Dungeons & Dragons: Player’s Handbook (5th Edition)

Dungeons & Dragons: Player’s Handbook (5th Edition)
From: Wizards of the Coast
Reviewed by: Ron W McClung

dndphb1Dungeons & Dragons: Player’s Handbook (5th Edition) is a new RPG Core Rulebook from Wizards of the Coast.

Much has been said about the staggered release of the new D&D rulebooks and as much as I understand the complaints, I don’t really think it is all that big of deal in the grand scheme of things.  Some say that the staggered release will hurt D&D’s chances of gaining any ground lost to Pathfinder but I seriously do not see it.  Come December when the DMG is finally out, people are going to forget all about the staggered release and invest a lot of time in whatever game they choose.

The first of this staggered release is of course, the Player’s Handbook – the much anticipated herald of the three book series that preports to ring in a new era for Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying in general.  While I am not sure I totally believe that, the new version of D&D does give me a lot of hope for the industry and for D&D in general.  I have already reviewed the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and in fact, have run it a couple of times already.  You can also read in that review my limited experience with D&D in the past and how it has evolved to this point.  You can also see a review of the free Basic Rules here in The Gamers Codex, exploring the basics of the system and what changes WotC previewed there.

From the back cover:
“The Player’s Handbook is the essential reference for every Dungeons & Dragons roleplayer.”

The new Core system to D&D has been talked about enough in the other two reviews.  The basics are similar to 3rd edition but with some extra fun mechanics like Advantage and Disadvantage.  What this review will cover is what new things the PHB brings to the table that you did not see in the previous products and perhaps give you some reasons to buy the product.

The book is divided up into 3 major parts – Creating a Character, Playing the Game, and Rules of Magic.  All three are fairly straight forward.  Comparing the three PHBs I have available to me (2nd Edition, 3rd Edition and 5th Edition), it already appears to be more organized and is more robust with equal elements story, role play options and statistical information.


First and foremost, the PHB expands the number of races the player can play.  The Basic Rules provide some basic races – Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human.  Rest assured, that is not a complete list of races available in D&D.  A total of 9 races are presented in detail.  Along with the Basic Rules races, it adds the less common races – Dragonborn, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Tiefling.  Some races have subraces including a few more for the Basic Rules races.  Humans, for example, include 9 different ethnicities (and typical names) native to the Forgotten Realms setting.

The races I am least familiar with are the Teifling and the Dragonborn, although my diehard and veteran D&D friends are familiar enough with them.  They were introduced in the PHB in 4th Edition, as part of the further embracing of Forgotten Realms as the default setting.  Some diehards are not pleased with that embracing.  My opinion of it really doesn’t matter but it is one of the more intimidating parts of getting into D&D for the first time.  I never ran it until 5th edition but there is so much about Forgotten Realms I know nothing about.

The Classes in the PHB are Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard.  Classes look a lot their 3rd edition versions.  They have been simplified with new elements like the Proficiency bonus replacing skills and attack bonus, as mentioned in previous reviews.   The customization options of each class are what stands out to me.  The Barbarians, for example, have Primal Paths, Bards have Bardic Colleges,  Druids have Circles and Fighters have Archetypes.  No two Barbarians, Bard or Fighters will be the same and the same holds true for the rest of the classes.  Of course, you can easily see future books with more options for each class.

From the back cover:
“The world needs heroes.  Will you answer the call?”

The D&D (5th edition) Player’s Handbook has many elements in it to help the player not only build his character statistically, but also his character’s story and role playing aspects.  Personality and Background are two aspects that are expounded upon a little further.  Relating Backgrounds to something I am more familiar with, 5th edition Backgrounds are very similar to the aspect of the same name in d20 Modern.  It expands on your class a little further and gives you a little more about where your character came from.

Backgrounds are also helpful in determining Personality Traits, although a player is not restricted to the ones provided in each Background.  Personality Traits are divided up into three primary aspects – Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.  Barrowing from games like True20 (Virtues & Vices) and the like, these three items round out the character and add a little dimension to the character.

Sadly, this is something a DM would hope his players would come up with on their own, but as many know, not all players are that creative in making a background.  Some players simply don’t get the purpose of the background and make it boring and absent of plot hooks.  They see it as something the DM uses to manipulate the character and that is so wrong.  One of my favorite products of all time is the Central Casting background generator books (Heroes of Legends, Heroes of Tomorrow, and Heroes Now!).  I used to make it a mandatory thing to use them because my players never really gave me multi-dimensional characters.  The difference between a sheet with numbers on them and a living breathing character is usually the background and the various hooks that can come from it.  I am very encouraged that the Player’s Handbook in this edition of D&D has some focus on that.

This is one area I wish the book spent a little more page-count on.  Although there is ample background and related personality trait tables to get started, it did leave me wanting more.  I hope there will be future focus on this.  This is the first time I really felt like a D&D character was more than a sheet of numbers and words.  Of course, this is highly tied to the setting, sometimes, so I hope the setting books that are released (or the subsequent Player’s Guides) include more background and personality trait options.

Tying all this back into the game mechanic is a concept called Inspiration.  This is of course mentioned some in the Basic Rules as well as the Starter Set.  This too has been covered enough, but I do want to say that I like this aspect a lot.  Having played many other games where the players has a means to save himself (Savage Worlds with Bennies, True20 with Conviction Points, and D6 System with Character and Force Points), this was needed badly in the world’s most famous role playing game.

What I find interesting about Inspiration is that you are limited to one at any given time.  You have to spend it to get another.  Unlike other games where players can sandbag points like this and unload them on the DM at the “boss fight”, Inspiration puts the character in the dramatic dilemma of when to use that one favor from the gods.  Although I did not initially like that aspect of Inspiration, in practice, it is very fun to play.

A player can do further customization of one’s character, as explained in the Customization chapter of Part 1.  This is where multi-classing is explained and this gets into the least favorite part of the book.  It seems to me they made multi-classing a little more complicated, especially for magic users.  Spell casting and Spells slots, especially if you multi-class into more than one magic user class, get understandably complex.  There is some simple number crunching and logic to work through.

Feats return in this edition.  At the heart of 3rd edition bloat, Feats are one of those things that D&D fans loved or hated.  How the designers decided to work them into the mechanic really shows they listened to the fans.  First, they mitigate the bloat a little by limiting how often you can get feats.  They also make it an optional rule, keeping those that hate Feats happy.  Of course, over time, as more and more expansion books come out, the Feat list will grow but characters won’t be overloaded with a ton of them to keep up with.  You can choose to gain a Feat in exchange from the ability score bump you get each at certain levels. At most, a character will have 5 or 6 Feats.

Now these are not your typical 3rd Edition feats, however.  These pack a little more of a punch, since they are the alternative to something you only get every four levels or so.  There are a total of 43 Feats and the only thing I wish they had added was a table list of them with summarized notes of their benefits.

Part 2 dives into the mechanics of the game, which was partially revealed in the Basic Rules but expanded upon a little more in the PHB.  Ability Scores, Proficiency Bonuses, Saving Throws, and Passive Checks have all been pretty well covered in other reviews.  They are basically a logical simplification of 3rd edition concepts, with a lot of influence from other editions as well.

The Combat section is noticeably different from previously editions.  The tactical complexities of Full Actions, Standard Actions and Free Actions are far more simplified.  There is less stuff about the tactical options available players and more general information about what can be done in a round.  Combat in past editions felt like a strict table top board game or miniature game and in this, it feels more like a role playing game.  However, don’t get me wrong, I like some of the tactical complexities and as I understand it, they are going to be presented as options in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Advantage and Disadvantage is also a new mechanic introduced and although we have talked about it some in previous reviews, I have run D&D 5e now a couple of times and have seen it in practice.  I am not sure of the mathematics of the system – if it truly does give a significant advantage or disadvantage to the player (a much more math-inclined person than me can figure that out) but in game, it has a great effect.  It is dynamic and creates a very tense situation when a person has to roll more than one die.  It is a fun mechanic and that is what a game is all about.

Part 3 ends the book with the much maligned or anticipated (depending on your perspective) new magic system, that is not exactly new but at least better than the last one.  To many 4th edition fans chagrin, it is a return to the Vancian style magic system that seem to take the back stage in 4e.  But with Spells lists and Spells Slots, it is much more simplified and logical than past editions like 3rd editions (and its other incarnations).  I avoided magic users in previous editions (when I played) because it was too complex for me to deal with.  And the session by session maintenance of Spells Known vs.  Spells per Day was frustrating.  I can wrap my head around this system a little better.

The Vancian system returns the magic users to the thematically roles they were meant to be – scholars of magic and arcane knowledge and restricted by the nature of magic and the source they are gaining it from.  Thematically, I felt that D&D was not D&D without Vancian magic.  As I understand it, the previous edition all but abandoned Vancian magic and most that adhered to that edition are angry about the return.  To that, all that can be said is that the market has spoken.  Right or wrong, Vancian magic is D&D and D&D is Vancian magic.

Is it balanced?  So far, I see a lot of attempts to not only balance it at low levels but keep it balanced as the characters goes up in levels.  The Spells Slots and Casting at Higher Levels is at the heart of this balancing effort.  Sure you can cast a Magic Missile that causes 12d4 but you have to spend a higher level spell slot for that spell.  Suddenly, Magic Missile becomes that level of a spell.

Ritual Spells is another aspect that is refreshing.  You don’t always have to have a spell prepared to caste it.  If you have time, you can cast it as a Ritual Spell.  Only certain spells can be done that way, but most are logical.

In conclusion, I think it is clear I am a fan of this new edition.  Until this edition, I have either not had a chance or purposely avoided playing D&D and this edition has pulled me in.  My only major complaint is the price tag.  Where their competition is able to put together a huge book that virtually includes both the PHB and DMG in one, for a lower price, the fine folks at WotC put a larger price tag on a smaller book and stagger the release so it won’t hurt the budget as bad.  Is it worth it?  I say it is, but I am not sure everyone is going to agree.

Outside the monetary issues, the book is hardy and the art is phenomenal.  The layout is on par with other editions although I would have liked to see a few more lists then they provided.  The index is really tiny print, and forces this old man to use his reading glasses.

I give this a Codex Rating of 19 because this is a big hit for me.  It not only revived my faith in the guys behind D&D but also in the D&D line in general.  It has pulled me in pretty strongly and for the first time, I am running a fantasy game. It is enjoyable and I look forward to a whole new bookshelf of 5e books as they put them out.

For more details on Wizards of the Coast and their new RPG Core RulebookDungeons & Dragons: Player’s Handbook (5th Edition)” check them out at their website http://dnd.wizards.com/, and at all of your local game stores.

Codex Rating: 19

Product Summary

Dungeons & Dragons: Player’s Handbook (5th Edition)
From: Wizards of the Coast
Type of Game: RPG Core Rulebook
D&D Lead Designers: Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford
Rules Development: Rodney Thompson, Peter Lee
Writing: James Wyatt, Robert J. Schwalb, Bruce R. Cordell
Editing: Michele Carter, Chris Sims, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, Christopher Perkins
Producer: Greg Bilsland
Art Directors: Kate Irwin, Dan Gelon, Jon Schindehette, Mari Kolkowsky, Melissa Rapier, Shauna Narciso
Graphic Designers: Bree Heiss, Emi Tanji, Barry Craig
Cover Illustrator: Tyler Jacobson
Interior Illustrator: (Entirely too many to list, see handbook for list)
Additional Contributors: Kim Mohan, Matt Sernett, Chris Dupuis, Tom LaPille, Richard Baker, Miranda Horner, Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, Steve Winter, Nina Hess, Steve Townshend, Chris Youngs, Ben Petrisor, Tom Olsen
Project Management: Neil Shinkle, Kim Graham, John Hay
Production Services: Cynda Callaway, Brian Dumas, Jefferson Dunlap, David Gershman, Anita Williams
Brand and Marketing: Nathan Stewart, Liz Schuh, Chris Lindsay, Shelly Mazzanoble, Hilary Ross, Laura Tommervik, Kim Lundstrom, Trevor Kidd
Number of Pages: 321
Game Components Included: Core Player’s Handbook
Game Components Not Included: Monster Manual, Dungeon Master Guide (to be released later)
Retail Price: $49.95(US)
Website: http://dnd.wizards.com/

Reviewed by: Ron W McClung


D&D Basic Rules

D&D Basic Rules

From: Wizards of the Coast

Reviewed by: Joey Martin

D&D Basic Rules is a new RPG from Wizards of the Coast.

Excitement, worry, euphoria and despair; when a new version of the ‘King of Role Playing Games’ is being released all of these things can come into play. I have heard and seen all the above. This ‘starter’ document should answer all the questions new and old players have and give everyone a good feel for the new system.

From the back page 2: “The Dungeons &Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery.”

The inevitable question when a new version of Dungeons and Dragons comes out is “What previous version of the game is it like?” Comparisons to the original and second edition always abound. This time, it seems to be more of a blend of 3.5, Pathfinder’s ‘3.75’ and 4.0. While the ‘feel’ is still early edition, as all of its successors have to be, this is all new.

This is written as a ‘read only’ review. I have not tested out this edition with any fellow players. I did create my first new character as part of the process. As an aside, Wizards rock! Running around with a cantrip with a 120’ range doing 1d10 fire damage is not bad.

Four races are given, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human. All but Humans are given sub races; High elves are an example of that. One big change is ability score modifiers. Humans receive a plus one to everything. Yes, everything. The rest get a plus two to one specific ability. However, Humans have less other benefits than the rest.

Four basic classes are given, Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard. Archetypes are given for each for those who want to do something a little different. The rules also present Backgrounds as another way to differentiate characters. Backgrounds give an additional skill proficiency and in some cases, gear and other plusses.

Now to what is different in this edition. The proficiency bonus replaces the Base Attack Bonus, individual class based saving throw bonuses and the base skill bonus. Saving throws are based off of an ability instead of the older three categories. Thus, a trap could be Dexterity based to avoid or Strength based to escape or Will based to throw off an effect. Skills are a bit broader in general. Players will be proficient in fewer. There seem to be no untrained skills in this edition.

Other various changes include the fact that spellcasters can cast in any armor they are proficient in. Some armor has a Strength minimum and some have the listed effect of Stealth Disadvantage. When you are disadvantaged you roll twice and take the lowest roll. Nasty, that. There are two new descriptors for weapons as well. Heavy weapons used by small sized characters make them disadvantaged in combat. There goes my Halberd wielding Halfling Fighter! Finesse weapons allow you to use either Strength or Dexterity for attack and damage bonuses. Initiative checks are straight Dexterity checks. During combat you can break up your move, attacking before, after or during the move. This should change combat significantly. These are just the major changes I have noticed thus far.

With all that said, there is a saying about the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is true here. Players of previous editions of the game will see many familiar concepts.

In conclusion, this document gives you everything you need to generate a basic character and play. A GM will, of course, need more but all an experienced player needs to start a game is to give a copy of this to his fellow players and let them go. If you are interested in getting into the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons, go download a copy of this. The price is right and it will get you started on the path to fun and excitement.

For more details on Wizards of the Coast and their new RPG “D&D Basic Rules” check them out at their website http://dungeonsanddragons.com, and at all of your local game stores.

Codex Rating: 19

Product Summary

D&D Basic Rules

From: Wizards of the Coast

Type of Game: RPG

Written by: James Wyatt, Robert J. Schwab, Bruce R. Cordell

Game Design by: Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford

Developed by: Rodney Thompson, Peter Lee

Cover Art by: Tyler Jacobsen

Additional Art by: Jamie Jones

Number of Pages: 110

Retail Price: Free!

Email: http://www.wizards.com/customerservice

Website: http://dungeonsanddragons.com


Reviewed by: Joey Martin

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set

dndboxsetcoverDungeons & Dragons Starter Set
From: Wizards of the Coast
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is a new RPG Starter Set from Wizards of the Coast.

With much anticipation, the release of the 5th edition of the classic Dungeons & Dragons is upon us, with the first teaser product on the shelves – the Dungeons & Dragons Starter SetIn the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I was not a huge fan of the major changes in 4th edition nor was I a fan of the abandonment of the SRD/OGL.  I liked 3rd edition a lot, although I admit over time it got bloated with way too many rules, feats and classes.  I am a fan of Pathfinder but it is running into the same problem D&D 3.5 did, in my opinion.  I also did not play a lot of 1st or 2nd edition when I was younger, simply because there was not a lot of opportunity.  I played other things like Star Frontiers and Powers & Perils.

Being that the only version I am competently familiar with is 3rd in its various incarnations, I am going to probably make more comments from that perspective.  Based on my age, you would assume I would be familiar with 1st and 2nd, but like I said I did not have as much opportunity to play those versions.  I am certain that there are similarities between this edition and 1st and/or 2nd, but I am not going to pretend to know them.  I hope my review is comprehensive enough that those that are more familiar with 1st and 2nd can spot them.

I think it is time for a fresh start with Dungeons & Dragons.  I had fully planned on giving it a chance and this Starter Set set is a perfect read of the market by the D&D design team to do just that.  Also, it is priced very well for that purpose.  I had tangentially been involved in the play test and community side of the development, but many of my friends were more involved with it than I was.  When we play-tested the Starter Set, I got a lot of good feedback from them.

Also released was the Basic D&D PDF, which was free online.  The Gamer’s Codex will have a review of that fairly soon but I may reference it here as an extension of my review of the rules.

From the website:
“Everything you need to start playing the world’s greatest roleplaying game.”

Starting with the rulebook, by the page count alone, you can guess it’s not as comprehensive as a standard RPG rulebook.  It gives you just enough to play the adventure in the box set and maybe just a little more.  At the same time, it is not a “dumbed down” version of the rules either.  Everything presented in this rulebook is true throughout the rules set, according to the Wizards podcast I watched about it.

The rules start out with the obligatory explanation of RPGs and how they work, great for new players to the RPG hobby.  Following this is the short explanation of the core rules.  They kept the basic d20 mechanic from 3rd edition – roll d20 and add modifiers, and then compare to a Difficult Class or Armor Class to determine success.  However, as I learned in play-test, there is far less math and the numbers have been scaled down.  There are fewer numbers to reference back and forth and they introduced new mechanics to replace some penalties.  There are much fewer things you have to remember when making rolls.

The core six abilities are also retained, with the 3 to 18 value converting to modifiers.  There are hit points, but they are fewer.  Skills and Saves are handled similarly to what I vaguely remember from 4th edition, however.  Each abilities score has a Save associated with it so instead of the 3rd edition Fortitude, Reflex and Will, there are Constitution, Dexterity and Wisdom Saves. There are also saves for the other 3 ability scores.

Attack Bonus and skills are rolled up into Proficiencies, a throwback to what I can remember of 2nd Edition.  Proficiencies are something of interest at least to me as they basically replace Attack Bonus as well as Skills.  Every level has a Proficiency bonus and that bonus is applied to everything that the character has a Proficiency in.  They gradually go up differently for each class (as shown in the PDF).  There is no real indication of that in the Box rules. They simply brush over the subject and leave it to future publications.  Since the characters in the adventure probably won’t level to the point that the proficiency bonus would change, they left it to the Player’s Handbook.

Gone, from what I can tell, are the “Powers” of 4th edition.  There is some indication in this book that there may be Feats but I am being told that they will be very different from 3rd edition Feats.  Unfortunately, you have to wait for the Player’s Handbook for that because there is nothing about them in this Starter Set.  Classes have abilities as do races.

The Box set has 5 pregenerated characters which is a good thing because the rules in the box do not provide a means to generate characters.  However, the PDF does.  Thus, the Starter Set is lacking in explanation of things like Background, Class, Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws.  They are listed on the character sheet, and without explanation, they are basically flavor text giving you more insight into the character.  The PDF gives some explanation for some of these but I will leave that to the PDF review.

A key mechanic that is new to the system is the Advantage/Disadvantage dice system.  This has everyone talking.  Basically, certain situations, special abilities, or spells grant an advantage or a disadvantage, and the player gets an additional d20 to roll for the task.  In the case of an advantage, the player takes the highest roll and the opposite for disadvantage.  This can also be granted at the discretion of the DM.

Related to this is Inspiration, which is briefly mentioned in the Box set rules but expanded upon in the downloadable PDF.  For those familiar with the Savage Worlds system, these act as bennies.  Characters can only have one at a time, and they are earned through role play and other ways that the DM thinks worthy.  These can be spent to gain advantage as well as make a re-roll.  I am sure they will expand on this a little more in the Player’s Handbook.

Magic has changed some, but the basic idea is the same.  In the Starter Set, there is a Cleric and a Wizard.  That is all that is basically covered between the Starter Set and the PDF.  The Starter Set describes Known Spells, Prepared Spell and Spell Slots per level.  Wizards and Clerics have a number of spells known and spend a spell slot equal to or greater to spell level.  Spells can be cast at higher levels to get a greater effect but you must use a higher spell slot to get that greater effect.  There are also spells with the ritual tag, which means not only can they be cast as a prepared spell, they can also be cast unprepared as a ritual spell.  Ritual spells take longer but they don’t have to be prepared.

Spells themselves have been tweaked and changed, I am told.  I don’t know all the spells by heart so I can’t tell you the specifics.  But comparing 3rd addition Magic Missile to 5th edition, there are some differences.  The new Magic Missile is a first level spell and casts 3 missiles that do 1d4+1 each.  Magic Missile can be cast at high levels by spending a higher spell slot, for an additional missile.  I am really impressed with that part of the new design.

From the website:
“Explore subterranean labyrinths! Plunder hoards of treasure! Battle legendary monsters!”

In our little play test, we ran the first part of the 4-part adventure in the box, Lost Mine of Phandelver. The first part is a simple 1st level adventure pitting the players against a group of goblins and their bug bear leader.  I ran that part and the group had a great time.  It has enough action to level each character to 2nd level. It builds from a very interesting storyline.  The art is well done and the cartography is also.

The adventure then takes the party deeper into a multi-phase small campaign that involves a lost mine and the treasure within.  It also sets up a bad guy that competes for the treasure.  It is set up in a linked fashion, each phase leading to the next.  But it’s not the railroad type of adventure.  It gives a lot of branching options in the middle and has a lot of potential.

In conclusion, the D&D Starter Set gives me a lot of hope that D&D is back.  The design team went through a lot of painstaking design, working with the D&D community to create this new version.  It really looks like they took many elements of the various past editions to create a very good edition.  In the box set rules, they focus on a lot of the role play elements.  From what I hear, they worked on many facets of the game including role playing, rules and tactical.  Each will be modularly introduced as the rules are released. Well done!

For more details on Wizards of the Coast and their new RPG Starter SetDungeons & Dragons Starter Set” check them out at their website http://www.wizards.com, and at all of your local game stores.

Codex Rating: 18

Product Summary

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set
From: Wizards of the Coast
Type of Game: RPG Starter Set
Lead Designers: Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford
Based on the original game created by: E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, with Brian Blume, Rob Kuntz, James Ward, and Don Kaye
Drawing from further development by: J. Eric Holmes, Tom Moldvay, Frank Mentzer, Aaron Allston, Harold Johnson, Roger E. Moore, David “Zeb” Cook, Ed Greenwood, Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis, Douglas Niles, Jeff Grubb, Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Richard Baker, Peter Adkison, Keith Baker, Bill Slavicsek, Andy Collins, and Rob Heinsoo
Contributing Authors/Editors
: Rodney Thompson, Peter Lee, James Wyatt, Robert J. Schwalb, Bruce R. Cordell,Michele Carter, Chris Sims, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, Christopher Perkins
Adventure Design by: Richard Baker, Christopher Perkins
Cover Art by: Jaime Jones
Additional Art by: Eric Belisle, Wayne England, Randy Gallegos, Matt Stawicki, Karen Yanner, Miek Schley (Cartographer), Daren Bader, Mark Behm, Conceptopolis, Tomas Giorello, Ralph Horsely, Aaron J. Riley, Tyker Jacobson, Vance Kovacs, Dniel Landerman, Raphael Lubke, Brynn Metheney, Steve Prescott, Ned Rogers, Carmen Sinek, Ilya Shkipin, David Vargo
Number of Pages: 96 total pages (32 page rulebook, 64 page adventure)
Game Components Included: 64-page adventure book, a 32-page rulebook for playing characters level 1 – 5, 5 pregenerated characters, each with a character sheet and supporting reference material, and 6 dice.
Game Components Not Included: complete set of D&D 5th edition rules
Retail Price: $19.99 US)
Website: www.wizards.com

Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Betrayal at House on the Hill: Second Edition

Betrayal at House on the Hill: Second Edition

From: Wizards of the Coast

Reviewed by: Sitting Duck

In the horror genre, there is probably no set piece more frequently employed (some might argue overused) than the Creepy Old House. Because whatever form a horror story’s villain takes, it should have a base of operations which befits its status. It is this mainstay which Betrayal at House on the Hill means to exemplify.

From the rulebook:
As you explore the house, you discover new rooms. Each time you enter a new room, you might find something… or something might find you.”

Betrayal at House on the Hill employs what is probably the most frequently used impetus for entering a creepy old house; a combination of automotive trouble and inclement weather. Though if you wish to account for such things, there’s probably poor cell phone reception as well (seeing as how creepy old houses tend to be in out of the way locations). Initially, the board consists of the Entrance Hall, the Basement Landing, and the Upper Landing. But it won’t stay that way for long, as players will add new rooms through exploring the house. Many of the rooms can only be placed on certain floors, which are indicated on the back of the tiles (after all, it would be pretty silly to have the Master Bedroom in the basement, or the Furnace Room on the upper floor).

There are twelve characters for players to choose from, representing a wide range of traditional horror archetypes. Each has four traits; Might, Speed (which also determines the maximum number of spaces you may move in a turn), Knowledge, and Sanity. A series of four arrow clips are attached to the character card to keep track of each trait’s current value. A particular advantage to this is that, if you have a pet which likes to jump on your table and knock your gaming stuff askew, it’s one less thing to worry about. Frequently during the game, you’ll be required to adjust one of the traits. This involves moving the corresponding arrow clip the indicated number of spaces along a track of trait values. The actual trait value may or may not end up being adjusted by the same amount, if at all.

When most rooms are first discovered, a card must be drawn. Usually this will be from the Event Deck. Most of these will provide an encounter of some sort which often requires a trait roll. This involves rolling dice equal to the trait’s current value, with the result determining the outcome (generally higher is better). The majority of these encounters will adjust the character’s traits for better or for worse. Other times an event card will add a traditional “creepy old house” feature to the room, like a rotating wall or a secret passage. Other times, you may draw from the Item Deck. This provides a wide variety of goodies which can help improve your character’s chances of surviving. Most important however is the Omen Deck. The bulk of these cards provide some mystical artifact which may prove to be essential to victory. What really matters is that every time a card is drawn from the omen deck, a Haunt roll is made by rolling six dice. If the total is less than the current number of omen cards in play (including the one just drawn), the Haunt Phase begins.

You may be asking yourself why you would even bother making a haunt roll the first few times it comes up. The reason is that the dice included with the game are not your standard six-siders. On each one, two sides are blank, two have one pip, and two have two pips. So it is in theory possible (though not terribly likely) that the Haunt Phase could begin after the very first roll.

Once the Haunt Phase starts, a chart is consulted and the omen card and room tile which were drawn are cross-referenced to determine which one of fifty scenarios is used. These scenarios represent a wide variety of horror story types. Typically, either the omen or the room in question will be key to successfully resolving the haunt. The haunt scenario will also indicate which player is the traitor (hence the “betrayal” in the game’s title). At this point, the traitor character leaves the room to consult the scenario in one of the haunt books while the other players (henceforth referred to as the survivors) consult the other haunt book. These provide each side with the details on what they must do to win. A general idea of what the opposition is attempting is also provided, but no specifics. This point is probably the biggest intrinsic weakness of the game, as gameplay comes to a grinding halt while everyone consults reference materials. The side which manages to successfully complete their objectives wins. However, game balance during the Haunt Phase is far from guaranteed. Each scenario is internally balanced, with most providing the traitor with some form of minions to counter the superior numbers of the survivors. However, the random nature behind how item and omen cards are obtained can make one side look hopelessly outmatched from the get-go. Still, sufficiently clever players can potentially come up with tactics to counter such disadvantages.

The Haunt Phase is also when combat becomes a major factor. This is conducted with opposed trait rolls between the two parties, with the higher result winning. In most cases, the trait used will be Might. However, the attacker may possess an item card which allows the use of a different trait. If the losing side is a traitor-controlled minion, the results will be as described in the scenario. If a player lost in combat, the difference between the two die rolls is applied as physical damage (if Might or Speed was used) or mental damage (if Sanity or Knowledge was used) as appropriate. Damage is applied by moving the arrow clips of the associated traits down their respective tracks, either applied to one or split between the two as desired. Should the arrow clip of any one trait reach the lowest point on its track, that character is dead.

From the back of the box:
Take a deep breath before you enter. It might be your last.”

Interestingly enough, the game encourages players to follow what is possibly the most disdained trope in horror fiction, namely splitting up. Sticking together can result in a highly linear path with few options for maneuvering later on. Plus, when the Haunt Phase begins, it’s for the best to not be too close to anyone else in case you find yourself with a foe who is better equipped than you for combat. Also, depending on the nature of the scenario, the survivors may have to accomplish multiple tasks in different areas of the house. So it’s for the best to ignore your metagaming instincts.

In conclusion, it’s kind of a shame that the switch to the Haunt Phase has such an adverse effect on the game’s momentum. It’s due to this fact that I knocked off a couple points from the rating. Still, it can be seen as a necessary evil, as the wide range of scenarios combined with the randomly generated game board give it a ton of replay value.

Rating: 15

Product Summary

Betrayal at House on the Hill: Second Edition

From: Wizards of the Coast

Type of Game: Board

Game Design by: Bruce Glassco

Developed by: Bruce Glassco and Bill McQuillan

Cover Art by: Shelley Wan

Additional Art by: Hillary Husted, Mike Demaine, Ryan Sansaver

Game Components Included: Rulebook, 2 Haunt books, 44 Room tiles, 1 Entrance Hall tile, 6 Explorer figures, 6 Character cards, 30 Arrow clips, 8 Dice, 1 Turn/Damage track, 13 Omen cards, 22 Item cards, 45 Event cards, 12 Large Monster tokens, 91 Small Monster tokens, 14 Event/Room tokens, 14 Item tokens, 18 Trait Roll tokens

Retail Price: $49.99

Number of Players: 3-6

Player Ages: 12+

Play Time: about one hour

Website: http://www.wizards.com

Reviewed by: Sitting Duck