Last week I wrote about five of the things I love most about Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition. The article was very well received, so here are five more things I love about the newest iteration of the game.
Feats Downplayed & Upgraded
One of the issues I started having with D&D 3.x and Pathfinder was what is commonly called feat-bloat. At first, with D&D 3.0, I thought feats were an awesome innovation. Here was a way you could customize your character like you never could before. The closest thing I’d seen to feats in D&D before 3.0 was kits in second edition.
I liked that feats gave ways to customize your character, so every human fighter wasn’t exactly the same. I liked that there were so many options, and that many of them were class independent. However, as the game got longer in the tooth and changed to 3.5, the preponderance of “splat books” led to things getting a bit out of hand.
The situation was exacerbated even further in Pathfinder. The problem was that there were so many feats that character creation could often be a long and arduous process, especially to the new player. The fact that so many of the “good” feats were part of involved feat trees often meant that feats ended up feeling more limiting than liberating. If you wanted to get a certain feat, you often had to get a plethora of prerequisite feats over many levels of advancement.
When combined with prestige classes, feats added a level of min-maxing to D&D that I have never seen before. People began discussing “builds” on forums, and one could quickly be labeled a noob in D&D 3.x or Pathfinder if one actually played a character built on a concept and roleplaying as opposed to a character that was “fully optimized,” i.e. min-maxed. D&D and Pathfinder began to feel more like an MMO-RPG than a tabletop RPG (and let’s face it, the letters RPG are often left off of the term MMO by many players for a few good reasons).
The other side of this problem was that feats individually often weren’t that great, or if a feat was great, there was an involved list of prerequisites to get it. The system encouraged the player to find combinations of feats and prestige class abilities that were powerful.
D&D fifth edition has solved these problems in two ways. The first way is that feats are more scarce. Characters don’t get feats as often, they don’t get as many, and there are fewer feats to choose from (comparing the 5e PHB with the 3.5 PHB). In fact, only humans are able to get a feat at first level, and then only if the DM uses a variant rule (allowing DMs to keep feats out of the game entirely at the beginning by default). Also, in order to gain a feat, a PC must give up getting stat increases. It’s an either/or kind of thing. Deciding whether to take a cool feat or increase a couple ability scores requires some careful weighing; there’s not a clear-cut best answer.
The second way that fifth edition has solved the problems with feats is that individual feats are more powerful and meaningful. Also, the most common and sought-after feats of 3.x are now often given to all PCs or are class abilities (e.g. spring attack is something all characters can now do). Taking a feat is now more meaningful because it makes some visible changes to your character, however it’s not over-powered because you’re giving up stat increases to get the feat.
Feats are also nice in 5e because they allow you to gain the flavor of another class without having to multiclass. For instance, if you just want a little magical ability, you can get it with a feat instead of multiclassing into a spellcasting class or taking a spellcasting archetype.
One of the worst things about 3.x and Pathfinder in my mind is the skill system. If you’re going to lose a new player’s interest during character creation, it will probably happen when you get to skills. Not only are there a shit-ton of skills to choose from, but the system itself is needlessly complex—totaling bonuses from ability scores, skill ranks, miscellaneous bonuses from feats or abilities, situational bonuses, etc. There is way too much math in 3.x and Pathfinder, and it’s not even math you can be proud of doing—as in, “Look at me, I’m awesome; I just did this very difficult equation.” There are no bragging rights to adding and subtracting a bunch of 1s and 2s. It’s not difficult; it’s just tedious.
Fifth edition has solved this problem by reducing the number of skills and simplifying the bonus. Yes, you still add a bonus from your ability score (Strength, Dexterity, etc.), however your skill proficiency bonus is the same for all skills you’re proficient in, and it’s a function of your level, so it’s the same for all players at the table. For instance, at first level the skill proficiency bonus is +2, so with any skill you’re proficient in, you get a +2. There are no longer ranks to worry about. The lower number of total skills makes selecting them much easier. Often most if not all of your skill proficiencies come from your class and background, so you will often only have to choose one or two. This makes character creation faster, makes game play faster, and makes it easier for new players to grok. These are all good things.
There are also no longer situational modifiers to rolls. This is instead handled by the Advantage/Disadvantage system that I discussed in my article last week.
There is a bit of weirdness when you learn a new skill proficiency at 19th level, and you suddenly go from no proficiency bonus to a +6, but hey, you’re 19th level. You’re awesome, and the benefits of the system far outweigh this one minor negative.
I also really like how the tool and weapon proficiencies tie into this same system. You no longer have an attack bonus based on your class and level, rather you get your proficiency bonus when using a weapon you’re proficient with. This is great because your “attack bonus” is still scaling with your level, but it’s all tied in with the proficiency system, so you only have one bonus to rule them all. Brilliant! This also works with tools, like thieves tools. When using a tool you’re proficient in, you get your proficiency bonus.
I also really like that you can spend time and gold to learn new tool proficiencies and languages. So if my dwarf fighter wants to take the time to become proficient with brewer’s tools so he can make a kick-ass dwarven stout, he can!
Number of Attacks More Controlled
Another issue with 3.x and Pathfinder, especially at mid to high levels, is the number of attacks PCs get. If you have a PC who specializes in two weapon fighting, it gets even more ridiculous. This really drags down combat in mid to high level play, and is probably one of the biggest reasons you can spend a whole evening in one combat with these games. This gets tedious and old for the DM and players.
In fifth edition, not everyone gets additional attacks, and those that do get fewer than in 3.x or Pathfinder. You also get fewer additional attacks when using a second weapon. There is still a tactical edge to getting additional attacks or fighting with two weapons, but it doesn’t slow down play so much that it ruins the fight for everyone involved. I haven’t gotten to high level play yet, but it looks like it will be much faster and more streamlined.
Players Actually Want to Play Humans
One improvement that 3.x and Pathfinder made over previous editions is they gave incentive for players to play humans. In AD&D games I ran and played in, it was truly rare for someone to play a human, despite the fact that supposedly most people in the campaign worlds were human. There are quite a few reasons for this, but I think we can see from the number of players playing human characters in 3.x and 5e that a big reason was that the non-human races got cool bonuses that the humans didn’t.
In fifth edition humans get a +1 to every stat at first level, while the non-human races often get a +2 to one stat and a +1 to another one or two stats. If the DM uses the variant rule for humans, they can instead choose to get a +1 to two stats and choose a feat at first level. Humans are the only characters that can get a feat at first level.
I think this is very well done without being unbalanced. I see a lot more players playing humans than I have in the past, but they’re not all playing humans. The races in a party seem better balanced in this edition of the game than in any of the previous ones.
Playing a Single Class is More Attractive
Another thing that I really didn’t care for in 3.x and Pathfinder was how few players played a single class. The min-maxers loved finding the most optimal combinations of classes, prestige classes, and feats. Pathfinder improved on 3.x a little bit by giving more incentive to stick with one class and limiting the number of prestige classes a bit compared to 3.x. However, I think fifth edition really does a great job of giving you good reasons to stick with a single class. You can come up with some cool characters by multi-classing, but in fifth edition I think most players who multiclass will do so because of a specific concept, as opposed to doing it for purely mechanical reasons. From a mechanical standpoint, it can be more optimal to stick with a single class.
This is really great for new players, who can pick a class they like and stick with it, without feeling inferior to the PCs who agonize over multiple classes and prestige classes.
This again comes back to the Backgrounds and Archetypes. You no longer have to multiclass or take a prestige class to have a unique character. Even if you have two human fighters in the party, if they choose different backgrounds and archetypes, they will be two very different characters both in flavor and mechanics.
There is a thread of commonality running through all of the things I love about Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition. The system is streamlined and elegant, getting rid of a lot of the clunkiness of previous editions, while still retaining depth and complexity, so you can enjoy it not only as a roleplaying experience, but as a game as well. The game is very well balanced. It’s not only well balanced as far as mechanics and power levels, but it also finds an excellent balance between crunch and speed and ease of play.
Fifth edition is a much faster running game than 3.x or Pathfinder, and it’s more internally consistent that AD&D 1st or 2nd edition. It truly takes the best that each edition has to offer and combines them in a way that works. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is full of optional rules from across the editions, so it’s easy to make your fifth edition D&D experience exactly what you want it to be.
Finally, because of its relative simplicity and ease of play, D&D 5e is a much better point of entry for a new roleplayer than 3.x or Pathfinder. I’ve seen more than one new player lose interest during character creation in 3.x and Pathfinder, or lose interest during a battle. 5e is a streamlined and logical system that new players will pick up with ease.
The future vitality of our hobby depends upon new players constantly joining our ranks. I know many of us believe a strong Dungeons & Dragons is important to the growth and health of the hobby, as it’s the most common point of entry. Everyone knows what D&D is, even if they know nothing about RPGs. Our hobby is in very good hands with fifth edition. If you know of potential new players who are curious about the hobby and willing to give D&D a try, I highly recommend you introduce them to tabletop RPGs with fifth edition.