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5E D&D Player's Handbook: rock gnomes, rangers, & mounted combat

Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook

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The latest version of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook arrived in my mailbox on Friday and it will take some time to fully absorb all the rules within, but given that I participated in the playtest and ran through the Starter Set, it's worth pointing out what's new that hasn't been covered elsewhere. I put the Handbook through its paces by converting my kids' Starter Set characters, Elec the halfling rogue and Lektra the human fighter, to the new rules.

Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook-slide0
Wizards of the Coast

In the character creation section it's the subraces that are immediately apparent as being new additions, and in that regard the elf conveys the impression that D&D is finally being honest with itself -- everyone wants to play a drow and finally this edition just lets you do it. In addition to the core races, there's also dragonborn, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and tieflings. My son plays his halfling as something of a mad scientist, and the new gnome subrace, the rock gnome, has two unique traits that perfectly suit his character: Artificer's Lore and Tinker. Tinker lets the rock gnome make little clockworks which seem harmless (a clockwork toy, a fire starter, a music box) but have endless possibilities with an enterprising player. This is new for gnomes, but again D&D is finally admitting that some players like the idea of tinker gnomes and want to start playing one. So Elec is now a gnome rogue.

The classes are considerably more difficult to cover concisely, but barbarian, bard, druid, monk, paladin, ranger, sorcerer, and warlock are now part of the core rules. Since Lektra was a human fighter with a rural background and concluded The Lost Mine of Phandelver with a wolf for a pet, I decided to convert her to a halfling ranger. The Beast Master archetype fills in a sorely missed feature -- animal companions. In short, any creature that has a challenge rating of 1/4 or lower can become one. The ranger's proficiency bonus is added to its AC, attack, and damage rolls as well as any saving throws and skills it is proficient in. It HP max can be as high as 4x the ranger's level. Excited, I asked my daughter about her pet and she promptly pulled the rug out on me by declaring she was done with the wolf and wanted...

A pony.

A pony named Tablehead.

I argued this for a few minutes before giving up -- it's her character after all -- and used it as an opportunity to learn about mounted combat.

But first I had to find rules for a pony. Fortunately there are some monsters listed in the back of the book that are common companions for player characters, like mules. Close enough!

There's not much to mounted combat. Besides rules on mounting/dismounting mounts (it costs half your speed to do so), you can control a mount to perform three actions: Dash, Disengage, and Dodge. That's it. As a ranger's companion has a few additional actions, including Attack and Help, but that requires use of an action. There's also an optional rule to exchange an ability score increase (beginning at 4th level) for a feat, so Lektra chose Mounted Combatant which gives you advantage vs. any creature smaller than your mount (remember, she's a halfling on a pony), you can force an attack against the mount to target the rider, and the mount takes half or no damage on Dexterity saving throws. Also, there are rules for barding for warhorses that I applied to the pony (ponies in scalemail barding...sure, why not?). Armed with a lance (disadvantage against targets within 5 feet due to reach, requires two hands to wield) and we have ourselves a medium-sized mounted combatant that can navigate dungeons. Also, there's still favored enemies (Lektra chose dragons for reasons that will become clear in future reviews) that bestow advantage on Wisdom (Survival) and Intelligence checks about them -- no combat advantage though. There are also favored terrain, which the ranger navigates and survives in much better. Rangers can expend a spell slot to sense creatures within 1 mile (or 6 miles in favored terrain).

Other impressions as I was updating both characters that jumped out at me in no particular order: the index is exceptionally thorough, the page numbers are small and difficult to read, and the art is reminiscent of classical paintings. Also, bard spells now go to 9th level.

Design-wise, this edition is keenly aware that reading a book about rules is daunting to newbies and tries hard to convey concepts visually -- by far my favorite is Appendix A: Conditions, which illustrates what it's like to be blinded, frightened, and petrified (yep, that's poor Regdar again). Speaking of Regdar, this edition makes a point of 1) appropriately attiring women most of the time (there's still one female archer with a bare midriff on page 137), and 2) gender, racial, and cultural diversity. This is a good thing. Not a good thing: halflings now have ridiculously tiny feet that makes them look like political cartoons.

And yet my keenly honed 3.5 D&D senses twitch every time there's a rule that doesn't explain itself. This new system relies heavily on the ability saving throws and advantage/disadvantage, a combination that can cover just about every situation. For those of us accustomed to enjoying the dance of checking which rule will give you enough bonuses to succeed, this edition will likely throw you off-balance -- D&D is no longer exclusively the domain of the tactical. I think that's a good thing.

Next up, my seven-year-old boy (playing Elec) and my four-year-old girl (playing Lektra) will take on the Hoard of the Dragon Queen!

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