What’s new in D&D 5E? We look at the biggest changes in the new edition


Dungeons & Dragons 5E launches today, and it’s a really interesting ruleset from a company dealing with a shifting economy, a relentless assault from an ever-growing video game market, and strong competition from Paizo in Pathfinder.

In many ways — not least aesthetically — 5E feels like an attempt to bring together the iconic RPG’s disparate editions as a thematically unified whole. It’s not the sweeping change that 4E was in 2008, and it’s not a slavish return to the glory days of 3.5E either.

Read on for what we think are the most important changes this time around — and hey, remember you can download the Basic D&D starter PDF for free.

The advantage/disadvantage mechanic

One of the key changes in 5E is that many rules which provided previously specific bonuses or penalties — or hell, numbers in general — have been washed away and now either provide simply advantage or disadvantage.

The mechanic itself is elegant and easy to understand: in both cases you roll two D20 dice, and in the case of advantage you use the highest, and in disadvantage you use the lowest.

Some examples of where this might apply are:

  • Rogues with the Thief archetype get advantage on Stealth checks if they move slowly.
  • Conversely, many types of armour now simply provide disadvantage on Stealth checks, rather than having a specific penalty.
  • Halflings have advantage on saving throws against being frightened, and dwarves have advantage on saving throws against poison.
  • Taking the Dodge action in combat forces any attack rolls against you to have disadvantage.

DMs are allowed to impose advantage or disadvantage as they see fit, which is a superb bribe for some good roleplaying.

The proficiency bonus

Another change which will streamline the game in a big way is the addition of a flat proficiency bonus, which essentially replaces the Base Attack Bonus from 3E or the one-half level bonus from 4E.

Your proficiency bonus starts at +2 and goes up every four levels (+3 at level 5, +4 at level 9, and so on). This bonus is added to attack rolls (with a weapon you’re proficient in), skill checks (on skills that you’re proficient in), and so on.

Each class is also proficient in some types of saving throws, with the Wizard for example being able to add their proficiency bonus to Intelligence-based saving throws. The addition of a simple, flat bonus should go a long way to helping players quickly calculate roll results and speed up combat, which I’m hugely looking forward to.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E Cover Art

The way resting (and healing) works

There are now two types of rest in D&D 5E: a “short rest” and a “long rest”.

A short rest is at least one hour long, and allows you to “spend” Hit Dice in order to recover hit points equal to the result rolled. These dice can’t be recovered until you take a long rest, which means parties who can find a spare moment in battle might be able to catch a breather.

A long rest is at least 8 hours, and at the end of it you get all of your hit points back. This is a pretty big change, and may make it easier on healer-free parties to succeed.

Short and long rests now also play into character spells and abilities, with many class-specific features which can only be used once before a long rest and so on.

The way you create your character

While generating your attributes remains much the same as we’re all used to (4D6 and pick the highest, or points buy) there are more options to consider once it comes to picking a race and class.

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Pathfinder’s book, each class now offers a variety of archetypes that both thematically and mechanically focus their development in a specific direction. In the Basic D&D PDF for example, the Fighter is given the Champion archetype, which grants bonuses to critical hits and athletics.

Players are now required to choose a background package as well. These packages essentially “bundle up” your pre-adventuring experience, giving you a number of features such as proficiency in certain skills, some tools and items to use, and other more nebulous bonuses such as the ability to receive shelter and food at a temple, a criminal contact in a network, or a military rank (and the problems and benefits that offers).

It’s a really interesting idea, and one that really emphasises the modularity of this edition.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E Cover Art

The combat structure

The way combat works is much closer to the familiarity of 3.5E or Pathfinder than 4E, with players limited to moving and then taking one action each turn (although not necessarily in that order, and special abilities often come into play).

Bonus actions are often offered by various classes: the Rogue for example can take a free action each turn to scuttle and hide or move about the battlefield, and Fighters gain multiple attacks. Bonus actions can also be used to cast some spells.

Grappling is also much easier to do: following a simple contest, the character being grappled becomes locked in place and can be dragged around by the grappler.

It seems like Wizards are making a concerted effort to change the way combat works, forcing Fighters to step up and Rogues to move back to a more support/opportunist role than being a ferocious stabbing machine. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Some other interesting tidbits:

  • All natural 20 rolls are always criticals (not just “threats” as in Pathfinder) and never need to be confirmed.
  • There is no flanking bonus in combat (although a DM explicitly has free reign to determine if a situation warrants advantage).
  • The nine alignments return after being MIA for 4E.
  • You no longer need to take the Weapon Finesse feat to use your dexterity in combat: some weapons are simply tagged with “finesse” and can be used this way.
  • Two-weapon fighting has been greatly simplified, and is much easier to do without sinking a bunch of feats into it.
  • When on zero hit points, you now have to take a death saving throw every turn. Three (total, not necessarily consecutive) successes mean you stabilise, and three failures mean you die.
  • Many spells now natively include the ability to cast at higher spell levels, boosting their effects considerably. Some spells are also tagged as Rituals, which can be cast without expending a spell slot.
  • For example, the Cleric now has a flat Cure Wounds spell which heals more strongly at higher levels.

Wizards are also to be absolutely commended for this:

You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play as a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.

Stay tuned over the coming days and weeks as we look at the D&D 5E Starter Edition and provide some more thoughts on the game in action.

If you’d like to learn more about 5E including Wizards pricing (which is surprisingly competitive here in Australia), click here.

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