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Where do I begin?

I was a part of the public playtest, and, towards the end, I became very skeptical of the outcome of D&D Next. The part of gamers that was working with me up at SRU to test out the regular updates and changes agreed with me: it was just missing something. It didn’t feel right, and what’s worse, at more than a couple turns, it felt worse than fourth edition.

That’s really saying something. Towards the end, Fourth suffered from power bloat, redundancy after redundancy, and it had all the style of ruled loose-leaf composition paper. I was worried; yes, we have Pathfinder, but D&D was the first game I ever played, the old BECMI set. (That’s an acronym that stands for Basic-Expert-Companion-Master-Immortal, referring to the Basic D&D boxed sets from the Eighties.) It was disheartening to me to think that it was likely dying before my eyes.

For the past year, I have watched, cautiously, as more and more was leaked out about the new edition being finalized. I watched Google Hangouts with Mike Mearls and others with mounting skepticism. Cautious Optimism was the catchphrase, emphasis on the Cautious.
I have now had a chance to look at the Player’s Handbook for a few days, pulling it apart like a finely smoked pork shoulder, examining every strand of meat. I dug down in to the bones, poking and prodding.

And I’ve come to a conclusion:

They did it. They saved the game.

I will go into details in a moment, but bear with me on this. I am not saying it’s the finest iteration of the game, nor am I saying it’s perfect. But it is a good game.

I am going to flat out say this right now: the price tag pisses me off.
Yes, I know the Pathfinder Core Rulebook is fifty bucks. I know the new Shadowrun Core Rulebook is sixty bucks. But, with those two, you get absolutely everything you need to run the game, player and gamemaster alike. It’s a bit of sticker shock to get hit with fifty bucks for the Player’s Handbook. Now, I weaseled out of that by working for a bookstore and having a lovely little employee discount, but the average gamer doesn’t have that opportunity.

But once you crack open the book, the artwork alone is a good example of what you are in for. And now, without further ado, I will go through, bit by bit, and talk about what works and doesn’t.

Character Creation: Ability Scores.

They advocate a number of different methods for making characters, including a starting array of scores, (instead of my personal favorite method, which is rolling for them) that includes an 8. This means that at least one score is giving you a penalty, unless you utilize an attribute bonus to level that out. I like that; it encourages players to embrace the idea that you don’t have to be good at everything. They still stick with the standard set in 3.X of pairs of numbers giving escalating bonuses to anything related to that score.

Character Races.

The Big Four are your standard races: Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and Humans. They uphold the old standards well, and go into detail for each about all of the various major campaign settings and how they fit in, from Dragonlance’s Silvanesti High Elves, to Eberron’s tribal Halflings. The inclusion of subraces for options does a good job, so far, of allowing for more customization. Yes, even the much derided Drow are there, but done very well, in my opinion.

Uncommon Races are included as well, such as Gnomes, Dragonborn, Half-Elves, and Tieflings. Gnomes and Half-Elves are well done, but I was never a big fan of either the Dragonborn or the Tieflings, as they are ported over almost directly from Fourth Edition. I hated the appearance unification to Tieflings, and thought that the Dragonborn were flat out fan-service. But, they aren’t out to just impress me, and let’s face it, you don’t have to use everything in the book.
Character Classes.

These impress me immensely. The inclusion of the new Proficiency bonus system, instead of Base Attack Bonus and the like, feels a lot better. Your class dictates what armor, weapons, toolsets, saving throws (more on that later), and skills you are proficient in, and may benefit from that bonus. In addition, your Background (more on that later as well) can add to this list.

Instead of flat out buying your gear, you have a number of options to pick from for starting weapons, armor, and gear. Backgrounds can add to this as well, just like Proficiencies.

The abilities granted by classes are finally tamed a bit. There is nothing outrageous, per se. Many of it could be abused at a table by a dickish player, but every game has that. For example, standard Barbarian Rage now just adds a bonus to damage, gives Advantage on Strength based skills and checks, etc., instead of coming with an arcane and almost trigonometric set of augmentations.

The classes have long-term balance. Survivability is still an issue for many characters at low levels, but if you ask me, that is as it should be. In the long run, classes balance well. Fighters have various “traditions” to choose from, including the Battle Master that utilizes Superiority Dice, much like the Maneuver dice in one iteration of the playtest that I thought was a spectacular idea, as well as Maneuvers fueled by the Superiority dice. You get the dice back after at least a one hour rest, meaning that in many situations, you aren’t just saying, “I swing at the orc… again” in every combat, round after round.

I do foresee one problem with this, and that is what I term “lazy boring player.” So many people will think that unless you have a power, ability, or spell that says, specifically, that you can do something, you can’t. And frankly, if you stick with that kind of mentality, whether you are a player or a DM, you are missing out on the fun of the game.

Anyway, back to the point. The classes are done very well, from the Domains of the Clerics, to the way Wild Shape now works for Druids, to the nature of Sorcerous magic. You get a feel for who you are as a Cleric, Bard, Ranger, etc., instead of just getting an idea of what part you are to play in the tactics part of the game. At one point, I was a serious proponent of the way Fourth Edition freed up space in characters for individual roleplaying, but then I got to see what it turned into at the table, and realized just how crappy many of the roleplayers can be.

Saving throws are now based on your Abilities. Need to avoid being paralyzed? Your DM may tell you to make a Strength saving throw. You roll a d20, add your Strength modifier, and if you are a class that is proficient in Strength saving throws, your proficiency bonus. Oh, did I mention that proficiency bonuses increase with level? Yeah, they do.
Backgrounds.

This is a great addition to the game. Reminiscent of the Kits of second edition AD&D, they serve to augment your character, adding another dimension to him or her. Sure, you get a couple more skill proficiencies, maybe a tool proficiency, and some gear, but you also get depth. The Backgrounds help you choose some things like personality quirks, bonds, and even flaws to help build a good three dimensional character. You want to make a War Wizard, take the Soldier background with your Wizard, and make things happen. Want your Ranger to be a Falconer from a great and powerful family? Take the Noble background and play it up!

Combat and Resolution.

First of all, the Advantage/Disadvantage is fun. Oh, you’re in a situation that gives you the drop on a foe, or puts you in a position of power? You get to roll two d20s and take the better result. Five minutes later you find yourself in a situation that has you (hopefully metaphorically) bent over a barrel? Now you are at a Disadvantage, and you roll two d20s again, but this time you have to take the lower roll. It’s not necessarily going to absolutely ruin your chances, but it doesn’t help.

Combat itself is amazingly streamlined, and no longer relies on miniatures and maps to work. You can go back to winging it, or you can use your minis, your choice. I, myself, prefer to wing it. I like the internal mental envisioning part of the game.

Skill and Ability checks are still faced against a DC, and the system encourages non-roll resolution of the simpler things, preserving the narrative flow of the game.
Spells.

Vancian magic, kind of, is back. Yes, you still memorize spells, and you are limited to what you can prepare in a day, but now you slot them into spell slots of varying levels in order to cast them, giving a spin of personal energies being used. As well, when you use a higher level slot to cast the spell, you get an increased effect. And here’s something else: a couple of classes get a chance to regain some of those expended spell slots when they take at least a one hour rest, meaning you’re no longer just a one trick pony at lower levels. Oh, and they followed Pathfinder’s lead and you can now cast your prepared Cantrips as many times a day as you like.

Bound all together, this makes a game that I actually really want to both play and run. I have made about five characters to get a feel for the generation process, and I am impressed with how it flows. Sometimes it is a very difficult decision to make regarding class and background, or what you want to specialize in. I get the feeling we’ll see more options coming out for the various classes, and more background, especially setting-specific ones. Until then, it is easy enough to make your own to fit your home campaign.

Pick it up, or even just the Free Basic Rules (available here: http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/basicrules?x=dnd/basicrules) and give it a spin. Well worth it.

What do you think?

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