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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition - The Player's Handbook

Compare this to the version on page 171
I've been nibbling away for a week on this article, which is about the Player's Handbook for the new edition of D&D. First I will go over stuff for new players, like how a roleplaying game works and the things that make this edition different from the others. Then I will ramble about the art (I love D&D art). After that, I'll pick little things out of the book that are of particular interest. Then I'll let you know if I think this edition is worth playing.

I spent hours googling the artists from the Player's Handbook to find good scans of their art. I couldn't find all the ones I like, but I found most. It almost killed me! I hope you get something out of it.

(The one piece I couldn't find that I really wanted to include is the elf casting dimension door on page 232)

How Do You Play Dungeons & Dragons?

If you are entirely new to tabletop role-playing games, here's how it works: One person runs the game. They are the "Dungeon Master". They tell you where you are, what you see, and they control every monster, shopkeeper, queen, waiter, bad guy, etc.
Love this one: Prismatic Spray by Clint Cearley
Everyone else is a "player". Each player has a character that they created. You are the hero (or villain) of a novel or a movie, and your job is to have adventures, survive and thrive in your dungeon master's world. When you achieve goals and kill monsters, you gain "experience points" and your character becomes more powerful. You can also acquire magic items that do all sorts of things, anything from a flaming sword to a cloak that turns you invisible. In roleplaying games, you can do anything you can think of. You can change the whole story on a dime if you want (don't do that too much, though, or your DM might have a heart attack).
It's all about sitting at a table with your friends and having a good time within the context of the game. The DM should make sure he or she is prepared to run the game. The DM also needs to be careful not to play favorites (for the love of all that is holy, do not use the game to hit on somebody!), not to purposely take out real life frustrations on the characters, and in general make sure that the game is fun and fair.

Elf vs. Hellhound by Craig Elliot - The No Pants/No Shield version?
The players should remember not to ruin the game for others by whining, cheating, or being a distraction (by creating excessive side-conversations or looking at their phone which, IMO, should be turned off during the game). Bottom line, if you're going to play D&D, play D&D. If you just want to hang out, drink and talk, then do that instead.

For a good example of how the game works, watch a little bit of this PAX convention game run by the best DM on the planet, Chris Perkins.

What Are the Changes in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition?

Beth Trott got cut off big time
This version of D&D is stripped down to the core. It's most similar to 3.5/Pathfinder and the old 80's Basic Red Box. You just roll a d20 and go.

Saving throws are all keyed to your stats. If someone casts fireball at you, you make a Dexterity saving throw. If you are poisoned, you make a Constitution saving throw. Just roll a d20 and add your ability modifier.

Attacks of Opportunity are largely gone. The only time you have to worry about them is when you try to back away from an enemy.

There is no charging, unless you have the feat known as "charger". A double move is now part of the "dash" action.

Feats are optional. If you use them, you can take a feat when you hit 4th level. Normally at 4th level, you can raise two of your stats by 1 point each. You can opt to take a feat instead. The feats are very broad and kind of awesome.

Advantage: You roll twice and take the higher of the two rolls. You can get advantage in all sorts of ways... usually getting the jump on your enemies. Disadvantage is the opposite - you roll twice and take the lower of the two rolls.

Page 272 - they really ruined this one in the book
Advantage is meant to replace all of the varying bonuses that slowed the game down in previous editions.

Inspiration: A reward for playing up your character's background. When you have inspiration, you can use it to give yourself advantage on one roll of your choosing.

Downtime: This is an abstract system to help you handle your character's "off" days when you're not out on an adventure. I go over this in detail here.

Basically you can train, craft, recover from diseases, etc.

The Art of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

I've gone over my feelings on the art in previous columns. I'm not a fan at all of the "page rips" and the "coffee stains" that make up the background of the art in the 5e books. I also am not enamored with a lot of the art in the player's handbook. It just looks a bit blurry and uninspired. I don't know a lot about modern art techniques using tablets, but I am kind of wondering if this is simply a technology issue.
My favorite illustration in the PH, by Alessandra Pisano
That said, as I dig up the art from the sites of the artists, I am kind of seeing that these artists have done some really good stuff - mostly for magic the gathering. But the more I look, and I've googled most of them, I realize that their player's handbook art is getting all chopped up when placed in the book. Most of these pieces are shown in part, half-obscured by a page rip! Their art was done a disservice. I honestly thought the art in the PH was largely awful until I looked up the actual art pieces on the artists' blogs and websites.

I also couldn't help but notice that one of my favorite pieces of art - the elf vs. the hellhound -  was altered. Wizards had to put pants on the elf pictured above fighting the hellhound. Here's the site of Craig Elliot, the artist. I also realized that Jesper Ejsing is pretty freaking good.

As an old fogey in his mid 30's, my idea of good D&D art is stuff by Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell and Tony DiTerlizzi. In my largely uninformed opinion, the 5th edition stuff does not measure up. But maybe that's just me getting old. Perhaps this new art will grow on me.

I have placed my favorite pieces of PH art throughout this column. Almost all of them look much better on their own, without the spilled coffee.

DiTerlizzi... awesome
Tony DiTerlizzi has been posting new D&D art on his twitter account. I really hope wizards reaches out to him, because I think it is awesome stuff.

I would have liked to see some art that depicted some iconic D&D locations, like a hero in the tomb of horrors, something involving Strahd, maybe even a "crossover" piece of art with Tanis Half-Elven and Elminster talking with the Lady of Pain.

There is a "bar fight" scene on page 126 in what appears to be The Yawning Portal, the bar that contains an entrance to the mega-dungeon known as Undermountain. I don't really like the painting much but I appreciate the idea. There is a lot of art of items throughout the book, which is a nice touch, though most of it feels dull.
Yawning Portal bar fight
There's also a lot of depictions of locations, but the art is so vague that it's hard to make it out. As an example, I don't know what the heck the smoky blob is supposed to be on the top of page 43. A volcanic field? They might as well have just covered it with the piece of art of the infernal contract. I really like the image of the stream-ruins on page 36. I found the full image of this, by Jedd Chevrier, online (I posted it at the bottom of this article). It is really good! It looks much worse in the book.

I think that wizards tried to load this book up with art like the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG book did, but in my opinion DCC hit a home run and this is maybe, at best, a double. DCC has it a little easier as they used black and white art, which I'd imagine is much cheaper to commission.

The paper they used in this book is fantastic. There's no glare and the ink doesn't smudge when my greasy paws rub it for any length of time (you should see some of my 4e adventure booklet covers.. it's like a crime scene). The paper has a sort of "wetness" to it, smooth to the touch and heavy in a weird way. Fantastic!

Random Thoughts on The Player's Handbook

Page 104 The Wild Magic table is incredibly useful. I always loved the wild magic table in the Tome of Magic and this is probably going to get a lot of use in my games. It kind of makes me want to make a wild magic dungeon, actually...

Page 109 Warlocks can take on patrons like The Great Old One. Entities of this type include Ghaunadaur, Tharizdun and "Great Cthulhu". CTHULHU.

Page 114 There's a sidebar discussing spellbooks. It takes 2 hours and 50 gold per spell level to copy a spell into your book. I kind of wish they made a little random table of different types of spellbooks, like one long scroll, or a book made of dragon hide, etc.

Page 154 Tools are really odd. All that to add your proficiency bonus to certain rolls? It's so vague as to who can do what if you aren't proficient with certain tools. I guess if you use thieves' tools but you aren't proficient, you make the check with disadvantage?
The cover art unfettered by Tyler Jacobson
Page 157 Lifestyle expenses are especially handy because it gives us a good idea of how much money NPCs make - which is something that was always difficult to determine in previous editions. Here, we know joe schmoe probably makes a bit more than 1 gp per month as that covers their living expenses. So maybe a modest wage for someone with a family would be 1 gp per week?

Page 168 I really hated feats in 3rd edition. But I really like these feats in this book, Particularly Mage Slayer. If you're adjacent to someone casting a spell, you can attack them. You can also disrupt their concentration and you get advantage on saves vs spells. It reminds me of the Spellslayers from Al Qadim. I think it is a cool idea to have a character who specializes in taking down spellcasters, seems like it could make for a cool campaign.

Page 175 I really wish they hadn't bothered with passive skill checks. I barely used them in 4e, and it lead to a lot of complaints by players when something bad happened that maybe/might/probably wouldn't have been auto-detected by a passive skill. In my opinion, as DM, you have to account for passive skills when preparing your adventure. You're just not going to remember them in the heat of the moment.

This Reynolds art is half-obscured in the PH
Page 177 I have never been comfortable with hiding. Players always try to run, hide and attack all in the same round. It feels wrong - too difficult to adjudicate fairly.

Page 189 Surprise is left up to the DM to a degree. You could compare a PC stealth check to the enemy's passive perception (ugh). If you win, you basically get a free round of attacks and movement.

Page 190 Getting up from prone costs half your speed!

Page 204 The little chalkboard drawing of the different Areas of Effects of spells is very helpful. Most of the stuff seems like 4e bursts and blasts (which I love) re-worded.

In the back of the book, there's a section on the planes. In 4th edition, there were four planes: The Feywild, The Shadowfell, The Astral Sea and The Elemental Chaos. In 5th edition, they've brought back a lot of the old stuff from previous editions like The Beastlands (which I always hated) and Mechanus (which I love). A lot of these planes were folded into one of the 4e "big four", but now they are all separate again.
Magic Missile on page 200 - compare!
I am very happy that they kept and integrated the 4e planes, although it's a bit of a bummer that it is the astral "plane" again, not the astral "sea". Though I guess the astral sea could be a place found within the astral plane.

I'm also very happy that they brought back the planes of positive and negative energy. If you remember, the demi-plane of minerals borders the positive energy plane and sort of fuels the creation of ioun stones. I rambled about all of this in a previous article all about ioun stones.

The book lists pantheons and deities from many settings, including the Forgotten Realms (the core seteing of 5e), Greyhawk (THE D&D setting IMO), Dragonlance, and Eberron. There's also a great list of demi-human deities. You might want to track down the old AD&D monster mythology book. You can probably get it for a couple bucks and it is a fantastic resource that has most of these non-human deities in it.

They also list Celtic, Greek, Egyptian and Norse gods. I've never been into using "real" mythology in my D&D games, but hey maybe it will work for you.

You can get the basic rules completely free here. The only difference between the basic rules and the player's handbook is that the PH has more classes, races and spells, and other extra details. The basic rules are the same as the rules in the PH.

Is Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Good?

Yeah, I think it is. It's snappy, it's simple. It's still D&D. The fights take 5 minutes instead of an hour of 4th edition. It remains to be seen if this edition will suffer complications at higher levels like 3rd edition did.

I've run a number of playtest campaigns over the last year and we didn't have any problems.

But I have seen quite a bit of worry online that "min/maxers" will "break" this game with ease. 4th edition did a pretty fantastic job of balancing things in that regard. 5th is much more loose and it seems very likely that power gamers will do their thing.
My favorite landscape, by Jedd Chevrier. Extreme zoom in the PH page 36

Here's the bottom line. If you don't like power gamers, don't play with them. DMs, you can shut this behavior down. You make the rules, you are not bound by the book. This is how D&D has always been. If somebody is bending a rule to "cheat code" the game, just tell them you're not allowing it. If they can't handle this, they need to find another group.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is really good, it's as simple as that. You should definitely check it out.

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