Level Up was a big push for a 5.5e, or advanced 5e, or whatever 5e. They are using the term A5E, so I will too in the review. The idea was it would be the Pathfinder 1e answer to 3.5. A complete rewrite that takes the knowledge gained from the edition’s lifecycle, and modernized RPG theory to revamp, and continue an edition that might be long in the tooth. Ironically, I’m not a big pathfinder 1e guy and prefer 3.5. I say that, because I’m also not a big A5E guy. Both revisions looked at core problems and admitted them, but then sort of didn’t fix them. Unlike Pathfinder 1e, A5E seems to have come and gone with a bit of a splat. I haven’t heard of anyone playing it, and I’m not seeing folks advocate for it the way folks have started with PF2e or other modern non-DND takes. Now, I’m also not a fan, but I did follow development closely, have the physical books, and do think there are some things here worth saving. One thing I’ve learned over the years of this blog, is that I don’t particularly enjoy blogging about things I didn’t like. So, I’ve basically ignored these books as a source of blog material, but that doesn’t mean they are all bad. Today’s entry will dive into the good. What did I like, what do I hope the 6e team pays attention to, and what do I think ought to be homebrewed back into 5e classic.
Before I totally trash the game, to be clear, the features advertised on their site, are all the list of things I’d ask for if you asked me to build a 5.5, so they were clearly on the right track. I just think they missed the mark. I think their game is certainly different than core 5e, and had A5e come out first, I think it would have been as successful as 5e, maybe even better. But the cost of saying “hey everyone, go buy new books and learn a new game” isn’t outweighed by the benefits of most of the changes.
A5E finally takes the plunge and gets rid of race as a concept in D&D. I’ve argued for a long time that it’s probably for the best, while also saying that it’s a lot more work (that’s worthwhile). Instead, race in A5e is divided into 4 concepts. Heritage, Culture, Background, and Destiny. Each concept gets about as much work as a classic 5e race, so you see how the work compounds. Heritage gives you your biological characteristics, Culture, your societal upbringing, background tells us your starting job, and destiny tells us your goal. Each of these gives features that were previously under race and background, but it allows for some really neat stuff. Like a halfling raised in a human city who studied magic and wants to explore the world.
Heritage is your classic, what people think of as Race, and you’ve got the hits you expect. Dragonborn, dwarf, elf, etc., and it works pretty well. Really good in some cases, with dragonborn getting buffed breath weapons compared to 5e, and your Heritage giving additional powers at “paragon tier” when you hit 10th level, giving more buffs and improvements and expanding the relevancy of your Heritage choice longer into the game. My only gripe about this separation idea, is they didn’t actually do it. Dwarves still get a racial bonus to brewing or smithing for example. Thats not inborn, that’s just some designer not getting the memo.
Culture is the who raised you stat. They are directly not analogous to a lot of 5e mechanics, but the intent is you pick something like circus folk and get powers like “Slapstick” which gives you proficiency in improvised weapons, or you pick Cosmopolitan, and gain “Skill Versatility” picking up proficiency in Culture and some other skill of your choice. Again, the non-physical stuff that comes up, so you can say you were raised by __whoever_. You could also double down, and pick Mountain Dwarf, or Deep Dwarf, or some other classic subrace. These give you training and cultural benefits, like armor proficiency and additional forging powers.
While your culture is where you came from, your background is sort of the first job. You get the classic 5e backgrounds, but these do more. They increase ability scores for one, but also, generally they have more impactful features. Lore wise, these are very similar to culture, but mechanically looking at them, they serve a different purpose.
Lastly, you gain a Destiny. If you do stuff that plays into your destiny, you get inspiration for it, and if you actually achieve your destiny, you unlock a new feature and can pick another one. Frankly, I’d probably drop this, as I find this sort of mechanical benefit for good roleplay, actually leads to bad roleplay. Folks find out that if they constantly talk about their destiny of Dominion they get a buff, and suddenly every scene is based around fulfilling destiny, even when awkward or forced. I get that the DM could ask them not to do that, but IMO it’s better to just not include. Why encourage a problem, and ask the DM to fix it, when you can just say “DM hand out inspiration when people roleplay good”. Now, you’re telling people to do something good, and adding a mechanical incentive for doing that good thing, while keeping it broad enough that people aren’t encouraged to spam the same move over and over.
Overall, I like the breakout of Race into Heritage, Culture and Background. Its more choices, but they do feel big enough to matter, which is something a lot of RPGs struggle with.
Some classes got renamed and reworked, and there is one new class. Broadly, the new classes are interesting, and better from day 1 5e, but we aren’t at day 1 5e. The incompatibility with existing subclasses really means these struggles to draw attention and stand apart. I like what they did generally, but they need to compete with an Echo Knight, Spore Druid, and Genie-lock. Not your classic fantasy sword guy, dwarf with an axe, and elf with a bow. I won’t go line by line, on each class, but the gist is that it reads like they also didn’t know what to do past 10th level, and so they didn’t write level appropriate features. Or they stretched level 1-2 features out over 20 levels to fill in the top end, or just put more low-level stuff that you open at high levels. Let people be cool at the beginning please.
Renames and changes. Monks become Adepts. This is good, because they aren’t a medieval european monk, and never really were close to it, and a lot of people dislike adding Asian elements and Chinese monks into their games. I disagree, and want kung fu in all games, but it’s a big enough complaint, and it doesn’t really matter a whole lot, so sure call it the Adept. Barbarian is renamed to berserker, which is just a mild softening of the term. Herald is their paladin rename, and that names got enough bad baggage cutting it makes sense. Marshal is new to this, but an old 3e/4e class so we are good to go. the Marshall is my favorite addition, and gives buffs to your allies, gets free castles, and a bunch of followers who can help you out. It’s pretty sweet as a non-magical buffer bard type.
Generally, classes get some improvements I like a lot, but they aren’t really enough. A lot feels like minor or mild buffs to some classes but a lot of change for the sake of change. My favorite feature are non-combat ones, and you can tell they really did put an effort in to build these out. Folks get free followers and castles, which are sweet. They also get stuff like the ability to find quests in taverns if they succeed on a check. Which kind of implies it can’t be done without the check. So why would I ever take the ability, since I can probably just RP it out with my DM. They struggle to find this balance, and some features really should have been a full 8-10 levels sooner, and others just shouldn’t exist when compared to others.
I love the addition of material type back into the game. You can get adamantine, bronze, hide, whatever armor. Its sorely missing from 5e, and the inclusion here is great. They also have a big gear list compared to 5e. I’m a proponent of big gear lists and am a big fan of the ones they include. What I’m not into is the fiddly silly stuff returning. Helm’s giving a bonus to specific saves depending on the type worn, armor and shields needing repair, that sort of thing. If my character is level 1, sure ask me if I have a helm. But 5th level? Come on, I’ve got a magic sword, and have killed a hundred warriors. If a helm was important, I should just get one, and let me go without so my luscious locks flow in the wind.
I love that they provide a Wealth by Level table and tell you exactly how to make a character past first level, and by extension, that my starting level 20 PC can have a t-rex mount. I dislike that I have to wait until level 20 to buy one though. Give that out at level 5-6 please. Thats not a joke. Riding a big tooth lizard isn’t that much cooler than a horse that we need to wait until I can go to another dimension to find one. Komodo dragons are just a plane ride away.
The real thing to talk about in the equipment section though, are the stronghold building rules. These are pretty detailed, and a great way for players to burn that gold they have no other real use for. Strongholds give some free feats and followers offhand, so there is a clear reason to build one, and your players probably actually care about it. I know in a lot of my games, they clear a castle of goblins, and just leave it. Maybe they own it for a week or so, but the second trolls show up down the road, they are gone and won’t be back. This ties it to a base of operations, and gives a buff, so you want to keep it active and tied to you, or you lose out on your Valet and expertise on some skill.
Followers are in this section, and we won’t look too deep into that. These folks come in three tiers and can level up as you play. Offhand, they get special powers which means you might actually want to bring them with you on an adventurer, or at least let them live in your castle. Like an inexperienced apothecary, who 1/day lets someone roll a new save vs poison, or when they become an expert 1/week gives out free potions. Or maybe you just want a torchbearer. Who wears a lantern hat and lights up a 40ft radius and eats goblin arrows instead of whoever walks first in marching order.
Frankly, this is the section of the game that makes me want to play. I’d almost say grafting this onto your existing 5e game as is would be worth buying the book on its own. The only downside is I already wrote and use my own version after being disappointed by MCDMs. I love the idea of a game where I’m rocking around as an 8th-12th level lord, with a castle, and a couple of dudes and the party has theirs and we debate which quest to take. Do we free the emerald mine from the oppressive Musk tribe, and get emeralds at a discount, or do we battle drive goblins out of a castle and get another castle? Even better if my class features interact with that.
They touched every line of text, to the point that they essentially don’t reprint anything from 5e. It’s all different, slightly. My overall feel though, is that it isn’t interesting, better or worse. Just different. Thats a hard sell when calling your buddies up for a tabletop game.
To sum up, there’s some ideas here that are good, and there are some sub-systems I really want to dig into. My gripe is that they don’t actually address the dearth of options at high level, and in some cases cap off the “cool stuff” until later than classic 5e, and instead spread out the level 1 content for more levels. A castle building subsystem is sweet. It’s also like, 10-12th level at the top end. By the end (20), I should be throwing out a couple of private demi-planes depending on which guests are coming over. Not worrying about whether I wear a helm or a visored helm for a melee slugfest fight against a couple of “super orcs”.