On the Defining Characteristic of 5th Edition.

It takes a while to figure out what each edition is about.

For example, in Basic/Expert, monster hit dice are d8, without a corresponding increase in player hit dice, causing player death to be exceptionally common. Experience is mainly given for treasure, not slaying monsters. This contributes to characters of higher scores being more survivable, retreating from combat and finding ways around the monsters become what the game is "about".

In 3rd edition, the game was about character builds, trap build options, non-multiclassed caster mastery, 5-foot steps, and killing monsters.

4th edition was about dynamic battlefields, unique opponents, timing and triggering your healing surges, striker dominance yet controller necessity, and tactical challenges.

Well, I think I've finally played enough 5th edition to really find out what the game is about.

The Defining Characteristic of 5th Edition

5th edition is a good edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I've run it for characters up to level 8, and played in several games as a character.

Why is it a good edition?

  • Like all the best editions of Dungeons and Dragons, it doesn't tie you down into a mathematical model. It encourages you to be creative and focused on (and forgive me here, I'll shower afterwards. . .) the fiction
  • There are no (or ridiculously few) trap options. Multi-classing works. Spellcasting works. Fighting works. There's a few odd peaks and valleys in the power spike, but there is a far greater equity between classes not seen in a long time. Play what you like!
  • Combats are, in general threatening. Characters are resilient enough to survive while still feeling threatened. 
  • Spells, and their many limitations, allow spellcasters to do great things—but in a very limited way, without overshadowing the other classes.
Which brings us to what 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is really all about.

The Reaction

Like most versions of Dungeons & Dragons, it isn't until mid to high level play until this becomes apparent. 

The first, and most notable change is in the available combat actions. 

There is no delay action.

You take your turn on your turn. Not only does this speed up play, it specifically limits when characters can do something. The only time you can do something outside of your turn, as a player, is by using your reaction. You have to use your reaction to "delay". Your reaction is also tied into certain abilities that define play.

You can only ever, ever, have one reaction.

This turns mid (and expectedly high) level play into a bluffing game of rock/paper/scissors. All of the following are reactions, and are noted because of their powerful utility. Reactions that do a few points of damage or other minor effects aren't listed. 

Let's look at some reaction abilities in 5th edition, and why they are so game defining:

Class Abilities:
  • Cutting Words (Bard): Reduce an Attack Roll, Ability Check, or Damage Roll, by a bardic die value (d6-d12)
  • Warding Flare (Cleric: Light): Impose disadvantage on an attack roll, Wisdom Modifier times per long rest.
  • Dampen Elements (Cleric: Nature): Grant resistance (1/2 damage) to elements.
  • War God's Blessing (Cleric: War): Grant +10 to an attack.
  • Riposte (Battle Master): Use your reaction to attack, adding a superiority die to damage. Powerful because it doubles the attacks at low levels, and adds and additional 1 to the two per round at mid levels. Drops off in utility as you increase in power.
  • Deflect Missiles (Monk): Not powerful, but very very fun for monk players. They all giggle when using this. I've never seen anyone not spend the ki point to throw the missile back.
  • Uncanny Dodge (Rogue, others): Halve the damage of an attack. (not melee, not missile, not spell, attack)
  • Misty Escape (Warlock:Fey): !! Use your reaction to turn invisible and teleport 60 feet!
  • Projected Ward would go here, but doesn't, because abjurers have much much more important things to do with their reactions.
  • Instinctive Charm (Wizard:Enchantment): Wisdom save (low on brutes) nullifies an attack against you and directs that attack against an enemy.
  • Defensive Duelist: Add Proficiency bonus to AC.
  • Mage Slayer: Attack Spellcasters casting spells, forcing a saving throw.
  • Sentinel: Attack someone who makes an attack not targeting you, (also can attack when a creature uses the disengage action and negates movement on disengage if the attack hits!)
  • War Caster: Cast a spell instead of a melee attack as an opportunity attack.
  • Counterspell: COUNTERSPELL. Use a reaction to nullify 3rd level and lower spells. 4th level, you must roll your spellcasting ability, versus 10+spell level. Because it's an ability check, bards even add 1/2 their proficiency bonus to this roll, making them the best counterspellers in the game (outside of Abjuration specialists after level 10.) You can use higher level spell slots to nullify higher level spells. Casters teleporting or flying away? Anyone casting a spell within 60 feet? Nope, nope, nope!
  • Shield: +5 AC till your next turn. Eldritch knight, Plate (+8), Shield (+2), Defense (+1) Means, as long as he has a spell slot, his AC is 26 without magical bonuses. At 3rd level, if they can steal a suit of plate. 
What this means, is, that high level encounters involving tanks and wizards, involve trying to eliminate reactions, bait reactions out, or get within range of creatures to use your reactions. Any encounter where one side is using their reactions to nullify the actions of the other, and the other side isn't has a huge advantage.

What I mean, is that a party that ignores this, and goes against a wizard (who isn't an idiot and took counterspell) and any kind of fighter designed to protect his companions (High AC+Sentinel+Shield) and instead just goes in, a blasting/hitting is going to lose. Reactions will cancel their spells, disarm their opponents, and deflect their attacks. Place the party against two spellcasters with counterspell and watch only one side have spell superiority.

Take a look at this erroneous discussion (correctly answered by Chris Perkins) about if you can counterspell a counterspell. You absolutely can, of course. But to use your own reaction to cast a counterspell, you'd have to stop casting your original spell and lose it. 

Of course, this is addressed directly in the design, with high monster hit points and damage, along with legendary actions, allowing things like dragons to actually have a chance to escape against sentinel/counterspell lockdown tactics. 

Welcome to 5th edition play.

Hack & Slash 
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  1. Legendary creatures add some more interesting interactions of this same variety, especially legendary resistance and legendary actions. Ditto lair actions.

  2. You cant delay your turn, but your can ready an action.

    1. Yes. As the article says:

      "There is no delay action.

      You take your turn on your turn. Not only does this speed up play, it specifically limits when characters can do something. The only time you can do something outside of your turn, as a player, is by using your reaction. You have to use your reaction to "delay". Your reaction is also tied into certain abilities that define play."

  3. Thank you for this article. I haven't had much of a chance yet to look into 5th edition as I am currently in three pathfinder campaigns. I really need to crack open my books and modules to get a better idea of the whole reaction concept. To me, this seems to take action economy to a whole new level as there are now more ways to affect the outcome of a fight. I think this is fantastic concept and cannot wait to delve deeper into 5th edition.

  4. This doesn't sound like focusing on creativity and the fiction but rather on manipuling various mechanical resources (e.g. on reactions) that have little to do with the fiction. It sounds very much like 4e (which may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on one's tastes), albeit with an added layer of psychology (i.e. rock/paper/scissors). Am I missing something?

    1. Combat is completely covered in just a few pages in the Player Handbook. Reactions are limited, relevant, and almost always useful. Players are engaged throughout the round rather than just on their turn.

      Reactions are certainly a bit meta, but *much* less meta than stopping to figure initiative order, whether a hold or a delay is the right option, etc. Additionally, reactions really help to inform the combat description, since they're actions, rather than a manipulation of the initiative system, which is completely meta and can stop immersion dead in its tracks.

      It's one way 4E contributed to 5E, but 5E is not "a slow MMO simulation on a table" or anything of the sort. Magic item descriptions, spells, even some class features do regularly include evocative descriptions that have little or no mechanics associated with them at all.

      The focus of the system in general is definitely the fiction, and the mechanics in place for combat I think help to make combat more like fiction and less like accounting.

      There's complexity in the reaction system, but it's not in the *implementation* of it, which is straightforward. You get a single reaction every round of combat. Instead, it *covers* the complexity of actions characters can take. A fighter who uses protection can impose disadvantage to save his cleric from getting beat on. Maybe it's harrying the monster, maybe it's throwing a quick shield block or parrying--it really doesn't matter, and it doesn't require having a splatbook with a feat that lets you step in and block a hit, or force your fighter to wait instead of rolling his attack when he's in the spotlight.

    2. Yep. Agreed.

      As the article says "Like all the best editions of Dungeons and Dragons, it doesn't tie you down into a mathematical model. It encourages you to be creative and focused on the fiction. "

  5. Great article and summary of how much fun D&D 5E is. Combat flows much faster and descriptions of combat are easier to incorporate.

  6. Minor point of fact. A recent Sage Advice article clarified that you *can* counterspell a counterspell.


  7. I don't buy it. A player who constantly has his spells countered as a reaction, every round, is not going to be having fun.

    1. The point is, that's the strategy. You get out of range, have another caster ready with a counter to the counter, or prevent the mage from casting.

      Yes, if the player just continues to allow enemy casters to counter their spells, without, well, thinking, then maybe free-form strategy allowed in D&D isn't for them?

  8. The counterspell-->counterspell argument is clearly covered in the WoTC article "The Ability Check".

    Here is the specific excerpt:
    "Can you also cast a reaction spell on your turn? You sure can! Here’s a common way for it to happen: Cornelius the wizard is casting fireball on his turn, and his foe casts counterspell on him. Cornelius has counterspell prepared, so he uses his reaction to cast it and break his foe’s counterspell before it can stop fireball."

  9. I have been playing 5e quite a lot now. Yes, its aimed at the fiction and the experience, not at wargaming. The rules are streamlined and lots of things are achieved neatly by only a few mechanics.
    I just played a session, first for a new campaign, 1st level human barbarian. Our caravan was ambushed by kobolds, but I had got suspicious and had jogged out ahead. A few quick, obvious dice rolls. I failed to see the ambush, distracted by a funny rock near my foot. The attacking kobold in the tree slipped and broke its neck. All hell broke loose, with attacking kobolds and brave skirmishes. My character got a swing in using ready and a reaction. Then I kept running after kobolds, waving my axe in the air, only to have them run off or be killed by another character. But every moment was interesting. The bard sang taunting songs that upset one kobold so much it fled. The others were in desperate combat, helping one another, aiding a dying mercenary and then capturing one kobold to interrogate.
    8 characters a side and it took less than 5 minutes to play out and all very descriptive and interesting.


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