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Initial Thoughts on the D&D 5e Basic PDF

I have been running the D&D 5e playtest for about a year and a half. I have lots of thoughts, but I am keeping them mostly to the contents of the just released basic pdf (noted on the cover as version 0.1).

Sorry for the wall of text, but the product has no art, so I couldn’t gentrify my review :p

1) Advantage/Disadvantage:
The adv/disadv mechanic makes combat go very fast and so it flows very well. When a PC has advantage, they roll 2d20 and use the highest roll. Similarly, when at a disadvantage, the player rolls 2d20 and takes the lower result. Skill checks similarly are easily adjudicated. I like that the aid-another mechanic is basically to provide advantage – it feels more organic than adding a +1 or +2 to another’s roll. While mathematically advantage/disadvantage equates roughly to a +/-3, in the game it feels less abstract than that. It also cuts down on having to remember a metric crap-ton of other +2 modifiers every time a PC attempts an action. Since they went for a flatter power curve, there are many fewer modifiers to keep track of for actions – adv/disadv is the replacement for that since advantage can easily buff a PC’s attempt, and disadvantage can easily, well, disadvantage an attempt… but it is transitory, so no one at the table has to remember. It’s nice, and it has a collateral benefit of the joy player’s get when they roll 2d20 instead of 1d20.

2) Bulkiness of Character Info:
Compared to 3.x/4e, the amount of info on the PC sheet, and therefore what the player needs to know and remember, is streamlined. There are many fewer feats in the system (and they are described as optional) than there were in the feat-heavy 3.x and 4e (and Pathfinder) systems. The basic pdf only mentions feats in passing and refers the reader to the PHB. Not having feats in the first release of the basic pdf, and also not in the starter set, hits home the point that they are options, not mandatory parts of the game. Overall, the streamlining is an improvement on the most recent editions of the game, as well as late 2e D&D (which became unbearable with all the kits and splatbooks released).

3) Role-playing and Character Development:
The basic rules suggest ways to round out your character – there’s even a whole chapter on personality and background which includes traits flaws and bonds that can be randomly rolled or chosen from a table. While I wish it wasn’t necessary, it is a nice addition to the book that signals to new players that there is more to their PC than a nice shiny blade and a +8 to-hit bonus. This section prompts development and suggests ways to round out one’s personality. In my opinion, this is a nice addition to the character generation rules and it is possibly necessary for newer players who cut their teeth on video games. something like this in 4e would have gone a long way to quiet the cries of “There’s no roleplaying in this RPG!”

4) Inspiration:
Along with traits, flaws, and bonds, the rules provide a mechanic that encourages role-playing a character to those descriptions. That mechanic is called inspiration and it acts a bit like a bonus token (some-what like Bennies in Savage Worlds or Fate points in FATE Core) which gives you advantage on a roll when you use it. I have mixed feelings about this (as I do with #3 above), but ultimately I think it is a good thing. These items (traits/flaws/bonds) are words or phrases and they do not require a huge amount of brain-space or space on the PC sheet to record, nor do they incur constant bonuses, so there is no overhead in terms of memory for these. You write the word on your PC sheet (and maybe a phrase) and then when you play up that item during the game, you might get a bennie Fate Point Inspiration point for it. A nice touch is that a player can give their Inspiration Point to another player who they feel did something awesome – yay teamwork.

5) Lifestyle Expenses & Trinkets:
These two pieces of the game are interesting and show how a DM can choose to include optional rules in their campaign if it fits their style. I like that, and I think it should be lauded. The lifestyle expenses are mostly flavor, but do provide a quick view of the “cost of living” in a campaign world, and also a way for the DM to get some extra money away from the party. This might be a bit too micro-management for some games and that’s okay, because it is basically optional. It could also be used for good role-playing fodder – meeting NPCs off-screen (in between gaming sessions), and then using them as contacts during a game. The trinkets table brings a tiny bit of creativity to a new PC/player and provides an example of how easy it is to add a game-able hook to the description of your PC.

6) Task Resolution & Combat:
The basics here are not new – roll d20+modifiers and compare to DC (difficulty class) or AC (armor class). If the total meets or exceeds the target number then the attempt is a success. Other than ability score modifiers, you can get an extra proficiency bonus on some rolls. If you are making an attack with a weapon for which you have proficiency, for example, you gain a small proficiency bonus to hit.

Speaking of proficiency, it scales with level, starting at +2 for a first level PC, and capping at +6, which occurs at level 17 (max level in 5e is 20). That proficiency bonus is added to several things, one of the interesting ones being tool use. If you are proficient with a particular set of tools (like a set of lock-picks, or even a deck of cards) then you get a +2 to your roll when you use that item. I like that proficiency is not simply applicable to weapons, but items and tools as well – possibly making your equipment choice more interesting than just picking items off a list. Proficiency can affect saves too, which brings me to…

7) Saving Throws:
There is a saving throw for each attribute and each class gets to add a +2 proficiency bonus to two different saves, based on what that class is traditionally good at. Rogues, for example, have proficiency on DEX and INT saves. I like the system because it ties things to attributes and it cuts down on the clutter of terms (e.g. Fortitude, Reflex, Will saves). Speaking of fort/ref/will – those were treated more like defenses, so the DM would actively attack one of those and the player would have to passively wait and see if they succeeded at dodging whatever it is they were trying to avoid. I like that saves are now more active – the player rolls a save to avoid something and it comes off as more pro-active and less clunky than the defensive saves.

8) Widowmaker:
How deadly is D&D 5? Well, it IS deadlier than 4e, by a long shot. There is no such thing as negative HP in D&D 5. Damage that puts you into negative HP equal to your max HP in a single hit kills you outright. If not killed by a hit outright, when you hit 0 HP you make death saves every turn: 3 failed saves (not necessarily in a row) and you are a goner. Three successful saves (not necessarily in a row) and you become stable (no longer needing to make death rolls). A natural 20 restores you to 1 hit point but a natural 1 counts as 2 failed saves.

Getting hit when dying also counts as a failed death save, so if you get hit 3 times after going to 0 HP you die immediately. That’s pretty deadly if the opponents are intelligent, while also allowing time for a downed PC to be helped by his comrades. That sounds deadly, except for the healing options…

9) Healing:
There are ways to heal yourself if you rest for at least an hour (called a short rest). Each PC can spend hit dice (HD) to roll and heal that amount of HP during the rest. So, for example, a 3rd level fighter will have 3d10 HD, and a 2nd level rogue will have 2d6 HD. The fighter can spend all three of those to heal during a short rest, healing anywhere from 3 to 30 HP. You only get your level number of HD (e.g. 4th level = 4HD) and you only regain half of those HD when you rest for 8 hours. So that fighter only gets 1 HD back after a long rest (recovers half HD, so 3 divided by 2, rounded down), but when you take a long rest, you also gain all your HP back as long as you started the rest with at least 1 HP. So, the first day of an adventure it is easy to regain HP during short rests, but after you have spent all your HD, you don’t regain them very fast.

I have mixed feelings about this type of healing system. It is waaaay better than the heal-a-thon that was 4e, but it seems very easy to heal thyself compared to old school games like AD&D or Basic D&D (or clones like Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry). Of course, D&D is also set in the Forgotten Realms, a very high magic setting (blah), so healing potions are abundant and healing magic is well known and accessible for the right price.

This all adds up to make healing a middle of the road proposition – easier than in old school games but harder than 4e. I think this is what the designers were aiming for. Of course, one could easily house-rule the game to make it harder to heal and therefore easier to die… and I run my game in my homebrew world, which is relatively low magic and healing doesn’t come as easy to the PCs.

It plays fast, but I can see where they have set it up so that a DM can build upon the basic system if one so chooses. Word is that they will have optional bolt-on rules modules that will easily mesh with the basic rules and PHB. Tactical combat is one such option that the team has mentioned in the past as a likely optional rules-module. I’m not sure if all of those rules-options will be presented in the DMG or if they will create additional products with those – probably it will be some combination of the two.

Speaking of tactical combat, the lack of tactical grid-based combat makes me very happy. I loved 4e for what it was, and it did some things very well, but by 2011 I was tired of the extremely long battles. I was ready for some theater of the mind style play and so I turned to older games and retro-clones (and also newer grid-less systems that use abstract distances), and 5e has made me happy with the way they are implementing the combat rules.

Another thing I like is the relative emphasis on role-playing and developing characters. I appreciate the way the system allows for the connection of proficiency to tools, not just weapons. I think the saving throws are an improvement over the old fort/ref/will set of saves that were seemingly unrelated (at least at first glance for a new player) and which acted as defenses.

So that is my generic run-down of how I see the new edition. As I said, I have been running the play-test for over a year, so nothing here is really new to me. I am happy to see the solidified version of the rules (play-testing, as some of you know, can be grueling and frustrating) and my players are eagerly awaiting the release of the PHB to see if their characters are going to change all that much.

Final Word:
Now that I have seen the official basic rules, will I keep playing D&D 5? Probably, if only because I have an enthusiastic and creative group, and honestly, D&D holds a special place in my heart since it is my first love among RPGs. So I will buy the core books and probably not much more, and I will continue to run it in a very old school fashion.

Until next time, I wish you good gaming!


Post Script: I know I just wrote a whole bunch of stuff about D&D 5, but I do want to add one final thing… I’m not an edition warrior. I believe that everyone should play the game they want to play, the game that gives them the most joy, the game with which they have the most fun, and the game that they find meets their needs at any given time. For me, I am realizing more and more, that game is Castles & Crusades. I find the system elegant, easy to learn, easy to use, easy to house-rule without blowing up the game, and most forgiving of said houserules. Castles & Crusades is like the rosetta stone of RPGs. You can take pretty much any fantasy RPG  adventure and have a very easy time converting it to play with C&C (especially old school adventures and retro-clones). C&C is, more and more, becoming my go-to game. Will D&D 5e dethrone it? At this point, I don’t think so – even though the team did an absolutely fantastic job implementing their vision and they have obviously made a game that can be favored by a great deal of people (young and old). I still think Castles & Crusades, with it’s unified mechanic, is the best thing for me right now. But there is a 5e PHB coming out in about a month – I’ll let you know then :)



DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

15 Responses to “Initial Thoughts on the D&D 5e Basic PDF”

  • Thanks for the write-up Samuel. I haven’t played 4e in what seems forever so I have not been following the 53 stuff either. I did get recently asked if I was up for the new system, so starting to read up on it now to get a feel for it.

    Thanks again.

  • […] going to be lazy and, first, point you to this awesome post on RPGMusings with DM Samuel’s impressions. Seriously, click it, read it, and resume here. I honestly can’t say it any better than him, […]

  • Hi Sam,

    Yes, I echo most of your review, good and bad. My own feelings:

    1.) So glad feats have been tamed. Pathfinder is now deeply splatbooked but even if one just uses the Core Rule Book, it’s a situation that’s out of control. That an ordinary character has feats AND skills AND racial abilities AND class abilities AND possible prestige classes AND spells is just dumb.

    2.) Also glad that the number of stats has been tamped down. 3.5E/PF and 4E had simply too many stats that were the sum of several other stats (Will, Reflex, AC, etc.). Particularly attack rolls; that those are no longer the product of 4 or 5 other factors is a very welcome change.

    3.) I like the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. It’s like they took the otherwise unbalanced 4E Avenger and made *every class* the 4E Avenger.

    4.) My own oddball favorite thing: The Random Trinket Table. I dunno why, it just charms me. Reminds me of my all-time favorite random table in all of RPGs: The Dragonlance Adventures book table for “What does a Kender find in his pockets?”

    5.) Downside #1 – AC: I cannot believe that we are still effectively in a situation where wearing armor makes you *harder to hit*. Why is it so impossible for WoTC to conceive of just taking Damage Reduction and making *that* the function of armor? Why?

    6.) Downside #2 – Vancian Magic. Again, five editions and change and we are *still* stuck with Vancian magic (viz. you ‘memorize’ spells and then they are wiped from your memory by casting them; oh and no–daily spell levels are not fungible). They’ve now quintupled-down on the most nonsensical element of all D&D ruledom. Bravo, WotC: For you, I clap the slowest of claps.

    7.) Downside #3 – Physical formatting of the basic box: Quite simply, there is no justification for this to be a boxed set. It includes two thin, saddle-stapled booklets (rules and adventure), pregen character sheets, a pack of dice and . . . a huge, blank, honking cardboard insert to fill up the remaining 3/4 of the box’s empty volume. Really, how hard would it have been to leave out the dice and just make this a perfect-bound, 200-page softcover book? Oh well, at least it’s only $13 on Amazon.

  • Oh and forgot to remark on one other thing: Yes, I also share your feelings about the new optionality of maps and minis. This is a good change. I like maps and minis, but not to the extent to which 4E pushed them. The sidestep and/or attack-of-opportunity rules are something I have become *deeply* sick of (both in 4E and Pathfinder).

    I actually have begun to appreciate good-quality 5′-square maps not so much for precise representation of combat as for storytelling purposes: The Gamemastery (now simply ‘Pathfinder’) Map Packs in particular were/are good for keeping players aware of what kind of space their characters are currently in. If someone misses a spoken detail about the environment, that’s okay because they can also *see* it on the map in front of them.

  • Hi Jeremy,

    RE: Point 5) AC – I feel like this is one of the elements that they had to keep in order for this to “feel like” D&D. Given that one of the biggest complaints about 4e was that it just didn’t “feel like” D&D, I think this is one of those things. They CAN’T get rid of traditional AC because it would then be a “different” game, and not D&D. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I do understand why they did it.

    Re: Point 6) They did put some heavy limits on spell-casting (look at concentration), but actually I consider the magic system “Vancian Lite” – that is, you get a # of spell slots (which is based on class and level) and you get a number of prepared spells (based on your level + INT modifier). So, you pick your list of spells to prepare from your spellbook, which sounds very vancian, but then you never lose these spells, they are in your head until you pick a different set of spells to prepare. The spells can be any level combination. Then you can cast any prepared spell in a spell slot of it’s level or higher. The spell doesn’t increase in power based on character level, but based on which level spell slot you use. So they aren’t fire-and-forget vancian, but there are limits on what you can cast and that depends on how many spell slots you have ans what level you are.

    RE: Point 7) Note that I wasn’t reviewing the boxed starter set, only the basic rules PDF. I ordered my boxed set from amazon (no FLGS within an hour) so I am still waiting on mine. I understand why they did a starter box though – a thin-sh paperback starter book doesn’t have the swagger that a box does. And you can’t put dice in a book. But yeah – the marketing is a bit off – the starter box is really for DMs, while the rules pdf is for players.

  • Oh yeah – you know I love my maps! I am just glad that this edition doesn’t rely on them. There is supposed to be an optional rules module for tactical gridded combat, but I’m not sure it will be in the DMG or a separate product.

  • Huh, I guess I didn’t read the magic rules closely enough but, now that I look back, yes there they are. Okay, well I guess that’s a stepwise improvement over basic Vancian magic. We’ll call it half an improvement.

    As for the box: The starter box basically has a print version of that PDF, plus the book of starter adventures, the pre-gen sheets, the pack of cheap-o, featherweight dice and then . . . well then nothing, really. As I say, it could all have been a 200-page book, minus the dice.

  • I think what would have saved the starter box is to have chargen rules included. I mean, add 15 pages and 2$ to the price and you’re good to go. Seriously – not having chargen in the box is a big complaint I have been hearing. If it had chargen it would be more like the red box of old and I think people would be okay with it “just” having books and dice, because that is what it had back in the day.

    Other than chargen, what would you add to it? They decided not to put gridded maps or tokens because they didn’t want to give the impression that 5e was a grid-based game. It would have been nice to have a big map of the town and surrounding area though, just as a nice piece of work. But that would have increased the price so much it would have made it seem like little value-added for the cost.

  • I dunno; some sort of handouts for the adventures?

  • Yeah, and see, that just proves your point. They don’t need a box for this. But I think it was just tradition that made them do it. I do wish they would have put thicker cardstock covers on the books.

  • Should’ve added: A nearly-as-good alternative to having full room maps to orient your players to where they are is to include pictures of rooms and/or characters they encounter (viz. DM holds up a picture of a room and says, “You enter a chamber that looks like this.”). There used to be a lot of these in the old Dark Sun modules. That sort of thing would probably have been pretty cheap to include.

  • Oh yeah – and several of the old school AD&D modules had flip books with pictures (most notable Tomb of Horrors!) and that worked well. That is a great idea. I wish they would have thought of it!

  • Except that the average for Advantage equates much closer to +5 than +3. WotC is still mathematically challenged since they did not catch this.

    As an example, a PC generally needs somewhere between rolling a 6 and rolling a 15 in order to hit a monster’s AC depending on the monster.

    Number needed on D20 to hit, percent chance to hit normal, percent chance to hit advantage, equivalent bonus

    15 30% 51.00% 4.2
    14 35% 57.75% 4.55
    13 40% 64.00% 4.8
    12 45% 69.75% 4.95
    11 50% 75.00% 5
    10 55% 79.75% 4.95
    09 60% 84.00% 4.8
    08 65% 87.75% 4.55
    07 70% 91.00% 4.2
    06 75% 93.75% 3.75

    So for this range of numbers on the D20 required, the bonus is anywhere from +3.75 to +5 with an average of +4.575. Also as a general rule, PCs face up againts foes in the middle of this range more often that at the edges. So the odds of Advantage granting +5 are much greater than the odds of Advantage granting +3.75 (since it is a lot more rare that one needs a 6 on the D20 to hit than one needs an 11).

    One can pretty much ignore needing a 2 to 5 or a 16 to 20 on the D20 to hit since they rarely show up in play. If you are fighting a monster where the PCs need a 16 to even hit, then the PCs are probably going to lose anyway.

    The odds for disadvantage are identical (just not identical for the same number). Disadvantage is more or less the same as being invisible in 4E (i.e. an average of -5 to hit).

  • The beauty of the Adv/Disadv system goes beyond the bonus/penalty:
    1) It is simple and easy to remember (making it an eloquent mechanic)
    2) It doesn’t stack, so no requirement to do weird permutations in your head
    3) Players like rolling 2 dice, it’s fun
    4) It is an easy way for the DM to provide a mechanical advantage without having to calculate a group of +2 bonuses and penalties
    5) Since this is the main mechanic, it is easier for a DM to set difficulty levels and challenge ratings

    I like it, I’m fine with it averaging out closer to a +4.5 than +3.7 – The game plays smoothly.

  • Did you mean closer to +4.8 than +3.3 (which is the math difference between using the middle 10 numbers and using all 20 possible numbers)?

    And this does not even take into account DPR. Because of criticals in the case of normal attacks, DPR increase via advantage works out to about a 50% increase in damage or about a +6?

    +6 is a serious boost.

    There are virtually no +6 boosts in any previous edition of the game (and even +5 was rare and due to things like invisibility).

    Replacing a series of +1 to +5 modifiers with one that is effectively +4.8 or +6 depending on what one is discussing (or -4.8 for a penalty) is a radical difference in probability outcomes.

    It’s not that it cannot be fun, but it is a lot easier for a DM to misjudge how difficult a given encounter may be if the PCs can acquire advantage.

    DMs should as a general rule use this rule sparingly and usually only when the core rules give it out. I personally will be having a minor advantage of +2 for things that are worth a bonus, but are not worth making nearly a sure thing. Just as easy, but it doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A single +2 is not going to be mathematically challenging to most players or DMs.

    Math is important in an RPG. WotC found that out with 4E when they did not check the math early on and ended up with the Expertise and other feat taxes.

    It’s fine to like a given mechanic, but each mechanic in the game should be carefully designed to not unbalance the system too much. Time will tell, but I suspect that Advantage might end up being the 5E DMs nightmare and there will probably be a lot of discussion about it.