At the time of this writing, the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook has been available to most people for over a month and the Monster Manual has been widely released for about a week. I've also had the pleasure of being both a DM and a PC several times and my overall personal impressions are good. Additionally, after looking at the reviews online, talking to people in game stores, and watching/reading several other reviews, it seems as though this new edition is doing very well in the court of public opinion.
So what’s changed? What has made the difference between this new effort and the alienating effort of 4th Edition? Well allow me to do what I do best and put it in a list for you:
1) 5th Goes Back to Basics in Character Development
No, no, no, I’m not talking about THACO or having Elf and Dwarf as classes. I’m talking about a streamlined system that cuts down on the strategic “MMO” powers and dependency on grid maps and miniatures. Instead, the new system focuses more on creating detailed and multi-layered characters. One of the places that 4th Edition went wrong, in my opinion, was in the character building department. In 4th, characters were essentially built based on their combat powers, abilities, and feats. The character you were was defined by the things you could do in combat. Very little thought was put into what your character could do during downtime or roleplaying situations. Back in 2nd Edition, it was completely the opposite. Who your character was (based on your choices for class, sub-class, and secondary skills) defined what you could do both in combat and out. There were many opportunities for your character to be useful in almost any conceivable situation if you were wise with your choices. In this regard, 5th Edition picks up where 2nd left off and adds in a few of the “bells and whistles” most loved from 3.5 and 4th.
2) The Emphasis on Roleplaying and Combat are Balanced
(Putting on old man hat) I remember a time when roleplaying would take up roughly 40% of my session and combat the other 60%. After 3.5 and 4th, it was a lot more like 20% roleplaying and 80% combat. In the 25-30 hours I have spent as a DM and a PC in 5th Edition by this point, I can happily say that my original split of 40/60 is back. Even more interesting is the fact that my average 4th Edition combat, for let’s say a party of level five characters, would take approximately 2 hours and now in 5th Edition, that same level five combat only takes me 50-60 minutes. Shorter combat sessions are good for two reasons: 1) It makes it much easier to squeeze in a good roleplaying opportunity whenever I want; and 2) It means that I have fewer combats drag on into “overtime” where I have to stop the action and resume the fight the next week/month. More flexibility and less dragging combats are both very good things that 4th never really achieved.
3) Most of the New Rules Make Sense
So what do you get when you go public with your drafts for 5th Edition and you allow more than 175,000 people review, critique, and comment on your work? You get a very refined set of rules that are player friendly and actually make a lot of sense! (Who’d a thunk it?) Character creation is smooth, detailed, and has very few flaws; races and classes seem balanced, at least for the first ten levels or so; and the whole “advantage/disadvantage” mechanic is one of the most inspired changes in D&D since the elimination of THACO. Combine all of this with a more challenging healing system (i.e. it is much easier to die in this edition; see below) and the elimination of many OP (over powered) feats/abilities, and you’ve got something very exciting. As I read one person mention on Facebook, “D&D has teeth again!”
4) The Books Look Amazing
Let me be clear, every edition thus far has had an exceptional individual feel and style. AD&D was dominated by the now classic ink sketches; 2nd Edition had the wonderful works of Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley, 3.5 had a much more textured and modern look; and 4th Edition was filled with maps, grids, and powers. Looking at 5th, I see something completely different. I see something that is much more akin to the series of Dragonology Books (See Here). There are subtle details in both the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manuel that make these products stand out and above their predecessors. Small sketches in the margins, detailed drawings with multiple angles, the full-page artworks depicting spells and character situations are back and are very eye-catching, and every inch of every page has been used to good efficiency. I’ll admit that I haven’t been this impressed by two D&D books in years and I can’t wait to see more.
5) Death Got Its Groove Back
As I briefly mentioned above, 5th Edition varies from 4th Edition in one major way that I am very excited to see: character death can happen quickly and at any time. For those of you who may not be aware, killing off a character in 4th Edition, especially one above level 9, was almost impossible. This was thanks to several things such as healing abilities available to almost every class in one form or another, hit point totals 25-30% higher than previous editions, second winds, healing surges, and a myriad of spells and items all designed to not only keep individual characters alive but entire parties. If a DM really wanted to knock off a character, they would have to get quite creative and attack in certain ways that usually prevented healing from reaching the doomed PC. Also, if a DM wanted to perform a TPK (total party kill), he or she would have to plan on dealing hundreds of points of damage to all characters and perhaps even thousands if the party had reached Epic levels. Even then, death would not come unless die rolls landed certain ways. Not so in 5th Edition. In 5th, a DM can take out any PC with a few good blows and healing has been scaled back to almost 2nd Edition levels. This means that an average healing spell in 5th might give a character back 15-20 points, in comparison to 4th Edition that was more like 25-35 points. Why is this important? In my opinion, it’s a good thing for players to have that fear of character death in the back of their minds. It tempers their outlandish ideas, increases thoughtful action over brash action, and forces them to be more focused.
Overall, there are many other things that I could mention that seem, to me at least, to be upgrades. But the common theme of all of these things is quality. D&D 5th Edition is a quality product that has been well researched, well tested, and well produced. If you haven’t tried it out yet, give it a shot. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.