Basic has only been out for a few days and already the interwebs are already aflame with opinions and arguments about this new thing we’ve all been given. I don’t want to feed the fire, but this is a Big Deal and deserves a good discussion.
To start things off, I feel the need to stress that Basic is an incomplete introduction to Fifth Edition. We all know this, but it should be reinforced a few times. It’s wonderful that we have been given a free introduction to the new version of DnD. We now have a great idea of what is in store for us when the complete books are released in the near future. As strategies go, this is a good one. We are in the shallow end of Fifth Edition and are easing into the cold waters of change. There are some good things in Basic and there are a few things that I hope will make more sense when the real books come out. What’s important to note is that we do not have a complete version of the game. The majority of Basic is full of “see the PHB” notes. Any decision about Fifth Edition, therefore, must be held in limbo until we can truly experience the new game.
So. Basic. Here’s the short and sweet summary of my review. Feel free to stop reading after this if you’re busy. Ready? I like it, but I’m not impressed.
Just once, I would love to read a role playing book that starts with the mechanics. Even a one page summary would be helpful. In the context that Basic is an introduction to a new system, I expected to dive right into the guts of what makes 5E new and different. Instead, Basic reads just like a regular RPG book. We are led slowly through races and classes, and then get to play mechanics. There’s nothing wrong with the format. It makes sense. But after years of playing games and reading gaming books, it’s annoying.
It seems somewhat odd in this day and age, but there are still people who don’t aren’t part of this hobby. These people need a step-by-step guide that explains what role playing is and what dice are. But on the other hand, the vast majority of people downloading Basic are experienced gamers. Thus, the fact that that majority of Basic is framed in the context of “how to play a role playing game” is frustrating. I skimmed through everything that wasn’t mechanics. But the fluff was well-phrased for new players. So there’s value there.
Most of Basic is well-written. But there are instances where the phrasing is complicated and confusing. After I read through things a few times, though, everything clicked.
Basic is a standard d20 based game.There’s nothing new when it comes to rolling dice and adding modifiers. There’s also nothing really new conceptually when it comes to races and classes. Orcs are still beefcakes and wizards still sling spells. Basic and Fifth Edition just redefine how everything happens.
In short, Basic puts a big emphasis on stats. Skill Checks and Saves all call for stat checks. BAB (Base Attack Bonus), base saves, and skill points have vanished. Instead, there is something called Proficiency, which applies to any skills, saves, or attacks that you are trained in. So you don’t make Perception or Stealth checks, you make a Wisdom or Dexterity check. You don’t make a Reflex Save, you make a Dexterity Save. If you are proficient in the skill or save, you add your Proficiency to the roll. I like this mechanic. It’s simple and streamlined.
As a side note, since there is no BAB any more, characters only get multiple attacks as class features. This isn’t a big change, but it’s noticeable.
I respect the choice to do this. I think it opens the game up for more role playing opportunities and it makes it easier for new players to figure the game out. But we have lost a lot of the crunchiness that other systems embrace. There’s nothing wrong with either extreme. This is just personal preference. I personally enjoy a system that lets me dive into the murky depths of math and mess around with fun options and combos. As we’ve discussed on the show many times, Michael prefers this in video games, not his role playing games. I think that’s why he enjoys this new edition so much.
One note about the Proficiency bonus. At least in Basic, all classes have the exact same progression of Proficiency. Since this bonus wraps up BAB, saves, and skills, this is essentially saying all classes have the exact same bonuses. Yes, there are differences in stats and which proficiencies a player chooses. But it’s not much of a difference. I don’t like this. Maybe something will change in the full version of Fifth Edition.
Races are fairly simple. There are stat bonuses and a few special features. There are also “sub-races” that give a few extra bonuses and add some flavor. There’s nothing new or unique here. But there is also no balance between stat boosts. On the low end you have a +3 and on the high end you have a +6. That seems weird.
Basic gives us 4 classes and only 1 version of each class. Each class has a series of Archetype features that allow for customization within the class. In Basic, we only get 1 Archetype. This is what makes me anxious for the full Fifth Edition. There’s not really enough now to get a full understanding of how the game will really flow. As of now, I am unimpressed with the class features. I don’t hate them, but they aren’t outstanding. But then again, I am coming from a Pathfinder state of mind which throws more class features at players than they know what to do with. I am hoping that when we get more Archetypes, we’ll be able to do more with the classes.
There are also no Feats in Basic. So we’re waiting for that aspect of customization as well. Basic says that players can sacrifice stat improvement to gain a feat. Hopefully, the Feats will be worth it. As a note on stats, this is one area where classes have a difference. Fighters get 7 improvements over the course of 20 levels, Rogues get 6, and the casters get 5. Given the larger focus on stats, I’m interested to see how this plays out. I am also concerned that, according to Basic, stats cannot be raised over 20 through this natural development. This concerns me.
Backgrounds are the last piece of the character puzzle. They primarily give extra skill proficiencies. They also add in a few random bonuses like languages or tool proficiencies (meaning you can add your Proficiency bonus to a check when you use tools). Backgrounds also have a component of suggested characteristics. These have no mechanical impact, they are just for flavor and roleplaying. I appreciate the inclusion of elements like this for players who are not experienced in role playing or who need a little inspiration. But I think it could’ve been shifted to an appendix. And I think that Backgrounds could’ve had more impact on the character.
Gear is fairly standard. Two changes jump out at me. The first is with Versatile weapons. These weapons (like long swords) jump up a die size when used two-handed. This is interesting, but it doesn’t have a huge impact. But damage no-longer gets the 1 and 1/2 times Strength modifier boost with two-handed weapons. I don’t like this. The second change is to AC. Instead of framing it as 10 plus armor and other modifiers, Basic simply gives you an AC total that includes armor. This is in line with the simplification that Basic seems to be founded on. It isn’t a bad change. But if the numbers are compared to older versions of armor, they are lower. Of course, the overall attack bonus is lower in Basic as well, so I guess that’s acceptable.
Combat mechanics are again pretty much the same. Characters get two actions per turn, which can be movement, attacks, and a few other options. There is no-longer a 5-foot step (or shift) option, but that may come later. But we CAN split up a move and attack during it without needing a feat or special ability. That’s extremely useful. Options like Dash or Dodge add some strategy to combat. Attacks of Opportunity are still a feature, so there’s also a Disengage action to avoid those. Basic does not give us things like Bull Rush or Trip attacks at this point. We can Grapple and Shove, but they’re just opposed stat checks. The best change is in Two Weapon Fighting. At this point, using 2 weapons gives you a free extra attack with no penalties. You just don’t get your stat modifier to the damage on the second attack. That’s still more than worth it, in my mind.
And then we get to spell casting. Spell damage is insanely overpowered. Low level damage spells churn out way more damage than a melee fighter of the same level. There is a nice Concentration mechanic that (unlike concentration in older editions) prevents spell casters from stacking multiple effects. This can get annoying, but it promotes good strategy. I have avoided reading reviews and forums about Basic for now, but I understand that there is some confusion about spell levels and casting. Unless I’m missing something, it’s fairly easy. Casters have a typical chart listing spell slots, which are just spells per day. The big difference is in spells known. Each day, casters prepare a number of spells of their character level plus their relevant stat modifier. They can prepare any spell they know up to that total. The level of the spells they can prepare is defined by their spells per day. So when your spells per day let you cast 3rd level spells, you can prepare 3rd level spells. Casting a spell burns a slot, not the spell. So you pick your spells for the day, you have them all day, and burn your spells per day to use them as you need. There’s also a great mechanic to cast a spell with a higher level slot for an added bonus. For example, if you burn a 5th level spell slot to cast a 3rd level spell, you could do extra damage. This is a built-in meta-magic ability that I love. It gives a caster strategic options and allows for creative flexibility. But it does add to the already overpowered nature of casters.
So all in all, Basic is just ok. It’s not a complete system, but it works well…probably. We don’t have monsters yet, so we don’t know how the balance works. It seems that for now, casters will dominate the field. I don’t think Basic gives us any monumental changes to the game. Maybe Fifth Edition in its entirety will reveal something new, but I doubt it. I do enjoy the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic, but it’s not ground-breaking. As an evolution from 4E, this game represents a return to a classic d20 style. And comparing it to older systems, we see a lot of those pre-3.5 features making a comeback. I am glad it was free. If I had paid for it, even just a few dollars, I would’ve been disappointed.
And it might sound lame to end my review with this statement, but my favorite part of Basic is the disclaimer on page one.
If you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, you can find it HERE. It’s worth the time for the disclaimer if nothing else.
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Email me: Caleb@TheRpgAcademy(dot)com