A Decade of D&D 5E: It’s Review Time!

The increasingly confusingly-numbered Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons first saw the light of day as D&DNext back in May of 2012. We are just over a decade out from that, so I think I’ve had a bit of time to congeal my thoughts on it, especially considering that at this point, it’s the edition I’ve probably logged the most hours in. For whatever reason, I’ve played a lot of D&D over the last two years. For some reason. Who knows why. Mystery.

Oh Well Now EVERYONE’S Playing D&D

Let me be perfectly clear: gatekeeping sucks. D&D isn’t just for nerds. Of my core group of D&D friends from high school, I was the only one not on the football team. The guy who first introduced me to D&D played college football. He also introduced me to hockey (in video game form, then in real life) and took me to my first NFL game because he had season tickets. My point here is that, despite the stereotype, D&D isn’t just for basement-dwelling nerds, and we should welcome anyone who wants to play.

It’s with that in mind that I absolutely love how 5E has expanded the player base. it’s a game for everyone. It’s a cultural phenomenon now which helped birth and has benefitted from things like Stranger Things. In my current game groups I have some veteran gamers, but I also have 20-somethings who have played nothing but 5E, as well as 40-somethings who have played nothing but 5E.

What It’s Good At

Probably the single best thing that D&D does is to make the game easy and accessible to the influx of people completely new to tabletop RPGs, without completely compromising the core of the game. I’m calling this a strength, but it does something I don’t particularly like. 5E perfectly excels at one-shot or very short adventures, with characters built on the fly for whatever game is on tap for the evening. 1st Level is typically not a thing people encounter, even starting out, because most characters are pretty useless until they hit third level.

The entire design of 5E seems to be as a replacement for board games. “What are we playing tonight?” “Well, we have Catan, we have Arkham Horror, and we have D&D.” Crypts of Kelemvor, for instance, can be played in about three hours, start to finish. Four hours if you have new players. Basically an evening. Everything goes back into the box (or bookshelf, as it were), and you’re done. And that’s great!

Another good thing 5E does is just being very clean with the rules. The Magic: the Gathering influence is all over it with keywording. Keywords are great, because once you define what they mean, they can be used in a lot of different contexts to erase ambiguity. It makes the ruleset easy to learn, which makes it accessible to casual players.

What It’s Not Good At

That whole “sit five people down and have a game, start to finish” thing is pretty cool, but the rules allow it because they have oversimplified things to the point that it doesn’t handle much outside of that paradigm. Now, I am fully aware that is what WotC was going for here – casual players are a gold mine. The problem is that 5E is just not good for running long campaigns. I know, I’ve done it! I’ve had a lot of fun doing it! But when it comes to advancement over a long period, 5E is really not great.

To start, there’s the lower levels. Almost every game I’ve played has started the characters at 3rd or 4th level, because 1st and 2nd level are just awful. Some classes aren’t even defined until 3rd level. Sure, even in 1st Edition, wizards were effectively useless at 1st level (and it was literally possible for them to die in character creation), but in 5E, nearly every class is a single encounter away from needing a long rest.

Skipping a few levels to get into things is not a huge issue, but it sets up a bigger problem: dead levels. In 3.5, leveling up could be a chore. You had choices to make, and a lot of them. Leveling up a Rogue from 5th to 6th level in 3.5 could literally take an hour, between deciding which of your 30+ skills to improve and what other choices to make for your character. 5E swung that pendulum back hard. Going from 5th to 6th is: Choose two skills (out of 13) to get Expertise in. Add your new hit points in. OK, you’re done! If you’re using a VTT, it is literally less than 30 seconds. To make matters worse, Rogues have the least dead levels – 6th level isn’t “dead,” because you’re getting Expertise.

Riding The Rails

That lack of tangible advancement can make a long-running campaign feel boring and stagnant. Improvements don’t tend to come from experience, but from finding items that boost characters. There is very little way of personalizing a character via game mechanics.

More to the point, everything feels like it’s on rails. Subclasses are integral to characters (you can’t not have one), there aren’t many, and they’re fixed, meaning once you’ve chosen, that’s it. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything gives you a means to change, but it’s a wholesale change that, in many cases, feels just wrong, like changing your Sorcerer subclass – it’s an inherent part of the character’s origin, how do you erase that like it never happened?

If you take a pre-made 5E character and give it to two separate people to play in different games from levels 3-20, there’s a good chance that the stat lines are going to look pretty identical at the end. Sure, multiclassing is an option, but some classes you wouldn’t want to. This is mainly due to the hard-and-fast 20th level cap. Multiclassing eliminates your ability to reach higher levels.

For instance, I’m currently playing a 9th level Druid/5th level Ranger. I multiclassed into Ranger to get better at fighting, and needed to take it to level 5 to get what I wanted. That means I top out at 15th level Druid, eliminating the possibility of reaching any of the abilities higher than that.

By comparison, 3.5 heavily encouraged multiclassing, with a host of prestige classes and no level cap forcing you into hard choices. If you view the rail-driven nature and 20-level cap through the lens of “sit down, play!” it makes perfect sense. It’s easy. It doesn’t require thought when leveling up because that would get in the way of game time. For long-running campaigns, though, those choices and that time spent are important.

Mechanic I Really Don’t Like

The thing I keep coming back to is simplicity, which isn’t always a bad thing, but when it comes to action economy, I am not a fan. There are so many things one can do in a turn, and all of them take exactly one action… meaning only one of them can be done. Especially at lower levels, where you have a single attack, turns in battle tend to be “I hit the thing. Ooops, I missed. Well, that’s me.” In larger parties or fighting multiple enemies, this can get boring, reductive, and disengaging.

The vast majority of spells have a casting time of one full action, thus negating any possibility of casting a spell to set up an attack or other action-like things. Additionally, the range of Druid spells of any utility are radically skewed toward spells that require concentration. Many of them require you to spend your action to use the spell while maintaining it, which gets even more boring. “Guess I’ll toss a lighting bolt at this goblin. Well, that’s me.” The bulk of the mechanics are geared toward combat, and let me tell you, combat is boooooooring.

An easy fix for that would be to make movement an action and give characters two actions on their turn. “But that would mean my 5th-level fighter could attack four times if they were locked in combat!” Yes, that is true. But tell me this isn’t cool. Let me do more on a turn than just roll a die and roll my eyes!

Mechanic I Love

My initial impression of spellcasting was “FOUR SPELLS PER LEVEL MAX?! NONSENSE!” In 3.5, you could get bonus spells for high casting attributes and be slinging 1st-level spells all over the place. But the restriction works very well when coupled with all the other spellcasting mechanics. Cantrips are cast-at-will, which is awesome. Yes, they are limited, but pick the right ones and you’ve got a reliable standby, even when you’re out of spell slots (i.e., you chose Warlock).

The ability to cast spells with higher-level slots is great as well. The Warlock class basically runs off of this, but it’s great for everything. Blew all your 1st level slots keeping your party standing with Healing Word? Cool, start tossing it at 2nd level. Now it heals more! Prior to 5E, your spells scaled with level and capped out after a bit. For instance, a fireball in 2nd edition was 1d6 per Wizard level, up to 10. Now it’s a flat 8d6, which you get at 5th level. Sure, after 8th level, it’s not as powerful… unless you upcast it.

An 11th level wizard in 5E could toss an 11d6 fireball, if they really wanted to blow that 6th-level slot. The mechanic has way more utility than that though. My Druid hasn’t used her top slot for anything other than upcasting lower-level spells to great effect.

Final Thoughts

5E is, mechanically, a really solid and well-designed game. The core motivation for its design doesn’t really work for what I want to use it for most of the time, but for one-shots or short games? Absolutely brilliant. Character creation, even with pen and paper, is rather simple, even at levels above 1. It’s fairly-well balanced, and most classes play well enough to be useful more than not. On the whole, I’d say it’s my second favorite edition to date, behind 3.5.

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