Critical Hits: More time spent learning about races, classes and all of the interesting stuff in the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Only a few pages dedicated to the hard rules of combat. Nine races, 12 core classes with numerous archetypes, schools, domains and gods give players plenty of options.
Critical Misses: Fifty dollar price tag on top of the $20 for the starter set might be a little steep for some people.
If you’re new to role-playing games, or planning on being your groups DM, you may be thinking about the Starter Set, which I’ve already reviewed here. The Player’s Handbook (PHB here on out) is a THE jumping on point for all players, Dungeon Masters and party members alike. This hefty 300+ page tome covers all of the basic rules for character creation, combat, spell casting and overall mechanics to play the world’s greatest role-playing game.
Featuring a sturdy hardback glossy print cover with a sturdy bind this book looks like it can take all the damage a group of teenagers hopped up on Mountain Dew and Cheetos can throw at it. It’s survived SoCal summer heat in my car the past couple of weeks with no wear, although I’ve heard of some copies arriving warped in humid areas. This thing was clearly built to withstand the average wear that constant carrying in a backpack will put out. The only thing this book is missing in its construction is a handy ribbon bookmark.
The most notable thing in this book to me is that in the 300-plus pages, less than 40 are relegated to the “hard” rules pertaining to combat, ability and skill checks, and the rules covering magic usage. The entirety of the book is dedicated to intricacies of character creation from the standard and even rarer races, and 12 classes, each with their own subclasses called “archetypes” that are chosen by players at 2nd or 3rd level. Wizard, bard and cleric characters will really enjoy the options given to them through the various schools of magic, domains and bard colleges available. With 170 pages devoted to and providing ample material to flesh out your character, you’ll be hard pressed to feel like you’re being pigeonholed into a specific class stereotype. The 9 races in the PHB cover the basics, Human, Elf, Dwarf, as well as less common inhabitants of Faerun such as the Dragonborn and Tieflings. Humans get an excellent set of ability score adjustments( +1 to ALL ability scores, or with the variable system +1 to two ability scores, a skill proficiency of your choice, and a feat at first level) so that they actually seem playable. Skills have been overhauled since the last time I played (3/3.5), now you either have proficiency, or you don’t, with a class and level based “proficiency bonus” added to skill checks. This greatly streamlines skill checks and leveling, which means more time to actually play. Backgrounds are brought into 5th edition, providing a character with skill proficiencies, languages, and equipment, as well as a few tables that you can choose to roll off of to determine other variables in your personality traits. One of the most interesting things in the PHB is the Trinket table that players can use to start with a simple item that may add story hooks or a link to their background. This focus on role-playing and emphasis on character development really shines and gives me hope for future releases in 5th edition.
All of the rules systems seem to be extremely optimized to spend more time playing, and less time looking up specific rules. Advantage and disadvantage is a great new system to quickly give a character a little bit of extra luck, or doom, depending on the situation. Using this system, a player rolls 2d20 and keeps the highest (advantage) or lowest (disadvantage) result. If a player is doing extremely well at roleplaying their character, a DM may grant them Inspiration, which allows them to choose a roll to have Advantage on by spending it. Combat has also been greatly overhauled, especially from 4th edition’s grid and miniature based system. There are conversion rules, so don’t worry, all of those tile sets and minis you bought while playing 4th don’t have to gather dust. As someone that got into roleplaying because of the low cost of entry and thrived in the idea of Theatre of the Mind, this is the best thing about this new edition. What’s old is new again, and I like it. The combat system is all of 10 pages, covering initiative, the number and types of actions you can take, movement speeds, etc. Ten pages, and you’re done, that’s all you need to know to play through your first encounter.
Faerun has been chosen as the basic setting in this edition and I couldn’t be happier. I’m sure this was a very deliberate choice, giving new players a reason to go out and buy all of the Legend of Drizzt novels and related materials (he even gets mentioned in a sidebar about playing Drow). Forgotten Realms has always been my favorite campaign world so it’s great to see all of my favorite locations front and center. Appendices B and C are dedicated to numerous pantheons, and the Planes of Existence for when you’re done delving all of the dungeons that Faerun has to offer.
I don’t have a lot of bad things to say about this book. The price tag is a little steep if you’re supporting your local gaming store (you really should be), especially if you picked up the starter set. You can pick it up on Amazon right now and save $20. My recommendation is to skip the set, dive headfirst into this magnificent book and start making characters. As someone who has been away from D&D since 3.5 came out, I’ve never been more excited to play again.