Return to the Dungeon (Part 01)

Sorry to disappoint my more salacious readers, but while I can bust out a turtle binding with the best of them this is about Dungeons and Dragons, not BDSM. Specifically it’s about my thoughts on Dungeon & Dragons 5th edition as I read through the core books. Dungeons and Dragons was the first role-playing game I owned or ran. After reading the original Dragonlance trilogy in first year of secondary school a number of classmates and I pooled our money to purchase the basic D&D boxed set (from Toymasters in Newry). Not knowing of course that the Dragonlance campaign used AD&D (how embarrassing I know). Also now that I think about those fuckers never paid for their share. Bastards.

Anyhow, that was my first introduction to Dungeons and Dragons the game. I think I got more use out of that boxed set planning what to play rather than actually playing. After that I moved from edition to edition with various degrees of fun and success. I probably played AD&D or second edition if you prefer, the most. I wanted to love 3rd edition, but after running one largely disastrous campaign with it (well technically with 3.5) the unwieldiness of the system became apparent. Fourth edition was probably my favourite mechanically; it was so tight and focused, really a highpoint in terms of mechanical rigour in RPG’s full stop. Unfortunately I only managed to get a few one-offs ran in it. Worse, the majority of my “potential player pool” didn’t seem too pushed on it. After that, though not because of that, I sort of lost interest in RPG’s. I still picked up the odd one now and then when it caught my interest, mostly Japanese translation efforts via Kickstarter. But that interest never really translated into putting in the effort to actually wanting to run them. I think the only thing I’ve ran in the last two or three years was a Night’s Black Agent’s one off. Which I enjoyed, even if I totally fucked up the rules for it.

I’d largely ignored the long beta period of the newest edition of D&D. I’d no real interest in it and I’d stopped frequenting online RPG forums so was largely immune to any possible buzz surrounding it. When the free basic rules were released I quickly skimmed them but nothing caught my eye. Oddly enough I first became interested when I stumbled across a scan of the first official campaign while looking for something else. For some reason it got me really excited about the prospect of running it. Burning villages, fighting dragons on battlements and giant rats in the sewers, there was something about it that just seemed really fun. I started checking out reviews of the 5th Edition (henceforth written as 5E) Player’s Handbook (PHB) and it sounded pretty cool. It seemed that it harkened back to the relatively laissez-faire approach of AD&D 2nd Edition but with better balance and tighter unified mechanics (and who doesn’t love a unified system mechanic?). So I ordered the 5E PHB and while waiting for it to arrive continued reading Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Unfortunately, despite re-igniting my interest in RPGs and D&D in particular Hoard of the Dragon Queen was remarkably sub-par. The adventure was full of holes and balance issues and as I read further I realised it would take more work to fix it than it would to create my own campaign (or as I ultimately decided on, ripping of a different campaign).

So the 5E PHB arrived and I read it and sent out feelers to see if people were interested in giving it a try. I decided to wait until the 5E Monster Manual (MM) was released before starting a campaign proper. Unfortunately, as so often happens, life got in the way and arranging an initial session got pushed further and further back and a heady mix of relentless depression, oral surgery and possibly moving for a new job put plans for the campaign on hold. The release date of the 5E Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) got pushed back and next thing I know it’s the Christmas season. Luckily I was saved having to buy the DMG as I received it as a present. While I was initially happy enough to simply run a few adventures as I cast about for something to replace Hoard of the Dragon Queen the urge to run (or play) a campaign grew larger and larger. So that is my goal for 2015, run a D&D campaign (not my only goal of course, just my RPG goal).

I’d decided post Hoard of the Dragon Queen that I would use a published campaign. However Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the only one available for 5E so it would mean conversion. After casting around for a campaign that a) I found interesting and b) was well-regarded I came across Paizo’s Adventure Paths for Pathfinder. Pathfinder was a D&D 3.5 derivative so it would require a fair amount of conversion but at least there were some similarities that could serve at least as starting points. After doing a bit more research I decided to go with Rise of the Runelords, specifically the revised Anniversary Edition. Though as is the way with such things as I read through the campaign various bits and pieces didn’t sit well with me and plans for a simple mechanical conversion spiralled out into something more. So at this point it’s not so much the Rise of the Runelords adventure path (AP) as it is Rise of the Runelords AP + Fan extra + chapters from other AP’s such as Shattered Star. But that’s really a separate discussion.

So the New Year saw me fiddling with campaigns and conversions. I then realised that in the interim I’d largely forgotten most of the contents of the 5E PHB and would need to re-read it. As I was going to need to re-read it I thought it might be a good time to scribble down some thoughts on it as I did so. And thus this post was born.

Where I read – 5th Edition Players Handbook

The book itself

Unsurprisingly given Wizard of the Coasts track record the book is a well-bound full colour hardback printed on nice high quality paper. The back cover has a somewhat odd matte textured half where the “blurb” is. All around an attractive and well put together book.

The cover and table of contents

PHB---Tyler-Jacobson

I really like the cover artwork and used it as my OS wallpaper for quite a while. The table of contents seems fine, only a page long so it doesn’t drill all the way down. Hopefully the book has a robust index as that could be an issue.

Preface and Introduction

The preface is a little cheesy but it’s short so I’ll let it slide. I’ve read more RPG introduction sections than I’d care to count. This one is quite well done though; it gives a solid but not-condescending overview of what role-playing games are about and a good example of play. It goes on to give a good summary of the games main mechanics (one of the best new mechanics is the idea of advantage and disadvantage which pretty elegantly sidesteps keeping track of numerous modifiers) as well as its general approach to adventures. Which it calls the “Three Pillars of Adventure”, which are Exploration, Social Interaction and Combat. It’s nice to see it enumerated right in the introduction and it’s an approach that I certainly agree with. The language in the introduction was largely conversational, a move away from the somewhat dry approach of earlier editions. All in all I was pleasantly surprised by the Introduction.

Part 1 – Creating a character / Chapter 1 Step by Step characters

This section of the book starts with the heading above and a really nice piece of full-page art showing an adventuring party squaring up against a red dragon. Overleaf is another full-page piece of art, which is decent but doesn’t do much for me. Then we have “Chapter 1: Step by step characters”. Character creation always strikes me as something of an insurmountable layout challenge. I’ve seen it done numerous ways and none of them ever feel quite right. My gut suggests that having all the “fluff” of character creation followed by the mechanics is the way to go. But it does lead to a lot of flipping. Having the steps required outlined before the nitty-gritty does allow you to keep them in mind when reading on which can save some time. As I said there’s no “best” way to do it in my experience so having the steps first doesn’t bother me.

However the order of the steps here seem a little odd. After a brief preamble we get to “Step 1 – Choose Race”. Now of course for most of these steps we have no idea what we are choosing from so the books tells us to go to the relevant section. Fair enough. However I’m sure “old school” D&D players are gasping in sacrilege at step one being choose race. Where are my fucking ability scores? Where indeed. This is the only real issue I have with 5E’s character creation steps. You don’t generate your ability scores until Step 3, Step 1 is choose race and step 2 is choose class. While that order might be more familiar to players whose RPG experience comes from CRPG’s it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to my mind. Your race (Step 1) modifies your ability scores and your class (Step 2) is largely reliant upon those ability scores, so why wait till Step 3 to generate them? I just can’t see any reason for it.

Well, moving on, Step 1 is as I mentioned choose your race, fairly straight forward, similarly Step 2 is just choosing your class. Step 3 has you generate ability scores, it offers three methods, 4d6 drop lowest assign them as you want, assign them from a pre-set array of numbers or use a point buy system to assign them. All solid options, in my game I’ll probably allow method one (4d6) or two (pre-set array), though I’ll change the array so the lowest value is two 10’s not a 10 and an 8. After each step we follow along with the process of building a sample character. A common enough addition to character creation sections but always a good idea I think. It also works better coming after each step as opposed to having it relegated to one long example section.

Step 4 is describe your character and is actually fairly long and has some good advice on leveraging your race, class and ability scores to help describe your character. It’s also here that you choose your alignment as well as your ideals, bonds, flaws and background, all of which are nice additions that 5E brings to the table (no pun intended). Step 5 has you choose your equipment as well as work out your armour class and your weapon statistics. Step 6 is the final step and has you work out with the other players and the DM how the party got together and knows one another etc. Old hat for experienced groups but it’s a good idea to explicitly point it out.

The chapter finishes off with instructions on how to start your character beyond first level as well as a brief overview of the various “tiers of play” as dictated by character level and ability. The chapter is fairly short but I think it comprehensively covers everything you’d need to make a character. Going in I wasn’t sure about its place in the layout but I think it works well.

Chatper 2 – Races

Chapter starts with another full-page piece of art, I’d have to pull it out of storage to be sure but I’m pretty sure it’s an homage to a similar piece of art in the AD&D 2nd Edition PHB. There’s a brief two paragraph overview of the races, then another two paragraphs broadly covering racial demographics in a typical D&D world and a bit about choosing your characters race. Then we have a breakdown of what each racial entry will consist of, in short fluff followed by crunch. Then it’s on to the real meat of the chapter, the races.

We start with the Dwarf, each racial entry starts with a piece of art showing a member of the race in question (in this case we have a handsome female dwarf) and a short fictional excerpt relating to the race from one of the myriad D&D novels. We have a two or three page introduction to the race. Then we have the races basic stats and then additional stats for some of the races subraces, in this case Hill (aka wise) and Mountain (aka strong) Dwarfs. I don’t dislike Dwarfs as a race. But I do find them boring. This entry does nothing to change that. D&D Dwarfs are, unsurprisingly, stereotypical Dwarfs. Considering the extended franchise did a lot to entrench that stereotype in pop culture one shouldn’t be surprised. But I just never think of any interesting character concepts for Dwarfs, they all seem to devolve into Flint, as if he’s the archetypal Dwarf concept.

Next we have Elves, with a picture of Drizzt and a fictional extract covering the same. Hardly surprising as in D&D terms he’s certainly the most recognisable Elf out there. Much like the Dwarf entry there’s nothing particularly outré in the Elf entry. They’re more or less as stereotypical as Dwarfs. Though their stereotype seems to cover a lot more niches (I mean off the top of my head you have Bard, Wizard, Archer, Swordsman, all different but quite “Elfy”). Elves, because they’re fabulous, get three subraces, High, Wood and Dark/Drow. The last we can again thank our friend Drizzt for. Actually I think the race entry for Elves is probably the longest in the book. Here is where I would introduce my first house-rule for any game I run. D&D Elves are typically short, which I fucking loathe, so my change is that all Elves are big lanky motherfuckers. You’re welcome potential elven PC’s. Just in case the reader wasn’t sure of the authors bias for Elves we round out their entry with a (nice) piece of full-page art showing a female Elven caster. Actually most race entries seem to have art of each gender which is nice.

stone_dnd5e_f-halfling-bard

Ugh, next is Halflings. Which has one of the worst pieces of art in the book. Though the more I look at the more I question it. Which doesn’t make me think I’m wrong about it being bad. Just that I may have under-estimated how mind-bendingly bad it is. Anyhow Halflings are, explicitly more or less, Hobbits with a different name (they were in fact originally called Hobbits before the Tolkien estate stepped in). I do not like Hobbits, I like Halflings more than Hobbits but I still don’t particularly like them. I had forgotten that Halflings were quite long lived (200+). They come in two hairy footed flavours, Lightfoot (sneaky) and Stout (tough). I’m not saying I’d go out of my way to kill a Halfling PC, but I would be subconsciously against them every time I remembered they were Halflings.

The humble Human is next, the racial entry feels padded. A lot of space under “Human names and ethnicities” is wasted by outlining the nine main ethnicities of the Forgotten Realms. Which also confirmed my suspicion that the Forgotten Realms was the implicit default campaign setting for 5E. I think it’s a good idea to be honest. It’s probably the most detailed D&D setting in terms of available material, it’s certainly the most recognisable setting as it’s the one commonly used for D&D products in other media (especially novels and videogames). I also think it’s a more interesting setting than Greyhawk which was the old default setting. Not a lot to humans really, they don’t have a subrace, but they do have a variant. Basically the default human gets +1 to all attributes (which could be really good depending on what you rolled) whereas the variant human gets +1 to two attributes but gets a free feat if you’re using the optional feat system. Giving the system a quick glance over the number of feats is vastly reduced from earlier games but they seem a good deal more powerful. Humans also have the questionable honour of joining Halflings as the only race presented that doesn’t have Darkvision.

Dragonborn are next, if you’re confused about D coming after H the PHB basically (and explicitly) introduces the “core” races (Dwarfs, Elfs, Halflings and Humans) first and then introduces the rarer and more exotic races. Dragonborn were introduced in 4E, while I like the visual, their origin and their power (breath weapons are cool) I was always ambivalent about how their culture was presented (leaving aside basic misgivings about racial culture). They feel like a mish-mash of other races and just feel a little indistinct in terms of racial identity. Their caste-like clan system and their adherence to it just seems boring. On the other hand I do like their perfectionist drive for self-sufficiency ignoring even the aid of the Gods. They should have focused on that and ignored the stupid clan stuff. Oh well. Here comes my second house-rule, Dragonborn officially generally only live to 80, making them the second shortest lived race in the book. Considering their descended from Dragons this just doesn’t feel right to me. So, like magical penicillin, I’m pumping up the races life expectancy to ~200 years (no hairy footed Halfling is outliving a sweet acid breathing dragon man).

Gnomes are next; I actually really like Gnomes for some reason. They just seem like a cool fun race (don’t worry I still fucking loathe World of Warcraft gnomes). Not a lot more to say really, the entry makes them seem fun and they’ve got some nifty racial features (like the ability to make little mechanical doo-dads). They come in two flavours, basically super-secret forest gnomes and the much more common rock gnomes. Pity the game doesn’t currently have an artificer class, but just reading through the race entry a number of character concepts jumped out at me. This is what I think a good race entry should do.

Half-Elves, nothing to say here really, mechanically I think these guys may arguably be superior to either “parent” race, at least for some classes. They also have a good mix of racial features. The story stuff seems solid enough; it covers the kind of story hooks being “torn between two worlds” could generate. The flavour text is taken from Dragonlance and features my least favourite half-elf of all time, Tanis. Actually he’s probably why I’m fairly ambivalent to Half-Elves in general. Obviously no sub-race so a fairly short two page entry. Much like the one that follows, Half-Orcs. Not going to lie, I always disliked Half-Orcs as a PC option or the shallowest of reasons; I think the tusks make them look ugly. But I can get over that, and the tusks are now optional. The Half-Orc entry is actually really cool. It’s got lots of nice little role-playing seeds that you could run with and I really like the stuff about The Mark of Gruumsh (the Orc god). In short even though they’re half-bloods they still have to deal with Gruumsh whispering in their heads telling them to go nuts and such. This bit actually made me interested in making a Half-Orc character.

The chapter rounds out with the Tiefling. While introduced back in Planescape 5E’s version of the Tiefling is taken from 4E’s re-imagining of the race. It’s also my favoured take on the race. The pre-4E Tieflings felt too much like Star Trek-esque aliens, just an odd forehead bump here or there. They were pretty boy half-demons. The current Tieflings look considerably more demonic, which I prefer. I also like their whole cursed infernal bloodline and pragmatic loner thing. No subraces here unfortunately, which is a pity, I think they could have got some mileage out of having different bloodlines tied to arch-devils other than Asmodeous.

All in all a fairly solid chapter, no really weak entries and several of the entries caused me to re-evaluate my opinion of classic races for the better. Now that we know what our character is we have to decide what job he has, so its own to classes.

Chapter 3 – Classes

Goblin-battle-5e

Not a fan of the full page art that opens this chapter. The central character, a female paladin, has a really bizarre looking jawline; it looks shite and proves pretty distracting. The chapter opens with a short blurb on what classes are more calling than profession, etc. as well as a table that outlines the classes, has a one line description, etc. Actually I’m going to slap in the table here

Class Description Hit Die Primary Ability Saving Throw Proficiencies Armor and Weapon Proficiencies
Barbarian A fierce warrior of primitive background who can enter a battle rage d12 Strength Strength & Constitution Light and medium armor, shields, simple and martial weapons
Bard An inspiring magician whose power echoes the music of creation d8 Charisma Dexterity & Charisma Light armor, simple weapons, hand crossbows, longswords, rapiers, shortswords
Cleric A priestly champion who wields divine magic in service of a higher power d8 Wisdom Wisdom & Charisma Light and medium armor, shields, simple weapons
Druid A priest of the Old Faith, wielding the powers of nature— moonlight and plant growth, fire and lightning—and adopting animal forms d8 Wisdom Intelligence & Wisdom Light and medium armour (nonmetal),shields (nonmetal), clubs, daggers, darts, javelins, maces, quarterstaffs, scimitars, sickles, slings, spears
Fighter A master of martial combat, skilled with a variety of weapons and armour d10 Strength or Dexterity Strength & Constitution All armour, shields, simple and martial weapons
Monk A master of martial arts, harnessing the power of the body in pursuit of physical and spiritual perfection d8 Dexterity & Wisdom Strength & Dexterity Simple weapons, shortswords
Paladin A holy warrior bound to a sacred oath d10 Strength & Charisma Wisdom & Charisma All armour, shields, simple and martial weapons
Ranger A warrior who uses martial prowess and nature magic to combat threats on the edges of civilization d10 Dexterity & Wisdom Strength & Dexterity Light and medium armour, shields, simple and martial weapons
Rogue A scoundrel who uses stealth and trickery to overcome obstacles and enemies d8 Dexterity Dexterity & Intelligence Light armour, simple weapons, hand crossbows, longswords, rapiers, shortswords
Sorcerer A spellcaster who draws on inherent magic from a gift or bloodline d6 Charisma Constitution & Charisma Daggers, darts, slings, quarterstaffs, light crossbows
Warlock A wielder of magic that is derived from a bargain with an extraplanar entity d8 Charisma Wisdom & Charisma Light armour, simple weapons
Wizard A scholarly magic-user capable of manipulating the structures of reality d6 Intelligence Intelligence & Wisdom Daggers, darts, slings, quarterstaffs, light crossbows

No breakdown of how the classes are laid out, though it’s very straight forward. Still a little odd they included it for the Race chapter but not the Class one.

So first up we have the Barbarian. If I remember correctly it was introduced as a core class in 3rd edition. I was honestly never a fan. The rage mechanic, the Barbarian classes’ unique power, didn’t really seem to work as intended in its initial incarnation. The class itself also seemed fairly limited in terms of interesting concepts. It was also a poor fit for making a Conan analogue, clearly its cardinal sin. Anyhow, that was the past; I actually quite like the 5E version of the Barbarian. We get a page or so of “fluff”, starting out with some examples of Barbarian characters before moving on to what the class is, what it represents, the difference between barbarians and Barbarians, and finally suggestions on creating one. I’m not sure if this is meaningfully different from the older Barbarian class or simply better written. But it worked quite well for me, lots of conceptual space as it were between noble savage, primal nature and animal totems, etc. After that we move on to the nuts and bolts, the mechanics of the class.

Looking at the ability summary it seems that while they get Rage at level one, which is the classes defining ability, they don’t get to pick a “Primal Path” till level three. So in essence the first three levels could be considered “learner” or “apprentice” levels, from a player’s perspective of course. I have to say I like how the Rage mechanic works; it’s relatively simply mechanically but quite flavourful. They also expand on it quite well in the later levels. The two primal paths are distinct and both have interesting abilities. They stem from how the Barbarian conceptualises their rage, “For some, it is an internal reservoir where pain, grief, and anger are forged into a fury hard as steel. Others see it as a spiritual blessing, a gift of a totem animal.” Which gives us Path of the Berserk and Path of the Totem Warrior. Looking over the class as a whole a Barbarian could put out some serious damage while taking a serious kicking. You can tailor the class further towards either of those goals or branch out a bit with some utility stuff. The mechanics certainly give off the feel that your Barbarian will be a badass engine of destruction. As they should of course.

00 - Bard 1

Never really liked Bard’s, but I love the art for the 5E one. Bard’s always felt rather wishy washy, while I quite liked some of the fictional ones that popped up in D&D novels their competence never really seemed to transfer over to the games mechanics. The whole jack of all trades shtick often tended towards them being lacklustre in basically everything. With previous editions focus on a balanced party composition this meant you were generally second fiddle (no pun intended) to all the other PC’s.

However I quite like the 5E Bard (a pattern seems to be emerging). The examples for it are cool and cover a nice range of possible characters. The explanation of what bards are and their place in the world is equally inspirational. One bit in particular I really liked was “Bards say that the multiverse was spoken into existence, that the words of the gods gave it shape, and that echoes of these primordial Words of Creation still resound throughout the cosmos. The music of bards is an attempt to snatch and harness those echoes, subtly woven into their spells and powers.” It reminds me of a setting I wrote up two years ago where magic was based on cosmic harmonics. But more than that it really makes we want to create a bard who uses kotodama as the basis of their abilities and performance. Maybe plays a samisen or otsuzumi. Anyway, lots of inspiring stuff in the class description.

The class also seems pretty good mechanically. Lots of nice little mechanics to play with, they get full casting progression (later on they also get to cherry pick spells from other class spell lists) as well as a number of additional support and healing abilities. The coolest of which is Bardic Inspiration which you lets you buff other PC’s by giving them a stored dice they can use on more or less any roll. Unsurprisingly the Bard also has several class abilities that make them good at a wide variety of skills and in a wide variety of situations. Like the Barbarian the Bard gets their “sub-class” choice at level 3. The two bardic colleges available are the College of Lore which enhances Bardic casting and skill use and College of Valour which makes the Bard a better combatant and gives them access to some pretty nice combat buffs. The Bard has a lot of nice, flavourful and fairly powerful mechanical stuff going on. Based on reading various actual play reports they seem to do very well in play. So all in all a really great class. I suppose I should note here that the Bard also has the power to distract enemies in combat with what amounts to weaponised sass, Vicious Mockery, clearly the best Bard power.

Continuing with casters our next class switches from arcane to divine, it is of course the (often less than) humble Cleric. I’ve always quite liked Cleric’s; even at the generic warrior priest level they seemed pretty cool. Who doesn’t like a bit of righteous fury? Also Goldmoon from the original Dragonlance trilogy was one of the less annoying characters in it which didn’t hurt. I suppose another contributor to it was that in the first few campaigns I played of AD&D the cleric PC’s were generally excellent. So I was firmly a fan of Cleric’s back in 2nd Edition. Not so much in 3rd edition, something about them just felt off mechanically. It may just have been the general complexity of 3rd edition but they felt more like re-skinned Wizards than actual Clerics. 4th Edition’s take on them was good though, so by and large I’ve been a fan of Clerics. They’re an interesting class in a way because while all classes have fairly broad concepts attached the Cleric’s may be the flimsiest. That’s because a lot of the flavour comes from the God/concept that the Cleric worships in order to gain divine magic. Which ends up giving Cleric’s a much broader range than most other classes.

The Cleric’s coolest power in my opinion has always been Turn Undead. Especially when you get to higher levels and can literally vaporise lesser undead with it. Arguably its utility is campaign dependent but undead are more or less a staple. In 5E Turn Undead is a sub function of Channel Divinity which allows you to call on your godly powers in order to Turn Undead or use a special power granted to you by your Domain. Which is basically the Cleric’s special feature, they don’t have sub-classes like the Barbarian or Bard, and instead they choose a Domain. A Domain does two things, firstly it gives you a set of spells you always have available to you (Clerics get full casting progression as well of course) and it also gives you some nifty special powers. The Domains are tied to the god you worship and are broadly representative of one facet of said gods power or “portfolio”. The Domains listed are quite broad so you should be able to make them work for most gods; they are Knowledge (some nice caster and investigative stuff here), Life (unsurprisingly lots of awesome healing stuff), Light, Nature, Tempest (possibly my favourite, lots of cool storm stuff), Trickery and War. So as you can see, depending on your God and even then depending on your Domain choice Clerics have a lot of customisation and will feel and play differently.

Another divine caster up next, the Druid. I’d like to say I have no strong feelings either way about the druid. But years of Warcraft has conditioned me to associate Druid’s with Tauren (thanks Sean) and as such whenever I hear the word druid my mind makes a face like it’s just stepped in shit. Add to that the general disdain “real life” Druid’s I’ve had the misfortune of knowing have engendered in me and to be honest I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to salvage the term for me. Pity, because on the face of it I should like the class. They’ve certainly got some cool stuff going on from a mechanics standpoint. But no, first the narrative stuff. Well. It doesn’t work for me. At all. There’s nothing objectively bad about, I just really can’t get into it, at all. Well that’s not true the stuff about evil elementals was interesting. But all the usual “tree hugger” stuff just turns me off. I can’t think of anything interesting to do with a druid, from a narrative perspective anyhow. The malarkey about the “Old Faith” just made it worse. I blame neo pagans and the mid to late nineties.

Ok, I’m good, moving on. The mechanics. Oddly enough Druid’s won’t wear armour or use shields made of metal. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me as metal is clearly a part of the natural world. Still they’re probably best focusing on light armour anyway so it’s not a big deal I wouldn’t think. As I mentioned, like Clerics Druids get full casting progression and their own (nature focused) spell list. In addition they get their core shtick of shapechanging, specifically Wild Shape. Wild Shape allows you to assume the form of any beast you’ve seen, based on your level and its hit dice. It’s a cool ability, both in terms of flavour and mechanical oomph. I’d probably be able to get over my dislike of Druids just so I could use this ability. Druids don’t get domains like Clerics instead they have sub-classes like the Barbarian and Bard. In the Druids cast they are called Druidic Circles, you choose them at level two and you join the Circle of the Land or the Circle of the Moon. Circle of the Land gives you free access to additional spells depending on the land you, well Druid about in I guess?, as well as a slew of nature related powers. Circle of the Moon focuses on expanding the powers and capabilities of your Wild Shape ability (you can even turn into an elemental at higher levels). While both are equal in terms of mechanical potence I’d definitely be going Circle of the Moon as it’s by far the more flavourful of the two in my opinion (caster Druids just feel too close to Clerics for me).

Fighter_PHB5e

While I can understand why it happens so often I personally dislike the image of a fantasy fighter laden down with a golf bag of different weapons. So despite his sweet dreads I’m not a big fan of the opening artwork for the Fighter class (one giant sword, full sized spear, full shield, and two daggers just feels like overkill). Actually I suppose that isn’t really a large amount of weapons considering ancient soldiers armaments. Maybe it’s just the picture itself I dislike; the style seems all over the place. Anyhow, the humble Fighter. The most basic of basic classes is up next. The whole “linear fighter quadratic mage” really was a problem in earlier editions. 3rd edition went a small way towards correcting it. Though 4th edition was probably the only edition that enforced real equality between sword swingers and spellslingers. I’m hoping 5th edition maintains that equality, despite it feeling more and more like a polished homage to 2nd edition.

I’m a fan of the Fighter class. To be honest I imagine everyone is. The class is both quite broad and is also the one into which the majority of protagonists from fantasy fiction (across all media) fall into. The list is more or less endless. While I can see people not loving the class I find it hard to imagine anyone really dislikes it. It’s the “default appearance” of fantasy classes. The background about what a fighter is does the job. I can’t say it exactly inspired me, but I think given the Fighters pedigree that would be hard to do. It does a good job of explaining the difference between a warrior and a capital F Fighter. The suggested things to think about under “Creating a Fighter” are well done and should serve as good inspiration to create a number of distinct characters.

Of course the proof is in the pudding and in this case the pudding would be the nuts and bolts of the Fighters class abilities. Most of the abilities are centred on making the Fighter into something akin to an “action movie hero”, which makes sense as that’s generally the Fighter’s fictional role. They get to choose a weapons specialisation aka fighting style, such as great weapon fighting or archery. They get “It’s just a scratch” type powers as well as the ability to push themselves beyond their limits for extra actions. The Fighter is another class with sub-class specialisations. This time around they’re called “Martial Archetype’s” and are more or less what they say on the tin, a combination of powers and abilities that represent a particular approach to combat. The Fighter chooses their martial archetype at level three and can choose between the Champion, Battle Master, or Eldritch Knight.

The archetypes are all quite different and feel mechanically distinct. The Champion is probably the most generic focusing on raw physical ability and the focused ability to kick ass. The Battle Master is the thinking man’s fighter, you gain access to special manoeuvres which you fuel using a limited pool of superiority dice (you also get some cool secondary abilities which allow you to size up foes and such). Manoeuvres seem pretty interesting, eyeballing it seems like you’re giving up the raw damage of say, the Champion, for a much wider range of options when it comes to attacks, effects and teamwork. While 5th edition doesn’t need a grid and such for combat I feel that if you’re going with Battle Master you’d want to use one to get the most out of it. Finally we have the Eldritch Knight, who uses a combination of magic and hitting things with sharp objects. You get limited spell progression (you cap out at 4th level spells by 20th level) from a limited number of spell schools as well as one or two nice additional effects. It seems like a good way to go if you want a “gish” (i.e. a mixture of warrior and wizard). Though possibly a little underpowered. Hard to say without taking a better look at what kind of spell list you could put together. To be honest if I was rolling up a Fighter I’d probably double down on the fighting part and go with Champion. It looks like in terms of asskicking ability at least Fighters will be able to keep up with casters, though some Fighter builds won’t be as mechanically interesting/involved.

I’m sure there’s some kind clever segue here between from Fighter to fighting to kung fu fighting to Monk. But I can’t think of it. So the next class is the Monk. My feelings on this class are ambivalent. I (really) like supernaturally potent martial arts, wuxia and whatever wire-fu you care to throw my way. What I don’t like is mixing all of that with the typical D&D setting and races. It just feels weird to me to imagine elves using qigong. I’m also not sure how I feel about Ki as a separate power source from arcane or divine or whatever. I don’t think they really fit well into the general western fantasy mish-mash that most D&D settings are. They work well for some settings (Dark Sun springs to mind). But for the more “default” settings they sort of reek of orientalism. With my bias in mind the description of what a monk is and what you should be thinking about when creating one did little to sell me on them. I mean it’s solid and covers all your standard wuxia warrior stuff. Just doesn’t work for me.

Mechanically however Monks are pretty cool. In previous editions they suffered a little from having a number of disparate effects that didn’t really work well together. However in this edition they have lots of flavourful powers (can run on water at level 9, yes, yes) covering all your basic martial art badass basics but they also synergise quite well together. Actually I think the core monk class has more abilities than any of the other classes. Monk’s special abilities are powered by Ki, which they expend to use them and which they regain after various rests (and as they level up). The monk’s basic abilities have a nice mix of flavour, combat effectiveness, utility and mobility. In many ways the Monk feels, mechanically at least, like a cross between the Fighter and the Rogue, they’re not as defensive or offensive or sneaky as either but they get to about 75% in those areas and bring their own extras and flavours along. The class feels solid mechanically.

The Monk is another class that makes use of the “sub-class” feature that’s common with the classes in 5E. In this case they’re called Monastic Traditions and there are three from the Monk to choose from at level three; Way of the Open Hand (focuses on supernatural martial arts and has one of my favourite powers in the game, Quivering Palm), Way of Shadow (more or less explicitly Ninja’s) and Way of the Four Elements (more or less explicitly “Benders” from Avatar). The first two traditions I really like, they fulfil their design goal both in terms of flavour and mechanics. The last one I’m not too fond off. I’ve never seen Avatar so maybe that has something to do with it. But I’m not a big fan of elementally powered monks. Aside from that though the elemental powers seem cool but it looks like you’re going to run into serious issues with not having enough Ki points to make good use of them. Possibly an area for a house-rule or errata.

Paladins are next (yay for classes using proper alphabetical ordering). I actually like Paladin’s, while some of those I’ve seen played have proved trying as a general concept I’m on board. Also who could hate Sturm? Paladins are one of those classes that work really well as adventurers, considering they are almost definition ally obliged to engage in the kind of stuff adventurers get up to. They fit easily into more or less any party, they have several meaty and simple story hooks to hang your character on (I’m much more partial to samurai style duty vs desire stuff but I’ll even take some Falling Down “I’m the bad guy?” if I have to). They’ve got a unique and (in more or less every edition) generally potent set of special abilities. While I said Fighters were the base class above I’d almost argue that Paladin’s would make a better beginner class.

The sections about what they are and what to think about when creating one are solid. I didn’t find them particularly inspiring, while I like Paladin’s I’m not sure I’d want to play them. But they are solid and comprehensively cover the most common (and to be honest, in my opinion, best) kinds of Paladins. Then it’s on to the mechanics and the struggle to not make urges about touching one-self (recently finding out the lead singer of the DiVinyls died of breast cancer sort of killed my go to touching oneself joke). While the text heavily favours what amounts to lawful good (or classic if you prefer) Paladin’s the class doesn’t outright proscribe other alignments.

They get all the basic weapon and armour proficiencies one would expect. Detect Evil was always a pretty stupid spell, based on implementation at least, and the Paladin ability that mirrored it was a frequent pain the hole (especially for mixed parties). 5th edition’s equivalent, Divine Sense, is a much better take on the whole thing (in short you can sense the infernal or divine but it doesn’t act as a defacto “bad guy detector”). The other classic Paladin power, Lay on Hands, functions via using a pool of points to heal hp damage or curse disease etc. Nice simple robust way to do it. Paladins also get access to a class appropriate subset of the Fighters Fighting Style’s. Paladin’s also get partial spell progression, which is nice, though from a flavour perspective I wouldn’t mind if it was a bit more distinct from Cleric casting. Though possibly your Paladin may not end up casting at all because Paladins can expend a spell slot to add extra damage to a successful hit using their Smite abilities. I like this; it adds a little resource management to their spell-casting and also fits in well with the narrative elements of the class I like. Paladins get various other class abilities as they level up such as auras that help round out the whole holy warrior thing.

As is expected at this point the Paladin also has sub-classes, called Sacred Oaths. Though from a narrative standpoint they work a little differently as arguably you aren’t a “proper” Paladin until you take the oath at level 3. This further re-enforces the implicit notion that levels one to three are “training levels”, though Paladin is the only class that necessitates this from a narrative standpoint. If it doesn’t fit a particular character concept it’s also easy enough to bypass or work in. There are three different Oaths available, the Oath of Devotion, the Oath of the Ancients, or the Oath of Vengeance. All the oaths provide an extra list of spells as well as a unique Channel Divinity ability and some special abilities. The Oaths also function differently from the other sub-classes in that there are actual narrative elements of each oath that the character has to uphold or be (possibly) forced to (ultimately) abandon the class.

The Oath of Devotion is the classic holy of holiest warriors Paladin, both in terms of the oaths tenants and abilities. The abilities seem fine but I’m not a big fan of the flavour. On the other hand I really like the flavour of the oath of the ancients. Whereas the oath of devotion focuses on, well, lawful good, the oath of the ancients is more about good in general and has a cool green knight, nature’s champion feel to it. Their spells and powers reflect this. It’s a cool spin on the traditional Paladin (and while most games don’t get there their level 20 ability is awesome). Finally the Oath of Vengeance, flavour wise this double downs on the justice element of the Paladin. These are your brooding avengers and dark knights. As the text points out, these are a good fit for neutral alignments as they will sacrifice their righteousness for their mission. I like the flavour, even though if it feels a little bland (or well-trodden may be more apt). Mechanically they’re actually probably the least interesting of the three oaths to me but their abilities do match their flavour.

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Ranger’s next, the class of everyone’s favourite over-exposed goodie two shoes Drow. Like Monk Ranger is a class that I’m ambivalent about. I like some elements of the fictional inspiration for the class (Robin Hood, hyper-competent archers, lone heroes of the wilds) and dislike others (Fuck you Legolas). I also like some elements of the class itself (e.g. class is eminently suited to the adventuring lifestyle) and dislike others (I really hate the fact Rangers have spellcasting). Fuck me I even like some elements of the class (animal companions, pet class yay!) but dislike them in the context of tabletop games (pet classes work so much better in CRPG’s, too much hassle and screen time in tabletop). So as you can see. I’m torn about the class. The what a ranger is section of the class does little to end this inner conflict as it bangs the drum for elements I like and dislike in more or less equal measure. The “Creating a Ranger” section did give me some ideas on how to reconcile my issues with the class though so I quite liked that part. Actually the “Creating an X” sections have been pretty good. But with the narrative elements out of the way we entire the lion’s den (no pun intended) of the Ranger’s class abilities.

First up are two of the classic Ranger abilities, Favoured Enemy and Natural Explorer. The former allows you to select particular races or types of monster that you have particularly in-depth knowledge off. Usually this amounted to a combat bonus but there you don’t gain any combat advantage but you do gain all the kind of bonus info on tracking, knowledge and such that you’d expect. I think it’s a better way to do it to be honest, as a combat bonus always made me feel like a shit to the Ranger player if I didn’t include his favoured enemy everywhere. Natural Explorer gives you some, quite nice, bonuses while in your favoured terrain. In my own games I generally eschew raw wilderness adventure stuff, but even then I can see a canny Ranger getting use out of these abilities. Good stuff here. Ranger’s also get a subset of the Fighters Fighting Styles. Focusing again on the classic Ranger combat options i.e. archery or dual wielding (or both). Ranger’s also get partial spell-casting progression. As I mentioned I’d prefer them to have no spell-casting but a quick glance at the Ranger spell list shows that it’s a nice selection of spells that feel appropriate for D&D’s version of the class so it’s not too bad. In addition Ranger’s get a few other class abilities that make them better hunters, trackers and general “outdoorsmen”.

The two standard varieties of D&D Ranger are enshrined in the Ranger sub-classes, the blandly titled Ranger Archetype’s. You have the Hunter or the Beast Master. Looking at the Beast Master first I have to say I’m underwhelmed. Pet classes are often a pain in TRPG’s due to issues with action economies, but I think they may have over adjusted here. While the companion is cool from a narrative perspective they seem very weak mechanically, you also can’t get some arguably iconic animals as pets and the pets survivability doesn’t look too good. If was DM’ing I’d probably have the pet “knocked out”. But rules as written your pet could end up a glorified redshirt. The fact that your pet never really gets any more powerful/survivable seems like a pretty big flaw. Disappointing I have to say. Looking around online it would appear that I’m not the only one who feels the Beast Master may need a little love (though the idea that best mechanical choice for a Beast Master Ranger was a Halfling archer used a pteranodon animal companion was amusing). Off the top of my head one easy change would be that instead of using an action to have your companion do something you instead use an action to change “state” as it were e.g. at the moment you need to expend an action to have your companion attack, every turn, instead you would use an action to tell the companion to attack and he would do so “for free” each round until the target was dead.

The other Ranger sub-class, and honestly the one I would have used anyway, the Hunter is much better. It concentrates on the hunter/slayer aspect of the Ranger class and provides a number of nice bonuses to attack and defence in a number of different situations. While not as unique mechanically or narratively as the Beast Master it does have some flavourful abilities, especially for making an uber archer (though that just might be my bias showing).

Adam’s favourite class is next (actually he may only have played one once), the Rogue. The Rogue is a lot like the Fighter (and the Wizard) they’re a staple of the fantastic fiction that inspires games like D&D so I can’t really see anyone disliking them, and I certainly don’t. Also like the Fighter and Wizard they’re a class so broad that they encompass a very wide range of character concepts (oddly enough, even though in D&D terms its part of the classic party, I’d argue the Cleric doesn’t approach that broadness). Anyhow meta-commentary aside, the Rogue covers a lot of fantasy archetype. The description of the class and instructions on how to create one cover all the major Rogue sweet spots. Familiarity means that it fails to inspire but like other such sections it’s well written. Originally the D&D version of the Rogue was defined very narrowly in terms of mechanics, despite the broadness of the classes inspirations. Each edition has broadened this out and I think we’ve reached the “sweet spot” as it were. The 5E is a nice mix of mobile combatant and stealthy skill monkey.

The core class abilities cover both of those areas quite well, 5th editions Advantage mechanic is cleverly used to expand the classic “Backstab” to the much more (narratively at least) versatile Sneak Attack. The rest of the basic class abilities allow you to specialise in a number of skills, whether you want to focus on dungeoneering, thieving, socialising or whatever mix you please. They also add in some nice mobility and evasion options, though I think the Monk still probably has the edge on mobility. The Rogue then uses its sub-classes, Roguish Archetypes, to let you tailor your particular character to the style of Rogue you want. You can choose from Thief, Assassin or Arcane Trickster. Thief is the way you want to go if you want to utilise thieving or tomb raiding. Lots of abilities focusing around theft, utility and mobility including Use Magic Item which is such a handy ability, especially if your DM doesn’t do tailored magic items. Assassin is a cool mix of infiltration and big damage abilities; I’d actually say the infiltration abilities are the cooler of the two (though the damage options are nothing to sniff at). Arcane Trickster is to Rogue as Eldritch Knight is to Fighter i.e. it gives limited spell progression across one or two schools of magic and a few additional abilities. To be honest, based just on reading it, I feel Arcane Trickster synergies better with the core Rogue class than Eldritch Knight does with Fighter. It’s also interesting in its own rights. The additional magic and ability open up a lot of avenues for the Rogue, especially in terms of utility. Their special uses of Mage Hand in particular could be extremely effective in the hands of the right player.

While perhaps not the most exciting Rogue might be the best written class so far in terms accurately capturing the broad feel of the class and translating that into interesting and competent mechanics. Though perhaps one of the remaining three classes will top it. And the first of these would be the Sorcerer. The Sorcerer is something of a mystery to me; they were introduced in 3rd edition where they felt like a shittier version of the Wizard. I’ve never played one nor seen one played so they’re something of a blank canvas to me.

sorcWell the class description and how to make a sorcerer section did a good job of selling me on the class. Both the varied origins as well as how the individuals sorcerers perceive their powers conjure up lots of different character concepts. I suppose the one sour note is that after listing all these cool origin stories for your sorcerer they only have mechanical support for two, one of which, the draconic bloodline option, was in fact the only bit of the class description I didn’t like. If your campaign world has Dragonborn in it then a draconic bloodline sorcerer of another race just feels like it’s stepping all over the Dragonborn niche. Luckily it would be handy enough to reflavour the draconic bloodline stuff to one of the other origins options. Though I’d probably be more tempted to take out the Dragonborn because I like the idea of a draconic bloodline more than I like the idea of dragon people oddly enough.

So on to the mechanics, sorcerers get the usual spellcaster hit points and proficiencies. Which reminds me, why do they even fucking list slings and darts as weapon options? Least heroic armament ever. The Sorcerer picks their subclass, a Sorcerous Origin, at level 1, either Draconic Bloodline or Wild Magic. While both have nice flavourful doodads the real meat of the Sorcerer class is actually part of the core class. Specifically the Font of Magic and Metamagic class abilities. Font of Magic gives you a pool of sorcery points (which is always equal to your level), at the most basic level you can use sorcery points to create additional spell slots or you can transform spell slots into sorcery points. However you can also use them to power the Metamagic abilities you select. Metamagic abilities let you customise your spells on the fly by spending sorcery points, you can double up the spells, disable friendly fire on AOE effects, change range, reroll damage, etc. So the combo of both abilities lets you tailor your spells to the situation at hand and use a simple little resource mechanic.

Rounding out the class are details on the two Sorcerous Origins. Draconic Bloodline is, in isolation, pretty cool, you gain nice elemental buffs and resistances based on the type of draconic ancestor you have, you can grow wings, use dragon fear, etc. All cool stuff that again, seems to share the same conceptual niche as Dragonborn. Oddly enough if Draconic Bloodline were limited to Dragonborn I’d also be ok with it. But as I said, it would either be Draconic Bloodline in the setting or Dragonborn but not both (unless someone really wanted to play a Dragonborn Draconic Bloodline Sorcerer). Easy enough to reflavour to divine or infernal bloodline (though the latter may step on Tiefling toes). So mechanically sound but with some conceptual issues for me at least. The second Sorcerous Origin is much better, certainly the one I’d opt to play anyway (even without my weird draconic bloodline hang-ups).

I really like the Wild Magic option, in terms of its ultimate origin it suggests a ton of distinct but equally cool options. Mechanically it provides a fun push your luck style mechanism that sounds fun for the player and also explicitly lets the DM take advantage of it as well. In short there’s a risk when you cast a spell, or use some of the Wild Magic abilities that you trigger a wild magic surge which means you have to roll on the wild magic table (the DM can also call for this roll under a variety of circumstances). The Wild Magic table is vaguely like magical mishap tables of old but it strikes a nice balance between useful, detrimental and fun. I’d be pushing my luck like a fucker to get to roll on it.

So all in all a big thumbs up for the Sorcerer. Hell they might even have had a shot at being my favourite class, if my favourite class wasn’t up next, the Warlock. While the flavour was ok I felt Warlock’s were pretty uninteresting mechanically back when they were introduced in 3rd edition, 4th edition turned all that around for me though. They rejigged the flavour, added in pacts, and changed the mechanics to reflect that change and make Warlocks feel distinct from other arcane casters. 5th edition polished up the 4th edition version of the Warlock and personally I’m really happy with what they did with it.

The class description and how to create a warlock sections really nail more or less all the things I think are cool about the class. The biggest of course being the pact. Getting your power from another sentient (for some value of sentient) being is certainly more interesting and to my mind, cooler, than getting it from study or a distant god or what have you. Even better the Warlock is wide open to define more or less everything about the pact, from their patron to their relationship with the patron to the nitty gritty of what’s required of them to how they feel about it. That’s a cool framework that you can totally customise to whatever you want it to be. This freedom lets you highlight all the various aspects of the Warlock, from doomed seeker of forbidden lore to innocent victim ensnared by greater powers and everything in between. It also outlines how the Warlock is almost intrinsically drawn to the kind of shenanigans adventures get up to, making them eminently suited for the adventuring life. My bias should be transparently clear, but even as a fan of the class the class description still inspired new concepts and ideas for new characters. Warlock, warlock uber alles!

But fluff is all well and good, how does the crunch hold up? Well right of the bat Warlocks get proficiency with all simple weapons, so no fucking darts or slings in sight. Warlocks work fairly differently from other casters, if you take the class summary at face value they have a limited number of spells known as well as spell slots and only get partial spell progression like a Paladin or Ranger. But a Warlock’s class abilities, subclass abilities (called Otherworldly Patrons in the Warlocks case) and the way their spells work make up for this. To look at those elements in reverse order. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it so far but 5th edition generally has two ways for you to regain uses of special abilities, rest up and such, the short rest and the long rest. The short rest is roughly an hour long and you’re expected to get two of them in an average adventuring day (you could think of them as lunch and dinner if you want). A long rest on the other hand is around eight hours and involves sleep and maybe even a shower, shit and shave. The majority of spellcasters only get their spellslots back after a long rest. Not the Warlock, no sir, they get their spell slots back after a short rest. So while they may have less spell slots for a given encounter over the course of the day it should even out (actually that’s one thing to note the class is sort of balanced around this so the DM could fuck you, accidentally or otherwise, by not making allowances for short rests).

Warlock is one of the few classes where you pick your subclass at level one. Which makes sense considering your subclass is your Otherworldly Patron from whom more or less all your abilities flow. There are three broad types of patron you can choose, the Archfey, the Fiend or the Great Old One. All of those give the Warlock access to Pact Magic, which is the classes’ core spellcasting ability and functions as just described. The two other major elements of the class are Eldritch Invocations (unique magical abilities you can swap in and out) and a Pact Boon. The pact boon is basically a special ability that your patron grants you at level three and it goes a long way towards locking in your “build”. There are three different pact boon (any patron can give you any pact boon), Pact of the Chain (lets you find a better than normal familiar – my favourite), Pact of the Blade (lets you create and summon magical melee weapons your proficient in using) and Pact of the Tome (patron gives you a book of shadows which gives you access to any three cantrips at will – arguably the most useful). The class handles access to higher level spells (levels 6-9) via the Mystic Arcanum class feature which allows you to cast an increasing number of high level spell each day without using a spell slot.

So the core features and abilities of the class are already pretty cool, both in terms of how they work and their narrative content. The icing on the cake is the Otherworldy Patron subclass options. Each of the subclass options provide an expanded spell list to choose from (tailored to the flavour of the patron in question) as well as a handful of special abilities. First up is The Archfey which provides the Warlock with powers relating to charm and illusion. Then there’s The Fiend which has abilities that let you draw life from those you murdered or call on hellish resilience or luck and finally allow you to strike someone so hard you sent them hurtling through hell before returning to you bloody and broken on the next round. While I like all of the patron options The Fiend is probably my favourite. I have a soft spot for infernal bargains and I really like its special abilities. Finally we have The Great Old One, the kind of being who serves as your patron when you choose this, but just to make it clear, its wiggly faced Lovecraftian gods. The special abilities granted deal with telepathy, mind control, etc.

Ah I totally forgot about Eldritch Invocations. You can choose two to start with and end up with eight at max level. As I mentioned above they are unique magical effects, there are thirty five to choose from and all of them are pretty cool and useful. You can also swap out one every time you level up so if it’s not working you can change it out. Oh, a “pro-tip”, one of your main damage sources as a Warlock will be spamming your Eldritch Blast cantrip (one of the best cantrips in the game). You can consider it the basic Warlock attack. As such it’s well worth taking Agonising Blast as one of your first invocations because it’s a very nice buff for it. I’ll stop writing about the Warlock there, certainly my favourite class.

Which unfortunately means that the last class, the Wizard, has been pipped at the post. It’s no secret that I play casters in more or less any game, tabletop or otherwise that will let you. So it feels a little strange not to have the premier caster class as my favourite. But the Warlock wins out on flavour because the Wizard, as I alluded to briefly above, is another one of the “basic” triumvirate of classes (Fighter and Rogue being the other two) that are both ridiculously broad and representative of so much of the fiction that inspires games like D&D. More or less the majority of fictional spellcasters would fit under the heading of Wizard in D&D. So while I like class that broadness robs it of the sexy focus of something like a Sorcerer or Warlock. That said I did still enjoy the class description and the creating a wizard section. The fictional intro to the former and the entirety of the latter were probably the highlights of the class description. Well, I’m not sure if 50% really counts as a highlight.

Story concerns aside it’s time to take a look under the hood. In most versions of D&D (and most RPGs to be fair) casters, especially in the endgame, vastly overpower characters of a more marital or mundane bent. It’s an easy trap to fall into in terms of design; simply because of how casters work (it’s also sometimes a design goal). 4th edition was the first edition that made real headway in balancing all the classes (3rd edition made some good initial attempts but ultimately failed miserably). Without some actual play for myself, and reading about play from others, it’s hard to say how 5th edition will pan out. Looking at the classes I’ve read through so far I’d say there’s a good balance on paper at least. Though as the Wizard is usually the biggest culprit I wonder will the Wizards abilities change my mind?

Unsurprisingly the first ability and most defining ability a Wizard gets is spellcasting, and of course the all-important spellbook. It’s really the spellbook and the mechanics surrounding it that set Wizards apart from (and arguably give them a leg up on) other casters. Oh wait, I forgot as it went the way of the dodo with 4th edition, “Vancian” magic is out. While you can still only cast a limited number of spells in a set period you could if you want cast the same spell non-stop for that period. Anyhow, as I was saying Wizards get to set their list of prepared spells based on what they have available in their spellbook which allows them to tailor their magical loadout to whatever situation they’re going to face. They can also gain new spells, thus increasing their versatility, as treasure, from NPC’s etc. meaning they don’t necessarily have to level up to make them more powerful. Add in full caster progression, arguably the broadest spell list (and ultimately access to Wish) and it’s pretty clear why Wizards often come out on top. I browsed through a few spells, so it’s hardly definite, but it does feel that Wizards, while still potent, won’t leave other classes in the dust at mid to high levels. Now arguably that’s because other classes have been buffed, but that doesn’t really matter it’s the parity that’s important.

Wizards would be a solid class with just that, but they also have their own spin on subclasses. Traditionally D&D has always had eight schools of magic and Wizards fell into one of two categories, the generalist who cast spells from every school or the specialist who focused on a particular school but suffered penalties with spells from opposing schools. The 5E subclass option, Arcane Tradition, pays homage to that history. At 2nd level the Wizard chooses a school and gains access to special abilities based on that school as they level up. However it’s more of a focus than a “one true way” as you still have full access to the other schools of magic. I think it’s a better way to do it, it makes more sense than having true generalists being the most common, but at the same time avoids the (often punishing) lack of access to spells.

Also, while the description of each school is quite short they do work in some nice stuff about the philosophy the school represents and what that might say about the Wizard. The abilities offered by each school are all a nice mix of potent and flavourful. I never liked specialised Wizards in earlier editions, nor had any particular thoughts on the various schools. 5E changed both those things. If I wasn’t so in love with the Warlock class I would definitely be playing a Wizard.

That took a while longer than I had thought, but with that Chapter 3 – Classes draws to an end. I thought it was a really good chapter, it made me interested in classes I would never have thought of playing before and happily cemented my feelings on classes I already liked. Not a dud class in it. The only thing I have slight reservations on would be the Beast Master Ranger subclass. But I’d want to see it in play first and it looks easy enough to “fix”.

Chapter 4: Personality and Background

The chapter opens with yet another picture of an encephalitic Halfling rocking out on their lute. Big headed hairy footed fucks. Ahem, moving on: “Characters are defined by much more than their race and class…This chapter expounds on the details that distinguish characters from one another, including the basics of name and physical description, the rules of backgrounds and languages, and the finer points of personality and alignment.”

It would be hard to get through the previous sections of the book, or steps in chapter one’s step by step character creation without having at least a vague concept of who your character is. The way race and class are written knowing what your character is gives you a good foundation to build who your character is on top off. The first section in this chapter covers the basics, Character Details. While it is basic stuff, name, sex, weight etc. it also has some interesting stuff in it. While most reasonable people play that way it makes explicit provisions for gender equality and whatever sexual identity the players wishes, even the exact sexual morphology or nonstandard gender the player wants e.g. “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image.”

Alignment is up next. I never liked Alignment in AD&D 2nd Edition, it was poorly implemented and frequently broke immersion. No one else seemed to really like it either as the majority of games I played in, ran or heard about largely ignored it. Subsequent editions pared alignment way back and tried to broaden it and soften it up. Which gives us 5E’s version of Alignment, which is half a page where each alignment gets a line or two of explanation and has been relegated to a broad suggestion as to your characters default state. Which to be honest I’m fine with; it’s no longer a strait jacket but a handy pointer to default behaviour. Which I think is a good idea. It also serves to point towards the kind of fictional personalities you’d want to see in a game of heroic adventure. The alignment section finishes with a few good paragraphs on alignment in the broader multiverse and how a lot of evil races are either intrinsically evil due to their very nature or were flat out created with a tendency towards evil by their god. Languages is next and has a shortish list of standard and exotic languages as well as full listing of the dwarvish and elvish and draconic alphabets. Standard stuff, moving on Personal Characteristics is next and is the last section in Character Details.

Personal Characteristics starts with the usual general behavioural and linguistic stuff you’d expect and then splits into four sub-sections. Personality Traits is the first of these and explicitly tells the player to pick two personality traits for their character and gives some guidance and suggestion on what these should be. I like this, the personality traits are similar to FATE’s aspects, they serve as flavourful signposts to what the player think is important about the character and are a handy tool for both the player and the DM. I actually would possibly have liked this sub-section expanded a bit. As it is though it’s a good addition to the game. The remaining three sub-sections have the player create similar traits or aspects for their character and again they function like the more tailored aspects in certain FATE games. You outline an Ideal (essentially your characters driving force), Bonds (“Bonds represent a character’s connections to people, places, and events in the world.”) and Flaws (not just the standard negative trait but something with some dramatic meat on it). Much like with Personality Traits these are all great additions to the game. I love the way they work in other games that have them and they’re a great way of making a character with some nice dramatic hooks without having to resort to pages of character background. Of course “good” players would already have this stuff in mind or in their character background. But now everyone has it and it’s all nice and explicit and out in the open. While it doesn’t take up much page space I think it open ups a lot of nice conceptual space and it’s something I really like about this edition.

All of those explicit personality traits feed into the next section, Inspiration. Inspiration is a rule the DM can use to give players a reward for playing their character in a way that’s true to their personality traits, ideal, bond or flaw. The DM can also award it for just flat out good play. It’s a good way to highlight and reward making use of the personality characteristics. You can’t stockpile Inspiration you either have it or you don’t. If you have it you can use it to give yourself Advantage in a number of situations but you can also give your Inspiration to another player as a reward when you feel that they’ve done something that contributes to the game or story in a fun and interesting way. It’s a cool mechanic.

The last section of this chapter is Backgrounds. Backgrounds are a mix of roleplaying suggestions and concrete benefits. They allow you to see “where your character came from” and can serve as a good jumping off point for thinking about your character’s origins. The book has a good selection of generic backgrounds but it’s easy for the player to whip up their own (it has explicit instructions on how to do so) or for the DM to tailor them to the campaign in question. In terms of concrete benefits Backgrounds give you two skill and one tool proficiency and a package of starting equipment, some also provide additional languages. Each background also has a list of suggested characteristics which you can use, customise or simply look at for inspiration.

All of the Backgrounds have the same format, a paragraph or two outlining the background in fairly broad terms. Then a list of the proficiencies, languages and equipment it gives you. Then the Backgrounds “Feature”, which is a “special ability” that the Background gives you. I suppose I should have mentioned that under concrete benefits. Though the features don’t provide any mechanical benefits they have some nice role-playing benefits e.g. the Charlatan background gives you a false second identity and the ability to forge documents. Each Background rounds out with suggested characteristics for Personality Traits, Ideal, Bond and Flaw.

I’m not going to write my thoughts on each Background but I feel they are all quite well done and manage to walk a fine line between capturing the feel of a particular origin while still being broad enough to make your own. Another good addition to the game and I’m glad to see it’s a non-optional part of character generation. As it stands while not requiring much additional work from the player Characteristics and Backgrounds guarantee that even a “basic” character has a nice dose of personality and narrative integration with the campaign. This is bonus for both the players and the DM.

Chapter 5: Equipment

The wonky faced paladin from chapter three’s opening artwork returns in the piece that opens this chapter. Though she seems to have got some work done and her face isn’t half as distracting. I love equipment. I love looking through chapters on it in TRPG’s, I love fiddling with my inventory in CRPGs, etc. I don’t really know why. Maybe the Arms and Equipment guide touched me in the wrong place as a child, maybe it’s the fact that all RPG’s are glorified dress up (the secret that modern role playing game enthusiasts can’t speak of lest it tear society apart). Whatever it is I’m a big fan of equipment, with one proviso, I want pictures; I need to see all the odd weapons and armour and ten foot poles. I’m not going to break down list after list of gear but suffice to say that the equipment listings meet my criteria for both literary and visual representation.

Speaking of the lists, I was glad to see that the weapon list had been pared back to the standard weapons you would expect to see and which look like they could actually be used. Some editions, 3rd in particular, really lost the run of themselves and packed in a myriad of improbable mundane weapons, it felt like there were two headed versions of fucking everything. I don’t want to spend my time figuring out how using the weapon I choose would even be physically possible, I just want to pick a giant sword and move on. Armour has a similarly satisfying selection. One thing I do like about the weapons are the weapon properties which do a good job of making similar but distinct weapons feel a little different without piling on mechanical complexity. The mundane equipment list had a solid selection as well. Nice to see ubiquitous magical items like the potion of healing make it onto common price lists (it can also be prepared now by anyone with the alchemy or herbalist skills so it makes sense). I did find it amusing that in the mounts section an elephant only costs half the price of a warhorse so I know what all my characters will be riding. The “shopping list” section rounds off with a short listing of trade goods which is a welcome addition and a nice alternate way to add loot to a scenario.

Following that the chapter has a section on expenses including lifestyle expenses. While not a new idea or approach its one I quite like so I’m glad to see it added to the game. The expenses section rounds out with details on the price of food and lodging, services and particularly spellcasting services. All good stuff. Finally there’s a nice little table to generate random trinkets your PC or NPC’s might have on them. I felt this was a good chapter all around and really covered all the bases, I can’t think of anything that I expected to be in an equipment chapter that is missing nor any additional info I’d particularly want.

Chapter 6: Customisation Options

Chapter six is the last chapter in the “Part 1 – Creating a character” section of the Player’s Handbook. It consists of two parts, the first fairly short section has details on multi-classing and the second longer section has details on Feats. Both rule-sets are optional. I would probably allow both in any games I ran. To be honest there’s not a lot more to say about them. The rules for multiclassing seem fine, but from an optimisation point of view you are nearly always better off sticking with twenty levels of the base class. I can see why you might want to multiclass for narrative reasons, but to be honest I think you’d be better trying to deal with that in game rather than resorting to multiclassing. Feats first showed up in 3rd edition, but like a lot of the sub-systems in 3rd edition, they sort of spiralled out of control, page after page of feats each with its own little mechanical effect. They were frankly a pain in the arse to select from and keep track off. There were also serious balance issues between various feats. 5th editions take on Feats is better, there are a lot less of them, you get a lot fewer but in turn they are more effective and wide-ranging. Really Feats would probably be a better way to re-focus your character than multiclassing. Anyhow every class gets an attribute boost every four levels, if you’re using the optional feat rules you can take a feat instead of that attribute enhancement.

Needless to say the feats are fairly potent to make them equivalent to an attribute boost. Arguably some might not be quite as big a boost as the enhanced attributes but by and large they’re pretty good and offer a nice mix of customisation and optimisation. I suppose there is one proviso, you will nearly always want to get your primary stat to 20 (the max) before you bother with feats (unless you require a feat for a very specific build). So you probably won’t be talking to your first feat till level eight or twelve depending on your attribute array.

Well that’s Part 1 finished. It’s by far the longest part, constituting nearly half the book. The next two parts cover playing the game and spellcasting respectively but I’ll save them for a second post as this one is already quite long.

Looking back at part 1 I’d say I was very pleased with it. It fully covers how to create a character; it offers a wide variety of races and classes and offers solid inspiration for both. The addition of explicit character traits and the Inspiration mechanic that interacts with them is a great addition to the game and takes some of the better ideas from modern RPG’s and works them fairly seamlessly into D&D.

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