Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

D&D PHB: Sorcerer, Warlock & Wizard

Ok, in the home stretch. I am literally starting this out in my hotel room in the middle of the night, partly to just get it started and wind down before I crash, partly to test out how the chromebook I’m using works offline. There is technically wifi here, but it’s the kind that makes you suspect someone has maybe set up a zombie router or the like.

Anyway, we’re starting out with the sorcerer. This was one of the really fun additions to 3e for the simple fact that it introduced an alternative for handling magic that felt a little less academic and a little bit more comic-booky. You just shot lighting from your hands. It just happens, Because you’re awesome. Over time, the idea evolved to introduce reasons for why this was so, but that was just a bonus.

In translating to 5e, the spirit of the original Sorcerer is easily found in the spellcasting rules, which I’m going to take a brief aside on here. Most caster classes cast spells the same way (the warlock possibly being an exception – I’ll know in a minute) – you get N spell slots per level, and the big differentiator is how you determine what spells you know. Divine casters pray for a certain number and get a few permanently based on their domain. Wizards have a variable pool based on what they’ve studied recently. Sorcerers have a fixed list that they just know.

Originally, this made sorcerers the option for players seeking less bookkeeping, and I’m not sure that part is still in play. But let’s dig in and find out.

Beyond spellcasting, the other core class feature for sorcerers is “sorcery points”, their currency. They get 2 at level 2 and gain 1 per level beyond there. Extra sorcery points can gained by sacrificing spell slots, or they can be used to buy extra spell slots (at a small upcharge, so the exchange rate is not entirely fluid). More importantly, sorcery points can be used to fuel metamagic, something that will look very familiar to fans of 3e.

Metamagic abilities are things like heightened spell – spend 3 sorcery points to give a target disadvantage on their saving throw. The sorcerer starts with two of these, and gains more at 10 and 17. Importantly, these largely do not stack (the exceptions being the damage booster).

These are cool and stylish, but do look a little fiddly. They definitely increase the complexity of playing a sorcerer, but I suspect they’re worth the tradeoff. Mechanically they seem fairly reasonable, though I admit the duration-increaser worries me a little. Extended spell lets you double the duration of a spell for 1 SP, and you can spend as many as you like to a maximum of 24 hours. That feels like it could create problems, even with the concentration rules, but I don’t have more than a feeling on that yet.

The sorcerer subclasses are sorcerous origins, effectively the reasons why the character has the power they have. There are only two presented – Draconic bloodline and wild magic – picked at level 1 and improved at 6, 14 and 18. The draconic bloodline is a classic idea – the blood of dragons runs through the sorcerer’s veins and empowers them. It starts out with an elemental affinity (based on dragon type)[^f1], extra hit points and a bonus to AC[^f2]. Later on you start doing more damage with your element of choice, sprout temporary dragon wings and generate dragonfear.

Wild magic is an acquired taste, but people who like the idea will probably be pleased. First and foremost, roll a d20 after every non-cantrip spell. If that’s a 1, you get a wild surge (which can be good or bad – there’s a d100 table of outcomes that takes up a whole page). And I’m confident there will be more tables in the near future.

A little weirder is the Tides of Chaos ability. Basically, you have a single invocation of this ability to gain advantage on a roll. You recover it after a long rest. No problem. Where it gets weird is that any time you’re waiting to recharge, the GM can call for a wild magic surge roll, and once that’s done, you recharge. This seems very strange on the surface of it, since it’s just something the GM can do whenever. It makes more sense when you realize that it is, effectively, a second instance of inspiration for the character. They start inspired, use it for a bonus, and can get re-inspired by something akin to a compel. If looked at that way, I can see it in use, though it’s still a bit of an oddball.

At later levels you can spend 2 sorcery points to add or subtract 1d4 a roll by someone else who you an see, and you gain a little bit more control over the wild surge results (roll twice, pick which one you keep). Ultimately, your spell damage dice can explode.

It’s a little weird that there are only 2 of these. I imagine it was a space constraint, since they used a full page for wild magic surges, but it creates a bit of a hurdle. If you want to play a sorcerer and don’t want to deal with the wild magic mechanic, your options are dragon or nothing. One more origin would have been welcome.

Ok, now I have been super curious about the warlock. The idea behind the character has always been compelling, but the 4e version of the class leaned heavily on 4e mechanics. There were some 3e precursors in supplemental books, of course, but this is the big leagues, the 5e core. How were they going to make them feel like something other than just one more flavor of wizard or sorcerer?

Warlocks choose a pact at first level. THis is their subclass, and it improves at 6, 10 and 14, with a sidebar at level 3. Setting aside pact-specific abilities, the Warlock is a spell caster, but her table doesn’t look like anyone else – rather than spell slots per level, it merely says “Slot level”, which very quickly caps out at 5 (at 9th level). I admit, just looking at it, I was confused.

Basically, the Warlock only has a small number of spell slots (starts at 1, peaks at 4) and it is at the highest possible level. These slots are recovered after a short or long rest, which makes their recovery pretty robust, but the bottom line is that the warlock is not casting a lot of spells. So what else are the doing?

Well, they’re also doing eldritch invocations – they get 2 at 2nd level, and eventually have 8. These are…well, remember the Battle Master’s manoeuvres or the elemental monk’s disciplines? They’re like that, except more magical. Powers like Mask of Many Faces, whcih lets you cast disguise self at will. There’s a lot of cool stuff in this space, and a lot of the class color comes from it.

At third level they get a “Pact boon”, which is a special summon (A familiar, a weapon or a spellbook) that depends on your pact. I’m not entirely clear why it’s not under the actual pact abilities. Not complaining about the abilities, though the book seems less cool than the other two.

At level 11, the warlock gets mystic arcanum, which answers my previous question about why their spellcasting stops at level 5. When you hit 11, you pick a level 6 spell, and you can cast it once per day. At later levels, you pick up levels 7, 8 and 9 eventually. As written, once you’ve picked the spell, you’re stuck with it, and since it’s an ability, not a true spellcast, you can’t swap things (so you can’t use your level 7 arcanum to use your level 6 arcanum a second time). At first glance, my assumption was that this allowed many fewer high level spells than a sorcerer or wizard, but that is not the case – at 20th level, they have one more 6th & 7th level spell per day, but only one 8th and 9th. It’s a little convoluted but the net result is that the warlock has comparable power to a wizard or sorcerer, but substantially less flexibility.

At level 20 a warlock can recover spells like she had taken a short rest, once per long rest, by entreating you patron, which is a nice but I admit does not make me say “BEHOLD MY APEX OF POWER”

As may be obvious by now, a lot of the meat is in the pact, the relationship with the an entity of power, and the warlock’s subclass. At first level, the warlock picks The Archfey, The Fiend or The Great Old One, then pick up more abilities at 6, 10 and 14.

The Archfey adds a number of spells to the characters known list (rather like a clerical domain) and allows them to generate a fearful presence. Later, the warlock learn to vanish, turn charm attacks against an enemy and plunge enemies into darkness.

The Fiend also expands the warlock’s spell list and gain temporary hit points when you kill an enemy. Later you can mess with luck, select a variable damage resistance and temporarily throw enemies into hell.

The Great Old One also expands the spell list, and grants the ability to communicate telepathically. Later, you can turn enemy failures into good luck, shield your mind and eventually infect the minds of others. So, creepy.

I admit, I do not entirely get the warlock. It looks like an interesting class, certainly, but I don’t have an immediate sense of how it plays. No ritual casting is a bit of a flag that it’s not a normal sort of caster class, but it goes in a very different direction from the Sorcerer. I have a hunch that the class leans very heavily on the Eldritch Blast cantrip (which several of the arcana improve), at least in some builds, but I really need to try it in action.

(Aside: I have been trying to write this in bits and pieces at Gencon, but it’s full of people! So, hello to you all!)

Ok, now we move on to the Wizard. I am a little worried going into this. Clerics are very obviously awesome, and the Sorcerer is full of flexibility. I am really genuinely worried that the Wizard ends up getting the short end of the stick, so I approach this cautiously.

Aside: I love the iconic image for the wizard. And, notably, he is not purple.

The core progression definitely reinforces that worry. One notable thing about a lot of the classes is that they have very few “dead” levels, where they get no new benefits. This is a good thing, because it makes levelling up more fun than just incrementing some numbers. The wizard has a blank every other level.

This is not exactly a surprise – historically the wizard has had a very small pile of class features, with the idea being that the bulk of the fun of levelling one coming from the increase in their spell capacity. That feels a little bit more thin among the other classes in 5e, but it caused me to look a little bit more closely at the actual spell list, and realized that I had made an incorrect assumption. In 3e, the wizard and sorcerer used the same spell list, so I assumed that was still true. Turns out that it is not, and that the wizard’s list is substantially longer, especially at higher levels. That’s actually pretty damn cool, and a nice point in their favor.

Which is good because the ability shortage is definitely telling. Wizard spellcasting uses slots the same way everyone else does, but its unique addition is the spellbook. The spellbook can have any number of spells in it, from which the wizard can prepare a number equal to wizard level +INT, which means the wizard consistently has more spells prepared than sorcerer and a tiny bit more than the bard. It’s comparable to a cleric & druid, but the cleric (and druid of the land) gets extra spells based on domain, so advantage to the Cleric there.

It is important to note that once the wizard has prepared her spells, they stay prepared forever (or until the wizard swaps them out). I like this very much, because it means that there can be value in just studying someone else’s spellbook, and there are great stories in that More, it means that taking away a wizard’s spellbook is an inconvenience, but not a real problem for them. (and, as an aside, the rules for scribing spells seem very straightforward, which is nice when compared to some of my recent experiences with 1e).

The only other ability that the default wizard gets is to be able to recover some spell slots during a short rest. That’s actually quite nice, but I’m not yet sure how often short rests are going to happen (now that they take an hour) so I’m not sure how often it comes up. Beyond that the next benefit is at level 18, when you get to turn a level 1 and 2 spell into cantrips and at level 20, when you pick some 3rd level spells you can cast more often (and despite the levels, the level 18 ability seems cooler than the level 20 one).

That’s a big dead zone from 1 to 18, filled only with stat increases and arcane tradition (the wizard subclass) abilities. The arcane tradition is chosen at level 2, and grants additional benefits at levels 6, 10 and 14, and the traditions presented correspond to the classic schools of magic. There’s nothing that would keep future traditions from being keyed off something else (Students of the Blackstaff or whatnot). All the schools give a discount on the cost of transcribing their spells, but otherwise offer unique benefits.

The school of abjuration gives you a ward that absorbs damage (effectively extra hit points) that can be recharged by casting abjuration spells. At higher levels, this ward can protect other people. They also can gain a bonus to abjuration skill checks (dispel magic etc)[^f3]. At level 14 they gain advantage to all saves against spells and damage resistance against spells. I admit, I’d been lukewarm until that last, but that final ability is awesome and brings to mind images of badass arcane witch hunters, so I’m totally on board with that.

Conjuration gets the ability to conjure up minor magical trinkets pretty trivially. At level 6 you can a short range teleport that lets you castle with a friendly ally. This is pretty cool, but made cooler by the fact that it recharges on a long rest or after you cast a conjuration spell. At 10th, damage can no longer disrupt your concentration on conjurations, and at 14th, your conjurations get substantially tougher. I think the level 6 ability is really the fun signature here.

Divination is historically the crappy school, so I was curious what they did with it, and the answer is awesome. At the start, they get to roll 2d20 after a long rest, and file away those numbers. Later on, they can swap those numbers in for any die roll made by the diviner or someone she can see before the roll is made. That’s spectacular. As you go on, casting divination regains you spell slots of a level lower than the divination spell cast and gain perception bonuses (things like darkvision or etheral sight). Finally, you increase the 2d20 roll to 3d20. Net assessment? Divination is pretty badass.

Enchantment opens up with a “These are not the droids you’re looking for” ability, which is exactly what it should be. At level 6. you can use charms to redirect attacks, at 10 you can add a target to you enchantments and at 14 you get to do some real master of puppets stuff, makign targets forget they were charmed.

Evocation is the one we got a preview of, but it’s nice to see it in context. It lets you shape your spell effects to create a safe zone, which is important when you fireball the fighter. Everything else is basically a variation on “do more damage”, and if you’re playing an evoker, that is just about right.

Illusionists, another old favourite, start by making sure the illusionist get the minor image cantrip, and improves it so that it can do sound and image together. That may sound small, but it’s decently robust. At 6th level, you can alter illusions that are in effect. At 10th, create a mirror image to protect yourself from harm. At level 14? Pick one part of your illusion and make it real. It can’t inflict harm, but even with that limit? That’s kind of awesome.

Necromancy let syou regain hit points when you kill things with spells. Morbid, but appropriate. Later, you can create more, better undead with animate dead, resist necrotic damage and energy drain[^f4] and ultimately seize control of the undead.

Transmutation has a long entry, so I’m intrigued. It starts with minor alchemy, which lets you do minor transformations of material. It’s kind of dull, and only temporary, so it’s primary use will be, I assume, to turn less valuable treasure into silver before getting out of town. At level 6, you get to create a transmuter stone. It takes about 8 hours to make effectively a minor magic item with one of four effects which benefit the holder. You can swap out effects when you cast a transmutation spell, and if lost or destroyed you can make a new one (you can only have one at a time). At level 10, you get an extra cast of polymorph to change yourself. At 14, you can use up your transputer stone for an array of more potent effects, including healing, raising the dead and restoring youth. I get what they were going for conceptually with this one, but I admit, it probably excites me least of them all.

I admit, I like the schools more than I expected to. Despite the lack of abilities, wizards do look like they’re going to be a lot of fun to play, but it’s definitely tricky to compare them to the sorcerer’s metamagic. I think I’m going to need to really dive into the spell lists (and get a sense of which spells are wizard only) before passing a final verdict, but in the interim, I give a thumbs up for fun.


And damn, that’s it for the classes. There’s still more of the book to get to, but it’s going to have to wait until Gencon is over.

I should add, I have had numerous people at the con tell me how much they have enjoyed these reviews, and that is pretty fantastic, so thank you all for wading through this madness, and I’ll see you all after gencon!

[^f1]: I noticed this with the dragonborn too, but it’s worth noting that brass and copper dragons seem to be back. It’s the classic 5 chromatic, 5 metallic, as it should be.

[^f2]: And, yes, this stands out as an immediate abuse. If this bonus stacks with the monk or barbarian ability (and the game supports multiclassing) then we’re going to see a lot of dragon-blooded barbarians and monks. Until I see a ruling, at my table, I am going to use a very strict reading that allows you to use one ability or the other, but not both.

[^f3]: This was a reminder that I am going to need to put together a cheat sheet of when spellcasters do and don’t get to use their proficiency bonus, because I am not sure I would have realized that you don’t normally get it for dispel magic et al.

[^f4]: Technically, their “Hit point maximum cannot be reduced”, but since that’s the mechanic for energy drain, that’s the effect.

D&D PHB: Ranger and Rogue

And, of course, the ranger starts with another purple elf. I’m just giving up at this point. Elves are purple. That’s the rule.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m curious to see what form the ranger takes. Like the bard, it’s a class that has a lot of different underpinnings and also is contractually obliged to support Drizzt.[1] And because the backgrounds and the fighting styles make it very easy to make an outdoorsy fighter who can track, how do you make a compelling ranger class? This is one of the big question marks of 5e for me, and the answer awaits.

We open with d10 hit die, medium armor and martial weapons. That seems right, though I’d prefer if they could use heavier armor but had reason not to (also, there are historical reasons for why you want to check the ranger’s hit die). The class gets 3 skills – same as the bard, less than the rogue, more than anyone else – so we have a nod towards ranger as a skill class.

At first level, Ranger’s pick a favored enemy (as you’d expect, with the qualifier that you can pick two races of humanoids as a single enemy). You get advantage with lore and tracking related to the enemy and you also learn a language. You pick up 2 more enemies over your career.

You also get to pick a terrain and get skill bonuses within it, as well as traveling benefits. Basically, within that terrain, you get to act like you’re a ranger[2].

At the no poach level (2) , rangers pick up a spellcasting and a fighting style. The fighting style list they have to choose from is shorter than the core fighter list, and noticeably does not include Heavy Weapons as an option, which is kind of a thumb in the eye to everyone who imagines ranger’s as the guys with the two handed sword (or even spear). Predictably, I blame Drizzt.

As they level, they pick up an extra attack, more travel and outdoor stealth abilities (none of which, I should note, are tied to favored terrain) and improved senses. it is only at level 20 that you get any combat bonus against your favored enemy, which is a weird choice.

The ranger subclasses are “ranger archetypes”, and since they’ve used archetype before, I’m assuming it to be the word for “we couldn’t think of anything else”. There are two, hunter and beast master. They’re chosen at level 3, and grant extra benefits at levels 7, 11 and 15.

The hunter is kind of like the dumbed down version of the fighter’s battle master archetype. Instead of choosing from a lot of moves, you get a list of three, and you pick one, then repeat that on subsequent levels. The moves are fine, oriented towards fighting certain kinds of opponents, so you can theoretically buy them in accordance with what suits your particular chosen enemy, but in practice, they are (with a handful of exceptions) kind of generic. Which is fine for making your ranger more badass (super-fine in some cases) but not compelling.

The beast master is basically “DO you want an animal companion? press here.”. You get an animal companion (a CR 1/4 creature) which is enhanced by your proficiency and level. If you want it to do anything but move, you order it to act in lieu of you. The subsequent abilities generally let the beast act more often and eventually share spells. Sadly, there is no equivalent of the Druid’s ability to “magic up” claw attacks, so I worry about high levels. This could have been addressed if rangers could cast magic weapon or similar, but they cannot.

If I sound a little disappointed, that’s because I am. Up to this point, I’ve been pretty excited about all the classes, and while I may have some minor issues, they have all seemed exciting and compelling. Setting aside the Drizzt jokes for a second, the ranger just feels like a mess. You might take the class if you really want a single animal companion (but not multiple, Beast Master style), but otherwise, I’m not really seeing why to go Ranger. And that breaks my heart, because the skilled, mobile fighter is one of those ideas I always really enjoy.

Well, perhaps I should play a rogue.

We saw the rogue in the basic rules, so not a lot of surprises here. Usual arms and armor. Sneak attack. Lots of skills and skill bonuses and lots of ways to avoid damage. Notably, at 2nd level they get a persistent extra action which can be used for dash, disengage or hide, which is pretty awesome, and makes rogue’s wonderfully mobile on the battlefield. At 5th they get Uncanny Dodge, which seems kind of broad (if you can see an attacker, use your reaction to halve the attacks damage). That’s super useful, and in theory the limit on it is that you only get one reaction per turn, so you can’t use it for other things, but I’m curious to see how much of a limit that really is in practice.

The roguish archetype subclasses reinforce what exactly is meant when they say archetypes[3] but otherwise are pretty neat (picked at level 3, ,new cool stuff at 9, 13 and 17). We saw the thief in the basic rules, and it remains delightful, with an emphasis on sneaking and stealing, with some nice old school nods like “use magic device” at level 13. It just looks fun.

In another old school nod, we have the assassin[4]. You get porficiencies with poison and disguise kits and the assassinate ability ( advantage when going first, automatic crit on surprised targets). Subsequently you gain the ability to create false identities as, effectively, disguises you can step into, and eventually the ability to convincingly disguise yourself as another person. It ends with a death strike which is a little less deadly than it sounds (double damage when hitting a surprised target, so double-crit, which is not bad, but not sure it’s a death strike.)

The arcane trickster has some newer ideas, but is also on the table for all the old school thief/illusionist folks (and their fragile, fragile PCs). As with the Eldritch Knight, you get spellcasting, and a host of magical tricks, a lot of which revolve around making mage hand more awesome (using it to pick pockets and locks, as well as disarm traps), to effectively backstab with spells (disadvantage on saves rather than extra damage), use mage hand as a distraction in combat and, ultimately, to steal spells.

In the conversation about the Eldritch Knight, it was pointed out that an additional benefit of this subclass is that it works even if the game does not allow multiclassing. And in that case, it’s clear why you’d take a rogue archetype like this. But if there is multiclassing, I think there’s a strong argument for this than the Eldritch Knight. Yes, you could go thief 10/caster 10 and get more spells and abilities, but you would genuinely lose out on the arcane trickster abilities, which are unique, distinctive, and seem well worth the cost.

Ok, so that washed the taste of the ranger out of my mouth. Let’s wrap up there and pick up with the caster trio later.


  1. Which is why Rangers have gotten things like two weapon fighting and animal companions. Not because Drizzt gets them because he’s a ranger, but because Drizzt has them.  ↩
  2. This is, to me, kind of asinine. Much like forcing the bard to pick which instruments he excels at. This is not a point of character differentiation. No one says “we need two rangers, one for the woods, one for the mountains”. No one creates a ranger and imagines her saying “Oh, sorry, I’m a coastal ranger, my extensive outdoors experience is of NO USE within this forest or upon this grassland!” Travel is not a critical enough part of things that you need this kind of differentiation (to say nothing of the fact that most overland terrain on actual RPG maps is less clear cut than these terrain types suggest.). And to add insult to injury, while you can learn new terrains, you don’t learn many – the list pretty much caps out at 3. So, Aragorn, sorry you only have grassland, forest and mountains – NO SWAMP FOR YOU. Anyway, obviously, I think this is stupid, and I’m not sure if I’m just going to allow the ranger to learn more favored terrain types (like, the 3 or 4 most dominant in his homeland), give these bonuses to everything and an extra bonus for favored terrain or just ditch the whole idea entirely with the sole qualifier that learning a new terrain requires spending a lot of time in it.  ↩
  3. I’m harping on this a bit, because it’s lame, but I also don’t blame WOTC. The obvious solution to this is names that suggest a social elements. Martial orders, ranger cadres, thieves guilds and so on. And in any other game that would be fantastic implicit worldbuilding. In D&D, a very loud subset of the player base would take umbrage at the implied setting, and generally make such a stink on the internet that it’s not worth the hassle.  ↩
  4. It’s interesting to wonder if the presence of the subclass basically means “don’t hold you breath for a base class”.  ↩

D&D PHB: Fighter, Monk & Paladin

Ok, fighter time. I’m not sure there’s a lot of preamble necessary, as this is possibly the most archetypical of characters. Dude wears armor and fights with badass weapons. Done. We’ve already seen the basics in the basic rules. Fighting styles let you skew the fighter in your preferred direction (including archery, which is welcome). They pick up a second wind ability, reminiscent of 4e, but only for fighters, which seems a nice compromise.

They also get action surge, which grants one extra action, once per rest. This doesn’t increase until level 17 (where you can do it twice) so while it has the structure of a currency move, it’s really not one. They pick up an extra attack at level 5, and at level 9, get to reroll saving throws[1]. Pretty cool stuff, but clearly, there’s a lot more to be had in the subclass, the martial archetype (which, for those counting at home, are picked at 3 and get extra stuff at 7, 10, 15 and 18).

The archetype we’d seen previously, the champion, is pretty clearly the easy option. If you don’t want to fiddle with a lot of game mechanics, don’t want to worry about spells or currency, and just want to beat the crap out of stuff, this is the way to go. It may be the most straightforward class in the game.

This is in direct contrast to the Battle Master, which is one of the fiddliest (at least to set up). It’s got some little utility stuff – learn an artisan tool and study enemies to gauge their strength, but the real heart of it is the combat maneuvers and the superiority dice.

The superiority dice themselves start as d8s, but increase with level. You get 4 of them, and they refresh after a short of long rest, so fighters looking for some currency, this is it. These dice fuel the maneuvers – you start with 3 of them and gain more as you level up.

The maneuvers are combat effects which are akin to short feat chains in previous editions, but less potent than feats in 5e. They largely correspond to combat actions you might take, and let you spend a superiority die to help the roll. Precision Attack, for example, lets you add a superiority die to an attack roll, before or after you roll. Riposte lets you spend a die when something misses you to counterattack, and if you succeed, add the superiority die to your damage. Basically, you can combine these maneuvers to make the fighting style that suits your imagining of the character.

Notably, a few of the maneuvers will be familiar to fans of the 4e Warlord, including getting others to attack and granting temporary hit points[2]. This makes me a little sad, since it suggests we may not see the Warlord again, but it’s nice to have an options to hit those notes.

The last archetype, the eldritch knight is kind of a fascinating acknowledge of realities of play, since it more or less gets you the fighter/magic-user (sorry, wizard) without needing to delve into multiclassing. That’s delightful. It also has a few notes of the swordmage, with a bonded weapon and eldritch strikes. There’s also combat casting for cantrips (and later, real spells) and can teleport a little.

But mostly, they get spells. Wizard spells, prepared like a bard or sorcerer, capped at level 4, with some limits on what to can learn that skew the pool towards abjuration and evocation.

As much as I love this conceptually, I admit, I’m mentally asking myself how this compares to going multiclass fighter/wizard (or fighter/sorcerer). At 10/10 F/W (vs L20 F with Eldritch Knight) I have lost Teleportation and the ability to make a melee attack when I cast a spell. I’ve also lost ~20 hitpoint (10d10 vs 10d6).

But I’ve gained 5th level spells, the benefits of a different fighter archetype and the class and subclass benefits of whatever caster class I chose. That seems to be a lot more gains than losses.

Now, I can see the eldritch knight working if you really just want to cast spells in melee, but otherwise, I think I may be missing the real reasons to go with this subclass (besides the non-trivial benefit of reduced bookkeeping)

Man, I thought that was going to be  simple. I can now only imagine what the Monk has to offer.

The short answer is, “a ton”. The Monk has more fiddly bits then I will ever be able to list, but I’ll try to capture the high points.

The basic Monk abilities are Unarmored Defense (Unarmored AC is 10 + DEX + WIS) and Martial Arts (use dex instead of strength for attack and damage when unarmed or using monk weapons, but use your martial arts damage die instead). That adding dex to damage bit is a surprise to me, and offsets the fact that the first martial arts die is a d4. For a monk, d4 + DEX may well be better than d8 + STR.  The damage die starts at a d4 and caps out at a d10, so the monk is never going to be landing the big single hits (which is find, since she’ll probably be throwing a lot of punches).

At second (non-poaching) level, they gain a speed bump and Ki powers. Ki is the monk currency, starting at 2, and eventually increasing to 20, it recharges after a short or long rest, and can be spent to fuel moves like flurry of blows or step of the wind.

They subsequently pick up more of the monk trademark stuff – deflecting missiles (which is pretty cool), falling safely, making extra attacks, stunning and magical fists, immunity to things like charm, fear, poisons and disease. Better saving throws. Wall and Water Walking. Basically, all the awesome monk stuff you expect (except perhaps quivering palm, see below). Also, notably, nothing that particularly improves AC, which is probably good, because that might be too scary.

The monk subclass is the monastic tradition (taken at 3, benefits at 6, 11 and 17). and at this point, I would expect them to be a little thin, since the monk is awash in abilities. But no, they’re pretty cool too.

The way of the open hand is most reminiscent of the classic D&D monk. You get to add knockback and such to your attacks, heal yourself, do cool peaceful meditation and, ultimately, use the deadly quivering palm. So, y’know, badass.

The way of shadow pretty much comes out and says what’s it’s for: Ninjas. Well, and shadowdancers. But it’s basically all spending ki for darkness and concealment, teleporting between shadows, hiding like a ninja and taking opportunity attacks. Seriously, I think the only think it’s missing is a shuriken ability. It’s definitely very focused, but if that’s the focus you want (because ninja), it delivers.

The way of the four elements is of comparable complexity and construction to the fighter’s battle master archetype. Like the battle master, it is composed of numerous pieces (powers, called disciplines) which you pick and combine to make your unique style. The disciplines largely revolve around adding elemental effects to your abilities, either in the form of spells or as specific effects. For example, Fist of Four Thunders lets you spend ki to cast thunderwave while Fangs of the Fire Snake extends flaming tendrils from your fists, extending your reach and doing extra damage. Basically, it’s like kung fu meets Avatar: the Last Airbender. Those are, of course, two great tastes that taste great together.

I think I can squeeze in the Paladin, so let’s hit it. Interestingly, the color text and core abilities really emphasize the lawful goodness of the class, but the oaths (more on those in a second) emphasize it’s not as clear cut as that. The baseline paladin looks familiar: heavy armor and weapons, Divine Sense (sort of a retuned Detect Evil) and laying on hands.

The lay hands mechanic is pretty sweet, as it gives the paladin a pool of healing equal to 5 x level. With a touch, he can basically heal any number of hit points, up to that amount, with the pool refreshing after a long rest. He can opt to spend 5 point to cure a disease or poison. I like this a lot – it’s simple to use, but feels unique and flavorful. It’s less of the “panic button” power, which some people might regret, but I prefer an ability which is actually used.

As they level, Paladins pick up a fighting style (like a fighter), clerical spells, the divine smite (burn spell slots for extra weapon damage) and immunity to disease. Later on the get an extra attack, a divine aura of courage and the ability to cleanse spell effects. All pretty cool.

The real meat of things, however, lies in the oath. This is the paladin subclass decision (happens at level 3[3], benefits at 7, 15 and 20). Mechanically, it lays down the tenets of your paladinhood, grants you the equivalent of domain spells, grants channel divinity effects and gives a few more powers. Conceptually, it defines the character. Paladins are no longer autotmatically following whatever definition your group uses of Lawful Good – rather, they are following the specific tenets of their oath, which may not be so morally straightforward.

To illustrate, the oath of vengeance demands the paladin fight the greater evil, grant no mercy for the wicked, win by any means necessary and pay restitution when you fail. That is not made of sweetness and light, and in fact it does not take much imagination to imagine this as the code of honor of a villain, not a hero. This is really interesting to me because it leaves the door open to Paladins of almost any ethos, but you need to be able to articulate it into a strong code. Also, it’s important to note, the relatively explicit nature of the oath makes the prospect of failing it a bit more concrete (and there’s a tease of oathbreaker paladin rules in the DMG that I’m very curious to see).

There are three oaths available, and the first is the oath of devotion. This is basically the classic lawful good paladin of old, swearing to honest, duty, courage, compassion, honor and duty. In keeping with that, the benefits are also nicely classic – you can use your divine channels to make your weapon divine or turn unholy creatures, generate a protective aura against charms, operate under protection from evil and good and ultimately have a minute of holy glowing awesomeness.

The Oath of the Ancients addresses an old bit of oddness of how you can have fey knights be paladins, since the priorities of the traditional paladin seem like a bit of a mismatch. These paladins are all about the idea of “the light”, which is (intentionally, I imagine) very loosely defined, but it sort of a mix of art, kindness, beauty, joy, love and goodness. A paladin of the ancients needs to kindle, shelter, preserve and ultimately be the light.

The spells granted are a little bit druidic, and the channels can be used for an entangle effect or to turn “the faithless”, which is to say fey and fiends (this is, I have to say, a fascinating distinction). They get a spell resistance aura, an ability to take more damage and ultimately, to assume the form of a champion of nature, basically kicking ass.

Even more than the nature cleric, the paladin of the ancients seems to be taking cues from the 4e Warden, which is not a bad thing at all, since that was a pretty fun class. More, this oath says interesting things about the world, so I admit it intrigues me.

I’ve already talked about the tenets of the oath of vengeance, but I will make a note about it: there’s a lot of reference to your sworn enemy, but nothing that particularly restrains that, so the paladin may have enemies of convenience at times. I imagine this is intentional, since that sort of abuse is exactly the risk of this sort of ethos.

These paladins can use their channels to abjure their enemy (basically, turn them) or to gain advantage against them. Subsequent abilities are all about kicking your enemy’s ass, culminating in turning into an avenging angel for an hour.

These are not nice guys, but I definitely know players who are going to gravitate to this oath.

(aside – I’m this far into the book, and I only just now noticed that each class has an icon in the upper corner of their first page. I’m not sure if these are used elsewhere, but they’re pretty neat).


  1. Which once again raises the specter of what an intelligence saving throw means  ↩
  2. One of which, Rally, seems fairly abusable if you have a lot of time. You can stack temporary HP on someone, short rest, and repeat 3 or 4 times before they go off into battle. I actually don’t mind it being used once to spend all 4 superiority dice on a “pep talk” – that’s actually kind of awesome, but the cycling of it seems lame.  ↩
  3. And this is quite interesting conceptually as well. The text makes it clear that the implications of this are open to interpretation, but it means those first two levels of paladin (before the oath is taken) are an interesting limbo. I like this a LOT, especially since it allows for “former paladins” who are not actually evil or oathbreakers, just folks who balked before they had to take that final leap of faith.  ↩

D&D PHB: The Druid

Ok, Laundry and the Dishwasher are both running, so let’s see if I can knock out the Druid quickly.

First off, seriously, why is that elf purple? Not “alabaster tinged with blue”.  Purple. Why are there so many purple characters in this book?

Ahem.

I worry a little bit how much justice I can do to the class before I get to the spell section. Historically, a lot of the uniqueness of the druid could be found in her spells. Without those, she is often just a gimmicky shapeshifter. Still, we’ll see what we can do. I’ve very curious to see if they find a way to handle shapeshifting without the super abstract rules of 4e buth without the bookkeeping of earlier editions.

Before that, I’ll just note that druids cast like Clerics – pray for a certain number of spells, cast N slots per day. They get ritual casting, and they can use a…er…druidic focus as a spellcasting focus. I guess that’s a sickle or something? I have to skip ahead to chapter 5 to check and discover that, no, it’s a sprig of Mistletoe, a totem, a yew wand or an wooden staff. So, ok.

Wild shape (which you get at 2nd level) is, of course, the big question. You get to do it twice per rest, and you can assume a form with a max CR of 1/8th your level (maximum 1, round down, with some limits on things like flying and swimming at lower levels). Notably, I have no idea what that means[1] yet but for examples, a Wolf is CR 1/4, an Crocodile is 1/2 and a Giant Eagle is CR 1.

While shapeshifted, use the animal’s stats, including hit points. Barring situations like getting KO’d in in animal form, you return to your pre-shapeshift HP after a shift, so while it can’t be used for healing per se, it means a shapeshifting druid can stay on her feet a long time. All in all, it’s going to demand that the druid keep a copy of preferred forms on hand for ease of use, but it seems pretty painless. It has nice checks against turning into a 50 hit point mouse or flying at second level, and it explicitly just lets the druid decide what happens to his gear (drop, stays on the new form or merge into the form) which is weird fiction but convenient play.

But the thing is, excepting one or two more things (at level 18 your aging slows down and you can cast spells in animal form, and at level 20 you can wild shape whenever) that’s it. Druid does not have a lot of class abilities. In fact, like the cleric, the druid is hugely defined by her subclass, called a druid circle. The circle is chosen as level 2, grants intro abilities, and then grants more at 6, 10 and 14. Obviously, these circles are a big deal.

For caster druids, the circle of the land is reminiscent of JRPG geomancers, getting extra spells based on terrain types. A druid of the land gets an extra cantrip and recovers a few spell slots on a short rest, if it’s taken in nature. They pick up some of the classic druid abilities like ignoring terrain obstacles, immunity to natural charms and fear (as well as poison and disease) and general friendliness with nature.

They also pick a favored terrain, and expand their prepared spell list with some new spells based on that terrain (much the way a cleric’s domain expands their list). Some of these are pretty badass, and I actually like this hook more than I expected to because it is explicitly to the “land where you became a druid”. In picking a terrain, the players is saying something about their characters history which might be very interesting, especially if the current terrain is far from their home.

The Circle of the Moon is basically for druids who want to shapeshift more and get in fights. They transform faster and into more dangerous creatures, and can burn spell slots to heal while in animal form. Eventually your attack become magical, you can turn into an elemental and you can learn more subtle shapeshifting.

All in all, the druid looks fun, and I could see either circle being a hoot. The shapeshifting looks well designed, and apparently I can turn into a black bear OR a shark at level 4 (level 2, if I go Circle of the Moon), so that seems about right to me.

What seems to be missing is that there is no way to increase the number of times you can wild shape. Until you hit level 20, it’s 2 per rest, that’s it. At first blush, this seems overly restrictive, but as I think about it, I imagine the thinking is that druids should assume a form and stay in it for a while rather than be sort of fey, fluidic shapeshifters. I could see them doing a circle that allowed more shapeshifting, just as they’ve done one to allow more powerful shape shifting, but they definitely would not want the options for both.


  1. I mean, yes, I know it means Challenge Rating, and I’m familiar with the concept form previous editions, but the numbers I’ve seen so far suggest that it might be used in a manner I am unfamiliar with, so I’ve just sort of left a pin in it.  ↩

D&D PHB: Bards & Clerics

Ok, picking up again today with the bard. Like the Gnome, this is another one of those concepts that’s taken a lot of different forms over different editions and stories. It’s been contentious since first edition, so it’s always curious to see which way this jumps. Inspirational? Celtic? Jack of all Trades? Illusionist-y?

They seem to have gone the flexible path, which is a mixed bag. It’s not bad, but by definition, it’s a little bit uninteresting in it’s lack of clear edges. It looks very similar to the 3e bard with a slightly different skill focus. The spell list looks to be a similar mix of wizard and cleric to 3e, and the abilities surrounding music are familiar in concept, if clever in execution.

Bards use the sorcerous model of N spells known, casting a number of spell slots per level. Spell knowledge seems to be intrinsic rather than via a spellbook, and (quite reasonably) bard’s can use a musical instrument as a spellcasting focus[1]. They can cast ritual magic, which is definitely a plus.

The bard gets 3 skill proficiencies, which is higher than the average 2, but lower than the rogue’s 4. The bard can choose any skill, so there’s flexibility there, but it’s not really enough to say “this is the skill guy”, especially since the bard gets proficiency in no tools, but 3 musical instruments.[2]

The trick that offsets this is a class-defining feature acquired at second level (presumably so it’s not total multiclass bait) called Jack of All Trades which lets bards add half their proficiency bonus to any check they’re not already getting a proficiency for. That’s very broad, but not crazily potent, so I’m curious to see it in action.

That said, the real signature move of the bard is, as it has been in some past incarnations, bardic inspiration, the buff offered to allies. The way it works now is that you can inspire a nearby ally (with music or words) and, effectively, hand them a d6. Any time in the next 10 minutes, they can roll that d6 and add it to a check, even after the roll is made (though before the GM declares the outcome), which uses up the inspiration. A character can only have one inspiration at a time, and the size of the die gets bigger as you level. You can do this a number of times per long rest equal to your charisma modifier (per short rest after level 5).

When I was reading this, I was struck by the idea that if I were playing a bard, I would probably want to buy several really gorgeous d6s – a number equal to my number of uses of inspiration – and physically hand them to people when I use the ability. Because that seemed like the bardic thing to do. However, as I read on and discovered that the die got bigger and that there were other things those inspirations could be used for, that’s when I realized I’d probably want some kind of token (which is in turn where the realization that Campaign Coins were going to rock this hit)

There’s some other fun stuff. Bardic music enhances healing over a short rest, they get enhanced proficiency bonuses with some skills, and can sing countercharms. What’s curious is that the bardic subclass is the college, a very promising choice of term, since it suggests setting elements (organizations of bards and so on). This is kind of given a nod (colleges are loose associations) but the colleges given are a bit generic in that regard. The College of Lore give you more skills and the ability to burn a bardic inspiration to taunt. The college of valor lets you fight better, and lets others use bardic inspiration to increase damage or defense. Curiously, there’s no spellcasting college, but I’m sure that’ll show up in a future supplement.

I am not sure anyone who loves bards is going to be too excited or too disappointed as is. They look solid and fun, and I suspect that with a few more college options, they’ll be able to hit the right notes.

As an aside, this is now the second class, it’s time to look a bit at subclass design. Bardic colleges grant signature abilities at selection (level 3) then extra abilities at 6 and 14. The barbarian’s primal paths grant signature abilities at selection (level 3) and further enhancements at levels 6, 10 and 14. That is a curious discrepancy, so I’m curious to look at other classes through this lens. For context, it’s worth noting that the bard core class gives some great abilities (Expertise, Magical Secrets AND the inspiration die gets bigger) at level 10, while the barbarian gets only the path ability.

Anyway, putting a pin in that, we move on to the cleric, the class I was most curious about. The cleric has never had the conceptual uncertainty that the Bard has been subject to, but implementation has always been the issue. How do you balance healing responsibilities against the desire to do other fun things? And how do you balance spellcasting in such a way that it’s enjoyable but doesn’t break if it gets tuned by specific deities?

5e seems to have decided to address this by doubling down on the gods, and I am TOTALLY good with that. Yes, clerics have baked in spellcasting (pray for N spells, cast N spell slots) which has seen numerous improvements, not the least of which being somewhat more awesome cantrips.

The idea of channeling divinity has also found a new form, though the concept remains the same. Available from second level, the cleric can raise his holy symbol and project the power of her divinity for some effect. The cleric can do those N times per short rest, so this is the Cleric’s currency move. It has a default effect (turning undead) and something based on the cleric’s divine domain (their subclass).

I want to get to the domain, but I want to pause here to call out how they handle this incarnation of turning undead -it’s delightfully simple. Every undead within 30 feet who can see or hear you (yes, every one) makes a wisdom save or runs for it. Turning lasts a minute, and a turned undead can only dash, dodge, and try to escape things that are keeping it from getting away. If the cleric is 5th level and up he can also potentially destroy lesser undead who fail their save – there’s a little chart for it.

I admit, I dig this implementation if only because it is easy to implement. No number crunching or tallying effects, no elaborate subsystem, just normal saves and easily adjudicated effects.

It’s also worth noting that clerics also get an ability at level 10 called “Divine Intervention”, and it’s kind of what it sounds like. The GM pleas to her god and rolls some percentage dice, and if the roll is less than or equal to your level, then the deity intervenes (the meaning of which is up to the GM) and you can’t ask for an intervention for another week. This is kind of delightful, and I can already see it as the basis for many fun war stories.

Oh, and as a bonus? At level 20, it always succeeds. Ponder that.

Ok, so those are the things that all clerics can do, but that is not the interesting part. See everything else that the Cleric class can do is a function of which divine domain (subclass) the cleric picks at first level. This means, among other things, that the range of style and variety among clerics has the potential to be crazily broad[3]

This also means that the domains are potent. Each one is effectively three quarters of a class by itself, so they have a bunch of moves. To contrast with the previous subclasses, the Cleric chooses and gets (big) signature abilities at level 1, and then gets further enhancements at levels 2, 6, 8 and 17. Basically, the subclass defines the class, and for Clerics, that works very well.

We got to see the life domain in the basic rules, and now we have the knowledge, light, nature, tempest, trickery and war domains as well (sadly, no travel). They all expand the cleric’s known spells and grant an array of abilities.

Knowledge gives you extra skills and languages[4], lets you use any tool (if you have time enough to study it), read and influence thoughts, cast spells more potently and eventually read objects and places.

Life, as we’ve seen, get to wear heavy armor and heal a lot. a LOT.

Light lets you throw around flares of light to distract enemies (you can do this a limited number of times, so it introduces a second currency, which I do not dig) and basically blast things with sunlight a lot. Basically, this is 5e’s laser cleric, for better or worse.

Nature gives you a druid cantrip and some outdoorsy skills, heavy armor, the ability to charm animals and plants[5], a passive protection against elemental damage (for you and your party), infuse your weapon with elemental energy and ultimately make your plant an animal minions more potent.

Tempest gets you heavy armor and martial weapons, and has a damage dealign reaction ability (which, like light, has its own annoying currency), you can do extra damage with thunder and lighting, infuse your weapon with lightning and eventually even fly a little. Tempest is weird because for all that, you don’t get lightning bolt as a domain spell for what I can only assume are reasons of tradition (doubly annoying since light gets fireball). Definitely has the means for a good smashy cleric.

Trickery has some predictable stuff – boost stealth, turn invisible and such. it also gets the ability to poison a weapon, which is mechanically identical to the thunder or elemental infusions of the other deities[6] The most interesting (and probably awesome or painful) ability is to send forth an illusionary duplicate which you can use as the origin point of your spells, or to grant you a flanking/distraction bonus in combat. At 17th level you can create 4 of them. This is an ability I can see working very well on a grid, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be rough to adjudicate.

War grants heavy armor and martial weapons (no shock) and a limited number (there’s that secondary currency again) of extra attacks. It also grants attack bonuses (to you and allies), an infused weapon and eventually damage resistance. While mechanically uninteresting, it’s all very solid fighty stuff, which seems apt.

When I first looked over the Life domain, my impression was that if every cleric domain was this cool and interesting, then it would knock my socks off. Now that I’ve seen them, I think I still have at least a little bit of sock left, but they are mostly knocked.

If my passive aggressive asides were not making it clear, I’m not super-excited by the abilities that can be used +WIS times per long rest. The cleric is already tracking channels and spells, so one more thing just seems unnecessary. This is a small gripe, but it bugs me.

I’m also not sure what I think about the level 8 ability, which is basically the same across all domains, with small tweaks and one distinction. If you are a spell-casting kind of domain (knowledge or light) then you get to add your wisdom modifier to cantrip damage (because, presumably, that is your primary attack). For other domains, you get the divine strike ability, which adds damage dice of some type to your weapon attack. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but I’m not sure it requires strict consistency, since it feels like a mismatch with, say, trickery.

So, with the exception of knowledge, none of the domains excited me the way that life had, but they’re still pretty good. I look forward to seeing more domains in the future, but the less formulaic, the better.

All right, break there. We’ll pick up tomorrow with the druid.


  1. I breezed past that initially because it made a vague sort of sense, and I sort of assumed that meant that you could theoretically get a Lute +1 that gives +1 to spellcasting rolls and DCs and stuff, because it’s the focus, right? And that might be true, but I realized that was an assumption and that, in fact, I had no idea what a Spellcasting Focus meant, mechanically speaking. It was not in the index (at least not usefully) and the entry directed me to the equipment chapter, which directed me to the spellcasting chapter, which is big, with no further direction. I ended up cracking open the basic rules pdf and running a search on the text to find the answer, and it is this: When a spell requires a non-consumable material component, the caster needs to either have a component pouch or a spellcasting focus.  ↩
  2. And may I ask, what the hell? What game would be hurt if bards could just use all musical instruments the way that fighters can use all weapons? This seems basically designed to screw Bards down the line when they hit level 7 and find the Enchanted Bagpipes of Olaf but oh, did you not study the bagpipes? Suck it, bardo!  ↩
  3. I am reasonably sure an all-cleric party (with different backgrounds) could work decently well).  ↩
  4. Which inspired me to go check – the Bard has no particular facility with languages. That’s odd. I guess that could be the basis of a college of diplomats.  ↩
  5. Basically works like a turn, except they become friendly rather than run. That one minute limit is still in effect, though.  ↩
  6. If you feel I mention that because it’s kind of a half-assed inclusion, you would be correct.  ↩

D&D PHB #1 – Cracking Open the Book

Ok, one ground rule on this. If I hit upon a topic that I already covered in the review of the Starter Set or the Basic Rules then I’ll probably gloss over it. No one needs me waxing rhapsodic on the virtues of Advantage/Disadvantage again.

Introduction

Short and sweet, with a lovely preface from Mike Mearls, this hist on most of the core ideas of the game, both mechanically (Dice, Adv/Dis, rounding) and conceptually (the describe environment -> describe action -> narrate result cycle, and the 3 pillars: Exploration, Social Interaction and Combat). There are also passing comments which make it clear that every D&D setting you can think of[1] is in scope, which is nice.

There’s a bit on specific rules beating general ones, which is no shock, but no mention of a general rule for handling bonus stacking. This is an interesting omission, because previous editions needed to have very specific baseline rules to handle stacking abuses. From what I’ve seen, the reason for this omission is that a lot of what previously would have been abusable bonuses is now handled gracefully under the advantage/disadvantage system (which allows no stacking), and that the rest of the cases are largely set up so that stacking won’t be relevant. Still, it’s the sort of thing that leaves me looking for edge cases and qualifiers.

Starting Character Creation

Ok, first off, that art: the painting is lovely, but is that dude a ghost? He’s paying for drinks, so I guess not, but if he’s just an elf, he is an elf of strangely uniform color.

This sets up the procedural basics – Race, then class, then stats, then FABB[2] (Alignment, flaw, bonds & background), then equipment. Core concepts like level, hit dice and hit points are explained, as well as the various methods of stat generation.

There’s nothing wrong with those rules, but there’s a bit of a procedural anomaly here – there are detailed chapters on the other steps (race, class, FABB and equipment) but none for stats. Instead, stat generation is presented in this introductory chapter, which means the procedure as read may seem more like stats, then race, then class, then FABB, then gear. I don’t think this is likely to create any confusion in an experienced player[3] but it’s a little bit weird if you’re going through the book and building your character based on where you find the rules. Of course, the stats rules are short enough that it would probably have been hard to given them their own chapter, so I suspect this is an organizational issue of necessity.

It’s also nice to see the sample character getting made throughout these steps, though the one time I looked to those examples for mechanical clarity (for the money rules) I did not find it.

There is an explicit call out to the tiers of play (1–4, 5–10, 11–16 and 17–20) but, interestingly, those tiers don’t actually get named. As presented, they are general yardsticks for adventure scope (local, kingdom, empire,world) but that’s a bit fuzzy.

I actually assumed that these would be the general “bands” for adventures, in the style of the old AD&D modules (so 5–10 is maybe the new 7–9), but the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure is for characters levels 1–7, so that kind of blows that theory out of the water.

I should note, here, that I liked the concept of tiers in 4e very much, even if they mostly mattered at points where the rest of the game got too cumbersome for me. it feels like they expanded this idea in 5e by adding another step at the bottom. That suggests that a level 1 4e characters feels about like a level 5 5e character, and while that’s not precisely true, it’s not completely off base either. 4e characters just started more badass. And as such, this was probably a good structural choice. But in the absence of names suggests that this may end up being a bit vestigial.

Races

Pretty basic stuff structurally – stat mods, size, move etc. It’s called out that most races have subraces, which we’d already seen, but is still noteworthy.

We start with dwarves, and I love the iconic art. She reminds me of Violet from Rat Queens, so that’s a great reference. Also, it implicitly communicates that dwarven women (and perhaps dwarves as a whole, thank you Varric) need not be bearded, though nothing says they can’t be. There’s just a little bit of color to them (they have clans! and hate boats!) but the description does a nice job of framing dwarven longevity as important, something which is often overshadowed when compared to elves.

Mechanically, we’ve got the Hill Dwarves and Mountain Dwarves from the basic rules. They’re still pretty badass. Mention is made of the Dueregar, but (unlike the drow) they don’t get their own entry.

Folks who know me will realized I utterly cringed when I hit the elf section, as who is the iconic? Frickin Drizzt. And in case you weren’t sure, they actually put his name on the picture, something they do for none of the other character images.

The color is ok, and the wood and high elves are presented as expected, but we also now have rules for drow. And I should add, setting aside my unfondness for Drizzt, this is the first time I’ve been mechanically ok with the drow as presented, partly because this is the first edition of D&D where the sunlight sensitivity has more teeth than two weapon fighting has awesome. Specifically, they call out that the penalty (disadvantage to attacks and perception) applies if the drow or the target is in sunlight, so a deep hood won’t save you.

The popularity of Drizzt also reveals another unpleasant side to it, in the writeup of drow culture. It is so important to the character that he be a rebel that it basically means that there’s no chance for any consideration of adding more nuance to Drow culture than “eeeeeevil”. Of course, the idea that they’d reconsider that without Drizzt is probably purest optimism, so I probably can’t blame him for that. Much.

On to halflings. There has been some sort of decision in the art direction that halflings should have giant heads and spindly legs, and the net result looks a little bit creepy to me. Beyond that, though, they’re basically what we’ve seen.

The iconic human art is pretty badass, and they have actually found an interesting hook in the human color. There’s familiar stuff about ambition (because of short lifespans) but the hook I liked is that the distinctive thing about humans is that they build institutions. That is an interesting and thought provoking hook which makes a lot of pieces of generic fantasyland fall into place. It’s a little weird in the law/chaos sense, but I suspect that can be worked out.

Mechanically, the “Variant Human” rule is kind of neat – instead of +1 to all stats, you can get +1 to 2 stats, one additional skill proficiency and a feat. I have to admit, that’s a pretty amazing deal, and I’d be hard pressed to not take it if I, as a player, got to make those choices. Maybe too good a deal. It strikes me that it’s a great template for cultures in a setting, where each culture gets a different set of selections. That would make it a less overwhelmingly awesome tradeoff. And, hell, I wager that’s how it was intended originally, but cut for space reasons.

After these core races come the “uncommon races”: dragonborn, gnome, half-elf, half-orc and tiefling. This is interesting because these weren’t in the basic rules, so I’m curious to see the implementation. It’s also curious to see the implicit priorities that resulted in this list. A number of classic races (gnome, half-breeds) which got pushed out of the core 4e PHB are now back in prominence, along with the two races (tieflings & dragonborn) that had taken their slots. It’s a solid list, and probably covers the best range of races that people will start out interested in. Sure, there will be a few goliath or deva holdouts, but you can be sure they’ll be served in future products.

Anyway, we open with dragonborn, who have a lot of what made them fun in 4e: bonuses to strength and charisma paired with a breath weapon (and damage resistance appropriate to that breath weapon). They seem fun, but the most interesting bit about them is a piece of Dragonlance lore tucked into a sidebar, where they basically say that Draconians are Dragonborn with different magic in lieu of their breath weapon. That’s a significant retcon, but I admit it’s one that feels like it makes a lot of sense to me.

Next came gnomes, and they are always an interesting question, because they’ve never really settled in a niche. Are they more like dwarves, elves or halflings? Are they fae tricksters or crazed tinkerers? There are very strong examples in each direction.

5e solves this contradiction by offering two different gnome subraces. They share the bonus to int and certain saves, but after that, they’re radically different. Forest Gnomes are the fey tricksters, with a bonus to dex, illusion spells and the ability to talk to small animals. Rock Gnomes are artificers, with a con bonus, a proficiency bonus to tinkering and the ability to make small gadgets. I think this may be the biggest difference between two subraces in the game, but it’s probably the most elegant way they could have resolved the issue. So, thumbs up.

As with the dwarves, there’s a mention of deep gnomes, but no actual stats.

The half elf art is a little disappointingly bland, especially since the fiction is about Tanis. It woudl have been nice to see the half elf with a beard. That said, the color goes out of its way to emphasize that half elves are rare and mysterious, which is a nicely tolkein-y way to approach it THe mechanical elements feel a bit right, with some of the human generic flexibility (in stat and skill bumps) and eleven magic (darkvision, resistance to charm, immunity to sleep).

The half orc art is a lot more striking, but it’s very…pink. I think it’s supposed to be greyish (or so the description says)and it’s nice to have non-green orcs, but that particular grey just looks violet. Color wise, they very explicitly tie half orcs to marriages in an attempt to address the most problematic issue surrounding the race[4]. Making lemonade, I suppose.

Mechanically, though? Holy crap. Bonuses to Strength and Con, darkvision, intimidation for free, roll an extra damage die on criticals and, once per long rest, when an attack would drop you to 0hp, drop to 1hp instead. Does that sound terrifying to you? Because that sure sounds terrifying to me.

Not sure why, but the tieflings are purple too. Now, I’m a fan of the old DiTerlizzi tieflings, back when they had no unified appearance and rather all carried some distinctive mark of their infernal heritage. I was not terribly excited when 4e made them a unified race, but I had to acknowledge that the art looked awesome, and the rich red color was really striking. As described, they’re still red, but the example art really undercuts a lot of the goodwill that 4e had earned.

Mechanically, bonuses to intelligence and charisma, darkvision, fire resistance and some intrinsic spellcasting. All fun enough.

All in all, it’s an interesting chapter. Race is definitely designed to carry a lot of mechanical weight, maybe moreso than any other edition[5]. Every race feels like it has a compelling mechanical argument for why its cool, and that’s pretty hot.

Also, it’s very clear where the hooks go in for expansion material. Setting aside the addition of new races (which is a certainty) the ability to add new subraces and build mechanics that hang off the existing races is quite obvious. It is easy to envision a Complete Book of Smallfolk with extra subraces for Dwarves, Halflings and Gnomes (including the deep races) as well as other mechanical hooks (feats, class abilities) that are tied into race. You could fill a slim hardcover with that quite trivially.

Which is where the spectre of the license raises its head. These products will exists – the question is whether WOTC will be taking steps to keep them in house, or if they’re going to open it up to third parties.

Classes

To answer the most important question: barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, warlock and wizard. As with the race list, there’s some interesting implicit information with the list. As with the races, the popular favorites that 4e had shuffled off into supplement-land (the barbarian, monk, bard, druid and sorcerer) are back, front and center (at least in part because each class now takes up less page count). 4e’s warlock has returned, but the warlord has not[6]. There is also no sign of psionics, which is probably just as well for the core book.

The barbarian’s place in alphabetical order has historically been a little bit awkward, since it’s not always a great class to showcase the system. 13th Age solved this problem by making it the simplest class, and 5e takes a similar, but not identical, track. There are still fiddly bits, but the Barbarian is really well designed as “the smasher”, which is probably about right.

The “no armor” thing is handled by Barbarian AC being equal to 10 + Dex + Con (+ shield) when unarmored, which is pretty badass[7]. That’s not too unexpected, but the real question was, of course, “how do they handle Rage?”. The answer: pretty damn well.

Basically while raging, you get a bonus to strength checks, (not attacks, at least as I read it), damage and you have resistance to most weapon damage. Rage lasts a minute, and you can do it a few times a day. Notably, there is no downside to raging – it’s just a bit of extra badass. If you take the Primal Path that focuses on rage, then it becomes even more potent but you are exhausted[8] afterwards. Or you can just take the Totem Warrior path and never worry about it. More on that in a minute.

Most of the abilities are just more badass. Extra crit damage (hello half-orcs), more rage, faster movement and so on. That said, there are a few interesting mechanical bits. Reckless Attack" captures all the fiddliness of previous power attack rules in a nice, elegant resolution. Gain advantage on an attack this turn, everyone else gets advantage to attack you this turn. Clean and simple. Indomitable Might* is just clever – if your total for a strength check is less than your strength score, use the strength score instead. Slick way to set a floor on outcomes.

The totem warrior path is neat, but it feels a bit like “we need something that’s not just more rage…what have we got?” It lets you ritually speak with animals, but mostly it lets you choose a totem (bear, eagle or wolf) to gain extra abilities in and out of rage. That they are basically protection, fury and arms is not lost on me.

All in all, the class seems fun, and it gives us a heads up on what’s coming next. Specifically, a lot of the classes have two things in common. First, they have a choice. For the barbarian it’s primal path, for the Bard it’s Bardic College, for the Rogue its Roguish Archetype and so on. These are always called different things, but their general structure is the same – somewhere between levels 1 and 3, a choice is made in the character design which can differentiate it from other characters of the same class. For all intents and purposes, these are subclasses, and I will likely call them such.

The other commonality is a currency. Not every class has these, but most do – it’s a limited resource that recharges under certain conditions and can be used for a variety of things. The Barbarian has the simplest currency in the number of rages, which recharge after a long rest. Monks have Ki, spellcasters have spells (arguably its own thing), Bards have inspirations and spells, and so on. This currency management is something worth paying attention to when picking a class, and is also a reason that 5e is an absolute blessing for Campaign Coins.

Oh, ye gods, I think that’s enough for today. I’ll pick up again later with the Bard.


  1. Ok, they don’t actually list every setting, but they hit all the big notes, calling out the Realms, Greyhawk, Dark Sun, Mystara, Eberron and Dragonlance, as well as making a multiversal shout out which nods towards Planescape (which gets more explicit mention later on). This might be lip service. but I won’t be shocked if it’s not – 5e is well tuned to support multiple settings, and settings put books (rpg and fiction) on the shelves in a way 4e failed to.  ↩

  2. They don’t call it that, they don’t actually call it anything. This step is referred to as “Describe your character” so it also includes appearance, sex, stuff like that. Given that there are specific mechanical implications to the FABB four, it feels awkward to not have something to call them, and thus, FABB.  ↩

  3. Which returns to the question from the earlier reviews: is the target audience new players, or players who are “coming home”? Weirdly, the thought that went into the cover and didn’t go into the spine feels like a coming home argument (since its tuned to game stores)  ↩

  4. 4e’s solution, that they were basically their own race, was less problematic, but I imagine that it took away the dark edge that some people liked.  ↩

  5. Any addition that seperated race and class, that is.  ↩

  6. And based on some fighter stuff, I wonder if he’s gone for good.  ↩

  7. Obviously, I immediately started looking for the abuses for this. The most obvious one is “What happens if I multiclass with monk?” – Monks have a similar ability that uses wis instead of con. Thankfully, the multiclass rules explicitly say those things don’t stack. More curious are effects like Mage Armor and (importantly) the draconic sorcerer ability, which grants natural armor, so that their unarmored AC is 13 + Dex. But it’s not explicitly +3 + dex, it’s 13 in a specific situation, which could be read to say that you can calculate your AC either way, but they’re not additive. Or it could be interpreted as barbarian draconic sorcerers having an AC of 13 + Dex + Con. The book might answer this question somewhere, so I’ll be keeping an eye open.  ↩

  8. Looking at this, that really sucks. Exhaustion comes in levels – at level 1 (when you come out of rage) you’re at a disadvantage to all ability checks. If you were to gain another level, such as by raging again, then you go to level 2 exhaustion – same penalties, plus you move at half speed. It gets worse with each step, and at step 6, you die. To get rid of exhaustion? You need to take a long rest (with food and drink) to reduce your exhaustion by one step. That seems insanely prohibitive. Maybe this is intentional – the effect is pretty potent ( gain an extra attack while raging), but the price seems crazily high. Like, so high that maybe they shoudl have done something else.  ↩

PHB vs Hoard of the Dragon Queen

One more little thing about the physical products.

I noticed something interesting when I looked at the hardcover adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen,  I noticed a neat visual flourish at the top of the cover.  Look at the comparison.

compare2

It’s a cool visual signature for the fact that this is an adventure, and which adventure collection it’s part of.  I dig it, especially since I assume they’ll have different icons.   It’s doubly clever because when stored face out, you are often only going to see the very top of the product, so it’s well-thought-out that the 5e designs put all the critical information in the top 6th or of the cover.

So I have no idea why that added that cool effect and did not reflect it on the spine – if these books are shelved spine out, there’s nothing that visually tells me which is a rulebook and which is an adventure (much less a connected adventure).  It would have been brilliant if there had been some manner of icon to distinguish this (possibly where the little red banner currently isn’t wrapping) so they’d look cooler on the bookshelf.  Feels like a lost opportunity.

It’s also worth noting that while the pages in the PHB are glossy, they are not in the adventure.   I suspect this plays into the price difference, but there may be another purpose.  @newbiedm points out that the non-glossy pages can be more-easily marked up by a GM tracking hits and making notes.  It’s a good point, so this is either well thought out, or a fortuitous coincidence.

 

EDITED TO ADD

I took a picture of the spines to illustrate and it was informative.

spine2

 

Notice the cool adventure stuff does not wrap.

This also revealed something interesting – the red banner scaled with the thickness of the book.  Because hoard is thinner than the PHB, the “flame” is narrower and shorter.

This worries me a bit, because if that fire is going to scale that way, it’s going to be a different height depending on the thickness of the book, so this may end up looking very ragged on the bookshelf.

Unopened PHB

Ok, the meeting I’ve been prepping for all morning just got postponed so I need a break, so I’m going to start up with the Player’s Handbook. I mentioned on Twitter that I have not opened it yet, but I have strong opinions about it. This is no hyperbole. And to illustrate this, I present you with my review-of-the-PHB-Without-Actually-Opening-it-(except-once-but-I-didn’t-actually-read-anything).

1. Binding

phb1Picking it up, I was a little nervous. The binding feels fat, which is not terribly technical, but I’ll try to explain. There are indentations between the spine of a hardcover and the actual covers which serve as hinges. Depending on how many pages have been squeezed into the hardcover compared to the size of the physical cardboard pieces, you can end up with a book that has a bookblock (the pages) that is not quite the right size for the hard cardboard pieces[1]. Those cardboard hinges give the whole form a little bit more flexibility, but you can feel the difference, and the PHB feels a little big.

This is noteworthy since it’s usually a red flag for binding issues. However, this is why I cracked it open once, and I’m not worried. They bound the hell out of this book. So much so that it’s almost too stiff, but I suspect that will age well. So thumbs up.

2. Branding

I talks about this when discussing the Starter Set – there is more art and less brand than I would expect on the cover of this. This is bold, but I suspect it’s predicated on the fact that, for all Pathfinder’s success. the D&D brand still owns the headspace. RPGs are D&D by default to most people, so they can afford to go very art-centric.

3. Binding, part 2: The Spinening!

When sitting edge out, you see this:

narrowside

The ampersand at the bottom is nice, but I’m boggled that the small red banner on the front doesn’t wrap.

4. Back Cover

Feel it. Feel it. They did a lovely texture trick that I’m fond of, mixing gloss and matte finishes on the back cover. It’s a small touch, but one that I love. Greatly improves the tactile element of the book.

5. Art

I expect the art to draw a lot of commentary, and lose looking for reasons to criticize it will have no shortage of options. Specifically because the style is more painting-like than the Pathfinder house style[2] (so it has brush strokes and less crisp detail) it’s goign to simply look wrong to a lot of people. It’s also very busy, and emphasizes the monster over the characters, which is an odd choice. I admit I wonder at its cropping, and the Starter Set does make me immediately wonder “is this a crop of a bigger image?”

But for all that, I dig it. It’s distinctive, the sense of motion is wonderful, and I’m pretty happy with the images chosen for the heroes. If I were to really criticize it, my big concern was that I wish the hellhound on the back cover popped more. Red on red makes it more boring than it needs to be, which takes away from my love of the back cover.

5. Price Point

$50.  At the thickness, I’d have guess $40 (Hoard of the dragon Queen, also hardcover, is $30), but $50 is not out of bounds for this level of production.  Also,  I imagine it’s necessary to round up considering how many will be sold at some manner of  discount, so a solid $50 makes a lot of sense.

 

Can’t wait to crack it open.

EDIT: PS – It does indeed fit inside the starter set box

inthebox


  1. Which is why softcovers largely don’t have this problem – the cover is sized directly to the bookblock. Hardcover construction is a bit more complicated.  ↩
  2. Because, basically, Wayne Reynolds defines this mental space the same way that Larry Elmore used to). That said, it’s in line with Magic’s general style, and that’s a non-trivial factor.  ↩

More Fun With Index Cards

So, I was working on a little side project that won’t be done quite in time for Gencon, and since that was the point of it, I figured I’d share the fruits of it.  I was dinking around with fitting Fate event generation on an index card.  I started out with simple two die tables, like this set for quick high concept generation – take two dice, roll once on each card, and combine:

card1 card2

 

Worked ok, but it didn’t seem like the most efficient use of the card.  Lots of wasted space.  So I tried a different format for some utility tables, inspired by Fiasco:

card8 card7

 

And that worked ok, so decided to make a set for plot generation, a la two guys with swords:

card3 card4 card5 card6

That, I think, worked pretty well.  it’s a fun format, and one I’m going to have to try to get a little bit more use out of.

Any suggestions for tables the world needs?

BONUS

This one is inspired by a question David Goodwin asked. Using it as a chance to try a slightly different dice presentation.

card9

 

FURTHER EDIT: NOPE.  Uneven border doesn’t work.  so much for the quick and dirty fix.

 

Dungeon World on the Isle of Spires (Spiders)

Another 8 person session of Dungeon World. Those are definitely, definitely hard, and this was no different. I made a conscious effort to make it something other than a non-stop action sequence, and the pacing suffered for it. The simple reality is that exploration with 8 people is hard. It did not help that the group had a surprise attack of competence, and the usual cascade of failures and near misses that drive our sessions was largely absent.

We had one new player, who picked up The Alchemist which gave the party a little more healing, which is nice given our general cleric deficit. I offered him a number of oddball classes[1] (Since Druid & Cleric are the only two core books left unchosen), and the Alchemist could throw bombs, so that was kind of the win. Class worked out solidly in play – the font is a bit too small on the character sheet, so it took a bit to sort out some details, but my only real complaint is that the move that lets you use potions on other people seems like it should be core rather than an advance move[2]. I can sort of see the thinking for why this is not so – there’s a lot of interesting mess-with-yourself stuff in the class, but the advanced move seemed like a must have. Thankfully, since I let him start at level 2, it was self-correcting.

Play started with a sea monster attack on the Sea Witch. On board we had Sanguinus, the Pirate Paladin, Tetra, the Dashing Hero, Dogan, The Fighter, Fafnir, The Barbarian, Lily, The Bard, Urv, The Wizard, “Doc”, The Alchemist and Jack, the Thief. There were giant tentacles, Doc ended up hanging from a boom over the ocean, a Shark with Bat Wings was summoned, and the monster was driven off after Jack and Doc combined skills to build an injector out of a barrel of chemicals, a large funnel and a length of pipe, and poisoned the creature (at least enough to drive it off).

The ship had been badly damaged, and limped to the nearest safe harbor Sanguinus could find. He rolled ok, so they got to a harbor on the Isle of Spires (their destination), but not the civilized harbor. They had to beach the Ice Witch to make repairs. Thankfully, the supplies were still intact, so the expedition launched inland while the crew worked to make the necessary repairs.

The isle of spires gets its name from the numerous spires on its surface. they’re huge, tall, covered in moss and vines, and immediately reminded Urv of Umulon. The goal of the expedition was the nearest spire. Problematically, there were also giant spider webs between some of the spires (which were half a mile apart at the closest).

The trip inland encountered a trio of gigantic (body about 25 feet long) spiders which resulted in violence. They rolled like fiends and especially between Jack & Dogan’s damage output, tore the damn things apart (Fafnir was less lucky, as his “Catapult me with a palm tree” plan worked out less well than hoped). Jack saw other similarly sized spiders in the distance, but after the death cry of the third, they returned to the mountain that was their lair. The mountain was in approximately the direction they were going, but they steered clear of it.

At the spire, they cleared away the moss and vines to discover a smooth surface that might be elderglass (the same material that the towers in Umulon, as well as Dogan & Lily’s weapons, are made of.) Urv wanted to test a theory, and had Dogan hit it with Bellringer.

This caused some problems, as the entire tower rang out with such force that it knocked several of the characters onto their asses. More importantly, it upset the spider web attached to the spire, and the mountain revealed itself to be a truly gargantuan spider, which climbed up to the center of the web, and unleashed the army of “baby” spiders on its back. Doc blew up the nearest threat to buy some time (as the spiders re-routed) and Urv managed to find a way into the spire, which the group managed to enter just ahead of the wave of spiders, who were too large to fit. Lily also used her bardic skills and Songblade to bring Dogan out of the fugue he’d been in since he rang the tower.

The interior of the tower offered a single staircase up or down. Lily managed to earn a hard choice, so I told her that the story that had lead her hear suggested that riches were up, knowledge was down. She opted nto to share this, and directed the group down. Some weirdness with the physics of the place followed, and at the bottom of the stair, by a single door, they encountered an odd looking individual, seemingly of a type with the one they’d encountered at the underground meeting (the one who no one saw enter). He was perfectly civil, answered a few questions about the place, and warned them to be careful about the door. He implied that the door could be used to come out in Umulon, but the group was unwilling to leave the Ice Witch behind.

Given that, he offered to show them how to get to a different spire, but at the cost of a future favor. They agreed, and he directed them through the door. Once they went through, I took each player aside individually, and the (name unrevealed) and had a small private negotiation with the guy. This resulted in some private arrangements and a certain amount of treasure handout, something I largely had no done to date, so we’ll see how that plays out.

As the one random aside, I feel this is the game that cemented Advantage/disadvantage as the right way to handle +/–1. With this many people, it still worked very smoothly, and it encourages Aiding quite nicely.


  1. Including the Immolator and a few of the Inverse World playbooks which were a bit more setting-portable.  ↩

  2. The alchemist uses similar rules to wizards and clerics, but with extracts in lieu of spells (so on a 7–9, you draw attention, take –1 forward or use it up). If you take the advanced move “Infusion”, other people can use your extracts, but doing so uses them up. My inclination is to make Infusion a core move, then make the advance move that you roll normally.  ↩