You might know that the long-awaited new edition of Dungeons & Dragons is upon us. You might be playing it right now, waving an HB pencil around, informing your friends that they’re up to their nips in orcs and should roll for initiative.
Or maybe you’re the other kind of person. Maybe you’ve never played D&D, and news that the new, 5th edition returns to the roots of the game is like me telling you that scientists have discovered a new gender of swan. You’ve got some interest, though. You’re two paragraphs into an article called “It’s The Perfect Time To Play Dungeons & Dragons.” And yes, yes, yes you should. This is the best, most exciting kind of D&D we’ve had in 20 years, and that’s not all. It’s never been more beginner-friendly.
Half of that’s down to the beginner box they’re selling, which contains a quick-start rule booklet (forget any images you might have of stacks of hardback books), a set of dice, a load of pre-filled character sheets and an epic adventure that will fill a month of pizza-powered Sundays. You just add pencils and friends.
The other reason it’s so easy is that, finally, D&D is ergonomically designed, just like video games.
You know how when movies or sitcoms depict D&D, people sit down and within 60 seconds they’re being ambushed by goblins, panickedly figuring out who they are and what they’re carrying? That’s what the beginner box offers. Printed on the back of each character sheet are instructions on how to level up, especially relevant in this version because (again, just like video games) the many and varied power trees of your character class open up gradually. Only once you’ve been playing for two evenings will you be asked whether your Rogue wants to be a Thief, Assassin or Arcane Trickster. And if you decide to pick up the Player’s Handbook for the full rules, you’ll find fantastically written charts you can roll on to help players down the unsettling path of roleplaying.
This is the best, most exciting kind of D&D we’ve had in 20 years… It’s never been more beginner-friendly.
Asking someone to pretend to be an elf wizard was always a hard sell. Now, D&D suggests that your wizard *clatter* loves mysteries more than anything else and *clatter* is adventuring to save up funds to preserve a crumbling, ancient library. Meanwhile the book might suggest to your thief that they’d run away from a fight to save their own skin, but they hate that about themselves and would never admit it.
So this edition of D&D leaves your table and floats up into your imagination with the speed and grace of a VTOL aircraft. The question remains, though: why is this something you’d want in the first place?
Until recently I’d have struggled to answer you. Many agree that D&D lost its way ever since 3rd edition was released back in 2000, something I always tracked using the odd metric of how many wizard spells were for use outside of combat. By 4th edition, D&D had become quite a focused grid-based combat game, with Wizards of the Coast making up for ailing pen’n’paper RPG sales by flogging accessories and miniatures.
The thing is, video games are already quite good at grid-based shenanigans. My obsessions right now are The Banner Saga, Invisible, Inc. and Crypt of the Necrodancer, all of which are phenomenal bits of gridutainment. And while a neat thing about pen and paper games is that players can run them however they want, the rules are always going to steer you. One of my favourite indie roleplaying games gives players a secret power they can only use when having sex for that exact reason — to encourage romantic entanglements.
(Those nice coins, by the way? They’re the handiwork of Campaign Coins. Better investment that any miniatures.)
While D&D originated as a more granular spin-off from a miniatures game, at its best it’s always offered so much more. In the modern gaming landscape, it’s relevant because of the freedom it offers players to think laterally, play creatively and tell stories.
It’s relevant because of the freedom it offers players to think laterally, play creatively and tell stories.
This is what the new edition remembers with startling clarity. It’s not just that combat’s tense and tactical, or that skill and stat checks have been given pride of place. An effort’s been made to knit it all together into something more ambitious. This is still relevant even if you don’t care about roleplaying and view D&D as a platform for fantasy adventures.
Think about everything incredible that happens between the fights in Lords of the Rings, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan. The speeches, the confrontations, the burglaries, the agonizing decisions, the romance, the personalities — everything that lets a game *transcend combat* — that’s what keeps D&D relevant in a world where video games are getting better and better, and it’s what’s on offer again with D&D 5e.
Dungeons are lived-in places, where every room offers players clues and creative solutions to get the advantage. When characters level up there’s often the opportunity to gain non-combat powers. In the player’s handbook alone, which is little more than the jumping-off for players (with a more lateral exploration of the world and its rules coming in future sourcebooks), they find space to describe sodding Glassbowing as a hobby, craft or background for your character.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention how modern it all feels. The playable races all transcend stereotypes, the art depicts humans of all races and the section on player gender is as beautiful as it is brief.
You should take the plunge and start a D&D group because it’s back to offering the freedom that video games can only dream of; because not only can you talk to the monsters, you can decide who receives monster status.
In my very first session, my group emptied a goblin lair by working to scare the crap out of them, defeated a bandit boss by simply going in the back entrance, talked their way around paying for the inn and they’re already talking about simply giving the quest-giving town mayor’s job to somebody else. As heroes, we’re free to decide what saving the world means, and how to go about it. If you haven’t experienced that, you should.
Failing that, try this on for size: You should play the new edition of D&D because it’s kind of like Dragon Age except this time you can have sex with everything.
Quintin Smith is a writer able to identify different board game manufacturers by their scent. He is not proud of this. You’ll find the rest of his board game covereage Shut Up & Sit Down, and catch him on Twitter as @quinns108.
Picture: Jim Cooke