The 5th Edition Player’s Handbook takes the Basic D&D rule book Wizards of the Coast has made available online for free and expands upon it in both breadth and depth. The core rules for the game as presented in the free PDF are unchanged. What you are paying for is more of everything else: more races, more classes, more spells, more backgrounds, and options like feats and multiclassing. People who find the Basic game a bit lacking may enjoy all the additions to the game found in the Player’s Handbook.
Basic D&D includes the 4 races found in Original Dungeons and Dragons: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. The Player’s Handbook adds 4 more races, and a few sub races. Dragonborn are the first new race. When I played 4th Edition everyone wanted to be a Dragonborn: our group included two, and without fail there was always a little kid playing a Dragonborn at D&D Encounters. In the old-school D&D scene they seem to be viewed as the Jar-Jar Binks of playable races. I’m not sure how they are presented here will change that sentiment. The other new races are Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Half-Elves and Tieflings. The Drow are included as a new sub-race for Elves, presumably so everyone can play Drizzt Do’Urden. With the exception of Half-Elves, which feel like more of the same, the other races are distinct enough to be interesting additions to the game. They are similar enough to how they have been presented in earlier editions of the game to be instantly recognizable to old players. Whether you want to use them all depends on how Mos Eisley you like your D&D.
There are 12 classes in the Player’s Handbook, 8 more than presented in the core rules. The new classes are the Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Sorcerer, and Warlock. Unlike 4th Edition, the classes do for the most part feel quite different from one another. They all generally have some weird quirk or feature unique to them. Many of the classes overlap in their additional features. The Paladin, Fighter, or Cleric can all be used to model similar character archetypes, so the choice of which to use will probably come down to what features of those classes you are most interested in exploring: each would play quite differently.
The classes in 5th Edition all begin for the most part with a handful of things a new player needs to worry about. Each time a new level is gained there may be another new feature that the player can now use. Each class generally has at least two paths one can take when they reach 3rd level that further specialize the class along some theme. These specializations are also used in a few cases to split classes up into an easy mode and a hard mode. For example, in Basic D&D Fighters only have the option of choosing the Champion martial archetype when they reach 3rd level. The Champion has very straight forward features and don’t really make the class more complex as you gain levels. In the Player’s Handbook there are two more choices: the Battle Master and the Eldritch Knight. The Battle Master learns maneuvers as the character levels up, and has a pool of dice that can be spent to execute those maneuvers.1 This would probably be a good choice for someone who likes playing fighters, but also wants to play a character with a lot of moving parts. The Eldritch Knight is a Fighter crossed with a Wizard. This would be a better choice for someone who is interested in creating the sort of magic wielding fighter they might have read about it in a book.
There are three different spell casting classes: Wizards, Warlocks and Sorcerers, and each has a different vibe, and slightly different mechanics around spell casting. Wizards have spell slots, and can learn an unlimited number of spells. Sorcerers have a finite number of spells they can learn, but have spell points they can spend to augment the traditional casting system of 5e. Warlocks also learn a finite number of spells, but then have Warlock invocation and features related to the diabolic pact that grants them their powers.
Paladins, Rangers, Bards and Druids can all cast spells as part of their core class features. As mentioned above, Fighters can become Eldritch Knights which grants them access to magic. Similarly, Rogues can become Arcane Tricksters. So, with the exception of Monks every single class can cast magic spells without even needing to resort to multi-classing. I’m not sure i’m a fan of that: it seems like there is way too much magic all over the place. I assume this is to allow for a wider variety of characters without requiring the plethora of classes found in 4th Edition.
I enjoy playing OD&D where there are only a handful of classes, and if you want to be a Ranger you just make a fighter and give him a bow. That’s going to feel lacking for many people.2 With 5th Edition, characters are far more complex than they were in earlier editions of the game, but are much more straight forward than those found in later iterations. I think Wizards of the Coast has done a good job here. The complexity of the character classes increases over time, slowly, for most classes, and there are several classes that are clearly meant to be played by new players—like those presented in the basic rules
In the old-school scene you often find people sharing their home brew character classes. I think 5th Edition has enough breadth you can probably cover all sorts of character types simply by using the Player’s Handbook by the book. Where I suspect we will see creative efforts directed is making new races and sub races, and making new backgrounds—which probably deserve their own post.
This is actually similar to how the Fighter was presented in one of the earlier play test packets. The most notable change (and improvement) is that the manoeuvres as written now aren’t so reliant on the use of a grid in combat. ↩
Based on how OD&D grew with each new booklet, playing just four classes got boring for players at the time as well. ↩
Basic D&D is more or less all I wanted in terms of 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It’s nice and simple. Still, I wanted to give Mike Mearls and his team a high five for all the work they have done so I picked up a copy of the new Players Handbook yesterday. One aspect of the book really jumped out at me right away: damn there is a lot of art in this thing.
The team behind 5th Edition must have blown a sizable portion of their budget on art. This thing is overflowing with artwork. It’s rare to go more than a handful of pages before hitting a painting. Everything is in full colour. There is a bit too much of that “single character posing” artwork that seems to be most common in new RPG books, but on the whole I like this book’s art. I wish they had credited which artists painted which pictures. Maybe that’ll be something that ends up online, one day.
One nice change of pace compared to RPGs books of yore: women seem to be represented in the art more or less equally. In fact, there might be more girls than boys in this book. There’s also much more variety in terms of how people are represented in general. Suck it, White dudes in armour: we’re coming for you!
How was this feat achieved?
Hire lots of women. And hire gay dudes. And hire every kind of person because they make a talented version of every kind of person. They exist.
That is the sole and only answer that is fair and that will get us good work while sacrificing neither of the real priorities here.
Hire women (50%!) and let them do whatever they want. Don’t hire men and tell them to make work that does not appeal to them. Don’t hire a writer and ask him to write a world he will not want to play in. Hire a woman and ask her to do whatever.
Zak Smith has a great blog post about this (obvious?) idea from a couple years ago that’s worth re-reading. Unless i’m bad at guessing gender, it looks like 4 out of the 6 art directors for this book were women. I can’t imagine any other route to get to this book and its art that doesn’t involve women being directly involved in its production.
Magic Arrows have a +1 chance of hitting their target and do additional damage. Thus, a Magic Arrow normally does from 2-7 points of damage when it hits. — Original Dungeons and Dragons: Monsters and Treasure,
If your D&D game is full of boring magical arrows this is easy to remedy. Magical arrows are a much more prominent feature of the Hindu epics than they seem to be in Western fantasy literature. Most of the battles in the Mahabharata are fought on chariots, the heroes shooting arrows they summon from the heavens at one another. You don’t need to read these epic poems looking for examples to pull out for your game: the good people at Wikipedia have done some of that work for you. For example:
[The Narayanastra] would create showers of arrows and discs. The astra’s power would increase with the resistance offered to it. This weapon had to be obtained from Vishnu directly, and could be used only once. If the user were to attempt invoking it a second time, it would rebound on him, and possibly, his troops.
That’s a little bit more interesting, no?
The greatest weapon in the Mahabharata is the Vasavi Shakti / Naikartana, gifted to Karna by the god Indra, which could kill any one foe. He is goaded into using it against the half-demon Ghatotkacha who is terrorizing the Kaurava army. This prevents him from using it against his biggest foe, Arjuna.
Inflamed with rage like a wrathful lion and unable to brook the assaults of the Rakshasa, Karna took up that foremost of victory-giving and invincible darts, desirous of compassing the destruction of Ghatotkacha. Indeed, that dart, O king, which he had kept and adored for years for (achieving) the slaughter of Pandu’s son in battle, that foremost of darts which Sakra himself had given to the Suta’s son in exchange for the latter’s ear-rings, that blazing and terrible missile twined with strings and which seemed to thirst for blood, that fierce weapon which looked like the very tongue of the Destroyer or the sister of Death himself, that terrible and effulgent dart, Naikartana, was now hurled at the Rakshasa. — The Mahabharata: Ghatotkacha-badha Parva
The sight is without sound and stinks like an airless tomb burning in the light of an unwanted sun. But, in the silence, movement worms. The whole place has the feel of a terrible revealing. Like a black sheet pulled back from a naked corpse.
Deep Carbon Observatory is thoroughly unrelenting its bleakness. There is a sadness that permeates the whole work. The players march towards the observatory passing all sorts of horror on their way.
The Roc’s bowed wings make a beautiful but alien bridge across the churning water. The body of the bird twitches slightly, devoured by whatever lies beneath. Looking down, you see leeches, sized like men, feeding on the bird. Not yet fully dead its head lolls half sunken and gasps. The ‘bridge’ will be consumed in d4 hours. It may be possible to save the Roc. It will not be grateful if you do.
So much of the adventure makes me feel uncomfortable: there is this dread that builds and builds as you move from page to page in the book. These little vignettes all do a great job of showing the players the terrible aftermath of the flood, hopefully filling them with that same sort of dread as they play. The adventure feels like it would be at home in a Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign.
Things don’t get better when you make it to the Underdark.
Hidden under the dirt of the far wall are slave survival spells in a simple tongue, decipherable by any mage. All the spells count as level one, are not very powerful and can be cast without being noticed: Reduce Scars. Lessen Pain. Minimise Thirst. Hide Sorrow. Avoid Notice. Ease Grief.
Scrap Princess’ illustrations contribute to the overall tone of the book. I find her work is so frenzied and terrifying. Maybe that’s not the right word, but there is something about how she draws that I find really visceral. I don’t know anyone else that draws like her.
I own no other adventure like this one: I liked it a lot.
I took a particularly long lunch today to go and pick up the new D&D Starter Set.1 I have been looking forward to grabbing it for quite some time now. It’s hard to believe that they announced 5th Edition over two years ago now. The boxed set contains the core rules you need to play the game, and an adventure that helps set the tone for the new edition and hopefully helps teach people how to DM a game. I haven’t ran a game since I was a little kid, so I’m thinking i’ll try and run this one.2
When my friends and I started our 4th Edition game we had six players: two were brand new to role playing games, while four including myself had played previous versions of D&D. I don’t think any of us had played 3rd edition—I certainly hadn’t. Even those of us who were experienced gamers hadn’t played a game since high school—that was a long time ago.
When we first started playing 4th Edition I felt like the game had been greatly simplified. Pretty much any situation is decided by trying to roll as high as you can on a 20-sided dice. Situations are assigned difficulty classes (DCs), a number that needs to be beat on the roll of a d20, that indicates how tricky a task is to accomplish. Combat also works this way too. Armour is essentially a difficulty class as well. To hit someone in plate mail you need to beat their AC of 18 when you roll a d20 and add your bonuses. That’s right, no more negative AC! At first blush this made explaining the rules of the game simple: if you want to do anything contentious you just roll a d20. Still, initial gaming sessions were fairly slow going. Eventually it became clear that while some rule changes simplified the game, others added levels of complexity that didn’t exist before.
Character creation is a slow going process in 4th Edition. There are powers and feats to worry about, and lots of bonuses to track. I don’t know if I really noticed how much slower it was the first time I made my character: it was fun and exciting to be playing D&D again. After having to make characters several times for D&D Encounters that charm quickly wore off. I find making a 4th Edition character a giant pain in the ass without the 4th Edition character builder. Even with that tool making a new character takes way longer than I want it to. There is something refreshing about making a character for one of the older editions of the game. My generator spits one out in seconds, but doing it by hand is still quick. (The only real place for analysis paralysis is buying equipment.)
Combat, which felt a lot more open ended and free form in earlier rule books, had become a fair bit more structured in the new rule books. The use of miniatures is assumed, making the game feel a bit like Warhammer. There is a strong tactical combat element to D&D 4e. In my mind this is the biggest plus and minus of the edition. If you are not into the whole ‘combat as chess’ thing you’re going to find playing 4th Edition frustrating. Most gaming sessions with my friends would be spent slogging through combat. We might get through a couple fights in between some exploration on a given gaming night. Combat in 4th Edition is slow going at early levels, and only gets slower as characters level up. In my mind having such clear cut powers also discourages creative play. These explicit “moves” feel stifling. For each situation in combat there is often an optimal choice when it comes to doing damage or providing support. It’s rarely the case that going off script is that optimal choice.
Teaching someone how to play D&D using the 4th Edition rules is trickier than it needs to be because the rules for combat are so complex and nuanced. People need to think about combat advantage and flanking and all sorts of stuff that they might not have thought they needed to think about when they signed up to play pretend. That’s not to say this sort of thing doesn’t exist in older editions of the game, it’s just managed in a simpler loosey-goosey way. Combat comes up often enough in most games of D&D that this is problematic.
Eventually the warts in the game are all you see. I liked playing 4e with my friends, but in hindsight I think we’d have been better off just playing 2nd Edition, which we had grown up with. Of course, we’d probably not have started playing D&D again out of the blue if not for the new edition. For that reason alone I will always have a soft spot for 4th Edition: it’s what got me back into D&D.
Public-play games transitioned to play testing D&D Next, and on my own time I shifted to playing Original D&D. Both variations of the game felt like an improvement over 4th Edition. 5th Edition looks to have addressed my big complaints with 4th Edition: combat is much simpler and faster, and character creation is much simpler. 5th Edition takes the d20 rules from 4th Edition and simplifies them further. Depending on what bits and pieces from the play test they turn into 5th Edition, it may turn out to be the easiest version of D&D to teach and learn. I’m really looking forward to 5th Edition.
People discuss playing OD&D ‘by the book’ online, though I’m not completely sure what that means. There are so many holes in the rule books that any attempt to avoid “making stuff up” is doomed to fail. Original Dungeons and Dragons is more of a framework to build your own fantasy RPG than an RPG, as we might understand one today, in its own right. This laissez-faire attitude towards spelling everything out can be seen in the earlier source material for OD&D, Chainmail:
These rules may be treated as guide lines around which you can form a game that suits you. It is a good idea to amend the rules to allow for historical precedence or common sense — follow the spirit of the rules rather than the letter. — Chainmail, pg 8.
Making the game your own seems to have been a core tenant of early versions of role playing games that starts to get lost with AD&D. Gygax seems to have an about face when it comes to playing D&D the official way. It’s possible this comes out of a need for consistent rules for tournament games, or annoyance at people making up dumb rules and telling him about them in the letters sent to Dragon magazine.
One of the biggest differences between what one might call old-school and new-school gaming probably hinges on how you feel about house rules and a poorly spelled out ruleset. 3rd and 4th Edition are notable in just how verbose and exacting they are: very little of the core elements of the game are left up to the DMs discretion. Some people appreciate that with 3rd and 4th Edition their gaming experience will likely be consistent, at least with respect to the rules.
I’ve come to really enjoy the variety that comes out of playing old-school D&D. Everyone has their own rules for this and that. I enjoy all the subtle differences.
There isn’t much proper religion to speak of in the world of Carcosa. Some people worship the Old Ones and their spawn, others ancient technology. No one is worshiping otherworldly benevolent beings. There are certainly no centralized religious organizations.
Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
Characters begin in the town of Invak. One can find most standard equipment for sale in the town in a large shop run by “the Infinite Keeper”. The Brown Men village of Jahar to the South may have other items that are trickier to track down. Trade caravans run between the two towns.
Where can we go to get plate mail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
You are unlikely to find anyone in the region who knows how to produce plate mail, let alone the metal you would need to produce it. “The Ocean of Humility” in Invak may be able to fashion something out of leather. Most people have little idea how to fashion useful armour that fits people, let alone monsters.
Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?
The most evil of all the Purple Men, “the Icon of Judgment,” is known throughout the land for his mastery of sorcery. He rules a small village protected by advanced weaponry and battle armoured soldiers. The Old Ones yield to his will.
Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
You know of no greater soldier than “the Swift and Silent Beginning,” the leader of the Bone Men village Invak.
Who is the richest person in the land?
“The Icon of Judgment” is said to possess vast amounts of wealth.
Where can we go to get some magical healing?
Nowhere. Sorcery is only used for evil and wickedness.
Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?
The desert lotuses can heal the sick and dying. Of course, they can also kill you.
Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
There are no traditional magic-users, and sorcerers are definitely not forming guilds: they are two busy harvesting each other for fuel for their spells.
Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
“The Falling Flower” is a Desert Lotus Apothcary who lives in the village of Invak. He operates a small stall in the ex-slaves quarter of the town. He may be addicted to the lotuses he sells.
The nearest sage you know of is “He of the Air,” who lives in Jahar.
Where can I hire mercenaries?
The town of Invak maintains an informal standing milita. Most of the men and women in the town have served. For a little money it won’t be hard to find people willing to have an adventure.
Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?
Most people consider magic wicked. You are best to hide any sorcerous tendencies you may have. On the other hand, no villagers are likely to complain about a person carrying a weapon: it’s rough out there.
Which way to the nearest tavern?
This Way to Death in Invak serves fermented drinks and is the place to go for all sorts of shadiness.
What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?
A large spherical hunter-killer robot stalks the wastes around Invak at night. No one knows who created it or for what purpose, but it has been stealing away men and women for as long as anyone can remember. Few have encountered the machine and lived to share their tales.
“The Swift and Silent Beginning” will pay for proof of any killed slaver or spawn.
Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?
Occasionally a town and its leader may get bold and try to expand their reach or power: this rarely ends well for anyone involved. There are currently no large scale wars of note.
How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?
A castle of Orange Men to the North run a gladiatorial arena of sorts: there are no prizes and the winners of the games are fed to the Spawn of Shub-Niggurath the Orange Men worship as a god.
Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?
Maybe, but they are secret.
What is there to eat around here?
In Invak people subsist off the meats and eggs of the various lizards that make their home in the wastes, along with mushrooms and all sorts of strange roots. There is nothing good to eat anywhere.
Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?
The Elder Signs, rune inscribed stones that keep the Old Ones at bay, would probably be quite handy.
Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?
Few creatures are interested hoarding treasure on Carcosa besides the various races of Men. Of course, it’s not clear what anyone actually does with their piles of gold and jewels: Carcosa is a crap hole world with nothing good to buy.
I wrote this up some time ago for a Carcosa campaign I may never run. Brendan of Necropraxis suggested answering these questions as a way to help new players quickly get a sense of what’s up with your particular game of D&D. I haven’t ran a game since I was a little kid, but if I did it’d probably look like the sort of games I’ve been playing since I got back into old-school D&D.
Ability scores generation method?
3d6 in order, just like God intended.
How are death and dying handled?
If your hit points drop below or are equal to zero make a Save vs. Death Ray and Poison: success indicates your character is merely unconscious, completely incapacitated until they can get a full week of rest; failure indicates your character is oh-so dead. If you roll a natural 20 on your saving throw roll, your character not only survives, but is invigorated by his near death. In this case your character re-rolls their HP for the session.1
What about raising the dead?
The ancient snake-men may have had a ritual for raising the dead, though it is currently lost to the ages. Perhaps intrepid adventurers may uncover such a spell, though I am sure the costs to cast it would make death look like the better choice.
How are replacement PCs handled?
Roll up a new character and we will jam them into the game somehow. It’s handy to have henchmen for such a situation.
Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
Individual: roll a d6, high roll goes first, your dexterity score is used to break ties.
Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
Yes: a 1 is always a miss, a 20 is always a hit and you deal the maximum damage for the attack.
Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
Of course: helmets shall be splintered! 10% of hits that would damage a character will be to a character’s head. If the character is wearing a well made helmet it will shatter protecting them from the blow.
Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
Yes, targets would be chosen at random when firing into the fray.
Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
You will probably want to avoid some fights.
Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
Hells no: they are the worst.
Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
Yes, but hopefully that won’t feel stupid. What’s the point of a Save vs. Death Ray if you don’t have death rays in your game?
How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
Strictly! Bust out that spreadsheet, asshole.
What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
Leveling happens during down time. There is no need for special training.
What do I get experience for?
Finding treasure, killing monsters and terrible people, freeing slaves, stopping sorcerers, exploring the wilderness and anything else I can think of.
How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
Yes, the more the merrier. Morale is handled using the obscure rules hidden within OD&D. When a morale check is required roll a 2d6, adjusted by a retainers loyalty, the higher the roll the better.
How do I identify magic items?
Characters may encounter ancient magical snake-men artifacts, or the great technologies of the Primordial Ones or the Great Race. Chances are nobody in Carcosa will know what’s up.
Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
Can I create magic items? When and how?
It is possible, through some long lost terrible sorcerous ritual that’s probably not worth the trouble when you can just go hunting for laser guns.