Dungeons & Dragons Next: Everything We Know

Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition is almost here. Here's a quick overview of what we can expect.

Back in January 2012, Wizards of the Coast announced that work was beginning on a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Like several gamers who received that announcement, my first thought was dismay. I’d finally gotten the hang of 4th Edition, and now I was going to have to change again?

But the goal of announcing the development so early — two and a half years before the game would be released — was to allow as many players as possible to get in on the playtest experience, weigh in on what worked and what didn’t in the game rules, and be a part of the development process. I got a peek at that original playtest packet, but the game has gone through so many changes since then, almost everything I know firsthand is no longer valid.

(Which is just as well, since, if I had information about the game under an NDA, I wouldn’t be able to write about it here!)

So now that the release date is approaching–Barnes and Noble leaked the dates as July 15, 2014 for the D&D Starter Kit, with the Player’s Handbook releasing August 19 (two days after the end of GenCon, so it’s not a huge leap to guess it will be available to convention goers)–what do we know about Dungeons and Dragons‘ fifth edition?

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The Familiar

For the more than 175,000 playtest participants and the players who have kept up with Mike Mearls’s extensive notes in the “Legends Lore” column for Daily D&D on the Wizards of the Coast website, there’s already a lot of information out there. But if you don’t want to sift through two years of articles and don’t have that firsthand insider information, here are the basics of what you’ll recognize in the new edition:

– The game will emphasize elements from “classic” D&D: adventure, exploration, and storytelling. Mearls and the design team have talked a number of times about boiling down the new edition to the core experience of D&D.

– The setting for the new edition is the Forgotten Realms. To get players ready for the new edition, the Forgotten Realms novels and official adventures released in 2013 covered an event called “The Sundering,” which preps the world for the changes coming with the new rules.

– Eberron and Ravenloft will be back, too, just not in the core books.

– Dragons are still at the center of things. The first major storyline being launched for D&D Next is The Tyranny of Dragons, in which the Cult of the Dragon tries to bring about the return of Tiamat, evil queen of the dragons.

– Alignment is back.

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– Your low level characters will look a lot like low level characters from 1st and 2nd edition, with fewer customizable abilities than 3rd or 4th edition. That’s intentional: it’s easier to start a new player, and the low levels are likely to go by quickly enough that players won’t mind early limitations.

– If there’s a question about how the game works, ultimately, it’s the DM’s call. The idea of manipulating the rules for better game play based on the table, the players, and the campaign was stressed in the introduction to 4e, and the concept of flexibility and adaptation seems to be prevalent in the design articles about D&D Next as well.

The Less Familiar

Every new edition of D&D has had certain classes get left out at the beginning, or new classes replacing old ones, or new takes on old rules like skills and feats (instead of proficiencies). Here are some of the things that will look just a little different from previous rules sets:

– Simplicity is key. “The entire D&D Next system can be summarized as a series of d20 + ability modifier + proficiency bonus rolls,” Mearls described in “Making the DM’s Job Easy.” The simplicity of the mechanics is designed to encourage DMs to be able to improvise on the fly, limit the prep time required for creating an adventure or campaign, and to help new players be able to pick up the game quickly.

– Classes will be grouped into four categories: Warriors, Tricksters, Mages, and Priests. The four core classes remain Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric, but other classes like monks, warlocks, and sorcerers have been mentioned in the “Legends and Lore” column and are likely to be included in the initial rules set. We’ve also seen draft rules for barbarian, bard, druid, paladin, and ranger.

– XP is still around, but rather than forcing designers to fit a certain number of monsters into an adventure to get characters to the level they want, DMs are given the option to level characters after particular story arcs or goals are completed.

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– As you get more powerful, your Hit Points will increase more substantially than Attack rolls, Saving Throw bonuses, Armor Class, or DCs to accomplish tasks. The bonus progression for attacks, checks, and saves ranges from +1 at 1st level to +6 at 20th level. Experts can get additional bonuses.

– Playtesters balked at the idea of getting rid of skills and feats, even though they make the game more complex, so the design team kept them in. Feats will be optional, and player characters that utilize them won’t be more powerful than those that don’t, just differently built. Skills will be based on abilities — but not always the same ability all the time. So a PC might make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb a cliff, but a Wisdom (Athletics) check to determine the difficulty of climbing the cliff in the first place. Skills aren’t limited by class; they’re opened up by backgrounds (see more below) and other choices. And PCs can choose to become experts, potentially doubling their check modifier.

– Backgrounds — a more literary way of looking at character creation — includes details for your character such as personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Backgrounds also replace professional skills (because how often could you apply that Profession: Chandler skill in a dungeon, anyway?) and give a more role-playing centric focus for the mechanics.

The Different

If you’re expecting D&D to stay a tabletop-only game, you may be surprised by what comes next. Wizards of the Coast is bringing D&D to multiple gaming platforms, a “transmedia experience,” according to David M. Ewalt, all the ways to play D&D will revolve around the same core story and set of rules. In 2013, Hasbro announced a partnership with videogame company DeNA to release free D&D mobile games. The Neverwinter MMO will tie into the Tyranny of Dragons adventure, as will the organized play program.

“A plotline might start in the organized play games and finish in a published module,” Ewalt explained, noting that Wizards is going for a more fluid way to experience D&D. Jonathan Bolding of Escapist explained how Chris Perkins of Wizards R&D described the new D&D: “a multiplatform entertainment experience tied to a central theme, not something that necessarily only exists as a tabletop game.” And Nathan Stewart, brand director of D&D, told Forbes in 2013, “I think the future of Dungeons and Dragons is not the D&D Next rule set or even the tabletop RPG, but it’s this feeling that you get playing Dungeons & Dragons, no matter where you do it.”

But multimedia or not, the dice are here to stay.

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