by Karl Brown with contributions from Lev Lafayette
A review with a difference about Dungeon & Dragons 5th Edition and about choosing your next fantasy role playing game. Since a new D&D edition has enough media impact to draw new people into our hobby I've attempted to write this review in a way that will be useful to new people and to veterans. If this means I explain what many consider assumed knowledge so be it. Dungeon & Dragons 5th Edition is produced by Wizards of the Coast (WOTC). This review was produced when only the free basic rules, Player's Handbook, and Monster Manual was available.
D&D 5th Edition Lead Designers: Mike Merls, Jeremy Crawford.
Monster Manual (2014) Lead: Christopher Perkins.
Players Handbook (2014) Lead: Jeremy Crawford.
At this point there have been a lot of reviews of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition (D&D 5e) so I'm going to try to offer a different angle. This review is mostly going to be about the kinds of worlds, styles of play, and adventures the new rules are suited too. In the process I have discarded the usual chapter-by-chapter formula of reviews and instead will discuss three themes that run through the breadth of the game. Here's the thing, the best game is the one that supports the stories you want tell at that time and suits your group at the table. I'll discuss the kinds of games the new rules support then you can decide for yourself if D&D 5th is the right tool for the job you want to do. Along the way I'll be comparing it to other games past and present for the benefit of those who are here because they are in the market for a fantasy game.
If you are like me you have tendency to skip to the end of reviews for the final assessment. To save you scrolling here it is. D&D 5th Edition is an excellent game if you want to play in a world where typical high fantasy assumptions hold true. It is a streamlined game suitable for busy referees and those new to the hobby but at the same time has sufficient hidden depth to satisfy most veterans. It supports heroic through to deadly gameplay with a mix of action and social roleplaying. The game is likely to be well supported and attract a large population of gamers so you are likely to be able to find players or a game to join for decades to come. On the downside the game is relatively expensive for anything but the most casual player (who could use the free basic rules) and places boundries around creative freedom when creating characters and settings.
Both books are are hardbacks with gloss paper with and full-colour artwork throughout. The Player's Handbook (PHB) is 317 pages; the Monster Manual (MM) weighs in at some 352 pages. The covers of both books feature dynamic scenes of adventurers encountering monsters. The Monster Manual cover by Raymond Swanland features a very impressive piece of action art involving an encounter with a beholder. The Player's Handbook cover by Tyler Jacobson depicts characters' despirate attempts to strike a huge fire giant. The internal art is of a high quality in terms of technique and somewhat less so in terms of creativity, sometimes extremely so. The Players handbook has a good balance of illustrations to text. The PHB really does contain everything you need, even the monsters you might use as familiars, created undead, or animal shapes. The Monster Manual is more profusely illustrated. Indeed, in what is the most unusual criticisms to be levelled at such a product, in the Monster Manual there's actually too much art - and not enough content. There is a good use of white-space throughout the text, and a thorough table of contents and index (as would be hoped!). Creature statistics are in off-set text-boxes for easy reference, although page numbers are a little on the pale side. The physical books are glue-bound rather than stitched; at first blush it seems that the glue is fairly strong, but overall these are not books made to last. At the time of this review the Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG) had not been released.
No pdf of these books is available at this time and no release date for pdfs have been given. There are free pdfs of very cut down versions of the rules. I can understand why this is the case in our piracy rife society but not having a version I can read on my phone on the train to work and having to lug heavy books around is a pain. Virtually, all other games on the market are available as pdf.
One issue with most editions of D&D the game requires three core books for play at a substantial financial outlay for at least one member of your group. Many other games on the market give you everything you'll ever need, not just a skeleton of rules I mean everything, in one book at a fraction of the price. Fantasy Craft, Savage Worlds Deluxe, and Mongoose's Conan spring to mind. Technically, a player could just use the PHB but someone has to be the referee. To be fair WOTC has given you a cut down version of rules on the net for free. I'd suggest checking this out before committing to D&D 5e. However, when doing so bare in mind that most of the 'cool stuff' has been cut out of the free versions. This is nowhere near as generous as the SRD for WOTC's D&D 3rd Edition.
The first book is the Players' Handbook (PHB). This book begins with a preface and introduction that veteran gamers might be tempted to skip over, don't. As well as the usual 1 page description of what an rpg is, a story told by a conversion between friends where most are players controlling characters and one is the Dungeon Master (referee) who describes the world. These two short sections set the tone and describe the kind of game the designers were trying to create. The preface and introduction emphasise social fun and creativity. The message down-plays the importance of 'canon', actively encourages groups to create worlds, and explicitly thrusts creative control back onto the referee's and players. However, this is not a universal system all worlds will start at a foundation of 'Medieval fantasy' and are envisioned as being part of a D&D 'multiverse'. Adventures are intended to be built around the 'three pillars' of adventures "exploration, social interaction, and combat".
The second chapter provides a step-by-step guide to creating characters. I have tried following this to the letter and despite the counter-intuative feature of generating ability scores last should guide new players through the process competently.
The rest of this review will be written around three themes that pervade the new edition of the game:
1. Legacy Code
2. Defined Limits
3. Bounded Diversity
The outcome of the 'other three pillars' is a game that offers an even balance of combat and roleplay and is easier to learn than 3e and many other games. There are simpler games for beginners to learn rpg with but being a beginner in a 5th edition group will not be a huge disadvantage.
Combat can be played entirely with verbal description or you can use a grid, hexes, or mud-map. Whatever suits your group's style.
Character generation can be fast and resource management is back, so olde school deadly games like those of early 1e and original 'white box' D&D could be run. Players who spend less time generating characters and who are warned of the danger mind less when their character dies. Even if you don't go olde school D&D favours an 'adventurous' almost Hollywood approach to storytelling. This is not a simulation of reality in any way.
There is advice on handling social encounters that boils down to use Inspiration and use whatever mix of dice rolls and roleplaying that your group is comfortable with. There are sufficient rules for downtime, travel, and environment to handle most situations but at the moment items like extreme weather, extra-planrar physics, the effects of vaccuum on PCs, governing a holdfast and other situations that occur in some adventure types and settings are given little to no treatment in the rules. This may change with the release of the DMG.
D&D has always had particular features and a new edition of the game without them might be shunned by fans. This really limits what changes the designers can make and the kind of game D&D 5th edition can be. This is not the best rpg they could have produced, it is the best version of D&D from that team. Let's look at some of these holy cows and in doing so outline the game to newcomers.
From the beginning D&D has defined a character's raw potential by six ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma. When Gygax chose these back in the 70's he set limits on what D&D can do well. Notice there is no obvious score for the senses? In AD&D Intelligence (Int) was used for senses, in later editions Wisdom (Wis) was adopted as the sensory score. Either way animals, non-humans, and rash barbarians with keen senses are not handled well. Another example is how Dexterity covers bodily agility and manual dexterity. There are no fat safe crackers in D&D. Again Dexterity makes D&D handle non-humanoids poorly. As written D&D is a game about humans and humanoids.
First off, race. I really wish they had finally dumped the provocative and innaccurate 'R' word. These are not races they are species. A more 'fantasy' term could be used such a 'kindred' as used in Tunnels & Trolls (T&T). However, I suspect for many even the word 'race' is a holy cow of D&D.
The races are presented as core races (Elf, Dwarf, Human, Halfling) present on a given world as default and Uncommon (Drow, Gnome, Dragonborn, Half Orc) that might not be present in a setting at the referee's discrescion. This division is based partially on assumed D&D cultural norms and partially on how unusual/magical the races traits are. Being largely arbitary it's tempting to mix this up to taste. You could easily create a world where scaly Dragonborn and gnomes are common and humans savages on the verge of extinction.
Unlike previous editions no races have negative ability score adjustments. Half-orcs don't tend to be stupid and gnomes are not weak. This seems kind of weird but is in line with bounded diversity. I'm not sure I personally like this; it's neither realistic, nor character-building, and smacks heavily of munchkinism.
Races also give expected ages for characters but the game does not have aging rules. This implies that, like comic book heroes, PCs will hover around their starting age unaffected by the ravages of time. In the Monster Manual creatures that in earlier editions caused PC's to age now do flavourless 'necrotic' damage instead. This system does not support simulationist multi-generational epics, try Pendragon for that.
D&D 5e is a class/level system. This means most of a character's traits (skills, powers etc) come from their class (vocation). Between adventures characters gain levels. Each level improves the traits they have and gives them more traits as determined by their class. There are unending debates over whether this or a more free-form point based approach is better. A class-level system done well should help players create useful characters and ensure characters are on par with their peers. It should guide new players. The a-la-carte Class-level systems nessisarily restrict creative freedom compared to the buffet approach of point systems. If you like unusual PCs then a point based system, such as GURPS, might be better.
Class/level systems also are in trouble if the designers did not do a good job of ensuring the classes are equal at all levels and if the classes fail to capture the imagination. In all previous editions wizards started play too weak and at high levels were so powerful they barely needed the other PC's help. Compared to previous editions of the game, D&D5e looks like the imbalance of the wizard has been reduced if not solved. Previous editions also often suffered from 'dead levels' where a class gained very little on attaining some levels. In 5e there are no dead levels, every level you get something of note even if it is 'just' access to a more potent spells.
The PHB also makes explicit the concept of tiers of play. There are 20 levels. At low levels characters are effectively 'trainee' adventurers dealing with local problems, at mid levels they might save kingdoms, and at high levels they might save the world or travel to Hell. There is no provision to go beyond level 20 as there was in some earlier editions of the game. In previous editions so-called 'epic' levels, 21 and over, were poorly handled as the designers struggled to overcome some of the inherrent limits of the system. The absence of 'Epic' levels is not missed by this reviewer.
In this edition the character with the simplist rules is the human barbarian, try this first. Barbarians are the tanks of the D&D party which means you can get into the thick of a fight and that your character might survive any 'dumb moves' you might make as a new player.
Everywhere you look the designers have set limits. These limits are designed to do two things. Firstly, they stop the power-bloat of previous editions. Secondly, every additional feature you get is 'worth' more in play in this constrainted environment. Powerful characters have fewer powers but each has a significant effect on play. Also characters are no longer festooned with a large number of magic items. Powerful monsters like dragons no longer need endless spells and powers to challenge PCs, a monster can have just a few iconic powers and be a challenge.
PC base ability scores are usually not higher than 15 and PC ability scores never exceed 20 (except very high level Barbarians). Monsters range from 1-30. This is not a simulation. Many games are to a greater or lesser degrees simulations of the real world. The simulation approach has advantages including the ability to directly translate real-world facts into the game. D&D does not work like this. We are told in the PHB a character can carry 15x her Strength (Str), this indicates the strongest monster possible is about as strong as a real chimp. Obviously, the DMG should include numerous 'fudge' factors for size, number of legs or whatever to determine how much horses and dragons can carry. Problem is the same applies to all ability scores. D&D is about heroic action packed adventures where humans can fight multi-ton fire breathing monsters and win. It's not about anything resembling reality. This foundation feeds into the kinds of worlds and adventures the game will do well, see Bounded Diversity below.
The ability scores are the core of this new edition. It is hard to overstate their importance. From each ability score you are given a modifier to dice rolls related to that ability score. Nearly all dice rolls use a twenty sided dice (d20). You also have 'proficiency' in some things such as skills, particular weapons, tools of a trade, etc. Proficiency provides another bonus determined by your level. Want to lift a heavy portcullis? Roll 1d20 add your strength modifier, if you have proficiency in the Athletics skill and your proficiency bonus as well. Try to roll over a target number, say 17 to lift the gate. Done. For almost all rolls ability score modifier and proficiency are the only modifiers you'll ever add. The math is primary school grade 2 level.
This is a big change compared to previous versions of D&D and to most games on the market. In most games there are numerous and ever increasing modifiers to dice rolls creating strings of additions and subtractions that slow play. Worse still power-bloat can occur in some games as the characters modifiers make the random dice roll les and less of a factor or forces the foes to become increasingly overblown. D&D 3e in particular was a major offender here. 3e and its spawn Pathfinder have scores of modifiers and even catagories of modifiers and rules about how those catagories interacted. Pathfinder combat was so slow at our table we only had time for one fight per game session (5 hours). By limiting bonuses to your rolls to two modifiers (in almost all cases) 5e stops power-bloat and speeds gameplay.
If 5th edition has scrapped most modifiers to the dice roll how does it handily all the situations those modifiers handled in earlier editions? The advantage/disadvantage mechanic. If you have advantage, perhaps you leap onto a table in a bar fight and gain higher ground, you roll two d20 and use the highest roll of the two. If you have disadvantage, say your target is at long range for your crossbow, you roll two d20 and use the lowest roll of the two. Note how in both cases the highest roll is always 20. A modifier instead of a advantage die raises the maximum possible roll; the source of power bloat. If you have both advantage and disadvantage they cancel each other out, to climb a cliff with climbing spikes in the rain roll 1d20. As written advantage and disadvantage yes/no propositions you can't have multiple advantage die. This is an issue with this system, it can't handle the effects of situations in a nuanced manner.
However, in a bit of slight of hand the referee could account for baseline conditions (only) by setting a higher or lower target to roll over; is it a cliff of rough stone with plenty of handholds or a wall of ice? There is a site that discusses the probability effects of the advantage/disadvantage system and suggests variations extreme advantage, extreme disadvantage, and mediocrity. It's roughly the equivalent of plus or minus 5.
The advantage/disadvantage die is a big bonus, and big even relative to previous editions of D&D. So it's a big change to the game. In earlier editions a situational bonus provided a +2 advantage as a generic bonus. But +5?! That's the sort of thing of dreams. It was the bonus of the most powerful non-artifact magic item (the Paladin's Holy Avenger). In 3.x, 4, and 5th it is the equivalent of having an ability score of 21.
A skill proficiency provides a flat bonus based on level, no micromanaging skill points. The skill list seems kinda small and focused on adventuring activities but this is a little slight of hand on the designers part many 'background skills' are still in the game hidden as proficiencies in various tools and equipment. In 3e you could focus on a few skills or spread skill points around. In reality though newcomers could 'waste' points on skills that were rarely if ever used, while those who 'mastered' the system realised the best choice was to focus on a few 'adventuring' type skills. In 5th new players are automatically guided to an equivalent to the later outcome. You can still get 'background' type 'skills' its just now they are called tool proficiencies and come out of a separate pool.
On the downside, all your proficiencies are at the same level varying only by the ability score modifier used. If you learn a new skill you suddenly go from baseline or nothing to the same level of competance as your other skills, this does seem kinda weird from the character's point of view. It is also worth noting that all characters can attempt most skill rolls even if not proficient, this include what were a thieves 'stealth powers' of earlier editions.
To reward players for playing the role D&D5e has players desribe the Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws for their character as short sentences. When you have your character react based on these personality traits, especially if your choices are detrimental or self sacrificing, you might be rewarded by the DM or another player with Inspiration. This is basically an Advantage die you can use whenever you want once. This rule reflects something most rpg systems have been doing for a long while, rewarding roleplaying in a way linked to task resolution. This is not something previous editions of D&D have done and is a welcome addition. That the rule is linked to the key Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic and not another disparate mechanic make the addition feel like a natural part of the system and not 'tacked on' to be fashionable. I would have prefered if the designers had ditched the antiqued alignment system now that we have Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws but realistically hard-core D&D fans would never have forgiven WOTC if alignment had been tossed out.
The other obvious thing about the Inspiration system is that you could apply it to any disadvantage. The designers could have gone a step further and made a version of Inspiration that worked like Mutants & Masterminds' Hero Points. Say you want to play a dwarf smith whose time at the forge has left him hard of hearing. Whenever you or the referee decide this significantly penalises your character you are awarded inspiration. This method 'balances' a disadvantages by compensation where and when it actually affects play, no more no less. Going a step further might help houserule stranger races. I've played in an Mutants & Masterminds game where a PC was a small talking dog, whenever his lack of hands or whatever stopped him in his tracks he got a Hero Point. For more on this see my Unusual Races article.
When a fight or other dangerous scene starts time is split into round of 6 seconds and characters can take specific number and kinds of actions each round. 3e had move, standard, free, full-round, Attacks of Opportunity, etc. and where conceptually difficult for newcomers to keep track of. Often characters in 3e had multiples of some action types in a round and that could get out of hand. In 5th edition you get one action, a move, one free handle object, and you might get one bonus action and one reaction. That is all never more. OK, at high levels some characters get 'multi-attack' as an action but compared to earlier editions these are much less common. The action allowance is another way 5th edition reins in characters to stop power-bloat while at the same time making any gains significant.
Another feature that sets defined limits on characters is the extensive use of the short and long rest. Most previous editions of D&D had per day powers. For example a wizard could cast so many spells per day.. As the game matured we started seeing explanations and caveats. Characters needed to get sleep and perhaps prepare to regain their per day powers. The long and short rest are a concise encoding of a rule that in reality has been around for many editions. Other than 4th edition, D&D has always had a resource management aspect to game play. If you cast you lighning bolt spell now you wont have it for the boss fight unless you find a place to hole up and rest. I really like this aspect of the game. Others have different tastes and prefer die roll to use or per scene or per fight powers. If you are one of these people then D&D is not for you.
Another 'holy cow' that makes D&D D&D is a tradition of Vancian magic. Inspired by the works of Jack Vance this is magic that works by the preparing a number of specific spells each day that casting them without any chance of failure later. Each time you can a spell you loose it until the next day. Vancian systems feature pages and pages describing the spells you can choose from. Gamers have huge arguments about Vancian magic vs other kinds. However, if you hate Vancian magic don't write off D&D 5th straight away. The designers have made a hybrid system that combines features of a pure Vancian approach with a spell-point approach. The result is a unique system that hold to tradition while streamling and improving the magic system. You have so many slots at each spell power level. You also prepare spells in advance. However you don't assign specific spells to specific slots until the instant you cast the spell. You can also cast some spells using higher level slots. Gone are the long lists of cure wounds spells, now there is one that can you can decide to cast at greater power or not.
The new PHB describes preparing a spell as having the spell "firmly fixed in mind". I prefer to imagine that spell preparation is a ritual to gather and pre-shape magical potential that is later released when the caster takes a sinlge action and word to complete the ritual and release the magic.
Unlike 3e and 4e, 5th edition's text actively encourages you to build your own setting or modify one of the company's to taste. Additionally, they have carefully combed through the rules and removed arbitary restrictions and penalties from previous editions that might hamper creativty when designing characters. Want to be a half-orc genius paladin, no problem. They want you to be able to build your own worlds and create unique characters.
On the other hand the rules have a lot of assumptions built into them which restrict your freedom to create the world and characters you want. Magic works in a particular way, there are probably elves and those elves have the features described etc. No more restrictive than previous editions of D&D when they were at the three book only stage. This is much less restrictive than many games that come with a default setting and rules sets tailored to to reflect the reality of that setting, Mongoose Conan and EarthDawn for example. However D&D 5th much more restrictive than other generic fantasy games such as Fantasy Hero, Legends of Anglerre (despite this game's title), and to a lesser extent Fantasy Craft or Savage Worlds with the Fantasy Companion.
I'm calling this curious mix of encouraged creativity but somewhat inflexible tools 'Bounded Diversity'. It is a reoccuring theme in D&D 5e.
In contrast to 3e, the new PHB indicates that magic is uncommon and that adventuring class people make up a tiny fraction of the population. This logically supports a pseudo-medieval world. That said apparently 1st and 2nd level spells can be bought in towns for money, but NOT higher level spells and magic items. This is a real departure from 3e.
In D&D 5e magic works a particular way and is baked right into the sytems in a great multitude of places. Most player characters will have use some magic in this edition, there is even a sub-class of fighter that learns spells. If you want to run a low magic world or have a specific idea for how magic works D&D 5e is not for your project. Before I hear the howls of protest, yes like any game you can go in and cut out the magic or fiddle with it, but doing this in D&D 5e will be hard work and will make the game deadly if you are not very careful. Other games allow for no magic worlds or varient concepts of magic better. D&D 5e will be good for magical high fantasy worlds.
D&D 5th like its predecessors uses a combinatorial approach to defining characters. Characters are defined by Race (species really), sub-race, Class (vocation), Background (further defining vocation or how you grew up). Shortly after creation you'll also have to choose an Archetype (a sub-type of your class). Each choice comes with a number of game traits. The advantages of this kind of systems are that new characters ideas can be readily conceived by combining choices, it makes creating character ideas easier for new players, and speeds character creation by removing the need to choose traits one by one. I really enjoy this kind of combinatorial character generation and if one only considers the core player's book this is a very good version of this type of generation process.
When comparing to previous editions of D&D and other games with combinatorial character generation there are two other factors to discuss, granularity of choice and party roles. In D&D party roles are largely determined by class and I'll come back to these in a while.
By 'granularity of choice' I mean how much of your character is defined each time you have to make a choice. In original D&D (not first, original) you rolled your attributes (no choice) choose a class and a race, then bought your equipment. Most of your character in game terms was defined by two choices, race and class. While you could make a great diversity of characters, if your fighter was a knight or a stone-age hunter it didn't really have much representation in the game numbers. Fast forward to 3rd Edition (and the large number of games modelled after it such as Pathfinder and Fantasy Craft).
To create a character you have to make choices on ability scores, race, class, feat, what skills and how many points on each, and what equipment. There were tens or even hundreds of options at each choice. To make matters worse to qualify for future choices as your character progressed you had to plan your choices at every level to qualify for the items you wanted. This micromanagment approach allowed for better backing of character concepts with game traits, and lots of choice but disadvantaged new players, even rpg veterans new to the game, who did not have in depth knowledge of the choices and and how early choices affected later ones.
So what about 5th? In D&D 5e you choose attributes, race, class, and background. You don't get much choice in your skills.. Usually you just name a few from a short list given with your class. Equipment is generally a series of three either/or questions but there is an optional coin and shopping rule (still using the historically inaccurate gold coin). Around third level you choose an archtype from those given as part of your class, most classes have three. You might get feats at later levels but these are optional and you will only ever have a few if any. Each choice provides a greater chunk of the characters traits than the choices in 3rd edition did and the amount of forward planning massively reduced. Even restrictions at first level such as dwarves can't be wizards and all paladins are Lawful Good have been removed. This is one of several ways that classes are able to cover a broader range of concepts compared to previous editions. The result is faster character creation and a more intuitive transparent system that supports a diversity of character concepts. I really like this.
However, the downsides are that having defined races, classes etc in the game limits your protagonists to characters that fit within the available combinations. You can define your setting by removing choices, an all human world could work. D&D 5e does provide a huge number of combinations but cannot recreate everyone seen in the great diversity of fantasy fiction. Even some core fantasy archtypes, like a giant race, are not available.. I hope future release will add more combinations to the menu to reduce this issue. What you can't do easily is create new races and classes because at this point no guidelines for race and class creation are included. There has been no indication from WOTC that they will be providing these design systems. Sure you can make your own anyway but without good guidence this can be a real game-breaker. If you want the freedom to create the cultures, intelligent species, and professions of your world then a point based system like GURPS, Mutants & Master Minds, or Hero might be better for your project. Point based systems give you a allotment of points used to buy traits and features individually. The downsides of point systems are that with so many choices character generation can take a long time and the number of options is bewildering.
Races and sub-races cover more cultures than in previous editions. For example Grey Elves are now a culture of High Elves with no difference in game terms. This approach makes sense when you consider humans and could be taken as a cue (among many) to invent cultures for your world. While there are a lot of Races and subraces in this PHB compared to previous PHBs, at this point the great number of races we had when other editions were out for a few years in missing (but see my house rules!).
As an aside if you use the variant rule that grants humans a feat I'd ban Tough as a choice. My own investigations into the math indicates Tough is overpowered before 4th level.
In previous editions of D&D, especially early editions, adventuring parties were comprised of four complementary roles. You had a tough front-line warrior, a sneaky spy, a healer, and a wizard. The rules and adventures assumed these roles would be present and a party with a 'slot' missing would have a hard time, especially if the healer was missing. The four roles had good points, they gave every character a niche and fostered cooperation. D&D 5e dilutes the importance of these roles. On the down side this means that a key cooperation ensuring feature of D&D has been lost. On the up side players need not feel constrained by the four roles, any party of three or more characters that is diverse will bring enough options to the scene to overcome obsticles, take down the villain and save the day. Even if everyone is the same class, all fighters say, differing choices of race, subrace, background, and archetype is enough. I really like this. This is not unique the Mongooses Conan and Fantasy Craft are class systems that do this and careful character design in point based games like GURPS and Hero can acheive this also. Still I think more could have been done to foster cooperation now that the four roles are gone. The way that classes in Fantasy Craft all grant abilities that help or boost other player characters is an example of what else could have been done within a class system.
5e introduces Backgrounds. These represent where your character grew up or your cultural niche and provide a few minor benefits. Say you want to be an Imperial War Wizard, well the soldier background makes sense. A fighter who grew up in the means streets of the begger's quarter? Take Urchin. In many ways Backgrounds remind me of the early days of the AD&D 2e kits.
Magical healing while not strictly a 'must have' for an adventuring party in this edition of D&D is very recommended. Fortunately, a number of classes have access to magical healing (Bard, Cleric, Druid and paladin have some kind of healing at first level, ranger at second). Veterans of previous editions note, the days of absolutely needing a cleric for survival are over.
There are feats but they are optional and the complex interconnected 'feat trees' of 3e are gone. In most cases a single 5e feat gives you everything you need for a niche role such as 'crossbow sniper'..
When a character gains a level they can choose to add a level in a new class provided they have 13 in an ability score related to the new class. Traditionally, this was used to support concepts like a burgler who knows a few useful spells. In D&D 3e and the large number of games modelled after it such as Pathfinder and Fantasy Craft the best option for some character concepts was a prestige class requiring careful planning at low level to meet the requirements for entry at high level.
Like most previous editions of the game D&D5e has multiclassing. However, in 5e I feel multiclassing should be a last resort. Most classes support more character types now and feats and background really broaden the range of concepts covered. My advice come up with your concept, pick a class that covers the most important parts of the concept, use background, archetype, and feats to get the rest of the features of your concept if you can. For example, why be a fighter/wizard when Fighter (Eldritch Knight) with Sage Background and perhaps the Magic Initiate feat does most of the same stuff? Alternatively, maybe a Warlock (Great Old One) with Soldier background and Moderately Armored feat could cover your concept. Since Classes are broad and Backgrounds and feats further broaden the options all those niche classes and prestige classes of previous editions are not really necessary. Multiclassing used to be your go-to option for a lot of concepts in earlier editions. In 5e multiclassing is best regarded as a last resort.
There are some creatures a player is likely to need in the PHB but most creatures are described in the Monster Manual (MM). With the release of the Monster Manual there is a huge number of monsters ready to thwart the characters. This amounts to a feature of the game. D&D 5e is a good choice for settings and adventures where a great diversity of monsters exist. Many of the monsters have hooks for building regions of your world or adventures including notes regarding regional effects of the monsters presence or ideas for nations populated by monsters or ruled by them.
The MM text starts with several pages of introductory material (p4-11) which, like previous editions, provides a description of the statistical references and especially the features available to such creatures. After this there is over 150 monster descriptions (p12-316), followed by statistic for about 100 normal and dire animals (some which should be considered monsters, really) described as "Miscellaneous Creatures" (p317-341), then over twenty humanoid non-player character descriptions (p342-350). All these are provided in alphabetical order and with some group categorisations (e.g., dragons, giants etc).
The monsters are all derived from previous editions of the game, including previous editions of the Monster Manual, various supplements and scenario packs and so forth. As a result there is a number of classics that have made their way into this core book which are a delight to see. For example, the Flumph finally makes it way to a core book (last seen in a major publication in 1995, Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume Two), and the various Modrons take their place in the sun (last major publication being Planescape Campaign Setting, 1994, they appeared in Dragon magazine 354).
There is of course, the normal range of expected creatures as well, including classic and D&D unique creatures such as Beholder, Demilich, Mindflayer, Otyugh, Rust Monster etc, as well as the standard creatures inspired by myth and legend (e..g. dragons, giants, goblins, orcs, vampires, zombies etc). There are some which one wishes were cast into the depths and never seen again (e.g., Chuul, Cloaker, Helmed Horror, Piercer). As in previous editions the Monster Manual plays fast and loose with mythology and folklore. This is not a resource if you are interested in mythology or creatures suitable for a historical fantasy. For games that reproduce historical monster beliefs the Ars Magica Medieval Bestiary, and GURP's 3rd edition's Bestiary and Faerie supplements are recommended.
In general the monsters of this edition have fewer features and will be earlier to use in play. Due to the Defined Limits applied throughout the game creatures do not need to be festooned with long lists of powers to challenge high level PCs, instead most creatures need only their iconic powers. One result of the new game system is that creature statistical information takes up less space. As an average page is dedicated to each creatures (more for collected groups), one would expect that this would be filled with more information about each monster. Alas, it is not the case, at least not for most cases, as art takes over. An example is the poor Cockatrice, one of the more interesting creatures in a fantasy environ, receiving but a quarter of a page of text, including statistics. Unlike (for example) the Monster Manuals of 2nd edition AD&D which gave considerable standard information on the ecological information of each creature, the Monster Manual 5th edition largely lacks these, providing instead keyword sections providing a major characteristic of the creature which could be used as adventure seeds (e..g., the Bullywug has "Foul Aristocracy", "Unruly Diplomacy", "Amphibian Allies").
Another very notable absence is that a list of monsters by Challenge Rating is not provided in the book, although apparently it will be included in the DMG. There's not much to say about the Miscellaneous Creatures and Non-Player Character 'chapters' as they are extremely abbreviated at best. As mentioned some of the decisions to put various creatures under "Miscellaneous" rather than the Monster chapter seem quite strange. The poor Blink Dog, has been relegated to having to share a page with Bats and Black Bears, where its arch-rival the Displacer Beast thumbs its nose with a page of its own in the Monster chapter. Contrariwise, the Monster chapter includes two pages of Dinosaurs, when surely one would think these belonged in the Miscellaneous chapter, along with a collection of other dire and prehistoric creatures.
In many ways the new Monster Manual is a great disappointment; there is less information, there is unimaginative albeit skilled artwork, the physical production is questionable. The only redeeming feature is the keyword information, and whilst that is a very significant positive that is hardly sufficient in its own right to give the product a recommended status. Given that the monsters have appeared in previous editions one is tempted to suggest instead that the descriptive text (not the game statistics) of early editions of Monster Manuals and other old D&D materials may be more useful for placing various creatures in plausible settings and scenarios.
Having discussed the 'other three pillars' there are a few items worth mentioning that didn't fit. For example, there is no official rule for firing into melee. Was this left out on purpose to give archers more utility? All shields are the same. There are no rules for scaling equipment to different sizes. Indeed, while creature range from tiny to gargantuan in size the Monster Manual and PHB do not reveal how size affects carrying capacity, feed requirements and other common issues. One can only hope the DMG will address these issues.
Sometime the game you playis more about being able to find others to play with than your own preference regarding rules and settings. Promotion by WOTC's marketing machine and the brand recogniton of D&D means that 5th edtion already has a large player base. As pointed out by Lev in RPG Review issue 22, games survive "as long as there is a core group involved in promoting, producing, and distributing a game system with regular updates, supplements etc, its survival is ensured." It is likely that like AD&D and D&D 3e, D&D 5e will enjoy this level of ongoing support. Therefore if you decide to invest in the rather expensive three core books you are likely to be able to find other players to enjoy them with them for years to come, even after the glue gives way and the pages come loose.