I’ve played in a couple of (short-ish) campaigns for D&D 5th, and so far I’m pretty impressed with what Wizards has cooked up. Enough so that I’ve come up with enough to form an opinion on it, for what that’s worth. (Not much, I assume, but this is the internet and my two cents will be heard.)
All the basics are here—wood elves, magic missile, thieves tools—as they should be, though D&D’s focus had a noticeable shift. 5e’s design direction during the playtest was trending towards a game that balanced plenty of options with a lot of flexibility, and for the most part I think they’ve struck the right balance in rules density. The system is remarkably tight; the numbers and abilities still increase to satisfy players, but stay low enough to keep the gaming moving at a steady clip. Purists may be disgusted that “tough” monsters have AC 18, but that’s coming from the 3.x school of inflated numbers at higher levels (which always caused the game to come crushing down under the weight of its own math). I would much rather have the smaller, tighter spread of numbers and have the game work through level 20, having seen the pitfalls of mid- and high-level 3.x campaigns.
On top of that, you have advantage/disadvantage negating situational modifiers, and that runs even more smoothly than I’d anticipated. One of the examples from the starter module (Lost Mines of Phandalin) has some goblins in a room with a noise waterfall; because of the noise, the PCs gain advantage to sneak in and ambush the gobbos. It gets rid of my least favorite feature in D&D, the bloat of incidental modifiers. What this means is that the stats on your sheet are more static and rarely factored on the fly; play runs faster when you’re substituting dice rolls for calculations, and both players and GMs don’t need to update notes or sheets to keep track of all the junk.
When I play a session of Pathfinder in comparison, I’m once again reminded of the reasons I burn out playing it: there’s a lot more math than you’d think thanks to the Christmas Tree Effect (tons of magic items) and the abundance of incidental modifiers you accrue, which are added to a slew of iterative attacks, where battles lead to a grudgingly slow pace of play… yet enemies only survive for a round or two. (Hence why I ignore the scorn foisted at D&D’s AC 18 dragon, or Dungeon World’s 16 hp dragon, when I’ve seen those lead to epic and dynamic combats taking up half the time as my average Pathfinder combats.) There’s the slew of character options, only half of which are viable at any given time due to optimization—and then you have balance issues if someone in the party isn’t an optimized character, when others are shining rock stars.
D&D 5th doesn’t have those problems of micromanagement, but therein lies the rub: the game is much more simplified in an AD&D direction, meaning the options for customization are much more limited. If your favorite part of 3.x-style gaming was character building and optimization, finding abilities and classes to make cool combos, D&D 5th will not be your game. Feats are an optional rule, as they’re much more powerful—they have more of an epic feel, compared to the layers of combos and powers they were in 3.x and 4e. There are tons of cool character options, but the one you pick at 1st level will probably be the only one you ever see over the course of a campaign.
It’s a bit awkward to return to so much AD&D-style DM fiat, with the DM being the ultimate adjudicator; in 3e and 4e, most everything was spelled out—pricing for this, stats for that. Many of the official FAQs fall back on “ask your DM,” in an attempt to prevent D&D from being the rules-lawyer type of game again. I’ve seen more 3.x-minded players and GMs struggle with this style, and I find it kind of a step back from Fate or Dungeon World—once you’re used to a certain level of player authorship in your gaming, it’s kind of restrictive to put all decisions in one person’s hands.
There’s also minor revisions to the skill systems. Skills were never something I liked in my D&D; in part it’s the additional math, in part it’s that I don’t think they fit well with D&D’s feel or its restrictive class/level system, and in part because they become imbalanced once you add a +18 or so. In 5e, skill and weapon proficiency is based off a Proficiency Bonus that increases with your level—if you have proficiency in that skill or weapon, you add the Proficiency Bonus plus stat, otherwise you just add your relevant stat. It’s part of the reason the game is so tightly balanced, retaining a skill system that adds some weight to a character’s abilities without having everyone count skill points each level.
To be honest, I think that if this was the “new” flavor of D&D that was presented back in 2008, the Edition Wars schism wouldn’t have been as pronounced—there wouldn’t have been as many thousands of upset fans flocking to Paizo’s forums, nor would there have been so many disenfranchised OSR gamers. Thanks to the OGL letting the rules out of the bag, and the overwhelming power of nostalgia/fandom for D&D, there still would have been an army of clones, retroclones, and D&D-esque systems. But if these rules had been presented as D&D’s “fourth edition” instead of the 4e we got, the reaction would have been much more muted and probably more positive. Instead, it feels like Wizards is a few years late to their own party, playing catch-up instead of leading the market.
And as popular as the new edition is—between the timely 40th anniversary and huge 5e marketing blitz, a sizable number of ex-gamers have returned to the hobby out of nostalgia—the core rules feel a bit bland and vanilla compared to similar but more established D&D-type game lines. Meanwhile, all the others seem to have their niche. Pathfinder has the lion’s share of options for tactical combat and character building. Dungeon Crawl Classics marries the old-school dungeon crawl with swords-and-sorcery brutalism. Numenera is a far-future romp through a layer cake dungeon of Clarke’s Third Law technomagic. My defaults, Dungeon World and Fate, aim for a game style that’s more about story logic and collaborative/narrative play while retaining the D&D feel.
That is pretty much my bottom line: D&D 5th Edition feels like D&D, runs like D&D, and is arguably the most accessible and playable D&D edition ever released. It’s got a compact and versatile rules set that’s improved over the balance and pace-of-play flaws of 3.x and 4e’s over-focus on tactical combat. I’ve had a lot of fun playing it, and will probably continue to do so. But despite being the largest brand-name in the pond, the progenitor from which all other games are born, I can’t think of a main defining feature, either mechanical (aside from advantage/disadvantage) or stylistic/atmospheric (other than, y’know, FRealms and Tiamat, which is pretty generic done-to-death D&D by now).
I think this is now the challenge for the D&D 5 dev team: during the playtest, there was talk of a more neutral/generic core ruleset, onto which rules modules are bolted on to take your game style in one direction or another. So far so good for step one; now show me step two and start giving these rules some flavor. There haven’t been a lot of releases yet—GenCon is coming, but so far they have been taking it very slow and are relying on adventures (the non-core releases thus far are Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Rise of Tiamat, Out of the Abyss, Princes of the Apocalypse). This is great for curbing bloat, in the wake of two bloated editions, and is much in-line with how Paizo expanded: slow growth of game mechanics and rules supplements; faster growth of adventures and aides/resource supplements (Attack Wing, miniatures, GM screen, GF9’s licensed spell decks, etc). It also means there’s a lot of D&D we haven’t seen yet, and the viability of this edition weighs heavily on how the first rules supplement performs.