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Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition gives freedom back to the Dungeon Master

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

When the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out in 2008 I pounced on it. I hadn't played D&D since middle school and the new system had a lot of good buzz. I coaxed and cajoled a core group of five players together and for the next four years met monthly to lead a small group of characters from level one all the way up to level 10.

The experience was awesome. But from the Dungeon Master's seat, when I look back on those sessions, all I can remember was how hard it was to keep play moving.

D&D 4th edition, to me, was all about the exceptions to the rules. There were conditions, like marking and cursing enemies, that had to be tracked on the table at all times. The monsters themselves were very complex, each one with special abilities and tactics that had to be managed at the table behind my DM's screen.

My players, likewise, always seemed to be fumbling through their various powers, trying to pick the right one to use while adding the right collection of modifiers from their various magical weapons and buffs.

We stopped playing together for many reasons, but in part because D&D had become a slog.

We adopted a complex set of gaming aides, from miniatures with magnetic bases to pre-printed condition cards that would get tossed around the table. Some players even began to tinker with apps for their phones.

Towards the end, our gameplay area had shrunk to a tiny sliver at the center of the table. Books, tokens, cards, computers and paperwork filled the table on all sides.

We stopped playing together for many reasons, but I can't help but think that we might have tried harder to make it work for our busy schedules if only playing 4th edition D&D hadn't become such a slog.

I've been following the development of D&D's fifth edition for years now, a process of open play testing that has involved many thousands of testers. Just a few weeks ago I got my hands on the Starter Set and was finally able get a party together to try it out.

After one evening playing, what I can tell you is that 5th edition sets the Dungeon Master free.

Free to move the game along. Free to make the story more interesting. Free to have fun along with their players.

Mild spoilers for the Starter Set campaign, The Lost Mine of Phandelver, below.


5th edition gives you permission

It's always been part of the DM's toolbox to mess with the rules a bit. That's a major reason why there's a DM's screen, after all. You need to look like you're rolling the dice sometimes, making a truly random roll when in reality you're looking for an excuse to make something memorable happen at the table.

5th edition takes that a step further, by actually baking some ambiguity into the way encounters are mapped out ahead of time.

An encounter is the basic building block of a D&D campaign. It's a single engagement, sometimes with role-played words but more often than not with swordplay and death.

In previous D&D campaigns the combat encounters were all very detailed, down to the placement of individual enemies inside each room of a dungeon. Not so with 5th edition. DMs are given a list of the enemies in an area, told about what their motivations and goals are when the players arrive, and let loose to make the encounter they want to make.

It's a toolkit, not a set of instructions. And it encourages improvisation.

For instance, in the first encounter in the 5th edition Starter Set the players are caught in an ambush. But there's no map for the encounter printed in the manual. DMs are given a general idea of the environment, told roughly where the enemies are in relation to the players and... and that's it.

For my group I rolled out some Gaming Paper, essentially a plain roll of wrapping paper with a 1" grid, and used a Sharpie to draw up the site of the ambush. We could just as easily used a plain piece of paper without gridlines at all.

I had the players place their miniatures in marching order, and described the scene in front of them. And then I asked them what they wanted to do.

It was that simple.

I didn't belabor the outline of the area or the placement of the trees. I didn't spend a lot of time talking about the rules for difficult terrain and cover.


When one of the players was too far away, by the letter of the law, to make an attack I just waved it off and scooted them up a bit. If the Starter Set encouraged me to be creative with how the encounter was set up, then I could be creative with how my players engaged in the battle as well.

The way the book presented the content to me, the Dungeon Master, gave me both the permission and the ability to put fun ahead of the rules. And it worked like a charm.

By the end of the session my players weren't sifting through their character sheets looking for levers to pull and powers to press the button on. They were playing their roles, having fun and using their imagination. They weren't bound to the grid on the table any more than I was behind my DM screen.

The Starter Set gave me both the permission and the ability to put fun ahead of the rules.

For our final encounter I didn't even draw a map out at all. I had the players do it themselves. That's not something I would have felt comfortable doing in 4th edition.

Right now there's over 100 pages of content available, in the form of a quick-start guide, from Wizards of The Coast. There's a $20 Starter Set with pre-generated characters, dice and a decent-sized campaign. Last week, the formal organized play system rebooted itself complete with an online event locator. Later this week, the new Player's Handbook will formally launch at Gencon.

The content is coming fast. The time to get into 5th edition D&D is now.

Grab some friends. Put in some effort to make a new gaming group. Look outside your normal circles to places like Skype and Google Hangouts. As an old hand at it, I can tell you it's never been more fun or easier to get into D&D than it is right now.