Now that all three core rulebooks are out, it's time to take a full on review on the phenomenon that shook up the RPG community as a whole, Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition...
A sentimental reminiscence about how I got into roleplaying, and Dungeons&Dragons...
I'm not an old gamer, I've only been introduced to tabletop roleplaying a few years back when I started playing 3.5 with a few friends I met online. My first character (Korg the fierce barbarian from the North) is still one of my dearests. Even though I am a late bloomer in tabletop, I was hooked on fantasy since I read the first pages of Lord of the Rings when I was 8. I remember making stories about firebreathing giants living in huge stone castles, and the group of brave heroes who defeated them, saving the kingdom, and gaining the treasure.
My early teenage years were spent daydreaming about monsters, heroes, magical artifacts and the like, so when I finally got to play an actual roleplaying game, I was instantly hooked.
The years went on, I have played many games, but I had my fondest memories playing fantasy, since that was - and still is - my go to genre. We never really played 4th edition, our style didn't match with it (also 4th edition isn't translated to hungarian, and back then our group was much younger, and not so confident in our language skills) and we have found that 2nd edition is too old for us, so mainly it was 3.5.
It wasn't perfect though, far from it, we had many problems with the system, but it was the best we could got. We didn't really like the Vancian magic, or how the characters got unrealistically powerful really fast and so on. (Soon we are getting to the point, I promise :) )
This brings us to 2012 where we first heard about a new edition of D&D...
Rumours and playtest
At first, I was indifferent. I thought that D&D is heading into another direction, continuing in the tradition of 4th Edition, and when I heard that is not true, I eagerly subscribed to the playtest, only to be let down by what I saw. All the things I didn't like were still there, and apart from having exactly one cool idea (Backgrounds) everything was rubbish in my opinion. I admit, I didn't really got in depths with the playtest, but I felt that all my feelings about D&D and me growing apart were confirmed. I started looking at other games, trying to find something that would satisfy my thirst for fantasy roleplaying game, and so two years have passed. I played Pathfinder as a substitute, what still wasn't what I wanted, but it had its merits.
Basic D&D? Basically the best marketing deceison ever
When the news of Wizards of the Coast releasing material for free hit my ears, I was... surprised? It's not something you hear everyday, but apart from a mild sense of curiosity, I felt nothing. When you see an old ex on the street, and you acknowledge it, that part of your life is over. You smile and nod, maybe stop for saying "Hi, How are you?" but then you go on about your business without thinking about them. Me and D&D were over, and nothing could've changed that... or so I thought.
Giving the free PDF a good look ( I mean... come-on... It was free) my views changed drastically. I got really excited... It felt fresh, it felt new and it felt sexy. I was sold in under an hour. Touché Hasbro, touché.
The actual review starts here...
So, I bought all the books as soon as I could. My initial thoughts were: "Oh my, it's beautiful, I want it all!" but since then I had the chance to read them all through, and I can remove my pink Gems of Seeing.
First off, Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition is a really good product. Not without flaws, but certainly it has more on the plus side than on the negative one. The art is absolutely gorgeous, the rules are easy to remember and fun to play, and it is fresh. It is a definite improvement over the last two editions and it easily trumps Pathfinder as well, but most importantly: it delivers.
So let's get started, shall we?
Aesthetics and layout
PHB - The art is beautiful and plenty! There are hardly any pages without art on them. Full page illustrations are relatively common, and most of the pictures are really nicely done, and the few that sticks out, is not bad just compared to the other ones. My main complaint is the representation of races on the art seems to be a little off, as dwarves and halflings (none of those are particularly close to my heart) drawn too often, while half orcs barely get any pictures. (Only three pictures, one at the race, and that is quite weak, one at the paladin class, and one at the tavern brawl scene... Yes, I counted)
The layout is, again, beautiful, but here I have some problems. The placement of certain chapters in the book seems odd, and having the spells organized in some better manner than alphabetic is really needed (or at least put the page number next to it, so it's easier to find)
MM - I really can't complain. The artworks are better than in the PHB, I couldn't find a single drawing that I was unsatisfied with. The monster pages are nicely done, and the statblocks are quick and easy to read. In some places the art takes up too much place, or the monsters are grouped together (like zombies, demons, skeletons) and the statblocks are placed a page after the descriptions, but this happens only a few times, and they are still easy to find.
A monsters by challenge rating page would be nice (available online) but apart from that excellent work here.
DMG - The artwork, again is awesome. Different styles are represented over the many pages of the book, but they all fit well, and nicely done. I especially like the cute modrons on page 66.
The layout isn't perfect though. Quite often I have found that the placement of text boxes (which are numerous) breaks the text in a weird way. They are regularly in other paragraphs, often in completely unrelated ones, (on the same page). Another thing is the order of certain paragraphs. Jumping from a drastically different topic to another without significant visual difference (plus the placement of text boxes) really feels weird.
Overall the visuals of the books are pleasing and despite my complaints, these are beautiful books. The artwork is very evocative throughout all three books, and in my copies I have only found 1 print error (in the DMG). These books look gorgeous and the sheer amount of pictures in this game is daunting. If looking at the art, definitely worth that money it costs :)
Although the looks of a book are something that makes us buy them, we usually keep them for their content, so let's see what 5th Edition has to offer here...
PHB - As mentioned, this book delivers. It has everything a player needs for creating a character and more. You could run games with only this book and nothing more for low level characters, and with the information in the Basic PDF, for almost anything. If you are using homebrew stuff, this book is perfectly enough for you, and there is nothing you will miss.
Many criticized how D&D needs 3 core rulebooks to be played at this price, and I disagree. If you have a basic understanding how the system works, which this books explains well, you can do well without the other two.
My biggest complaint about it however, is number of archetypes... There is no sugarcoating, some classes suffer from a serious lack of options when compared to others. The Bard, Ranger, Barbarian, Sorcerer and Druid only have two options, and the missing Death domain for the Cleric hurts too. (And the explanation they give in the DMG doesn't really satisfy me, Ok sure, evil characters are not for starting players, but what about Kelemvor and his faithful? the Death domain is not -or at least shouldn't be- evil in itself)
I would have been a lot happier with at least 3 options for every class.
That being said, the archetypes that are available are nice and work quite well. I especially like the Oath of the Ancients for the paladin.
MM - This book is the least strong from the three in content, but it is still pretty good. The monstes are a nice selection but... Well it has 35 pages of dragons without too much variation. All the classic chromatic and metallic dragons in 4 age categories is a bit too much, and let's face it, there isn't terribly too much difference between two wyrmlings...
Another problem is the amount of fluff for monsters... Well there isn't much. A few paragraphs which are indeed cool, but there is barely enough. Less monsters (or dragons) and more description would have been nice.
And there is the fact that the creatures represented in this book are weighed towards lower level adventures, and the selection stretches out above CR 7. Above that there are iconic, really strong monsters (Liches, Beholders, plethora of Dragons) and few other beings. It could take a bit less low level monsters, and more mid-to-high level ones.
The features that save this book from being average are the Lair and Legendary actions. Both are excellent ways of making monsters more powerful and both are very simple. I love them, and thankfully, both are easily applied to any monster so you can create an adequate strength monster for an inexperienced party which still feels epic. (not that you need to do that on lower levels, where you are drowning with options)
Random encounter tables, monster loot tables and different templates (like young, old, wounded etc.) that modify challenge rating would have been a nice addition, and they are missed too.
Overall, this book is really not that great. If you are good with making monsters on the fly from older editions, you can probably do without this one.
DMG - You know that feeling when you expect something, and then you get something completely different but still awesome? Now that's the situation with the DMG.
I expected more racial options, new archetypes and generally new tools for players and GM-s alike. Well, that I didn't get (I still want them though... grump grump) but I got a comprehensive and excellent guide on how to run adventures, how to create your own world, NPC-s, etc, a ginormous list of artifacts and magic items with excellent quality and quantity of artwork AND rules how to use them... Artifacts are no longer BIG magic items. They feel different and cool and awesome and unique.
There are two class options (Death domain and Oathbreaker paladin) which are nice, but I kinde expected more. There are the monster lists and loot lists (should have been in the MM), optional rules and some extension on less important stuff, that won't come up every game (or campaign) like sieges, traps, diseases.
This book is not what I expected, but I think I am the most content with this one. Overall, this is a good purchase and a great book.
Now the following pieces of randomness are not fundamental part of the game that is 5th edition, but they still add to it quite a bit, and I appreciated them, so here they are.
Political correctness- This is really nice to see. 5th edition artwork shows people of colour in a positive manner, as heroes. Also, women are not clad in bikini mail, and their proportions are realistic, and they are never (!) portrayed in a demeaning sexual manner. It encourages players to play anything they feel like, including trans and third gendered individuals, and even brings an example of an elven deity who has both male and female forms, sometimes at once. Well done D&D, well done.
Less dependent on supplements- I lied, this is fundamental part of the game, but I can't put it anywhere else, so it's here. 5th edition is noticably less dependent on "official" content. You can easily create just about anything for the game, and they even give you the tools for it. You do not need to buy more books than these three, and if you run your own setting, you don't even have to buy the MM and DMG, just go with Basic Rules and PHB. This mentality seems very positive and I can only appreciate it.
So, as you can see, 5th edition isn't the best thing on the world, but it is pretty damned good. I would say, Dungeons&Dragons 5th Edition is the finely reforged blade of your grandfather. It is something that our fathers, and our fathers' fathers played ( I mean, if you are as young as me), it has all the good memories associated with it, all the glorious battles it has fought, in a shiny, new body. Sharp edge that stands its chance in todays world, but that unrealistic clinging sound it makes (as all weapons in fantasy do!) when you draw it from the scabbard, brings memories of old.
It's something old AND something new (the Monster Manual is also blue, making it the perfect wedding gift!)
It is easily the best edition of Dungeons&Dragons in my opinion, and an excellent game for both new and old players.