Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules (Fifth Edition)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast LLC
Release Date: July 3, 2014
Get It Here: Wizards of the Coast
I’ve been involved off and on in the play tests for 5th Edition for the last few years. I’ve seen the game go through a few different changes, some good, some ok, none of it left me crying in a corner, so that was a good thing. To actually have some finalized rules in my hands, or in this case, reading off a tablet or a computer screen, puts it all into perspective. Now, I’ve been playing D&D since my college days, back before Third Edition with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, what would be known by most now as Second Edition. Third was an interesting departure but also had the effect of overly-complicating things and with each release adding to the power creep which went wildly out of control through 3.5 which tried to reign things in a bit and steer the boat on a more reasonable course. It’s not that it failed, but by the time I got into 3.5 they were already shoving Fourth Edition at us and I wasn’t quite ready for that so I’d jumped to Pathfinder which was more like a revised 3.5 and worked at more my speed. I missed all of Fourth Edition and with my gaming groups coming and going and us flipping between Second and Pathfinder for our Magical Medieval RPG needs because that’s what everyone knew, I didn’t see a point in getting Fourth Edition. After giving the Basic Rules here a shot though, I have to say that at least as far as the player side goes, and getting some pretty basic rules here all crammed into 110 pages, it very much looks like they’ve streamlined the game again and it’s using some of the best ideas of all the editions that have come before it to work like a fine-tuned machine.
Now I’m not saying everyone is going to love this edition. In fact I’m betting right now that some players are going to absolutely dislike many of the changes just because it’s stream-lined a bit. Feats for example have gone from necessary to optional and are only given a footnote in the basic version that mentions they’ll be an option with the Player’s Handbook but that they won’t really have an impact over a character who opts not to use feats. That’s a big deal. Skills have been redesigned as well as your saving throws and they’ve put a cap on just how high your ability scores can actually go and how big they can be at the start. This feels and looks more like old-school D&D and I’m loving it so far. Granted I haven’t actually been able to put this into practice yet, but just reading through this and only needing this to whip up a character is a good thing, but it’s also a bit limited. While you can kind of play with what they’ve got here, there are no monsters or dungeon master options contained within, so running this could be a bit rough if you don’t have the new Starter Box that’s hitting stores this month and that Alex is working on reviewing, however in August we should be seeing some basic rules for the dungeon master as well as some basic monsters so that technically you won’t have to buy a Dungeons and Dragons book to actually play or run this edition of the game. The rules here do take a character all the way to level 20 while the Starter Set only goes up to 5, so if you want to keep playing after the Starter is finished you’ll want to grab this.
The D&D Basic Rules are broken down into 11 chapters, an Introduction and an Appendix and consists of just text and charts. The only artwork you’ll find is on the back page advertising for the upcoming book titles. This is pretty barebones. My only complaint with it being this barebones is that there is no table of contents or index to be found with this release. The PDF does have bookmarks but if you’re printing this off you’re out of luck if you need to look something up. The bookmarks do all work and take you where you need to go, so there is that if you’re using this with a tablet or PC. The Introduction is your standard basics of the game and a general overview of what you’re getting with this release, which is basically a simple version of the Player’s Handbook which isn’t actually out yet so this is kind of like a preview of what’s to come. The Appendix covers different conditions your character can end up having to deal with. It’s a brief 2 pages but covers everything that I could think of that a player might get hit with in the rules they give you. You’ve also got 3 pages dedicated to character sheets and then a teaser page advertising what’s upcoming from the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
Aside from the Introduction and the Appendix, they’ve actually laid out the book pretty well into 3 separate parts, character creation, game rules, and magic. Part 1, character creation, is laid out pretty much the same way it’s been laid out since Third Edition with races, classes, additional character options that aren’t quite so optional anymore, equipment, and then customization options that are more or less advertising for the upcoming Player’s Handbook as the brief paragraphs on the single page of Chapter 6, Customization Options, don’t give enough detail that you can really use them unless you own the new PHB or are familiar with the D&D rules. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Part 1 starts off with Chapter 1, Step-By-Step Characters, which is a decent 6 page write-up for how to go about creating a character with these rules. They’ve added a fun little blurb to follow along with called ‘Building Bruenor’ where the player, ‘Bob,’ goes about building a Mountain Dwarf named Bruenor who lives in Icewind Dale. Anyone familiar with the Forgotten Realms setting or the Drizzt books will get the little joke. This first chapter is actually a pretty decent guide to creating your first character as well as working you through how you’ll grow and what to expect at the different levels of play. It’s something new players will appreciate and still gives some useful information to older players as well. You’ll probably at least want to read through it once if you’ve played before as it hints at some of the changes before you get to them as well as giving a few useful charts like experience progression and stat boosts from your race choices.
Chapter 2, Races, spends 8 pages going into the four races they’ve provided with the Basic Rules, Dwarves, Elves, Halflings and Humans as well as the race variants for each. Each race, aside from Humans, have subraces that gain different benefits that add to the main race. Humans are instead provided with different ethnicities and as Humans all get the same benefits regardless, they don’t get the subraces. Dwarves, Elves and Halflings each end up with 2 subraces a piece providing different benefits and they do a good job of explaining race relations between each and the way each race sees the other. There are a few points where they spend some time mentioning upcoming books and options you don’t have here, however it’s not nearly as intrusive here as it is in later chapters. They’ve not included Gnomes, Dragonborn or Half-Orcs in the basic set, so if you were hoping to play one of those with just this rules set, you’ll be missing out. The four they have here though are the ones I usually see people playing although I have to admit gaining a soft spot for the Half-Orc in the last few years.
Chapter 3, Classes, is where they forget they’re giving us rules to play the game with and spin the opening paragraphs for just about everything into ads for the upcoming Player’s Handbook so often that it’s actually hard to read through to figure out just what they’ve given you until you get further in. This is actually what made me go do something else the first time I was flipping through this as it read as one big advertisement and made it hard to follow. Worry about giving us the rules and set-up first if you’re giving us a free basic rules set, then shill your upcoming title. It worked much better in the previous chapter that way. Like your races, you’re limited here to four classes to choose from and each of them is a bit limited in options, but they give you enough to play with effectively. You have your Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard to choose from. The Cleric to me feels the most limited as they tell you all about all the domains and gods you can choose from, then don’t actually list any of the gods and only provide you with one domain to choose abilities from. It’s a good domain for a starter Cleric, don’t get me wrong, but they spend 3 paragraphs building up all your exciting choices just to yank the rug out from under you with the one domain. Fighters probably get the most variety with the Basic Rules as you can build for melee or ranged fighting and are given a series of options for each. But like the other classes, you’re limited to what’s provided, and while they talk about your different archetypes for the fighter and how you can find them all in the PHB, they’ve only provided one. The whole chapter is like that. Rogue’s are given a breakdown on their archetypes, only provided the one, and the same with Wizards who are forced to use just the Evocation School as their focus as it’s the only one provided. It bothers me the way this was presented. Yes it’s great this is free and gives you what you need to play a basic game as a player, but give us the rules so they’re easy to use without having to read how great your class could be if only you had access to the PHB.
Thankfully, Chapter 4, Personality and Background, uses it’s 12 pages about adding both to your character. They go over picking a name, your character’s sex, which I might add is handled as beautifully as I’ve ever seen an RPG do it in 2 paragraphs, your height and weight, your basic alignment which is the same as it’s always been in D&D, your languages, and then into personality traits and inspiration. They really spend some time and want players to think about these things as they’ll help you play your character a bit more. Some groups I’ve played in handle the role-playing better than others and I think this method they’ve got here will add to that for everyone. Backgrounds are a little bit more involved as they actually give you things. There are only 5 to choose from here, but what’s interesting is that they can work for just about any character. You could have a Cleric who’s background was being a criminal and it’d work. A little odd, but you could do it with the way it’s set up. You could have the Rogue who’s the town hero. It’s something interesting to add to your character that actually brings something to the table, not just role-playing wise, but gives you something to actually use while you’re playing between gear and a personal history and skills. I like it.
Chapter 5, Equipment, is 13 pages of what you’re going to end up using going into an adventure or needing for one. Everything here is, dare I say it, basic, so if you’re looking for the latest in magical gear you won’t find it. This is all standard gear for the most part. I’m guessing the upgraded gear will come with later releases, but everything presented should get your party started just fine. They do go into money and costs as well as optional rules for making getting gear that you found to fit a player character. My only complaint with this chapter is that the last section detailing dungeon trinkets doesn’t have any kind of coin value attached to the items. It’s a neat and helpful list, but it’s going to give DMs headaches when the player’s go to try and sell any of it. Chapter 6, Customization Options, is a brief one page that clarifies a few things, but is mostly there to tell people about all the nifty options detailed in the upcoming books, unfortunately. For a chapter labelled options, it gives you almost none. And so Character Creation ends on a rather brief note.
Chapter 7 kicks off Part 2 of the Basic Rules, called Playing the Game, and more specifically with this chapter, Using Ability Scores. There are some changes from the D&D I know here, like a cap of 20 on your Ability Score, the new Proficiency bonus that goes up as you level and applies to rolls, going back to doing Ability checks, and then Skills, a breakdown of each one, and then of course the new way saving throws work. They also go into the Advantage and Disadvantage system a bit here which I think will add something interesting to the game but I’ll have to see it in practice first. Basically you end up roll two D20’s and take either the higher or lower result depending on whether you have and advantage or disadvantage in a given situation. Chapter 8, Adventuring, goes into the mechanics of playing the game outside of using your ability scores. The chapter covers movement, time progression, dealing with unusual environments, survival, interacting with players and non-player characters, resting and then what you do between adventures. For only 5 pages, they cram a lot of useful stuff in there for players and new players especially can get a lot out of this chapter. Chapter 9, Combat, is what drives through most dungeon crawls and the fight with the big bad at the end. Combat hasn’t changed all that much from Third Edition, however some of the movement rules and attacks have been more defined here, like moving and attacking and then moving again, how you can attack multiple targets if you’re a fighter as you have multiple attacks. Critical Hits have gone back to where a Natural 20 roll on a 20-sided die is a crit hit and an automatic hit. No need to confirm it. Healing and Death Saving Throws work a bit differently this time around and it’s actually a bit easier to die at the early levels. They’re going to be rough. There are some changes to the bigger points so definitely something to check out, but the basics are pretty much unchanged.
Chapter 10, Spellcasting, kicks off Part 3, The Rules of Magic. You can pretty much ignore this if you’re not playing a Cleric or a Wizard, but it might be good to give it a look just to see how they’ve changed things. With Feats becoming optional, they’ve incorporated at least one of those casting options into spellcasting, like casting a spell at a higher level so it consumes a higher spell slot, but for the most part magic works as normal, although you’ll definitely want to double-check your spells as some of the basics have changed in how much damage they do. But that’s Chapter 11 which basically covers all the spells they’ve included for this release, which is pretty substantial at 22 pages, but is definitely not everything. The Spellcasting chapter also covers some history of magic, how it all works as well as the mechanics of trying to cast while all hell is breaking out around your character.
Overall, this is a good start, but this really isn’t enough to start running the game unless you’re planning on sending your party up against nothing but other Clerics, Fighters, Rogues and Wizards of the Elf, Dwarf, Halfling and Human variety. So there’s no monsters. There’s also no tips on running a game or how to balance an encounter for a party of players. Granted, if you’ve run before, you can wing it. If you don’t have any D&D books at all though, this current Basic Rules set is just for character creation in its simplest form. That’s pretty much it. As a basic PHB though it’s a solid effort and works really well for what it’s trying to do. It works especially well as a nice free hook to bring in new players, except for the chapter on classes which isn’t as easy to get through as it should be. The Starter Box will give you more DM options and some monsters for sure and will at least get you going with what you’ve got here, but according to the site where Wizards is hosting the link for the D&D Basic Rules, they are adding what amounts to a basic version of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual to the site in August for free. So until then you may have to muddle through if you’re not picking up the Starter Box. This is definitely something worth checking out though, especially if you’re on the fence about going to a new edition of D&D. Me, I’m kind of sold on it though. It’s doing everything that I want from D&D and keeping the RPG experience at the table fairly simple and moving while still giving players options and that’s all I can ask for.