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In defense of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons and its streamlined approach

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Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons Role-playing Game

Several Dungeons & Dragons miniature figures. The grid mat underneath uses one-inch squares. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Considering for decades Dungeons & Dragons has been the most recognizable name of all tabletop role-playing games, and considering the popularity of Fifth Edition D&D, it might seem the game itself needs no defending. However, from time to time I have noticed online forums with various concerns or complaints raised against the game.

The most common complaint I’ve read is that in Fifth Edition a player cannot make the type of character he or she wants, that more rules are needed in order for there to be more character diversity, that currently only similar, cookie-cutter characters can be created because of the limited number of classes and rules.

I understand. I disagree, but I understand.

Other gaming systems, most notably Pathfinder and D&D 3.0/3.5, over the years have filled the market with hundreds upon hundreds of rules books. There are so many rules books that pretty much any kind of character one can think up can be created. If you want your character to be a vampire werewolf dragon that’s half demon and wields powerful magics while shooting arrows from a bow in its mouth, you can probably put something together.

But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t create the same character in 5e.


Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons Role-playing Game

Dungeons & Dragons game in progress. Miniatures from Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game and others on Master Maze scenery by Dwarven Forge. Around the dungeon can be seen many multi-sided dice, a character sheet (bottom left) and a D&D manual (top right). Note that the circular template at the bottom is not from Dungeons & Dragons, but rather is from Warhammer 40,000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, to back off a moment here, let me admit that when Fifth Edition D&D was first released a couple of years ago, I was one of those who saw its drawbacks, and there are some. The game isn’t for everyone, but no game is. However, I soon became a fan of the game once I realized just how streamlined it was and how much time it saves me as a player or dungeon master, let alone the number of headaches saved. For instance, I can make a new character in 10 or 15 minutes instead of an hour or longer.


Not everyone likes this streamlined approach, which is fine. Different strokes for different folks and all that. But it does seem to me some players don’t understand this streamlined approach, and I think they should reconsider if only for the possibilities it could open for them.

Character creation

For instance, if one wants to create a complex character design, there is nothing in the rules which disallows doing so in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Quite the contrary, in fact. As the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide reads on page 235, “The rules serve you, not vice versa.”

Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons Role-playing GameYes, it is true, as written so far, the rules for Fifth Edition don’t outline every possibility for character creation, just as the rules don’t cover every potentiality in combat or roleplay. The thing to remember for Fifth Edition is that these rules are not meant to.

Some gaming systems try to cover absolutely every possibility. The current version of D&D takes a different, nearly opposite approach, providing fewer rules so that gamers are more dependent upon their own imaginations.

To be clear, if you are the type of gamer who wants tons of rules books and every single, little potentiality spelled out for you in ink, that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people want them, some even need it. It’s a mind set. Again, to each their own.

But if you desire the freedom of creation, the ability to make whatever character type you want without being weighed down by a bunch of rules, then Fifth Edition D&D might be the game for you.

Or maybe you are the type of gamer who likes both kinds of systems, more complex and more simple, but at different times for different players. That’s great, too.

Obviously with fewer rules one has to be more trusting of the Dungeon Master, and it also helps if one isn’t a member of the dreaded rules police, but maybe, just maybe we need to be more trusting of our DMs, and perhaps we need to worry a little less about the rules and more about having fun.

If you don’t like the Advantage/Disadvantage system of 5e, or whatever, that’s fine for you. If you want every possible rule of character creation spelled out for you, that’s also fine. But such rules can be limiting. They can force you down particular avenues you might not want to go, especially concerning character creation. If one of your characters has ever had to pick up a group of skills your character doesn’t want simply because those skills are part of a new level or class, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons Role-playing GameWhile 5e might seem limiting in character creation, it also can be freeing. Yes, there are fewer classes and races and rules, but that’s only because those rules favor you as the gamer being more creative and coming up with your own rules.

As way of example, I have a seventh-level Fighter who is by no means a front-line combatant. His Feats and skills are based upon being rather stealthy and Rogue-like. Even the Rogue in our party has commented that my Fighter is basically a Rogue without taking any levels in Rogue. This has all been done within the rules. Recently, however, my Fighter did a stint in jail because he took the fall for some crimes he did not commit. Upon his freedom being returned to him and his gaining of a level, I worked with my DM on my character learning Thieves’ Cant. Obviously this is not within the rules as written, but it made sense to myself and my DM. My Fighter character has the criminal background, he has been in jail several times, and he quite often hangs out with criminal types when he is not off adventuring. Despite the fact he is technically not a Rogue, it seems kind of silly that he wouldn’t have picked up Thieves’ Cant somewhere along the lines.

This is just an example, a minor one at that.

When are rules optional?

It is also true that such bending of the rules, or on-the-fly re-creation of the rules, or whatever one wants to call it, is possible with any game system, but it is quite rare that a system is built around this very notion, which Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons is. It’s a different approach, and I feel gamers are doing themselves a disservice by ignoring it.

The Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide for 5e might have sections for optional rules, but remember, all rules are optional in truth and we are only limited by our imaginations. It’s true the rules provide each of us a common groundwork, but we can change that groundwork, or do away with it altogether.

In the Preface to the Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook, Mike Mearls mentions two things are needed to play Dungeons & Dragons. No, he doesn’t go on about the rules books. Nor does he mention dice or pencil and papers. The two things needed to play D&D, as pointed out by Mearls, are “friends with whom you can share the game” and “a lively imagination” or “the willingness to use whatever imagination you have.”

So, friends and imagination. That’s all you really need to play D&D, or any RPG, for that matter.

I’m not trying to win anyone over to Fifth Edition, nor do I mean to shoot down any other tabletop RPGs, but I want gamers to be aware of the possibilities. Not everything has to be spelled out in black and white. Role-playing games are made for imagination, and in my opinion Fifth Edition frees us to stretch those imaginations more than many another tabletop RPG.

But whatever game you play, remember to Stay Nerdy!

In defense of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons Role-playing Game
Ty Johnston

A former newspaper editor for two decades in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Ty now earns his lunch money as a fiction writer, mostly in the fantasy and horror genres. He is vice president of Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit focused upon publishing heroic literature. In his free time he enjoys tabletop and video gaming, long swording, target shooting, reading, and bourbon. Find City of Rogues and other books and e-books by Ty Johnston at Amazon.

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