Even if you don’t like 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons — to which I say, “You, good sir, are crazy-pants” — the Player’s Handbook is a gorgeous piece of work that expertly pulls together the largest swath of playable stuff from editions past, presenting it in as comprehensive and well-curated form as we’ve yet seen. It’s certainly an effort that looks back to D&D’s past with rose-colored glasses, but it adds just enough new stuff and blows off plenty of chaff, creating a much more streamlined approach to the game than we’ve seen in recent editions. It provides more than just token support to the interaction and exploration “pillars of play,” rather than beefing up combat at their expense.
Rating: Content 4/5 and Form 5/5.
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Read on for the full review!
Dungeons & Dragons hardly needs an intro, and the Player’s Handbook has been the ubiquitous star release of every edition for 30-some-odd years, so let’s cut to the heart of the matter: D&D 5th edition uses the Player’s Handbook as a comprehensive package to bring together the widest collection of player-facing rules (character creation, adventuring, combat, spells) and character options, bundling it with just enough Forgotten Realms references to give it a coherent glue that is familiar to the grognards of editions past and intrigues new arrivals to the game.
Part 1: Characters
Chapters 1 through 6 are everything you need to create a character so you can get to the adventuring. If you have some preconceived notions of what you want to play (“An elf like Legolas!” or “Conan the Barbarian!” or “Presto from the D&D cartoon!”) you can just read Chapter 1 (about 5 pages) and skip right to the Class and then the Race that matches what you want. You don’t even have to read the whole thing: 5th Edition has streamlined the rules enough that you don’t have to pre-plan 6, 10, or 21 levels of Feat prerequisites and multi-class dipping in order to make sure you don’t bork the whole process somewhere down the line and end up with an unplayable character. You pick a couple other things (pre-packaged equipment lists based on Class and Background keep choices streamlined and very well optimized), and you’re off and running, making this edition’s turnaround time from “I opened this new-fangled book” to “Let’s play!” incredibly fast.
For those who don’t know what’s what, everything in this book is pretty damn iconic, so it won’t take much to figure out where you wanna go. Let’s run down the options.
Your race — really your species — determines a lot of physical and cultural traits for your character: Dwarves are relatively short, but stocky and durable while Elves are thin, lithe, and a bit prissy. That sort of thing. Once you choose your race, you often get to choose some variant called a Sub-race that provides another twist or special ability to represent their specializations and talents.
Races are split into “Common” and “Uncommon” races, which has no real meaning beyond saying “some DMs with issues about being progressive and inclusive may ban some of these races because they only want you to have their brand of fun. #JerkDMs”
Dwarf. Gimli from Lord of the Rings. Bruenor Battlehammer from the Forgotten Realms novels. Sturdy, can see in the dark, and know a lot about stone architecture, which is unsurprisingly quite valuable in a game called DUNGEONS & Dragons.
Sub-races include Hill Dwarves (wise and tough) and Mountain Dwarves (strong and trained for wearing heavy armor).
Elf. Legolas from Lord of the Rings. Deedlit from Record of Lodoss War. Malekith from Thor: The Dark World and Drizzt Do’Urden of the Forgotten Realms novels are examples of Drow. Agile, super-senses, and with some enigmatic I’m-not-really-sleeping and can’t-be-paralyzed traits.
Sub-races include High Elf (educated and magically-learned), Wood Elf (fast and wise in the natural world), and Drow (A.K.A. Dark Elf, sensitive to sunlight but trained in the ways of dark magic and assassin-style weaponry).
Gnome. A bit taller than David the Gnome, and certainly more animated than the Travelocity Gnome, these guys are sort of like tree-hugging hippy hobbits that also like making jewelry and working as second-tier miners (below dwarves, of course). Gnomes are naturally smart and have a cunning that helps them resist magical effects and attacks against their mind or will.
Sub-races include Forest Gnomes (agile and connected to the forest animals among which they make their homes) and Rock Gnomes (sturdy builders and artificers).
Half-Elf. Tanis Half-Elven from the Dragonlance Saga is obviously one of these, but you could also argue that Aragorn sorta-kinda occupies a space like this: mostly human, but with certain elvish traits and an extended lifespan that creates a more pragmatic view of the world…and likely a lonelier place within that world. Generally operating in both human and elven society — or cast out of both — Half-elves are versatile, highly skilled like humans but also touched by the fey powers of their elven lineage.
Half-Elves do not have sub-races.
Half-Orc. Remember that Worf joke I made in the Dragonborn area? Well, that’s perhaps more appropriate here, because Half-Orcs are ugly, war-like sumbitches that are stronger and bigger than humans. Their strength makes them intimidating and savage opponents.
Half-Orcs do not have sub-races.
Halfling. Bilbo and Frodo exemplify the homebody-turned-adventurer style of halfling, but there’s also the more adventure-loving brand such as Willow Ufgood from Willow: he dreamed of adventure and magic right form the get-go!.
Sub-races include Lightfoot (social-yet-sneaky) and Stout (sturdy and dependable) halflings.
Human. Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Conan the Barbarian. Rincewind from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Extremely versatile, humans get a bump to every single Ability Score (the fundamental traits that measure a character’s physical, mental, and social power level).
There are no human sub-races per se, but instead they receive some choices and an optional rule:
- Regional and cultural options determine common traits like eye/hair/skin coloration and naming conventions, and don’t provide any additional mechanical changes.
- With your DM’s permission, you can choose to be a “Variant Human” that trades out the across-the-board Ability Score increase for an increase to 2 Ability Scores of your choice, an extra Skill proficiency, and a Feat (which are entirely optional in 5E).
Dragonborn. Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kidding not kidding. These are big, ripply-muscled human-like guys who have dragon-shaped snouts, scaly skin, and basically look like the Draconians from the Dragonlance Saga mixed with Killer Croc from the Batman family of comics. Strong, with forceful personalities.
Dragonborn don’t have sub-races, but instead choose which type of dragon they are descended from (dragons are grouped into families by color for evil dragons or by a metal associated with good dragons), and in turn this determines an inherent resistance to certain damage types and the nature of the Dragonborn’s breath weapon attack.
Tiefling. Take pretty much any screen capture of a dude or dudette that just summoned some Evil Power™ that bolsters their strength, and you get a tiefling: inhuman eyes, red-tinged flesh, maybe some horns and other stuff that screams HEAVY METAL ALBUM COVER, YEEEEEAAAAAHHHHHH!!! Their ties to the infernal blood in their veins gives them forceful personalities, resistance to certain attacks, and inherent magic.
Tieflings do not have sub-races.
A Class is sort of like your character’s profession, and it is certainly the most fundamentally important aspect of character creation, determining the bulk of your character’s capabilities during an adventure, what weapons, armor and gear they can use, and mapping out the general progression of their abilities as they gain levels from defeating monsters, perform quests, and basically become better and more powerful over time.
Barbarian. These guys are the tanks of the game, with loads of hit points and damaging attacks made even more so by their ability to activate Rage that fuels their badassery.
Specializations are Path of the Berserker (intimidating, even more rage-fueled battlefield wrecking balls) and Path of the Totem Warrior (barbarians connected to some totem animal that grants them thematically appropriate powers like claws or heightened senses).
Bard. Musically-inclined spellcasters that have an exciting mix of bolstering spells, magic that baffles and misdirects targets, and awe- or fear-inspiring effects. Bard’s are still pretty versatile, but are full-on spellcasters, which is something that’s been in and out across several previous editions.
Specializations are College of Lore (the classic D&D Bard that is a jack-of-all-trades) and College of Valor (a warrior-skald that boosts their combat prowess and bolsters their allies in battle).
Cleric. These warrior-priests are the devout followers of some deity or powerful religious concept, and while quite capable in combat, receive a significant variety of divine spells. They can blow stuff up with holy fire, heal their allies, curse their enemies, or otherwise bolster the offensive and defensive power of themselves and their allies.
Specializations are a choice of Domains: Knowledge, Life, Light, Nature, Tempest, Trickery and War. Domains provide thematic additions to the Cleric’s spell list and unique abilities.
Druid. Druids belong to an extremely loose order of beings dedicated to the preservation and/or power of the natural world, capable of taking on the form and abilities of wild beasts or casting spells that mimic the effects of destructive natural events, or that alter the natural world to benefit them.
Specializations are Circle of the Land (spells and powers thematically tied to terrain types like deserts or mountains) and Circle of the Moon (werewolf-like shapechangers that have mastered the ability to manipulate their transformations to wild beasts).
Fighter. Soldiers, warlords, tacticians, and gladiators are some of the types of characters that would be members of the fighter class.
Specializations are Champion (sort of the epitome of a durable-as-$%^# combat veteran), Battlemaster (a tactician that uses the ebb-and-flow of Superiority Dice to perform additional maneuvers during attacks), and Eldritch Knight (a warrior trained in enhancing their combat skills with combat-related spellpower).
Monk. Not the religious recluse of historical religions, Monks in D&D are like Zen martial artists in the vein of David Carradine’s character in Kung Fu, as well as the samurai protagonists of so many anime films and series (Kenshin as one example). They don’t necessarily have to be an “Asian stereotype”: many of the patron gods and goddesses in Forgotten Realms (and other D&D campaign settings) are dedicated to personal enlightenment and physical betterment, and this is essentially what Monks seek in the form of perfecting their physical prowess, mental agility, and spiritual connection to divine power, leading to real, palpable effects in the world.
Specializations are Way of the Open Hand (hand-to-hand kung-fu masters), Way of Shadow (sneaky ninja magic guys), and Way of the Four Elements (harnessing chi into elemental powers).
Paladin. Whereas clerics are the divine servitors of deities, Paladins are like an order of holy knights that are dedicated more to an ideal and oath to some worldly concept, rather than a god-like figure, and in turn, receive powers that help them combat evil, tyranny, and destruction, whether it’s by smiting foes or healing those that have been oppressed or attacked by such malignant forces.
Specializations are Oath of Devotion (a knight devoted to defending the weak and downtrodding, using radiant magic to weaken or repel supernatural horrors), Oath of the Ancients (and order of paladins dedicated to the powers of the natural world), and Oath of Vengeance (these guys are like a somewhat more valiant version of The Punisher, dedicated to bringing evil folk to justice…or else!).
Ranger. The quintessential hunter/tracker of the wilderness, the Ranger is Aragorn personified, for it combines the wilderness survival abilities with a dash of magical enhancement for combat or healing purposes, and allows for communication with and befriending savage beasts.
Specializations are Hunter (wilderness scouts and skirmishers) and Beast Master (a ranger sporting a trained pet beast that can usually tear an opponent’s head clean off).
Rogue. Thieves and assassins, the Rogue is an expert at beguiling, ambushing, breaking & entering…pretty much everything fun about adventuring.
Specializations are Thief (the master of breaking & entering unseen), Assassin (silent killers and infiltrators), and Arcane Trickster (beguiling charmers and pilferers who can even steal magical power).
Sorcerer. Sorcerers are dedicated spellcasters who gain their power not through rigorous study (like the Wizard) or divine faith (like the Cleric) but instead through an inherited power of their ancient bloodline, whether they have the spark of dragonsblood in their heritage or have some connection to the wild and wooly forces of magic that permeate the fantasy world.
Specializations are Draconic Bloodline (where the sorcerer slowly but surely gains all of the abilities — even the appearance — of dragons) and Wild Mage (spellcasters who can manipulate random energies in magic to create varied and sometimes baffling or dangerous effects).
Warlock. Warlocks are magic-users who gain their spells through convoluted, often parasitic pacts that they forge with otherworldly powers, not all of whom are evil or malignant, but instead are alien and enigmatic.
Specializations are Pact of the Archfey (dedicated to delirium and trickery), Pact of the Fiend (powered by curses and infernal luck), and Pact of the Great Old One (gaining power through madness and forbidden knowledge from beyond the known world).
Wizard. Wizards cast spells of great power and variety, learning magic through rigorous study and practice not unlike one Mr. Potter at Hogwart’s.
Specializations are based on a chosen school of magic: Abjuration (protection), Conjuration (summoning), Divination (knowledge and soothsaying), Enchantment (domination and beguiling), Evocation (forceful magical offense), Illusion (trickery and falsehoods given form), Necromancy (the powers of energies related to life and death), and Transmutation (changing the shape, form, or substance of things). Gone from previous editions of the game are the wonky extended names like Invocation/Evocation, or second-rate schools like Elementalism and Universal Spells.
Alignment. D&D has always contained a thing called “alignment” that has acted as a guideline for “whose side are you on,” whether it be the good guys, the bad guys, you’re out for yourself, or somewhere in between. It’s changed a lot over the years, but 5th Edition tries really hard to stress that it’s a sort of underlying alignment in the multiverse — a connection to the larger cosmology that might dictate where your character’s soul goes once they’ve died — but that it only vague influences a character’s moral and ethical beliefs during life, suggesting how closely they might follow laws, whether they actively choose to put the safety of others above their own, and so on. There is an alignment called Unaligned that is mostly reserved for animals or creatures that react based on instinct or prescribed commands, and thus don’t really consider laws or ethics before taking action.
Unlike editions past, alignment has almost no mechanical bearing on game play. There are no spells that detect specific alignments, but rather they might discern creatures or areas that are tainted by supernaturally powerful versions of alignments, such as demons and devils radiating auras of PUREST EVIL or some such.
Backgrounds. Backgrounds are a new thing to D&D, and they are neat little package of minor abilities and proficiencies that provide some context for what your character did growing up, whether by profession or by circumstance. Nobles get some hoity-toity connections, criminals might have underworld contacts, sailors might be able to get passage on ships in exchange for work rather than coin, and so on. While there are mechanical pieces to them, they are small and distinct, and can be tailored to the campaign world or the themes of the specific adventure or campaign the DM has planned. For example, the sailor has a variant for pirates. The guild craftsman might choose a variant that makes them a guild merchant, instead: not exactly skilled at crafting stuff, but great at selling it for a healthy profit!
Inspiration. Included with every Background are random tables — or you can just choose what you want off of them — for Bonds, Ideals, Flaws, and personality Traits (BIFTs, for short).
- A Bond gives the character some connection or oath that ties them to other characters (specific or general), or common places and themes in the campaign world. “Everything I do is for the common people” or “I will someday get revenge on the corrupt temple hierarchy who branded me a heretic.”
- An Ideal is some concept the character cherishes in some way, informing how they might deal with certain types of interactions. “Tradition. The ancient traditions of worship and sacrifice must be preserved and upheld” or “Charity. I always try to help those in need, no matter what the personal cost.”
- Flaws represent some belief or quirk that can become detrimental to the character at certain times. “I am inflexible in my thinking” or “I judge others harshly, and myself even more severely.”
- Personality Traits (usually you choose 2 for some variety) are interesting roleplaying instructions that can spice up interactions with NPCs. “Nothing can shake my optimistic attitude” or “I am tolerant (or intolerant) of other faiths and respect (or condemn) the worship of other gods.”
While none of these traits actually force gameplay mechanics or need to straightjacket creativity when roleplaying your character — people’s personalities change based on who they are interacting with, circumstances that have changed their perspective, and so on — they can be tied to a mechanic called Inspiration. This is simply an instance where the DM rewards a player for good roleplaying by giving them Inspiration, which the player can then trade in for an instance of Advantage (more on that soon). You’re either inspired or your not, so you can’t bank multiple instances of it.
Ultimately, if you find interesting ways to reveal your Alignment and your BIFTs through roleplaying with other player characters and the NPCs and creatures you interact with during the game, Inspiration is the mechanical reward you might get. Otherwise, it’s all just evocative window dressing.
Parts 2 & 3: Rules
Dungeons & Dragons purports to have three pillars of play that we keep mentioning: exploration, interaction, and combat. The rules of the game cover those three areas completely, but perhaps never as succinctly as in the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook. In no small part, this is due to the design decision to make D&D’s rules relatively compact — there aren’t as many “touch points” in the rules as there might have been in 3rd Edition or 4th Edition, which had 5-foot steps, attacks of opportunity, significantly more Feats gained throughout an individual character’s career, and a broader number of action types — and even to keep them a little more open-ended, meaning Dungeon Master’s might have to rely on judgement calls to solve corner cases…but not without plenty of guidance (we’ll touch on this in a review of the Dungeon Master’s Guide).
The Core System
Ability Scores, Proficiency, and the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic form the underlying mechanical formula that will touch on everything in the system. Every character and monster has six Ability Scores — Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma — that define their innate prowess, and they get a Proficiency bonus based on their character level (or in the case of monsters and NPCs, their Challenge level) that gets added to anything for which they are proficient: certain trained Skills, certain equipment (often labeled Tools) that they have specialist training in, some weapons (based on what their Class trains them in), and Saving Throws (a sort of reflexive “defensive” use of an Ability Score to resist things like mental domination, to dodge traps or bolts of magic, or to resist the effects of poison or infection). Roll 1d20, add the modifiers from your pertinent Ability Score and Proficiency (if you are proficient with the things/situation in question), and that’s your result. Beat a number — called a DC, short for Difficulty Class — and you succeed.
Advantage/Disadvantage. Advantage and Disadvantage are new to this edition, and represent a simple way of modifying dice rolls based on whether you have things that benefit you in the particular situation (Advantage) or work against you (Disadvantage). You either have one or the other, or neither: you can’t stack them multiple times, and they cancel each other out entirely, no matter how many different sources of either you’ve got. How they work is simple: roll a second 1d20 whenever you make a check (as above) and take the better roll (Advantage) or the worse roll (Disadvantage).
Interaction is largely the providence of Skills that your character may or may not be proficient in. At its simplest, interaction is both “stuff you engage in with your fellow players and DM all the time” and “specific social interactions to sway, swindle, or influence an NPC or monster.” The mechanical issues that come up are trying to parley with monsters or opponents rather than fight them, interrogate or intimidate opponents or captured enemies, deceiving an opponent, antagonistic bargaining, and things of that nature. The skills are pretty self-explanatory, and the bulk of the interaction rules live in the Dungeon Master’s Guide since the DM is the one controlling the NPCs and monsters that the players will be interacting with.
Exploration is one part travel and one part perceiving and interacting with the environment. While a good amount of exploration is covered in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there’s actually quite a bit of player-facing info. The most important bits are pace, party rank/marching order, exploration roles, and rest. Though covered in a few brief pages, there’s a lot of information in there, and it’s all really good.
Characters have movement rates determined largely by their race (spells and magic items can often alter this), but that mostly covers their “combat speed,” while their overland movement is determined by a fairly generic “pace” that does a great job of emulating movement over different terrain types, using mounts, and intersects with the Condition rules (more on those later) that cover Exhaustion. The players determine what rank their character occupies in the party, and they can choose roles during overland movement. What all of this does is very neatly, very simply cover what is otherwise a complex set of decisions involving all the possibilities of overland travel that can go for great distances. Foraging and hunting for food, tracking enemies or covering the party’s own tracks, setting up watches and scouts, mapping the wilderness terrain or simply using an accurate map, utilizing guides knowledgeable in the region, walking or riding mounts…all of this stuff is covered beautifully, often when it wasn’t so explicitly covered in previous editions. When holding these rules up to the wilderness travel rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it’s easy to see how tight and well developed the rules are, without being horrifically complex or wordy. The added benefit is that you can then turn to various adventures like Out of the Abyss, which radically changes travel due to being set entirely underground, and find that the changes in such an adventure require a single line or two of text. Class abilities and especially Backgrounds can all interact with these rules very simply, and without dozens of unforeseen consequences.
D&D has always had combat situations at its core, as parties of player characters are always looting and pillaging and fighting to gain Experience Points. Fights are inevitable, so a good combat system is a necessity, and past editions of D&D have rarely disappointed, though they have often veered substantially in form, sometimes being unintelligible, other times focusing on hours-long set-piece battles, and even being nearly free-form. 5th Edition tries hard to straddle the line of “theater of the mind” and “battlemap-friendly” which seems nearly impossible.
But they’ve done it.*
*See Caveats, below.
Combat as a “system” is just a handful of pages, and gets rid of some of the complex systems in 3rd Edition like attacks of opportunity being triggered by a wide variety of activities, and simplifies the types of actions available to characters to reduce the amount of “cascading actions” or off-turn actions that were prevalent in both 3rd and 4th Editions. So, characters can take a Move, they can take an Action (which covers an attack, casting a spell, performing an all-out run, etc.), and they get a single Reaction (which in fairness can be an opportunity attack-style maneuver, but the parameters are significantly tighter). It’s not D&D if there’s not a few exceptions, but the exceptions are extremely limited and spelled out clearly: a character can have a Bonus Action, but only if they use a Class Ability or cast a spell that tells them they do. A character can draw a weapon as part of an Action, so it otherwise doesn’t cost them anything to do so.
*Caveats. Part of what makes 5th Edition’s combat work well in both theater of the mind and on a combat map with miniatures and a grid is that time has been spent converting everything to real-world measurements (feet) and even providing a conversion table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for weapons and spells that affect an entire area so that you can determine how many targets are affected without the need for knowing exact placement. If you’ve ever played FATE Core, Savage Worlds, or 13th Age you’re going to know about loose “range bands,” area of effect “templates,” and “zones” as a replacement for battle maps, and this forethought and conversion work is an excellent mix of all that along with handling miniatures without having to make unique rules for both situations.
Spells & Magic
Spells take up a huge section — there’s a lot of them available for a lot of classes — but to keep things contained, we’ll just say that they work like every other edition, for the most part, and even more simply, they gel with the combat system in as obvious a way as possible: you make an attack roll when needed, or force the opponent to make a saving throw, and viola! Done. Past editions had spells that were “touch attacks” that bypassed armor or had their own little subsystems for determining whether they work or not…GONE! All of that is gone. Spells work like other stuff, but still do magical stuff. That’s all you need, and that’s what they do, though it’s clear the designers looked long and hard at spell effects (and magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, too) and did a great job of making them fun and varied.
The biggest loss for the Player’s Handbook is that all of those spells are presented in a “statblock” format that almost completely rolls back the advances learned in 4th Edition D&D, where information was laid out in a very organized manner (arguably too organized for its own good, but never mind that for now). Important combat-related features of many spells — Area of Effect, Damage, Saving Throw, what kind of attack roll (if any) the spell requires — are buried in the descriptive text of the spell, which can be painful to reference quickly, because the “natural language” goal of D&D 5th Edition took precedence. This was arguably a problem that 4th Edition created, but the solution might be somewhere closer to 4th Edition than the design team believed, at least when it comes to spells, and now that ship’s sailed.
Conditions are status effects that often are inflicted by spells, special monster attacks, or special combat maneuvers, like knocking someone prone, restraining them, turning them to stone, or tiring them out over time (perhaps due to lack of food or water). What’s cool about them is that they are accompanied by some incredibly amusing sketch-style artwork that is often as irreverent as it is descriptive.
Gods of the Multiverse & Planes of Existence
While there’s very little in the way of description beyond a general overview of each pantheon, there’s a huge list of every major D&D campaign setting’s patron deities, as well as very brief tour of the Multiverse (and a cool diagram of it) in which the D&D universes exist. It’s sort of a primer on cosmology in D&D, but all most players really need to know is that it’s the stopping point for picking out who their Cleric worships.
There are about 20-30 creatures listed in the back of the book with fully developed statblocks. These largely represent animals that can act as bestial companions to various classes (like the Beast Master Ranger), magical familiars for spellcasters, and the occasional undead monster or low-level demon — skeletons, imps, zombies, sprites, giant spiders — all of which can be created or dominated through the use of various spells and thus could become willing or unwilling allies in the characters’ journeys, at least for a time.
Appendix N is sort of an infamous reference to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gygax, in which he lists a bunch of books and short stories that provided some sort of inspiration to D&D, notable as much for its absences as its inclusions. The Inspirational Reading of the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook updates the list to add in 30+ years of new stuff, but notably it offers a lot of internal references to D&D novels, as it rightfully should. Even if you hate them, series like The Dragonlance Chronicles and authors like R.A. Salvatore have absolutely dominated best-seller lists and have defined or redefined aspects of Dungeons & Dragons lore for years.
Editions At War!
Up to this point I’ve tried hard to make relatively few callbacks to previous editions, and just note what I like about the stuff that appears in the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, but it’s time to do what everyone else on the internet does — and what everyone on the internet hates — and chime in on how this PHB stacks up to editions past. Remember that I can’t touch on every single subject — this is already another one of my typically long-as-all-get-out reviews — so be nice to me, mmmkay?
Pre-AD&D. The Dungeons & Dragons brand returned — spiritually, at least — to their “Basic D&D” roots by pumping out the combination of the D&D Starter Box and the online, download-for-FREE! basic rules that are linked way back in the intro text of this review. The Player’s Handbook doesn’t speak much to this, but for those of you who want a “simpler experience” you’ll actually find the nitty-gritty rules — ignore all of those Class Specialties, dozens of Sub-races, hundreds of Spells, and loads of Backgrounds — are the exact same as those presented in the 5E PHB, which should speak to how compact and succinct the rules of playing the game are. In that way 5E can be boiled down to some pretty simple moving parts that do a lot toward “getting to the fun” and not requiring tons of cross-referencing and ridiculous searching for every +1 modifier, similar to OD&D and the lauded “Red Box” of the ’80s.
AD&D, 1st Edition. In a way, the 5th Edition PHB has a lot in common with the AD&D Players Handbook (aside from the apostrophe!). The 5E crew took the time to add some info on deities and the Multiverse, so there’s a hint of a greater world to explore, but remains focused largely on just presenting the facts, ma’am. While 5E loads on tons and tons of options, you can clearly see that the seminal edition of AD&D still influences the general order of information and its presentation. Improving on that is hard, but in terms of technology, 5E makes use of much clearer and succinct language and headers, pulls in info from all editions to give a great mix of races and classes, and seeks to improve not only how the information is presented (it’s complete, unlike AD&D’s combat chapter!), but also improve on the “roleplaying” side of things but putting Alignment in the backseat and adding Backgrounds as a new means to better develop “who the adventurers are/were” regardless of their Race/Class combination.
AD&D, 2nd Edition. I believe there’s still some conflicting info on whether or not to call 2nd Edition the “Whitewashed Edition,” where they pulled out references to demons and devils, removed the Half-orc race and the Assassin class, and generally pushed a more heroic tone, rather than grave-robber mercenaries. Regardless, 5E is absolutely happy to roll around in the muck, as it were, with Tieflings, Half-orcs and even Drow listed among the playable races, the Assassin reappearing as a Rogue specialty, and Warlocks making dark pacts with alien intelligences that would be just as happy collapsing the universe in on itself as they are offering magic spells that create inky black tentacles that suck people’s souls out. One thing that 2nd Edition started to do a lot of was sidebars of “Optional” or “Variant” rules, and 5th Edition continues that practice in the PHB, mostly in the form of variant options for the different Backgrounds: there’s a Pirate variant for the Sailor Background, for example. That Backgrounds and Class Specialties both have their origins in 2nd Edition’s “Kits” is also not something that will go unnoticed by 2nd Edition veterans, though those didn’t start appearing until later splatbooks in 2E’s lifetime.
3rd Edition/3.5 Revision. Although things like attacks of opportunity (later: opportunity attacks) and tactical movement have their origins in the very beginnings of D&D, there was a massive generational shift in both presentation and execution of the more tactical rules of D&D, as well as the number-crunching when 3rd Edition landed. There’s a clear line of sight to 5th Edition, using the more “natural language” approach to presenting some pretty technical information, codifying Conditions, organizing (and reorganizing, in some cases) spells by School and Domain. In a very real way, 5th Edition has looked to the overall “cohesiveness” of 3rd Edition and borrowed terminology as much as possible, which isn’t a bad move considering how widespread 3E’s nomenclature and logical underpinnings are since the advent of the SRD, OGL, and the use of these in creating retroclones and spiritual successors like Pathfinder. What 5th Edition does differently, however, is to remove duplication, stacking, and so-called “simple modifiers” (+X or -X modifiers) whenever possible, creating a more streamlined experience. While Ability Scores still feature modifiers, Skills and Saving Throws have radically streamlined their modifiers by way of the Proficiency Bonus, and almost all situational modifiers have been replaced with the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic, save for rules for Cover in ranged combat and the occasional circumstantial bonus from a Class Ability, Feat, spell, or magic item. Fans of grueling mathematical research to wring out every last +1 Synergy Bonus are going to be disappointed by 5th Edition’s lack of modifier shopping lists, and will specifically find that all of the options and touch-points they used to have are gone from the Player’s Handbook, instead simply replaced by a few more core Race and Class options (hardly a benefit when weighed against the totality of 3E-era and now Pathfinder-era releases). DMs that enjoyed building monsters from scratch will actually find that the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook is in many ways useless, as NPC and monster creation is almost wholly the domain of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, save for spells and perhaps some inspirational ideas from various individual Class features. Some consolation may be found for DMs that like worldbuilding as much as they like the numbers game, however, as Backgrounds provide a fantastic and simple way of fleshing out the campaign world on the players’ side of the screen, so there’s a lot of room there for jury-rigging both the story and a few mechanics.
4th Edition. Fans of 4th Edition will find that the Player’s Handbook for the latest edition carries over a fair amount of what they love, as races like the Dragonborn and Tiefling stick largely to their 4E design roots, and classes like the Warlock and Bard certainly take some of the theory behind their 4E versions and update them to the slightly less overtly tactical version of the game, but keeping a lot of thematic elements that made them strong additions to D&D’s lore. There are a lot of rules elements that were perhaps best formulated in 4E that carry over here: simplified opportunity attacks, a Hit Die-based natural healing mechanic based on short and long rests, a proliferation of unlimited-use cantrip spells so that some spellcasting classes don’t have to unnecessarily dip into non-spell-related Feats or abilities in order to stay viable in adventures that don’t allow for immediate and often rest to recuperate spells, and much rarer instances of multiple attacks and off-turn attacks. However, much of this is a thematic port to the new edition of the game, rather than a mechanical port, meaning that certain advances that 4E brought to the Player’s Handbook aren’t there. Spells have a somewhat “obscure” statblock. Character creation guides like Class Roles are missing entirely. The number of multiple attacks and off-turn actions are reduced so greatly that they are nearly nonexistent for most classes and through most levels.
The D&D team talked up their art budget early on and it shows. The Player’s Handbook is a beautiful full-color book, bound like a text book and featuring loads of art throughout, most of it in the form of high-quality painted works, but there are also sketch-work style pictures to illustrate things (see the Conditions section) and — here’s an interesting addition — loads of symbols everywhere. It’s almost hard to catch them all at first, but there are symbols embedded in the artwork for every Class, and this carries over to subsequent products like Gale Force 9’s Spellbook Cards (which I’ll review), and new symbols show up with each adventure storyline. There’s so much artwork that the book feels almost like it’s trying to be a coffee table book, and while there are some folks who might rail against that, the fact is that the PHB is often a first major purchase for a new D&D player and a new edition of the game, so establishing a look and feel and tone for the worlds of adventure that D&D encompasses really needs to be a priority.
Clearly, Wizards of the Coast nailed it.
Formatting and layout wise, the Player’s Handbook is a treasure among roleplaying games, as it has a healthy Table of Contents, an excellent Index, and fantastic use of headers and text layout. Some people have something against the text not being justified, creating jagged right-hand edges, but it doesn’t bother me, so I can’t knock them for that. If there’s any gripe I could come up with — and I’m a gripe-y person, so I gotta have something! — it’s that the page numbers are too damn small and lightly colored. But that’s it.
The Player’s Handbook looks handsome, and makes me want to play the amazing game between its covers. What else can you ask for?
- Here are the pregens from the Starter Set, and a whole bunch more from Wizards of the Coast.
- More pregens are available at Dungeon Masters Guild under the Pregen Characters product line (all free).
- There are a bunch of pregenerated characters for the various Adventurer League storylines, which can easily be added to your roster.
Spell Lists and Indexes:
- D&D 5e Magic Spell Cheat Sheets by Johnny Tek
- Spell List with all Info by Rob Twohy
- Donjon’s 5e Spell Sheet
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