Color me thoroughly impressed with D&D 5e now that I have the three core rulebooks in my possession. Compressing the modifier range, AC and to hit bonus across levels almost makes it more old school than old school, but there are plenty of cool options available to appeal to new school players. Compared straight across, 1st -3rd level 5e characters will be much more powerful than their B/X or AD&D equivalents, but that quickly evens out and probably even flips towards the older systems being more powerful at higher levels. Consequently, converting B/X or AD&D material to 5e looks to be extremely easy.
I still had some unanswered questions and gripes about the game after reading the PHB and MM, but the DM's Guide really took care of most of these for me. If I had to choose my top D&D edition just based on the core rulebooks, I would have to take 5e at this point (although 1e still gets the nod for best DM's Guide even with it's Gygaxian organization). Player options are presented without being overly complicated or resulting in too much power inflation. Monsters strike a nice balance between simple to run and having some memorable and unique abilities (I particularly like the lair based powers of the legendary creatures). The core system is very solid, as is the treatment of the planes and the cosmology presented in general. There are an awful lot of rule variants and DM's tools provided that allow you to customize the game in many different ways. If you don't want to play with skills, the DM's guide gives you a purely attribute based resolution system for a more old school feel. The default, relatively "heroic" (read practically superheroic) out-of-combat healing presented in the PHB is now just one of many options available to the DM. Tools for running a Call of Cthulhu style campaign (Sanity attribute) fit in nicely with the focus on factions, organizations and secret societies. High marks for consistently emphasizing that the game can be customized, and providing many extremely useful examples of how you can do so.
Also, laser guns, antimatter rifles and frag grenades. Need I say more?
Of course this is not a perfect game. I have many small quibbles. Some areas of the DM's guide seem like unpolished, hasty add-ons that could easily have taken up the same amount of space and accomplished so much more (e.g the hodge podge of maps that is Appendix C) and almost every single random chart should have been expanded upon significantly. Maybe I am spoiled from years of browsing the amazing (and free) online content produced by D&D players and DMs, but I expect a lot more than 10 results for a "Short-Term Madness" table (especially when two of those results are stunned and unconscious - p.259) or 9 entries on a "Lingering Injuries" table (p.272). Rolling on a table to see what kind of injury your PC gets should be one of those awesome d100 moments where the world stops and hangs on the rolling dice, all manner of calamities looming, not "Oh I lost another (insert 'eye' or 'arm/hand' or 'foot/leg')" or "I got another scar".
The art is also all over the place between and within the core rulebooks, and ultimately that is good and bad for me because I don't trust the art direction at WotC enough to want them to go all one direction or another. This way I at least get some stuff that I enjoy.
Physically the books themselves are relatively impressive but I have some complaints here. My MM is the best quality with no obvious printing errors, but there are noticeable problems with my PHB and DM's Guide. My PHB had numerous instances of smeared ink from illustrations blurring text on facing pages and in several places there is fuzzy text in side bars (which almost seems like a layout error not a printing error, it seems like digital fuzziness). The only printing flaw I noticed in my DM's Guide was that the black ink from the illustration on page 124 bled all over the text on page 125, smearing and blurring the entire first column. I can still read everything on that page but it is a very noticeable smear. I like the look and feel of the books, especially their heft in my hands when holding all three together, but I do not like the red and white Dungeons & Dragons logo on the spine and front cover and the white lettering for the book name. I'm not sure why, but I just really don't like the new red and white banner logo. I think it is mostly the red color, and now that I am focusing on it and asking myself why I don't like it, I think the stylized tearing at the end of the banner also grates on me.
Now for some bullet points from the DM's Guide:
- The generally flattened power curve of 5e is reflected in the bonuses for magic weapons and armor, which only range from +1 to +3 in this edition.
- Speaking of magical items, the magical item creation rules on pages 128-29 make it impractical for PCs to make anything but a common or uncommon magical item. It would take a single PC 200 days of working 8 hour days to create a rare magical item (+1 armor or +2 weapon are rare magical items for reference). It takes 2000 days of working 8 hour days to create a very rare item (+2 armor or +3 weapon) and 20,000 days (54 years!) to create a legendary item (e.g. cloak of invisibility or iron flask) . Multiple PC spellcasters can split this time up, but I don't see any party using the rules as written to craft anything but common or uncommon items. It takes 4 days to craft a common item and 20 days to craft an uncommon item (potion of healing is common, broom of flying is uncommon - illustrating a seemingly arbitrary assignment of rarity to magical items, as the broom of flying is pretty bad ass, carrying up to 400 pounds and coming with the ability to park itself anywhere within 1 mile and then come when summoned - compare with the carpet of flying which is nearly identical in terms of flying and lifting capacity, does not have the 1 mile self park and summon ability, and is rated as very rare!).
- Still on magical items, some of my favorite illustrations in the book are of the items but I go back and forth on their inclusion. The item illustrations are awesome and mostly very well done. I really enjoyed seeing familiar items from my gaming past rendered in full color. On the other hand there are a LOT of them - if the magic items were presented sans illustrations, it would have opened a lot more space for even more content. And ultimately, as cool as it is to see one artist's rendition of a Ring of Feather Falling, magical items have to be unique in appearance in game and are probably better left the province of the imagination. I would have loved to see a lot more space allotted to random encounters and honestly if those had been lavished with illustrations instead of the magic items, they probably would have been the showstoppers for the book!
- There are some strange/illogical decisions made on the many (otherwise helpful) charts provided as DM's tools. For example "Improvising Damage" (p.249)suggest being struck by lightning is equivalent to falling into a fire pit (2d10 damage), while I would have guessed a lightning strike to be at least worth 5d6 if not more. Also the "Maintenance Costs" (p.127) of an abby or keep seem extremely high (20gp/day for an Abbey and 100gp/day for a keep) considering that any money the property could earn to offset maintenance costs by charging fees, collecting tithes or donations or selling goods is supposedly taken into account on the table. You have to spend 3000 GP a month to have a keep on top of sinking all the taxes you take in for protecting the surrounding lands back into upkeep and on top of what you save by consuming what your own fields produce? Ouch!
- I like the quick resolution rules for mob/group attacks (p.250). Large groups of low level combatants are much more of a threat to even high level PCs than they have been in any other edition with the compressed AC ranges and attack modifiers, and this is a great way to run that style of combat quickly.
- The "Epic Boons" (p.231) are a cool variant to allow progression past level 20, for those who like a high powered end game. E.g. "Boon of Planar Travel" allows plane shifting once a combat (once between short rests) to one specific plane (and back to the Material Plane); "Boon of the Fire Soul" grants immunity to fire and the ability to cast burning hands at will.
- I wish Appendix C Maps had been replaced with something more closely tied in to the content generators provided for dungeons, settlements and wilderness areas. I am probably spoiled by Dyson Logos and many more, but 6 full pages dedicated to maps could have delivered a lot more content. Two pages each of dungeon, settlement and wilderness geomorphs comes to my mind.
- The "Random Settlements" generator (p.112-114) is great. The PCs are wandering up to a town that is not detailed. Let me roll a few d20s and give you an example: Mostly wealthy townsfolk, known for its flowers, with tension between races, ruled by a religious leader. Undead are stirring in the cemetery. A tavern named "The Mysterious Lamb" is a gathering place for a secret society. All in all a relatively uneventful set of rolls but they would give me plenty to riff on. A few ideas that these rolls prompted in me just now: While the undead stirring in the cemetery is beyond hackneyed, the detail about flowers made me think of tulips, then bulbs, and I think the secret society is developing new varieties that required the bulbs to be planted in undead flesh but produce stunning flowers which are upsetting and outcompeting the established, racially divided flower growing guilds; and the undead flowers probably also have magical properties that allow the secret society to manipulate people (pollen emitted in the homes of the wealthiest and most fashionable).
- The chase rules (p.252-254) are simple but seem like they would work well, and I hope to see some bloggers publish expanded chase complications charts because I think they are a cool idea.
- I really like the illustration on page 248 that shows examples of creature sizes Tiny, Small, Medium, Large, Huge and Gargantuan: