D&D 5E Review Part 2: Character Creation

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Now that I’ve dumped on the cover of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, it’s time to actually open the book. The first page is a piece of art that’s similar (and similarly unappealing, in my opinion) to the 3E art: noncommittal water-colory backgrounds, indistinct linework, and just kind of bleh. Then there’s the usual front material (credits, table of contents) and a Preface where Mike Mearls congratulates D&D for being D&D.

The Introduction includes all the stuff you find in every RPG introduction (make believe, dice abbreviations, how the game works) as well as a few things you don’t. Some of these, like a plug for published settings, a section explaining a bit about “The Three Pillars of Adventure” (Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat), and a few paragraphs about magic all make sense here. The thing that doesn’t really go in the Introduction in my opinion is the explanation of the core d20 mechanic and a few other explanations of game rules. These seem like they should be in the main book to me.

Aside from the weird choice of including core mechanical concepts in a section that’s usually written to be skippable, I can’t complain much about the introduction. The information is all there, the “How to Play” section is a solid half-page instead of the couple of sentences most games provide, and there weren’t any errors that made me think the book had been so haphazardly put together that it wasn’t worth my time. [Side rant: I never made it past the first paragraph of d20 Modern because of a basic grammatical error that any competent editor should have caught; I think it was “their” instead of “there” or vice-versa. I might have overlooked it in a game by a smaller company, but WOTC is supposed to be the industry leader. They can afford professional editors who don’t let glaring mistakes slip past, especially on the first page of the book.]

After a couple of forgettable full-page art pieces (what did compositional focus do that hurt you, Wizards of the Coast?), we jump right into character creation. The first chapter provides a step-by-step summary of character creation mostly uninterrupted by crunchy bits. Classes, Races, and even ability scores are described in detail in later chapters. There’s also a running example of a player creating a character named Bruenor (obviously Battlehammer, because apparently R.A. Salvatore is still a thing). It’s no Sample of Play Theater, but I can see how it would be helpful for a new player.

Step 1, “Pick A Race” isn’t particularly informative. It basically spends 3 paragraphs saying “Pick a race and write down your racial abilities.” Step 2, “Pick A Class” provides a little better look into the game system’s structure. In addition to class features (the current name for the standard class abilities we all know and love), a class has “proficiencies,” which seems to be the new term for “all that class stuff that isn’t class abilities.” Proficiencies cover armor, weapons, skills, saving throws, and “sometimes tools.” Other than the “sometimes tools” part, looks like just a new collective name for some well-worn game concepts. A little later in the section (after Level and Hit Points, which work just like always), it describes the Proficiency Bonus, which is +2 for 1st-level characters. Apparently it applies to all your proficiencies (examples include things like attack rolls for a weapon you’re proficient in and saving throws you’re proficient in). Class and background apparently determine the character’s proficiencies. Without having read any further, I hope there’s some degree of customization involved beyond just choosing a class and race. The idea of all 1st Level Barbarians having the same X abilities at +2 seems like a step back.

Ability Scores have been moved from their usual spot at Step 1 to step 3 in the process (after race and class). While it’s a minor change, I like what it says about the game’s priorities. For one thing, it acknowledges race and class are the traits that define your character, not the numbers you randomly rolled on a 3d6. It also eliminates the “play the class your rolls force you to play” model of the old “roll 3d6 six times in order” method. Now you can actually choose the kind of character you want and assign your ability scores to fit the concept. Speaking of ability score generation methods, this edition limits itself to 3 ways of determining abilities: The classic “4d6, drop the lowest” roll with the scores assigned according to the player’s choosing; A set of default scores (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8) that the player assigns to whatever abilities he likes; And a point-build method of the “I see what you’re trying to do but I’m not sure the payoff justifies the wonkiness” variety.

Like 3E, 5E ability scores give you a single modifier for all ability-related rolls (no “Bend Bars/Lift Gates” or “Resist Disease” percentages). This time around there’s even the added feature of a formula for determining the modifier if you don’t have the table (which goes to 30, but there’s no mention of whether that’s a hard maximum or not) handy. There’s a table with an extremely brief overview of what each ability means (Strength measures “natural athleticism, bodily power” and is important for “Barbarian, fighter, paladin”) and which races have a bonus to the stat in question (no racial penalties are listed, so I assume those are a thing of the past). The section promises that the abilities will be more fully described in Chapter 7. Chapter 7 is in about the right spot for one of those “Incredibly Boring Details That Nobody Cares About” chapters, so these descriptions are probably right where they belong, tucked in between the vision distance table and the encumbrance rules.

Step 4 is “Describe Your Character” and includes several new bold-faced terms that look like they might fall into the general vicinity of role-playing mechanics. There’s the never-going-away (but seemingly even more downplayed this time around) alignment and three new (to D&D, or at least since 3E) traits: ideals, bonds, and flaws. There’s not much information about them here. The last bold-faced term, background, is definitely a rules trait, and the section even explains that it gives you a background feature, proficiency in two skills, and maybe a language or tool proficiency. This step shows the first sign of something new (to D&D) in this new edition (or at least since 3E), and I’m looking forward to finding out more in  “Chapter 4: Personality and Background.” The second section of Step 4, “Your Character’s Abilities” basically tells the player to use his ability scores as hooks and gives some so-obvious-it-feels-like-padding examples of what characters with high and low scores in each ability might be like.

Step 5 is “Choose Equipment.” Each Class and Background has a set of default starting equipment for the character, but players who really love accounting can still buy their equipment piece by piece like in the old days. You can also have a Trinket for free, but you’ll have to refer to Chapter 5 to find out what the hell that means. There’s also a word of warning that you can only carry so much stuff and a note to see Chapter 7 for the carrying capacity (aka encumbrance) rules, because sometimes things work out exactly how you expect them. The book then moves on to sections about Armor Class (10 + Dex Bonus + Armor) and Weapons (melee weapons (mostly) use Strength, missile weapons (mostly) use Dexterity).

Step 6 is “Come Together” because reasons. It’s a paragraph long and basically tells you that your character is a member of an adventuring party.

After the overview of character creation is a section called “Beyond 1st Level,” which provides the (universal) level advancement table, explains what happens when you level up, and breaks different level groups into “tiers of play” (basically power levels) with brief descriptions.

Next week: Elves & Shit!