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D&D Basic Digestion

July 13, 2014

It’s been a week and a bit since the new D&D Basic dropped, and I read that baby cover to cover in a day and a bit. These are the foundation for the rules for the full fifth edition, and my mind’s been goin’ through it all. I may be a bit late to the internet party, but here’s my thoughts/review of the basic rules!

Before I get too far into it, I do recognize that these are the basic rules, which means that not all the stuff and options that will be in the PHB are here, nor will all the stuff and options from the DMG. What are in here are the core resolution systems and the core 4 character classes, aimed primarily at the starter crowd who are entering the hobby for the first time. There will be no wild recriminations or doomsaying or hyperbole in this review based on what’s not in these rules or how WotC has ruined everything again.

Also, this is not a playtest review, so it’s impressions prior to giving it a whirl.

With that, let’s dive in!

First off, what hit my eye is the good graphic design and layout of the whole thing. There’s a good balance here: balance between fantasyesque stylings, with the parchment background, the fonts, and the ornate golden lines at the bottom, all without becoming gaudy and overpowering (I felt 3e crossed that line). I’d call the layout elegant, and it allows the text to read well. There’s no art in the book, which in some ways is a shame (especially the lack of a cover – I understand they may have wanted to keep the PDF size down, but there’s something just… missing, without that first image to set the tone and mind visuals), yet things are still laid out well enough that it doesn’t suffer. The PHB is likely to be stuffed with art, though, so that will be a treat when we see it. Overall I like this new visual direction for the books.

Pretty much all RPGs start with an “intro to role playing games” and “how to play” sections. Ahh, we were all newbs at one point to this genre at some point, and for many these sections are how the game was learned. I give props for how this section was written in these Basic rules, they do a great job of illustrating the idea of the game as well as its flow and the back-and-forth between the players and the DM. That said, one area where I feel they missed the boat is in a greater description of Role Playing itself. This is one place where 4e really shined in its introduction. While these Basic rules do later cover “how to roleplay a social encounter”, there’s nothing as direct as page 8 of the 4e PHB: “When you play our D&D character, you put yourself in your character’s shoes and make decisions as if you were your character.” I think this nicely distinguishes the difference between a regular game (playing only based on the rules) and an RPG, where you assume the role of a character, with different motivations, flaws, ways of speaking, etc. It’s also different than an online- or single-player computer RPG, where you make choices and adventure, but RP is not a required part of the mix. Mashing back in some of the 4e introductory paragraphs into this section would make it sing.

I do very much, however, like the new inclusion and the front-and-centre nature (and huge on the pre-generated character sheets) of a PC’s Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. This is a great starting point and reminder of that “you’re playing a character/get into character” nature of the game, and it’s a nice addition to D&D. That there’s rules for the GM to leverage to encourage it (the rule for Inspiration) is nice as well. This is the most explicit and mechanically-backed RP bits in D&D’s history, and I am happy that it is there. Making flavourful characters is always the best.

The rules are the rules, not much new or earth shattering, nor should there really be, given the system adopted by 3e-onward is quite serviceable. The math has been tweaked towards smaller numbers, which has the nice effect of keeping monsters more relevant longer, and making +1s worth something.

Some specific bits:

I really like the idea of the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. Being able to remove a number of the fiddly +2/-2s and etc from the game and replacing them with add/disadd is great, and the way to resolve it is easy and visceral (roll two d20s, take highest or lowest). I think allowing multiple advantages and disadvantages to interact with each other (ie, if you have 2x add and 1x disadd, you still have add) could provide for more interesting play, but actual play would see if that would work or not. The other disadvantage (no pun intended) is that add/disad is quite powerful (approx worth +/-4 or so to the roll) so using it for small modifiers is a bit problematic, and there does remain some +/- modifiers to rolls, and that now seems clunky by comparison (not to mention it could be difficult to remember if something is a straight up modifier or gives add/disadd). As an example, cover comes in three varieties… half, three quarters, and total. Total blocks attacks, but in order to have two different levels of cover, you have two different minus modifiers to the die roll. I think I have some ideas on how to work around this (likely make it part of the add/disadd system) but I’ll test it out first!

The idea of a unified Proficiency bonus is likewise something I like, for its ease and simplification. If you have proficiency in something (including tools, which is cool), you get that bonus to your roll. No muss, no fuss. Simplicity where it counts.

Best of all, the optional rule for divorcing skills from a specific attribute remains! The DM calls for an attribute check, either with a specific skill, or the player can suggest if a skill is relevant. From my own RPG system musings, you know I like that…

Combat has always been a big rule part of the game, and here it seems stripped down to a 3e-lite type system, greatly simplifying OAs, for example, which now only trigger on movement (and a PC can meke only one per round – which will make fighters trying to hold a line not quite as effective, unless the PHB introduces some 4e-like defender mechanics, (which I hope it does)). Spells and ranged attacks don’t grant OAs, only gain disadvantage if it’s a ranged attack (so casting fireballs from the midst of melee is, apparently, kosher and safe – not sure I’m fully in line with that idea, even if the 5’ step often made it easy or moot to do so, and Staff Expertise from 4e made it fully safe).   Otherwise, most of the combat rules at first blush seem to be nicely in the vein of removing “complexity that accomplished little.”

Of course, part of that will play out in relation to the options available to the various character classes, and in this Basic set character classes are pretty much in the vein of 2e and 3e basic characters. I’m awaiting the PHB to really get excited (or not) about the classes.

I will say that I like the new spellcasting mechanic, a nice spell slot system that retains some Vancian themes. The low number of spell slots, and that damage is based on spell slots level and not caster level, I think ought to help keep the power balance somewhat in check. Not overly thrilled with the return of V,S,M (not counting the expensive Ms of course, that to me is an important ‘limiting’ factor to use), mainly since it seemed to have so little impact on most of the games I’ve played.

And the rest… cool. I’ll need to play it (I know, I’ve said it a bunch already) to get a good sense of how the tweaks affect and play stuff out. Overall, though, I dig the new rules. They seem elegant enough, with some needed simplification. There are some elements from 4e I would like to have in the game, and I’m confident that in the PHB and DMG there’ll be there for the adding. (And there are some things I’d willingly backport into 4e) The full character classes will be, I think, the point of deliciousness for me.

Thankfully, I’ve pre-ordered said PHB and DMG!  Let the waiting continue anew!

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