The Start(er) of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

This weekend, I had the pleasure of trying out the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit. I played with two different groups, each with their own play styles and I have gotten a good feel for the new rules. First of all, though, lets look at what is in the box.

The box art is very nice looking, with the iconic big nasty dragon about to mince the intrepid adventurer. No mention of 5th Edition is made on the cover, but then Wizards of the Coast haven’t gone out of their way to call this new edition as such all that much. The box construction is sturdy, so it should stand up to a bunch of punishment. Unfortunately, it is just a bit smaller than normal A4 paper, shorter to be specific, so it won’t really work as a storage box for other things, if you wanted to use it for that.

Upon opening the box, you will find the slim rules book, the thicker adventure book, five pre-generated characters, an advertisement for D&D Encounters and a bag of dice. The ad is quite clever, I thought. D&D Encounters is the social system WotC have in place, to play games at your local games store, so on the back of the ad, there is a blank character sheet. Just take that in when go, and you can make a character and get playing with a minimum of fuss. The dice are pretty standard, looking a lot like the ones from 4th Edition D&D. However, you do not get a full adventure set, there is no 10-sided percentile. The character sheets are well laid out, containing pretty much all the information players need, including leveling up information and background story information. The rules booklet has the basic rules information in it, like how combat works, equipment and magic. The Dungeon Master (DM) booklet contains all the adventure information, story-line and monsters.

The layout is fairly concise and easy to understand. There was one problem I did encounter; I expected more. I have been playing RPGs for many years, and through many systems, including the previous two D&D editions and Pathfinder. So I expected rules that just plain didn’t exist in this starter version, and so when those situations came up in the game, I had to make things up as I went along. This, of course, was no issue to me, but what about people who didn’t have the experience that I have? Well maybe those situations just wouldn’t come up then, probably. It was the same for my players, who all had a good amount of experience too. We spent a portion of time looking through the booklets trying to find rules we expected to be in there, but were not.

The system remains fairly similar to previous versions, centered around the D20. The more simplified character sheets are very reminiscent of 4th Edition, seeing a return of the compressed skills list and ‘Passive Perception’, but gone are the ‘Powers’ that made 4th Edition feel like a computer game. ‘To Hit’ scores have been generally improved across the board due to Proficiency. This differs from other versions because instead of removing a negative to attack, it grants a bonus, and that bonus improves with level.

Combat has been simplified and made to flow more smoothly. Cover grants additional Armour Class rather than imposing a negative to attack. And instead of a slew of different things modifying your attack rating, it mostly has been reduced down to the Advantage/Disadvantage system (which can also apply to any D20 roll, such as skills or saves). If you have Advantage, you roll two D20s and take the highest roll, and Disadvantage is the direct opposite, roll two and take the lowest. I quite liked this change, not so much math to worry about.

Equipment remains quite standard in how that all works, but carry capacity, at least in this kit, only had a max load, no medium or light, so a character could be completely fine walking under a mountain load of gear until someone placed a final teaspoon on top, and then they couldn’t move at all. Electron pieces (currency) has been brought back, nestling itself in between silver and gold. Spells were also relatively unchanged, but the spell slot system has been improved. Instead of a caster preparing a single spell into each slot, they can now prepare a list of spells, not associated with the slots they have. For example, the pre-generated Cleric has, at first level, two spell slots, but can prepare four spells. So the Cleric can cast any two of the spells on this list, thus giving more utility to the spell list. I like this as well.

Damage has been increased across the board from most sources. Monsters are dealing more damage (such as a goblin dealing 1D6 + 2 vs a Pathfinder goblin dealing 1D4), and ranged PCs seem to add their DEX modifier to ranged attack damage. Melee damage from Player Characters (PC’s) is par for the course, so the viability of ranged PC’s is a lot better, if not verging on being unbalanced. We noticed monster damage was quite high compared to Pathfinder monsters of the same type, and monster hit points were also, on average, higher as well. This made combat a fairly hairy affair at times. At one point, a Bugbear managed to lay out a PC (who was on full health) with a single hit, and that is pretty harsh. Each group I played this with did encounter a lot of difficulty, but they were also each shy one or two characters per group.

Surprisingly, the adventure is quite long, I estimate you could get at least four sessions out of it, probably more. There are four parts to it (Set in the Forgotten Realms), which will take the PC’s up to level five throughout it. The guide is fairly comprehensive, but leaves a lot of free space as well. My first group to play the adventure followed along the general lines of the story well, picking up on the clues and finding out what to do quite easily. The second group did diverge off the story a fair amount, and had to be wrangled back into it. The adventure did give some direction on what to do in certain situations, if the PC’s start free wheeling it, but it can’t give answers to every situation. New DM’s might struggle with this, since the adventure gives options for the PCs to create huge amounts of mess.

As I mentioned above, the monsters can be very tough and deal a lot of damage. I would suggest four, if not five, characters to play this, as that is what it is designed for.

The maps and artwork are all detailed and provide all the relevant information, but I felt descriptions of locations could have been a bit more extensive. Trying to motivate the PCs to do certain things was difficult at times, the supplied adventure hook was a little weak, but the booklet did give option for the PCs to create their own reasons for being involved, which was good.

In general, I think this adventure is fairly typical of most pre-built ones, which give a good idea and path to follow, and can work in most situations, but if you have a party that is difficult to steer, there is very little information outside of that path. Experienced DM’s can usually ad lib their way through this, but new DM’s might not be able to. This mainly stems from the open nature of the adventure, involving several dungeons, a couple different towns and more. Just make sure to read through the whole thing prior to running it, so you know what it coming up. I typically fail to do this every time, and so my sessions can fracture sometimes.

I had my players write down what they thought about the system and so forth, from the player perspective. I’ve included their feedback here.

Group 1

David: Game play flowed very well. The rules were not overtly complicated, but didn’t cover some things which I would imagine would be in the complete rules. I liked the new way of preparing spells, it should make magic users (that prepare spells) much more easier for people to play. Some of the new abilities sound much better and will make the game much more enjoyable.

Mani: Due to the use of the Advantage/Disadvantage system in other role playing games, I was skeptical of the use of it in this system. Other games only used it as a minor add-on, making it difficult to obtain and only useful in very select situations. However, D&D 5e’s use of it an over all function made it easy to use and streamlined, instead of calculating values dependent on so many factors, you just roll two D20s instead.

Brendan: This system will be easy for new players to pick up. Great system as far as combat is concerned, no more complicated formulas. Spells are powerful though limited (in the starter kit at least). Clerics can SLAP PEOPLES FACES OFF!

I will give a little background to Brenden’s comment. He, as the cleric, used a spell, Inflict Wounds, on a Ruffian. The spell does significant damage for a first level spell, 3D10 or so. When he made the attack, he said he was going to slap the Ruffian in the face with the spell. He hit an already wounded Ruffian with a critical hit. Since he did so much damage and the Ruffian was on so little life, I described the hit as physically removing the Ruffian’s face completely. Much laughter was expressed.


Group 2


D&D 5e likes: The Advantage/Disadvantage system, the planning required before an attack and the new version of the stabilizing system.

Dislikes: The imbalance of the monsters vs players hp/damage levels. I don’t mind my games to be tough but it was kinda insane. I’d be fine with a critical hit taking out a 1st level fighter (which I suppose it technically was with the dice being rolled) but a standard hit instant downing a PC is a bit broken.

I really do like the roll two D20’s and take the higher/lower result to determine advantage and disadvantage rolls. I did also like the way that cover provided AC bonuses rather than a % miss chance. I’m not a fan of kick in the door and kill everything RPG type games, I have computer games for that so the fact that you really have to slow down and plan out your fight and strategy for both DM and PCs is an awesome concept. I was never a fan of the “roll to stabilize, -1 HP, roll, -1, roll -1 till either you succeed or die” system was a bit off, this newer idea seems to be a better way of keeping a check on that.

Final verdict, I’d love to continue to play this version once it has all been finalized and is ready to go.



Character Sheet/Materials:
The first thing an experienced role player will notice on the character sheet is that the ability scores you are given are allocated in such a way that your character isn’t particularly excellent at anything, but allows for more diverse play. Ie no ’18 point’ skill, but Charisma which is unused for anything combat related is normally buffed at +1 or +2

I really enjoy the “Advantage/Disadvantage” system introduced in this starter set, it makes life easier for both players and DMs by omitting the tedious summing of many bonuses (cover, flanking, knowledge, surprise etc) and replaces it with rolling two dice and adding your normal modifiers to the best/worst. This way, what would have been an insurmountably difficult task (hitting an enemy in base to base contact with a ranged weapon) one dependent more on the luck of rolling both die. Similarly, one can still fail a flanked sneak attack to an enemy simply because they rolled poorly. Sure, it detracts from strategy slightly by allowing well laid plans to fail, but what is life without such randomness.

The enemies which you face have a massively increased HP pool from recent RPGs and similar with damage, to the tune of 150%. You, on the other hand, get a small increase to health gained per level and a small increase to the flat bonus damage dealt. For example, you will have +2 health and +3 damage more than pathfinder, while your enemies will deal 150% Variable Damage + 150% Flat Damage, tipping the odds against you.

To this effect, you feel very vulnerable and survival is based on your wits rather than your blade. Every drop of advantage possible must be wrung from the situation in order to stand a chance.

On the same note, a party member (a fighter of AC 17 + 2 from a buff, 12 HP) was dropped well below zero by the first swing of the boss character (non-critical). This seems especially harsh for a starter system, which is meant to be a chance for new players to explore the system.

Spellcasting (from a cleric standpoint) is incredibly powerful. For their 2 slots and 4 chosen spells to use, they can start the game with a 3D10 touch attack and a 4D6 ranged touch attack as well as a 1D8 (dodge resisted) unlimited cantrip. The fact that these are strapped to an AC18 character with a +4, 1D8+4 weapon makes the cleric lethal at all ranges, though they have to play carefully as overuse of non-cantrip spells will quickly deplete their tiny spell pool and deny potentially lifesaving healing.

Dungeon Mastering:
To make a long story short, this game would be incredibly hard to run for a new DM, the book suggests not using figurines in order to evoke a player’s imagination, but all that does is cause confusion (even among veterans).
The story is very railroaded and some characters, especially those of neutral alignments, will often find no reason to proceed at times. Similarly, large areas of dungeons are completely optional and may be skipped with little effect on the game at large. Many semi-essential assets are not described, leaving an empty blacksmith’s building and others.

Other notes:
This module took a very long time to run, amounting to three hours of gameplay to get to the second major area (partly because combat tactics, acquiring items and multiple guerrilla strikes to clear each area).



The first thing that struck me with the new Dungeons & Dragons ruleset is how much it harkens back to earlier versions of the game. The characters felt weaker and the odds far greater with low level monsters capable of slaying a Fighter in a single blow. This lends to a more cautious playstyle and less ‘kick in the door’ with the need to carefully plan the execution of each combat prior to engagement or else risk a party wipe. As such starting characters feel a bit more ‘generic joe’ rather than ‘unstoppable force’ at early levels which I feel 4th Edition was very much geared towards.

My initial response to this ‘Starter Box’, and let’s stop for a minute and recognize that it is only a starter box and not a complete ruleset, was far more positive than I had initially expected. While I’m not entirely sure how players new to role-playing games will fare, I feel that veterans of the genre will enjoy the challenge this starter box provides. The story felt much more akin to ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ rather than ‘Keep on the Shadowfell’, with the same guerrilla hit and run tactics often used in Borderlands necesary for survival here. Despite being a devout Pathfinder player I’d been keen to sit down and play the entire starter box from beginning to end and any further judgment I might make on the system I will reserve until the three core books have been released. Suffice it to say that at this stage I enjoyed my afternoon with the starter set and with only a recommended retail price of $24.95 I can’t see why every RPG group wouldn’t at least give this the benefit of a weekends trial.

A solid, streamlined and smooth set of rules accompany a well laid out adventure. Experienced Role-Players will get a lot out of it, several sessions and possible ideas for further down the track. New Dungeon Masters might find some trouble running the adventure, especially if they have hard to control players. If you have any history in Dungeons & Dragons, then this will be appealing.

If you do pick this up and give it a go, make sure to come back here and let us here at ATGN know what you think of it. We are always eager to hear what others think of these new products.


Upcoming Dungeons & Dragons Releases –

Adventure: Hoard of the Dragon Queen – August 19th

Players Handbook – August 19th

Monster Manual – September 30th

Adventure: The Rise of Tiamat – October 21st

Dungeon Masters Guide – November 18th


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One Comment
  1. Hmm
    July 29, 2014 | Reply

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