It seems the 5e rules are much more like the 3.Xe than the 4e. I also know a lot of players and DMs that simply refused to upgrade to the 4e rules, though they are now much more receptive to 5e, given some of the most advertised features. In this regard, what would be the "in a nutshell" summary of the game mechanics that have changed since 3.Xe? Would one need to go through 3.Xe → 4e and then 4e → 5e?


4 Answers 4


Note that this answer assumes knowledge and familiarity with D&D 3.5e.

(Dis)advantage: A large number of situations and abilities where you would add a positive or negative modifier to a roll have been replaced with advantage (for positive modifiers) and disadvantage (for negative modifiers). This mechanic involves rolling twice and taking the higher result (for advantage) or the lowest result (for disadvantage). This simplifies a large number of abilities and mechanics, as well as reducing the ability for powergamers to abuse the system. (Advantage only works once, so they can't keep stacking it on a roll like modifiers.)

Proficiency: The majority of bonuses that scaled with your level have been replaced by proficiency. Essentially, anything you are 'proficient' in, you can add your 'proficiency bonus' to. So the bonus to hit in 3.5, that scaled with your level, is now your proficiency bonus, as long as you use a weapon you are proficient in. The extra attacks you gained with BAB are now a class feature of martial classes.

Skills: Assuming in 3.5 that you picked a few skills and kept them maxed, which is effectively a bonus to skill checks that scales with level, that is also replaced with your proficiency bonus on skills you are proficient in. (If you split your skill points all over the place, well, there's not really an equivalent.) Note that skill checks are now called ability checks; the only benefit of a skill is that it allows you to apply your proficiency bonus to relevant ability checks.

Saving throws: Most classes in 3.5 had one strong save progression and 2 weaker save progressions - the DCs have been adjusted, and the 'strong' saving throw is now the one you are proficient in and can apply your proficiency bonus to. Note that saving throws are now on each stat, but the stats matching the old saving throws (Con, Wis, Dex) are far more common than the new saving throws (Str, Int, Cha), at least in the material currently released.

Overall the proficiency mechanic means far less scores to keep track of on your character sheet, as well as being a primary source of 'bounded accuracy'. See this question for more on bounded accuracy.

Spellcasting, as mentioned in this answer, now scales depending on the level of the spell slot it is cast from rather than the player's level. Prepared spellcasters are also more flexible, preparing their 'spells known' for a day and then casting them in any combination that they have spell slots for. Cantrips have unlimited uses per day, so spellcasters always have something to do.

'Ritual' casting allows a spellcaster to cast without using a spell slot, but adds 10 minutes to casting time and can only work on certain spells. This is useful for spells like 'Augury' or 'Comprehend Languages' that you're unlikely to need often and will have plenty of time when you do need it.

Arcane spell failure is gone - if you're proficient with your armour, you can cast in it. If you're not, you can't.

Ability score increases as you level are now 2 points instead of 1, although still at every 4th level. Feats, however, are an optional replacement for an ability score increase. Because they require a fairly large sacrifice (2 ability points) to get, they are considerably more powerful than the majority of 3.5 feats (no more +1 to 1 type of roll feats).

Class features: All classes now have interesting and unique class features (rather than just more spells, or more feats). Each class chooses from a number of different paths (e.g. Evoker Wizard vs. Enchanter Wizard, or Champion Fighter vs. Battlemaster Fighter). This effectively replaces prestige classes. Multiclassing has gained ability requirements.

Racial features are also a bit more powerful - ability bonuses are no longer counteracted with ability penalties, and most races have unique and interesting features. Humans are still overpowered perfectly balanced.

Background: Your character now has a 'background'; in addition to their class, this adds proficiencies with skills and tools (and possibly even languages), as well as changing their starting equipment package (assuming you don't choose to buy starting equipment).

Character death involves a lot more luck. Negative hit points have been replaced with 'death saving throws' (DC10, no modifiers) that you make each round while you are on 0 hit points. If you fail 3 times, you die. If you succeed 3 times, you stabilize. A 20 gets you back up to 1 hit point and able to fight again, while a 1 counts as 2 failures.

Resting: Characters can take 'short rests' to quickly restore some HP. You have a number of 'Hit Dice' based on your class's hit die. So a 3rd level wizard has 3 Hit Dice, each of which is a d6. In a short rest, he can roll some or all of them and regain the total + Con. However, once they have been used in this way, it takes a 'Long Rest' (the standard 8 hours once per day), before they can be used again. A Long Rest also restores all of the character's HP, spell slots, and most resources used for class features.

Ranged and finesse weapons now allow you to add Dex to damage as well as hit. Finesse weapons don't require a feat to be used with Dex - it's up to you. 'Spell attacks' (replacing melee and ranged touch attacks) now use your spellcasting stat for the hit bonus.

Critical hits no longer require confirmation, and they now let you roll all damage dice (base damage and, e.g. Sneak Attack) twice then add modifiers, rather than rolling base damage, adding static modifiers, doubling, then adding any additional damage dice. (e.g. Sneak Attack).

Roleplaying: There is a lot of discussion about 5e's focus on roleplaying. I'm not going to say anything about whether it is more or less focused on roleplaying than previous versions. The rules include guidelines (note, guidelines not rules) on creating a well-rounded character and roleplaying them, as well as an explicit mechanic for the DM to reward good roleplaying. The guidelines in question say that you can/should give your character a Bond (something their character cares deeply about), a Flaw in your character's personality, and an Ideal that your character strives for. The mechanic in question is Inspiration; the DM gives advantage on rolls to reward the player for roleplaying their character well, particularly for making choices that are sub-optimal from the player's perspective but match the choice the character would make.

This is a quick summary of the major changes, but you really should read the Basic PDF. It's short, sweet, and free.


D&D 5th edition did take some of the good parts of the controversial 4th edition (and late 3.X edition) but pulled back from many of the 4e ideas that flopped. You have a limited ability to recover health between battles (and certain other resouces) through a "short rest" of 1 hour, thus extending the adventuring day.

Spells are quite potent at lower levels, but don't scale as automatically, i.e. a burning hands spell does 3d6 damage from 1st level or 20th level when used in a 1st level spell slot (you can use higher level spell slots to boost the spell, however). You will also notice that there are far fewer spells per day for casters, especially at higher levels, but cantrips (which have been buffed to be comparable to weapon attacks) are free to cast and certain spells can be cast as "rituals", taking 10 minutes more for the benefit of not taking a spell slot. There is a degree of free-casting for the wizard now: you can prepare a number of spells (besides cantrips) equal to level+int bonus and cast spontaneously from them, reducing your options each round but keeping your versatility (the system seems pretty good in this way).

Non-spell-casters seem to be better balanced with the spell-casters without making them feel too similar like was the case in 4e. There was a greater focus on role-playing than in 4e with the addition of backgrounds that have some mechanical effects.

One potential downside is the streamlining removed some detail. Skills are severely simplified. I haven't played enough to pass judgement completely, but it is definitely a leap in the right direction from 4E. Your wizard FEELS like a wizard. You might want to consider trying it out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure this is really addressing the question. It's a great summary of 5e spellcasting (which I borrowed some of), but spellcasting was definitely not the only or even one of the bigger changes from 3.5e. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 0:51

A couple of gotchas when you transition from 3.5/Pathfinder

We transitioned from 3.5 via Pathfinder to 5e (like many, I'm sure) and found the main difficulty is not learning the new 5e rules, like how to calculate ranged combat or how to take short rests, but instead unlearning the old 3.5e rules that have become so ingrained that you often do not realize you think you know how something works, when it actually does work differently.

  • Rulings not rules. To make the game easier to learn and more fluid to play, 5e puts a lot less emphasis on trying to formally define everything in rules, and a lot more on the DM making adjudications with common sense in resolving corner cases. It relies more on a common English interpretation of the text.

  • Caps on Buffing. 5e introduces two prominent mechanisms that curb stacking buffs and bonuses, reducing the administrative overhead and tedious buffing up ahead of fights. These are concentration, which many spells have, and which means you can only have one of these spells per caster going at any one time. Be careful about this when selecting your spells. The other is attunement, which many magic items have, and which means you can only have three of those at the same time going, again limiting how many things you have running at the same time.

  • Advantage/Disadvantage: in a similar vein, no more stacking up lots of modifiers. This is a common mechanism, and it does not matter how often you have advantage or disadvantage. You either only have one of them, or they cancel out.

  • Magic Item Availabilty. By default, you cannot just buy magic items, they are supposed to be found adventuring, or the DM must make them available. We just changed systems not campaigns or setting, and I had been somewhat restricitve on buying them even before as a DM, so I continued our exisiting practice. But for another campaign this may be a bigger change.

  • Battlemap. Per the rules, theatre of mind combat is as valid as playing with a battlmap. It is probably easier to transition by continuing playing with the map; if you do, be aware that some areas are defined differently than in the 3.5 templates, most notably for fireball. We played for quite some time with the 3.5/Pathfinder template before realizing this, and it saved the lives of a good number of goblins, I reckon.

  • Spellcasting for wizards is different: you do not memorize the individual spells, you have spell slots and cast any of your prepared spells as often as you have remaining slots for it (but you also have a cap on how many spells you can prepare in a day). Also takes a little to get used to.

  • Invisbility and Stealth These rules have been overhauled, and they are not the easiest to get used to, there are lots of questions on the site here about them. Stealth movement does not slow you down in combat. Invisibile does not mean automatically hidden.

  • Surprise. There is no more surprise round. Make sure to read the rules for surprise thoroughly, as they work quite differently from before. Takes some time getting used to. Surprise still is a powerful tactic.


No, there is no official guide to what has changed. But this site and numerous other sites and blogs have compiled lists of changes, and many early "5E reviews" you can google will be heavy on listing changes to previous editions.

No, one would not need to go through 3.Xe → 4e and then 4e → 5e. There is no linear evolution leading from 3rd to 4th to 5th edition. But there are two possibilities to describe 5th edition if you want to reference earlier editions:

  1. 5th edition as evolution of 3rd edition. In that model you would consider 4th edition as a side track, a sort of separate and independent "D&D Tactics" game outside the evolution of editions. 5th edition has elements of 4th edition, but also reverses many of the changes that happened from 3.Xe → 4e.

  2. 5th edition as "Dungeons & Dragons Greatest Hits", or "Best of Dungeons & Dragons". That is probably closer to how the game is advertised and described by the developers. In this model 5th edition doesn't linearly descend from 3rd edition at all, but is a new development from the bottom up, using features from all previous editions. This also explains better why 5th edition is less complex than 3.5.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is getting downvoted because it focuses on one tangent in the question without tackling the main problem the question is looking to have solved. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 1:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Better? By the way, the original question is "is there a guide", so writing a guide isn't strictly speaking an answer to the question, although it to some degree solves the problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tobold
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 8:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I’ve flagged this as “not an answer” because it just doesn’t answer the question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 10:56

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