The first roleplaying game I ever played was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I was 8, and back in 1982 I had a princely weekly allowance of 75 cents. One day, walking home, I passed an older kid who was selling some beaten-up books that a local mother was destroying due to their part in Satanism. I landed myself a copy of the AD&D Player’s Handbook (with the cover torn off) for my entire allowance. From there, the rules were a part of my leisure-time. I played with local kids (Allen Mayer was the eldest, just two years older) and we had to have a dictionary to understand a lot of the words (like, which kid of 8 years old knows anything about a trident, not to mention the dozen various pole arms) but we made it work.
It was years before I actually learned what the cover of that first book actually looked like, but in those years I had adventures spanning continents, delving through isometric castles of gothic vampires, sprawling daemonweb mazes, and the horribleness of the psionic system. We had to make up much of what we played – there was really only one campaign setting (Greyhawk – yeah, it was a long time ago) and we only had one outlet to buy these books (and it was the JC Penny at the mall). But those adventures, crude and untethered, made their mark in my development as a gamer and as a nerd.
We are now 40 years after the original release of Dungeons & Dragons back in 1974 (a great year) and while TSR no longer manages the franchise, Wizards of the Coast is releasing a new edition (the 5th edition) and they have even unleased the basic rules online, for free.
So, what is different, what is good, and what is bad? I will give you my evaluation of what I have seen.
The fourth edition of D&D was the most reviled version yet to the hardcore min/max crowd. Personally, I liked the MMORPG feel and found the at-will/encounter/daily power system to be very easy to play with my kids. 5th edition is not 3.5, but it doesn’t need to be. It is nostalgic to some of us, with four base classes (Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, Wizard) and four base races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) in the basic game rules.
The character creation system is where I have seen the most improvement, and the goal to build a story around the character befitting a RA Salvadore novel’s protagonist is evident. What makes your character work, what quirks does he have, why is he … him? This is a notable exception to the other editions that were merely combat engines with a light spray of character development.
But, aggravatingly enough, the spell system takes a retro twist that puts it back in 2nd edition territory, in my opinion. I’ve never been a fan of spell “slots”. If I run a D&D campaign I will house rule this into something more manageable, it bothers me so.
The basic rules are found online at no cost; a bold move for any company, let alone WOTC. These rules are 110 pages of stuff, and for a free document very well produced. Character creation and advancement all the way to level 20 is covered, as is a good assortment of European type weapons and armor. That, to me, is the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons. So take your hate of how katana are not represented correctly somewhere else. Bastard swords work well, so there.
The rules for combat are delightfully simple. The whole document screams the virtues of efficient game design. Anyone familiar with how to roll a d20 will pick this game up like riding a bicycle. A full polyhedron set of dice is required, which is the hallmark of a proper RPG for old codgers like me.
What is Wanting
Being a basic game, and being free, there are some things missing. The rules hint of greater things to be found in the Player’s Handbook. Arcane Traditions further define your Wizard’s spellcasting, Roguish Archetypes help describe your Rogue, etc.. These look like they can be very cool, and do their job of making players want to get that PHB.
Monsters are notably missing, too. I would have really liked to have a small list of monsters in this basic game, even if just some spiders, goblins, and orcs. I cannot tell if the system will build encounters like 4th edition did (which I thought was excellent), and for that I am dismayed (but only slightly).
Lastly, magical treasure is absent from the basic game. It’s an easy matter to grant hit or damage bonuses to weapons, but it would be nice to see some Cloak of Elvenkind or Girdle of Giant Strength type staples here.
The 5th edition basic set is solid, but you can see how it is missing. With the Starter Set out now, you should have some monsters and treasure to add to the basic rules and be able to build a roleplaying campaign for $20 – which is very tough to beat.
With a few house rules, and some liberal campaign vision, you can actually make this work very well. As well as that cover-less TSR book I had 32 years ago. And, as sad as that sounds, is really is a good thing.