Jul 07

Caleb Reviews the D&D Basic PDF

D&DBasiccoverOk kids, time for my take on DnD Basic…AKA Fifth Edition Lite…AKA the Cliff Notes version of DnD…AKA the first taste is free…AKA The One Where Michael and I Disagree.


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.Β It’s worth the time for the disclaimer if nothing else.




Follow me on Twitter @TheCalebG

Email me: Caleb@TheRpgAcademy(dot)com



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  1. I think it is a little too early to really judge what 5E is going to be. From what I know, there are going to be a lot of optional rules released in the DMG (Heard a rumor that THAC0 will be one of those options).

    From what I have heard, it seems as though this new edition will be very modular, there will be a lot of optional rules to build a game that works just for your group.

    I reserve my full judgement of the system until I see the whole package. So far I like what I see and am looking forward to the release of the PHB, MM and DMG for all the little extra bonuses that they will include.

      • Caleb on July 7, 2014 at 11:05 am
      • Reply

      I agree with you, Tim. We have a lot to look forward to with the full release of 5E. The modular concept that they have told us about is intriguing to me. As you said, everything should just be optional rules. I am really anxious to see how this works out. I can’t yet picture all the varying options that the different editions have given us over the years fitting together easily, so maybe this aspect will blow me out of the water when it’s released. Here’s hoping!

    • Lothannian on July 7, 2014 at 10:45 am
    • Reply

    Caleb, I love your podcast and this blog. Like you, I was concerned they didn’t include a blurb at the beginning on the basics of the RPG.

    However, having playtested, I am fairly certain some of your concerns will fade.

    On the topic of “every class being the same,” that can’t be farther from the case. Each class is different because each will give you bonuses to different skills or gear. That streamlined mechanic allows you to focus in on what you want to be good at. I think you are also approaching things only in the mindset of class, which is only one moderate part of a character. Your character is also significantly impacted by choice of race and background. And yes, feats are total game changers for characters, as you will see in the PH.

    • Caleb on July 7, 2014 at 11:15 am
    • Reply

    Thanks for your comment. I do agree with you that there are quite a few differences when it comes to class features and racial benefits. For example, humans have a huge advantage on stats and casters will dominate the damage output side of things for now. But there are also quite a few similarities between classes when it comes to mechanics. I’m not complaining about this. It’s simply an honest fact about Basic that needs to be recognized. I certainly am not being critical of the system, I am just trying to give my opinion and feedback. And I think that a large percentage of gamers will look to class options and mechanics first, in order to understand what Basic has to offer. In this context, I might have skewed my article a bit to focus on these crunchy bits. Mechanics are crucial and should be dug into with great attention to detail and specifics. I personally think you can role play the bejezzus out of this system, which I truly appreciate.

  2. This is a nice run down of the Basic rules, but there are a few items with which I disagree or may be misunderstood.

    1) Introductory text

    I disagree with your assessment that the introduction to RPGs section should not be right up front. Starter Set consumers will be downloading this document as well as new players. Existing gamers will be forwarding this PDF to their non-RPG friends who are curious about the game. This document will be the gateway drug for new players, so the intro to role-playing section is critical, even if it is old hat for experienced gamers. The marketing goal of Basic is to introduce new players to D&D which puts the need for that introduction front and center.

    2) Proficiency progression for classes is the same.

    This will not change in the PHB. The designers’ intent is to simplify the core mechanics. A Fighter will still be better at fighting than a Rogue because they have Proficiency in a wider array of weapons and armor as well as class features like multiple attacks, for instance. If you do the math, you’d likely find that a minor difference in attack bonus doesn’t necessarily make that huge of a difference in damage output overall… So why keep the mechanic it if it complicates the rules and makes the learning curve steeper?

    If all classes use the same bonuses, a player only has 1 table to look at, rather than separate tables for each class. From the design standpoint, instead of controlling damage output by changing the to-hit number by 5 or 10%, one controls the damage output by actually controlling the amount of damage (i.e – weapon type and number of attacks) rather than the “to hit” chance. Much simpler from a game design standpoint as there are fewer variables.

    3) Stat boost balance

    Non-Humans get +3 to their stats, but also get other non-stat benefits, such as Darkvision, Halfling Luck, etc… Because humans don’t get those non-stat benefits, they are given +6 instead. While this is a little high for my tastes, there is balance present there from a game design standpoint in that the other non-human benefits equate roughly to +3 in other stats.

    4) Stats cannot be raised over 20

    This is a feature, not a bug. You may not have heard the term “bounded accuracy” related to D&D game design, but you should try to Google the article where it is discussed and you will find it interesting.

    Essentially, the problem with 3e and 4e was that the numbers kept growing and growing. You’d get crazy stuff like AC 30 and +15 to hit. The numbers inflation meant that a 10th level fighter could stand in a room of dozens of goblins and still be nearly invincible because only a critical hit by a goblin would have the slightest chance to damage the fighter.

    To reduce this issue, attack bonuses and AC levels need to have a lower, hard ceiling. This is a good thing. Because it means that while bunches of goblins will die in the effort, they still have a fighting chance to kill a high level PC. For low level monsters, it is no longer is about fishing for crits in order to hit a higher level character. Low level monsters continue to be a threat across all 20 levels. This works in the PC’s favor as well. A town militia can help in a fight against the marauding giant in town. A 1st level PC or NPC is no longer completely useless in the company of higher level peers.

    5) Background do give mechanical benefits.

    Not entirely true. First, they confer skill and tool proficiencies that are not granted by the class. Second, they provide “Inspiration” that can be cashed in for an Advantage roll. This is an in-game reward to promote role-playing. Some would argue that you shouldn’t have to cajole players to role-play, but in the real world, many people, especially newbs are hesitant to play “in character”. I like that D&D is adding role-playing encouragement.

    6) 5 Foot Step

    Good riddance. Actually, now one can move all around an opponent without taking opportunity attack as long as you never leave their threat zone. So, I can be standing on the south side of a foe, and move to the north side. As long as I stay within his threat, I don’t get an opportunity attack. This is awesome and makes for much more dynamic combat movement. You don’t stand in one spot during a sword fight. You move around. You re-position. Having to move only 5 feet at a time is the crappiest combat rule 3.x gave us. You are now no longer “locked down” to a spot. Disengage is the 5-foot step equivalent for leaving the threat zone, but makes more sense because you can actually try to flee now (as opposed to move a few feet away every turn because the enemy can re-engage you constantly). I spit on the grave of the 5 foot step. πŸ™‚

      • Caleb on July 7, 2014 at 6:15 pm
      • Reply

      Marty, thank you for your comments. Wow, this felt like it was one of my posts. You bring up some great points. Let’s chat.

      Let me clarify something first. Between Michael and myself, I am the mechanics guy. I come from a more tactical approach to gaming than Michael. I thrive on the crunchy systems that give players deep options to play with. Thus, I approach games from that mindset. This is the foundation I build my opinion upon. But I am not a one-trick pony. I am able to fully appreciate the rules-lite games that focus on role playing. Hell, any listener can relate about how much I love FATE and there are less rules there than Basic. I am not being critical of Basic in my review. But I am reviewing it from my perspective as a gamer that favors and appreciates mechanics. I could easily review the game in context of role playing, but that’s Michael’s area of expertise. I would prefer to read his take on the role playing side of Basic. I enjoy his opinion on that sort of thing.

      So, on to your points.

      Point 1. I absolutely understand where you’re coming from. I appreciate fully that RPG books have to be written with the lowest common denominator of readers in mind. And you are correct when you say that Basic is intended to be an introduction to DnD for new players. Basic is the gateway drug to Fifth Edition. That being said, however, WotC knows full well that the majority (if not all) of the initial downloads will be done by gamers. This is logical. I don’t have any access to stats, but I would wager good money that the metrics of the first week of downloads of Basic were all done by people who had experienced DnD before. In my mind, it makes good sense to put even a one page summary of the new mechanics at the start of the document. Maybe it could have been as simple as a “here are the page numbers for the new mechanics so that experienced players can get right down to business” list. That’s just me. Maybe someone at WotC suggested it and the idea got shot down for some reason that I can’t think of. I’m not complaining. I’m not the type of person or gamer to rip into a product just for the sake of complaining. Yes, I would like it better if things were phrased differently, but that’s just my preference. I might be completely in the wrong. But my review of a product will be influenced by my opinion. I think a summary feature would’ve been a nice nod to the fans of WotC and the game.

      Point 2. In retrospect, I see your point and I appreciate it. It is a simple, streamlined mechanic. And it does put more emphasis on the character choices and states for differentiating between PCs. I see its value. Coming from my mechanics-heavy background, I never had any trouble with BAB. I would rather see some to-hit bonuses for the melee classes that aren’t simply derived from stats, but that’s just me. As of right now, the Fighter class does give us a few options to bolster this need. I’m OK with that for now. But my instinct is to want more. I think the game will work just fine without it. The balance is there. And I appreciate the focus shifting to what makes a character unique. It’s not my favorite thing, but it works. And it does have the benefit of being easy to understand.

      Point 3. I will still disagree with you here. There is so much emphasis on stats that I think the flavor features don’t offset the difference between a +3 and a +6. Sure, some of the bonus features are outstanding and make it absolutely worthwhile to play an alternate race. But I don’t feel that these features fully balance out the Human stat gain. Maybe I will change my mind after playing through a few games. I almost hope that I’m wrong. I would’ve suggested extra proficiencies, or maybe an extra bonus to supplement a proficiency (echoing back to the old systems when Humans were defined by simply being versatile). Maybe this was suggested in a development session and shot down for a specific reason that will soon be revealed.

      Point 4. I am very familiar with bounded accuracy. In addition to developing my own games, I just like to dig into the math and theory behind game design. I absolutely recognize the value of keeping stats manageable. I like your point about keeping low-level threats relevant. For me, this is about putting more reality back into the game. But with my background, I enjoy the power creep. I don’t think this was a problem with older editions. Yes, it was easily exploitable, but it was fun. I love seeing huge numbers on my sheet and I enjoy the challenging of making an encounter dangerous for my players who are ready with those huge to-hit bonuses. And my opinion is that at some point, a PC should be able to wade through a room of goblins without fearing death. I enjoy playing the character that laughs in the face of minions and plows through them to deal with a boss. That’s fun to me. And it’s fun for my players. But obviously, that’s me and my group.

      Point 5. For clarification, I did not say that Backgrounds do not provide mechanical effects, I said that they didn’t provide many mechanical effects. They give skills, which are already limited in comparison to the 3.5 world. I like that Backgrounds force players to dig into the history of their characters and flesh out the back stories, as this provides a great way to transition new players (or players that don’t do it) into better role playing behaviors. So to me, Backgrounds are very important, but don’t have more than a minor impact on the mechanics. Inspiration is great, but it’s nothing we weren’t already doing in one form or another. Giving a bonus to a player who role plays well is something that should happen no-matter the system and no-matter what the rules in the book say. Yes, it’s great to see a book that structures a support to role playing, especially in the context of assisting new players get into the game. But that’s the responsibility of the GM. A good GM should, by default, be willing to assist new players and give them guidance and rewards. This is common sense. And to be honest, this idea was present in many older handbooks, just not always with the most clear instructions.

      Point 5. Yeah, we’re going to continue to disagree here too. I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again, I’m a tactical gamer. In that context, 5 foot steps are crazy important and valuable. Not only are they free movement, but they are a method to develop strong co-operative maneuvers in combat situations. Your description of 5 foot steps is not completely correct. I don’t want to argue over an opinion. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be. The ability to move within an enemy’s threat zone is valuable. In fact, it’s huge. Giving that to a 1st level character is potentially game-breaking, especially when fighting an enemy with reach. Having to take a few feats to do that in 3.5 made it more valuable and more unique. At this point, a Cleric is potentially just as agile as a Rogue or a Dex-based Fighter. I never see 5 foot steps as a lock down. I see them as a way to maneuver safely. It’s a way to represent being focused in battle and being aware of the character’s surroundings. Seeing them as limiting movement in combat means the player is not taking full advantage of all the combat options 3.5 provides. The old rule of opportunity attacks made them dangerous. They represented something that players needed to be aware of in combat. But players could just as easily get around them or trick enemies into burning them. All options provided great strategic and role playing opportunity. The Disengage option wastes an entire action in combat. Thus if you are attempting to run, you spend a full round of actions to move your speed and prevent opportunity attacks from any enemy. That is the one benefit of Disengage; preventing any opportunity attacks. The old Withdraw action gave you a double move for the same full round action and no opportunity attacks from the foe you are running from. You could still potentially incur them from other enemies. That’s a downside. But the double move gives you more resources to use to run in a direction that avoids threatened squares. If you are trying to escape combat, a 5 foot step paired with spells or abilities or team work is better for your chances of survival. And in reality, most combat lasts only a few rounds and doesn’t require more than a a few strategic adjustments here and there. And that’s exactly what a 5 foot step is. It doesn’t burn action resources but still allows for strategy. All this being said, I am positive that I am not going to change your mind. But I think that the loss of the 5 foot step is a big deal. And if you think 5 foot steps are crappy rules, you haven’t read the Grapple rules as written in a long time.

    • Jonathon M. Johnson on July 9, 2014 at 5:48 pm
    • Reply

    Wow… Some great posts… I think I will just keep it simple; Michael knows that I can get down to it.

    Thanks for pointing out the disclaimer Caleb… Funny…

    The intro text is a give in for all games; they are set up for newbies, not just the previous players. All gamers should know that and expect it and not get all pissy when they see it.

    Sure it is new and basic, so more changes to come. Nice point out Tim.

    To me it just looks like v3.5 with a splash of v4.0; so v3.62? I think WotC saw their error of ditching v3.5 and all of the money they were making and now they are going back to it with just a facelift. Since I really enjoyed v3.5, I will most likely be purchasing this when it comes out.

    Still bothering me that they do not give out any negatives; just all of these + here, + there. Geez…

    Classes are looking good with their ability of customization and the backgrounds are helping out also.

    I like the using of strength to wear certain armor or you get a penalty. (-10ft movement), and that damage types are being brought back.

    Advantage/Disadvantage is cool, but the saving throws are a bit weak.

    Looking forward to Basic v0.2 to see their mind process in action. Hopefully it will just be a reprint with red words so you can see what was added and deleted. Yeah… Not…



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