Level Up – rethinking D&D Fifth Edition

Dungeons and Dragons is one of the most iconic role-playing games, and Fifth edition is the most popular version of Dungeons and Dragons. It started playtesting in 2012 with the Basic Rules released in July 2014 and the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide came out in August, September and December of that year.

It’s now been seven years. Could it be improved upon?

That’s the question the people at EN Publishing have been asking over the past 2 years, and they are now going public with a Kickstarter – get in now.

Level up – a new version of Dungeons and Dragons?

So, is this a new version of Dungeons and Dragons?

Well, they claim not. It is pitched as an enhancement rather than a replacement. While the Kickstarter says it’s “A complete overhaul of the 5E game” it also says it’s “Fully compatible with core 5E”.

If it’s an enhancement rather than a replacement, what does it bring to the table? Let’s quote the publishers:

If you love 5E but would like a little more depth to the rules, Level Up is the new game for you! A FULL exploration pillar and journey rules, overhauled core classes which give you meaningful choices at every advancement level, robust tools, and more features than you can shake a stick at!

JOURNEY RULES | CRAFTING | STRONGHOLDS | NEW RANGER | MARSHAL | COMBAT MANEUVERS | REVISED MONSTERS | ROBUST TOOLS | HERITAGE & CULTURE | NEW SPELLS & MAGIC ITEMS

Level Up Kickstarter

From reading around on the Kickstarter and https://www.levelup5e.com/about It appears they are trying to achieve three things:

  • Fill in gaps where the 5e rulebooks are weak – journey rules, crafting, strongholds and followers
  • Smooth out the existing classes to provide meaningful choices at every level, and to make the different classes more distinctive, but also close some of the loopholes which led to insane overpowered combinations
  • Improve inclusivity, diversity and culture sensitivity

Let’s look at these in reverse order.

Improve inclusivity and diversity

It appears they had the same idea as me (and The Angry GM for Pathfinder) in separating origins into genetic and cultural elements, or as they call them, heritage and culture. Unlike me, it appears they succeeded.

The Level Up Adept, used with permission

So now your character is developed from its heritage, culture and background. No more urchin street elves who somehow seem to know how to hide in the forest – or at least that’s how I read it.

There’s also another aspect to the origin system called destiny – I’m interested to see what that brings.

Other changes they have made to allow a wider range of character interpretations has been to look at the core classes, updating them where necessary to allow a wider range of interpretations. For example the Monk, which in the 5e books is very much based on the Eastern traditions, has been renamed to Adept to “encompass a much broader range of archetypes.” They are someone who masters their body to perfection, whether that is the Eastern-themed monk, a prize-fighter or an athlete. Ki has been renamed to exertion (though as they say the adept can call it what they want). You can read full details on the Level Up website.

They’ve also renamed the Paladin to Herald for a similar reason – getting away from the constraints of the historical knights of Charlemagne to “[open] up different types of divine or ideological messengers, such as the new Inquisitor subclass, which feels more like Solomon Kane than Sir Galahad.”

Another example of expanding interpretation is to allow Warlocks to have their spellcasting attribute be Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma depending on their patron.

Smooth out existing classes

The best place for examples of this is their blog post “Keeping it Classy” (and that’s where I’m getting my thoughts from).

They start off with the Warlock, and a key change is to turn Eldritch Blast from a cantrip (which other classes can get access to) to a Warlock ability, and making it improve with warlock level. This has several implications. It means that dedicated warlocks get more than those who just “dip” (multiclass to pick up a single level), and means it’s no longer available to characters who take a spellcaster feat (since it’s no longer a spell). They have also added different variants the Eldritch blast can take. There’s the original (now named Eldritch Ray), Eldritch Disturbance, which forces a Wisdom save rather than requiring an attack roll, Eldritch Scythe, which also does half damage to a second creature and Eldritch Whip, which gives you temporary hit points based on the damage inflicted.

In a similar way, they have tweaked the Divine Smite of the Herald (Paladin) so that players who commit to the Paladin gain more benefits than those who just dip. The Divine Smite’s damage scales with herald level rather than the number of spell slots available, and the number of Divine Smites is tied to level without using spell slots. They’ve also added two forms of Empowered Smite at 4th and 8th levels with additional effects.

The fighter is a simple class, by design, but that can mean dedicating yourself to it in 5E (or O5E as the Level Up team refer to it) can start to pall over the long term. You just get more attacks to do the same things with.

Level Up adds Combat Maneuvers, giving a much wider range of things you can do in combat, including different levels of manoeuvre in a similar way to spell slots and different combat schools. And of course, fighters gain manoeuvres faster than other classes and have the full range of combat schools available to them. On the other hand, the Action Surge has been removed, because this is heavily overpowered when multi-classed with a spell-caster.

Druid snippet from Level Up – used with permission

The key target of the smoothing out for the druid (according to the blog post) has been Wild Shape. As mostly used in O5E, this is a way to get greater attack capabilities in a bag of free temporary hit points. Damage done while in Wild Shape is lost once changing back to the normal shape. There’s also no change between 8th and 18th levels, and a limit on creature type at lower levels.

What it appears they’ve done is to remove the “type” restriction (even allowing plants now, from the text) and have a regular increase in the maximum CR of the creature at every level divisible by 4. There’s also mention of an AC in the table, which suggests either the Wild Shape creature gets a particular AC or they use AC as a limit instead of type. They’ve also allowed the druid to retain some limited spellcasting while in Wild Shape from the start, and to summon a short-duration familiar, but made it give limited temporary hit points beyond which the character starts to feel the damage so that it’s less of a sack of disposable hit points.

So you can see they’ve tried to smooth out some of the unbalanced combinations with these changes. However, they’re not against multiclassing, just against combinations which have proved to be unbalanced, and it has been a design goal to enable some particular multi-class/multi-feat combinations to unlock particular concepts. For this they have added eight 3-feat chains specifically for multi-class characters.

The example they look at in the blog post Feats, Feats and More Feats! Is the Bladechanter, which requires three levels each of fighter and wizard. This allows the character, when fighting with two weapons, to use the weapons as a spellcasting focus and also gain some additional attributes. Once you have taken Bladechanter, your next feat can be Whirling Incantor which builds on it, and similarly you can take Eldritch Whirlwind Master as a feat once you already have Whirling Incantor. A neat way of allowing feats to grow with experience.

Filling in the gaps

How many times have you created a higher-level character and wondered how much gear and wealth they should have? I’ve had to write guidelines into campaign guides a couple of times for people joining an established campaign. Level Up includes a couple of pages of starting wealth/starter gear for all levels up to 20th. More details in the Starting Gear blog post. Of course this may be tricky from a GM point-of-view if it selects items which don’t fit the GM’s view of their world. One thing which bothers me is the statement “every magic item in Level Up has a price” – that suggests that players can choose magic items, which doesn’t fit with my view of the my world and makes it harder for a GM to control balance. Of course, the GM has the right to say they can’t find the given item, but if the starting premise is that everything can be bought the GM could come across as mean if they don’t want to allow that.

Level Up stronghold image – used with permission

Another thing missing from the core 5e rulesbooks (which was there in the BECMI boxed sets – see the Expert rulebook) are rules for PC strongholds and followers. There is a brief mention on p128 of the DMG among the downtime rules but it amounts to little more than “PCs can have strongholds – here is a table of a few representative costs”. It looks like Level Up has much more detail, including different stronghold types and customisation options by both size and luxury. There’s a little bit more of a taster on strongholds in the blog post Build A Stronghold, and reference to follower rules as well.

They also have crafting rules for magic items which (based on a skim of the page snapshot on their blog post) seem very similar to what The Angry GM has been talking about. You need the base materials, special components, some of which may need quests, and the right tools. It then takes time and an ability check.

From Crossing the Titan’s Garden, they seem to have put a lot of thought into tools to make journeys more descriptive and interesting. They have 17 different region types and tiers 0-4 for each. The example shows a tangled forest, and gives several properties of this including Heavy Undergrowth meaning ranged attacks beyond 15’ are made with disadvantage. There are various activities which the PCs can take during the journey – the example shows Chronicle, Hunt and Gather, Praying to Deity and Scouting – which can give bonuses, discoveries or setbacks depending on the roll. And there is a table for each of the 85 combinations of region type and tier containing encounters.

From the example, it appears the monster manual (or Monstrous Menagerie as they call it) contains guideline encounters at different challenge ratings plus signs and guideline treasure. There’s possibly even Legends and Lore for each creature giving what the PCs might know at different DCs – or maybe that’s been added when writing the example.

The other thing they illustrate is an Exploration Challenge – these are encounters with flavour and some suggestions for both how the adventurers might try to overcome the challenge and the consequences of success or failure – but it is clear the suggestions for dealing with the challenge are just that and that the players may come up with other possible solutions.

Oh yes, from this it is clear that Critical Failure is a thing in Level Up, unlike in the 5E rules as written.

Conclusions

This seems a very interesting project, and they have obviously thought hard about different aspects of Dungeons and Dragons in the current rulebooks and how they could be improved.

They’ve had a diverse team of 38 working on it – meet the team here – as well as cultural consultancy and sensitivity from Salt and Sage books.

The three core rulebooks – image used with permission

They have the three core books – the Adventurer’s Guide (Player’s Handbook), Trials and Treasures (DMG, or for “Narrators” as they call GMs), and Monstrous Menagerie (Monster Manual), and you can pledge for them individually or for the set of three, either PDF (£20 each) or printed+PDF (£40 each). They also have a couple of additional books, Adventures in ZEITGEIST (a setting book) and Mythological Figures and Maleficent Monsters (which appears to be a translation into Level Up terms of assorted characters from myth and legend, and a starter adventure which is included in the books bundles or can be bought separately for £10.

The PDFs are ready to ship as soon as the Kickstarter completes on 5th November; the Kickstarter is to fund the printing. Stretch goals are mainly an online toolset (sounds like the equivalent of D&D Beyond).

I don’t know what I think about this – to me D&D already has too many options – but I’ve joined the Kickstarter for the three core books, and I’m keeping an open mind. Once the Kickstarter completes and I receive my PDFs, I’ll start reviewing them here, so come back in a month or two once I’ve had some time to receive and digest them.

Find out more and join the Kickstarter here by 5th November.

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