A few days ago, Wizards of the Coast released the Basic Rules for Dungeons and Dragons, 5th edition. Although this is the first time such an extensive set of rules has been released, for free, in PDF form, the decision to do this doesn’t really surprise me.
The Board Game industry has been releasing rulebooks for over 15 years. Over the last five years, the miniature and role-playing divisions of the gaming industry have been taking a hint from this “teaser” model. Base rules have become readily available, but enhanced rules are available for purchase. Catalyst does it this way with Battletech. Its a little strange for Wizards to come so late to the party, because they have been following a “you really only need the PHB, but we’ll sell you a bajillion supplements for a bajillion dollars” model for decades, all the way back to TSR.
No matter the history, we’re all going to benefit from our taste of the Basic rules. It will allow us to get a lot more people into the game. Some will buy the core books. Some will not. All I care about is getting people into role-playing. Fifth edition has clearly taken a lot of inspiration from prior versions and game mechanics that have worked. This is more like second edition than any of the two editions since. It will delight old-school story-driven role-players and GMs.
With no more gilding the lily and no further ado, I present my top three mechanics changes in DND Fifth that I think will drive more ROLE-playing and less ROLL-playing.
Number 1 – Best of the Old, Best of the New
There are a lot of features of 5E that are very similar to Second Edition. It is greatly simplified over 3E or 4E. Yet, mechanics that have always been clunky in the past that were fixed over modern iterations have remained or been improved even more.
A couple that stand out to me are recovering hit points and spells. Hit points are regained in this new system with one hour rest and the expenditure of Hit Dice. Hit Dice are regenerated with extended rests. So, gone is the clunky, artificial, and story-slowing, “you have to camp for eight hours in the middle of a dungeon to continue”. DMs usually just house-ruled that anyway, because it doesn’t help the story progression. It put the emphasis on the numbers and less on moving the story.
Spells have also kept the best part of the old systems and added some refreshing new parts that were long overdue. You still have a set number of spell slots to use on any given active period. Unlike prior versions, gone is the need to memorize specific spells a specific number of times. Individual groups have been house-ruling spells for decades. Here’s how the newest version works.
As a Wizard, I’ll have six spells in my spell book, for example, and three first level slots. I choose to “prepare” four of those six. These four can be cast in any combination with those three slots. If I want to cast Burning Hands three times, I can. If I want to split it between Burning Hands, Magic Missile and Mage Armor, I can do that too. Cantrips are At-Will. Fourth edition attempted to do something like this, but made the stat blocks so large as to be overwhelming. The problem with this in the past is that people would avoid playing Wizards and other spellcasters because it forced you to make your creative choices before you got into action. In this version, spells are also a LOT more potent. You can only cast them a few times. This makes sense. Early versions were often criticized for making the Wizards “unbalanced”, and if you just compare stat blocks, they are. But the real balance of casting classes has always been their fragility. If your DM isn’t sending enemies right up into a Wizards face, then they are playing monsters like tactical imbeciles.
Flexibility in recovery and spell mechanics encourages creativity in this edition.
Number 2-Base Stat and Capped Stat Emphasis
Non-fighter melee and ranged classes in DND have always started off ineffective in combat because their base stats were terrible. The designers of 5E have had the realization that by making Fighters better at every aspect of fighting means that you really stifle the participation of other classes in combat. What if we lived in a world where every character had equal base proficiency with very slight modifications for their chosen class? What if “class” was defined by options, rather than mere raw power? That’s the route 5E is taking and DND is very late to that party. Its the route Savage Worlds and other house-rulers figured out years ago.
Base attributes have a much bigger sway over the mechanical elements of the game in 5E than in prior versions. Also, stats have a level of capping enforced. Twenty is going to be the max attribute score. All base classes go through the same weapon proficiency increases at different levels. You start with a decent level of +2 proficiency plus key attribute modifier. Therefore, ANYBODY, regardless of class, can be effective (or ineffective) at any level.
Hold on, how do I distinguish myself, mechanically, from another player? The short answer is: you don’t. Sorry. That isn’t what this is about. You distinguish yourself through creative use of class options, individual choices, and role-playing with NPCs. This is what role-playing should have been about all along.
Folks, the problem with mechanics-heavy RPGs like 3.5E, 4E and Pathfinder is that they train players to believe that their character actions are defined by their numerical might. They encourage power-gaming and min-maxing. They teach you that role-playing is a video game on a table and with the visual in your head. Companies do this because they know it will sell, and more power to them. But the last fifteen years has seen a decline in role-playing ability hobby-wide. Don’t get me wrong, there are still droves of awesome role-players out there. Their abilities have been largely repressed by validation of min-maxing from the message sent by 3.5 and Pathfinder. As I’ve said before, there are great role-players who play 3.5 and Pathfinder. But these systems and the culture surrounding them doesn’t do much to encourage role-playing skill development in new role-players.
Number 3 – Personality, Inspiration, Backgrounds, and Trinkets
The biggest way that you train a beginning player to become a better role-player is to give them easy transitions that gradually make them better. A beginning player, especially if they have never played a role-playing game before, is going to think that the game is about the mechanics. They see a huge set of “rules”, so they decide in their head that this is what the game is about.
The problem is that it is not. So, how do we address this misconception by using mechanics to teach them to be role-players? The personality and background chapter, which was optional before, is now essentially a requirement. Good.
To encourage players to actually take on a role, this edition gives a series of stat blocks for people to randomly roll on or select from that define what their character cares about. You can pick from personalities, bonds, flaws and ideals that make sense for your chosen background. Your background is not pre-determined by your class. So, a Wizard could have a “Soldier” background. This also helps to chose a character’s alignment and really give the alignment a “tagline” to aid people in playing it. This is clearly just a starting point. If these stat blocks encourage a character to develop a goal of their own, now we’re role-playing!
In addition, players can get “inspiration” in the game from doing creative things and role-playing well. It can give them a re-roll. They get their mechanics benefit after they show good role-playing or creative thought. They can also pass it to another player to increase group cohesion. This was a frequent DM favorite for decades that is solidified in the mechanics now. Players also get a “mysterious trinket” that they won’t know the purpose or value of, further helping both player and DM to develop character back stories.
We haven’t seen the Player’s Handbook. Wizards may have found a way to wreck this with piles of numbers, for all I know. But the base rules look very promising, and should function to train players to put role-playing first.
Check them out for yourself!
PS- I got the Battletech Box Set minis primed last night and this morning. 😉