Here’s your capsule review of 5e.
There’s nothing particularly new here except an optional, mild nod towards developments in Indie-Gaming over the last 20 years or so in the form of ‘inspiration’. That is rewarding good roleplay, or at least roleplaying according to your character’s personality and background – with mechanical benefits in game, rather than just in terms of experience points. That’s a small, but significant, update to the game in my opinion.
Otherwise there’s nothing particularly new here, the game is a sort of ‘greatest hits’ or a remix in many ways. 3e and 4e were emach radical departures for D&D with 3e arguably being the better modernisation of the two, 5e is much more retro.
On the good side multiclassing doesn’t suck like it did in 4e and ‘build optimisation’ isn’t as broken or as big of a deal (yet) as it was.
On the minus side, the Feats instead of Ability Bonuses thing makes you make a very, very hard choice and removes a degree of character individuality. Also the skill system blows goats, reducing it to a binary yes/no and a level dependent bonus (proficiency) making it more akin to non-weapon proficiencies from back in the day.
The game’s solid and, probably, the right move in the current market.
The presentation is where it kind of gets confusing. I’ll get into some of that a bit later, but it definitely lacks a definitive look and feel of the kind that 3e and 4e had. It’s all a bit… brown, wishy-washy, insipid and uninspiring. The best bits, the bits that actually catch the attention or make you want to play are the few illustrations that are outside the bounds of the Social Justice influence, the huge-ass dragon on page 171 and the little humour-filled B&W sketches for things like the condition effects (which even include some same sex dwarf/tentacle action).
Style: 3/5 (Especially halflings and gnomes. Dude… wtf?!?)
So, into the post-script, because nobody REALLY needs another review of 5e. The ‘meta level’ discussion has been about some of the consultant’s presumed biases (spoiler: they’re not bigots) and the paragraph on gender. This all taking place as part of a much broader discussion about media representations (primarily of women and racial minorities).
This has obviously had a rather big influence on the art direction in 5e and while I have described the art as weak, uninspiring and insipid (and brown) I don’t think this is down to the pressure to diversify the depictions. While it’s true that the illustrations that are less ‘inoffensive’ tend to have a bit more animation and fun to them, the relative variety of ages, body-types and races is well handled and doesn’t feel like tokenism – which is always my big worry when people get into this.
I’d have liked to see more stylistic and sexy illustrations – especially as I like playing sexy male characters when I RP – but that’s a matter of personal taste and I’ll take the hit. Diversity is a good thing, but it needs to make sense in the context in which it is presented and assuming Forgotten Realms is the default, there’s nothing that sticks out like a sore thumb in this.
Besides, the black fighter guy is fucking badass.
Anyway, I made a decidedly unscientific survey of the images in the PHB, breaking it down some, along with my observations. I was looking at visible characters in the pieces, ignoring monsters, basically going on what I noticed, rather than poring over every page with a magnifying glass. Still, here’s the results:
Significant Male Illustrations Vs Significant Female Illustrations
Significant Illustrations by Race
Note that some illustrations were hard to tell and I gave them the benefit of the doubt. East Asian, Middle Eastern and African style illustrations were present but South Asian and Hispanic style illustrations were largely absent. Normally I’d hate to conflate PoC into one big thing, but it wasn’t especially useful with the sample size here to break it down more. ‘Green etc’ is to cover all the fantasy races with abnormal colours – such as drow and orcs.
The proportion of images that were, IMO, even mildly titillating or ‘impractical’ versus the number that weren’t. This is very subjective so I had to make a category for ones that weren’t – quite – either. Your opinion may fall either side of the spectrum on that.
So what does all this mean, if anything?
D&D 5e has clearly catered – to a degree – to the small by vocal crowd who have been causing ructions. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective. I like diversity, but have worried about it being done ‘just because’. 5e handles it about as well as we can expect I think, having the added bonus of not really being tied to any explicit setting as, say, something like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Middle Earth or Game of Thrones would be. This gives D&D a bit more wiggle-room than a lot of settings to include diversity without shattering suspension of disbelief.
Not every game has that going for it and while D&D has handled it well the overall presentation isn’t that inspiring and since writing the review section of this post my opinion was swished the other way. Given that the better illustrations with more interest, inspiration and panache ARE the ‘sexier’ ones, perhaps the ability to excite and engage an audience has been sapped a little by this concern.
D&D always sells well, relatively speaking (even 4e) so it’s not a great benchmark for the rest the industry. It will, however, now be cited whenever someone wants to try and influence art direction in another project so the best I can suggest is wary, cautious optimism.