One of the first, if not the first, game that will inevitably be heard by new roleplayers just dipping their toes into the veritable sea of tabletop gaming pond is Dungeons & Dragons. Partly because of its roots as the progenitor of various roleplaying games, partially due to the rise of actual plays like Critical Role and Dimension 20, and in large part owing its success to the extensive online support for its Fifth Edition (5E), Dungeons & Dragons has secured its position as the quintessential tabletop roleplaying game. Yet does it deserve that title, or should another hero come vanquish this dragon once and for all?
Elements of the Game
Nearly all tabletop roleplaying games involve the same elements: creation of a character and interaction with the game world. Individual adventures and source books will all have a unique element to them, as no two game masters will run the same module exactly alike. However, a game should include the two elements that I mentioned before, which is why in reviewing the 5E system these will be my focus.
The Makings of a Hero: Character Creation
The method of creating a character is not excessively difficult initially, yet it lies at the crux of how all other elements of this game work together. On the surface, the four-part instructions make sense:
- Choose your character’s race
- Choose the class for your character
- Roll for or use the point buy system to generate your character’s ability scores
- Fill in the backstory details about the character
But once you’ve selected your race, the first complications show up right away. First, you need to review the details that this decision inherits; for example, most races are broken into subraces, each with their own special abilities. A quick examination of a different elf subraces reveals that some start with special magic, others have more movement, and other minor details. This often results in erasing and updating notes repeatedly, and this pattern repeats when choosing the character’s class or when changes in level update the features again.
The complications only continue to increase when adding equipment and spells to your character. Each of these sections will often be altered whenever a change is needed. For instance, a player who notes they are carrying a quest item that is necessary to complete an adventure may record it on their sheet, only to need to remove it after delivering the item. Notes on what items do are too lengthy to write in full on the page, so constant referencing in the books may be needed. This goes double for spells, which usually have more specific rules involved in their application—especially if someone is playing a druid or cleric, who can change their spells every long rest.
Tools For Success: Accessibility
With all the minutia involved, the creating a character can be daunting (even without including updates as the character’s levels increase). Luckily, there is ample online support across the internet for new players daunted by the extensive rules and concepts that come up during this integral phase of the game. DNDBeyond is likely the most recognizable resource, with a guided character builder that assists every step of the way. This increases the accessibility of 5E, making it easier to create and manage characters. I have met several players that admit they would not have gotten into this game without this site, and they are now consummate players of the game thanks to the convenience provided by the plethora of online tools now available.
Anything You Want To Do: Using Skills
Once your character is ready, they’re all set to explore the game world – whether from a module or the imagined setting the game master created! This is most often done through roleplaying conversations with other players or NPCs or interacting with the environment. For just about any action someone can think of to do, there is a corresponding skill that can be applied to the roll.
The options for what a character can do virtually limitless, with restrictions only applied by the game master’s flexibility. Want to kick a goblin off the city wall and watch them fall to the ground far below? Athletics check contested by the goblin’s own Athletics or Acrobatics check. Leap from a running horse’s back onto a nearby roof? Depending on the situation, it could require both an Animal Handling check and Acrobatics check. Engaging other patrons at an inn in a drinking contest? That may require some Constitution saves. Stealing an item, sneaking around, taming an animal, understanding the religious or historical significance of something—each of these can be associated with a specific skill, which is affected by a character’s ability score.
The skills used by 5E are extremely flexible and can apply to a variety of situations. This is why 5E features an extensive library of homebrew mechanics developed from other systems. Yet this open-ended design also increases the challenges, as the game rules and action options are written in a way that often requires interpretation. There is a reason game masters scroll through the social posts of Jeremy Crawford, lead rule designer for this edition, as one of the go-to sources for understanding some of the more ambiguous rules in the system. . .
Prepare for Battle: Combat
With its roots in traditional miniature war-gaming, Dungeons & Dragons is at its heart a tactical combat game. Theater of the mind is possible, yet the consideration that 5E places on position, distance, and areas of effect emphasize an in-built preference for grid maps.
The flow of battle is likewise more complicated than many other systems. Pathfinder 2E, for example, allows players to choose three from a long list of actions—with some actions taking more than one action to complete. 5E approaches their action economy differently by classifying different activities as actions or bonus actions. These categories are not interchangeable, and there are usually one of each available to characters (with exceptions sometimes that certain classes unlock).
Combat is also where the game truly bogs down. A simple combat between five players and a group of monsters can easily last an hour or longer—partially due to there being numerous abilities to review, but also possibly because of players being unfamiliar with those same abilities. Melee and ranged weapon fighters are mostly straightforward, although each have some extra flair for their abilities and options that require some studying. Magic-centric characters also have limited spell slots available, and so considerable attention to what spell suits the occasion is required (as well as understanding of the actual effect that the spell will have in the situation).
All in all, there are a number of elements in combat that can slow the game’s pace if the game master is not mindful of them. Not to suggest that combat in 5E is bad—far from it! Many players, myself included, truly enjoy the tactical depth that the game provides. Yet it is an undeniable fact that a lot of factors coalesce and force the pace to a crawl, and game masters may find the time available to their game was burned away in one or two fights that stretched for hours.
Creating on the Fly: Encounter Balance
Another aspect that is weaker in the game design of Dungeons & Dragons 5E is encounter balancing. Two different guidelines have been published, but both are lacking the depth and accuracy that game masters crave. More often than not, custom encounters’ difficulty results in a battle that is either too easy or too challenging. Online calculators for balance are tricky at best, as the example pictured above shows—the enemies are too weak to significantly challenge a party of that level, despite it appearing to be a moderate fight!
It is unfortunate that Dungeons & Dragons does not have the same level of attention to this aspect of their game design as other publishers. Paizo’s Pathfinder 2E, for example, has an incredibly detailed and balanced mechanics that can be used to design rewarding combat experiences for players and game masters alike. With 5E, though, the math is rigged from the start. This makes any encounter’s balance a best guess, even before throwing in random favor from the dice gods.
Addressing the Dragon in the Room. . .
While this is a review of Dungeons & Dragons 5E as a system specifically, I would be remiss not to touch on significant developments regarding the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast (colloquially referred to as “WotC”). This article’s not devoted to sharing the details of circumstances that arose at the end of 2022 and early 2023 (the OGL Crisis that led to #OpenDnD movement). To summarize the result: WotC has shifted and clarified their intentions in response to the public outcry, yet a sour taste lingers in the mouths of players and creators to this day, and trust regarding WotC’s intentions remains thin. With the added disappointment of several books missing the mark and having other controversial problems, this negative impression of WotC and 5E inundates social media, blogs, and YouTube.
I mention this not to dredge up the prevailing bitterness, but to recommend studying the game beyond these details. WotC may be the publisher, yet this corporate entity’s publications and tools are not the only means by which the game can be experienced. There are a wealth of prominent third party publishers that release settings, adventures, and alternate rules for the game—including Kobold Press’s upcoming Tales of the Valiant, a D&D-variant system—that can inspire and aid game masters in their search for improved content. But 5E is a game that can be played with the basic rules and some imagination, making this a versatile system with plenty of resources despite the publisher’s baggage.
A shadow may linger over this tabletop system, both from the recent negative actions of the publisher and the overall impression that this system is the quintessential TTRPG. There are problems in Dungeons & Dragons 5E, this cannot be denied. Some elements are done very well, such as combat and character options. It also creates a basic foundation for incorporating social interaction and exploration into the game. Yet game masters dissatisfied with the official contents’ quality may find themselves frustrated by the lack of material, and newbies entering the hobby may find the character creation process a trifle challenging.
There is also a considerable amount of turmoil within the Dungeons & Dragons community right now, as a new rule-set (that may or may not end up being backward compatible with 5E) undergoes final development completed and developed. What people expected to become a new edition of the game, everyone now projects to be a general revision of the existing system’s mechanics. Most of the commentary I have read offers little to no enthusiasm for the changes, with the authors planning to stick with their existing 5E rules that suit their playstyle just fine. While this does not affect the existing system’s usability, it’s worth keeping in mind that WotC’s focus will shift to their new version for future materials and books they release. Despite all of this, Dungeons & Dragons 5E remains a perfect gateway into TTRPGs, especially with its accessibility tools that enable new players to create a character and leap into the action. Its popularity cannot be denied, and the immense freedom available to players is practically limitless. Whether you choose it as your long-term game or as a quick introduction to tabletop gaming, Dungeons & Dragons has plenty to offer everyone who joins a table to roll some dice!