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