Between the growing acceptance of geek culture and an emphasis on a player-friendly style, the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons brought in a lot of new players with its 4th Edition books and carved out an even bigger niche for itself in the pop culture consciousness. Now, after a couple years of playtesting at conventions and going online for feedback, Wizards of the Coast has released a 5th Edition of the classic game.

The 4th Edition, while very newbie-friendly, was also controversial among older players who complained that it changed too much. A newer game called Pathfinder, heavily inspired by earlier versions of D&D, became a serious competitor. So with the 5th Edition D&D has taken a step back. It feels much more like 3rd Edition (or 3.5) than 4th. This does mean that once again certain classes — magic-users, primarily — are more complicated to play than others, but there are fewer temporary buffs and debuffs to track. Combat in general has been simplified and in the games I’ve played it goes faster, even with a lot of players at the table.

The new system pushes players to focus more on the storytelling and role-play aspects of their characters rather than pure mathematical optimization. While 4th Edition introduced Backgrounds for optional flavor, giving negligible skill bonuses to go along with them, 5th Edition makes them as integral as race and class choice.

To encourage players intimidated by all the available options, the rulebooks lay them out so they can be chosen by rolling the dice.

The diversity of characters pictured in the new rulebooks is impressive.

Humans reflecting a broad range of real-life ethnicities are pictured, sometimes in traditional fantasy clothing and sometimes in fantasy interpretations of their real cultural counterparts. The picture on the Human page is a Black woman in classic leather fantasy armor. The Soldier background shows an East Asian woman in samurai-inspired armor. None of them are oversexualized. And all of that is interspersed with elves, halflings, dwarves and a few races specific to D&D.

Unfortunately, the basic rulebooks also use the super bland Forgotten Realms as the default setting. While it’s a very popular setting, the two writers who have had the biggest impact on it, Ed Greenwood and R.A. Salvatore, both have large back catalogs full of grossly problematic worldbuilding. The artistic diversity of the rulebook can’t quite atone for the Drow, inherently evil dark-skinned elves whose “matriarchy” consists of catty, backstabbing dominatrices, impressively managing to offend dark-skinned people and women in one blow. While Greenwood has said there’s homosexuality in the setting and it’s no big deal, in practice it’s been rare and usually in the form of traditionally attractive lesbians and bisexual women.

Hopefully newer creators will be able to further expand the setting, which has also been used for computer games and other media, to be as inclusive as the game’s rules strive to be.

At $50 each, the rulebooks are a heavy investment. A $20 “Starter Set” is also available, with rules for levels 1-5 and a starter adventure for a small group. While D&D has been locked down by heavy copyright enforcement since Wizards of the Coast’s acquisition by toy giant Hasbro, making free online resources few and far between, an abridged version of the rules is available as a free PDF download. And if you need help finding a group, many of Columbus’s locally-owned, independent game and comic shops have people running open games — contact them for schedules.

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