D&D5 Review: Player’s Handbook

Two-and-a-half years after it was first teased, the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook has been released. The book hits Wizards Play Network (WPN) stores on August 8th and everywhere on the 19th.

I really love the design of this system. I am very excited by the new edition. But this review is about the book and not the edition as a whole.

What Is It?

Dungeons-and-Dragons-Players-Handbook-5th-Edition-CoverThe Player’s Handbook full colour hardcover book 316-pages (plus) in length and retails for around $50.

The book includes everything you need to play in a D&D5 game and more. It is the big book for players; it’s full of races, classes, spells, and all the rules to play. It does not include the rules needed to run a game, such as building encounter or awarding treasure, which will be included in the forthcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide (and/or updated D&D Basic rules document).

The PHB includes nine races (dwarf, elf, halfling, human, dragonborn, gnome, half-elf, half-orc, and tiefling) and twelve classes (barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, warlock, wizard).

The Good

There’s a lot of flexibility offered in the PHB. There’s a wide variety of different functional (albeit likely not optimized) character builds. Subclasses, subraces, backgrounds, and weapon choices provide enough options to easily design a variety of different player characters. I would even say more than any other PHB, even with far fewer feats. I think the 5e book comes with the most potential characters right out of the gate.

The options provided seem fairly balanced. However, things are not so balanced that the edition sacrifices sacred cows on the altar of equality. I like balance but there are literally hundreds of game systems I can play with balanced rules, but only one that’s D&D. (Well… maybe two.)

The playtesting evidently worked.

I’ve seen a few arguments of wizard versus fighter – the same argument that has been around for years – and there’s a lot that can be said about the damage potential of the 5e fighter and their usefulness at high levels. Roughly even numbers of people are arguing for each class, which is generally a good sign the balance is right where it should be.

Classes are also nicely diverse. The game has continued the move away from the forced symmetry of 4th Edition that began with Essentials. Classes look much more like they looked in 3rd Edition. Or even earlier, as you could make an argument that the classes are very 2e in design with a modern flair like avoiding dead levels. There’s few choices in each class beyond subclass; leveling your character is very simple if you wish.

The multiclassing rules are also good, being an improvement on the 3e system. Most importantly it allows easy stacking of spellcasting classes. As a character’s proficiency bonus is based on their character level and not their class levels it seems odd to includewallpaper_Illo 2 proficiency in the class charts.

The book is beautiful. I was a little worried after the Starter Set, but the PHB is clearly the superior product. The double framing of torn pages and ink washes is less obvious, and there are several full page pieces of art. There are two-page art spreads, little insert pieces, half page pictures, and more: every other page seems to have some flair. And it’s not all the same; there’s even a handful of pieces that remind me of the line art of 1st Edition D&D. These pieces are mostly limited to the conditions appendix and the introduction, which keeps it from breaking the tone of the rest of the book. However, I adore the gnome illustration with the diagram of spell effect shapes. It’s a must-see.

One thing that surprised me was the size of the combat chapter. At only 10 pages it’s possibly the smallest chapter on combat from any edition. This is a svelte game.

The Bad

The obvious complaint regarding the PHB is that it’s Basic D&D with more options: more classes, more races, more subclasses and multiclassing. There’s none of the promised modularity that was meant to be a defining features of 5e. There are no extra variants rules beyond multiclassing and feats. There’s nothing that might unite the various camps of gamers or fans of particular editions.

The book doesn’t feel like “Advanced D&D” so much as “Expanded D&D”.

While there’s slightly more options than 4e and even 3e, there are still a lot of missing builds. Several classes have only two builds, and there are very obvious omissions such as a bard focused on enchantments, a druid with an animal companion (despite all the druid art featuring animals), or a two-weapon barbarian. Normally this wouldn’t be much of an issue as the next available splatbook would provide additional options, but it does not sound like WotC plans to do many accessories this edition. Even the online magazines have gone. But, as said above, the PHB does have a solid number of option, so this is just me whining.

The book does not reference other pages, simply other chapters. This makes cross referencing rules awkward and involves extra flipping. Making this even more difficult, the bottom of the pages only has “Part” but not the chapter number, so finding individual chapters is a pain. One particularly annoying example is spellcasting focus; every spellcasting class can have a focus, and the description directs you to “Chapter 5”, the equipment chapter. But that just directs you to the spellcasting chapter.

I’m not a huge fan of how they handled the bard. The bard has always been described as a magical dabbler but this edition makes it a full caster. It’s no longer a dabbler but a master of the arcane arts on par with the wizard. It’s additional spells come at the cost of more class features unique to the bard. The counter to this argument was that the bard would get bare-only spells instead, but it only gets a few unique spells and these are limited to low levels.

The fighter subclasses are awkward. There are three: champion, battle master, and eldritch knight. The champion and battle master are entirely defined by mechanical differences, the former being the simple fighter while the latter having special maneuvers. There is no real flavour variance. This will make it harder to add new fighter subclasses that aren’t just variations on the two. If they ever opt to make, say, a cavalier subclass it will be a variation on the two.

The book ends in a three page character sheet. Normally this would be a good thing, to have usable character sheets that can be photocopied for use. But, realistically speaking, who has a photocopier anymore? If one has a photocopier it likely doubles as a printer (and/or scanner). A character sheet pulled from online will look clearer than one copied from the back of a thick book (and be gentler on the book). The character sheet is three pages that could have been used elsewhere.

The Uglywallpaper_Illo 1

The cover is unimpressive. The focus seems to be on the giant and not the adventurers fighting it. While King Snurre is a somewhat famous villain in D&D lore I’m uncertain he warrants a place on the PHB cover. The cover to the Starter Set was amazing, but this one is lackluster. Additionally, while the front cover is glossy, only half the back is glossy and the other half matte. This feels weird when handling the book.

The race section mentions the existence of several other subraces, such as the duergar, svirfneblin, and most interestingly the draconians. It even suggests how the draconians will be handled: swapping out the dragonborn breath weapon. This is cool but a colossal tease for content we might never see as WotC has doubled down on the Forgotten Realms.

While I like most of the backgrounds, folk hero rubs me the wrong way. Folk hero replaces “commoner” being the Everyman background but ties the background around an event where the PC did a heroic thing that was apparently more defining and life altering than their entire childhood and adult life. Because farmers and ranchers apparently need more justification for being an adventure than a librarian, altar boy, or hermit. Folk hero feels more like a variant of the much more iconic “farm boy” background.

A curious omission is the lack of monster summoning spells. WTF?! I loved my conjurer specialist in 3e, focusing on summoned monsters. He was a noble first and wizard second, so this edition would be perfect for him. Except the absence of his signature spell(s).

Much of the art feels heavily cropped, like the art director turned full-page pictures of art into half-page pieces. Sometimes it works, but there’s a lot of weird pictures and half-visible scenes where things seem to be happening off camera.

158005_CloudkillPhoto 2014-08-08, 3 45 52 PM

Something also needs to be said about the price. $49.95 USD feels steep compared to comparably sized books or previous editions adjusted for inflation. We’re likely paying a premium as the rules (i.e. Basic) are free. What I paid is different; while the WotC website says the PHB is $57 CAD the book itself says $58. It should be noted that at the current exchange rate puts $50 USD at $54.80 CAD. The CAD is at a low point now, but the dollar hasn’t been so bad as to warrant $57-8 price in over half a decade, and the dollars flirted with parity multiple times during that period. Oh, and since I opted to buy from my FLGS (because I wanted to support them, the sucker that I am) I paid the full price rather than the $29 Amazon was charging. That isn’t a typo: Amazon is literally charging half price.

The Awesome

There is an index. The Index. Capitals are required. Four pages, five columns per page, and something like a 4 point font. I love it. Game books live and die based on their index, and this one looks great.

The end of the book has a comprehensive list of gods for the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Eberron, and Mythology. There isn’t any descriptions of the gods and their ethos, just a list of alignments and domains. But it works nicely for quickly updating campaign settings. I am saddened Ravenloft didn’t warrant a mention.

I also like the return of the Great Wheel, but with the inclusion of the Feywild, Shadowfell, and Elemental Chaos. It works nicely. I really liked the Feywild.

An easily missed detail is that each class has received a little logo. It’s neat. I imagine this is for branding accessories and the like, but I dig neat little details like that. I expect of T-shirts and other merch with the logos. I’m totally willing to get a bard shirt.

At the back of the PHB is a small assortment of monsters, for familiars, druid wild shaping, and ranger pets. This is handy, so players don’t need to consult the Monster Manual for class features. Everything you need really is in the PHB.

I love the sorcerer’s wild surge chart. That brings me back to 2nd Edition. It’s so wacky and fun. I was happy  when the 4e sorcerer incorporated the wild mage, as they’re such a good fit.

The equipment section has two pages devoted to a table of 100 trinkets. Fun little items to flavour a character. I love it.

One of the monk’s subclasses melds the ninja and shadowdancer. It’s a good idea as they share the same Eastern flavour. D&D has always struggled with what to do with the ninja.

Final Thoughts

After all the playtests and the Basic document there are few surprises in the book. We’ve seen most of the content and a lot of the rules. There’s just more content.

The PHB is almost a splatbook for D&D Basic.

This makes the value of the PHB problematic. There is a lot of content, but you can play for years with just Basic D&D. All the customization and rules modules look to be coming later in the DMG. If none of the classes and races interest you, there’s very little else this book has to offer. But, really, if you’re even thinking about buying the PHB you likely want the included options.

While there are some gaps and absences, I imagine there will be a flood of fan content in the next few weeks. There are already a few backgrounds out there, including my tongue-in-cheek harlot background.

I would recommend buying some stick-on tabs for the chapters. Those are a must for navigating the book.

That’s it for the Player’s Handbook. I’ll have to do a review of Basic D&D looking at the nuances of the rule system itself, likely after I see more monsters and, hopefully, take the game out for a longer spin.