I’ve avoided, on the whole, reading any lengthy reviews or discussions of Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I was not involved in the play test, nor have I kept up with Wizards’ regular articles regarding their design philosophy.
Yesterday however, I did finally receive my Amazon preorder of the Player’s Handbook, and on my initial canvass I’m rather pleased with the result.
Mechanics-wise, Fifth Edition seems to be about 75% Third Edition. True Vancian spell progression is back, and the designers appear to have compensated for the weaknesses of low-level spell casters by jacking up the power of their spells. Time only will tell with respect to the wisdom of this choice, but I suspect that it will exacerbate the “Linear Fighters, Quadratic Wizards” problem of the Second and Third Editions.
While decisions like this may indeed hurt game balance, on the whole, the Fifth Edition rules set feels more like the Dungeons and Dragons of my youth than Fourth Edition ever did. I do not believe that there’s a pen-and-paper veteran on the planet who doesn’t bring a load of baggage to the game table; that said, what I like about Fifth Edition over all is that it accords with what I expect of the franchise, based on my own acute experiences, again, with Second and Third Edition.
As long as I’m touching on nostalgia, the one area where I believe this new PHB truly excels is in art direction. The interiors of the Player’s Handbook are delightful in their simplicity. Moreover, every one of the illustrations would not look out of place in the revised 1995 version of the Second Edition Handbook. While I don’t mean to suggest that the layout of the Second and Fifth Edition Handbooks are perfect, they do have a certain elegance, a quality sorely lacking in the gimmicky covers and pages of Third Edition materials, or Fourth Edition’s powers and spells framed in boxes that share far too many of the aesthetic qualities of a Windows XP GUI.
If you have made it this far, you’ve probably guessed that I was never a fan of Fourth Edition; that I’m glad to put all of that behind us. I have spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars on Dungeons and Dragons over the years, and even though I’ll be the first to point out its flaws, I profoundly care about the game and its future.
Whether Fifth Edition does in fact turn out to be a better product line than Fourth Edition is not a determination that anyone can make today based on a single book. Bad DMs and badder players are just getting their hands on these rules. But the Player’s Handbook does show that Wizards is attempting to address many of Fourth Edition’s defects, and that at least, is a promising start.