Fifth Edition, First Impressions (Part 1)

I had fun. I really did.

It’s been not-quite a couple of hours since I played my first session of Dungeons & Dragons, which most of us are calling the Fifth Edition, though that’s not what it’s being called on any covers I’ve seen.

I was invited to join Ain’t It Cool News’ Darryl Mott‘s new bi-weekly campaign, run right out of the new free PDF the folks at WotC are calling the Basic Rules. The game is part of the Gamer’s Tavern Game Table program, which my roommate and Evil Beagle Games partner, Ross Watson, is also a key part of. With Darryl running, Ross and I were joined by Darryl’s long-time friend (and killer-clever artist with Roll20 drawing tools) Gary Dowling and D20 Girls Project stalwart Andrea Perez.

(The Grumpy Celt was also supposed to be on board tonight, but technical difficulties kept him away from the virtual table; hopefully, next time…)

It was Andrea’s first time ever playing D&D, which created a much more interesting framework from which to evaluate the overall effectiveness of the design of the new rules. She played a female dwarven Cleric (defaulting to Moradin until she has more grounding) named Beliane.

Gary also stepped up with a dwarf, this one a male Fighter named Magni (long “I”).

Ross invoked some grand Old School nostalgia by re-interpreting the icon from the Moldvay edition, Morgan Ironwolf. He even posted in the classic Jeff Dee illustration –

A human Fighter of decidedly swash-bucklery orientation.

I rolled up one of the odder male elves you might meet in D&D, a brute ex-smith-turned-Cleric of Selune named Jovis Ironweaver.

Darryl and I recorded the character creation process the night before, which I understand he’s going to post as part of the whole podcast experience for this. It was a very easy and surprisingly interesting experience. You only have four races (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human) and four classes (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard). The presentations are tight, and the process is very walk-through and relatively uncomplicated. You get some choices to make things a bit more interesting, though most are fairly binary; high elf or wood elf in your Elf racial selection, for example.

Selecting a Cleric, I was able to grok the basics relatively quickly, though I can see how a brand-new-to-gaming player might have a bit too much going on to fully grok what’s happening with spells. I can know this many, prep that many, but only cast two of… what can I cast, now? I mean, yes, careful reading will get you there, but the never-before player is going to have some chewing to do.

I also think it would have been better to provide at least two Domains to choose from in this presentation. Pointing out that Domains are a key way for Clerics to be interestingly different, and then only giving the single option of Life Domain (sweet though it is), is a bit too much of a tease in my opinion.

Nonetheless, I liked how Jovis turned out, and I felt like I got to play with him a bit in the construction. I really appreciated the simplified approach to Equipment; Darryl offered me the shopping cart approach, but I was not remotely interested, and I had enough interesting options from the “Column A/Column B” approach to make it quick and satisfying.

What really twists 5th Edition character creation is the integrated concept of Backgrounds. Yes, there’ve been attempts at this before, but now we have a fully layered-in system that’s easy and fun. You can really add a lot of backstory to your character with this stuff – which gives you things like Personality TraitsBonds, and Flaws, which all ties into the “boost economy” mechanic of Inspiration. Savage Worlds fans will see this as the Bennies concept applied to D&D, and it’s a nice, simple idea that does something very remarkable to the Dungeons & Dragons game.

It directly incentivizes roleplaying, in and out of combat. You really want to play up your Personality Traits, your Flaws, and such, because having Inspiration means getting that re-roll you need at that critical juncture. You can also give your Inspiration to others when they need it, which is a huge step towards teamwork and support.

The game itself saw us getting more and more into the use of Inspiration as we all – including Darryl – began to truly grasp its impact.

(We also saw the first House Rule come up, as Darryl decided to go against the “on/off” nature of Inspiration – you have it, or you don’t, and no “stacking” – and allow multiple iterations of Inspiration to be added like points.)

Truly, it was the Background stuff that really brought the whole character creation process to life for me. The Basics give you five choices – Acolyte (temple devotee), Criminal, Folk Hero, Sage, and Soldier. Though each has easily detected leanings, there’s no reason you can’t play a former Criminal who becomes a Cleric, or a Soldier who goes on to study as a Wizard.

I chose Folk Hero as I got more of a sense of what an 18 Strength elf might be like, which led to the whole smith thing, as well as my decision to take the Chaotic Good concept of defending the weak against tyrants to some interesting places.

(Two dwarves, and my elf is the only actual blacksmith in the group. There’s a Tools concept that is also charming and intriguing, something that steps out of the normal Skills/Proficiencies arena and acts independent of it. Essentially, this is where Crafting evolved into something much simpler, I think.)

Speaking of Alignment – it’s there, and once again they present the Evil Alignments while seriously discouraging folks from playing them. Darryl’s interpretation is that they are more RP-guiding than hard-wired spirituality, and that’s a fair view. I can accept that it’s never going to be D&D unless there are alignments…

Character rolled up, initial spells prepared and cantrips (constantly-available minor spells, which honestly rocks) chosen, I was ready to play tonight.

However, it’s damned late and I need sleep, so some actual play impressions will have to wait until tomorrow.

I will say, once again, that I had fun.

I am trying to figure out why I am so surprised to write those words.

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