D&D PHB: Rules Stuff

The next section of the PHB gets into the actual rules, a lot of which already got covered between the starter set and the basic rules, but let’s run through the high points:

Doing Stuff

  • Wisdom is explicitly perception but not explicitly willpower as written, but I suspect the saving throws still indicate that it is.
  • Charisma is totally decoupled from appearance
  • Basically everything is a d20 roll plus ability modifier with the possibility of other factors impacting the outcome, notably proficiency bonuses and advantage/disadvantage.[1]
  • Speaking of which, Advantage/Disadvantage remains the most delightful mechanic in this new edition.
  • Proficiency bonus is a close second. It’s flexible and establishes the spine of the game, in terms of difficulties.
  • Speaking of which, difficulties are fixed and simple, capping out at 30 for nearly impossible (which is pretty reasonable. 20 in a stat (+5), plus max proficiency bonus (+6) still needs an amazing roll to hit that (or a lot of help, like skill specialization, blessings, advantage and so on). It’ll be important to internalize these, especially that 15 is, effectively, the default.
  • And if one were to decide that failing by 5 or less is a 7–9 result, well, no harm in that, eh?
  • There is also no mention of multiple difficulty levels (get x if you hit a 15, Y if you get a 20) but I think that’s for the best. That always seems cool, but is actually kind of counterproductive in a lot of situations.
  • Skills are a subset of stats, which is interesting in its implications, but does simplify things for actual rolling.
  • Passive checks are a nice touch and effectively manifest the idea of taking 10. That raises the question of where taking 20 went, but with a little thought, I don’t think I want it. With the non-scaling difficulties, it would become pretty lame if 20 minutes work guarantees you a near impossible result.
  • Teamwork is simple – just provides advantage.
  • Group checks require half the group to succeed (round down). I like the clarity of this – it may not apply in every situation, but in matters of stealth and perception, it’s good to have a clear rule of thumb.
  • The halfling on page 176? I am totally good with her. Slightly oversized head is fine, but the absence of bug legs makes her much less troublesome to me.
  • Stats are well articulated, but not awash in surprises.
  • Encumbrance is nicely simple, though of course there are optional rules. Jumping distances have already fallen out of my brain.
  • Saving throws still provide little guidance for secondary (strength, intelligence and charisma) saves. Other rules have offered some insight – strength saves have come up against push effects, intelligence saves against illusions, but the lack of clarity is irksome.

Adventuring

  • Travel, movement, all perfectly workmanlike, but unexciting. There are inklings of cool stuff for overland travel (navigation, tracking, foraging and such) but those are just teases for the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Bah,
  • The food and water rules aren’t bad, but this is all making me miss Dungeon World’s abstraction of it.
  • Social interaction leans heavily on roleplaying, either descriptively (say what you do) or actively (acting it out) and NPCs react accordingly. Ability checks are given slightly short shrift in this regard, but the do get mentioned.
  • Short and Long Rest remain great concepts, but the short rest now being a meal (and hour) rather than a pause (a few minutes) makes is an oddity. The old short rest was effectively a marker for a transition between scenes. The new short rest is long enough to be a scene in its own right. Dunno if that’s good or bad, but I admit I will probably still include a “pause” in my own thinking, to hold the space of the old short rest.
  • Healing during rests is pretty straightforward once you get used to the idea that “hit dice” are now a pool of literal dice which can be tapped for healing, rather like a slow version of Omega World.
  • I really like the “Between Adventures” section. In addition to calling out lifestyle expenses, there is a very birthright-esque list of things you can do in your downtime (craft, make a living, Recuperate, Research, or train in a new tool or language). There is room here to expand these rules, but they provide a solid baseline for “you are going to be in Waterdeep for 30 days before your ship leaves – what do you do?”[2]

Combat

  • Talked about this before, but the move and act economy seems pretty tidy, with a default limit on “free” actions (one bonus, one reaction) which end runs certain 4e abuses.
  • The whole system leans heavily on common sense rulings. I’m super good with that.
  • I like that you can implicitly move through the space of a huge creature, though it’s difficult terrain. That feels much more dynamic than the “OH GOD, WE’VE MOVED INTO REACH” fights with big dudes in 4e.
  • In fact, things like reach and flanking feel much more ad hoc (there is not, in fact, any entry for flanking in the index, and reach only comes up in weapon properties). This is notably important for Rogues, since sneak attack now depends on having advantage however you achieve it rather than a specific position. One one hand, they no longer get the easy, static sneak attach chains from putting their mini in just the right place, but on the other hand, they’re going to be driven to do a lot more cool stuff to try to get advantage.[3]
  • Searching is implicitly quite fast, as it’s a combat action. Interesting.
  • Readying an action still seems overly restrictive in its language, but put through the common sense filter of the rest of the rules, it works out ok.
  • 20’s always hit. Important for mass attacks, but also an important reminder of the potency of disadvantage – a penalty won’t save you from a natural 20, but a disadvantage might.
  • 1 is also always a miss, no other fiddly bits.
  • It’s kind of funny to see 3 paragraphs of simple ranged attacks rather than 9 pages of elaborate line of sight rules. Funny and delightful.
  • Opportunity attacks are still there to keep you from rushing past armed foes willy-nilly, but they’re simpler.
  • Two weapon fighting does not make me angry
  • Grappling and pushing rules also largely bounce off my skull, but they seem innocuous enough
  • Cover is noteworthy since it provides modifiers, not advantage, but it is thankfully pretty simple – +2, +5 or hell no.
  • Hit points, damage and healing are all nicely tidy. There’s a sidebar which kind of obliquely references the bloodied status from 4e, but it is otherwise missing. This is, I have to say, kind of a shame.
  • Not super happy to see the boring-as-hell death saves system, but I get why it’s there (that is, to be nice)
  • More limited version of the 4e knockout rules. When you deliver the deathblow in melee, you can knock them out. Upside: no worrying about subdual damage or the like. Downside – I recall 4e being a bit more liberal in this, which allowed for somewhat more ethical outcomes, like turning defeated foes over to the authorities without worrying about the DM screwing you for keeping them alive.
  • Rounded out with temporary hit points (which don’t stack) mounts and underwater combat. That last may seem a little silly, but I vividly remember that section in my 1e book, with its elaborate rules for how different spells behaved underwater (lightning bolt became a fireball! Ice Storm floated!) and it’s kind of nice to see if broken down into 4 short paragraphs.

Ok, that’s the fact pass through the rules. The earlier reviews have more detail, if that’s your thing. It’s a good point to stop because the next section is magic. Literally and figuratively.


  1. I have wholeheartedly adopted the Dungeon World shorthand for this, where the value of the stat is written out and the value of the bonus is abbreviated and capitalized. SO if I have an 18 dexterity with a +4 modifier, then I have a dexterity of 18 and a DEX of +4.  ↩

  2. Tip to GMs – plan for this downtime at the end of sessions, or to be resolved by email or otherwise between sessions. You don’t want to start sessions with it, because that’s a dull bookeeping exercise when you should be getting your action on.  ↩

  3. This is something I hope the DMG addresses – the DM can, nominally, grant advantage when the situation dictates, but exactly how that is interpreted is left fuzzy. How the DM handles that relates directly to the tone of the game – a game where advantage comes from strictly tactical consideration will feel very different than one where the DM grants advantage for an awesome description. There’s no right answer, but it’ll be important to get everyone on the same page.  ↩

9 thoughts on “D&D PHB: Rules Stuff

  1. Justin Cranford

    I eventually found Intelligence saves in spell descriptions. They serve as essentially sanity checks. I also saw a couple of charisma saves. As best I can tell, the odd saves appear in specific spell descriptions but without any guidance outside of them.

    Reply
  2. Doug

    Regarding “multiple difficulty levels (get x if you hit a 15, Y if you get a 20)”: there are some examples of this mechanic in the published adventures. For instance, the DC when using thieves’ tools on a locked chest might be 10 to open the lock and 15 to open the lock without setting off the trap. But these are one-off situational rules and not part of the general core: very first-edition in feel, this, and I approve. Not all traps need to work in exactly the same way.

    Reply
  3. Ian O'Rourke

    As someone said on Twitter in a discussion I was in: DND5e is basically a Rorschach test. People see in it what they want. The biggest thing I see is a good number of 4E sins that the more simulative 3e people despised suddenly being absolutely fantastic.

    The short and long rest is like that. Suddenly, the much despised at-will, encounter and daily use of ‘stuff’ is fine, as long as you describe it as a real world thing rather than a story structure thing. Hence the 1 hour I suspect. In its defence, people who want it has a scene boundary will largely cut it to 10 minutes (or ignore the timing), while saying an hour allows people wanting to run a time pressure adventure to not allow the short rests (which screws a couple of classes, but I can see people doing it).

    There are a few others, but it’s clever how they’ve incorporated a lot of 4e in. So clever that people describe the game being like 2e or 3e – and I can see why – but it is clever.

    Reply
  4. Phil

    Advantage in combat is interesting. I think you and I did the same thing, which is assume that DM had explicit licence to award Advantage / Disadvantage in response to non-specific tactical moves, environmental factors or general cool stuff. On a re-read, that’s not actually there (tho obviously, any DM has implicit licence to do whatever they want in their game). However, I’ll certainly be throwing Adv and Disadv around fairly liberally. Other great thing about the simplicity of Adv/Disad is that you can use it reinforce play style: for gritty realism, reward tactical positioning; for cinematic, reward swashbuckling OTT actions.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yeah, the money sentence is “The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other, and grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result”. That is (intentionally, I think) quite vague in its applicability but I certainly am inclined to a liberal reading of it.

      Reply
      1. Nick Pilon

        It’s vague but explicit permission, which should satisfy even the most hardcore simulation-rules-as-written crowd that it’s a legitimate thing for a GM to do. I think that a savvy GM should be careful for it, so as to not undercut the Help action, but still!

        Reply
  5. Mark S.

    Thanks a lot for doing this series! I’ve been playing and GM’ing through the entire public playtest period, and it is awesome to get a fresh perspective on the rules.

    This series has highlighted a need for me to closely read the PHB to make sure I don’t carry any assumptions forward from the playtest pdf’s.

    Reply

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