First things first. There are two different Dungeons & Dragons. There is Dungeons and Dragons the brand, which is what the marketing materials are about, and then there is Dungeons and Dragons the TRPG. Dungeons & Dragons the brand is the stories of Dungeons and Dragons. Such as the Tyranny of Dragons, or the Sundering, which existed in books, games, and videos. However, this question is about Dungeons & Dragons the TRPG
Given the currently available materials (Starter Set and the free Basic rules), what are the areas of gameplay in which 5e excels by design?
5th edition excels in 4 key areas.
Constant reminders about the story of D&D: While Dungeons & Dragons is a game of diverse worlds, the rules and flavor of the game are constantly reminding you about what is expected via quotes to novels, and published settings. D&D is not just a set of mechanics, but is also a collection of worlds and story lines which are shared by the community. Iconic monsters, classes, and characters are referenced throughout, reminding the player/reader/DM that they are playing Dungeons & Dragons and not just a generic Medieval Fantasy Swords and Sorcery inspired game.
Simple and Intuitive rules: 5th edition has removed many rules which cause gaming groups to constantly refer back to the rulebook. The Mechanics once learned, are simple. You roll dice, add 1 or 2 modifiers, and then add or remove more dice. The only exception to this rule is AC bonus from Cover. These simple rules however are able to cover a wide variety of situations, and allows players to focus on flavor rather than crunch.
A strong base in which to add fiddly bits: While the basic rules are simple and intuitive, we see many rule variants which allow different gaming groups to add or remove complexity to the game. Because of Bounded Accuracy and the (Dis)Advantage mechanic, the crunch and fiddly bits, affect the odds of a die roll, but rarely do they affect the range of possible outcomes. This allows the fiddly rules and the non-fiddly rules to interact with each other.
A focus on the narrative: Dungeons & Dragons 5e has learned from various RPGs, and noticed the benefit that talbes gain from strong reminders and incentives towards the narrative elements of the game. By focusing the game around 3 pillars, Exploration, Social, and Combat, and creating diverse Personality and Background mechanics, 5e has given both the DM and Players the tools needed to inspire unique characters, and to make those characters act as themselves rather than game pieces. This is mainly done with a simple inspiration mechanic, which in my experience is mildly impactfull mechanically, but the impact on the players is large.
What kind of a gameplay experience should I aim for when choosing to run 5e, and what kind of game should I be thinking of running in order to consider 5e (such as gritty noir detectives, heroic swashbuckling or sappy romance)?
The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about
story telling in worlds of swords and sorcery.
However, not all games of D&D focus on a pure Swords and Sorcery experience. The introduction reflects that when it later reads:
The many worlds of the Dungeons & Dragons ... begin with a foundation
of medieval fantasy and then add [things] that make these worlds
unique. The worlds of the Dungeons & Dragons game exist within a vast
cosmos called the multiverse, connected in strange and mysterious ways
to one another and to other planes of existence, such as the Elemental
Plane of Fire and the Infinite Depths of the Abyss. Within this
multiverse are an endless variety of worlds. Many of them have been
published as official settings for the D&D game. The legends of the
Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Dark Sun, Mystara, and
Eberron settings are woven together in the fabric of the multiverse.
Alongside these worlds are hundreds of thousands more, created by
generations of D&D players for their own games. And amid all the
richness of the multiverse, you might create a world of your own. All
these worlds share characteristics, but each world is set apart by its
own history and cultures, distinctive monsters and races, fantastic
geography, ancient dungeons, and scheming villains.
The above quotes should give you a good idea of what type of game D&D is created to run.
In other words, what would constitute the 3-minute “elevator pitch” for 5e
Dungeons & Dragons is great fun because it has enough rules to evoke feelings about
the world and characters before game play even begins, but is simple enough that the
rules fall into the background while playing the game. Once the rules are learned,
they rarely need to be referenced again, and generally, if a table forgets the
official rule, it will not break the game as long as they stick to the fundamental
concepts of improvisation/inspiration, (dis)advantage, bounded accuracy, proficiency
and Ability score based die rolls.
Are you looking for a game that is rules light but isn't so light you don't know what
to do next? Are you looking for a game that once you know the rules, you'll never have
to look at them again? Well, pick Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, and as long as you
stick to the fundamental concepts of improvisation/inspiration, (dis)advantage, bounded
accuracy, Proficiency and Ability score based rolls, you'll have all this, fun, and
What is the source of fun in 5e, what kind of stories does it excel at telling? How do the mechanics support these stories and this fun?
The source of fun in 5e is being given the boundaries in which to do anything. It excels at telling stories about a group of adventurers who embark on quests within a modified medieval fantasy world inspired by swords and sorcery genre. The mechanics support these stories by having quick but potentially deadly combat, simple but effective DC rolls, and unique adaptations of a bounded d20 roll, yet evocative mechanics for each race and class.
Because all challenges fall within the realm of target dice roll of 5-35 on a d20, and player stats are mundanely capped at 20, and errant bonuses are replaced with (dis)advantage it becomes intuitively easy for DMs and Players to improvise to whatever situation the story requires. In the same game, at the same session, with the same people, you might find yourself in a complex fight with maps and markers, a simple fight played in the theater of your mind, intense political negotiations, simple performances, or any other situation which one would typically find in a sword and sorcery game, without a need to pull yourself out of the game and find the appropriate mechanics.
Specifics about the Mechanics
D&D 5e focuses around a few basic mechanical constructs.
- Pillars of Play
- Bounded Accuracy
Pillars of Adventure: The three pillars are the least mechanically obvious construct, however they are important for the way the game is constructed. At it's most basic level, the three pillars inform the DM and players what is expected during a game of D&D. In the Basic rules, Exploration is covered in chapters 7 and 8, Social interaction is covered in chapters 7,8 and 4 and Combat is covered in chapter 9. These chapters, along with with the tone and overall approach of the rules, makes it clear to the reader that the "mechanics" are not just what you roll during combat, but it also includes what the DM describes, and how the character interact. Using the same stat mod + proficiency bonus mechanic in all three pillars, exploration and social interactions are given equal importance in class and race design as combat. It also leads to the rules and modules de-emphasizing maps, and tokens, since the game "is the same" whether you are in combat swinging swords, talking to potential allies and enemies, or investigating the environment. To quote page 5 of the basic rules:
Even in the context of a pitched battle, there’s still plenty of
opportunity for adventurers to attempt wacky stunts like surfing down
a flight of stairs on a shield, to examine the environment (perhaps by
pulling a mysterious lever), and to interact with other creatures,
including allies, enemies, and neutral parties.
Inspiration: Inspiration is a simple mechanic. If the DM or another player with inspiration, believes that your character's actions reflect properly on the personality you have given them, then you can spend that inspiration to gain advantage of an attack, ability check, or saving throw dice roll. The suggested personality is given as Traints, Bonds, Flaws and ideals, however the rules imply the ability for a DM or table to come up with other groupings to define one's personality.
Fleshing out your character’s personality—the array of traits,
mannerisms, habits, beliefs, and flaws that give a person a unique
identity—will help you bring him or her to life as you play the game.
Four categories of characteristics are presented here: personality
traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Beyond those categories, think about
your character’s favorite words or phrases, tics and habitual
gestures, vices and pet peeves, and whatever else you can imagine.
Each background presented later in this chapter includes suggested
characteristics that you can use to spark your imagination. You’re not
bound to those options, but they’re a good starting point.
Inspiration, is a mechanic, but it is defined and given out based entirely on the table you are playing at and the DM you have.
Your DM can choose to give you inspiration for a variety of reasons.
Typically, DMs award it when you play out your personality traits,
give in to the drawbacks presented by a flaw or bond, and otherwise
portray your character in a compelling way. Your DM will tell you how
you can earn inspiration in the game. You either have inspiration or
you don’t—you can’t stockpile multiple “inspirations” for later use.
While the mechanic of giving out advantage may seem very simple, in play it turns out to be very effective. Players know that playing to their personality is expected and rewarded, and they continue to play in that fashion even after having inspiration, where I have seen the same players, treat characters like game pieces in other games. It has also be used at critical points, inspiring the players to dramatize events further.
Proficiency: Proficiency is a very simple concept, at level one, anything you are proficient in gets a +2 to the die roll, and by level 20 that goes up to +6. This applies to weapons and attacks, skills and exploration, skills and social interaction, or saving throws. So for example, if you are in intense negotiations, you can use your proficiency in history to recall some tidbit which will aid in your goal, or if you are proficient in persuasion, you can add your proficiency bonus when you attempt to persuade a noble on some point.
Bounded Accuracy: Bounded Accuracy is a design goal more than a mechanic. It's an observation about the mechanics, and its a design that allows all three pillars to work interchangeably. All challenges in the game, be they the AC to hit, or the DC for a save or ability check, will fall within a range of 5- 30. 5 for very easy tasks, and 30 for nearly impossible tasks. Player ability scores will also similarly be capped, in a range from 3-20. (Monsters and Deities have a range of 1-30) This does three things for game play. 1. It allows characters to have a reasonable ability to succeed in anything they try to do, regardless of what they focus in. If they focus they will have much better chances, but except for the "very hard" or 'nearly impossible' they will have a chance at succeeding. This allows players to feel comfortable using their skills and mechanics to explore, or intimidate, deceive, or persuade NPcs.
(Dis)Advantage: Another simple mechanic with system wide ramifications is the (Dis)Advantage mechanic. As explained in this well written blog post, (Dis)advantage shifts the odds of success, but not the range. This further allows characters to succeed when appropriate, but doesn't make specialists the only ones who can succeed.