Last time I began by looking specifically at Pathfinder. This time we’ll take a look at Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition which, having released in 2014, has in many ways revitalized the tabletop roleplaying genre. More people are playing tabletop RPG’s for the first time, largely in part because of this fantastic new edition of the most classic RPG.
However, before I move onto 5th edition I feel I have to address what might be a fairly obvious question to the uninitiated: thus far in the article I have mentioned the 3rd, 3.5, and 5th editions of Dungeons and Dragons, so some people might be wondering “what about the 4th edition?” Admittedly 4th edition was part of the reason I was nervous about 5th edition. If you ask most roleplayers the unwritten, or perhaps unspoken, rule of D&D is don’t talk about 4th edition. To put it simply, 4th edition did not go over well with a vast majority of the community, there were attempts made to streamline the system that a lot of hardcore gamers felt undermined the history and abandoned their player base.
Bearing all that in mind, 5th edition is not 4th edition. With 5th edition Wizards of the Coast managed to do what they failed to do in 4th edition, streamline the process and make it more approachable to newer players without alienating those that were already invested in the game’s rich history. Those same 6 stats listed above remain, but even more than before those stats and the modifications they provide are vital to a character.
The most important change I believe is adjusting the concept of proficiency. In 5th edition proficiency isn’t just for combat and doesn’t just determine if you have any benefits or penalties, instead proficiency replaces entire concepts like skill points, the base attack bonus, and the class based bonuses to your saving throws. In short, the notion of proficiency and what it means as a game mechanic has become the defining difference of the format. They also added a new concept called your background, this is a way to customize your character’s history and give it an impact on the game your playing, plus each background comes with a minor feature that distinguishes it from the others and makes it useful to the game.
To replace the skill points instead your class has a list of skills from which you may choose a certain number to gain proficiency in, and then your background will either tell you a few or will give you another list from which you might choose one or two. After you’ve determined what skills you’re proficient in, you take your proficiency bonus (determined by your class and level) and add it to the ability modifier relevant to each skill. What this means is you don’t have to worry so much about where to spend all those points you had before, after you’ve chosen your proficiencies, for the most part they don’t change, making it easier for a GM to scale the DC (Difficulty Class, which is often used to determine success or failure of the applied skill) to the group because you won’t have the ability to wildly accrue skill proficiency. What this means in game terms is that while you might never have a +15 to disable device (the skill used to pick locks or disarm traps), you also won’t need a +15 to disable device because you won’t run into a lock with a challenge rating of 33. It also means that you won’t have characters who feel somewhat broken in certain areas for the GM. Simplifying it for players also simplifies things for the GM.
Saving Throws work the exact same way as Skills in 5E, which is still fairly similar to 3E with a few notable differences, mostly that EACH ability now has its own saving throw attached, which leads most people away from developing the concept of a “dump stat” (which is an ability that seems unnecessary to a character prompting players building a character of that type to sacrifice points in that ability to buff what is ostensibly a more important ability, for instance fighters don’t often care for charisma so they’d sacrifice lower numbers to it to increase maybe strength). Now EVERY ability matters to EVERY character to some degree or another. Now instead of just having those 3 ability modifiers along with the listed modifications granted by your class and level; you simply add your proficiency bonus (where applicable) to your ability modifier and that is your saving throw.
Base attack bonus is gone now. Instead they simplified (and shortened) the weapons list, the concept of Exotic weapons was completely abandoned, you can still use, say, a katana if you want to, it just won’t have it’s own individual statistics, instead it might fall under longsword. So now you look at the type of weapon you have and see if it’s from a category you’re proficient with, if you are add the relevant ability modifier (either strength or dexterity) to your proficiency modifier and that is you attack bonus. For the most part other bonuses to attack modifiers are fewer and farther between, which helps to keep ease of tracking these adjustments within reason. Like skills above, this also helps the GM scale adventures to the party for the same reason, the numbers and math don’t get out of hand quite as quickly as they did before, this also means that updating armor to compete with players or enemies attack bonuses isn’t as important or needed as often as it has been in the past. Having an attack bonus go beyond +10 before 5th level is fairly difficult. This change to attack and also means that when a caster doesn’t have any spells left at their disposal they don’t see so large a drop-off in the viability, instead of making it easier to deal damage, the warrior classes’ advantages come more from how hard it is for them to take damage.
At the same time, armor has also changed, now instead the armor’s category has basically replaced the maximum dexterity bonus, with Light armor having no restrictions, Medium armor allows of a Dexterity bonus of +2 at best, and heavy armor has 0 dexterity modifications. Also, each individual suit of armor lists what your AC is before any dexterity modifiers if applicable, which means ACs don’t climb as high as quickly.
These two changes have created a new paradigm in combat. In Pathfinder, the battles are usually fairly calm endeavors with brief moments of extreme anxiety (either from dealing 37 damage or from having only 7 hit points of left). 5th edition however, presents combat in general as a more nerve wracking affair, keeping a higher degree of background tension in general, but controlling the extremes to a greater degree. The changes has made the concept of defense more appealing, without making it more powerful than offense, something that previous versions struggled with, as either an attack was almost a given or it was nearly impossible. In this version of combat, no player is ever just rolling the die to avoid the shame of a natural 1 (an automatic miss) or because they need a natural 20 (an automatic hit) to make the attack succeed, each roll matters.
Finally we come to ability score changes, and I saved the biggest changes for last. Before you might have noticed that I grouped feats and ability scores together, and at the time it might not have made sense, but it does here. At every 4th level up to 16 and then again at 19th level, each character is presented with an ability score increase. While this might be listed as such, it’s really a choice: increase any one ability score by 2, increase each of up to 2 ability scores by 1, or acquire a feat. In this version the feats are less common, but they are more impressive, most of them either have multiple applications in different scenarios or they allow you to still upgrade an ability score by 1.
The idea behind all of these changes seems fairly straight forward, they’re trying to simplify this system to make it more friendly to newer players, without alienating returning players, and I think they did a fairly successful job, however there are some areas that were hurt by these changes. For starters it seems like most of the important decisions a player has to make about their characters are made in the first 3 levels, this doesn’t mean there isn’t room for customization, but to make character planning easier it can feel like a lot of the choices were taken out of your hands. Admittedly I haven’t reached the later levels yet, but it appears to me that the further your character progresses the fewer decisions you truly have to make. An apt comparison I feel to illustrate my point is that character creation in Pathfinder is a constant and ever changing notion where the path you’re taking can change at any moment, for my metaphor it’s an FPS game like Halo. Character creation in 5th edition is more like a rail shooter such as Time Crisis, you pick the path you want (the level) and the game takes you where it’s going from there with only a minimal number of choices to be made along the way. This means that a player might have to look at how the character will play at later levels while there character is still somewhat nascent.
While this apparent lack of freedom and customization might appear as a drawback to a more experienced player, I feel like the simplicity and streamlined nature of the 5th edition system after all might make it more appealing to a newer player. Again, more experienced players aren’t guaranteed to disapprove of 5th edition, it just might take some time for them to realize that while you’re giving up some aspects of control over your character, it’s also made it so much easier to optimize each character’s build, by limiting the amount of material you have to remember and keep track of as you advance.
To summarize I would recommend Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition for newer players so that they can take advantage of the streamlined system while they familiarize themselves with how the game is played, and Pathfinder for the more experienced players who want more control over their characters and intend to dive right into all the little complicated little details that make the mechanics more complex.