If you’re a Dungeons & Dragons fan, then you may already be aware that the next edition of D&D is swooping in at the end of the summer, courtesy of publisher Wizards of the Coast. Whether you’re up on the latest rules, a cantankerous old grognard, or simply a proponent of the oft-exemplary offshoots, this is still a momentous time for the game and could either reignite or diminish the famous brand. Likely it will do a little bit of both—you cannot please everyone—but my personal hope is that it attracts a wealth of new players to the hobby: kids, teens, adults, whomever! After the “edition wars” and other rules-based schisms that online fans still like to argue about, it remains to be seen whether this iteration of Earth’s original and most iconic role-playing game takes wing.
Since announcing its inception in 2012—controversially only four years after the 4th Edition release—Wizards of the Coast has been calling this new one “D&D Next.” Finally, finally, they seem to have dropped the marketspeak “Next” and are just calling it what it is. But let’s be clear, it is the Fifth Edition of the game. D&D has featured a long, storied, and meandering set of rules since its early days and this latest one can only subjectively be considered the best. They began with the original basic set in 1974, and other “OD&D” books, before the creation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (aka what we now call 1st Edition). Honestly, it helps to think of everything prior to 1977 as the dungeon or foundation—or at least the nostalgic mezzanine—of the D&D tower. Now we’re on the fifth floor and it looks pretty sweet (and squamous) up here, whatever you might think of what lies beneath.
As is tradition, the new edition will launch with three core rulebooks in an asynchronous, claw/claw/bite pattern: The Player’s Handbook (PHB) releases in August, followed by the Monster Manual (MM) in September and the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) in November. For newbies, know this: These are the only books you’d need to play the game—which is good, considering they’re $50 each! Yes, there will also come a flurry of ready-made adventures (the Tyranny of Dragons storyline in August–October) and even a Starter Set Box (July) for those who can’t wait. But to play Dungeons & Dragons you need only the basic rules and your imagination. Oh, and some friends, dice, and table space. (Doritos and Mountain Dew are optional—and frankly overrated.)
Meanwhile, scope out the monstrous new covers! I’m not yet sure how to feel about them for what they represent—I’m a longtime fan and there’s a lot of cover nostalgia to overcome—but there’s no denying their visual appeal. A fire giant dominates the PHB, a beholder draws the eye(s) on the MM, and a lich overshadows the DMG. On each, adventurers representing your characters contend with a classic D&D villain.
One thing two of these covers have in common is their joint origins on the canvas of artist and Spectrum Fantastic Art Gold Winner Tyler Jacobson. Let’s start with King Snurre—the titular monarch of the 1978’s The Hall of the Fire Giant King adventure module—who looms on the cover of the Player’s Handbook.
I asked Jacobson himself if he could describe the scene. It looks like a human and an elf (or half-elf) are taking on King Snurre.
Jacobson: The scene does depict a battle where two heroes are maneuvering to take on the King. The angle is so extreme in order to convey a desperate battle again such a giant foe. I wanted to put the female hero in a pose that seemed very “last ditch effort” to cast a spell and possibly take him out, but as a consequence she would probably fall to the ground on her back and be left very vulnerable. But mainly I just wanted a composition that was very action-packed and all the poses helped that nicely.
I was extremely satisfied to see the Player’s Handbook’s cover at last give us an action heroine in sensible clothing—quite a contrast to last edition’s PHB cover. Whatever anyone thinks of the overall format and design of these books, that’s a huge win. I asked Tyler where he intended to draw the viewer’s eye in this one.
Jacobson: I used the brightest point in the image as my intended focus, which would be the magic about to be cast in the female hero’s hand. The blue magic contrasts the hot colors everywhere else in the image. It is also where most of the detail meets (the giant’s face and the hero’s face)
Okay, D&D players: what spell is she casting? And as for old Snurre’s togs, what’s in fashion these days in the firelit, obsidian halls of the Fire Giant King?
Jacobson: The King is wearing a white dragon hide, wrapped around his torso and resting over his back portions with the wings hanging off the side. Large chunks of scales are also being used as shoulder are on his right side (our left). The skull of the dragon is the helmet with red jewels in place of the eyes.
That’s one unfortunate, but esteemed white wyrm!
Meanwhile, the Dungeon Master’s Guide depicts the lich Acererak, undead archvillain and primary adversary from 1975’s the infamous Tomb of Horrors adventure module.
Jacobson: The main thought was that he was in control. Being the DMG, we wanted to convey a sense of the players being in real trouble. The lich is extremely powerful and we wanted the DMs out there to get excited about wielding that power. From my angle, I wanted the lich to be looming over the viewer and seem unstoppable as he raised the corpses around him. Heroes that just fell in an attempt to destroy him are now working for him. Very demoralizing.
DMs as demoralizors…how delightfully ironic. There’s no doubt that Tyler Jacobson is invoking great evil and great power here. Where the PHB cover heroine potentially has the drop on the fire giant, Acererak here is clearly winning.
Tyler’s own blog gives us a closer look at this momentous project and the art itself. Finally, I asked him how he felt about being chosen to illustrate the covers of these two books.
Jacobson: I am extremely honored. When I was first asked, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I mean it was the CORE books!! It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I hope they have a good impact and get people excited about the game. If they can do that, then I have done my job.
The opinions are certainly going to run the spectrum, but I think most agree they’re exciting to look at and make one eager to roll up a character—or step behind the DM’s screen and throw down some monsters. I am certainly of the latter.
In some ways, this new edition of D&D is an attempted reboot, a gamble to win back many of the fans turned off by the jarring gear-changing of 4th Edition’s rules, or even the 3rd. Even now, the D&D fan base is a mixed bag of the eager, the wary, and the still-simmering. The use of iconic Greyhawk monsters on these covers is at least a nod to the Old Guard of the D&D community. And honestly, it’s exciting to see our favorite old game become new again.
Still, one thing is different this time around. Wizards of the Coast has released a series of free-to-download public playtest rules over the course of a year and a half, actively soliciting feedback from the community. The rules have evolved plenty since the start of that open playtest, for better and for worse. (For example, at one point, dwarves were completely immune to poison—crazy, right?—and now they’re back to just having “advantage” against it. Advantage/disadvantage being a simple, but fun new mechanic that involves rolling a d20 twice and using the better/worse result.) The final result may be an exquisite corpse, or it could be the hybrid we’ve been looking for.
Having dabbled with every update of the playtest rules in my own D&D Eberron campaign, it’s my opinion that this new edition, at first glance, does indeed feel like a bit of an amalgam of all previous editions. And that’s a good thing. 5th Edition has the initial nostalgic sensibility of 1st and 2nd Editions (but without the crazy charts), the essential look and ease of 3rd Edition (but without the complexity—I’m looking at you, grapple rules!), and it has some of the tactical awareness of 4th Edition (but without the normalizing math and video game feel). I was even fortunate enough, as a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, to be included in the more exclusive Friends and Family Playtest group, so I’ve had a closer look at what’s to come. Will it work for everyone? Not a chance. Will it be fun for many? Absolutely. But then, it’s not out yet.
Personally, I’m just glad that kids introduced to D&D for the first time starting this summer won’t have to start with the glut of 4th Edition mechanics. The rules are more streamlined for faster gameplay, while some of the complexities and character builds that some gamers want are presented as optional rules. For the most part, there seems to be a greater emphasis on—I should say return to—story, and as a writer that’s precisely where my love of the game has always been.
The world of non-digital games—board, card, tabletop, role-playing—is in a kind of renaissance now. Let’s hold onto it! In this digital age of increasingly immersive yet imagination-limiting video and computer RPGs, now would be an excellent time for pen-and-paper, sitting-around-a-table-with-other-humans activities to thrive again. And if you’re not into Wizards of the Coast’s rebranding, rebooting, and reselling? Go back and pick up some of the old stuff from your basement, your parents’ storage, or online. It’s all still good.
So, for that matter, is Paizo’s Pathfinder system, or Goodman Games’s Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, or Autarch’s Adventurer Conqueror King System.
Dungeons & Dragons by any other name would smell as sweet and still breath fire. And acid, poison, lightning, and frost.
Jeff LaSala is a writer and gamer who’s still geeked that Tyler Jacobson illustrated one of his articles once. He’s written for D&D Insider, penned an Eberron novel, and made sure his newborn son knew that dragons are friends.