Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: $49.95 ($29.97 at Amazon.com)
Page Count: 320
Release Date: 08/19/2014
Get it Here: Amazon.com
Well here we are. After months of reviewing beta 5e products like Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle and the Sundering adventures which bridged the gap between fourth and fifth edition, the Player’s Handbook is finally out. Now I’ve been pretty open with my love of this book (and 5e) for a while now so this review will be pretty gushing in praise and complements. I think it’s a much better PHB and system than what we had for third and fourth edition, although I do admit Second Edition AD&D’s PHB will probably remain my favorite due to the art, layout and sheer amount of high quality content that came out for that version(That’s 2.0, NOT 2.5). I haven’t felt this good about D&D since the 2e era of my childhood though, which really says how terrific Fifth Edition is. It’s a wonderful blend of all that came before it while also being its own beast. Now you might have already read my piece on “Ten Things You Might Not Know About the 5e PHB,” so I won’t recover that already tread ground. You definitely should read that piece though as there are some really nice surprises in there. Now then, let’s take a look at why D&D 5e is something you should definitely pick up regardless of edition wars or system preferences. Especially with Amazon offering it at nearly 50% off the cover price…
While third and especially fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons seemed a bit unwilling to embrace the rich history of TSR. For both games the focus was primarily on Forgotten Realms with the occasional lip service paid to Dark Sun and Eberron. Hell, they even farmed out Ravenloft to Sword & Sorcery, because WOtC didn’t want to touch it themselves (oddly enough that third party line because what I consider the best part of 3e). Planescape? Greyhawk? Dragonlance? Spelljammer? Birthright? All completely ignored as if they never existed. Even parts of Toril like Maztica and Al-Qadim were effectively excised out of existence. Not so with Fifth Edition. It actively embraces previous editions and the content created for it. You’ll see regular quotes from novels interspersed throughout the book – generally at the beginning of a section ala the old Classic World of Darkness White Wolf books. You will see mentions of setting that haven’t had anything written for them in well over a decade. I mean, Blackmoor is mentioned in the book as is the Hollow World from Mystara. This is pretty great. Even in the race sections you’ll see mentions of Krynn Draconians, Spelljammer Tinker Gnomes, and many other old favorites you thought WotC had given up on. About the only thing missing are Kender, Neogi and Giant Space Hamsters, but I have a feeling we’ll be seeing at least two of the three very soon. The book gives pantheons for Dragonlance, Greyhawk and Eberron in addition to the usual Forgotten Realms bits. Tika Taylan and Artemis Enteris are used as comparison/contrast examples throughout the book as to how different a Fighter/Rogue character can be. Even though this is an entirely new edition of Dungeons & Dragons< this is the first since TSR died that actively embraces all that came before it. As such long time D&D gamers will have a constant feeling of nostalgia as they read through this while newer gamers will realize that there is so much more to the game that has been published in the last decade or so. Now let's just hope we get some content for these old pieces rather than just a mention in the PHB. Hell, I'll put my hand in right now to work on Ravenloft for free! The old campaign settings are just easy money left untouched and it’s nice to see the Fifth Edition team realizing that there is a lot of love (and money to be made) for these bits.
There are twelve classes in 5e, although more will probably be added down the road via supplements or sourcebooks. My guess is we will see Psionics at some point because hey, it’s D&D. The core twelve classes are: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock and Wizard. No real surprises here, but some might lament a few options no longer here. As well, you’ll notice there aren’t prestige classes or the like from 3e here. However the game takes that idea and adds them into the core classes. At 2nd or 3rd level of your chosen class, you’ll pick one of two or three specialties (or more for Wizards) which will let you refine your character so that if you have two people playing the same class, they can really feel quite different. For example, at Level 3, a Rogue can choose between Thief, Assassin or Arcane Trickster. Sorry Unearthed Arcana fans, but there isn’t an option for an Acrobat….yet. This option allows characters to come into their own much earlier than previous editions of D&D and also lets a character feel a little more personalized than in say 1e or 2e. Now there are only a handful of choices right now, but I have a feeling that “paths” are going to be pretty popular and we might see a lot more down the road. Let’s just hope there isn’t overkill ala Prestige classes.
Okay, magic is more powerful than it has ever been in any previous form of Dungeons & Dragons. You get more spells per level, they do a lot more damage and it feels more than a little unbalanced/overpowered, especially if you are rooted in an older edition of the game. If you look at the Basic Rules or the Starter Set, you can’t help but feel Wizards are just too powerful when compared to other classes. Well, the Player’s Handbook alleviates this some…although in a very odd way. Now every class has access to magic and those that would usually gain access to magic in later levels like the Paladin and Ranger now have spellcasting ability at second level! That’s a dramatic change from previous editions that might make you pause. I know when I first saw this I was like, “Holy crap, that’s some power creep!” However, the more I re-read the book and also played out some of the classes apart from the Starter Set, the more I realized I liked this. By giving characters spells earlier, it does mitigate some of the feeling that magic is overpowered or that Wizards are the best class. After all, if everyone has magic, Wizards don’t feel that special. The fact Warriors can become Eldritch Knights or Rogues can become Arcane Tricksters lets even these usually magic-less classes have a chance to sling spells. Of course, you can still make a magic free character, which is great. The downside of course is that if everyone has magic, then it becomes pretty mundane and taken for granted. It also makes me wonder how these classes will play out in new versions of Ravenloft or Dark Sun where magic plays out radically different from other campaign settings. In the end though, it’s worth noting how much 5e reminded me of Adventures Dark & Deep where every class in this Gygaxian homage ended up with spells. Only time will tell how people react to magic being a lot more prevalent and power in Fifth Edition, but for now I’m okay with it, even if this decision is far from being one of my favorite things about 5e. Hey, nothing’s perfect – right?
Like classes you have all the traditional races and some offshoots, each of which is slightly different in stat boosts and traits. You have Dwarves (Mountain and Hill), Elves (High, Wood and Drow), Halfling (Lightfoot and Stout – no Kender though), Dragonborn, Gnomes (Forest and Rock/Tinker), Half-Elves, Half-Orcs and Tieflings. Sure there are some personal favorite races I would have loved to see in here like the Thi-Kreen, Rastipedes and Lizardfolk, but again, that’s what future sourcebooks are for. There is a great starting selection here and it’s neat to see how different say a Sun Elf is from a Drow stats-wise. It’s also worth noting Humans get two different build options. You either get +1 to all attributes or +1 to two attributes, along with an extra skill proficiency and an extra feat. Both versions are pretty fantastic – just go with your preference! About the only negative I can say about what is here is that the Dragonborn have a sidebar for playing Draconians(!) but the content is incomplete. It says a Draconian subs out the Dragonborn breath weapon for “unique magical abilities,” but then it doesn’t provide them. Why start to give this tease or imply that Draconians are a playable PC race but then not finish the job? Disappointing but it’s the only small flaw in an otherwise great section.
Another area off to a great start but which will inevitably get more options as Fifth Edition progresses are the Backgrounds. This option determines your non weapon proficiencies, starting equipment and more. There are thirteen options, each with a variant suggestions. These are here to really put a focus on roleplaying over roll-playing and although we can all probably think of a few additional backgrounds that could be in here, what’s here works well enough for just about everyone. You can always take Acolyte and make it a Cultist or Guild Artisan into a Baker. Sailor can easily become Fisherman. So on and so forth. This definitely has a strong 2e AD&D vibe to it and I love that. Backgrounds also have you decide on a personality, an ideal, a bond and a flaw. By the time you are done fleshing out your background, you should have a really detailed character description. This is wonderful and really offsets the stereotype of D&D being a hack and slash dungeon crawl where role-playing is secondary to roll-playing.
This is a variant of the same term used in Third Edition. It’s scaled back a lot (Thank Cthulhu), but you can definitely see where this can be expanded – most likely by second rate third party supplements. Yeesh. Anyway, there are forty-two options to choose from and as you gain feats at certain levels (which levels vary by class), you can really mix and match these to make whatever character you want. Many are combat oriented, but you also have options like Actor and Skulker. A lot of skills also have pre-requisites, so you can’t be a Grappler unless you have a STR of 13 or higher. Some of these feats even raise your attributes permanently. The aforementioned Actor gives you a permanent Charisma bonus of +1 while Linguist gives you a+1 to Intelligence in addition to three more languages under your belt. Some feats like Magic Initiate gives ANYONE the ability to cast two cantrips and a 1st level spell. The options are pretty diverse and a lot of fun. In the end this new rendition of Feats really allows more even more character customization, although it is an optional part of character creation. I can see some DM’s naysaying this because of the big bonuses these feats gives and I can definitely see some third party publishers running this into the ground ala 3e/Pathfinder, but for now it’s just fine the way it is.
Aside from all this you have the mechanics, which after D&D Next, the free Basic Rules and the Starter Set, you should all be familiar with. I do feel combat is fast and efficient in Fifth Edition and the streamlined bits here make it a joy to play out. I’ve been playtesting 5e since day one (and am still playtesting/editing unreleased bits that will make it to your hands eventually) and I can say that combat has gone from slow and tedious when 5e first started to one of the more intuitive and easy to learn styles in modern gaming. I can’t emphasize how much fun I have had with 5e and where combat was one of my least favorite parts of some older editions of D&D, I’m really liking the 5e take on it.
So yes, while there are some things about Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition I could quibble on or say, “Edition XYZ did aspect ABC better,” as a whole I strongly prefer Fifth Edition to Third and Fourth. This has definitely rekindled my love for D&D in a way I haven’t felt since the mid 90s, which is extremely impressive. Even if you do prefer an older edition of D&D or some other high fantasy RPG, 5e D&D is well worth picking up and adding to your collection because of how exceptionally well it has turned out. The PHB’s MSRP of fifty dollars might give some of you sticker shock, but when Amazon has the book for well under $30, there’s no real excuse not to get the Player’s Handbook unless you just hate Wizards or D&D for some strange reason. I absolutely love this thing and it’s great to see the final hardcover product in my hand after years of looking at word documents and PDFs. Fifth Edition has definitely become one of my favorite releases thanks to the PHB and here’s hoping the final versions of the Monster Manual and the DMG are just as top notch. If you are on the fence, hated Fourth Edition for whatever reason or just haven’t picked up a tabletop game in a long time – 5e is well worth investing in. Just remember you can download a free copy of the Basic Rules too.