Dungeons & Dragons 5e: A Review in Perspective

I was looking at reviews of DnD 5e recently and most of them were published shortly after the system was, sometimes before even all the core books were out.  I’m a firm believer that you don’t really know a game system until you’ve played a campaign with it, possibly more than one, and I thought I would take a look at what 5e did right and wrong after a campaign in the Dungeon Master’s chair and as a player.

Fifth edition has returned to the game’s roots while keeping some of the improvements made in 4e and making major quality of life improvements that make the game easier and more fun to play.  Most of the balance issues decried at the beginning, notably the large health pools available to moon druids, have turned out to not be issues in practice, at least in my experience.  With more features for martial classes, concentration limits keeping spell casters from rendering other characters obsolete, and a more balanced implementation of former prestige classes and sub classes, things tend to run smoothly.  Some of the launch options such as the beastmaster ranger and four elements monk are as lackluster as they appear, but all classes have at least one viable implementation, usually more, and the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide & Unearthed Arcana releases have some good fixes and options,  showing that the design team has learned from their mistakes.

Feat taxes have been removed so dexterity based characters are no longer a pain in the ass to run, and much of the system has been simplified or turned over to DM discretion so that you don’t run into the 3.X and 4e problem of needing to constantly consult the rules, while still having enough crunch that the structure of the game is easy to follow.  I wasn’t originally a fan of the 4e style skill system where you pick a few broad options instead of spending a mound of individual skill points, but it makes managing a character much easier and with the choice of background skills it offers more customization both narratively and mechanically for your character than 3.X or 4e where players are penalized for going outside class skill lists; I recommend letting the players put together custom backgrounds from the features and skills available.

The Player’s Handbook is streamlined, has examples, and is actually written in such a way that a new player could pick it up, read it, and make a character following the instructions, rather than serving as an encyclopedia for someone who already knows how the game works.  The player experience in general is much better, with a range of balanced and interesting classes to choose from, simple and easy to follow rules, and less bookkeeping than previous editions.  The changing of feats to powerful but rare options, removal of preparing individual spell slots, and consolidation of a horde of floating bonuses into the advantage/disadvantage system and proficiency removes all the tedious chores of previous editions and leaves a smaller number of more meaningful choices for the player.  From eliminating the mandatory 4e battle mat to speed up combat, hit dice healing based on the 4e healing surges removing the need for healbots or carts full of potions, to ritual casting so you don’t have to manage a long list of utility spells almost every aspect of the game has seen quality of life improvements.

In contrast to the PHB, the great flaw in 5e is the Dungeon Master’s guide, a confusingly laid out reference tome of magic items and random tables.  Originally I was going to write a rant in the style of the Angry DM’s critique of earlier editions, but my attitude has softened somewhat.  Games like The Witch is Dead make good use of random tables, and I’ve made good use of the ones in the DM’s guide, especially the chase tables, but it is not a replacement for instructions on how to run a game, which are largely absent.  In contrast to the easy to follow layout of the PHB, the DM’s guide opens with advice on organizing the planes and cosmology of your campaign, which is not necessarily relevant and a terrible place to start.  There are no instructions for how to set up a first session, no full session examples, and no example dungeons.  5e is an improvement because it in part returns to the lighter rules of earlier editions, but nothing in the DM’s guide gives suggestions on how to use this new discretion- it is assumed the reader already knows how to run the game.  In light of robust instructions for setting up a session in single author games such as Monster of the Week the Dungeon Master’s guide is pathetic and probably has limited 5e’s growth by barring all but experienced players from the Dungeon Master’s chair.

The suggested adventuring day of 6-8 encounters remains difficult to fit into a 4 hour session, and its failure skews the suggested challenge rating and encounter compositions; I will probably test out the optional longer rest rules the next time I run a game- they look promising.

Dungeons and Dragons was not originally meant to be played at high levels and it still shows in this edition.  The wheels start to come off of bounded accuracy with armor largely becoming meaningless in the face of growing proficiency bonuses as levels go into the double digits, and while martials remain relevant in combat the utility gap yawns wide with spellcasters often having more skills and utility spells such as teleports and flying, while the thief subclass can’t even get a climb speed.

I leveled my players up to 20 for our final session and it just wasn’t interesting; nothing threatened them.  Dungeon World‘s system for retiring characters might be a useful house rule, as is Tim Kask’s suggestion that characters retire after founding a stronghold.  I’m looking forward to Matt Colville’s house rules on the subject.  There are experimental mass combat rules in the Unearthed Arcana and based on my limited experience with them DnD is not a system that functions well in mass combat- FATE and Savage Worlds handle it better- and Dungeon World has more robust mechanics for building cities.  At some point it stops making sense for high level characters to be vagrants rummaging through ruins, and the system does not handle it very elegantly.

At times it feels like DnD has been re-purposed into something it wasn’t meant to be; the original TSR editions were based on exploration and treasure-finding as much or more so than combat.  The Dungeon Master’s handbook supports this in saying that a game should rest of a triad of combat, social interaction, and exploration, but few rules, examples, or suggestions are given for the latter two.  5e works despite this but it feels like aspects of the game have been abandoned, and I wonder how much better it could be.  The absolutely lackluster ranger that the game launched with might be worsened by wilderness exploration falling to the wayside.  Combat, skills, and magic all feel tight and well written; I just wish the exploration and social aspects had gotten a fraction of that attention.

I figured it out on my own eventually but the first campaign I ran could have been much better, and I had been a long time player before stepping up to run a game.  My complaints boil down to the weakness of the first time DM experience.  I’m now comfortable with the system and can improvise what the rules do not cover, in part from learning from systems with more guidance such as Dungeon World and The Sprawl, but I have lost a lot of time and the game has lost a lot of players to that initial rough patch.  Wizards of the Coast claims that 5e is selling well, better than previous editions, and my own experience matches that- many of the people I have played with are sitting down at the RPG table for the first time, more so than when I played Pathfinder, but while it may be doing well, I think it could have been done better.  Maybe the purchasable adventure paths solve these problems, but I had a taste of them in Adventurer’s League and didn’t care for them.

5e fixed what was broken from past editions but was too afraid to make some needed structural changes to help the DM and lessen the focus on combat after the commercial failure of 4e.  There are fan made resources to fix these issues- Youtubers such as Matt Colville, message boards, reddit, tumblr, tg, and other communities all can offer a lot of help.  This is the edge that DnD has over all other games- its community is huge and picks up the slack.

TL,DR: 5e is a system that has learned from Dungeons & Dragons’ past mistakes and successes to make a good low fantasy experience; problems from previous editions remain but are greatly diminished.