I’ll admit it, I was quite reluctant to give D&D fifth edition a try. I got burned when 3.5 came out, because I’d just bought the 3.0 books a short time before. 3.5 came out way too soon on the heels of 3.0. To me it seemed to either be a money grab on the part of Wizards of the Coast, or an indication they’d put out 3.0 before they’d sufficiently play tested it. Basically, 3.0 was a playtest, one that we all paid top dollar to participate in. However, I finally decided the changes were worth it and did make the game significantly better, so I bought in.
I got quite a few years of play out of D&D 3.x, but then, due to numerous moves around the country, I stopped roleplaying for a few years. When I decided to come back to the hobby, I learned there was a new edition of D&D—fourth edition. I was skeptical to say the least, but as it had been years since I’d last played D&D, I decided to check out 4th. I watched some actual plays on YouTube and read through the PHB, and I came to the realization/opinion that D&D 4th edition was not an improvement at all. In fact it was quite the opposite—the worst version of D&D I’d ever seen. It was a dumbed-down D&D that seemed more like a tabletop RPG version of an MMO than the Dungeons & Dragons I’d loved for years.
It was then that I found Pathfinder, and I had some fun with it for a while. To me it seemed like D&D 3.75. Just as 3.5 made some much-needed improvements to third edition, Pathfinder made many improvements to 3.5. However, after a short time of running and playing Pathfinder, I came to realize I didn’t like what it was doing to my roleplaying experience. I didn’t enjoy Pathfinder as I’d enjoyed all the other RPGs I’d played. It was then that I got into Numenera, and I haven’t since had any desire to play or run Pathfinder.
When I first heard about D&D 5th edition (or D&D Next as it was called then), I just rolled my eyes. I saw it as just another example of WotC’s ability to sell the same books to their customers over and over again. When the free PDFs of the basic rules came out, I gave them a quick glance, and it seemed a lot like third edition to me. So I didn’t give it any more thought.
However, I kept hearing about D&D 5e, and despite my prejudices and preconceptions, I couldn’t ignore how most people seem to think it’s the best version of D&D ever made. I’ve heard many people describe it as a blend between 2nd edition and 3.x, with a few good ideas from 4th edition thrown in (yes, there were a few). I finally decided to get over it, and see what all the fuss was about. I broke out the free PDFs again, and this time I read them in their entirety. The more I read, the more I liked what I was reading, and the more excited I got. I hadn’t even finished all the PDFs when I decided to get the Players Handbook.
I’ve just started running D&D 5e, and I’m sold on it. I definitely like it better than 2nd edition, 3.x or Pathfinder. It gives me the classic “D&D experience” I remember from my earliest days of roleplaying without any of the headaches that came along with D&D back then.
There are a lot of reasons I love 5th edition and think it’s the best version of D&D ever made. Here are my top five.
No grid or miniatures required!
Before D&D 3.x I never used a grid or miniatures when I ran or played D&D, or any roleplaying game for that matter. I was aware that some people did, but I never felt the need.
When 3.0 and then 3.5 came out, I started using a grid and minis for the first time. For the most part I enjoyed it. Now I think that a lot of my enjoyment was due to the “newness factor,” and also because I used minis and the grid sparingly, only for the largest and most complicated encounters.
When I got into Pathfinder, a grid was pretty much required. I found myself spending more time in adventure prep drawing out scenes on my wet-erase battle mat than planning the adventure or developing NPCs. I played with and ran for numerous groups with a variety of people, and in every group the gameplay quickly became something more resembling a tactical wargame than a roleplaying game (I would say devolved). Even with the best groups, RP pretty much ended as soon as initiative was rolled. Instead of roleplaying we discussed five-foot steps, attacks of opportunity, movements and positioning, and looked up rules.
One of the selling points of Numenera when I got into it was the lack of a need for a grid or miniatures, and after some time with that game, I resolved to never again play an RPG that required a grid. If I ever feel a need to play with minis on a grid, I’ll play Star Wars X-Wing.
D&D 5e can be played without a grid. In fact, using a grid and miniatures is presented as an optional rule in the game. Though the game does still use distances measured in feet, this can easily be replaced with something like Numenera’s immediate, short, long distance system. Honestly, anything beyond that is kind of false precision anyway (unless you’re using a grid).
This change in D&D has been interesting. Going from no-grid-play to grid-play and back again. Now people call no-grid-play Theater of the Mind, which I find amusing. Back in the day we never called it that. There was no need to call it anything. It was just how you played the game. I recently was recruiting players for a 5e campaign, and someone asked me how I could run a game without a grid. I feel our hobby is in a sad state of affairs when someone asks a question like that, so I’m glad 5e doesn’t require a grid—not just for my own enjoyment of the game, but so new people to the hobby can see that all you really need is your imagination.
It wasn’t until I saw the backgrounds and associated mechanics in 5e that I realized that D&D had never before had any roleplaying mechanics (other than an optional rule that the DM could give a middling amount of xp for good roleplay). Granted, we always roleplayed our hearts out without any roleplay mechanics, but having RP mechanics in the game sends a good message, especially to new players and DMs.
Not only do I like the background and other mechanics because they’re there, but they're also really good at fleshing out your character. A common problem with D&D in the past was that you often didn’t know your character when you started playing. It would take a few sessions (or even a few levels) to really develop the character into something more than numbers on a piece of paper.
5e has an ingenious system where you choose a background for your character. This can be anything from criminal to noble. Not only does the background explain what your character has done in life before becoming an adventurer and provide some interesting and relevant starting equipment, but it also gives you lots of roleplaying hooks.
Your background provides a list of possible personality traits. You can choose two, roll for them randomly, or use them as inspiration for choosing your own traits. These are just quirks of your personality. So a criminal might choose, “I blow up at the slightest insult,” while a noble might choose, “My favor, once lost, is lost forever.”
You also choose an ideal, bond and flaw in the same way. Your ideal is something you believe in or something you strive for. Your idea can be tied to an aspect of your alignment (e.g. law or good), or it may not, but it’s always tied to your background. A criminal might have the ideal of, “Honor. I don’t steal from others in the trade,” while a noble might have the ideal of, “I must prove that I can handle myself without the coddling of my family.”
Your bond is a goal that your character has. The criminal might have the bond, “I’m trying to pay off an old debt I owe to a generous benefactor,” while the noble might have the bond, “I will face any challenge to win the approval of my family.”
Your flaw is just that, a flaw that holds your character back or can make life interesting. An example flaw for a criminal is, “If there’s a plan, I’ll forget it; if I don’t forget it, I’ll ignore it,” (I’ve known a lot of PCs with that flaw, come to think of it). An example flaw for the noble is, “I secretly believe that everyone is beneath me.”
From the very beginning you know a lot about your character in 5e. Not just how good he is in combat or what spells he can cast, but what he’s like, what his goals are, and what holds him back. There’s a lot of room for customization here, and if you’re ever stuck on an aspect of your character’s personality, you can always roll on the relevant table, or peruse the choices and look for one to jump out at you. Even if none of them quite fit, it’s very likely that one will give you an idea of your own.
Not only does the background system help you flesh out your character, it also gives the DM some clear guidelines of how and when to reward you for roleplaying. Not only can you earn xp for playing these aspects, but you can also gain Inspiration, which allows you to gain Advantage on one roll of your choice.
Advantage and Disadvantage
One of the annoying things about running 3.x or Pathfinder was all of the modifiers. There were +2s and -2s all over the place, from things like flanking, higher ground, limited visibility, or because the DM felt like being a dick, just to name a few. It was tedious and time-consuming. Players often had to recount their bonuses every turn (you’d hate to miss a bonus from a conditional modifier or a buff!). This slowed down play and was not fun.
Fifth edition has done away with a lot of this with an elegant system of Advantage and Disadvantage. Many of the things that would have given you a bonus in an early edition now give you Advantage. Many of the things that would have given you a penalty now give you Disadvantage. Advantage simply means you roll two d20s instead of one, and you take the higher roll. Disadvantage means you roll two d20s and take the lower roll. Elegant, simple, fun, easy peasy. Getting to roll two dice is a lot more fun than adding and subtracting a bunch of ones and twos!
The system is so easy to use it really speeds up play. Multiple Advantages or Disadvantage don’t stack. You either have Advantage or Disadvantage, or you don’t. If you have Advantage and Disadvantage on a roll, they cancel out and you make a normal roll (it doesn’t matter how many sources of Advantage or Disadvantage you have). Not only is the system easy and fast, but it’s effective too. Having Advantage and Disadvantage matters in powerful way that is far more visible than a +2 bonus ever was.
The Magic System
I have never been a fan of D&D’s magic system (what many people inaccurately call “Vancian magic”). I never thought the idea of a wizard forgetting spells every day, no matter how many times he’d cast them, made any kind of conceptual sense.
D&D 5e has made some small changes to the magic system that not only help it make more sense conceptually, but also leads to interesting and fun strategy and gameplay, while giving casters more options than they had before.
If you look at a spell caster’s class table, it will look very similar to previous editions. However, instead of having a given number of spells per day for each spell level, casters have known spells, prepared spells and spell slots.
Cantrips (0 level spells) work as they do in Pathfinder, which is to say the caster knows a given number of cantrips that she can cast an unlimited number of times per day.
A wizard’s known spells are all the spells in her spellbook, while a cleric’s known spells are all the cleric spells of a level the cleric can cast (just like previous editions). Other than this difference, wizards and clerics work identically when it comes to spellcasting. A wizard can prepare a number of spells equal to her wizard level plus her intelligence modifier. These spells can be any spells the character knows and can cast in any combination. When the wizard casts a spell, she uses a spell slot. So a wizard casting Magic Missile would use a first level spell slot. Many spells that used to scale based on the caster level (e.g. Magic Missile) now scale based on the level of spell slot that is used to cast the spell. Spells also tend to be more effective at low level. For example, cast at first level, Magic Missile produces three missiles, and produces one additional missile for each level above 1st that it’s cast at (so 4 missiles as a 2nd level spell, 5 missiles as a 3rd level spell, and so on). Wizards also have the ability to regain a few of their depleted spell slots when they rest for an hour.
I really like this system. No longer are you limited by a specific list of spells. You have access to all your prepared spells, and you can cast them in various spell slots. So if you only need three Magic Missiles to take out a foe, you can use a 1st level spell slot. If you need more fire power, you can use one of your higher spell slots.
There are also spells that can be cast as rituals (like Detect Magic). This means you can cast the spell without using a spell slot. This is great for utility spells. You no longer have to take up a spell slot with an Identify spell that you never end up using.
Limits on Ridiculousness
Another thing I love about fifth edition is that it sets caps on things like ability scores, magic items and spell buffs.
You can’t raise an ability score higher than 20. You can't have an ability skill higher than 15 at character creation unless you roll it (i.e. the point-buy and standard array options don’t allow scores higher than 15). Part of what makes 5e great is that the power curve has been toned down. This will, along with other mechanics, speed up play at higher levels as compared to 3.x or Pathfinder. Having a hard limit on ability scores at character creation and overall makes it much easier for a GM to balance encounters and use published adventures. When I ran a Pathfinder adventure, I always had to do calculations at the beginning to see where my PCs stacked up ability score-wise compared with “standard” PCs. I would often have to adjust the encounters in the adventure accordingly. With 5e, if you follow the rules, you’ll never have that problem, and the spread is smaller and limited (there is no ability score limit in 3.x or Pathfinder).
You’re also limited in how you can stack magic items and how many you can have. This is done with the attunement system. Powerful magic items require you to attune to them in order to use them (or to gain access to their most powerful abilities). You can only be attuned to three magic items at a time. This again limits power creep and limits the possible disparity among PCs and between the PCs and the challenges they face. It also simplifies the magic item identification process because anyone can attune to an item, and by attuning to it, you learn what it does and how to use it. Spells like Identify are now used to learn about the item more quickly (attunement takes an hour). No longer do you need to worry about filling every “item slot” with magic items like you’re playing an MMO. Instead you can focus on a few powerful items that are unique and meaningful to your character.
Ridiculousness is also curbed when it comes to stacking spell buffs. Many common buff spells, like Bless, now require concentration to keep up, and a caster can only concentrate on one spell at a time. There are buffs like Mage Armor that don’t require concentration, but the number of buffs a given character or party can have active is now limited by the concentration mechanic. This eliminates the requisite time spend stacking buffs before a combat in 3.x or Pathfinder, and it also makes each buff more meaningful. PCs now have to make decisions about which buff each caster will maintain and on whom, instead of just casting everything they have on everyone. This also reduces the divergence of capability of different parties based on party makeup.
So there you have it—five reasons why I love fifth edition D&D and prefer it to earlier versions or Pathfinder. I have many more reasons, so if you enjoyed this article, let me know, and maybe I’ll do a sequel in the future.
Five More Things I Love About D&D 5e
You can also hear my first impressions of D&D 5e on this episode of my podcast, Game Master's Journey.