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Dungeons and Dragons 5E: A First Look at Playing The Game



I’ve played all things D&D, starting with Blue Box, AD&D, 2E (ran a retro campaign to 7th level not that long ago), 3rd Edition, 4e, and Pathfinder—the latter being the “Dungeons and Dragons without the trademark” game I’ve been running now, perfectly satisfied, for over a year. I’m not saying Pathfinder is a perfect game, like any version of D&D, it has plenty of flaws…it’s still provided plenty of fun with my friends.

So my gaming group really wasn’t all that excited about the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve lightly followed the online discussions, but only with minimal interest. If I hadn’t had a starter set handed to me, I might never have played.

And I would have missed out.

I called my friends to see who wanted to play an “extra” session on top of our usual game, and four out of five showed up—despite us all saying we weren’t that interested, I reckon we were. My group for the session runs from the hard core serious gamer to “which one is the ten sider again?” skill set.

One of the big problems of playing so many versions of D&D is keeping track of all the little rules changes from one edition to the next. Each little change doesn’t seem like much, but when you switch from one to the other to other, it gets rough. Thankfully, 5E is very streamlined. It may not be the utter simplicity of Blue Box, but neither is it the massive number crunch of 4e nor the optimizer’s dream of 3rd Edition that’s best played if you have access to at least 5,000 pages of rules.

While simplified in many ways, the set does take many liberties—if you’re not already familiar with how these games go, this is a pretty weak introduction. There’s no “example of play” showing exactly how combat would work, there’s no page giving a quick overview for veteran players showing the major changes. The Starter Set just has rules, some pregenerated characters, and a thick book of adventures.

I would have loved a page telling me stuff like “there is no such thing as charge in 5E” and “there is no such thing as flanking in 5E” and “shooting into melee is not an issue in 5E” and “opportunity attacks are very different and much less likely to happen” and a few other little things that are so key to more recent editions of D&D/Pathfinder.

The big change is there aren’t nearly as many fiddly “+2 to hit here” and “+1 to hit there” modifiers. Now, it’s all about “advantage” or “disadvantage.” If you have advantage, you roll two dice and take the higher; with disadvantage, you take the lower. You’re never going to roll more than two D20s, even if you have 3 different advantages or whatever. And just like that, keeping track of modifiers just goes away…the group sure likes that, although there are still modifiers here and there.

The game comes with 5 pregenerated characters, a wizard, a cleric, a rogue, and two fighters—one fighter is Dexterity based, while the other is built around Strength. One of my players favors rangers; the strength fighter isn’t used today. It’s a bit of a shame, because the bow fighter has really miserable armor, the worst in the party once the wizard casts Mage Armor (and he will cast that, since it lasts 8 hours).

Now we come to the first big stumble of the starter set. Instead of passing out the pregens and playing, the spellcasters have to pick their spells (and that means looking at pages of rules!), while the non spellcasters sit around and do nothing (weapons and armor are all pre-selected). Clerics/Wizards, incidentally, are like the old sorcerers; they prepare 4 spells at first level, but can only cast 2 of them in a day (so there’s no more converting spells to healing anymore).

Spells get a major overhaul, which is long needed. I’ve found in Pathfinder that the game grinds  to a halt when most spells are cast, or even about to be cast; most every spell is unique, and working out all the effects and modifiers are all situational to be calculated every casting. Now, most spells are very straightforward, and very adjustable. For example, “Cure Light Wounds” and “Cure Moderate Wounds” are gone. Instead, it’s “Cure Wounds”, which you can cast at first, second, or higher level, curing as many dice as the level of the spell, and many spells are like that. That means the spell list doesn’t take all that many pages to cover everything, and that once you know what a spell does, you’re set.

Similarly, saving throws are streamlined; it’s all based on stats and level, and it really seems easier than in Pathfinder, though that may just be an effect of using pregenerated characters.

Once the players get their spells, it’s time to play. The starting adventure isn’t just an adventure, it’s a full on 5 level campaign. The campaign guide contains every magic item and monster the players might see—there are no magic items or monsters in the “main” rulebook.

The very first encounter is another misstep, unfortunately. There’s no map. Just “players walking along the road in the forest, they are attacked by 4 goblins…” In a game where players move in 5’ squares and cast spells meant to fit on a grid, some hint of a map is a good idea, especially for beginners.

The first encounter is really just supposed to be an introduction to the basic combat rules. I really, really, wish there was a sample combat here. It would have kept the veteran players from trying to get flanking or charging, and I bet the beginning players would love to just see an example of how it all works.

The whole party gets surprised by the goblins. The poor wizard gets nailed for 8 points from a goblin bow…he only has 8 hit points, and so is down for the fight. The next round sees one goblin drop, while the players take some damage.

The fighter has a great “second wind” ability, getting to self-heal as a bonus action. Outside of bonuses, each turn, a player gets a move, and an action, and can take that action in the middle of a move. So you can step from behind cover, shoot or cast a spell, and duck behind the cover again. This is actually a BIG change from the previous editions of D&D. My players, all veterans of those rules, haven’t yet grasped the implications, and I have to admit even the monsters aren’t taking advantage of the change yet, either. But it’s coming.

So the fighter self-heals. The cleric has the best AC in the party by a wide margin, and doesn’t take a scratch. All three players hit, and kill, goblins, ending the fight in the second round. Since there is no flanking, the rogue just has to target a monster that’s next to a player to get “advantage”, which also includes an extra die of damage. Damage really seems cranked up here—melee attacks can easily deal a dozen points, and even first level spells can score 20 points or more of damage.

Another thing missing here is incidental treasure. None of the goblins are carrying any loot, and even their weapons and armor aren’t listed. The pregenerated characters only start with so many arrows, and my players really wanted to replenish their stocks. It’s easy enough for an experienced DM to fix (I just give the goblins some arrows to loot), but a starter module should have made it a bit more clear that the monsters, even the little ones, should at least have pocket change (if they have pockets) and weapons (if they’re using weapons).

After fights, players are encouraged to take “short rests” of 1 hour. During these rests, players can all self-heal (basically “healing surges”, but limited to one per level)…the wizard manages to heal up all 8 points in one roll.

After the short rest, the characters find the path the goblins took to the ambush site, and get a hint that there may be captives, so off to follow the trail back to the goblin cave. There are a few traps on the way, but, curiously, the rogue doesn’t have anything special when it comes to finding, or “disarming” traps. The otherwise impervious cleric takes a beating before they finally make it to the cave.

The heroes march in, only to be surprised by more goblins. Once again, a lucky arrow hits the mage in the surprise round, knocking him unconscious (exactly 0 hit points). The rest of the party takes out the goblins, and the party decides to take a full 8 hour rest at the cave mouth. It’s a starting adventure, so I don’t do much about that…after a long rest, a character returns to maximum hit points and regains all self-healing ability. We presume that spellcasters get all their spells back, but the rules are a bit unclear (it kind of follows, since they get a spell back during a 1 hour short rest). Then it’s time to enter the caves.

The goblin cave turns into one sustained battle with a bugbear and, of course, a bunch of goblins. Once again, the wizard gets knocked down below zero hit points (at least he got to cast a couple spells). The “death saving throw” is back—basically you have to make three saves before failing three saves, or you’re dead. It takes all five rounds before the wizard finally “stabilizes” with his third successful save.

The players loot the cave, rescue someone who gives important background information, and leave the cave.

Aaaand….now the players are second level. I know, it seems like level gains get faster with every new edition, but the wizard basically went up a level and was only conscious for two rounds of combat. That may be extreme, but we’re still only looking at a player killing perhaps 4 goblins to make second level.  
It’s clear this version of D&D has a bit of a problem with monsters hitting a little too hard for first level characters to handle (or maybe the wizard was a little unlucky)….getting to second level fast is a decent enough band-aid, I guess.

The players roll up their extra hit points, and the pregenerated character sheets detail the new abilities. Fighters get an extra action (on top of the bonus self-heal action) between rests, rogues get a bonus move every round, wizards get better spell targeting, and the cleric gets a channel divinity healing/bash undead effect.

The much more powerful players roll into town, and are led to the main inn. There are rumors to be learned here. It’s funny, all “starting” adventures have a rumors chart, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen, say, a 9th level adventure that had a list of rumors. Anyway, the prices for the inn (and everything else in town) aren’t given, you have to reference back to the main rulebook for that (they couldn’t even tell me what page to find the prices on? Sheesh…). It’s a pretty nondescript inn, with no real hint that this is a place to go or to find adventure hooks.  Again, it really seems like an adventure for those new to the game would put more effort into this inn, which is in the center of town, no less.  
For good or ill, computer games have influenced tabletop RPGs, and it’s a little blatant here. Pretty much every citizen in town has a “bonus quest” that is handed to a player who talks to the citizen. These bonus quests are sometimes just like pointless “fetch” quests in computer games—you go to another (unmapped) location, do what you’re supposed to do in a single encounter, and return for *ding* quest fulfilled, experience points and rewards. I can almost see question marks and exclamation points over the heads of most of the town citizens. Eh, that’s more an issue of bad adventure writing than game design, so I guess I’ll give it a pass.

The players are pretty much railroaded into dealing with a gang of tough guys in town that hang out in a seedy bar (of course). Curiously, these tough guys get two fairly damaging attacks a round, and thus are no slouches at all in combat (I can’t tell you what weapons they use, because the description just says “melee weapon attack,” but they are definitely wearing studded leather armor). Slaughtering these guys in the streets won’t have any repercussions, and there’s no mention of how the bartender feels about his customers being massacred…this is a tough town, that’s for sure.

It won’t take long before the players are off to the tough guys’ secret hideout that half the town knows about and points the characters right at.

The hideout is a nice basic dungeon, complete with traps, dealing with thugs (who might get captured and interrogated), and a likely-to-escape villain. My players only got about halfway through (and halfway to third level) before time was called…but it was a pretty good 5 hour day of D&D.

And, it WAS D&D. Yes, there was plenty of rulebook flipping, but less flipping than a typical Pathfinder session. Yes, there are a few missteps in this Starter Set, which doesn’t seem to know if it’s meant for newcomers or veterans of the game. It’s still well worth the cover price, as the 60 page campaign is well-packed with adventure and fun, easily adapted to another rule set if 5E isn’t for you.

I still want to get a good long look at character creation and, well, see what the rest of 5E has to offer. This is certainly more interest than before I began, as I was perfectly content to just let this new edition pass me by. Now I want to see more. My group is even thinking about retiring the Pathfinder campaign for a bit and seeing what’s going on with 5E.

D&D 5E might well be the “throwback” game that works on many levels, but it’s hard to tell from just the starter set. If Wizards of the Coast goes nuts with rules expansions, the game probably won’t last for me—I already have rules-heavy RPGs to play. On the other hand, if they can keep the game’s focus on fun, simple, play with decent adventures, I may well put the Pathfinder down and play a game where I don’t need a pile of books to really enjoy.


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