Dungeons and Dragons 5e First Impressions

DD-LogoMy ideas about the actions taken against POC in D&D 4e, and what makes a good campaign setting, are well documented. [1][2] The art in 4e D&D was almost exclusively of “whites”, or “ambiguously shaded”, and the game structure was torn from the pages of online MMORPGs. Not only did I not feel included, but as someone who doesn’t like or play MMORPGs, the entire edition was a wash for me. Eventually, it spread to friends as well, and D&D fell off the map for us for the majority of 4e’s blighted and controversial production. However, being a sucker who’s played Dungeons and Dragons since about 1993, I was dragged back into D&D by the D&D Next mass playtest. I don’t regret it. In this post, I’ll look briefly at what 4e D&D did wrong, and what 5e D&D is doing about it.


D&D 4e was plagued by a variety of problems that resulted from what I hope were well meaning attempts to shake things up. The staff on the project were, from what I understand, not previously associated with D&D products. They came at the game from a very technical perspective, and with a strong MMORPG concept of party mechanics and in game balance. They essentially stripped variance and variety from everything in order to create a nearly perfectly balanced class system, where every class was equally powerful but interdependent on each other to succeed. In essence and fact, it killed individual creativity and agency in the game. Players were relegated to narrow roles within the party, and deviation from the mechanically balanced party composition was punished by game mechanics. Players were also locked into the false-choice tree style development system, where  their choices (because of the build system and emphasis on combat effectiveness) were limited by the fact that only a few of them resulted in an effective character in combat, while the rest detracted from their combat effectiveness. On Gamasutra, this false choice system was described as “A choice the player can make that is across-the-board weaker than all others due to the game’s design.” [3]

The tragic trajectory of 4e D&D can be seen in its distinct lack of campaign settings. Eberron, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, and the default “points of light” (no-name brand Greyhawk) were the only settings detailed in the 4e D&D era. Disastrously, they opted for a Greyhawk style reboot on Forgotten Realms, the most detailed, written about, and supported setting in the history of D&D from the days of TSR through WotC. This was done, as far as I have been able to determine, without consulting Ed Greenwood (the original creator who is still active in the support and development), or any of the writers who’s works fuelled FR development, such as R.A. Salvatore (who more or less single handedly defined Drow Elves and a good chunk of northern Faerun). Where the Greyhawk reboot was to done to try to make sense of a campaign setting that had evolved from the sillier days of gaming to more serious ones (with mixed success), the re-imagined Forgotten Realms was described as “Forgotten Realms for and by people who hated Forgotten Realms” (paraphrased). Major characters were eliminated, the mythology was rewritten, and as noted, POC in game suffered disproportionately. Reboot via cataclysm only works when it’s well thought out, and this one wasn’t.

So, D&D Next was released in 2012, around four years after 4e D&D. It came into an angry consumer base of polarized players, and won many back to D&D. 5e D&D is the direct result of the massive public playtest effort by WotC. My first impression of the PHB and MM were that they were apology letters. Classes are a hybrid of 3.5e and 2e; the kit system (presented as colleges, schools, archetypes etc…) appears to be back, and I’m looking forward to seeing more kits  adding more variety to the game. The mechanics seem to be set up for freeform play again, without required classes needed to create a successful adventuring party. The game caps out at level 20, but hopefully there will be a high level campaign book produced again. The PHB also took the step of supporting the “D&D Multiverse”, with pantheons listed for Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and Eberron, as well as a list of non-human deities. In a surprising turn, it also offered fantasy interpretations of the Celtic, Norse, Greek, and Egyptian pantheons, which nicely opens the door to historical fantasy roleplaying again!

If 4e was overly white in contents (the PHB has three identifiable POC in its art, two of which are non-humans), the 5e D&D PHB is a plea for POC to join in. The first interior image is a POC. The picture for the “Human” player race is a POC (a WOC to be exact). The Fighter, Sorcerer, Wizard, and Warlock classes all have POC (or WOC) as the “iconic” pictures. Several of them are wearing non-western clothing or using non-western equipment as well. Non-human player races also had POC representation, and there were about fifteen images that were too ambiguously shaded and coloured to make the call. As a dedicated Fighter player, it was a real thrill to see a POC as the iconic image. About my only complaint with the art would be how Halflings were drawn. I hate Halflings (long nerd story), but they’re badly drawn. However, POC are scattered through the entire book, and in the roles of adventurers, not background characters or as setting pieces. This is a serious step forward for WotC in making D&D more accessible and immersive for a larger audience.

Things that fell flat were the continued use of well worn tropes for Half Elves and Half Orcs, who apparently still don’t rate a non-racial background composition name (Teiflings aren’t called “Demon Blooded” or “Devil Spawn”). [4] Half Elves are still perfect “ambassadors” because they had to learn to blah blah blah, exotic beauty, blah blah, never fit in, blah blah, we don’t understand how cultures work outside of the racially polarized American model and can’t be bothered to exert our imaginations. Half Orcs are still violent brutes, but now it’s because they’re constantly tormented by the main Orc god, Grummsh, and still have that whole “blood = culture” thing going on; as they’re described as being effectively unable to overcome the limitations of their heritage. The description of how people act around Half Orcs is a laundry list of micro-aggressions that many POC will be all too familiar with. The description of how Half orcs live could be the script for numerous “in the ‘hood” movies from the 1990s. There’s also a “better off among their own kind” vibe happening with both of these player races, which is a bit disappointing.

Overall, 5e D&D is quite POC friendly compared to previous editions. The inclusiveness of the art alone is fantastic, as is the general move away from “sexy” female adventurers (the vast majority of females depicted are in practical clothes as opposed to the more traditional sexy armour and outfits). It does fall down on the fronts of its treatment of Half Elves and Half Orcs again, but frankly, I wasn’t expecting that to be corrected anytime soon. Where 5e D&D will go is unknown, but Ed Greenwood and R.A. Salvatore have been busy, along with several other authors, setting the stage to re-reboot Forgotten Realms back into recognizability. The events leading to the re-reboot are called The Sundering, a series of stand alone novels. A lot of the damage done will be difficult to ret-con though, so I’ll be staying posted. As a final note, 5e D&D is highly interactive, with the initial adventure series releases having online support. As a heads up, for all the progress made, the comic for these is painfully lacking diversity. So, D&D 5e is a go so far. Hopefully they’ll follow up on their advances.

4 comments

  • Not only is D&D a much friendlier place for PoC and women, but it also appears to be making explicit overtures to Gender and Sexual Minorities (GSM), particularly in its “no bullshit” approach to character creation. D&D explicitly tells people that not only should players not feel bound by gender binaries or monochromatic forms of gender or sexual expression, but the designers explicitly wrote gender ambiguity into the world by depicting one of the Elven gods as being somewhat gender fluid.

    This is a far cry from the vastly most sexist origins of D&D, and for me it sends a message loud and clear to D&D players of all varieties: You are welcome here; we want you here. This cannot be anything but a good thing, in my opinion.

    • I agree. I flipped through the old 2e PHB after looking through the 4e one, and it was rough. No POC, all sexy females, and generic western everything.

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