Alacrity's Review of the 5e Basic Rules
What I want from #dnd5e is ease of play, ease to learn, challenging situations that need skills and no superheroes at low levels. - @alacrity17
Before I go into the review, I would like to say a few things about me. I believe that you need to understand a bit of where a reviewer comes from to understand the review itself. After all, as a wise man in another RPG once said, “you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view”.
I started playing D&D back in the 80’s and started out with the Red Basic box set. My friends and I were hooked quickly and we moved from Basic to the AD&D rules that would later be called 1e. Over the years I moved to 2e and played a lifetime of games using that system. When 3e came out, I was not impressed with the complete change of rules but I tried to play it and quickly stopped. It was complicated, power driven and did not sit well with my groups. There were some shiny parts to 3e (Skills, the new saving throws, etc) but not enough to switch me over. Years later when 4e came out I attempted to read the Quickstart rules and after a few pages, dismissed the entire system.
So, you can understand that I viewed the DnDnext rules with some trepidation. I was ready to dismiss it as well until I started to see many of the reviewers coming out and saying this was a pretty good system. Of course, the fact that they released a free PDF also helped because I would not have paid for the chance to read it.
Now I have only read the Basic rules and they are, in fact, very basic in places. The full rules are coming but for now, you could play a couple of games with these rules only before you’d run into trouble and the need for more detail. Let's be frank here, this is the WotC giving you a free “hit” of the new stuff and then they will charge you for it. D&D and MtG are the choice drugs of geeks, and we pay for the addiction.
The Basic rules are more of a return back to 2e than a completely new system. The stats are familiar, the combat is familiar and AC is back (woohoo)! That being said, there are parts of the 3e system in here as well but they seem to be the better parts. I've read the entire document a couple of times and was generally impressed with what I saw. There were parts that I did not like and dismissed as “I won’t use that” but there are parts of 2e I dismissed and did not use either. I also was not left feeling that dismissing a part of the rule would require me to rewrite the entire system as I did in previous versions.
It is important to note that the basic rules have been produced with the new gamer in mind. It goes in great length (for basic rules) into what RPGs are about and how one plays the game. If you are an experienced gamer, expect to skip over sections of the rules because you know all that already. As my wife (Vanadia) pointed out to me, the original rules were played by people who read Lord of The Rings, Shannara, Ringworld et al and wanted to be part of those worlds. The current rules are being presented to a generation that plays RPG video games and are used to flimsy plots, short backgrounds and no real motivation beyond “my parents were killed, time for revenge”. Some of the game mechanics are based on rewarding and creating what seems necessary and obvious to older gamers like me.
The manner of character creation is simplified and very familiar. Roll 4d6 and take the highest three for the six ability scores we know and love. Ability scores range from 1-30 with player characters usually in the 3-20 range. Determining the bonus for your stats is universal - Ability Score minus 10, divide results by 2, round down. You don't need high end scores to get bonuses. You get bonuses to certain abilities due to your race but there are no penalties anymore. Humans get +1 to all ability stats, possibly as a generic answer to "why would I want to play a human?".
Races in the basic set are the classic Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human. Classes are also the old familiar ones of Cleric, Wizard, Fighter and Rogue but with the discussion of choosing archetypes and specialties. The basic rules do not go into great depths as to what they will be but there are enough hints that you will be able to create the Rangers, Paladins, Druids and Bards in the proper rules.
Backgrounds have been given an added dimension to the character creation with the addition of skills gained for background, ideals, bonds and flaws. I have used a number of systems that incorporate the idea of assets and complications in the character and they do add to the game. The basic set does go on to show how you can roll up a background. This did not sit well with me at first but frankly I have played with a lot of players who could not create a background if their character's life depended upon it. I have Dm'ed a mountain of "I'm a fighter. My parents were killed by orcs". So a random background generation might not be a bad thing for some. It is nowhere near the complexity of Traveller's background generation where you can die before you start adventuring. I do like the idea of backgrounds giving bonuses and penalties to the character within game play to add to the role-playing experience.
Armour class is back, but the mechanics are changed to be high score and open ended. Potions of healing are now on the standard equipment list which will give some people pause but you can always take it off if you don't want Al's Potion Shop saving your characters from certain death. They have packs you can buy for different classes if players can't decide what to carry, again, good for the novice player. There is a whole section of lifestyle expenses you can use or not use depending on whether you want to add that level of detail to your game.
The Basic set hints at the rules for multi-class and customization but you will have to wait for the rules to come out for the complete details.
Going up in levels now increases proficiency bonuses and they play into the skills you have taken. This is very simple mechanic that sounds like it will work well but the basic rules were a little flat explaining the details. I would have liked to see a proper list of skills but alas, I must wait for the books. There is a reference to an optional Feats rule in the upcoming rules, for you 3.5 gamers who can't live without a Bullrush or two.
A game mechanic of advantage and disadvantage is presented. This was new to me but might have been in recent rules. If you have an advantage (Your opponent is lying prone) you roll two dice to act take the highest roll. If you have a disadvantage (you are the guy lying prone) you roll two dice and take the lowest. I like this idea as it is simple but effective. Another game mechanic added is Inspiration which is a bonus rewarded by the Dm to the player for excellent role-playing. The inspiration bonus has to be used immediately but it seems to me a better tool than giving experience points, similar to plot points in the Cortex rules.
Combat is based on the six second round and everything is broken down into actions, reactions, and movement. Range weapons use the disadvantage rule for long range now instead of penalties. Saving throws are ability checks against a Difficulty Class. DC of spells is determined by the spell casters skill, ability and level. opportunity attacks still exist and are not very well explained in the basic rules beyong if you disengage an opponent without saying you are doing a disengage action, you suffer an attack of opportunity.
Some of the healing/resting rules I did not agree with at all, especially the suggestion that you recover all your hit points if you rest for the night and regain 1 hit die per hour rested. Dying in the game is now instantaneous only if you take twice your hit points in a single hit. However if you are dying, you get to save against death until you fail three times before you actually die. I am very soft hearted about players dying but even I think this goes a bit far on the side of making dying hard to do. I won't be using these particular rules.
Spell and Magic
Cantrips are the great equalizer of spellcasters, allowing them to be effective in combat without running out of spells. I would like to see how this plays out in the game but at least the spellcaster is not useless at 1st level. Overall, the spell system is very 2e in feel with spell slots and having to memorize spells (unless they are cantrips and ritual). You can channel more energy into a spell now by using a higher spell slot and thus beef up its effectiveness (add damage or effect). The basic rules clump all the spells (cleric and mage) together alphabetically, which has to be the most inefficient system they could have devised. Here is hoping in the books they at least break them down by class and level.
I did not like this magic system described in the basic set but I also did not like the magic system described in the 2e rules either. I have my own system for magic which I will be using, but that being said, these spells and system will easily be translated into the mana system I have which means they can't be all bad. There is a structure here that can be tweaked and modified if you feel the need.
So in the End
All D&D rules systems work on the principle that if you don't like a rule, you can change it for your game. With 3e and 4e, I did not feel I could change what I did not like because it would have meant re-writing the entire system. What I see is a system that is design with the new player in mind but with a conscious effort to bring role playing back to the forefront of the game.
The 5e rules preview have made me interested in looking to the new books being released and exploring the system more. There are definitely some rules I will change for my games but overall I felt this is a good rule system that I can play and teach others to play. Next, I will look at the Starter Set that just came out and perhaps round up some players to test the module.
Thanks to Roger (Alacrity) Briant for this contribution!