A Review of the 5th Edition D&D Player’s Handbook

I’ve had the PHB since the 19th, but I didn’t want to churn out a review as soon as a I got my grubby paws on it. I kind of wanted to play around with it, let it simmer a bit. Flip through it at my leisure, what have you.

What actually happened is that I’ve managed to read it front to back three times now. Let’s just say I’m a bit obsessed with RPGs anyway, so a new edition of my favorite game is hard to resist consuming (multiple times).

Anyway, here are some of my principal impressions. I’m going to try to keep it simple, though this post will end up long. The main question I’ll be leading with is: Is this a book that compels me to play the new edition, and lends itself to table use?

My review will be separated into First Impressions, which will mainly concern the book, art, and layout, and then Digging Into It, in which I will speak about the crunch and fluff and the use of the book in play. Then of course I will wrap up with some closing thoughts.

 

PHB5e

A Review of the 5th Edition D&D Player’s Handbook

 


 

First Impressions

Art and Aesthetics

I received my book by mail, nervous that the shipping would damage it to some degree. Fortunately it came in fine, the cover without a scratch, and what a pretty book it is. The wrap around art of the cover is one of my favorite pieces of art this edition, and not just because the art depicts a woman character as the center point (opposite one pretty bad ass King Snurre of the fire giants). The inclusiveness of this edition has been a hot topic since it’s release, and it’s no small thing that the very first image a player or a DM will see on this book is that character. At least, that seems to be a big deal to me.

Art is, in fact, the very first thing that will sink its hooks into you while reading this book. It’s chock full of it; full colored illustrations are on nearly every page, supplemented with adorable pencil sketches here and there (see Appendix A: Conditions on page 290). Most of it is very good, with a variety of styles as well as representations; you’ll see people of all sorts of races (in the fantasy sense) as well as ethnicity, gender, age, and outfit styles. Again, this is an obvious push for inclusiveness that I applaud. Many people come into this game young, and a young person flipping through this book will find plenty of representation through the art itself.

There are some pieces I dislike, mostly the halfling art. I just dislike the proportions on them, but this is a criticism you can see throughout the community. It’s obvious that they’re trying to get away from the Halfling as Hobbit stereotype, but I would have preferred a bit of familiarity instead of different for different’s sake. (There is one piece of halfling art I enjoy immensely: on page 26 there’s a halfling simply rocking out on a lute. The facial expression is hilarious. Actually, I’ll just go ahead and post it.)

 

Stone_DnD5e_F Halfling Bard
So metal.

 

Other pieces I am happy with are things such as the items page, the images of objects in this book are evocative and spur creativity on my part. There is also an older woman with blonde hair wearing plate mail that appears a few times. I imagine her as a paladin, though she might be a fighter. She just looks awesome. I imagine her to be the captain of the party, issuing orders with a Janeway-esque coolness. It’s also nice to see PCs who aren’t all young whippersnappers; this woman has obviously been at this awhile. A strong veteran of many campaigns.

I like that the Races and Classes sections include pictures of paraphernalia to give a sense of theme and atmosphere for the race or class in question. An example is a pumpkin, a flute, and some pastries in the Halfling section, as well as a bone necklace and a small stone fetish of a fish in the Half-Orc section. Again it seems like their goal is to be evocative, and I think this is a good way to do so.

In general the art budget was obviously big, making this a great product for just collectors. I can’t find much to complain about in this aspect of the book, so let’s continue on to layout!

Layout and Formatting

The layout is interesting. It’s separated into three parts with multiple chapters in each. These sections are Characters, Rules, and Magic. The information seems at first glance to be presented in an intuitive manner, and there is a robust index and table of contents.

I was happy to see appendices. I love appendices. I fell for them early on as a book lover when I read The Lord of the Rings. Discovering appendices in the back that went into the flavor of the world was a great little thing to find after experiencing the epic, so I support their use at any time. Of course, the original AD&D books used them to varying effect as well, so it was nice to see them as a sort of throwback.

There’s really not much more to be said about the layout at first blush. Seems like a good structure for an RPG book, and not too off the beaten path of their earlier products. Going with three sections instead of just a bunch of chapters makes it easier to find the general section you want flipping through it. Nothing groundbreaking, however. So let’s get digging to find the treasure.

 


 

Digging Into It

The opening of the book includes the usual What Is Roleplaying section. It’s nice and brief, laying it out simply. It opens with a nod to Castle Ravenloft, which was cool to see. This is actual the first instance of a theme that runs throughout this book that the last two editions lacked actually, and that is an embracing and awareness of the game’s past. There are plenty of easter eggs that simply seem to say, we know where we’ve come from, and we’re building on a venerable foundation with this game.

There is also a quick primer on how rolls work in the game, speaking on the use of ability scores and how they interact with attacks, skill rolls, and saving throws. It also introduces my favorite mechanic of the game: advantage and disadvantage. If you don’t know, this mechanic replaces a lot of the additive bonuses you’d get in the two editions prior from a variety of sources. Now if you get help with your roll, you’ll almost always get it in the form of advantage. This simply means rolling two dice and taking the highest one (disadvantage being the obvious opposite of this). The amount of weight put onto this simple mechanic is boggling, but it works. It keeps the game moving without having to do a bunch of adding at the table. It’s just a really neat little thing that you’ll definitely appreciate when you get to play the game.

The last two sections of the opening talk about the Three Pillars of Roleplay (which it purports to be Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat), and The Wonders of Magic (which talks about the importance of magic in Dungeons and Dragons). The first of these sections is a nice layout for new players of what the game is generally about, and I was happy to see that Exploration and Social Interaction were mentioned before Combat, which took the spotlight in the edition before (an edition I did like, by the way).

Part 1: Creating a Character

Races

The order of the races is interesting, because it lists the four “common” races first; the Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human. It then lists the rest in alphabetical order. In this way they are sort of showing their modular hand, giving the DMs the chance to play with Common races only, and adding in from the uncommon list the ones that fit into their world. It is also nice to note that every race from every first PHB is represented. (So Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, Dragonborn, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Tiefling.)

You’ll notice that most of the races have subraces, and that they are baked in. You can’t pick a dwarf without picking hill or mountain dwarf, for example. For these races, this is how you get your second attribute bonus. The main race gives you one, and the subrace gives you the second. So this lacks the flexibility of late 4e racial attribute bonuses unless you want to ignore fluff, but it does open up the possibility of additional subraces being released in splats without adding as much bloat since they will still depend on the main race to operate.

The number of subraces included are usually two or three. I actually am slightly disappointed that more weren’t included. They did include Drow, but they did not include Duergar (deep dwarves) or Svirfneblin (deep gnomes). This is obviously because Drow are far more popular, but it would have been nice to see a couple more options among the subraces. A slight nit pick, but I do wish they separated the Grey Elf from the High Elf. However, even mentioning all of these subraces is a nod toward the older editions, which was nice to see.

Classes

 There are ten classes to choose from this time around, and it’s been indicated by the design team that this might be all we get (besides a possible psionic class later on down the line). Instead, a lot of the weight for character class archetypes seems to be on the sub-class system.

Subclasses are decision points you make around 3 levels into your class that differentiate you from others of your class. For example, the Paladin at level 3 gets to choose an oath. These oaths are: the Oath of Devotion (a white knight style classic paladin), the Oath of the Ancients (a green knight nature/fey knight), and the Oath of Vengeance (a dark knight/holy assassin type of paladin). So a good portion of your class abilities and nuances from that point forward are informed by your subclass. With ten classes, the possibilities for different subclasses seems to be huge. My worry is that is the trapdoor where the bloat will come in, though at the same time I’m really looking forward to the optional “evil” subclasses that will be introduced in the DMG. The Oathbreaker paladin, which I assume will be like a black knight, is supposed to be included there, I assume for NPCs.

I haven’t had a lot of time to delve deeply into the classes. They all seem to have their own thing going on, with asymmetrical class formats that will please those who disliked 4e’s more homogenized approach. I like that many classes seem to have a “classic” subclass for those that liked the way these classes performed in earlier editions, as well as various other sub classes of variable complexity and play style. My only complaints, as with the subraces, is I wish there were a few more presented. Three is a good number, but some of the classes, like Barbarian, only have two.

There are a good number of other decision points within the class structures. All martial types get to choose a fighting style at some point, things like archery and two weapon fighting. The spell casters, of course, get most of their flexibility out of the spell lists.

One minor quibble, speaking of the barbarian, is that I do wish that barbarians had a non raging subclass, and that rangers, and paladins had a “non magical” subclass that never gets spells. I guess it could be argued that you could simply play a fighter in that sense, but I would love to see a Barbarian closer to AD&D’s Unearthed Arcana Barbarian, a true mounted knight style Cavalier, as well as a totally martial Ranger ala 4th edition. Again, I stress these are very minor quibbles of mine.

Backgrounds, Proficiencies, and Equipment

In fact, these quibbles might be perfectly sated with the new Backgrounds system. A Background is something you choose for your character, like Class or Race, that gives you a good portion of your skills and proficiencies as well as a sort of ‘roleplay’ benefit. There are a good number in the book, that cover everything from Criminal to Entertainer. These are also the easiest thing to create yourself, as they are simply a handful of proficiencies and a slight benefit. They are also just a super way to spice your character up a bit, giving them a twist to really elevate them above their class and race.

So, taking my quibble above, you could simply take the Outlander background with a fighter and you have a pretty good non raging barbarian sort of analogue. Not perfect, but flavorful. The same with the Noble background, which has the Knight variant that could easily be used to help analogue a cavalier type of character.

Proficiencies themselves are pretty neat. While there is a limited skill list, proficiencies seem to be unlimited. Any tool you can think of can be a proficiency, making a lot of room for DM customization.

The equipment listing is pretty standard stuff, no surprises. It’s actually a little too simplified for me, I’ve often spoken on this blog about wanting a little more out of weapons, shields, and armor themselves. There’s only one kind of shield to buy, for instance, and it’s a flat small AC bonus that just doesn’t make sense to me when you think about the use of shields in melee combat throughout history. However, the spirit of this edition is simplicity, so it’s easy to see why they didn’t experiment with this aspect of the game.

One neat little thing is a d100 trinket table. Every player can roll for one item on the trinket table, and gets just a small little thing with no mechanical value, but a nice little splash of flavor. A hilt to a sword, for instance, or four-leaf clover pressed into a book on etiquette. The designers definitely walked the walked after talking the talk about the three pillars of the game.

Customization

Even beyond classes, races, and backgrounds are customization options. In this section, the rules for multiclassing are introduced, as well as the rules for feats.

Multiclassing seems simple enough. It’s similar to 3.x, in which when you level up you can choose to take a level of another class. Some have issues with this approach, preferring the sort of mixed class approach of earlier editions, but I see it as the easiest way to do it. I probably won’t use it much, however. Backgrounds, subclasses, and feats really fill the need for out of class abilities for me.

Feats are presented in this edition as an optional rule, one of the much spoken of “modules” or “dials” that the designers hinted at. Many I know will love not having to deal with feats, and after being burned twice on the piece meal and trap option feats of earlier editions, it’s easy to see why.

Feats, however, have been overhauled in quite a new way. Since in order to take a feat you must sacrifice an ability score increase, each feat now must be measured to that benefit. Which is to say, feats are a lot more powerful now. Most are baskets of abilities, similar to 3 or 4 feats from other editions. So instead of taking power attack, weapon focus, and cleave as a fighter, just take Great Weapon Master. Simple, easy, nice. I also like that in a way, these new feats are a sort of subclass in of themselves. Tavern Brawler stuck onto any class changes the way you do things in a big way, for instance.

I definitely did not expect myself to be excited by feats of all things, but there you go.

 

Part 2: Playing the Game

The opening section of the book goes into how dice rolling works, and how to determine the success of an attack, skill roll, and saving throw, but the rest of the rules lie after all of the character stuff in Section 2. And this section is QUITE a bit smaller than the first, clocking in at under 30 pages. Combat itself is only 9 pages, so almost exactly one-third of the rules. The other two-thirds? Adventuring, and using your ability scores.

Using Ability Scores

It is in this section that you see everything that an ability score means, including the skills associated with each score. I really like this section, and new players should definitely read it to get a sense of what the game is about overall. Each score can be important, and having the examples and possible uses laid out there really helps to visualize your character as more than a sword with a person attached to it, or a spell pew pew machine. It’s a small section, so not much more be said about it, but it’s a useful section and one that really sets the tone for the game, especially as it is the first section of the rules portion.

Adventuring

Another section that is both short and sweet. It lays out movement and time intuitively, speaks on interaction with objects and NPCs, lays out the rules for resting and healing,  and introduces the traveling mechanics.

I’ll be honest, usually in my games such things are hand waved or at least done more abstractly. Here rules for overland travel are a bit more mechanical than I choose to do them, with having a marching order with ranks and activities for PCs to do like navigating and drawing a map. I mean, these are things we do or have done, but not in such a mechanically set up way. It’s not a whole bunch of rules, and easily ignored, and it looks like it’d be quite useful for hex crawls, so not really a strike against. But I think I will continue to simply say “You get there safely” or “you are attacked, roll for surprise” etc during a normal casual game.

I like the resting mechanic of this edition. Most abilities “refresh” on a long or a short rest. The game gives the time for these being 8 hours for a long, and 1 hour for a short, but that could easily be dialed either way by the DM to better fit their preferences. In this way the DM can set the tone and lethality of their adventures by playing with the tempo of rests. For instance, in the organized play that I took part of, the place where we were provided barely time for short rests, and no time for long rests because we were essentially in the middle of an invasion. This made the game feel very lethal, as every health resource needed to be preserved for emergencies.

The most bittersweet thing in this section for me is the Downtime Activities. Between adventures, PCs can use their time to do things. This is where I expected a lot of the money the PCs collect would go, toward crafting and training. Using downtime to complete non-adventure tasks wasn’t something I’ve ever done, and the possibility for me was exciting and new. Sadly, the section is just too short for my tastes.

Less than a page,  it details rules on crafting mundane items, practicing your profession, recuperating from a disease or injury (the injury part intrigued me, as I couldn’t find rules for injuries elsewhere in the book, so it must be a DM fiat type of thing), researching, and training. You also must pay during this time period to maintain your lifestyle, which can be anything from wretched to aristocratic. It’s a really neat idea, but I’d really like to see it fleshed out much more than it is here. Being able to put money and time to learn new proficiencies is awesome, however. I’m hoping the DMG offers more things to do with downtime, because it seems like it could become a really awesome sub section of the game. How great would it be to maintain a business or a keep in this manner? Any way, I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t utilized more.

Combat

Clocking in at 9 pages, combat in this edition is lean and surprisingly mean. It’s hard to tell without actually playing it, but combat in this edition is a lot quicker than the preceding one. It’s still similar; there are surprise rounds, there’s attacks of opportunity, there’s initiative. It’s all here. It’s just a bit stripped down, relying on bounded accuracy to keep the numbers lower to keep the game moving without having to add a bunch of things up even at higher levels.

This section also covers the different things you can do in combat, stressing that what is spelled out there is not the complete list and encouraging improvisation. The actions presented in the book are: Attack, Cast a Spell, Dash (sacrificing your action to double your move), Disengage (using your action to disengage from melee combat to avoid an attack of opportunity), Dodge (making all attacks against you have disadvantage), Help (giving another creature advantage on a roll), Hide, Ready (saving your action for later in the round; note this doesn’t change your place in initiative), Search, and Use an Object. That’s a pretty comprehensive list. Help is interesting, as you can do it to help an ally attack. I also like that Ready, unlike Delay from 4th, doesn’t muddy up the initiative order.

All in all, in my opinion, combat is clean and doesn’t require as much sheet gazing as the past two editions. It’s quick, but not devoid of tactics or strategy. It’s not nearly as tactical as 4th, however, and I do think some will find the combat underwhelming. As I said before, the rules clock in at 9 pages, so its clear that the 5th edition of D&D isn’t devoting the majority of it’s attention on it.

Part 3: The Rules of Magic

This part of the book looks a lot like 3.x. First it gives the basic rules of spell casting, the two basic kinds of spell rolls (attack rolls and saving throws), and the nuances of the different components like Somatic and Material, which is a surprising return to be honest. I like these components because it makes the magic user think about what they are doing while casting a spell, and allows for cancels in the adventure (tying up hands, what have you), but it does seem to be a little out-of-place in a streamlined version of the game.

I’ll quote from the comments of this post to give a good overview of how magic works, via my friend Tim:

Allow me to pad this a little bit for you, concerning magic. Mostly a couple of key points.

First is, unlike previous editions, an arcane caster no longer needs material components unless they’re costly (Identify, for example) and if they chose to pack components, only certain spells actually consume them. Fireball’s bat guano and sulphur? Only need one bead of it. The other option is to carry a focus, like a staff, wand, orb, or what have you. (My wizard in our own playtest wears a harness of runes)

Another critical thing to realize is the flexibility of casters now. You don’t memorize two burning hands to cast it twice, you memorize it once, and can cast it as many times as you have slots.

In addition, your casting attribute is critical as your to-hit is also based on that attribute.

What might be the most important part of magic however, is that cantrips no longer expend, meaning much like a 3.5 Warlock’s Eldritch Blast, you can just keep slinging them, and many cantrips actually level up with you. Firebolt does 1d10, plus another d10 every 5 CHARACTER levels (so that high elf’s free cantrip is useful even to a fighter or rogue)

This is key because a higher casting attribute does not provide additional spells per day, but again, non expended cantrips helps to cover that.

The largest part of this section is simply a massive list of spells in alphabetical order. Right before this they are all listed by name separated into class lists. There are… a lot of spells. Which makes sense, seeing as how the majority of classes get spell casting in some form. A lot of the “powers” from 4e seem to have been pushed into spells rather than class abilities, with the Paladin being able to compel duels with magic and such.

I actually like a lot of how the spells work. I won’t waste time in listing a bunch of ones I like, but in general the entries are readable, and the spells encompass a lot of uses even out of combat. I also REALLY like that certain spells can be cast as rituals. This means that you spend extra time casting it (enough time to not be able to cast it as a ritual in combat basically) and don’t have to spend a slot to do it. First off, it’s flavorful. The image of the wizard performing the complicated ritual is a staple of fantasy. Secondly, it really helps free up your prepared spells for things more likely to be of use. Cast Tenser’s Floating Disc as a ritual, and you don’t have to throw away that burning hands spell.

The problem is, it only tells you what spell is a ritual in the spell’s own description. There’s no list of rituals, or at least an asterisk on the class list. This is just such a small thing that can prevent so much page turning. The overall spell section could do with more comprehensive formatting and indexing. I’d love to see them listed by spell school, for instance, because certain subclasses only get access to certain schools. Digital tools and spell cards will help with this, but it’s probably the most annoying thing about the book to me.

Appendices

Real quick I just want to note that the appendices of the book are cool as hell. The first one is a useful appendix of all the conditions, like Charmed and Poisoned, coupled with sketches of someone suffering from the condition. The second one lists Gods of nearly all the popular campaign settings, as well as Norse, Celtic, Greek, and Egyptian gods, all with domains so you can use them for your cleric or what have you. The third is a good primer on the Great Wheel cosmology, which I am glad is back. The fourth one provides stat blocks that you might need for any character abilities or spells, like familiars and pets. The last one is a very comprehensive list of fantasy literature to help inspire you.

Overall they’re all neat, and I’m glad they were included. They add character to the book and will certainly be useful.


Thoughts

Well, we’ve gone through the book, in my own haphazard way. I’m sure you’ve picked up along the way that I’m a fan. Honestly, I’ve played the play test from the very beginning, so there weren’t any surprises here. The book itself, as a product, however, meets the expectations that I have for table use, and that’s a good damn thing.

I have quibbles, to be sure. Better indexing of spells, some missing sub races and sub classes I’d like to have seen. Maybe some more complicated rules for weapons and armor. None of these stain the fact that this book, and the game itself, is great. It’s fun. It draws upon a venerable past, evokes imagery that sets the imagination to work. It feels like the summation of a lot of hard work, and it’s just a pretty book.

Have you got to look at yourselves? What do you think of the Player’s Handbook? Or of the 5th edition in general?

10 thoughts on “A Review of the 5th Edition D&D Player’s Handbook

  1. Allow me to pad this a little bit for you, concerning magic. Mostly a couple of key points.

    First is, unlike previous editions, an arcane caster no longer needs material components unless they’re costly (Identify, for example) and if they chose to pack components, only certain spells actually consume them. Fireball’s bat guano and sulphur? Only need one bead of it. The other option is to carry a focus, like a staff, wand, orb, or what have you. (My wizard in our own playtest wears a harness of runes)

    Another critical thing to realize is the flexibility of casters now. You don’t memorize two burning hands to cast it twice, you memorize it once, and can cast it as many times as you have slots.

    In addition, your casting attribute is critical as your to-hit is also based on that attribute.

    What might be the most important part of magic however, is that cantrips no longer expend, meaning much like a 3.5 Warlock’s Eldritch Blast, you can just keep slinging them, and many cantrips actually level up with you. Firebolt does 1d10, plus another d10 every 5 CHARACTER levels (so that high elf’s free cantrip is useful even to a fighter or rogue)

    This is key because a higher casting attribute does not provide additional spells per day, but again, non expended cantrips helps to cover that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For the most part the book was fairly intuitive. However, Alphabetical-only spell listing has been a plague since 3rd edition. I do not know why they choose to do this, nor do I much care. It needs to bloody stop. At the very least they should be subdivided by level.

    Like

  3. I’m fully inclined to agree. I would, at the very least, like to see the spells tagged with who can cast them. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that as a Wizard, I couldn’t cast Guiding Bolt.

    Like

  4. Really enjoyed the review. Basically agree on all accounts (minus the Halfling– that’s the only halfling that bothered me).

    An aspect that wasn’t touched upon (since it was more of a book review than a system review) is that spells have been tamed from 3rd ed. So those who dislike the caster supremacy of 3rd and the homogeneity of 4th will probably find this edition more to taste (in that aspect at least).

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  5. I love the new rulebook, too, Great art. I just got hold of it and tweaked my playtest solitaire setting to be up to date. Also printed the first 215 pages of it. Then I ran out of paper. So worth it, though.

    Like

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