Wednesday, September 3, 2014

D&D 5e: Player's Handbook - Quick Critiques Part 2

Artist: Daren Bader
In my last critique post, I discussed my issues with the art of the new Player's Handbook. In this article, I'm going to discuss some observations I noted related to character generation.

To be clear, I’m loving 5th Edition… I saw some jokingly refer to it as 2.5, which seems fitting. It “feels” like AD&D 2nd Edition (before Skill and Powers destroyed it)… It feels like what 3rd Edition should have been instead of the complex beast 3.x became. This is how Feats should have worked when they were added to AD&D.

Most of my critiques are more minor observations about things that annoy me. They’re subjective as any critique or review is. I won’t go too much into system analysis since there has been a lot of this since Basic D&D was released, but I’ll quickly note what I like before getting into the (hopefully constructive) criticism.

Advantage/Disadvantage - I can’t praise this enough as a simplifying mechanic. Stacking bonuses are a pain. The only disadvantage (pun unintended) is that it can’t achieve target numbers higher than 20 whereas a flat +2 or +5 can extend the range of difficulty achieved above 20. This is more of a feature than a bug, but it is an important differentiation over a flat +X bonuses.

Feats - I love the way Feats work now. No more Feat trees. Want to be a master archer? Take Sharpshooter. No need to stack “Precise Shot”, “Far Shot”, “Point-Blank Shot” over the course of many levels. I like that Feats are now a group of effects (some of which also include a stat bonus so you don’t completely lose out on ability bumps).

Backgrounds - Love this; want moar!

Personality Traits, Bonds, Flaws - I’m also a huge fan adding role-playing incentives for newbies. I do have a minor quibble in that most of the sample bonds, flaws etc are pretty generic. I like the mechanic, but the text of the backgrounds isn’t always inspiring. It would have been nice to have some more unique or even weird examples to get the imagination churning. Like I said, minor quibble.

Now for my critiques…

Character Generation

It has always been the case that certain races are better optimized for certain classes than others, but for me this really stood out even more so in this edition.

This is essentially because the point buy system doesn’t allow one to buy above 15 in any attribute unlike the point buy in D&D 3.x or 4e. In those versions, if you selected a non-optimized race build (Half-Orc wizard, for instance), it would chew up quite a few of your points to hike your non-booster attribute, but you still could bump the stat high enough to be viable if you sacrificed points from other stats.

In 5th Edition, it would be nice if you could bump an ability score to 16 as a starting point for an ability score that is not enhanced by a racial bonus. I’m hoping there might be the optional rules in the DMG to allow DM’s to do just that for players not trying to game the system.

As a house rule, buying a 16 stat seems like it should cost 12 points, but one can only guess until the DM Guide is released.


I’m going slightly out of order because an oddity I found in classes affects player choice during character generation. The Wizard is the only Intelligence based spell caster… and there would seem to be too many Charisma based casters. Intelligence is the new dump stat, apparently. (Ok, not really… but you get what I’m saying).

Charisma - Bard, Paladin, Sorcerer, Warlock
Wisdom - Cleric, Druid, Ranger
Intelligence - Wizard

It surprises me a little that the Warlock is not Intelligence based. I know they are attempting to differentiate the class from the Wizard, but it seems like the Warlock’s desire for power (fluff text) is also rooted in a thirst for knowledge, like the Wizard. I do understand why Charisma was picked for this class, but it just as easily could have been Intelligence and no one would have noticed.


Half Elves

Back in the AD&D days, Half-Elves were everywhere because they had some of the best advantages with fewest disadvantages. They were basically humans with infravision, sleep/charm resistance, secret door detection and other benefits. Even though they were level-capped, so were the other non-humans. They were the best non-human race and it seemed that everyone wanted to play one because of that.

Half-Elves appear to be back as the master race in 5th Edition. With a +2 Charisma and +1 any other two ability scores, I’d argue that they are even better than humans despite the +1 human bump for every stat across the board. Half-Elves have the best optimization for any of the Charisma-based spell casting classes and still offer prime optimization for other classes due to the flexibility of their attribute bonuses. It seems that more flexibility should have been afforded some of the other races through additional sub-races. Perhaps we will see more of those options in other expansion books, but if so any “Book of Races” release is bound to be a long way off since nothing like that is even announced.


The special thing to note with Dwarves is that the Mountain Dwarf gets +2 in both Strength and Constitution. I find this interesting in that it seems they were given a +2 in both because those ability scores are weakest in terms of buffing skills. This makes a Mountain Dwarf a good Fighter build despite the “skill penalty”. Hill Dwarfs trade +2 Strength for +1 Wisdom which helps with a Dwarf Cleric build. This is not a critique, but more of an interesting observation that leads me to something else...


I ran hard into the point buy limit when I was trying to build a Gnome Druid. Seeing as how a Gnome is generally thought of as a Fey creature, I thought this should be a good race/class match… and I really like Gnomes. However, the racial bonuses for Gnomes is +2 INT and +1 to DEX or CON. The highest wisdom possible is a 15 for a 1st Level Gnome Druid. A Hill Dwarf makes a better Druid than a Forest Gnome. As a fey-blooded forest creature, this made little sense to me and it really reveals an issue with the Gnomish race canon.

Gnome Druid (Pathfinder)
Artist: Wayne Reynolds
Are they Dwarfish or Fey? In the AD&D rules, Gnomes were referred to as “cousins of Dwarves” in the Monster Manuals, but, they were more like Forest Dwarfs, linked very closely with Centaurs, Fauns, Brownies, etc. However, for some reason they have been treated as Dwarf-kin for all these years. Fourth Edition was the first to break the “small dwarf” Gnome stereotype and despite the goofy 4th Edition artwork, it worked well for Gnomes to be treated as a truly Fey-origin race.

But 5th Edition has rolled this back. In an effort to be “backward compatible”, Gnomes are annoyingly Dwarfish again, and even Tinker Gnomes are given a nod in the new rules (the worst thing to happen to a D&D race ever, even when you consider Halfling - Kender).

I’m actually a bit perturbed about this. As a forest creature, a Druid or Ranger should be a canon-appropriate build for a Gnome. Forest Gnomes should have been given a Wisdom bonus. Given that Wizards are the only Intelligence class, the Gnome is more limited in class optimization than any other race. They make OK Rogues and decent Wizards, but are pretty mediocre for anything else due to the ability score ceiling at character generation.

Racial bonuses reveal the flip side of the character generation coin. Racial bonuses mean that players will tend to optimize toward ability bonuses rather than go with an interesting character concept. I’m going to make my Gnome Druid, but I’m not particularly happy that he’d be better as a Hill Dwarf.

I already noted this in my last article, but I really dislike that Drizzt is the iconic representation of the Elves. I don’t particularly mind that Drow are in the book, but they should be presented as one of the less common races rather than taking the Elven spotlight. And Drizzt should just die already.

I had more to discuss, but the race rant took a bit more text than I had anticipated. I’ll have to post a follow-up soon.

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