Sunday, September 7, 2014

Peekin' Underneath The Hood - A Look At The 5th Edition D&D Players Handbook.

"Well, I ain't never bought somethin' without first takin' a peek under the hood." - An often heard expression from my neck of the woods.

As of August of 2014 Wizards of the Coast published the fundamental first book for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons; The Players' Handbook. For many of us who have been following along the twists and turns of the playtest, this was an exciting time. It was something I can say I was quite eager to examine post haste, and now have. After having done so I feel I can provide some degree of input for others who might be curious themselves.

First of all, there is some spit and polish here coming from the playtest material. Everything is fleshed out and with more options. For example the Warlock has been included as a playable class - complete with 3 different types of otherworldly patrons. There really is a strong foundation that has been built here, one that covers a wide ranging gambit of areas for play.

Everything begins with a wonderful forward by Mike Mearls, followed by some examples of play along with the standard how to play introductory stuff. Afterward we ease into things and are given our first real glimpse at the cornerstone of understanding any edition or game system; character creation. I don't care who you are or how many games you have ever played but one irrefutable truth is paramount; one of the best ways to get a feel for any game is to build a character for it. It may sound counter intuitive but its true. So, for me, with the first real chapter being a step by step character creation walk-through with examples is a fitting beginning.

A shinning high point among the 5th edition approach to things is clearly evident in the Players' Handbook and that is a depth of emphasis on fleshed out characters. By the second chapter we get into the races themselves and let me tell you even at the earliest of steps the detail encouraging design is already noticeable. Every race begins with a thematic flavor text quoted from various D&D novels to give you some feel for the race. There are entries on various aspects of each race's culture, physical characteristics, known customs, personality traits, outlook, etc. Really; they do a admirable job distilling the core essence of these playable peoples down into a concise digestible format that does precisely what it needs to.

Allow me to elaborate a little further here, because I don't want to do this any disservice. One of the many things I really loved about this first release of what is historically the core three essential books of any D&D edition is the fact that there is enough variety to keep things interesting without overwhelming you with an endless buffet of spiced up flavors. If you don't typically like playing a single cliched type of race like let's say an elf fresh from the treetop woodland wilds you have other options. You can instead choose the High Elf or Drow subraces.  Virtually every race has at least two or three different bloodlines or sub-groups to pick from and they all bring something else into the mix to be enjoyed.

While the often over-done ideal of an elf (using my previous example to continue the point) is one of a bow and sword clad figure draped in greenery stalking defilers of nature can be entertaining to some it isn't everyone's cup of tea. But then again, not everyone may want to play an aloof, self-entitled elf who was raised around an intimate arcane education that they, by all accounts, probably take for granted. Whichever brand of elf they prefer it is presented for them to use to build the adventurer they want to explore untold tales with. And, as I also already mentioned, they can do so with their own obvious differences.

Your standard racial traits will always apply to whatever character you choose to make. In the case of an elf they all share a common thread of being blessed with speed, hand-eye coordination and reflexes as reflected in their racial modifier to a player's dexterity attribute. However, where a High Elf receives an additional bonus to intelligence, Wood Elves instead get one for their wisdom. It may not seem like much of a difference but even subtle touches like this both have an affect as well as provide a tangible element for players to customize their concept with. Couple this with other traits like how a High Elf receives a cantrip (level 0 spell that can be cast at will) from the wizard spell list, how a Wood Elf can move faster or hide even when only obscured slightly by natural phenomenon and you can build two very different elven heroes.

All in all there are four common races described in the book and five uncommon ones for players to pick from (with the uncommon ones being... well; not quite as commonly found among most populations or only suitable in some settings). The common four are all core classics with subraces to offer plenty of options. They include; Dwarves, Elves, Halflings and Humans. The uncommon races are some familiar staples as well but arguably might be out of place in some campaigns if only less so than say some of the more bizarre/monstrous options out there. Their lineup includes the likes of Dragonborn, Gnomes, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs and Tieflings. [I should point out that I still find it completely questionable that Tieflings are once more presented in a core book while their counterpart the Aasimar are not. This makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever but I suppose there may be some argument somewhere that can make a case for it's inclusion that I am not aware of.]

After races comes classes, which happens to be another area with plenty to choose from. A player is presented with a grand total of no less than a dozen classes that include: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard and Warlock. Each fully detailed from levels 1-20 and with some interesting options arrayed. Every class really does have it's own strengths and identity that you can get a good feel for. Want a warlock that is more than just a ' I made a deal with something infernal for power' trope? Easy, you can go with an Archfey or Great Elder One patron and not just the flavor of your character changes but some of their abilities do as well. Everything is not just set in stone - a fighter isn't just a walking tank that takes damage and say's 'I attack it' every turn. There is some real potential here that I can see for some fascinating characters that either embody the ideal of a classic version on that class or steps outside the box to show us something new and exciting. [I still confess I, personally see no real reason why Monk is a class in a core supplement for a fantasy game like D&D but that is just my own opinion. Your mileage may vary.]

Without nitpicking every single section and detail I'll highlight some of the other various things the 5th edition Players' Handbook has to offer.
  • Backgrounds - We are provided with a built in mechanic that allows us to breath an actual background for a character into that isn't just empty pipe smoke. Your background plays a role in what additional skills, traits and things your adventurer brings with them. Say you used to be (or still are) a criminal; you might have training with thieves tools, know someone who knows someone, even have appropriate gear to add to any quick-build setup you need to throw together. It all adds a wonderful ability to add character to your character while making it a functioning part of who they are.
  • Monsters/Creatures - One thing you can't do when wanting to play a game is not have something for the players to fight. Seeing as how the Monster Manual was next up for release but not out when the Players' Handbook was published it is a welcome bit of forethought to include some stat blocks for an assortment of creatures druids might transform into, wizards might summon or simply someone might need to forcibly remove. You don't get anything near to what is sure to be included in the Monster Manual but there is enough useful information for some adventures or handy reference for player's to access for various class features.
  • Personality/Details - This might tie in with Backgrounds but I figure it deserves a separate mention. Your character is not just defined by a simple alignment - of which there is much more than just 'I am the Law,' whimsical but good-natured and indifferent but not evil. Languages with example scripts are included for players to pick from but the gem in this section is the personality traits. In here you are presented options to shape your character like bonds that tie them to things, people or places, ideals they aspire to and flaws as well. It might not be as detailed as say the chapters on spells or equipment but it is a great thing to include in my opinion.
Overall, I have to say I am proud of the new edition, I'm eager to play it and especially to see more of what it has to offer. The only faults I can find is in some small elements that could do with better explanation. One such instance is in Warlocks and their spellcasting - it is implied that they do not require a spellbook for their spells yet, at the same time it is also implied that they are granted this knowledge via their patron. Nowhere does it ever clearly state that they do or do not need a spellbook. It is a minor thing to find fault in but it was something that stuck out at me. Another was skills - there is no chapter organized to explain them or what each does. Instead they are grouped into the section on ability scores and listed with the attributes they are associated with. Again, a minor thing but one I think could cause problems down the road when someone isn't sure or needs to reference what options/actions are available to them regarding their skills.

When you get right down to it, this new edition is shaping up to be a major game changer and a welcome return all rolled into one. I cannot see it as anything but a win, a success and a triumph for players of all types. It promises to breath new life into the game and really polish up things into something fun. I don't own a copy yet but after a lot of peeking about under the hood, beneath the chassis and even in the trunk it is a sure fire bet that I will be buying one in the future.

Is there any higher rating you can give something that, for you, would be a major investment as opposed to a casual expense? I can't think of one. If you can, pick up a copy as soon as possible. If not, you can snag the basic rules and other goodies at Wizards of the Coast website. Every shred of this just screams D&D to me; Gygax would be proud of it.