hold of a copy of the D&D rules. I think it was the magenta box, but definitely not the original white booklets. We were ecstatic and immediately got to work learning the rules, understanding the difference between Dwarfs and Fighting Men, and set out In Search of the Unknown (which is my ALL-TIME favorite module ever produced by TSR). I was able to save up my allowance to buy the red box, the iconic original red box, the blue box, and the green box (well, Wikipedia says the teal box…). We played these books until the staples were rusted and the pages became loose leafs.

My cousin, older by a few years, ran into another like-minded group of folks at our local bookstore. They were playing an advanced version of the game. Hardcover books, classes, races, more magic and monsters. He and I soon joined this group, playing in the basement of The Book Shoppe. My mom played through the introductory solo adventure from my dilapidated copy of the red box and she deemed it OK for me to game with these older kids. I soon had all of the D&D and AD&D books I could get my hands on. I got them from The Book Shoppe, from Walden Books, and even photocopied portions of books that friends had if we couldn’t find any locally. My life-long love affair with role-playing had firmly taken hold. There is no other game in the world that has stuck with me as long as D&D has. I own or have owned every single core book for the game since the red box. I’ve played every class and race the base game has to offer (there were so many spinoffs that I couldn’t afford everything…) and I’ve run my fair share of games as DM.

And now, I own the newest Player’s Handbook for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Oh, there are far more than five editions to the game. But the proper monicker for this incarnation is the 5th edition, or 5E.

The new book is hefty, in price as well as player-related content. I have two irritations with the book that I’ll get to in a later installment because I have to break this review into a few parts.

You’re reading the introduction here and I’ll be covering everything before Part 1 and Part one here. The other reviews will concentrate on Part 2 of the book which details combat, adventuring, and the like; Part 3, the magic section of the book; Then the appendices and my final thoughts.

Overall, the book is very pretty. It has full-color pages, beautiful artwork, a well-designed layout, and it is rife with information. The book covers everything a player needs to know to play the game without any other books, which is what a player’s handbook should do.

There is a helpful chapter that gives step-by-step instructions to create a character (or a build) much the same way that 4th edition had its guided leveling format for it’s classes. It is very easy to follow (to an extent) and anyone who hasn’t played the game before should have no issues creating their first character. Abilities are now created randomly by rolling 4d6 and discarding the lowest die. This used to be a house rule when I played AD&D back in the day. This will probably be something that players of the 4th edition may have an issue with, but luckily, there’s an optional method where you can choose a standard array or use a point-buy system to generate your abilities. The one catch over the past two versions of D&D? There’s a cap of 20 on each ability (with some exceptions). It’s better than in AD&D second edition and earlier where you couldn’t increase your abilities without the help of a wish spell. The new rules also ensure that characters aren’t the equivalent of gods when it comes to ability checks.

The meat of Part 1 of the book lies in how you select your character’s race and class. In the past, you were an elf, dwarf, human, or halfling (the original game called them hobbits). Expansions to the game allowed you to play half-elves, half-orcs, and even half-ogres. The ability bonuses were usually a combination of positive and negative modifiers. That changed with 4th edition where everything was a bonus. This same mentality is brought into 5th edition but done in a much more interesting fashion. Races have two parts, a base and a subrace. Everyone chooses one of each (except for those pesky humans) and the parts combined dictate your overall ability bonuses and racial abilities. For instance, it used to be that an elf received a +2 bonus to dexterity and a -2 penalty to constitution. It’s been that way for years! Now, your base elf gains the same +2 bonus to dexterity but your subrace determines your other bonus. A high elf has a +1 to intelligence, a wild elf to wisdom, and a dark elf gains a bonus to charisma. Dwarves, halflings, and dragonborn have the same treatment. Humans start off with a +1 to each ability unless the optional feat system is used. In which case humans are the only race to start with a feat! (More on feats later). There are a large number of races to choose from and each provides its own, unique contribution to an adventuring party.

Races in this edition are awesome! I’m slightly bummed by the fact that Wizards of the Coast stuck with the “everyone gets bonuses!” mentality of 4th edition, but I can get over that. I love how each race is, in actuality, two to three races, giving the player a wide range of choices. The races seem very balanced, including the human. With either racial ability chosen, humans are far more playable now, but not really overly powerful with regards to the other races in the book.

Classes have somewhat reverted to their 3rd edition heyday of awesomeness. There’s still the universal level-up table and the separate leveling tables for each class. The 4th edition “max hit points at first level” feature is present and the player may choose whether to roll a die or take an average, static number. For instance, a barbarian can roll a d12 or optionally take the safe route and choose 7 hit points when the character levels. I really like this level of choice the player has, though this mechanic has been available in Pathfinder for quite some time now.

Like 3rd and 4th editions, each class gains special abilities (class features) at specified levels or intervals. The ability increases are present but can be optionally swapped out with a feat instead of taking your bonus points to abilities. 4th edition has all but disappeared. There are no combat powers (read spells for all classes) present and the at-will, encounter, and daily powers are gone, even for spell casters. Instead, the term “you can’t use X again until you take a long or short rest” has been installed. So they’ve taken the definition for daily and encounter powers and used that in each class feature that requires the terminology. Honestly, keeping the 4th edition naming would have been just fine and probably made it easier to understand. However, removing this allows Wizards to improve the game immeasurably.

Classes can now focus on what they do rather than occupying players with what power(s) to choose next. Fighters are good at fighting, Wizards at spellcasting, Clerics at healing (YAY!), and Rogues at skullduggery. The heroic, paragon, and epic tiers are now gone leaving players with one choice at third level (second level for wizards). At this point in the character’s adventuring career, there is an option of which path to choose. Through your archetype, you further differentiate your class from everyone else’s. Does your character become a Champion, a Battle Master, or an Eldritch Knight? Each archetype grants a different style of play. The Champion is an athletic warrior with additional base features and improved class features. The Battle Master gains Superiority dice and maneuvers. And the Eldritch Knight grants spellcasting capabilities to the fighter class. The newest additions are the Superiority dice and Maneuvers. This mechanic allows the fighter to “spend” dice to produce special effects. More often than not, the result of the spent die is added or subtracted from another roll. Wow!

The other classes gain their own, unique benefits which help to balance out the classes nicely. Each class has two or more archetypes to choose from and each archetype brings a completely different flavor to the the base class.

Another change is the healing surge and second wind abilities. They don’t exist. Well, healing surges exist in the form of hit dice that can usually only be rolled during a rest period to heal your character. Which, in and of itself, is a far better mechanic than the whole healing surge/bloodied rules of 4th edition.

Overall, the way the classes are presented is my second favorite aspect of the updated rules.  There is a HUGE amount of diversity found here and each character will be very different for other characters of the same class.

The background section used to be the domain of tables and charts that gave you bonuses and penalties for aging effects, alignment, and hight/weight generation for your character. This chapter has been expanded to include ideals, flaws, bonds, and the more important aspect: backgrounds! Classes now have a second part to them, which further differentiates characters. Backgrounds are the second half of a character’s class. They provide starting equipment, skills, languages, and other aspects that a character’s back story should contain. Equipment can be left out of the equation and the player can randomly determine starting funds. These funds are used to purchase a character’s starting equipment. And this is an optional rule to the game. A DM can disallow starting funds and require the character begin with the equipment offered by their background.

The class + background feature is overwhelmingly awesome. There is so much diversity in character creation now that the possibilities are almost endless.

The equipment section has had a lot of stuff added back in from sets previous to 4th edition. More of a role-playing aspect rather than concentrating almost exclusively on combat-related equipment. Players can now buy goods and services, mounts, vehicles, and a slew of personal gear. Everything is described from daggers to tool sets (crafting! YEAH!) and beginning bundles of equipment. This is a much needed overhaul from the stark landscape that 4th edition had.

The final section of Part one, chapter 6, deals with customization options. Multi-classing, which has been around since the first edition of AD&D is back to its 3rd edition rewrite. Players can pick and choose which class the character should take at each level. With one caveat: The character must meet a certain minimum requirement before the class can be chosen. Gone are the 3rd and 3.5 monster builds where anyone could have a level in every class if they so chose. Gone is the severely limited and short-sided approach that 4th edition took to multi-classing. Things make sense with the revamped 3rd edition mechanics. And the game is better for it.

Feats are now an optional feature of the game. They have been around since 3rd edition and have become one of the defining features of D&D. Many feats have been combined into one, more powerful feat. Alertness, for example, merges the original Alertness feat and Improved Initiative. It also expands on the previous two feats with another feature. Some feats have ability bonuses as one of the benefits for choosing the them. And, feats are not automatically gained at first, third, sixth, etc. level as in previous editions. Feats are so powerful now that they replace ability increases. And they’re worth it! As stated previously, humans are the only race that can start the game with a feat. This is incredibly awesome! it makes human characters a truly viable choice for players.

There is also a new mechanic which replaces hero points from 4th edition. it’s called Inspiration. Which can be used to re-roll a die or provide other effects at the DM’s discretion. You either have inspiration or you don’t. You can’t accumulate them like you could with hero points.

Overall, the character creation portion of the book is very solid and provides for a plethora of different characters. The race and class selections are superb and as I initially read through the book, the smile on my face kept getting wider and wider as I consumed each word.

The majority of information is present, with the exception of skills. There is no chapter on skills as in previous editions. Instead, they are mere footnotes for the abilities to which they belong. This was highly frustrating since I was looking for the rogue’s disable traps and open locks skills but they were only barely spoken of, even under dexterity’s entry. And they are not mentioned in the index.

And therein lies my biggest pet peeve with the book: organization. While everything is logically laid out, it feels as if the book was organized with the mindset that a player of previous editions would be buying the book. It seems to be expected that such a player would simply know that disable traps and open lock are dexterity-based skills. Looking up a skill in the index sends you to the entry for the ability to which the skill is attached instead of simply providing the page number the skill is presented. An index should not send a reader on a wild goose chase only to find out the item in question is mentioned in a footnote that the DM may use the ability.

In conclusion (for Part 1), the 5th edition Player’s Handbook is a marvelous piece of work. While the rules are updated, I feel like I’m playing 1st or 2nd edition AD&D again. So far, this is what 3rd edition and 4th edition should have been!

Next time, we’ll look at the last two parts of the book and the appendices.

Until then, enjoy playing games!

Updated: October 2, 2014 — 9:10 am
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