Dungeons and Dragons was the first table top role playing game. Original Dungeons and Dragons was built from the bones of war gaming and the flesh of collective imagination. It used exclusively d6 as other dice weren't available and the rules are a hodgepodge amalgam of disparate game mechanics. The next addition, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, would introduce more dice and way more rules but the relative messiness would remain for a long time. Then in 2000 the good folks over at wizards of the coast released the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons which used the d20 system. The d20 system was a core set of rules that was easy to understand and easy to apply, trimming almost all task resolution down to roll the d20, add the relevant modifiers to the roll, and see if the roll meets or exceeds the difficulty number. On top of that the core rules were under the Open Gaming License meaning third parties could write supplements using the rules making it a pretty good addition over all. Fourth edition was a bit of a flop for reasons that I don't fully understand and that still generate contention when discussed. When Fifth Edition showed up it was anybodies guess what it would look like.
The Fifth Edition of dungeons and Dragons was released in 2014. It bore a pretty strong resemblance to both fourth and Third edition but generally leaned in the direction of minimalism with regards to game mechanics. Without falling into a lengthy digression about game design, nearly every version of D&D has suffered from bloated rules and a certain amount of jargon and Fifth Edition is the first one to be squarely aimed at reducing that problem. So without further ado, the changes:
- A ton of features (Base Attack Bonus, skill points, saving throws) have been replaced with a single proficiency bonus. If you are proficient with something you add your proficiency bonus; if not you don't. Aside from simplifying the mechanics bonus doesn't change much from level one to twenty which mean the difference in capacities between high and low level characters is drastically reduced. This is mirrored by reduced spell slots and a generally smaller scale game.
- A new and rather obvious mechanic is advantage and disadvantage. This has the player roll twice and take the better or worse of the two rolls depending. This is a simple way for Dungeon Masters to represent situational modifiers without adding to the math, speeding up play.
- Feats are now optional and they've been replaced with frequent stat increases.
- Character backgrounds are now integrated into the game. Characters are expected to have back stories, motivations, bonds, and flaws and players are encouraged to role play in order to get inspiration which lets them get advantage on a roll. This isn't a major part of game play but it is a small check against Murder Hoboism.
There are plenty of other changes but those are the major ones. As far as design philosophies go the core themes here are faster play with less number crunching, significantly lower complexity barrier for new players to overcome, and an attempt engage people's imaginations more directly. This comes at a cost to customization, clarity in implementation, and to a certain degree realism. This ultimately boils down to taste but it definitely prefers a fast and lose play style and the associated ad hoc rulings.
Core rules aside Wizards has taken the initiative in releasing a few new campaign books built around old adventure modules every year. So far we have the Curse of Strahd, Storm King's Thunder, and the Tomb of Annihilation to name a few. Each of these expands the original content to about ten sessions worth of content in a partial sandbox world. It's also releasing a free web zine called Unearthed Arcana which provides a slow trickle of content free of charge. If you ever had an interest in playing Dungeons and Dragons but never got around to it this is probably the best time there's ever been to start.
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