Review: D&D 5th Edition Basic Rules

(Adapted from my post over on Kinja)

I have to say, I like that they released free basic rules and I’m glad they went halfway towards Burning Wheel’s Beliefs/Instincts rules with character’s Backgrounds and Inspiration, but everything else gets a “You tried” star.

The rules feel like a rollback to 3.x, and not in a good way. There is still the “You don’t have to use grids, but everything is worded and set up as awkward as hell so it makes sense for someone who wants it precisely on a grid,” and the removal of minor actions just seemed like a failed attempt to be edgy and different (You now have a standard, move, and any free actions abilities and such grant).

The big strike against it is the return to vancian spellcasting which drown magic-users in options, and the return of fighters to “I make a basic attack” all day, every day. Everyone who plays a magic user I know detests doing so in an IRL game because they tend to have to either leaf through the spell section every time their turn is coming up, or photocopy a dozen or more spell pages. It’s a bit easier if it’s an online or PBF game, since you have more time to look up spells and plan your turn, but it’s still a pain in the ass.

Worse is the removal of options for fighters. At least in 3.x they had the options for power attacks, cleaves, and a very small pool of other options, but now they basically get a stack of modifiers to an attack instead of something that actually feels different and unique. Say what you like about 4e, at least fighters had options and choices for attacks beyond “I swing my sword at them. Again.” Fighters and Rogues essentially get 4e action points and Fighters get a Second Wind ability, but it still feels like a bandaid attempt to make them feel relevant.

It’s pretty much exactly this

The spells return to nonsense like Knock, negating the usefulness of a Rogue in the party and Vancian spellcasting will bring back the five-minute-workday in force. Plus, 4e had the structure to make sure that your spells did exactly what the package said, and imo helped encourage an atmosphere of “Ask the DM if you can do this unexpected thing with your power” rather than “Argue with the DM that the spell says/implies you can do this unexpected thing.” The latter could really result in wrecking encounters and generally making a headache for a DM, moreso than I personally believe is appropriate.

The skill options brings back Animal Handling, which in my 3.x games came up about as often as Use Rope. Thievery has been replaced with the oddly-specific Sleight of Hand, and the newcomer Investigation seems like an unnecessary overlap with Perception and/or Insight. Really, the bit about using one of the 6 cardinal ability scores for a check seems to make the Skills a bit superfluous, but I think they were afraid of stoning and burning at the stake if they removed the “classic” skills set.

Plus, I’m not real confident in their math. While 4e was very detailed, some might say excessively so, it felt balanced. Here, I would eat my hat if Disadvantage and Advantage (A new mechanic where having the former means you roll 2d20 and pick the lower, and the latter is roll 2d20 and pick the higher) have been appropriately balanced into the system since they give a 50% improvement or detriment to the task. Given that they’re drawn from Inspiration, which is basically a way to use Burning Wheel Artha/Bennies from Savage World, and as such have no real clear limiting mechanic to using them, I don’t think so.

Add into this the scaling power of spells requiring the use of spellslots, and I think they completely borked the math for the wizards and how their spell power scales, where either they are using subpar spells and not contributing enough, or they use one that doesn’t have the scaling factor appropriate. An example is Magic Missile (1st Level) vs Fireball (3rd level); Magic Missile deals 3d4+3 damage (3 missiles @ 1d4+1 damage each) at base level, and increases in damage by 1d4+1 per level above 1st (Grants an additional missile), while fireball does 8d6 damage at base level, and increases by 1d6 per level above 3rd. For the less mathy out there, that’s an average of 17.5 damage for magic missile at 3rd level compared to 28 for Fireball, and both spells increase an average of 3.5 damage per level. Barring really forced and bizarre scenarios (Like tons of weak mooks spread over a wide area, so the magic missiles hit each one separately), there’s never going to be a situation where Magic Missile will be preferable over Fireball at 3rd level. That is a trap option, and something that people violently detested about 3.x.

I dunno. While I still prefer 4e, at first blush this seems like what I would pick over 3.x/PF, but looking closer it seems to have all of the same failings while trying to plaster over them with 4e mechanics wearing poor disguises. Hopefully 6th edition will find the happy medium and be something I’d be willing to pick up, but I’m passing over 5e/Next for now.

What are your thoughts on 5e?

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