In ages past, when all-in-one boxed sets were common and character sheets were bought in packs, it was safe to assume that some flavor of Dungeons & Dragons was the gateway into an imaginary world of fantasy roleplaying adventure for most gamers. It’s where we learned that a character was more than a piece to be pushed around a board (although there was still plenty of that) and to think critically lest a random trap send us back to the books for a new character. It’s also where we learned the language of gaming. Indeed, I still use the phrase “roll up a character” even though the vast majority of games I play don’t involve rolling dice as part of character generation.

Dungeons & Dragons has always been the industry leader through its various incarnations and even when that dominance seemed threatened it was usually from a game that derived its own mechanics from D&D. That said D&D has evolved through several editions over the last decade and each had its own flavor and quirks. This has led to several “camps” of D&D gamers that prefer one edition over the other.

Now, once again we have a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, one in which its owner, Wizards of the Coast, hopes will bring many of those camps back into the fold – “one edition to rule them all” as it were. While this is a lofty goal, there are no doubt many gamers that are intrigued as to what this version of D&D brings to the table. This article is for you!

Before we get started I’d like to note that this article is not a thorough review of the game layout or mechanics – as to be expected there are lots of them spread all over the internet. Instead, this article focuses on some general observations from a GM’s perspective. It’s also worth noting that I’m privy only to the D&D Player’s Handbook and the D&D Basic Rules at this point.

So, without further ado…

1. It feels like Dungeons & Dragons. While this probably isn’t much of a revelation it’s worth noting that if you are familiar with a previous version of D&D then much of the book is going to be familiar to you. There are a few new bells and whistles, but it’s still a game about taking a relatively weak character at first level, bestowing a class and race on her, and taking her through adventures as she grows in power and gets more special powers as she gains levels. You aren’t going to find any radical new changes to how D&D has played in the past.

As a tangential point, it also embraces the entire D&D multiverse. Rather than picking The World of Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms as a “base” world, the new D&D embraces all of their official worlds (and our Earth) for examples and illustrations.

2. The Basic Rules are free! Yes, if you’re considering whether to invest money in a new edition then you can test drive the rules via free pdf downloads from here! This is no mere preview either; you can actually run a campaign from 1st to 20th level (the max in the core rules) with just these free pdfs! Granted they don’t have all of the options, but they cover all the basics and can be used as reference tools at the table (or for any players that don’t want to plunk down money on a Player’s Handbook), in much the same way (actually better, given that the two are 100% compatible) that a 1980s gamer could understand what was going on at an AD&D session when all she had was the D&D Basic and Expert Sets.

3. It expands the sweet spot. Ask any D&D GM (okay, “DM”) where the sweet spot is in her edition of choice and it’s invariably somewhere in the mid-levels of that particular edition, when the characters have enough experience under their belts to take on bigger challenges but not enough that they can mow down all opposition within 2 rounds. D&D now acknowledges this by flattening the power curve enough so that lower level creatures and characters can stand a chance against more powerful opponents. Conversely, higher level characters don’t so far outstrip their lessers that they become walking gods.

As a curious move PCs now advance from 1st to 3rd level much more quickly than higher levels. Players may be taken a bit aback by jumping levels after only a few encounters just to hit 3rd level and seemingly taking forever to get to 4th. I believe this mechanic acknowledges the general frustration players have had with low-level characters in previous editions and this is a bit of a compromise. Fortunately, if you want your players to linger in 1st and 2nd level a bit longer then it’s only a quick house rule away!

4. It cuts back on the math. Remember how much fun it was to watch your players calculate every inherent and circumstantial modifier to their roll before coming up with an obscenely high number? I don’t either. With the flattening of the power curve D&D really cuts out a lot of that. It also introduces a new concept to replace all those circumstantial modifiers: advantage and disadvantage. If you have the advantage, you get to roll two d20s for success and keep the higher number. If you have the disadvantage, you keep the lowest. It’s simple and elegant.

5. It speeds play. Along with the math being cut D&D has also returned to “theater of the mind” style combat. In other words, it’s possible to play without drawing on battlemats and counting squares as miniatures are moved around (although they remain as optional rules). Instead, tactical decisions are largely judgment calls on general distances and whether one side or another gains advantage.

Opportunity attacks still provide a bit of an issue. While they are now boiled down to “you get an opportunity attack when an opponent moves out of your melee reach,” I can see TotM DMs either house ruling opportunity attacks away or returning to the grid.

As for monster stat blocks, they are easy to read and implement without incorporating a bunch of feats that can sometimes be hard to manage.

6. It encourages roleplaying.  While no one is ever going to accuse D&D of straying too far from the dungeon (the mechanics still presume that your party of adventurers is still all about meeting exciting new monsters and killing them for their treasure) it’s awesome to see some fun new mechanics that encourage the dramatic acting part of roleplaying. Backgrounds add new dimensions to characters and an inspiration mechanic is tied to how a PC plays her personality traits and flaws.

It’s also worth noting that, while they don’t come out and say it, alignments seem to be optional. Mechanics have been divorced from detecting alignments and thus one can’t “out” bad guys simply through use of a special ability or spell.

7. It allows you to build more consistent worlds. With a flattened power curve creatures of a lower power level remain viable threats longer as the PCs increase in level. That means you don’t have to “bump up the stats” of current NPCs and monsters or replace them all with new threats just because your PCs gained a couple of levels. Traveling into your Goblin Marshes or Ogre Hills will remain challenging without having to replace the old tenants just to keep things interesting for the PCs.

In sum, the new D&D is definitely worth a look if you’re unsatisfied with your current fantasy RPG of choice. It retains a lot of options for PCs while reducing the mental math required to run the game. I’d definitely say it falls on the lighter end of the crunch scale, meaning that a GM will spend more time designing adventure plots and less time building stat blocks.