Thirty-six years ago, the folks at TSR (later purchased by Wizards of the Coast) released the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook. (Was the missing possessive apostrophe a mistake or intentional? Discuss.) This was actually my first AD&D book, although I wouldn’t get my own copy (6th Printing, January 1980) until two years later — I cut my teeth on the original Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set that was a gift from my parents for Christmas 1979.
Note: For years I thought it was for my birthday, but my parents reminded me that it was indeed a Christmas gift. This now makes sense because my birthday is in April and school ended in May. My friends and I would play many dozens of times in the early half of 1980 prior to the start of summer… when I REALLY started to play a lot.
Interestingly enough, the Players Handbook was not the first book released for AD&D. That would be the Monster Manual. The first advertisement I can find for the Monster Manual is in Dragon #11 (Dec 1977) and this advertisement was seen a few more times before the Players Handbook advertisements started (with the same Carrion Crawler, a real 9′ long nasty if you ever encountered one).
Prior to the release of the Players Handbook, a few advertisements appeared in Dragon magazine (and maybe a few other publications at the time, although Dragon was my sole source of D&D news and updates, unfortunately). The first I can find is from Dragon #15 (June 1978) and it shared space with the announcement of the release of Gamma World, designed by James M. Ward and Gary Jacquet. (I mention this only because James M. Ward was the creator of Metamorphosis Alpha, the very first RPG I every played in — up to that point, I had been a DM only because I knew the Basic Set rules the best in my group… and no one else really wanted the job. I have such fond memories of that first game of MA.)
Note: Look carefully at the TSR Hobbies, Inc. logo in the advertisement for the Players Handbook and Gamma World and you’ll notice a Lizard Man. By the time I joined the D&D world, that logo had changed to a Wizard. The TSR logo would go through a number of changes through the years, including the removal of all characters. For a short but interesting read on the TSR logo, check out Jon Peterson’s article, Tactical Studies Hobbies, An Oddity in Letterhead.
In August 1978, Dragon #17 had its first full-page advertisement for the Players Handbook. Rather than an image of the cover, it displayed a specific image from the copyright page — the Smoking Sage Studying Spells. I purchased my copy of the AD&D Players Handbook during the summer of 1980 (I remember this because of the two large four-acre lawns I had to mow for the funds). Although I read the book in its entirety (which was absolutely mind numbing as I’ll explain shortly), one little item in that image passed under my radar for a year or two. Do you see it?
I spent most of my time with the actual AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (again with the missing apostrophe for either singular or plural possessive), so the Players Handbook was only occasionally consulted. Over the years of play, it was so easy to just flip open the book to a specific section and ignore that copyright page. The image of the Smoking Sage… look at where he’s sitting. Is that not a d6? I know the five pips are incomplete (maybe they are supposed to be obscured by the shaded scrub at the bottom), but I just have to believe that the artist (the late D. A. Trampier — the DT initials are teeny-tiny at the nine o’clock position in the circle) intended for that stone or wooden pedestal to look like a d6. Maybe I’m wrong.
Note: A closer look at the spell book will reveal the letters AD&D on the cover. That was an easy spot during my first read of the book.
The Players Handbook was 128 pages. That number may not seem special, but after writing for a number of publishers over the years, I’ve come to pick up on a few industry-related bits of info, and I believe that 128-page length is important. Let me explain:
When printing the pages for a book, many printers print out the pages in what are called FnGs (F&Gs). Folded and Gathered. Books aren’t typically printed a page at a time, but are instead printed in a special order so that the large sheets that ARE printed (and contain multiple pages in various orientations… including upside down, I believe) can be folded together to create small 32 page groupings (with some groupings being smaller sets of 16 pages, I believe). These groupings are then bound together to make the books that we all enjoy. Publishers will often try to fill every one of those 16/32 page booklets because a blank page is a waste, right?
I imagine back in the late 1970s that publishing a hardback book was quite expensive given the technology of the day. A company like TSR would probably want to fill as many pages as possible and would push the limit right up to that 32 page FnG booklet length. A careful examination of my Players Handbook reveals what appears to be four stacked groupings of 32 pages each… all held together inside the cardboard shell.
Now, here’s why I think that 128-page length is important: one extra page of content would have required another 32-page grouping of pages. Think about it — another grouping would have increased the printing cost by 25%. My best guess is that TSR worked with the printers and did some math and figured out the price at which they’d sell the most books was 128 pages. So, they did one of two things — they either wrote the Players Handbook with that 128 page limit in mind OR they cut material. I’d be willing to wager they cut material… and they obviously had plenty of it from Dragon magazines (the Monster Manual got many of its creatures from the pages of Dragon’s Bestiary column) and other creative sources. With thirty-six years gone, we’ll probably never know.
Note: Of course, I could be completely wrong. The Monster Manual does have 112 pages with print on them, and that would match up to seven FnGs x 16 pages each = 112. But the Dungeon Masters Guide has 236, neither an exact multiple of 16 or 32. Who knows? This could be all just Bible Code mathematics and pure coincidence. Feel free to ignore the crazy writer.
When I first got my copy of the Players Handbook, I wasted no time in digging in and reading it, and I’ll repeat myself — it was mind numbing. Don’t get me wrong — I was loving this hardback book and all the good stuff between the covers. It was new to me (and my fellow players) and we would take whatever we could get to further our gaming experience.
While I enjoyed a lot of the book’s content, there was so much material that left me scratching my head and wondering if I’d ever use it. Table after table after table… I remember feeling overwhelmed at all the +1 and -3 modifiers. And does that table actually have four different asterisks (*, **, ***, and ****) for footnotes PLUS a note on usage of poison?!
And as the resident DM, you didn’t want to get me started on the different ranges of Experience Points required for each class. “Yes, Congratulations. You both defeated the Mind Flayer for 800XP. No, you may not split the XP 500/300 so both of you can level up. Yes, I’m sorry that his level 6 Druid moves to level 7 at 35,001 and your level 5 fighter only moves up to level 6 at 35,001. I didn’t make the rules. Oh, look, the dead Mind Flayer’s twin just arrived…” [... players, grrr...]
And there were inconsistencies. For all of the classes, the XP chart for leveling varied. Paladins required 350,000XP after level 11, while Fighters only required 250,000XP after the same level. Poor Magic-Users, though… after level 18 each additional level came at a price of 375,000XP while the Illusionist could rock after level 12 with a requirement of only 220,000XP per additional level. Oh, and the Monk had to stop at level 17. No further advancement.
The Players Handbook also gaveth… and it tooketh away. For example, multi-class (more than two) was allowed. But not for humans. Why a human couldn’t spend a few years studying magic followed by some purse stealing and then decide to enter the monastery was never really explained. (The frequent argument was that humans didn’t have a long enough lifespan for this kind of thing. Phooey.)
But really… most everything in an AD&D campaign was just accepted at the time. 20 silver equals one gold piece? No problem. An arrow does 1-6 damage while a scimitar does 1-8? No problem. It really didn’t matter in 1980; the Players Handbook was just golden. The additional spells were great and some of my players even experimented with the Psionics section found in Appendix I. I even allowed the Bard class (from Appendix II) which I believe may have been a last minute addition to fill that final 32-page bundle.
It wasn’t much longer after purchasing the Players Handbook that I saved up enough to buy the Monster Manual. The Dungeon Masters Guide was a gift from my parents. At the time, I didn’t have to wait long to gather all three books — they’d already been released between 1977 to 1979. I didn’t have to put up with the long waits between the books’ release dates. But I can certainly sympathize with those early DMs and players who did, because…
Here I am… thirty-six years later, clutching the new 5th edition D&D Player’s Handbook (complete with the apostrophe). It’s in my hands. And I have to wait another month or so for the Monster Manual (with that nightmare-inducing cover featuring a Beholder – RUN AWAY!). And then another month or longer for the Dungeon Master’s Guide. (Is that Acererak on the cover!?)
Note: I’m quite happy that WotC chose to release the Player’s Handbook first. They could have mirrored the original book release order (MM, PH, DMG), but by releasing the Players Handbook, they’ve allowed me to avoid purchasing the MM until I’m convinced I will enjoy the new rule revisions.
I’ve had the Starter Set for over a month, and I’ve read it cover to cover including the multi-part adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver. Based on what I read in the two included booklets (the adventure/module and the Starter Set Rulebook), I’ve been optimistic about the new rules. But now the rubber meets the road. Will the new 5th Edition (5e) Player’s Handbook deliver the goods?
Here’s the deal — there are no middle versions of D&D for me. With the exception of a few rare games played over the last 10-20 years, I really stopped playing AD&D consistently in the mid-80s. I only have the D&D Basic Set and AD&D as a comparison with 5e. You’ll get no 2e, 3e, or 4e commentary or debates from me — I wouldn’t be able to contribute anything. In a sense, any feedback I provide here on the new D&D rules should be treated the same as if it were coming from a new player (but a player with experience with RPGs). While I feel it’s a bit unfair to pit the 1978 AD&D Players Handbook against 2014 D&D Player’s Handbook, the reality is it’s not really a battle. AD&D was a product of its time, and it was outstandingly fun. AD&D had its problems (some of which I’ve shared above), but we still played it. A lot. With grins on our faces.
So… the 5e Player’s Handbook.
Keeping in mind that I still haven’t seen the new 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide or Monster Manual (with the exception of a few tweeted images of the MM TOC and Index), here are my thoughts after reading the entire 318 printed pages… and in no particular order:
* The quality of the new book is 10x higher. Glossy front cover with an amazing piece of artwork from Tyler Jacobson, textured back cover. The binding looks like it will do a lot better after 36 years than my original book trilogy, and the paper is a higher quality as well.
* The interior artwork is also just as amazing. The list of artists is quite long, but the consistency of the look and feel of all the art makes it feel like a smaller group provided all the imagery. I don’t know if that will come off as an insult or not to the artists (who might prefer to hear that their artwork is easily recognized), but please don’t take it that way — one of the things about the early AD&D books and Dragon magazine was the often mishmash feel of the artwork. One page would have a light-hearted cartoon followed by page with a terrifying creature encounter. WotC has selected a solid collection of full-page and partial-page artwork that compliments the subject matter it frames.
* The new book is divided into logical parts — Part 1 covers creating a character and all the possible options such as race, class, personality, equipment, and more. Part 2 is all about the mechanics of gameplay from a player’s point of view. Ability scores, saving throws, rest, movement, and combat are all organized in an easy-to-read and logical manner. Honestly, if the AD&D rulebooks had been written this clearly, I might not ever have stopped playing. Part 3 covers spells and the rules associated with playing a spell casting character.
* D&D 101 — Pages 5-8 provide a very strong “essay” explaining D&D, roleplaying, and the most basic of mechanics that a game possesses. From “How to Play” to “The D20″ to “The Three Pillars of Adventure,” this Introduction would make a perfect handout to any friends or family you wish to invite to a game (or just wish they’d understand what’s involved and why we love D&D so much).
* Part 1 is almost like a cookbook in its method of creating a character. Step 1… Choose a Race. Step 2… Choose a Class. And so on. (The details of Race and Class come later, but it’s this overview of the process that reads so smooth. After finishing Part 1, it is quite obvious that the rules of D&D have been polished and consolidated. I’m not wanting to use the word “simplified” although that could be argued. There are definitely fewer tables in this 5e PH (versus the AD&D PH), and what tables are provided make perfect sense. With AD&D I often struggled along with my players to remember so many rules… one of my players’ biggest gripes was how many modifiers came into play during combat. The modifiers are still there (and still associated with the basic six Ability Scores) but upon finishing the 5e PH I do believe that combat, spell casting, and general random task testing have been made easier to track.
* I’d like to go a bit further with the previous bullet by stating just how impressed I am with the subjects of Armor Class (AC), proficiencies, combat checks, and saving throws among others. Maybe these were simplified in later versions of D&D, but from a purely AD&D point of view, it’s night and day in terms of complexity. I can even remember the equation for determining each Ability Score’s modifier — subtract 10 and divide by 2 then round down. This holds across all six values. If I had to pick one word to describe the rules I’ve read in the 5e PH, it’s this one — Consistency.
* Speaking of consistency, I actually cheered when I saw the Experience Point chart for leveling up. It’s the same for all classes. Period. Consistency! And the Proficiency Bonus that goes along with each level jump is the same for each class. Consistency!
* One of the things I hated most about a few D&D games I played in (versus DM’d) was the Monty Haul DM. Magic items from every defeated monster, more gold discovered than could be realistically carried out by a human being (or elf or dwarf… okay, maybe a dwarf). I played in games with players possessing level 40 Magic-Users and level 30 Ninjas. Ridiculous. This new set of rules appears to offer some solid limits — level 20, for example. (Sure, WotC may release an update that allows characters to move beyond level 20, but let’s get real… the amount of adventuring and danger a character would have to face to reach level 20 — 355,000 XP — is substantial. In my games, characters died. Not because I was a jerk DM, but when you get up to level 10 or 12 the creatures you encounter get hard. As the description in the new 5e PH states: “[For levels 17-20 the] fate of the world or even the fundamental order of the multiverse might hang in the balance during their adventures.” Even better are the classes — no Anti-Paladins. No Ninjas. No Jesters. Maybe you like those classes, and maybe they’ll make an appearance. But I’m old school, and I like parties that have a shared mission and realistic chance of actually hooking up for an adventure (not those with two Lawful Good clerics dungeon crawling with a Chaotic Evil wizard and a Lawful Evil Fighter — come on!)
* Balanced and Fair Options — As I was reading through the chapters on Races and Classes, I was really impressed with the mixture of possible configurations for a character. With nine races and 12 classes, you’ve got 108 possible combinations. Between the unique race class modifiers (especially to the Ability Scores) and the class modifiers, I’d be hard pressed to point out one particular mix that would put one player at any significant disadvantage to another player. On page 12, or example, you can clearly see which races provide benefits to certain Ability Scores. Want to play a Gnome? Fine… +2 on Intelligence and +1 on Dexterity (for Field Gnome… otherwise +1 on Constitution for Rock Gnome). Sure, humans get +1 on every Ability Score, but it appears this is balanced by the race specific benefits such as faster walking speed (Wood Elf) or special skills such as the Halfling’s Lucky feature. (“When you roll a 1 on an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw, you can reroll the die and must use the new roll.”) Humans may get +1 to each Ability Score, but they lack the 1-2 specific race benefits that those non-human players receive.
* Let’s talk about classes — twelve in all: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard, each with a Primary Ability as well as Saving Throw and armor/weapon proficiencies. Once again, the variety is mixed but appears balanced. Each class has what’s called Features, and these are obtained as you level up and are cumulative. These features offer players a substantial number of bonus skills, special powers, and upgrades… and duplicates are almost non-existent. (Duplicate examples include an increase in movement speed or an upgrade in an Ability Score as a benefit of receiving a level Feature for more than one class).
* Paths — At the second or third level for most all classes, things start to get really fun. Players get to choose a more specific path for their chosen class, and these paths offer their own benefits at that first lower level and then staggered at higher levels (such as 6 and 10 and 14 for the Bard — again, it varies depending on class selection). These go by different names for various classes — Bards choose a Bard College, Clerics choose a Domain, Paladins choose a Sacred Oath, and Wizards choose an Arcane Tradition. And so on. Once again, given the variety of upgrades and bonuses these paths offer, the number of variations in possible characters for your players is astronomical… and I haven’t even gotten to Feats yet. (This large number of variations wasn’t always the case — in AD&D, there were race limits on certain classes. Not any longer!)
* More Easily-Managed Players — one thing that jumped out at me as I was reading the 5e PH was how much easier it’s going to be for a DM to run a campaign and not micromanage the players skills and abilities. So many of the skills, Features, and other characteristics are easy enough to write down in shorter form on a character sheet… the DM simply needs to rely on the players to explain a particular upgrade or modifier they possess. I don’t want to have to remember that a Level 10 Monk is immune to disease and poison — that Feature should be written on the player’s sheet so they can remind me when the time comes. (If I have a creature attack that player with a poison attack and then the player reminds me of the immunity, this just reflects the fact that the creature wouldn’t know that the Monk was immune before it singled him or her out… no damage to my DM rep!)
* Rounding out all the various class features and paths, Chapter 4 takes you into a new (to me) section for customizing your character’s personality and background. This was fun to read. For players who might not be interested in generating a backstory for their character, complete with motivations and weaknesses, these kinds of details are just a die roll away. Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw… all four can be generated by rolling a d6, d8, or d10. These four rolls are further refined based on the background you choose — Acolyte, Charlatan, Criminal, Entertainer, Folk Hero, Guild Artisan, Hermit, Noble, Outlander, Sage, Sailor, Soldier, or Urchin. If one of those doesn’t sound good… make your own!
* Feats — yeah! 42 in all! It’s an optional rule, but if your DM allows it (and I will!) a player can give up an increase in Ability Score and select a feat. Almost all feats offer 3 or more benefits — Alert: +5 bonus to initiative, you can’t be surprised while you are conscious, and other creatures don’t gain advantage on attack rolls against you if they are hidden from you. With names like Dual Wielder, Charger, Healer, Lucky, Mobile, and Skulker, these Feats further enhance your players’ individuality and allow them to stand out and survive at higher levels of gameplay.
* One of my biggest complaints from the AD&D PH was the enormous volume of rules to remember as a DM. I had the DM Guide to deal with — that was enough! Thankfully the 5e rules appear to have simplified much of the gameplay when it comes to combat. I’ve already mentioned how easy it is to remember Ability Score modifiers (repeat after me — subtract 10, divide by 2… and then round down). But the other mechanics are also fairly easy to remember. Advantage/Disadvantage? I can remember that, but I’m sure players will alert me if I overlook it. The DC (Difficulty Class) is also easily calculated on the fly with fewer modifiers to track. As a DM, all I need to do before the game begins is write down each players Ability Scores on a piece of paper, and I can be performing Passive Checks and Saving Throws quickly and, if necessary, in secret such as the Passive Wisdom (Perception) check. Once again, however, the new rules appear to encourage players to assist DMs by providing a spot on the character sheet to record all Saving Throw and Proficiency values so they can be quickly provided to the DM when needed. (The same goes for spell casting attack bonuses.)
* Movement and Time management haven’t really changed — in combat, the rules operate on a 6-second method of rounds. Chapter 8 seems to provide just the right balance of minuteia — vision and lighting, falling and suffocation damage, and hunger/thirst are all there, but the details aren’t so complex that they will steal the fun from a game. The rules are simple, but the DM will probably still end up having to track these kinds of things as players will forget or intentionally neglect to mention their lack of water and rest.
* Combat is covered in 10 pages. Ten. Yes, this is the PH, not the DM Guide, but still… 10 pages. What was immediately noticeable by me here was the all-in-one-place aspect of the combat rules. With the AD&D PH, so many details were scattered willy-nilly. If the 5e DM Guide does as good a job as the 5e PH for keeping combat rules compact and in one easy-to-bookmark location? Sold.
* I believe Cantrips have been available in other versions of D&D, but not in AD&D. When I played D&D, I was usually a Magic-User. I hated the whole memorization rules regarding spells, and I’m quite happy with the concept of Cantrips and Rituals (not needing a spell slot for a known spell). The VSM (Verbal, Somatic, Material) concept is much better explained here, and I will be requiring my spell-slinging players to provide me a detailed list of their components before any plundering begins so I can track it carefully.
* Spells and spell descriptions are easy to follow, and they don’t really differ from what my AD&D PH experiences except for the few spells that have extra details for the DM and player to understand — typically involving targeting effects or higher-level usage. Oh, and there’s a LOT MORE spells in this new book than the old book.
* Appendices — (A) covers Conditions, and the explanations for each is detailed and leaves little to debate, (B) Gods of the Multiverse is a much more simplified version of the old Deities & Demigods AD&D manual (thankfully!), providing nothing more than their realm/pantheon (Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Cthulhu, etc.), alignment, domain (water, war, death, etc.) and a symbol. More on this in a moment. (C) The Planes of Existence — was never my thing, but if you like having adventures that cross dimensions and realms, it’s not a bad read and does offer up some ideas for potential adventures. (D) Creature Statistics — a mini-Monster Manual, of sorts. Mostly basic stuff (bears, snake, giant frogs, etc.) but a few real baddies tossed in such as Imp, Skeleton, and Zombie. Just enough for players reading the manual to understand the format of the various creatures a DM can toss their way. (E) Inspirational Reading — with a nod to E. Gary Gygax and his original Appendix N, an updated list of authors and their books for inspiration.
* Deities — Look, I was never a fan of bringing the gods into AD&D. First, I often played in games where players had stats high enough to battle the gods. No way. Deities should be unreachable and most definitely all powerful… don’t mess with them. If WotC wants to come out with a 5e version of Deities and Demigods, more power to them… but just as I prefer the max level at 20 for classes, I like my deities kept out of reach and dangerous to mess with.
* A character sheet rounds out the end of the book, but it’s not removable without ripping. Download a PDF here.
I think Wizards of the Coast has a hit on its hands. I know that over the years D&D has disappointed fans for one reason or another, but I really think WotC has come out swinging with this new release. As I was reading over the 5e PH, I didn’t get reboot vibes. (Of course, I haven’t played 2e, 3e, or 4e… so that 36 year gap gives me a huge advantage there.) Coming from the 1980s world of AD&D, this new 5th edition feels streamlined… and much more accessible. The writing is much more polished. The artwork more inspiring. And the overall look and feel (with the layout of the graphical elements and charts and the organization of material) is appealing both visually and for comprehension. New gamers are going to find this new material fun to read — at no time did I feel bogged down as I was reading. (I spread out the reading of the book over three days, with the spells section taking the longest to read over.)
I’m also anticipating the new 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide — if it matches the quality of this new PH, I think it’s going to be (once again) the D&D book I reach for most often. I miss DMing… a lot. I miss the creativity and planning involved in creating an adventure. I also miss the social aspect of a game… the chats, the jokes, the debates, and those wonderful tales of near misses and natural 20s… the glorious battles and the glittering treasures… the menacing monsters and vile villains.
D&D is new again. I’ve tired of online gaming, and I find the thought of returning to narrative gaming, character development, and role playing to be extremely enticing. I’m ready to get back in the game, folks, and it looks like the 5th edition of D&D is going to be my gateway. I’ve signed up for the August 20, 2014 D&D Encounters event at my local comic book store, and I’ve been reviewing the Adventurers League documents (some of the screenshots in this post were taken from that documentation). At this point, 15 players have signed up — maybe 2-3 parties depending on how many DMs are scheduled. I’ve told my wife to treat this as my Bowling Night and she’s cool with it… 6:30pm to 9pm EDT, every Wednesday for a number of weeks. I cannot wait, especially now that I’ve discovered the 5e Player’s Handbook classes and races are supported. Now it’s time to create my character. (Hmmm… maybe that will be my next post. Gotta work fast… only a few days away.)
If the Player’s Handbook is any indication of WotC’s care and development for the game and its future… it’s going to be hugely fun.