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D&D 5th Edition

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This was going to be a series of posts on elements of D&D 5th edition, which just released (sort of), but they started seeming too interlinked. Instead I’ve put them all here. That makes it a bit of a beast, I know, but I think the context is important. To make it a little more manageable, here’s a table of contents:

  1. The Basics
  2. The Context
  3. I Was Wrong
  4. Land Grab
  5. About Those Credits
  6. Modularity
  7. The Text
  8. Progress
  9. Lingua Franca

The Basics

This is the D&D you know, prettied up a little, with a few things you probably don’t care about.

I can say that with some confidence no matter what other editions you’ve read, which is fairly impressive, but more on that later. For now, here’s a quick run down of the basics:

If you’re a player, your character is race + background + class.

Race (which is a horrible term for what we’re actually discussing, but has a lot of history) is human, elf, dwarf, or halfling, with a few variants for each. Each gives you some stat modifiers, some languages, and maybe some other stuff.

Your class gives you HP, proficiency in some things (weapons, skills, tools), hit dice, starting gear, and some abilities. Each class has sub-classes to cover, for example, schools of magic.

Your background gives you some starting gear, some proficiencies, and some abilities. The important thing about abilities here is that they’re fairly different from class abilities. Most class abilities are largely technical—you get a +2 bonus to ranged attacks—while background abilities are what I’d call fictional positioning: they set up things which are true in the world your character inhabits but which can’t be reduced to a number. For example, the right to hospitality in certain places, or the respect of people in certain fields.

Your character also has Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws, suggested by your background but ultimately up to you. Playing these out (or just cool playing general) can get you Inspiration, which lets you reroll (basically, glossing over a little here, see the next paragraph). You can give your Inspiration away, fan-mail-style, but can’t horde it: you’re either inspired or your not, no double inspiration.

You do most things by rolling a d20, adding a stat, and if you’re proficient in the thing being done (based on a skill, weapon, or tool) add your proficiency bonus which is based on level. If you have advantage you roll twice and take the better, if you have disadvantage you roll twice and take the worse. Inspiration actually gives you advantage, which is important because advantage cancels out disadvantage.

There’s a whole chapter on combat, but it’s pretty standard at this point: you do a thing on your turn and move, roll over AC to hit, etc.

You choose what spells to prepare, and then what slots to cast those spells with. You can prepare Magic Missile once and then use every one of your slots to cast it, for example. It’ll even have a better effect if you use a higher level slot.

As a GM, you’re told the basic flow of the game, how to set DCs, and that’s about it. The basic flow is clear: the GM describes, the players react, the GM describes, repeat. DCs are boiled down to three options at this point, 10, 15, or 20 for easy, medium, hard. That’s pretty much all you get as GM besides more specific rules for things like jump distances and overland travel that I won’t go into much here.

And that’s basically it. Nothing overly surprising, as there are precedents for every element, but the configuration and presentation is new and interesting and will take up the rest of this lengthy post.

The Context

There’s a common rumor I heard about Windows when I was at Microsoft: odd numbered versions are solid staid releases with mass appear, even numbered releases are experiments that push the envelope. Even numbered releases have all the new stuff and take all the heat so that odd numbered releases are accepted readily and deployed by enterprises.

I think it might be possible to look at D&D the same way. It probably only holds for 4 and 5 (though I’m not sure it holds for any Windows much beyond 7 and 8, either).

4E is often characterized as a failure, which I don’t see. Up until Q2 2011 D&D was outselling Pathfinder despite being about a year older. Pathfinder was certainly more competition than D&D had seen in a while, but without actual sales numbers it’s hard to compare it to 3E—general reports seem to indicate overall sales were increasing so it’s entirely possible 4E was selling as well as 3E but that overall sales were up.

That doesn’t make 4E a great game, or mean you have to like it, but it was selling. It was also divisive. It changed a lot of things, pushed new ideas, and generally gave plenty of canon fodder for internet debates.

Looking at 5E now nothing from 4E seems that surprising anymore. Many of the ideas are still here—healing surges and encounter powers stand out—but they seem less new and are wrapped up more carefully in old trappings. Healing surges are now Hit Dice, are a little less common, and take a while longer to use. Encounter powers are much less common and take more time to refresh. But those are relatively small changes, the bones are still there.

They’re sitting alongside many other familiar bones, though, and they’re presented in a different way, which makes a huge difference. 5E doesn’t seem like a backtrack from 4E, or a push forward from it, or from any other edition. It’s a blend of elements of all of those editions into something that’ll seem just familiar enough to 90% of the audience.

I Was Wrong

I recently had someone tell me that one of their best qualities was being right. I don’t have that quality, so I settle for owning up to my mistakes.

During the development of 5E I talked a lot about developing a specific game. I wasn’t big on the idea of the exact thing 5E became, and which I’m now rather fond of: a hodge-podge of different ideas from different editions stuck in a blender.

I was wrong. I was talking about designing a game that isn’t the latest edition of a beloved franchise.

If you were making your own take on D&D, I’d stand by all my advice: clearly think about what you want to design for, work with purpose, don’t try to please everyone. All that changes when you’re WotC. They’re designing for an entirely different environment.

The goal of 5E—which it succeeds at admirably—is passing the sniff test: does it smell like D&D?

They’re not trying to design a game that I’d like from anyone else. They’re trying to make something with the absolute broadest appeal. They’re not a home chef perfecting the best burger for their tastes; they’re the McDonald’s test kitchen trying to make a burger that will be bought in every corner of the world.

I was wrong to critique the game as if it was something made by, well, just about anyone other than WotC. They’ve carefully crafted a game that is unlikely to be perfect for anyone, but is quite likely to be alright by most people.

That’s an achievement. Making something that appeals so much to so many people is a feat of design itself.

The Land Grab

Appealing to so many people in the arena of gaming has an interesting side effect: everyone is, at least implicitly, making the case that D&D 5E is their kind of game.

I think the long term effect of this will shape the future of 5E. 4E grabbed the attention of certain groups early on and the attention of those people shaped the audience around it. That isn’t entirely divorced from the design—the qualities of the design are what attracted that group—but it did crystalize some views of it.

5E is a much broader game, and more people are talking about the elements of it that match their style. For some that’s inspiration, for others it’s the simplicity, and so on. A few people have even directly claimed that certain features are a victory for their point of view, but they seem like outliers—more people are just talking about 5E, seeing the things they like in it, and portraying it as their kind of game.

The contributor credits are a great place to see this: the range of people there reads almost like a pitch of whom this game is for, and it’s a pretty broad list.

About Those Credits

Unfortunately there are some other things about those contributors.

First off: they’re all dudes. It’s a shame that they couldn’t get at least one female, given the number of thoughtful female game designers out there.

The second issue is TheRPGPundit. I’ve spoken about this before and I regret it—not the content, but the fact that I went about it so publicly. Basically, the Pundit is a voice that runs against the case for 5E as a game for everyone. He’s the reason that I’m talking about a free PDF, not the $20 starter set.

There are plenty of other posts about those credits, and plenty of misinformation. I have neither the inclination or the time to collect them all and point out which are solid and which are wrong, so I encourage you to read carefully if you’re interested.

Overall the credits list is an appeal to different playstyles, and for the most part it succeeds. The inclusion of some divisive figures may even be a benefit for the game: the average buyer will never know and including every name on the list helps draw in fans of all those people. It’s the only way I can figure that the list makes sense.


One of the early promises of 5E was modular design. We heard less about that as time went on, so I’m not sure if it fell away or if this is what they were planning or if the basic rules aren’t modular but that’ll come later.

What we do have reminds me of 3E primarily: it’s modular in that the rules are so consistent and structured that it’s easy to see how parts could be pulled out or added in. The most obvious example of this is the sidebar on grid combat which is basically a way to add the grid to your game.

But it can go further. The text doesn’t suggest it, but race and background both seem optional (or interchangeable—what if Elf was a background?). My least favorite part, the chapter on combat, might be entirely skippable. I’m curious to see if you could fill in the rules for attacking someone just based on the general resolution rules.

This, perhaps, is the biggest difference between 5E and many other editions of D&D, the thing which most makes it resemble 3E: it’s a system that puts an emphasis on being consistent and logical. It wears its design heart on its book sleeve.

4E was a relatively opaque game. Messing with existing powers or rules was tough beyond the broadest (like making daily powers all reliable) or narrowest (upping damage on a specific power). 5E is more in the 3E mold here: abilities are more varied and more transparent.

I’m not sure I’d call this modularity, but it is more inviting to hacking. How inviting it really is will take time and mistakes to see, and also hinge on the license: can other people make 5E-compatible supplements?

The Text

The leap from modularity to the text itself isn’t obvious at first, but bear with me. The transition here is because settings are modular in 5E thanks to some brilliant writing in the text.

Of course settings have always been modular, that’s kind of the idea. 5E approaches that differently, though, and I think it’s an important difference. Usually settings are modular because the core book either presumes some setting or avoids any mention of setting. 5E, instead, mentions many settings right off the bat.

The text is littered with references to some of the biggest settings (Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and more). Every concept is mapped to specific settings when appropriate—which gods might be in a given domain, what hill dwarves are called, etc.

By calling out the multitude of settings it changes the model. Instead of a setting book being a replacement for the setting in the book, the book is already explicitly multi-setting. It’s a tiny shift, but it makes a huge difference in how the book reads. Proper names, excerpts from books, and other touches all make the text considerably more interesting. (It also gives it a bit of a 2E feel that I can’t nail down, possibly because I have some low-level connection of 2E and the importance of settings.)


One of the best elements of the text are these two paragraphs:

D&D 5th Edition On Gender Part 1 D&D 5th Edition On Gender Part 2

These statements are wonderful because they embrace the variety of human experience. They make everybody welcome at the table.

They’re not perfectly written, but they move so far in the right direction that they’re worth applauding. Some people feel that halfway progress is not worth praising, but I’d rather clearly say: this is something I like, this is good, now next time make it great.

There’s been a small predictable backlash, but that’s to be expected. (And, notably if you’ve been following other discussion on this, nobody who contributed to the game objected to this section.)

Lingua Franca

This is where we wrap around to my overall point in this writeup: D&D as lingua franca.

Because of its place in history and the size of the hobby, D&D has always been a reference point and common tongue among tabletop gamers. Until now that’s been largely a quirk of circumstance—D&D was there first, D&D is bigger. 5E is the first edition of D&D that is designed to be a lingua franca.

In that it’s a great achievement. This is more than anything why I suggest reading it and playing it: because this is a game designed to bridge gaps (if you ignore the names involved). For the next few years, this is likely to be the common tongue of gaming, knowing it gives you common ground with many other gamers.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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