I had the opportunity to playtest the new Beta version of Wizards of the Coast 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons (DnD). Yes 5th edition, it appears as if Wizards has seen the formalisation of Pathfinder with its international mainstream hardcopy release, which now outsells DnD, and reacted with yet another edition of this iconic roleplaying game.
If anyone has had the pleasure, some would say displeasure, of playing 4th edition DnD, then they know just how far it has strayed from its Red Box and Advanced rules, feel and form. This is not to say it is without its merits, it is very good for organised play events, large scale living world play and plays extremely well with miniatures. There are definitely some problems though, and based on my recent experience the way is being paved for those problems to be rectified, and what’s more exciting, when I played it felt like it did 10 years ago!
Firstly there is no official name yet, so around the place it is generally referred to as ‘5th Edition‘, ‘5E‘ or ‘DndNext‘. Whatever you call it its development marks a change for Wizards of the Coast. Wizards intend to, and have begun to, ‘’crowdsource’’ the design. What this means is that as they move along the design process they will release parts of the game for open download and play, they will then accept and analyse feedback, and in theory alter any commonly identified problems. It has been called an open beta and is a copy of what Paizo did with Pathfinder.
Phase one of this began with the release for download late in May, upon reading the very brief rule outline and the 5 supplied characters I was very pleasantly surprised and optimistic. So what is different? What is the same? What is new?
What is Different?
The list here is far too long as most things have changed, I will go over what I consider the major features.
In 4th Edition the characters were weighed down by the sheer amount of optioned opened to them in any given round. What this basically did was slow combat down tremendously. You could have your attack, go out have lunch, build a small mud brick hut and come back still having to wait 15 minutes for your next turn, hyperbole yes, but combat was slow. This was because of the system which was attacks, interrupts, opportunities, reactions, minors and moves.
The new edition strips this back, you can still move attack and do something small, but there are no opportunity attacks, not reactions which break up the flow of play. We found combat so much quicker when we test played. What this does is it keeps you interactive with the game, it is always moving so there feels like there is a persistent threat. This is channelling 2nd and 3rd editions DnD.
Move is different and about time too. You can now move, attack and move again, as long as it is within your total allowed move for the round. This means a little realism and common sense is introduced. A Rogue can now step out of the shadows snipe and attempt to blend away again. A fighter can run past a doorway, let fly a bolt and keep going. This is what DnD lost in 4th edition. Everything was a little automated, now one can be imaginative, we had a Halfling thief who spent a great deal of time hiding behind the Elven wizard, poking his head out firing off his sling and hiding again, as a good rogue should.
At Will, Encounter and Daily powers are gone. Now fighters hit things with their weapons, I know revolutionary. Where the flavour comes in is two-fold. The first is up to the characters imagination, using move, skill and the like to enhance their position and powers. The second comes in the form of themes, which we will discuss in a moment, but which give abilities akin to feats in 3/3.5 ed.
Wizards do not revert all the way back to where they cast one spell and then must sit out cheering for the rest of the combat, they now have limited spells they can cast daily with preparation, harking back to earlier editions, but this is supplemented by Cantrips, which actually have merit now. I played the wizard and with his theme his cantrips were Detect Magic, Light, Ray of Frost, Magic Missile and Shocking Grasp. This meant when I used my more powerful spells, I still had a lot to contribute to the contest.
Saving throws in the form of ability checks are in. These saving throws are against the casters spell DC, which is based on the necessary ability modifier. Why is this a change worth noting? Well in 4th Ed saving throws were just to stop ongoing effects, now they are back to saving for half damage as well as other effects such as charm, sleep etc. For example, as a wizard I cast sleep on a group of 9 goblins, they were all drowsy and had to save against my spell DC 13 with their Wisdom modifier, all but 2 of them fell asleep.
What is the same?
It is still DnD. The creators have kept at the core the feel and real nature of Dungeons and Dragons. The basic premise of you are adventurers, go to the caves, kill the monster, get the treasure, save the maiden is still at the core, which is great. Apart from this most everything else has received a tweak of some kind.
What is new?
There are three major new items which I will discuss, all of which I think are very good, one of which could cause some problems.
There is the introduction of backgrounds; while these sort of existed in 4th Ed they are very different and individual here. They mean the player has the ability to customise their character to their imagination. My Wizard was a Sage, so he got bonuses on certain knowledge skills and a benefit of knowing where to find information. This is not a new concept in roleplaying, but if they give a decent amount of these to choose from and make them class specific, they could be a very welcome addition. Also if they make them optional, players can keep it as simple as they like.
Themes are next, and have already been mentioned. I liken themes to the feats that existed in 3/3.5 more-so than those in 4th Ed. It allows variants within the classes which mean a party can have more than one class and still be balanced. In the play test there were two Clerics, one was themed as a healer and thus had a specific role, the other was themes as a Battle Cleric and again had a role very different from the other cleric. Two clerics, no conflict. For example the fighter provided had a them which allowed him to do his strength modifier damage on a miss, thus making him a big frontline threat. Let’s hope there are lots to choose from.
Finally there has been introduced a system of advantage and disadvantage. Basically what this means is that there are certain powers or times which will give the players an advantage or a disadvantage. Advantages mean the characters get to roll 2D20’s instead of the usual one, and choose the higher of the two, for the purposes of hitting, making skill checks and anything else necessary. Being disadvantaged means again 2D20’s are rolled this time taking the lower of the two. An example of this is, with the Can trip Shocking Grasp, if the target is metal or wearing heavy metal armour, the caster has an advantage and rolls 2D20 to hit rather than 1. This is a fantastic system that has been introduced and makes for a myriad of role play and strategic opportunities to gain advantage or remove disadvantage. There is a problem which I foresee, this did not happen in my test play, but I think it easily could. The problem being players, rule judging and arguing to get advantage at every chance. This could cause tension and waste a great deal of time. The DM needs to be firm set rules at the outset that his decision will be final and no argument will be entered into.
All this being said, we fought Goblins, Hobgoblins and an Ogre, with some success. The playtest has been released with an old Gary Gygax module Caverns of Chaos, which is a nice touch. It felt like DnD again, there was autonomy of character and freedom of movement and strategy. Monster scaling has been changed and encounters likewise, so there is a real option to run. Also wandering encounters can be as strong or as weak as is rolled, so there is a legitimate threat in the game and concern for your character. I think a great deal of this went with 4th edition and the tier Challenge Rating system. Again I felt like I was playing 2nd Edition with the best parts of 3/3.5 ed thrown in. I look forward to the next release and hope they listen to constructive feedback from the players; after all it is the original and the best. Let’s hope it gets there again.