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D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook review – the old magic returns

Posted by on August 13, 2014 – 8:00 am

5th Edition Player's Handbook

Let the adventures begin. The new Player’s Handbook for the 5th Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game is available in stores Aug. 19, along with the adventure module Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

(You can also pre-order the Player’s Handbook or find itnow at authorized Wizards Play Network stores, and at this weekend’s Gen Con expo in Indianapolis. Looking for the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide? They’re coming Sept. 30 and Nov. 18, respectively.)

Wizards of the Coast provided an advance copy of the Player’s Handbook for review purposes.

The first part of the book deals with character creation, step by step. The collection of races and classes available in this introductory volume seems to be the most complete and satisfying to come along for many versions of the game thus far. The character creation options are rich and fun to read through, and I’m glad this is being given so much real estate in the core rather than just being used to sell an optional supplement. Alignment gets its due, but is presented succinctly across barely a single page and then you’re left to run your character’s moral compass as you see fit. Backgrounds are a great new system for generating personality traits, ideals, flaws and bonds to quickly differentiate your character from any other. Sprinkled throughout this section are green boxes describing elements in greater detail or putting a fresh spin on them, and often illustrating character personalization concepts using some of the D&D franchise’s most famous characters made popular in novels set in worlds like the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance’s Krynn.

Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook

The book’s second part deals with using ability scores, adventuring necessities such as time and movement, and combat. The combat chapter is exactly 10 pages long (11, if you count the leading full-page illustration), and yet it manages to convey the essentials completely in a way that I don’t think any edition yet has managed to do – obviously a tribute to the extended, open playtesting period and the design team’s determination to get back to the roots of D&D.

The third and final main part of the book deals with magical spells and how to cast them. It does its job well, and the beautiful illustrations are perfectly chosen to liven up the otherwise utilitarian lists of incantations.

Appendices include: a nice summary of conditions that can affect characters; “Gods of the Multiverse,” which looks at pantheons of deities across D&D’s many campaign worlds as well as historical examples found on our own world (Celtic, Greek, Egyptian and Norse); a look at the D&D world’s cosmological makeup, aka the Planes of Existence; and a handy batch of creature statistics, as you’d find in the upcoming Monster Manual, but for some of the more mundane creatures characters will encounter in their travels – or turn into magically, or summon, or raise from the grave. … Finally, there’s a nice list of inspirational fantasy reading, as the late D&D co-creator Gary Gygax once presented, but updated with modern examples such as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire series – a nice tribute to the game’s origins as well as its current path.

The Player’s Handbook comes in at a meaty 300+ pages for its $49.95 price tag, and surprisingly the book lies flat open easily without threatening spinal trauma or owner frustration. The chapter footers on each page could have been put to better use for easier browsing, especially in the dense Classes chapter; I’d like to see them used to effectively say “You are here!” by highlighting the name of the class described on that page for quick reference purposes.

The new Player’s Handbook’s glossy pages are absolutely dripping in gorgeous art, from full-page paintings that harken back to the 2nd Edition rulebooks to delightful and humorous illustrations like the pointy-hatted gnome who points at a chalkboard to go over the various areas of effect for magical spells. The overall effect is a combination of the original hardback Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks and 2nd Edition’s first and second printings, without the line art and spot-color graphics of the first 2E printing. As in the magic section, none of the space seems wasted in this book.

You can of course play the new edition of the D&D game without ever buying a rulebook – the free Basic Rules were released as a PDF, and you can refer to that for what is basically a stripped-down version of the Player’s Handbook, with far more limited options for the races and classes of character you can play. But if you’re on the fence, it’s a good taste test to see if 5th Edition is right for you and your gaming group. And if your gaming group has any newcomers, consider checking out the new D&D Starter Set instead, available now.