5e is described by its marketing materials as:

The core of D&D is storytelling. You and your friends may tell a story together, guiding your heroes through quests for treasure, battles with deadly foes, daring rescues, courtly intrigue, and much more. You can also explore the many worlds of D&D through any of the hundreds of novels written by today's hottest fantasy authors, as well as engaging board games and immersive video games. All of these stories are part of D&D.

Which doesn't tell us much about what it offers in terms of how it provides that, merely that it offers rules to role-play adventures by in established settings.

Given the currently available materials (Starter Set and the free Basic rules), what are the areas of gameplay in which 5e excels by design? 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)?

In other words, what would constitute the 3-minute “elevator pitch” for 5e, something that you can use to describe it to someone who’s familiar with roleplaying games, but hasn’t read up on 5e, that will capture the essence of what the game is about?

This is a reverse system-recommendation question in a way, and is therefore very broad. However, I’m interested in defining features of the system and the games produced by them. To provide an example of what I’d consider a defining feature, one could say, "4e was focused on tactical combat. 4e is a system which should only be used if the game will feature abundant complex fights. Fights are the source of fun in it." Approaching the topic from a slightly different angle, “Fate works best when you use it to tell stories about people who are proactive, competent, and dramatic.”

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 answer can be framed as a comparison to other editions of D&D and games with a similar theme or agenda (Dungeon World, 13th Age, etc), or left independent.

As running by "Back it up!" will be difficult this early in the publication lifecycle, please cite your sources. You can draw on experience from the playtest material if it's relevant to the released version of the game, but please avoid quoting the playtest material, as its content is no longer relevant.

It is also understandable that with the release of PHB, MM and DMG later this year, rules and options will be expanded. This question is specifically about the Starter Set and the corresponding Basic rules.

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ Please only answer this question keeping in mind our site guidance from Good Subjective, Bad Subjective. "I think it will do X" is not a good answer, only "I have played it and tried these things and it supported it well." \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 9, 2014 at 1:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also please, if you make a playstyle claim, tell us how that play style worked out for you. Much of this reads like press releases that could just as easily be applied to 4e during its initial release. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 9, 2014 at 1:40

4 Answers 4


Based on having run several sessions of the playtest and the fact that little of the standout features have changed since, here are the things that stood out to me on the first pass through the Basic rules:

  • The Inspiration mechanic. We saw from the previewed character sheets in the starter that there are traits/flaws/bonds/ideals, these can be selected, as RP elements or rolled for in the tables in the starter. However, what we didn't know was if they'd have a mechanical impact. Inspiration provides an (admittedly ad hoc) mechanical benefit. If a PC does something that aligns with his traits/flaws/bonds/ideals, the DM can grant them Inspiration. This is an opportunity to take advantage on a roll, or even to provide advantage to a comrade on a related skill check.

  • Bounded accuracy. Everything from recommended DCs (5-30 on the 5s) to ability scores to proficiency bonuses, everything is pretty tightly bound. The difference between L1 and L20 re: proficiency is no more than +4. That means that a L20 character is only going to have a 20% better chance of succeeding than a L1 character.

  • The Biggest thing in the whole system is the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. The basics are that it's a have it or you don't thing where if you have advantage, you get to roll 2d20 and keep highest, and if you have disadvantage you roll 2d20 and keep lowest. Instead of conditional modifiers, nearly everything that normally would inflict bonuses or penalties in the basic rules inflicts advantage or disadvantage. This keeps the system simple and supports the bounded accuracy mechanics as well.

As far as what the elevator pitch for this game is right now? I'd state it like this:

A simpler to play and run RPG with more emphasis than in the immediately previous editions on role playing and exploration. It's defined less by its math and more by its simple character creation and play mechanics. In an attempt to return to its old-school roots, 5e is designed for more rapid, dangerous, and free flowing combat than 4e.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I feel like an answer to the question above that has zero 5e play and is based on a cursory reading of the rules is by its nature Bad Subjective and based on speculation, not experience. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 8, 2014 at 13:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk did I miss anything that should have been mentioned? Can you point to any actual inaccuracies or issues? I've edited the first paragraph to reflect the fact that my opinions on this subject haven't changed as I've read more and to reflect the fact that I've run several sessions of the playtest from which the rules have not changed substantially. I think you're being pedantic here. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Jul 8, 2014 at 14:06

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Or alternatively...

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 more!

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.

  1. Pillars of Play
  2. Inspiration
  3. Proficiency
  4. Bounded Accuracy
  5. (Dis)Advantage

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.


D&D 5e returns to the generic fantasy of previous editions. 13th Age, Dungeon World, and many other RPGs have specific themes and goals. Historically the core rules of D&D supported generic fantasy adventuring. Largely it is generic because the 1974 rules of OD&D (and later AD&D 1st) were the originators of the trope.

TSR and later Wizards of the Coast distilled this into a specific theme or setting through supplemental products like settings and adventure. D&D 5e core rules return to that generic feel leaving it up to supplemental product present a specific theme. For example the D&D Starter Set features an adventure grounded in the Forgotten Realms. Specifically D&D 5e operate like classic editions where weak low level characters gradually transforming into powerful heroes as they gain levels.

The Basic Set emphasizes the roleplaying aspect of the game in chapter 4. It gives several generic backgrounds (Acolyte, Criminal, Folk Hero, Sage, Soldier) and aides to generate a character's Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. It is obviously a flexible tool similar to 2nd editions kits that can be used to add mechanical flavor to a wide variety of settings and subgenres.


D&D 5 is still a stand-out for gridded minis-on-maps tactical combat play. While it's lacks facing, it otherwise is very nicely presented in the Basic PDF to allow gridded play.

Note that, unlike 3.X and 4.X, it does not presume gridded play. (Also note: Gridded play is nothing new - photos of the D&D variant Empire of the Petal Throne in 1976 show minis on gridded terrain.)

Likewise, the core mechanics of D&D 5 as presented in Basic are simple, flexible, and well written, and archetype driven. This makes it a reasonably good "first time playing" RPG.

It returns to the classic D&D magic mechanics - kind of. Wizards and Clerics still prepare spells, but it no longer is "fire and forget" - any slot can be used to cast any prepared spell, and magic using characters will have a good bit more flexibility than in older editions, while having more choices than in 4.x. Further, Cantrips being at-will retains the constant-threat status of casters that 4.x had. It's very flexible, and easier for players to grasp.

At its heart, D&D 5 is still a resource-management combat-heavy system. It's once again a rules-light game, and is tuned to be able to support a wide range of playstyles. A key evidence of this change in approach is found on page 66 of Basic:

Social Interaction
Exploring dungeons, overcoming obstacles, and slaying monsters are key parts of D&D adventures. No less important, though, are the social interactions that adventurers have with other inhabitants of the world.


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