Editions War Part 6: 5e D&D
Way back in 2017, I began the Editions War series of posts, applying a series of metrics to older editions of D&D to see how they stacked up. Now, with an update to 5e D&D looming for release in 2024, it’s time to take a look at the current edition of D&D!
In late 2011, the writing was on the wall. Pathfinder 1e was outselling 4e D&D, and while D&D sales remained strong and the game was expanding, it wasn’t the runaway success that Wizards or Hasbro were expecting. The online tools failed to materialize. The fanbase? Polarized like it never before between the new and the previous generations of players. The situation got so bad that D&D was purportedly left off official Hasbro profit reports at one point.
Wizards wasn’t asleep at the wheel though. In 2012 they launched the largest public playtest in the history of RPGs, D&D Next. Running until 2013, D&D Next would partially lay the foundations for 5e D&D, as the edition drew from the long history of the game to come together. Launching in 2014, 5e D&D had strong sales, sufficient to reclaim the top spot in sales and remain there.
Since its launch, Wizards have navigated and changed the modern ecosystem in the hobby in ways that have surprised observers, and benefited from major shifts in media, social media, and world events. Ways that they’ve navigated and changed things include better and more consistent social media activity, focused D&D specific cons, and heavy engagement with influencers. They’ve also aggressively partnered with VTTs, embraced Live Plays/Actual Plays, and pioneered community content programmes with the DM Guild launch in 2016. All of this would pay out at a level no one expected when the Covid-19 global pandemic hit, as D&D was positioned unlike any other game to be an easy access go to for a population suddenly unable to engage in their usual social activities.
Like all editions of D&D since 1e AD&D, the base game has the standard core trio, a Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide. The conventional assembly is let down by poor layout and organization combined with a lack of a proper index. The art is lavish, and the information is there, but the DMG in particular suffers from information accessibility issues.
Score: 4/5 This edition has a full set of everything you need in the core trio, but if you’re not already familiar with D&D and need to reference things as a DM, it’s not ideal.
5e has the distinction of feeling familiar to everyone who started playing during Wizard’s tenure with the game. The familiar d20 based mechanics continue, with some additions like the Inspiration mechanic. The challenge that the edition faces with its rules is that where previous editions knew what they wanted to be, 5e tries to meet the needs of everyone ands doesn’t manage it well.
Some issues I’ve run into include:
- Optional Rules are scattered through the DMG and feel like they were unpolished and tacked on.
- High level play (more or less anything past level 12 or so) is still janky, and made more so by the choice to break character creation into three levels (1-3).
- Bounded Accuracy is an interesting tool to try to “balance” the game, but results in a flatter, less lively game.
- Attempts to support non-combat focused play are weak, and of the three columns (combat, exploration, and social interaction), only combat is truly well supported.
Score: 3/5 The game’s mechanics are pedestrian at their best. They’re semi-intuitive, and while many argue that the game is “easy” to pick up and “accessible”, I think it’s more the case that the fanbase has made a lot of videos and reference sheets to make it more digestible.
This is probably one of the biggest mixed bags of the game for me from a review and player perspective.
In many ways, 5e discourages true multi-classing, much like its predecessor 4e D&D. However, it effectively resurrected the Kit and Prestige Class systems from 2e AD&D and 3e D&D with its sub-classes. Subclasses that, like the ones in 4e D&D, aren’t optional. At level 3 you pick one and then… that’s it really. Some subclasses double down on an aspect of the base class, others hybridize with other classes to create a kind of faux multi-class feeling. I think the biggest let down in the core trio (that extends through the supplements) is that there’s no real rhyme or reason to them, and some are definitely more advantageous than others. It feels like a lot more effort went into some than others.
Player lineages are solid in the core books. There’s the standard blend plus the Dragonborn and Teiflings in the PHB, and the Aasimar are in the DMG. One disappointment was that 5e retained 4e’s practice of not providing player stats for monsterfolk in the Monster Manual. Unfortunately, the negative narratives and issues with Half Elves and Half Orcs persist in this edition.
Oddly, equipment has defaulted to a near AD&D-like level, eschewing the alchemical and imagined for the game fantasy weapons that made 3e and 4e D&D such a departure from their more historically influenced predecessors. I’m not sure what fuelled this choice, but it’s a let down.
Score: 3/5 It’s better than okay, but it isn’t good. The game suffers from much of the illusion of choice that 4e had in many ways, but at least shifted away from hard-wired roles. There are also those odd choices around monsterfolk and fantasy components. So yeah, better than okay, but not good.
The defacto base world is Forgotten Realms, and there’s Forgotten Realms stuff scattered through the Player’s Handbook. I say defacto because the core trio gamebooks themselves don’t outright declare it, they just use it for everything. But without describing it.
Score: 2/5 Forgotten Realms is a great choice for a base level campaign setting, except they just scavenged bits out of it and presented it as “D&D”. There’s no maps, no explanations, just a skeleton of a skeleton of lore.
Truthfully, 5e D&D shines in this department compared to previous editions. There’s definite, identifiable minorities throughout the Player’s Handbook, and it’s great. And I’m not talking about “ambiguously brown” or “ethnically shaded and coded”, I’m talking actual, full on depictions of Black, Arabic, and Asian people.
Score: 4/5 The only reason I’m not giving 5/5 is because Wizards ceased the Iconic art practice. So the character you see are largely one-offs and not representative of what’s through the rest of the core books or the books released since then.
As the current edition of D&D, 5e is more widely available than any other edition. Print, VTT subscription, PDF… It’s all there. Bookstores, game stores, comic book shops, online, the game is everywhere.
Score: 5/5 There’s no real contest here, 5e D&D is super available.
It’s D&D? I say it that way because, to be completely honest, the gameplay is blah. Mechanical choices like bounded accuracy and others have resulted in a game that’s perfectly functional, but not spectacular, especially if you’re experienced with prior editions. In my experience, this puts a lot of pressure on the DM to pick up the slack and make it feel more exciting. A lot of the highs and lows, and the epic vibes from previous editions are absent, and the goal of “balance” that marred 4e is carried on, but in different ways. It’s important to say here that I’m not saying that the game is inherently unexciting or boring, or that your (the reader’s) home game is less. I’m saying that as someone who has played and DMed through multiple editions since the TSR days, it’s not a mind-blowing experience.
5e D&D feels like D&D by committee to me, and in many ways it is. Where previous editions had their own firm identities; 5e D&D’s heavy playtest roots and the choice to incorporate aspects from multiple previous editions in an attempt to make a D&D that appealed to the broadest possible fanbase has had repercussions. Is the game monstrously popular? Absolutely. Does that mean it’s an amazing game unlike any other? No, no it doesn’t. But digging into that is a whole separate post for the future.
Final Score: 21/30 5e D&D is competent but uninspiring as an edition. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. I might use the phrase “distinctly inoffensive” for a lot of it. It addresses and rectifies issues and problematic bits from previous editions, but choices in its design result in a subdued experience.