TGN Feature – The 5E Diaries Part 1: The Quest Begins

By Enrico Nardini
In Dungeons & Dragons
Dec 4th, 2014
9 Comments
2932 Views

Dungeons & Dragons has returned with a 5th edition of the classic fantasy RPG. TGN’s Enrico Nardini shares his adventures and experiences in this newest rendition of the Forgotten Realms.

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Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D Next, 5E)  dropped a few weeks prior to Gen Con 2014. I can say in all honesty, despite my current employment, I just wasn’t that excited. That doesn’t mean 5E is not a great product, hasn’t generated buzz, or wasn’t worthy of my attention. When D&D Next was announced and public playtesting and feedback began, I was interested. It was a bold move (seemingly in the right direction) from an industry leader. But, as a year passed with nothing new on the shelves, and older editions got their premium rereleases, I simply moved on.

That’s the problem when you drop into an extended developmental period. Everyone else continuing to release product pulls ahead, and newcomers can get a head-start. There is no dearth of fantasy RPGs on the market, and there are only so many games that even I can play. New releases are dropping all the time.

Let’s Go on a Quest

Yet, this is still D&D we’re talking about – a new edition of D&D, the unseated king of the fantasy RPG market, the product of a more transparent design philosophy must be worthy of my critical eye. Months have passed, and there are six releases currently on the shelves. Instead of reviewing each book individually, I’ve formed a playtest group to tackle their first published adventure (excluding the beginner box), Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and I’ll be sharing my experiences with our readers.

My group meets on Sundays. Our first task was character creation; that was the focus of this first session.

Character Creation

What would a campaign be without characters? Well… It would be nonexistent.

We devoted our first session to sharing our concepts and creating characters using the new Player’s Handbook. 5E’s character creation strikes a nice balance between detail, speed, and functionality. The basics of almost every edition of D&D are still present: generate stats, pick race, pick class, pick spells (possibly), and buy equipment.

The Customizable GM Screen from PEGInc.

The Customizable GM Screen from PEGInc.

D&D 4th Edition excelled at party balance, something I cherish. There is nothing worse than being in an RPG with a broken character hogging every beam of spotlight. 5E is seen in many ways as a return to older forms, but I was happy to see the return of point buying stats (as per 3E onward) and pre-constructed arrays as options. When combined with the quick build’s equipment packages, character creation was a snap.

Choosing a race got a bit more interesting in this edition of the core book. There are a number of options, both common and exotic. Many races have subrace options (something generally found in splat books). You’re not just a dwarf; you’re a Hill Dwarf. This adds further customization in terms of a variety of ability score bumps, powers, and racism… err… I mean… character development.

Backgrounds galvanized my group’s interest. This is something new for 5E and very refreshing. Your background is what you were doing before or while being an adventurer. These aren’t necessarily jobs but life paths – though they often include a career of sorts. (Is being born a noble a career?) There are a number of them included in the Player’s Handbook, but I’m sure there will be more on the way. This kind of thing has supplement written all over it; The Player’s Guide to Backgrounds is no doubt on the way.

Backgrounds provide you with a number of in-game advantages. You get additional proficiencies, languages, and equipment based on your these origins. You also get a Feature (a special ability of sorts) and a personality trait, ideal, bond, and flaw. These are short, one sentence descriptions of aspects of your character’s personality.

Examples:

Acolyte Ideal – Charity. I always try to help those in need, no matter the personal cost. (Good)

Acolyte Flaw – I judge others harshly, and myself even more severely.

We decided to roll all of our background characteristics. This added some amusing randomness without unbalancing the game. It also gave us ample story threads to flesh out, resulting in some interesting ways to tie characters together.

Whenever you roleplay these characteristics, you gain inspiration. Inspiration grants you advantage on a roll (roll two dice and take the best number). It’s very similar to invoking aspects in FATE, and it makes roleplaying your character more meaningful by supporting it with game mechanics.

I often hear the previous edition criticized as being the one that “took out the roleplaying.” That has never sat well with me. To know what a game is about, look at the mechanics. What is D&D about? Essentially, it is a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff in the pursuit of becoming more efficient at killing monsters and taking their stuff. This myth that previous editions were about more than that boggles my mind. We, the gamers, wove our stories around those mechanics. We made it about roleplaying.

Civilians from Reaper Miniatures.

Civilians from Reaper Miniatures.

That’s not to disparage dungeon crawls. I adore dungeon crawling! One of my fondest gaming memories was a Warhammer Quest campaign from high school. We added tons of roleplaying, but it was certainly not supported by the mechanics of the game.

Backgrounds drive you (in theory at least) to use your character’s growing narrative in the game. They provide mechanical reinforcement that encourages roleplaying by rewarding the player with an in-game advantage. That is a big step in the right direction, if you intend for this to emphasize roleplaying and not just being a murder hobo. Hopefully this will be the edition that “puts the roleplaying in.”

Preparing for Adventure

A Dungeon Master’s work is never done. I spent part of the week reading through the first chapter of the adventure. It’s pretty basic. There’s a town under siege, and the party comes to its rescue. The text is well written, easy to understand, and beautifully illustrated but didn’t wow me with any cool plot twists and turns. There are many chapters left to go, so a more complicated story may be on the way.

I pulled all of the materials from my collection that I thought would still be helpful with the new edition. These included my GF9 D&D generic token set, my Paizo Initiative Tracker and Flip Mats, a set of wet-erase markers, and my PEGInc. Customizable GM Screen. (By the way, the Customizable GM Screen is a great purchase for any gamer. I highly recommend it.) After a quick Google search, I found an GM screen insert for 5E made by a Reddit user that had everything I needed. A beautiful picture of Tiamat from the Wizards of the Coast website was also added to set the proper mood.

Civilians from WotC, Lead Adventure, and Old Glory.

Civilians from WotC, Lead Adventure, and Old Glory.

I love gaming with miniatures. My collection of fantasy figures is vast and includes miniatures I have painted and a deep collection of pre-paints. The first chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen features a lot of civilians, so I spent some time beefing up my collection. This included some excellent figures from Lead Adventure that I had been meaning to give some brush love.

I gathered my books, accessories, and players. It was time to leave the safety of our mundane world. A world of fantasy adventure lay ahead! In the next installment, we’ll look at how the first session went and highlight some of the new mechanics.

Are you playing D&D 5E? Leave a comment about your experiences!

About "" Has 20 Posts

TGN's Ambassador of Awesome is here! Enrico Nardini is Tabletop Gaming News' Associate Editor, preaching the gospel of awesome to gamers everywhere.
  • [email protected]

    Superb column! You present a very thorough overview of some of 5E ‘s notable attributes.

    I also find our comments on 4E and detractors illuminating. As someone who both played and ran 4E, and ultimately found it wanting, I recognize your points. I happen to think that 5E’s mechanics better support the sort of D&D games I want to run and play in.

    As with all things, YMMV!

    –Scott

    • [email protected]

      “our” should be “your”. Sorry!

  • You lost me a little with your defense of how 4e did not remove roleplaying aspects.

    I had a group that played a 4e campaign- and we roleplayed a ton- our group often tried to have RP solutions to combat encounters, and we did that a lot. We actually parlayed our way past a bunch of kobolds and traded magic items with the dragon rather than battle our way through a dungeon once. It was awesome.

    The trouble was three-fold:

    – The non-combat skill system was so ‘streamlined’ that it basically didn’t include most of what we were doing with our lives. Which was a shame, since their skill challenge system was all about characters coming up with creative solutions. But if you’re leading a chorus in a drinking game, dancing, or reciting an epic, or painting a mural, all you have is the diplomacy skill.

    – Our group does not stop role-playing when combat starts. In 4e, we had a really hard time imagining what it was that all of our powers were doing, so we had a difficult time describing our actions to one another in terms other than “I use this power, and it works like it does on the card.”

    – On a similar note, the rules and physics of the world changed drastically once combat started and ended. This hurt the credibility of encounters a lot. Are you poisoned? Well, that can be really dangerous, unless combat is over (or it was a trap) because then, you can just shake it off.

    Sure, role players can make any system fun, but sometimes a system isn’t trying to help the role-players out any.

  • CaffeineBoy

    First things first, Enrico — this is a great start. I’ve been role playing for 35 years, starting with the venerable AD&D 1st edition books as they hit the shelves, and I’m enjoying your examination of 5e. So far you’ve touched on the salient points of the new edition’s character generation in an engaging and informative way… I’ll be watching this thread with interest!

    Your experiences with 5e so far, right down to initial disinterest turning to curiosity and pleasant surprise, mirror mine. I also enjoyed 4e’s excellent balance (and easy prep), so I came to this edition warily. We’re not intending to play through HotDQ, so that’ll be all new to me as well. I’ll be curious to read how combat goes for you, being a 4e ex-pat. I’ve found it a bit flat compared to the pushing/pulling/marking shenanigans of 4e, but since I’m also a fan of more abstract systems like FATE and Dungeon World, it’s just a case of having to shift mental gears.

    Here’s hoping the comments section doesn’t descend into a flaming hell of edition wars and we can stay focused on your goal. I’m looking forward to it!

    All the best!
    Doug.

  • tuco

    I started playing D&D right about the time the 80’s became the 90’s. Later I played in 3rd. I played in 3.5. When 4th came out, I was disappointed. I felt all the powers and their requisite record keeping got in the way of the roleplaying. It was also frustrating to have to wait literally years to play some of the races and classes I prefer. So instead I spent the life of 4th playing Pathfinder and FFG’s 40k games, as well as a relatively short-lived campaign in Mongoose’s Conan d20 game, and most recently having a ton of fun in FFG’s Star Wars system.

    I followed the D&D Next playtest. More out of curiosity than anything; I wasn’t playing in or running a game. I also wasn’t interested in starting up a game where the rules were apt to change in some way every couple of months.

    A couple of weeks ago a some of the guys I started playing with nearly 25 years ago decided to give 5e a try. We were pleasantly surprised to say the least. So much so, in fact, that I’m starting up what I’m hoping to be a long-term campaign in the next week.

    5e feels more like a continuation of the D&D I started with way back in 2nd Ed. with the concepts and ideas from 3/3.5 and 4th that worked added in.

    What’s most encouraging to me with this edition is based on a Reddit Q&A that Mike Mearls did several weeks ago. I’d include the link, but I can’t find it right off hand. Based on that Q&A, it sounds like the goal is to keep this edition running healthily for the next 10 to 15 years. Mearls stated that the intent is to release only a few books per year to achieve two goals. One is to keep a handle on supplement bloat. The other is to keep the same development team on all the books.

    I see a lot of potential with this system. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic makes sense to me as a wargamer and works within the game even better than I had anticipated. The scaling of spells based on the level of the spell slot seems so far to work very well.

    My only complaint so far is WotC’s insistence on making Forgotten Realms the first campaign world out of the gate in every edition. That’s a small complaint, really. It’s popular with a lot of players, so most people will see this as a good thing. Personally I find the Realms to feel like some sort of cursed bag of holding where the more you put in it, the emptier it feels.

    I see a lot of potential for customizing the classes and races to different campaign worlds. The Warlock is a great example, in that different worlds will have different patron choices specific to those worlds.

    TL;DR, I’m really pleased with this edition, it’s brought me back to D&D and I’m excited to see where they take it.

    • Wasn’t Greyhawk a different setting from Forgotten Realms?

      • tuco

        Yeah. It was more or less the original D&D default setting. And the PHB is written to accommodate both GH and FR.

  • Enrico Nardini

    Thank you all for the great comments!

    As gamers, D&D is a common reference point for many of us. Reading about other experiences with the current and previous editions is interesting.

    I have some thoughts on what has been brought up here, and I will try to get back with them soon!