New School Meets Old School in D&D’s 5th Edition
For my first post after returning from my much needed hiatus, I thought I’d write a bit about one of things has brought me much joy since the start of my break. 2014 is the 40th anniversary of the seminal role playing game Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast has marked the occasion with the release of a new edition. Starting with release of the Player’s Handbook in September, continuing with the Monster Manual’s drop in October, and culminating with the recent release of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, players around the world now have the complete rule set for the 5th edition of the world’s first, –and perhaps still greatest–pen and paper RPG.
I’ve been fortunate enough to try 5th edition in both online and offline games, and I’ve collected my impressions for your consideration.
A little background on D&D credentials. I’m a touch too young to have played the game back in the heyday of first edition, so I’m not a real grognard. My first forays into tabletop gaming were in 2nd edition Advanced D&D. Later I picked up the now vaunted “Rules Cyclopedia,” which resurrected the much simpler classic rules, and which has become a staple of the so-called Old School Renaissance. For me, second edition represents the halcyon days, when everything was fantastic and novel, exciting and more than a little mysterious. The potential for fun and creativity seemed limitless, and completely unbounded by video game inspired tropes like “builds” and “ability synergies,” which turn games into spreadsheets. Second edition will always be the one I grew up on, but the new millennium brought a new edition that had us all in a tizzy. Third edition was in many ways the coup the saved the tabletop gaming industry. Buoyed by the Open Gaming License, which opened the D20 System to 3rd party development, 3rd created a slew of opportunities for amateur and pro designers alike to back a unified system when things were looking rocky industry wide.
Then came fourth edition. We don’t talk about fourth edition. Let’s talk about 5th instead.
Okay, remember when I said we wouldn’t talk about 4th edition? Well, its really hard to talk about 5th without talking about 4th. Actually, its pretty hard to talk about 5th without talking about all of D&D’s previous incarnations, since it is so much a synthesis of all of them to different degrees. 5th edition returns to the relative mechanical simplicity of Basic, with the sense of danger and powerful magics that characterized 1st and 2nd. It relies on the mechanical innovations of 3rd and 4th, while shedding much of the fiddly min-maxing that characterized both of them at the end. Moreover, it returns much of the action to the “theater of the mind,” rather than the mandatory battlemat and mini game play of 4th (and to a lesser extent, 3rd). It’s a hodgepodge, but it’s delightful hodgepodge, by god. More importantly, it’s a eminently playable hodgepodge. Gone are the endless lists of feats and spells–all the elusive synergies that can make a character supremely powerful levels before they should. Also gone are all of the frustrating “traps” on those same lists the punish unwary players for choosing the ‘less gud’ option for reasons like, psh, character, or pft, simple ignorance of the copious writings and theorycraft that abound on the internet. 5th reminds us that its a game, not an excuse to make a spreadsheet. And I like that.
What about the goods? The books are gorgeous–certainly the most lovely D&D core books since 2nd ed’s beautiful Elmore paintings. The art is gorgeous. In particular, the magical items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are the most evocative of any edition. If I have one gripe with any of the design or layout, it’s the quibbling point that they elected to use a picture of Drizzt Do’urden for the default elf, which is… well, not ideal. But the overall quality level is high–very high. And they’re huge: the three big tomes average out to just about a thousand pages, and in those pages are untold wonders–certainly enough to fuel a lifetime of (fantasy) gaming.
We’ll be spending some time with the new edition in the coming, following new releases and watching its evolution. It’s safe to say that every edition of Dungeons and Dragons has benefited from something of a honeymoon period soon after the release, but as a long time follower, I have to say that this launch feels palpably different than the last few. I, for one, am excited to see how it shapes up.