Tuesday, August 19, 2014

First Impressions: Player’s Handbook, Fifth Edition

I haven't been posting a lot on this blog, mostly because I've haven't been as involved in the tabletop gaming community since my son was born. I've been playing a lot of League of Legends, and failing at it rather spectacularly. You can read about that here.

But I picked up the new Player’s Handbook at Warp One today. I am always interested in a new edition, even if I'm not particularly hyped on playing it, and Fifth is no different. I haven’t delved deeply into it yet, but I figured I’d set out my initial impressions.

The front cover of the book features a female adventurer in an action pose fighting some sort of bone-clad giant. Very cool. The logos are clean, the typeface very legible, and the borderless art makes the whole
cover look very modern while retaining a distinctive D&D feel. The only issue I have with the design is the small red splash in the bottom left where they put “Dungeons & Dragons” when they could have just put that at the top of the cover where the D&D logo is.

The content background is a skeumorphic parchment deal, the sort of thing you expect from any fantasy role-playing game with any production value. Chapter breaks are full-page art pieces and maintain the level of quality I expect from Wizards of the Coast. There are a lot of great examples of race and gender diversity, which is nice to see.

The book’s chapter layout returns to the terrible Third Edition style. Building a wizard will require you to keep three different pages bookmarked as you reference between them. Combat rules exist between your spellcasting classes and your spell lists, as a particular point of ugh. The overview of character creation is brief and to the point, and seems to assume a level of familiarity with role-playing games and how they work.  

The integration with Faerun really shows through in the Races section, where the tropes from that setting are very apparent. To quote the section on dark elves: “Were it not for one renowned exception the race of drow would be universally reviled.” It does not make allowances for settings like Eberon (in which drow are the mysterious denizens of darkest Xen’Drik), but instead fully embraces the Forgotten Realms as its assumed setting. I’m not a fan of the Forgotten Realms books, which may make this point stand out for me more than others, but it lacks some of the versatility I expect from the game’s basic setting. Greyhawk is generic enough a setting that any basic fantasy tropes can be crowbarred in without much work, where I feel
like the Forgotten Realms requires a level of specificity that reduces the game’s reach.

The return of the half-orc and half-elf as crossbreeds, rather than as fully established races in their own regard, is a step in the wrong direction, I feel.

All of the Third Edition classes are in evidence, along with the addition of the warlock. The omission of the warlord class is notable. It’s difficult to really speak to things like class balance or niche protection without really delving into the game, but it seems to take a more Third Edition approach to both at first glance (which is to say little of either).

The lack of skill lists is a conspicuous departure from previous editions. Instead, players select a background, and that background provides access to skill proficiencies. Those proficiencies add a bonus to ability checks in situations where the skill would be relevant.

The equipment chapter is massive, with charts and descriptions for more stuff than you’ll probably ever need. Weapons, armor, adventuring gear, containers, tools, mounts and vehicles, and trade goods are all in evidence. There is a section on living a certain lifestyle. There’s even a section for “trinkets” which are simple items with a dash of mystery thrown in, to be used as possible adventure hooks or to add character to a player’s belongings.

Multiclassing is a two-page matter, now, and is much simpler than Fourth Edition multiclassing was.

Feats are back and seem more flavorful than in previous editions. Some of them are just “You’re pretty good at wrestling,” but others add new and interesting levels to the game. Lucky allows you to spend a small pool of points to roll another die if you roll poorly. Some of them increase your abilities by a point. One lets you give your party temporary hit points by speechifying at them. One gives you a bonus to use certain tools or skills. They’re interesting, and again would require a deeper delving into the book to really analyze.

There isn’t really anything sparkly or new in the Playing the Game or Adventuring sections of the book. Basic rules for rolling dice and movement and the like. Combat is quick and dirty in a Second Edition sort of way. No miniatures are needed, but I still generally like playing with them to keep track of stuff like who is flanking whom. Mounted combat gets some love in the last part of the chapter.

Spells have specific shapes again, and there’s a cute graphic of a gnome pointing at a chalk board with a cone, cube, sphere and cylinder on it. I’m assuming those same shapes will be used for stuff like dragon’s breath, as well. The spell list is three and a half pages long.

The replacement of the Astral Sea as it was envisioned in Fourth Edition is probably one of the most egregious mistakes of this edition so far. The Astral Sea was an incredible concept for adventuring at a multi-planar phase of a character’s career, and while Fourth failed in Paragon in a lot of ways, the Astral Sea was not one of those. My games will likely retain it, because it’s just too good to not use. The cosmology in general has gone back to a much more drab and boring place, which is a shame to see. The retention of the Shadowfell and Feywild make the loss of the Astral Sea all the more disappointing.

The sketches of the Conditions in the appendix are all basically perfect, and I appreciate that there are some critters to fight in the back of the book, though I don’t feel that it makes up for the wonky release schedule of a core book every month. I really liked being able to buy all three core books at once in the form of a boxed set on release, and I was under the impression that the new edition would be released the same way.

Initial Conclusions

The book is pretty and well designed, even if the chapter layout is something of a misstep. There are some things from Fourth Edition I feel are missing without good cause, while a lot of the choices made in the game’s design seem intent on bringing things back to a Third Edition place, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. There is plenty of interesting design space, but the basic setting being one as notable as the Forgotten Realms feels like it might be holding some of that potential back. There were some choices made that seemed a little too safe, and others that seemed very strange. It feels like Dungeons & Dragons, but it also feels like it doesn’t have anything new to say.