AICN Tabletop! At Last! Abstruse Reviews The New DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS System!
Hello gamers! Abstruse here to talk about the NEW EDITION OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS!! It’s finally here! At least the BASIC DUNGEONS & DRAGONS rules are mostly online. I’m going to break down what to expect from this edition of D&D and give you my opinion on the core rules you can get for free right now!
BASIC DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is here! This document contains rules for the character classes Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, and Cleric and races Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling, through 1st through 20th level. It has the complete equipment list, rules for character generation, and more. Specifically, rules for exploration, social interactions, performing actions, spellcasting, and pretty much everything you need to run the game.
If you can get yourself out of the mindset of the last 15 or so years, what Wizards of the Coast have published and given away for free are the core rules to the game. Think back to 1974, the game’s origins in the original white box. Your character choices were Fighting Man, Thief, Wizard, Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling (and honestly, Cleric wasn’t added until after the game’s release). You now have more rules at your disposal than the original edition of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS had, given to you for free. After the update next month which will include monsters and I believe magic items, this will be a complete game you can play without paying a dime. This is the core rules for the game. Everything else beyond this are just more options.
If you were involved in the year and a half long open playtest for the new edition, you’ll be familiar with the rules. Task resolution is accomplished through Ability Checks. This mechanic is the core of pretty much every system in the game and is very simple to explain but with enough nuance to cover most situations. You declare what you want to do and the Dungeon Master will tell you which ability to roll. You then roll a 20-sided die and add the modifier for the ability score to the result and compare it to the Difficulty Class for what you’re attempting to do. If you meet or exceed the number, it’s successful. Saving throws work the same way, only they occur when you’re attempting to avoid something rather than do something.
The bonuses for actions have also been standardized across all skill types in the Proficiency Bonus. This scales with level, starting at +2 at first level. Proficiency comes in a few varieties but all except armor do the same thing. Weapon proficiency adds your Proficiency Bonus to attack rolls, skill proficiency adds to ability checks involving that skill, tool proficiency adds to ability checks when using those tools, and saving throw proficiency adds its bonus when you’re proficient with that ability’s save. Armor proficiency, however, works a little differently. You still get the bonus to your Armor Class when wearing the armor, but you get disadvantage on any ability checks, saving throws, and attack rolls, plus you can’t cast any spells.
What’s the disadvantage? It’s a way for a Dungeon Master to quickly assess a bonus or penalty for an action. If you have advantage on a check, you roll two 20-sided dice and take the better result. If you have disadvantage, you roll two 20-sided dice and take the lower. Some class and racial abilities give you advantage on certain checks, and you can also get them from situational modifiers (having the higher ground in melee, giving a bribe when trying to bluff your way past a guard, etc.) Some abilities also give you the chance to impose disadvantage on other characters as well.
These rules are elegant, simple to explain, and easy to understand. In three paragraphs, I’ve given you enough information to start playing the game. Is it too simple? It might be if it weren’t for how different things interact. Class abilities, racial abilities, equipment, spells, and more add interesting options. A big issue with both 3.X and 4th Editions of D&D have been what I call “Playing the Character Sheet, Not the Character”, where when asked what you do, you immediately look down at your character sheet for the feat or power and choose between the ones you have rather than trying to decide on an action more organically. This move to more simplistic rules with exceptions and interactions allows far more freedom of choice. You can now attempt any action you can dream up without being encumbered by lacking the feat, skill, or power that allows you to try. I really like the freedom this gives you as it focuses on telling the story rather than focusing on strategy.
Class and race choices are obviously a bit limited, but there’s still some variety to be had in character types. You have four races to choose from, three of them with two subraces each (Humans have a subrace, but it requires the rules for Feats, which is in the Player’s Handbook). The classes also come with only one build option. The options given, though, are the iconic ones, and there are still some choices during character creations. You also have the choice of five different backgrounds for your character.
There’s something new in this edition, called Personal Characteristics. This is a great tool for new players or those who have trouble giving character to their character. You choose two Personality Traits, like “I’ve read every book in Candlekeep” or “I see omens in most every event.” You then choose an Ideal, a Bond, and a Flaw. Ideals are typically a single word that describes something your character believes, like “Honor: I never steal from others in the trade” or “Freedom: Tyrants must never be allowed to oppress the people”. Bonds are something that tie you to the world or the campaign, like “I owe my life to the priest who took me in as a child” or “I must protect my students”. Finally, flaws define a negative characteristic about yourself, “I overlook obvious solutions for complex ones” or “I have trouble trusting my allies”.
There is a mechanic attached to these characteristics, called Inspiration. If the DM believes that you’ve played one of your characteristics well, he can award you inspiration. This can be traded for advantage on any one roll. You can also give your inspiration to another character you feel is doing well. This encourages you to play your character and is a far better way to do so when tied to mechanics than alignment. Yes, alignment is still here, but there’s no mechanics tied to your alignment in the Basic D&D rulebook.
There’s one other bit from the Personality and Background I want to talk about, and I’m going to quote it directly as I feel it is especially important. In my opinion, no four sentences in modern gaming have ever held as much weight as these.
"You don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon's image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide."
There has been a huge issue in gaming culture involving gender issues and gaming. There have been hundreds of Facebook posts and Tweets about this paragraph expressing gratitude and relief at its inclusion. Stories of people who wanted to play homosexual or transgendered characters only to be told “Those don’t exist in Forgotten Realms/Greyhawk/etc.” They felt excluded from the gaming community and told that their lifestyle (even if it’s just one they wanted to explore through roleplay) was invalid.
This paragraph is in a segment of BASIC DUNGEONS & DRAGONS that is a direct transplant from the PLAYER’S HANDBOOK. It is in the core rulebook of the game, the foundation which all other products will be built upon, that inclusiveness is core to the game. It is a RULE in D&D that heteronormativity is NOT the rule and that everyone is welcome. This is an amazing thing and I feel that Wizards of the Coast should be highly praised for taking up valuable print real estate making it clear.
This indicates a movement in the gaming community on behalf of designers that started in the 1990s with White Wolf making their default pronoun “she” rather than “he”, continuing through Paizo’s use of character art depicting multiple genders and racial backgrounds in their art, and up to Posthuman Studio’s recent “firing” of “male rights advocates” as their customers and banning them from their forums and comments section. Acts of inclusion like this, particularly as a part of the core rules of the game, is a sign that the role playing game industry is going to drag its customers into the 21st century, kicking and screaming if they must.
The equipment chapter is another that comes directly from the PLAYER’S HANDBOOK, and features most everything you might need. You have the choice of getting your equipment from a combination of your background and class by choosing multiple options, or you can roll for starting gold to purchase your own equipment. They have done a few neat things, though. There’s a lot more mundane equipment of great usefulness to creative players, the one I like the best being ball bearings. They’ve also replaced the generic “Adventurer’s Pack” with seven distinct Equipment Packs, containing more varied items more tailored for specific duties such as a bugler’s pack and diplomat’s pack. Another interesting addition is a d100 random chart of various trinkets that have no real value, but are great to add verisimilitude as you’re going to find more than just piles of gold coins in a goblin’s hideout, like a silver spoon with an M engraved on it or a petrified mouse.
The spell list contains most of the iconic spells you’d want, but there’s already been a lot of complaining online about what spells have been left off. I think they struck a good balance, though there’s a few spells I don’t see why they included and others I’d rather they’d included. It’s still a solid and usable list, giving you many options to cover multiple character types and lots of utility.
So what’s the bad news? Well, you’ll have to read all 110 pages to figure out where everything is because there’s no index or table of contents. This will make it very difficult to find the rules you’re looking for quickly, even though the book is well-organized. There are a few minor layout quibbles I have too, such as tables being referenced in the middle of one page but not showing up until the bottom of the next page, with another larger table in between. Things like that leave you wondering if maybe they forgot to put it in until you scroll down far enough.
BASIC DUNGEONS & DRAGONS also lacks two things important to an ongoing campaign, monsters and magic items. Both of these plus additional rules for Dungeon Masters will be included in an update in August when the PLAYER’S HANDBOOK comes out, but at this point you’ll have to purchase the STARTER SET and use its set of monsters and magic items. You could also use versions from the playtest packets, but they may not work completely due to the extensive work on monster math that has been done in the past half year.
It’s also a major tease to have an introductory paragraph about multiclassing, rules not included in BASIC DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. All we get are the prerequisites and a few statements of how it’s applied. We also only get the statement of what feats are with no examples of what they are. There’s also another rule that’s mentioned but never stated in Multiclassing, where they state you must meet the attribute prerequisites for the class, but those are not given. So if you’re hoping to make a Fighter/Thief once the PHB comes out, you have no way of knowing where to put your attributes for now.
All in all, I think the rules show the flexibility and level of customization to come, and are playable as stands. So long as you pick up the STARTER SET (available in select game stores now or from mass market outlets on July 15), you’re good to go and honestly don’t need anything else to play unless you want additional options. Releasing this amount of rules for free is the best move for the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS line. The barrier to entry is low, no matter how you cut it. If someone’s curious about the game, they can get enough rules to play totally for free. The rules are simple and easy to learn, even for complex classes like spellcasters. If you’re curious about the game or want to try it out again after an extended absence, all you have to do is download and get started. At least you can if you get the STARTER SET or wait until the August update.
If BASIC DUNGEONS & DRAGONS isn’t enough for you, though, it’s not too much longer until we get the rest of the books. The PLAYER’S HANDBOOK comes out August 19, the MONSTER MANUAL September 30, and the DUNGEON MASTER’S GUIDE on November 18. As always, the pictures are clickable.
That’s it for now. I’ll be back next week with the typical news, reviews, and Kickstarter updates! I just got a haul of PATHFINDER material, so after the Wizards of the Coast lovefest this week, you’ll be getting some Paizo goodness soon. If you want to hear more about the gender issues in the game industry and gaming culture, we’ve got a packed episode of Gamer’s Tavern on the topic coming soon. You can also follow me on Twitter as I bug WotC designers on rules questions at @Abstruse, or you can email me your gaming news at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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