D&D 5th Edition Beginner Box: A grognard’s surprising review
There are probably more than a few reviews of the 5th Edition D&D Starter Set out there by now, and the last thing I thought I’d be doing is writing one. But as I sat in the Wyvern’s Tale last week, someone mentioned that the books in the set were valuable as handouts to other players getting started with the full game, and this marginal additional value was enough to tip me over into buying the set to examine.
I was skeptical. Extremely skeptical. I’ve been playing the game for coming on 30 years now, and I’ve seen editions and changes come and go, but 4th edition really made me sick to my stomach. We played it, but it hurt, and it didn’t ever take the place in my heart that other editions had. Further, it made me realize that something I love is in the hands of dubious custodians. I think others felt that way, hence 4E’s short life. Despite two years of playtesting by the general public, I still doubted the efficacy of a process that may have Hasbro / WotC’s dark masters rubbing their hands and scheming changes that focused more on money than a good product. I had participated in the playtest, and knew that the game I had played seemed a little goofy, reminding me of 1st edition, or perhaps Basic D&D, and locking gears with my 3.5 / Pathfinder knowledge.
So it was with this dubious reluctance I slapped down a $20 and got the beginner box, and scheduled a game with a mix of gamers (it being a bit of an off week). So, what’s the dope from a dubious grognard? Your mileage may vary, but I was pleasantly surprised, and I don’t know how I feel about that.
THE DIFFERENCES In a nutshell:
- Less emphasis on tactical combat to speed play.
- Fewer Opportunity attack events
- Greater mobility (move, attack, move though you could threaten an OppAttack if your target’s still alive)
- Less articulated modifiers, but GM has flex to give advantage / disadvantage
- Rogues get sneak attack if ally is engaged with same target, flanking not required
- Every Stat has its own saving through – So you could make a Strength save, for example.
- Less general modifiers – you get a progressive general ‘proficiency’ bonus which goes towards most things and changes with level
- Numbers are all lower – AC, bonus to hit / damage, saving throws and DC’s, all are very low – think 10 being average, 15 being hard and a 20 being incredible.
- Spells are different – Select a limited number of spells, then pick from that refined list on the fly to fill a caster level slot. Lower spells used in higher slots are modified to be more powerful.
- Less Skills – with much more emphasis on Stat based checks
- Simplified Mechanics – Most modifiers, weird rules, and so on are replaced by Advantage / Disadvantage where you roll two dice and either take the higher (when you have ‘advantage’) or the lower (when you have ‘disadvantage’).
- All characters can heal up to their hit dice with a short rest, but don’t get those back until a long rest. Clerics do cast regular healing spells, however, instead of the ‘healing surge’ system that pissed everyone off in 4E. It’s similar, but more tolerable.
While that all seems like a lot, that’s more or less it for the time being. Armed with that knowledge, you could sit down and play. Feats appear to have less of a role, but classes do have abilities they unlock with leveling which seems to make some pretty impactful change to the character. There are a variety of nuances which the beginner box doesn’t fully explore, and the rules themselves (downloadable here) will take some exploring before I could report on them.
So those are the changes, but what’s in this box anyway?
WHAT’S IN THE BOX
Set of dice, Starter rules, and an adventure, plus a lot of cardboard to give the set some girth. That’s a bit of a cheap trick, but it expected it based on weight. 5 Pregenerated charcters (two fighters, rogue, mage, cleric). Rules are just enough to play, though we accessed the SRD as we went along for this and that. The rulebook should remain somewhat useful for reference to a new player who doesn’t want to hunt through the SRD.
PLAYING THE GAME
There are a lot of folks who argue the pro’s and cons of a simplified game. I like Pathfinder and other more technical games because 1) I know the rules pretty well and 2) it gives me a complex and nuanced simulation level game that sometimes results in a few surprises plus 3) I feel the technical nature of the game brings nuances in character development to the surface and lets those characters/mechanics/players shine.
That said, another argument, perhaps equally valid, is that those mechanics and distinctions are a distraction that can be replaced with good roleplaying. Further, that when those complexities are stripped away, you can focus on character development, role-playing and story, with GM having more free reign to tell an interesting story rather than be forced to say, “No, that can’t happen” etc.
I could feel the pull of that later argument in playing the Starter Set. The game plays pretty quickly, though I did have to completely improvise as the first thing that happened in combat (a player jabbed a horse to have it run over some adversaries, and there sure as hell were no rules to dictate that). Still, it was fine, I made up some stuff and the game played on. Players didn’t have to pour over character sheets or rules, and play continued with people getting more into their characters (pregens, none the less) than I would sometimes see in other games. Adversaries remained quite dangerous, but death was largely manageable (but present as well with a particular bugbear doing some lovely crit damage to the mage along the way).
The adventure itself, is set in Forgotten Realms. I’ve never been a fan of the Realms, really (Greyhawk being my cup of tea) but it was familar, and didn’t have the oddities that 4E embraced. It had a very solid, basic fundamental Tolkenian base, and that was good for what it was. The first part of the adventure itself is a standard mini-crawl with a brief outdoor encounter. While nothing special, I was pleased with it, and it hit the fundamentals in a way that spoke to me as a long time player. Further sections of the story (which we have not played) promise a series of urban non-combat encounters and an overarching story line that plays in the NPC backstories nicely. It’s a non-fussy non-fancy strong but basic mini-adventure path that most players should enjoy.
The play of the game itself made me remember those years of playing 1st edition and having to make things up, but playing and playing fast. As with any good group, a lot of fun was had, people threw themselves into their characters, and a great time was had by all. The reduced tactical nature of the game definitely created a sort of oddness about play, but tactics still remained relevant, and players maneuvered for advantage to to avoid disadvantage, which gave it some teeth it might have lacked without those distinctions. Players would think outside of the box and add a little gusto their usual play, fishing for advantage. Sometimes I would give it but most of the time I would not, as the bastard in me dictated. No one seemed ruffled by that development.
AFTERMATH AND ASSESSMENT
Wrapping up, everyone clearly had a good time. Many of these were old time players, but some were newer, but the reaction was largely the same. I found myself oddly enthralled by the play of the game, and eager for more. This, I did not expect. Not at all. We’re 4 1/2 modules into Reign of Winter, and I started to feel a little guilty about my pull towards this new system. New things are often exciting, but the sense I had was really a yearning to revisit in and feel out more of these changes and how effective they could be.
Grognards, I know. What is wrong with this guy? Well, it comes down to, at least at this stage, this is a fun game. The only thing I would say is, it doesn’t necessarily feel like D&D. Or if it does, it doesn’t feel to me like my primary game. Time will tell its potential, and it’s going to have a lot to prove when it comes to high level play and warding off power creep. The game is easy going, lite, and fast. It doesn’t dwell in detail, and is streamlined for a more casual gaming experience. And I think that’s what it comes down to. This may be just a game that you play sometimes; a game you play when you want to drink a beer and kick back, rather than crunch numbers. You could play with a larger group, jump in and have a great time with it. You could play at a drop of a hat, and not have to weigh spell selections or use a program to put a character or NPC together.
That said, there are a number of cons to keep in mind. I don’t feel like it is going to have the same ability to sustain interest as higher levels are obtained. I think that the simplicities may begin to show wear at the higher levels, but to be honest, t’s too early to tell just yet. It doesn’t feel like it has the gravitas to support a major campaign. That said, we played bigger campaigns in the old days in a system not too dissimilar from this, so really it comes down to the player and the GM.
And perhaps that’s the major thrust of all of this: You can simplify or complicate any game to any degree, but the quality of the game and the experience is going to rely on the GM more than any other factor. You could have a great complex game that ran smoothly, or may be a confusing mess depending on your GM. D&D 5E is more simple, but the quality of your experience is going to rely on who is running your game, and their ability to react to the more rules-free environment.
In the age of the internet, there is going to be some nerd rage out there. I would temper that. The Starter box is totally optional, but good for dipping your toes in the water early on with minimal investment of time and resources. Give it a shot, and don’t get wound up as to whether it’s going to replace anything or not… the system is different, and should be treated like a different fantasy game than your 3.5 / Pathfinder game (just like Tunnels & Trolls, GURPS, and DCC). Take it at face value, and who knows, you may be just as surprised as I was.