Retro Review: D&D Player’s handbook

Dungeons and Dragons, the granddaddy of all role-playing games, released its fifth (and still current) edition back in 2014. At the time, I wrote a very favorable review of the then-new Player’s Handbook. For those who may be interested in my take on the book when it was shiny and new, or for those who haven’t yet taken the plunge into fifth edition D&D, I am presenting this retro review for your consideration. Enjoy!

The latest rule set of Dungeons & Dragons, the fifth edition, provides the perfect opportunity for lapsed players to return to the game, as well as allowing new players to get in on the ground floor. The fifth edition takes a back-to-basics approach, returning to an old-school feel while maintaining the best game mechanics from the last few editions. The rules have been streamlined without being over-simplified, making the game more inviting than ever for new players of all ages.

Final session of Jason Beil’s “Castle Evernight” D&D campaign

And new, preferably young, players are needed if the hobby is to survive into the future. Tabletop RPGs have always been a niche market, and while D&D enjoyed a brief period of mainstream popularity, it has had a difficult time competing for the attentions of the youth market. Video games, television, and movies have largely replaced board games, books, and table-top RPGs as their primary sources of entertainment. But if any edition of D&D has a chance to recapture some of that market, it is this one.

The new Player’s Handbook, the first of three core rulebooks for the new D&D, is an exceptional product. It provides an excellent introduction to playing the game, with simple, clear rules for adventuring and combat. It provides details for the major player character classes and subclasses, along with all their abilities as they advance from levels one to twenty. All the classic classes and races are represented, as well as a few of the newer ones from third and fourth edition.

The writing is top-notch, with a lot of flavor and description provided on top of the necessary crunch of the rules. Far from a dry listing of rules and tables, the books is actually enjoyable to read. The artwork is fabulous, and its diversity should be applauded. Characters are male and female, black and white, and all the fantasy races are well represented. As others have pointed out, there are no gratuitous pictures of female warriors in scanty attire; all characters here are appropriately dressed for adventuring, not the boudoir! It is as if Wizards of the Coast has finally realized that D&D has a very diverse audience: male, female, black, white, Asian, gay, straight, and all permutations thereof. Instead of catering to one group, they have made an effort to be inclusive, and that can only be a good thing.

New in this edition are “backgrounds,” which is a profession you practiced or life you led before you started adventuring. From criminal to noble, soldier to acolyte, these backgrounds provide additional skills, proficiencies, and role-playing hooks to help you get into character. Along with your class and race, your background rounds out your character into a life-like persona.

Races include your standard human, dwarf, elf, and Halfling, along with more exotic choices such as gnome, dragonborn, and tiefling. Classes are the classic fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric, joined by the druid, sorcerer, bard, warlock, and more. Each class has two or more sub-classes (archetypes) which allow you further customize your character. Further, an optional feat system and the ability to multi-class can provide players with everything they need to make their character unique.

A great many spells are included in the book, and many of the classes have at least some spell-casting ability. Cantrips, or zero-level spells that can be cast at-will, provide wizards and sorcerers with useful powers they can use any time, so they won’t find themselves relegated to throwing daggers once their sleep spells and magic missiles are exhausted for the day.

Combat is greatly simplified and will move much faster than it did in fourth edition, or even third. Gone are the slew of modifiers players and Dungeon Masters were forced to keep track of in previous editions, replaced by the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic (roll 2d20, take the highest roll if you have Advantage on an attack, save, or ability check; roll 2d20 and take the lowest roll if you have Disadvantage). It is elegant, easy, and in practice, fast and fun. Using a grid and miniatures is optional, and combat in the imagination, called Theater of the Mind, is completely viable. Many players and Dungeon Masters will still prefer to use a grid to keep track of position, but it is not required since combat is not as tactical as it has been in the past. Or rather, it can be, but that is completely up to each individual group.

The rules are simplified, and intentionally left open to interpretation in places. This is because fifth edition is returning power to the Dungeon Master, or referee, as was the intention in 1974 when the game was created. Adding optional modular rules from the Dungeon Masters Guide and other sources should be simple with this system, as should creating house-rules. Each game will be different, and, depending on the skill of the referee, fast, deep, exciting, and unique. Role-playing and exploration are emphasized as much as combat (the Three Pillars of Adventure), and there are plenty of rules and suggestions in each category.

In all, the fifth edition Player’s Handbook is a great product, and a must for the serious D&D player, or those wanting to give the game a try. The rule system is the best yet, and the book itself is a beautiful addition to any bookshelf. I am more than pleased with it, and highly recommend it to any role-playing game enthusiast.

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