The D&D 5th Edition Basic Rules Reviewed

It’s time to give my thoughts in detail on the new D&D Basic Rules. This will be a long one, so settle in. The current version of the Basic Rules is v0.1, so I’d expect some details to change over the next several months as the document is added to and tweaked — and I can see a number of things that need tweaking, as you’ll find below.

The first four pages of the document are an introduction to Roleplaying games, going over all of the basics of RPGs and how they work for the newcomer. Now, I highly advise directing actual newcomers to the Starter Set (which I’ll be talking about in depth in what will likely be the next post,) but if you’ve played a session or two this should be plenty of information to get started with.

In particular I like the discussion of the “three pillars of adventuring,” named as exploration, social interaction and combat. Veterans will recognize that there is plenty of nuance left out of this equation, and some game angles (political intrigue, mystery and horror, for example) left entirely absent. But it’s a good start, and the section as written probably describes an optimal mix for many tables.

The following sections get into the mechanics, starting with character creation, which is laid out in an orderly step-by-step fashion. This is where players of earlier editions will start to notice the differences.

Character abilities (the traditional six) are rolled on 4d6 (drop the lowest and arrange as desired,) which has been around since 3rd Edition — earlier, really, but 3.0 made it part of the core rules. You also have the option of spending points to raise scores or distributing a set array. The average in the array is 12, which is about a quarter-point lower than the average you’d get from rolling the dice. Note that you determine your ability scores after choosing a race and class. Which has howls of disapproval coming from some quarters, but it is, I think, the way most people have played anyway at least since 3.0.

DDNextLogoInstead of just choosing a race you pick a subrace as well. For Dwarves, for example, these are Hill Dwarves and Mountain Dwarves. Some of your stat modifiers come from the parent race, while the rest come from the subrace, and each also has some side benefit as well. High Elves, for example, get a few extra weapon proficiencies (in the Longsword, Longbow, Shortsword and short bow,) a free Wizard cantrip and an extra language, while the Wood Elf gets the same weapon proficiencies as the High Elf along with an increased movement speed and a situational ability to hide. Each race also has a number of abilities from the parent race; Elves get their natural longevity, a size and speed, darkvision, proficiency in the Perception skill, advantage (more on that later) against charms and an immunity to sleep, and the Elven language.

The races available in the Basic Rules are the Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human. It’s known that Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, Dragonborn and Tieflings will be in the Player’s Handbook, and probably Drow as well, as a subrace. Humans have no subraces, but a number of different cultural groups from the Forgotten Realms (which is 5E’s default setting) are briefly described. All of the races have lists of common names, and each also explains their outlook toward the other Basic races.

On the whole, I find this way of handling races to be highly agreeable; it builds in a way around the standard demi-human monoculture problem, and one could very easily create new subraces for a homebrew setting without much system overhead, since much of the work is already done along with the parent race.

The classes (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard) are handled in a similar way. Each class has some sort of specialization available to it; Clerics have Domains, chosen at first level, while Fighters pick a fighting style at 1st and then a martial archetype at 3rd. Rogues also have archetypes, while Wizards have Arcane Traditions, chosen at 2nd level, which are analogous to the schools of earlier editions — at least so far.

In theory the specializations should obviate the need for discrete classes like the Assassin, and possibly the Ranger or Paladin as well, but since there is only one example given for each class, representing the most common image of that class, it’s hard to say what we’ll see done with this down the line. Too, they are more intricate than subraces, so making custom versions could be awkward with only a single example to work with. The PHB will doubtless contain more, but those also might rely on other options — feats, for example — being used.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to “Personality and Background,” which encompasses the character’s name, physical description, languages and alignment, but also some new stuff: personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws, which all stem from the character’s choice of background. This represents his or her early life before embarking on an adventuring career. There are five available (the Acolyte, Criminal, Sage, Soldier and Folk Hero,) the first four of which are each aimed at a specific class (Cleric, Rogue, Wizard and Fighter, respectively,) with the Folk Hero serving as a kind of catchall. But I can see doing some interesting things with a Fighter with the Acolyte background, for example, or a Rogue who goes with the Sage. Each background also gets some social benefits as well; Criminals, for example, have an underworld contact that they can use to access criminal networks. There’s a lot of possibility here, especially when you can tie it to a subclass. Together, the subclasses and backgrounds function kind of like 2E kits, except that half of the equation isn’t class-specific. This is another area where I can see a lot of room for additional and customized backgrounds.

Next up is equipment. You won’t find anything foreign in the actual lists, but each class and background has some default equipment that you can take instead of buying stuff the traditional way.

Both armor and weapons have some changes, however. Light armors allow you to apply your full DEX bonus to your Armor Class, while medium armor caps that bonus at +2. You get no DEX bonus at all while wearing heavy armors, and suffer a 10′ movement penalty unless you meet a minimum STR requirement.

Some weapons have special properties, like two-handed or reach. The finesse tag allows the wielder to use either their STR or the DEX bonus with the weapon. Versatile means that you can use it in either one or two hands, with the latter providing higher damage. The longsword is the archetypical such weapon; the bastard sword is nowhere in sight.

Now we get into the meat of the game system with a discussion of how to use ability scores. Which covers a great deal, including saving throws. You now save with your ability modifier directly, so that you are saving against a specific stat. This is an idea that dates back to Bard Games’ Arcanum system, and it’s one that I have always favored. It opens the save system up for new kinds of rolls, like saves against INT or CHA, although there really isn’t any discussion of this.

Advantage and Disadvantage is perhaps the new system’s most compelling new feature. If you have advantage on a roll, you roll 2d20 instead of one, and take the higher die. If you’re disadvantaged you take the lower. I find this very clever for a number of reasons, the most important one being that it eliminates all other situational modifiers from the system, except for cover. Invisible opponent? Disadvantage on the attack roll. Flanking? Take advantage instead. It’s pretty granular — advantage gives you about a +4 to your roll on average — but it’s also pretty elegant.

There is also a proficiency bonus, which is used for many different things. It replaces Base Attack Bonus, for example, and goes up as you level — but it’s the same for every character. So a wizard gets the same bonus as a fighter as longs as she is proficient in the weapon… but fighters will be much more effective in physical combat for a variety of other reasons. You get this bonus in anything in which your character has proficiency, so it applies to tool sets, skills and spell casting DCs as well as weapons. The skill list itself is closer to the 4E skill list than the one from 3.5, and each is given a concise description free of bloat and endless tables of modifiers.

Importantly, though, the progression of this bonus is much flatter than it was in previous editions of D&D. It ranges from +2 at 1st level to a mere +6 at level 20. Progression is therefore more about additional hit points and new abilities. This design principle, touted as “bounded accuracy,” has huge ramifications all throughout the game system. Flattening the bonus curve should make it easier for GMs to balance encounters, for example, and in principle monsters remain viable for a far larger level range, because AC is assumed to be higher because a monster is harder to effectively hit, rather than simply because it’s balanced to be a tougher monster. A band of 30 orcs including some archers and a spell caster or two will still be a tough fight at high level, even if the PCs can reliably dispatch individual orcs with a single hit.

System difficulties remain static and don’t need to be scaled relative to the party’s abilities. There’s no expectation that a lock that’s DC 20 to pick at 3rd level will be anything other than DC 20 at 13th. Characters at the higher level will be better at this, but they’ll be 15% better rather than 50% better, and there’s no need to have DCs well into the 40s. The whole difficulty range tops out at around 30, which may as well be regarded as a hard cap.

This may create the impression that the overall power level of the game has been scaled down, but I’m not convinced (without having seen the MM and PHB,) that this is actually the case. What it does mean is that the balance of the game between PCs and their enemies is far, far tighter than it has been in previous editions, while at the same time being more forgiving to both players and GM. Bounded accuracy is one of the things about D&D5 that most impresses me.

One thing related to bounded accuracy that I noticed in my first pass at the rules is that progression in the early levels is really fast. It only takes 300 XP to reach level 2 and 900 to reach level 3 before the experience curve starts to become more recognizable. I disliked this at first, but have warmed to it for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s not quite as extreme as the numbers suggest. Level 2 is probably the end of the first session, for example, and level 3 is probably another session or two. The idea being that you don’t have to make as many choices when creating the character, and can make your decision as to which martial template your fighter wants, for example, after seeing her in play for a little while. Through level 4 the characters are essentially apprentices. At level 5 they become “mature” adventurers, with access to things like multiple attacks, level 3 spells and so on. In this context I think I can live with this progression speed, although I am still kind of tempted to triple all the numbers. I am a proponent of slow leveling, but I think I would want to see how it works as written in a campaign format first.

There is a downside to the new math that underlies D&D5, though, and that’s the matter of backward compatibility with the enormous library of D&D materials that have been published over the years. Both hit points and armor class scale very differently in 5E than they did in any previous edition, and this has to be taken into account when doing conversions. You can’t just drop a BECMI stat block into AD&D1E like you used to be able to. On the other hand, conversion shouldn’t be anything like a huge burden; it’ll just require a bit more finesse and system experience. And it’s certainly nothing like the conversion issues faced in shifting material to or from 4E; the structure of encounters in that version of the game is fundamentally different from that of any other edition.

The combat section comes in at eight and a half pages, which is a welcome relief from the 40+ pages that we had to endure in 3.5. Once again, this is tightened considerably, in large part due to not requiring a grid and miniatures by default, although there’s a sidebar explaining how to do this if that’s your preference. Attacks of opportunity are still present but the circumstances that spawn them have been radically scaled back. Overall the combat looks very clean and playable, with plenty of tactical options but little of the bloat that characterized 3.x (let alone 4E.)

Damage resistance is totally overhauled. Instead of the unintuitive stat lines found in 3.x and 4E, if a critter has resistance to a type of damage, it takes half damage against that type. If it has vulnerability, it takes double damage. This is a completely adequate way to model this type of thing with a fraction of the overhead. There is no longer any need to remember a specific number, or try to remember whether the listed damage type bypasses DR or resists it, something I personally had to look up at the start of every single campaign.

Damage is dealt as in previous editions, with a critical hit (a natural 20 — there’s no roll to confirm anymore, although fighters increase critical range as they level) doing double dice. At zero hit points you fall unconscious… but you never actually go into negative hit points. Instead, any excess damage in excess of your total full hit points kills you instantly, including excess damage from the wound which took you to zero. You don’t lose any more HP once you’re down, but you must make a death save every turn. If you pass three of them before you fail three such saves you are stabilized; if you fail three first you are dead. Rolling a 1 counts as two failures, while rolling a 20 gives you one HP back, which means you’re active again.

There are a couple of interesting ramifications to this, one I like and the other I don’t. The more obvious one is that because you never go below zero, healers don’t need to heal your negative HP anymore. This eliminates the weird problem that came up in 3.x and was made worse in 4E, whereby tougher characters, as represented by their CON scores (in 3.x and Pathfinder) or their total hit points (in 4E) are harder to heal. It just works better, especially given the bounded accuracy design paradigm as discussed above.

It does have a clumsy side, however, in that there is no coup de grâce rule. Some Orc hacking at your unconscious body still needs to equal or exceed your total hit points in a single attack. Damage at zero HP does force you to make a death save immediately, but it’ll be really awkward if you pass that death save and stand up after being gnawed upon by owlbears.

Healing is different, and it’s another one of the parts of the system that I do not much like; it’s one of the only areas in which 5E is visibly more convoluted than 3.x. Essentially you have Short Rests and Long Rests, the exact durations of which are determined narratively by the GM. So far so good.

After a short rest, you roll a number of your hit dice and regain that many HP, adjusted by your CON modifier. After a long rest, you regain all of your lost HP and also regain up to half of your spent hit dice. So you actually have to keep track of your hit points as well as any hit dice you’ve used during your short rests. This strikes me as unnecessarily convoluted, gamey and just plain weird and I have yet to see a good justification for it working this way.

The default encumbrance system is as simple as it’s possible for such a system to be — you can carry up to your weight allowance and no more. There are no encumbrance levels and no penalties, just a flat limit. Unfortunately that limit is fifteen times your STR score. This means that a character with STR 10 (slightly below average) can lug 150 pounds around all day with no issues. While it’s very simple, this math makes no sense to me.

Thankfully, there is a variant presented which I find much more workable. Under this rule, if you are carrying more than 5 times your STR you get the encumbered condition, which gives you -10′ to movement. If you’re over 10 times your STR you are heavily encumbered, which not only inflicts a bigger movement penalty but also puts you at disadvantage on ability checks, attack rolls and saves based on STR, DEX or CON. I personally would use this rule, even though it’s slightly more complicated, with the caveat that I wouldn’t necessarily levy the save disadvantage on CON saves.

Magic is also significantly changed from the standard Vancian model. You now prepare spalls separately from casting them, and you can use any level-appropriate slot to cast a spell. So essentially the wizard now works exactly like the cleric. The spells themselves, while they retain the look and feel of their older versions, are also substantially changed. Most of them no longer scale with level, but some of those that used to can now be cast using a higher-level slot, with increased effects. There are also ritual spells, similar to those in 4E, which don’t use up a slot but which require time and/or expensive components to cast.

As before, spells have verbal, somatic and material components. A caster can use an arcane focus or holy symbol in lieu of any non-costed component, but it seemed to me that many of the spells’ components do have a listed cost and are thus ineligible to be cast this way.

The spell list itself — 59 cleric spells and 68 for the wizard — is not exhaustive but it covers all of the basics one would expect, and then some. I plan to treat it as the “common” spell list of stuff that’s easy to obtain access to, with anything else something you would have to go out of your way to find or buy. Built-in story hook.

The visual presentation of the book is clean and tidy, but there are no illustrations, something I would hope will be remedied at some point. It’s not as though WotC hasn’t already paid for the art, after all. But I found a professionally laid-out and fairly complete games system that gave me just the rules without any distractions to be somewhat refreshing. There is no word as yet on a printed version of these rules, but I kind of expect to see one appear once they are more complete and mature.

As I mentioned in the last post, the book currently lacks a bestiary, XP guidelines and rules for building encounters, but these are slated for inclusion as more product comes out. And even now there’s some help in this regard online, HERE and HERE.

So that, girls and boys, is the whole thing in a (large and windy) nutshell. As I said before, my overall impression of the D&D 5th Edition based on both my reading of the rules and my limited play experience is very positive. Although there are a few areas I would houserule or possibly replace with options from the PHB, I think it eminently suitable for my purposes, and plan to develop (and post) material for it.

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9 responses to “The D&D 5th Edition Basic Rules Reviewed

  1. Just a question: how did 4E make it harder to heal someone from <=0? It was my understanding that when you healed someone, you started from 0 before adding in the amount healed. Therefore, it would function the same way as described in 5E.

  2. After reading the basic rules I liked how the had simplified combat, even if I felt that many important things had been left out. After sweeping through the PHB I am quite disappointed, the rules don’t cover common situations like tripping, flanking, higher ground advantage or disarm attacks. I also thought applying the same house rule to use advantage for flanking, for example, but the rule doesn’t stack, so multiple advantage conditions don’t provide any real difference, which feels awkward. If WoTC team have been applying advantage for those situations, at the very least they could suggest it, so we can see it’s tried and true.

    The simpler mechanic resolution is a welcome change from 3e, for sure.
    The new attack of opportunity conditions feels artificial. You can attack someone who moves out, but can’t do anything when someone is searching his pockets or casts a spell?

    Also, character creation feels too linear, except for some classes. Barbarian, for example, feels rather bland now as the system is heavier on class features than is on feats. You don’t have many options. And the skill list has been dwarfed, while again the simpler mechanics to resolve checks are good, I don’t see the need to reduce the number of them. Skills help to reflect in game the characters background.
    Another detail is the equipment, or lack of. So I create a fighter, I can choose between 16 maneuvers but there is only one shield to equip? There are no tower shield, nor bucklers in the final PHB. Surely that cannot be because of simplicity.

    And the maths are off in many aspects. Some class features scale up well with the level, while other don’t, like the Song of Rest. And also, there are messy overlooks, like the falling damage, it’s 2014 and they still haven’t fixed it?

    Flattening the bo

    • Sorry. The last line was:

      “Flattening the bonuses they have strengthened the ability scores influence hugely, so initial character rolls will make a lot of difference. While the have left the HPs scaling linearly. We’ll see how it evolves over time.”

  3. Thanks for the review.
    After reading this I believe that if this game didn’t have the D&D logo on it it would be quite average in contents and mediocre in ideas. Really, after the mess of 4th edition the audience seems to be more forgiving … just give me a new D&D book.

  4. I’m gonna chime in with my 2 cents on this whole thing. So far everything I’ve read for the new D&D i’m liking it a lot.

    I stared with back when it was just D&D. you could play or or a fighter or halfling blah blah. The came along advanced D&D. Now you could play your favorite race and be class! Woot woot super exciting stuff, but wait level caps for non human W** is this garbage? Then 2nd edition came along. lets fix some things and break others shall we? Speed factor for example and and lets make archers and throw weapons all but useless when other people are engaged in melee combat with them. *bangs head against wall* Now comes along 3rd edition the birth of D20! Exciting new rules that can seem to work but get little confusing at times and the whole grid thing.Player:”Wait you mean I have use miniatures now to play this game?” DM ” Well we don’t have to but it will help.” pauses for second after reading an example of combat “I take it back yes we have to miniatures now.” Along comes 3.5. Let fix some of these classes so they work better. Yes you still must use grids. Then Pathfinder. Hey we are sick of working for you guys we are take your rules set improve all the classes and combat maneuver system and outsell you! Ha! D&d counter well we make 4 ed rules and turn D&D into a Warhammer miniature MMO. In sense this opened table gaming to a new generation of people who had played on PC. To us old school gamers it was like pissing in Gary’s coffee cup. Which bring us to 5th.

    5th edition is a step in the right direction for us old school guys but the optional use of grid system won’t scare away those that only played 4th. The idea of actually have to role play out encounters rather them just be rolled is a breath of fresh air. I like this advantage/disadvantage mechanic. I’m high up a grassy knoll with bow/crossbow I had advantage. Rather than trying to figure a whole bunch of numbers to plug target is prone/target is moving/ ext ext you either have advantage or disadvantage sure there are things that still affect this like cover. But talk about way simpler math. Skill system refined. No longer crazy DC of 30 making it nigh impossible to make said skill checks. (I haven’t quite finished reading this part of the rules but I’m hoping they put a 1 always fails on skill check and 20 always succeed. This way even the most skilled person can fail if they get unlucky or even the most unskilled person could get lucky).

    Classes: Really liked this part. No class truly outshines the other. As one my favorite reviewers wrote: Bards no longer die horribly in dungeons while singing. Mages (and by mages I mean anyone can use magic wizard, sorcerer ext ext) now have at least one cantrip that combat offensive always available to them if they chose one. No longer at first level well guys I have used my magic missile I need to rest for 8 hours before we can any further or else i’m pretty much useless for the rest of this dungeon. Nope Nope now I can do as many Firebolts as I want! You have lots of great options when making and choosing your class your class. Heck they even followed pathfinders and fixed hit dice for classes. Which by the way giving everyone starting max hit points is wonderful. No longer the 1st level wizard tripped on stick and is dead.

    I could go on and on. but my advice is give 5th edition a try and I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Well done Wizard of the Coast, well done.

  5. I want to be a halfling rogue however I can’t seem to find how the race or class’s modifies your character in the player handbook

  6. Jacob you class modifier is based off your characters level and all class modifiers are the same with the exception of the rouge who get to double his class modifier on 2 skills of his choice to start and later on get to pick more skills to get this bonus. Your race doe not modify your class abilities. You might get a bonus to stats or a racial ability that helps with your class. Light-foots halflings get natural stealth ability for example. Hope that answers your question.

  7. I’ve been making this game with eight of my players for five sessions now, and they loved the new system. Been making 3.0, 3.5, [skipped 4th ed] and made Pathfinder for a year over, then this book came. We loved the simplified rules of Advantage and Disadvantages, Casting Cantrip Spells over and over, no more math other than smaller matters that involve it [ due to because few of my players are really slow in math ], skills being dwarfed and simplified, all abilities are now Saving Throws.

    Going to be making my next session soon, the Fighter Battlemaster and the Rogue Assassin took down a Troll easy, The Barbarian Totem Warrior soaking in damage from the creature, the halfling rogue going for the “special flanking only a rogue can have”, the Ranger going at it two handed and the dwarven cleric concentrating on his Bless spell while fighting Gnolls and the Elf wizard shooting spells from afar while protected by another fighter.

    I can say, Pathfinder was a good game but still have math, for players who hated the calculations or going against DC30 on their Skill Check, loved this one due to the Proficiency and also the skills given by their Background. My D20 say AYE.

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