Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th Edition is Built on the Lessons Learned from Past Editions

Well, this is the edition to play. Dungeons & Dragons has gone through some vicissitudes over the last few years, but I think the 5th edition of the Player’s Handbook puts any edition controversy to bed.

The 3rd edition, its Open Game License, and its 3.5th revision were a golden age for the hobby, but the more tactical combat-oriented 4th edition turned a lot of folks off; and it all went down while Pathfinder, the unofficial 3.75th edition, was coming on strong.

We all remember the dark days of the Edition Wars; they never left some dark corners of the Internet, but 5e seems to be largely immune. I playtested it in early versions and have been playing it with folks from around the Tor offices since then… and now it’s bound and printed and finalized! It’s different enough from rivals to be its own thing, and it’s learned smart lessons from previous editions, combining AD&D 2e’s relative simplicity with 3e’s customization. There’s more of 4e in there then some people will want to admit, too: at-wills, short rests, hit dice, all the bonus actions, races and powers.

Let me get this out of the way up front, since I’ve written about diversity in Dungeons & Dragons before: It’s really wonderful to see this book showing a range of heroes. Not just purples and blues, but human diversity, in the races, classes, and the rest 0f the book. People with dark skin tones. Women. An explicit acceptance of non-binary gender and sexual orientation. Yes. This is what a book published in the 21st century should look like. No playable orcs as the default, sadly, but half-orcs, at least.

A friend of mine pointed out the Warlock class to me in 3e and said, “This is the class for you.” I’d written it off before, thinking the Invocations sloppy and the free eldritch blast over-powered. This was just on the cusp of that sea change, where we all realized that “hey, no, it isn’t over-powered, that’s basically what fighters have.” I playtested one on my friend’s advice and it was, in fact, my favorite. Come 4e and the addition of Pacts—but the loss of “inexhaustible magical power” as a defining trait, since every class had that now—and the Warlocks were my go-to class. 

We all have that favorite class, and maybe it changes over time… but it’s always there, right? For me, that’s Warlocks (and Paladins), so that was the first class I flipped to. I’m incredibly happy with it; you can see the fingerprints of Aragorn on the Ranger, Barbarian has Conan, and now Warlocks show a clear line of descent from Moorcock’s Elric. Which isn’t to say playing an Elric pastiche is the only, or even the default, option; but come on, you can’t read about a Fiendish Pact of the Blade and not think of blood and souls for Lord Arioch…

One of the big tricks that 5e plays with classes is to provide “kit”-like specialization in each, and letting those sub-classes get… really diverse. By way of example: The Arcane Trickster and Eldritch Knight, which were once prestige classes that you needed to really work to qualify for, are now playable options for the Rogue and the Fighter right out of the box; and they’re very robust partial casters, too.

Some of the sub-classes are narrower in focus than others—one Shadow Monk is going to have powers pretty much identical to another Monk on the Way of Shadow, whereas two Battlemaster Fighters might know entirely different powers—but that’s okay! A new sub-type for any class could be published in any book. Come up with a variant Defiler sub-class for the Wizard in your Dark Sun setting book, or a Pirate kit for the Rogue in a nautical supplement, or new Paladin oath-type for a divine class-themed splatbook—they are hooks for further content.

Races are designed the same way, with some exceptions. You have half of your racial bonuses under “elf” or “dwarf,” but then the other half of your racial modifiers come from your subtype. Are you a “high elf” or a “wood elf,” a “hill dwarf” or a “mountain dwarf”? More potential for expanding the sub-races in later books for, say, campaign settings… sure makes me hope there is a robust open game license of some kind for this edition. Also, non-level-adjusted drow—thank you for that gift! I’m declaring drow no longer cliché and now just canon. It’s time for people to play more drow in non-stereotypical ways. Or stereotypical ways, if you want; spiders are my favorite animal, so playing up the whole spider elf motif has strong appeal.

Humans are the first obvious exception. I still remember cracking the 3e Player’s Handbook for the first time, looking at humans and then, I think, pumping my fist in the air triumphantly. I don’t usually play humans, but I found previous editions’ “Humans are neutral, other races get bonuses and neat powers” to be a bummer for them. Giving them big but generic racial rewards was a wonderful solution, and 5e continues it. +1 to every attribute? That’s a strong statement.

The other exceptions are mostly the non-standard races. It’s not a hard boundary, but elf comes before dragonborn. It ain’t alphabetical, exactly, which I like; it creates a “mainstream.” 5e tieflings—another bellweather for me, like warlocks—are choice. Planescape is where I first fell under their spell, but these are probably my favorite rules for them since then. The use of flexible spells to spice up the more magical races works nicely and, again, lends itself to homebrews and DM tweaks. Wanna replace hellish rebuke with armor of agathys or hex? Lemme know how it works. And thanks for putting in a text box that says dragonborn are the same things as draconians, with some variant rules. I like how it better connects your IP together.

My biggest complaint is one that cuts across pretty much every edition of the game: I don’t like balancing classes by creating individualized spell lists. Why not is pretty simple: Remember above when I was applauding the open-ended nature of the classes and races, because further publications can add to and deepen what already exists? Balancing a class by spell list is the opposite of that ethos, to me.

Hundreds—thousands?—of new spells will be written for this edition in forthcoming books, as well as many dozens of new classes. Now each new spell has to be evaluated for every class to see if it should be added ad hoc to their list, and stranger or partial casting classes are likely to fall through the cracks; anybody who played one of the less supported classes from a previous edition knows that pain. Maybe 5e will break that curse?

Photos by Mordicai Knode, art courtesy of Wizards of the Coast

Mordicai Knode has a great pitch for a drow fey pact warlock who is romantically entangle with the White Candle, the one Yochlol that didn’t Fall with Lolth.  Find him on Tumblr or Twitter


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