Level Up A5E is a rethinking of D&D Fifth Edition with the benefit of 5 years of practice and hindsight. The PDFs dropped in November, and the print versions are now out.
I have read part way through the PDFs, but I find that having the physical copies makes me more inspired to just pick them up and browse. And they look gorgeous.
Like 5E, the core rulebooks are organised into three volumes:
- Adventurer’s Guide – the equivalent of the Player’s Handbook
- Trials and Treasures – the equivalent of the Dungeon Master’s Guide
- Monstrous Menagerie – the equivalent of the Monster Manual
The first thing which struck me was just how large these tomes are. The Adventurer’s Guide is 656 pages, Trials and Treasures is 370 pages, and Monstrous Menagerie is 531 pages. That contrasts with 316 pages for the PHB, 320 pages for the DMG, and 352 pages for the Monster Manual. Having said that, the type is larger, so maybe the actual content is more similar than the page count would suggest.
See this side-by-side comparison to get the difference (modelled by our cat Sparky…) – left is Level Up, right is DMG:
So what’s in these weighty tomes?
The Adventurer’s Guide
This is the player’s handbook. It covers character creation and abilities, equipment, ability scores, a small (10-page) section on adventuring, twice as much on combat and turn-based action, a large section on combat manoeuvres, and then over 100 pages of spells.
Characters are comprised of Heritage and Culture (between them the equivalent of race), Background, Destiny, and Class.
Heritages are in strict alphabetical order and are Dragonborn, Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Human, Orc and Planetouched, which covers both Aasimar and Tiefling. Each Heritage has traits and gifts (where you choose a single heritage gift), and each Heritage also gains a Paragon gift at level 10.
For example, Dragonborn have dragon breath as their trait, and a choice of Draconic Armour (resistance and improved AC), Draconic Fins (swimming) or Draconic Wings (flying) as the Heritage Gift. Their Paragon Gifts at level 10 are gaining resistance to their breath weapon (or immunity if they already have resistance through Draconic Armour), and the Gifts improve to Impenetrable Draconic Armour (AC+1, claws become real melee weapons), Might Draconic Wings (40’ flying speed, can fly with medium or heavy armour, less likely to become fatigued) or Sleek Draconic Fins (faster and better underwater).
For another example, Human traits are Fast Learner (additional skill proficiency; half time for training in armour, tool or weapon) and Intrepid (gain an expertise die per rest to use on an ability check, attack roll or saving throw) and Human Gifts are Diehard Survivor, Ingenious Focus or Spirited Traveller. Paragon gifts are one of Determined (when bloodied, you can turn an attack roll or saving throw into a natural 20 once per rest), Wind at your Back (Speed increases 10’, ignore difficult terrain when dashing, don’t provoke opportunity attacks from a creature you have attacked that turn) and Voracious Learner (expertise die in three different skill or tool proficiencies).
One thing that strikes me is this puts humans more on a level with the other Heritages (unlike 5E in my opinion). I might actually adopt this for humans in my next campaign.
Half-elf and Half-Orc are not listed, but are accounted for by Mixed Heritage, where you take the traits of one Heritage and the Gifts of another.
Cultures include familiar things like Deep Dwarf and Hill Dwarf, Forest Gnome, High Elf and Wood Elf, but also new options such as Caravanner, Circusfolk, , Itinerant and Tyrannised. Your Culture will also give you traits – for example, Forgotten Folx have Eyes Everywhere (always know the general location of an ally within 60’ even if you can’t see them), It Takes a Village (improved Help action), plus Languages (Common, Gnomish + 1 additional language).
Backgrounds include the familiar Acolyte, Charlatan, Criminal, Folk Hero, etc, plus a few additions such as Artisan, Exile, Farmer and Guard. These give an ability score increase, one specific and one chosen, Skill Proficiencies, Tool Proficiencies or Languages, and a couple of Features. There are also a connection and a memento.
For example, a Sailor gains +1 to Constitution plus one other ability score, Proficiency at Athletics and either Acrobatics or Perception. Tool proficiency with Navigator’s tools and water vehicles, and features of Sea Salt (helps with learning things from and about sailors) and free passage on any merchant ship in return for occasional ship duties, and after a few naval exploits your fame allows you to hire a crew at half the usual price.
The final aspect is your Destiny, that spark which drives you forward. Playing to your Destiny motivation earns Inspiration, and Fulfilling your Destiny brings a fulfilment feature. This very much matches one of The Angry GM’s character seeds, the 2-word Motivation.
There are some interesting concepts here, particularly in the separation of Heritage and Culture which achieves what I was trying to do when I started the 5E races review. It also feels more balanced.
Classes are fairly similar to 5E. Monks have become Adepts to allow for different genres, Paladins have become Heralds, and there is a new Marshall class. It feels like the options for each class has expanded, however. The Cleric runs for 18 pages, for example.
The spell lists look (on a quick glance) to be similar but not identical to the 5E spell list. There are spells missing (e.g. Arcane Gate, Aura of Life, Banishing Smite), but also new spells like Tearful Sonnet, Soulwrought Fists, Searing Equation, Seed Bomb. The Spells section runs to over 100 pages!
The Equipment section adds more fancy weapons, plus some rules for fine and masterwork enhancements, different materials and their effects – for example bone is lighter and cheaper but breaks easily, while cold iron costs twice as much but fey creatures are vulnerable to it. This section also lists medicinal items such as dried yewclaw bark, which is calming and adds an expertise die on Intelligence saving throws for an hour, a jar of leeches which can help against being poisoned or a blood-borne disease, laudanum which reduces a level of strife but can induce mental stress, and lavender paste which acts as an insect repellent.
This section also includes special mount traits (both positive and negative), rules for vehicle malfunctions ,prices for some trade goods, and prices for spellcasting services. There are guides for starting wealth and equipment for characters which start above first level. For example, a 5thlevel character would start with 700gp, which for a cleric they suggest a Periapt of wound closure, 3 potions of healing and 150gp to spend on other equipment. They also have rules of strongholds, along with some examples, plus followers.
Level Up contains more Feats than the PHB, and also introduces the concept of Synergy Feats, where instead of taking a completely new feat, you effectively enhance an existing feat. For example, the Proclaimer Feat can become the Divine Orator can become the Harbinger of Things to Come. Each step requires a level of Feat, and you can take a Feat instead of any Ability Score Increase.
One slightly strange thing that struck me when looking at the different Synergy Feats is that the base feat in all cases seemed to require multiclassing – the Proclaimer Feat requires 3 levels of both Herald and Bard, and the Vigilante Feat (base for Equipped for Justice and the A Symbol Which Strikes Fear) requires 3 levels in both Adept and Ranger.
Ability Checks and Skills
Level Up makes explicit the common house rule of critical success and critical failure, and expands it to group checks as well, where everyone succeeding on the group check indicates critical success and everyone failing indicates critical failure.
They also introduce the concept of an Expertise die, which class features and feats can offer. Instead of Advantage, the player gets to roll the die and add its value to the appropriate check.
The set of Skills is very similar to 5E, though it does add two new skills Culture and Engineering. Usefully it has a list of example DCs for different skill checks. In a similar vein it has a wider set of examples for appropriate Ability Checks – for example it lists squeezing through a tunnel that is too small or hanging onto a moving wagon while being dragged along as strength checks.
Most of the adventuring and combat sections are very similar to the 5E version. There are a few extra Combat Actions, such as Press the Attack, Fall Back and Sprint. There are some rules for combat modifiers due to positioning – high ground, low ground, flanking, back to back. It also introduces the concept of World Actions, and adds various Environments which can take such actions.
One useful concept is the countdown, for situations where you need to finish before something happens – a cliff crumbles, a dragon wakes up. The basic idea is that you have a pool of d6s, and you roll them every round and remove any which show a 6. When the final die is removed, time is up. For more urgency, remove any die which shows 5-6 or 4-6.
They also add the concept of combat manoeuvres. This includes some basic ones carried across from 5E, such as Disarm, Grapple and Shove. They also have more advanced manoeuvres which certain classes can access, and these are collected into traditions. These make use of an “exertion pool” equal to twice your proficiency score, and different manoeuvres cost different amounts of exertion.
They follow a common house rule in introducing additional conditions reflecting the state of health. A creature which is Bloodied has half its hit points or fewer. This doesn’t in itself have any effects, but various mechanics refer to it. They also add Rattled which is half-way to Stunned – can’t use expertise dice and can’t take reactions, whereas a Stunned creature is Incapacitated (can’t take actions, bonus actions or reactions), automatically fails Strength and Dexterity saving throws and attack rolls against it have Advantage. And they add Doomed – a Doomed creature dies within the next 2d12 hours, and only magic equivalent to a 7th-level or higher spell can remove this even after death.
(It doesn’t add as much granularity to the health states as I do (following The Angry GM’s suggestion). In my house rules, I have Uninjured (at full hit points), Injured (has lost at least one hit point), Staggered (lost half or more; equivalent of Bloodied here), Critical (has lost three quarters or more) and Disabled (no hit points left). These are indicators that characters and creatures would be able to perceive, so it must be announced, and is a way for the players to judge the creature’s condition.)
Exhaustion is split in two with “fatigue” representing the reserves of physical stamina being reduced, and “strife” representing the reserves of mental stamina being reduced. They also add the concept I have seen a a house rule, with fatigue being caused by falling unconscious during an encounter, or suffering a critical hit while at 0hp. You can also choose to take a level of fatigue to turn a critical hit into a normal hit (once per rest).
Fatigue affects physical abilities – one level removes the ability to sprint, two imposes disadvantage on Strength, Dexterity and Constitution checks, three halves speed, and so on until at level seven you are doomed.
Strife affects mental abilities – one level imposes disadvantage on Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma checks, two imposes disadvantage on concentration checks, three restricts you to either an action or a bonus action on each turn but not both, and so on. Five levels of strife introduce a short-term mental stress effect, such as Bewildered, Distraught, Enraged, Flippant; and Seven levels of Strife introduces a long-term mental stress effect, such as Distorted Perceptions, Hopeless, Inimical (when Bloodied, on its next turn it Attacks the nearest creature – there’s the Bloodied condition coming in), Memory Wipe, Superstitious, Suspicious.
Thoughts on the Adventurer’s Guide
I like the new character background rules, particularly the split of Heritage and Culture, and I might try introducing them to my next campaign. I also like the countdown mechanism and the intermediate state of Rattled. The separation of Exhaustion into Fatigue and Strife might be interesting. There also appear to be some interesting additional spells.
I can see that the additional class options, and in particular the specialised Combat Manoeuvres, would appeal to players wanting more options to play with in their fighting character, but it doesn’t add sufficient for me.
I’m not especially enamoured of the new Feats. I like the concept of Synergy Feats, but I don’t like that all of them seem to be tied to multi-classing.
But overall, while it’s a pleasant enough extension, I’m not convinced that it’s worth the addition to my game, particularly since it doesn’t (as far as I can tell) have the same breadth of resources that 5E does to enable my players to access the information, and they are the ones who would need the access.
Trials and Treasures and the Monstrous Menagerie are different…but that’s a story for another day…