This review will go through the new D&D Basic Rules PDF, which is available for free on the Wizard’s site for download and is both existing gamer’s first encounter with 5th Edition and will – likely – be many people’s first introduction to D&D as a whole.
I’ll be going through the document in order and commenting and reviewing as I go.
This really is a ‘basic’ document. There’s no art, little in the way of layout and it’s really nothing but pure text. While this is basic and makes for a smaller, more printer friendly document it is hardly the best introduction to the game. Even the playtest documents had a bit of art to them and since this is likely to be many people’s first introduction to D&D it would have made more sense – to me – for them to have some inspirational art to stir the imagination and to excite the casual browser taking a look for the first time.
The introduction covers the usual basics, outlining how adventures work, some of the terminology, dice conventions and some very short examples of play. It’s all the usual stuff that’s needed to give a new player or Games Master a grounding but nothing worth commenting on.
Part 1 – Creating a Character
The familiar concepts are here and a character is set by race (the usual elf, dwarf, halfling etc), class (again, the usual rogue, wizard, fighter etc) and statistics and personal choices. Abilities are determined by a variety of options from rolling dice to placing a usual spread of statistics, to spending points. Races modify these but only in a positive direction – a carry-over from 4th Edition. Levels run from 1-20 as normal, divided into looser tiers of play than in 4th Edition, giving broad descriptions of the scales of adventure that are typical at those levels.
Part 2 – Races
As well as Ability bonuses, races come with various other traits and different movement rates (expressed in feet, rather than ‘squares’ – thankfully). Different races are also advised on their typical alignments, proficiencies (including non-weapon proficiencies) and other bonuses and traits. There are also sub-races, which may differ from or add to the alterations from the basic racial type.
No, there’s no gnomes. There’s also no warforged, goliaths or minotaurs. The booklet sticks to the typical, basic fantasy tropes which is something of a pity, I think I would have preferred to see one atypical example race to show that the scope can go beyond the normal Tolkienesque fantasy.
Part 3 – Classes
You get the usual D&D familiar classes – fighter, wizard, rogue and cleric – again, I’d have liked to have seen one atypical class here as an example but they’ve stuck to the absolute basics.
Class determines hit dice (d6 being the lowest, so a little higher than ‘old school’ D&D), saving throw proficiencies, armour, tool and weapon proficiencies as well as special abilities. Hit points also have a static first level, which is high to increase survivability at first level. You can also opt to take a static increase at each level.
Skills are extremely broad and characters do not get many of them, clerics and fighters, for example, only getting two.
Fighters are taken a little beyond the meat shields that they were before 3rd edition. Fighters get to choose a fighting style, have some limited ability to self heal and the option to take an extra action at a key point in a battle and this kind of ‘second chance’ and refined fighting style carries on as the fighter levels up. While this makes a fighter more effective, it doesn’t seem to make them much more interesting.
Rogues were another area of concern and the style of rogue as a skilful character rather than a thief per se continues in this edition with rogues getting more skills than anyone else and more effective skills. The rest, though, is more archetypical with sneak attacks, running and hiding options and so forth. You’ll be less able to customise a rogue into an agile fighter, but the customisations for the actual fighter may make that a better prospect for such a character.
Wizards and clerics are the most familiar of the classes with all the usual abilities you would expect. What is different is a compromise between 4e and older editions. Cantrips can now be cast at will, while more advanced spells are memorised and spent. A workable compromise that makes spells more valuable, but doesn’t reduce a spellcaster to a cowering idiot once they’ve run out of spells.
Part 4 – Personality and Background
The spectre of social justice seems to have reared its head in the ‘Sex’ section. Perhaps smarting from continued agitation from people upset at illustrations of female characters and… well, everything, the ‘sex’ paragraph is full of unnecessary reassurance and tries to cover all the bases in a way that stands out and reads rather jarringly – not because of the content but because it’s unnecessary and put upon. A simple ‘you can play any way you like’ would have sufficed. Someone is probably in an apoplectic fit over the fact their particular proclivity or presentation was missed out already. Especially since it then suggests that your size and weight might relate to your Abilities.
The sentiment behind the message is good, but by highlighting it, it has been made into an issue when it shouldn’t be an issue at all. The intended message is good, the medium is awful, the received message is of terrified hang-wringing.
Bringing in some ideas from Indie/story games, 5e has ‘Inspirations’ which come from your personality traits. You earn inspirations by playing up to those traits and can then spend that inspiration to gain an advantage on rolls later on.
Backgrounds describe the past of your character and come with proficiencies, languages, equipment and suggested personal characteristics. You can see these as ‘sub classes’ or specialisations, or ways to expand your class beyond its limited focus.
Part 5 – Equipment
This section discusses equipment and money and has a passable list of starting equipment. Armour can give you a disadvantage to stealth and for some items a certain level of strength is necessary. Some weapons have particular qualities beyond damage type, the most notable of which is ‘finesse’ meaning that light weapons like a rapier can attack using Dexterity, rather than Strength. A neat way of giving suitable weapon options.
Part 6 – Customisation
Multi-classing is broadly back to the simplicity of 3rd Edition which is a huge relief and should allow for many more customisable character options. There are some differences though, when you gain a new class you don’t get everything from it. Feats are also mentioned – a popular feature from 3rd Edition but you’re left to refer to the Player’s Guide.
Part 7 – Playing the Game
For the most part this is also familiar enough. Proficiencies give bonuses (closer to 4e rules) and the rule for advantage/disadvantage is new, meaning you roll two dice and take the highest or lowest, depending on the situation. Something quick and easy and guaranteed to double sales of d20s.
Skills simply allow you to add your (level dependent) proficiency to an Ability check when you do something, making skills somewhat less important than they were in 3e.
Saving throws are now Ability based – an idea a long time coming – and each class has its own proficiencies in particular saves.
Part 8 – Adventuring
A good list of the typical sorts of issues you might face while exploring, pace, the need for food and water, handling social interaction (via roleplaying and/or rolls) and rest and recuperation.
Part 9 – Combat
A good, broad coverage of typical combat situations. It’s a little light on improvisation – though its mentioned – and it’s lacking some archetypical examples of likely combat actions, tripping, aimed attacks etc.
Part 10-11 – Magic
A standard list of typical rules about casting, memorisation, preparation, cantrips and a list of spells.
The character sheet is simple looking, which is a huge relief, and conditions in combat are handily listed here.
The Basic PDF is just that, basic. While it contains most of what you need to play, much is missing, though you could probably improvise. If it wins on any score it is that this is free and is enough for people to play about with, especially if they also download the last playtest packet if they can find it online still. If it fails on any score it is that this is such a dry document that it is unlikely to inspire or excite casual browsers and potential new players who may happen upon the PDF.
As producers of content and fans we’re not really any closer to knowing 5e’s OGL status despite speculation, that makes it difficult to know how things will further unfold.
There’s certainly room for a lot of modification, customisation and even new games spun off this basic set of rules, whether we’ll see that remains to be seen.
Style: 2 (Pure text)
Substance: 3 (key aspects missing, background only hinted at)
Overall: 2.5 (NB: As an introductory product I’d rate this a 3. While it’s enough to pique the interest of existing gamers, it’s not a great ambassador to potential new players).