Having been suitably impressed by reading and playing a bit of the Starter Set, as well as the Basic Rules for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I decided to pick up the Player’s Handbook and I am genuinely impressed with what I’ve got for my money.
What jumps out at you if you’ve read over the Basic Rules is that the Player’s Handbook offers, for the most part, exactly the same thing in terms of rules and character generation processes, just more of it. It’s split into three sections – character creation, playing the game, and magic – and of these the actual rules for playing the game are the slimmest by a long way. (In fact, if you’ve read the Basic Rules you’ve pretty much covered them.) The character generation section and magic sections are substantially expanded from the Basic Rules, by comparison, but at the same time for the most part this consists of the addition of more options – more races and subraces, more classes and class specialisations, more backgrounds, and more spells.
Multiclassing and feats are presented as purely optional offerings to add extra customisation, but the range of feats offered and potential advantages of multiclassing are limited enough to save the game from becoming subject to the same character optimisation arms race that was a feature of the 3rd Edition era. In fact, I’d say that it doesn’t quite seem worth multiclassing unless you absolutely, positively can’t make your character concept fit one of the existing class options – with subclasses like the Eldritch Knight, a Fighter who can cast some magic spells, out there for you to play with the need to dip into one class or another to get access to the capabilities you want your character to have is lessened. Furthermore, because all feats are available to all characters, picking up a feat here or there can help you branch out your character in directions not necessarily connected to their niche – for instance, the Dungeon Delver feat gives you the sort of knack for finding secret features of dungeon architecture you might otherwise associate with rogues.
One interesting feature of the new Handbook is the appendices, which range from little bonuses which are nice to have but not essential to really incredibly useful features. There’s an extensive list of statistics for animals and monsters that can be summoned or shapeshifted into by PC abilities, which Druid players and the like will find incredibly useful, and there’s a summary of a range of historical, setting-specific, and classic nonhuman deities which DMs and Cleric players alike will find handy. On top of that, there’s a discussion of the structure of the planes which is quite fun – for the most part the structure from 1E-3E is retained with some tweaks to allow for features like the Shadowfell and Feywild from 4E to be included. (The biggest change is to the elemental planes; close to the Prime Material Plane they are almost-mundane worlds in which one element or another happens to predominate, only becoming the hostile hellscapes they’ve commonly been presented as when you get deeper into them and then merging together at their furthest extent to become the 4E Elemental Chaos, whilst the Positive and Negative Energy Planes now exist outside the Outer Planes to avoid all of that Quasi-elemental plane nonsense.) Oh, and Sigil is canon.
For the most part, though, this is a book with few surprises if you’ve read the Basic Rules and/or Starter Set, which in itself is probably a good thing. The 2E feel with 4E mechanical rigour thing that Dan identified is the big selling point of 5E, so far as I am concerned, and this Player’s Handbook feels thoroughly in the 2E tradition. In particular, the artwork, like 2E’s, draws on a range of aesthetics and styles that all feel D&D-like whilst not being homogenised – a stark gear shift from the “dungeonpunk” style used for 3E and 4E, but arguably a necessary one since Pathfinder does dungeonpunk damn well these days and 5E is deliberately going for a big tent approach. (In fact, it’s arguably a bigger tent than core book D&D has ever been; the inner front page sports artwork of an African warrior fighting decidedly nontraditional-looking goblins in a desert, the Monk class’s ties to classic martial arts movies is explicitly acknowledge by talking about how Monk powers work off manipulating ki, and in general both the text and the artwork emphasise that you don’t have to be white and European to be part of the D&D cosmos.)
In a nice touch, the last thing you get before the index and character sheers is Appendix E – an update of Appendix N from the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide, complete with Gygax’s original preamble, with new books added to the list to supplement those Gary already cited as being influences on the game. The inclusion of new books is an interesting acknowledgement that from its publication D&D has been an influence on as well as influenced by literary fantasy; as well as the major Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels, the list includes works by RPG-inspired writers like George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson. (It also includes The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, which isn’t very D&D-like but does at least show good taste.) The most distinctive new inclusion on the list, however, is Andre Norton’s Quag Keep and her Witch World series- the first of which was the first D&D novelisation, the latter of which is a classic Norton series that was almost certainly grounds for her inclusion in the original Appendix N. Hopefully, with this solid new edition D&D will stay part of the fantasy fiction feedback loop for years to come.
Meanwhile, how’s 5th Edition doing in the ENWorld chart?
It’s over one thousaaaaaaaaaand!