I see from the cover that they've gone for murky this time around -- complicated and dark. I had to read the caption inside to figure out what this was a picture of, despite having played through the adventure this scene comes from. By contrast, I thought the interior art was, on the whole, pretty good -- the chief exception being the horrible picture of a kender they tried to pass off as a halfling (p. 26), while they had a perfectly good picture of a halfling they labelled 'gnome' (p. 35).***
PLAYER CHARACTER RACES:
All the standard character races from 1st edition are here, including the gnomes (who shd have been dropped at the end of second edition but now seems permanently grandfathered in, alas). Also here are the dragonborn (who are there for folks who want to play a wookie but have wandered into the wrong game) and tiefling (who's there for readers of tween supernatural romance). If they were going to include a non-traditional PC race, I with they'd have gone with the Warforged (sentient golems). But these interlopers are easily ignorable; at least this edition contains the half-orc (removed from the nerf'd 2nd edition). Too bad they spent so much space describing all the ethnicities of the Forgotten Realms, since that's pretty much wasted space to everyone not playing in the Realms (which I suspect will be most people).
All the third edition classes are here, plus the warlock -- this latter seems an odd choice, given how it's simply a variant of sorcerer (better they pick one or the other or, better still, neither). Thieves are still called 'rogues', which is terribly RenFair of them but seems to be locked in since 3rd edition. Wizards have a lot to do and get an interesting spell selection to do it with, so thumbs up there. It's my impression that rangers and fighters are underpowered, but I need to roll up one of each to see if the front-line combat characters can hold their own. I've heard rumors that they've actually made the bard a viable class, which wd be something to see, but a low priority to play.
THE PARAGRAPH ON SEXUAL ORIENTATION:
"You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture's expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior . . .
"You don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. . . You could . . . play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. LIkewise, your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide." (p. 121)
--My, how times have changed. While Gygax deserves a lot of credit for the use of "he or she" when describing characters in 1st edition, that got rolled back later under 2nd edition, while 3rd edition compromised with alternating examples by gender. But 1st and 2nd edition were purely heterosexual worlds,**** as was 3e so far as I remember. Now far from being banned by the Code of Ethics gay/transgender characters are explicitly included in the rules.
Nice to see the classic Alignment system still in place (p. 122),with the addition of a tenth option: 'unaligned', to be applied to animals and others lacking the cognitive ability to make a moral choice. The Backgrounds seem to be pretty random so far as a suite of options for all PCs goes, and the four tables accompanying each (Personality Trait/Ideal/Bond/Flaw) sure take up a lot of space (about seven or eight pages, all told). Good to see them devoting space to material designed to encourage role-playing, but think the results are something only newbies will be using.
INITIAL IMPRESSION AND PRELIMINARY CONCLUSION:
Very promising so far. This looks and feels and plays like D&D. It'll need tweaking, but it looks to be far more open to tweaking than the rigid structure of 3rd edition. With any luck we'll see a breakdown of the 'only right way to play the game' that came from D&D being treated with a MtG ideology and a florescence of homerules as people customize this for their home campaigns.
*that is, the fifth edition of the AD&D rules, though it's not called that; the fifth edition of the D&D rules, by Troy Denning (and Tim Brown?), came out back in 1991
**though I've already found my first typo (in the sidebar on p. 31 where "chapter 5" shd read "chapter 6")
***THE WIFE SAYS: They had a little problem there with their Gnomenclature
****about the only exception I can think of was in the unofficial JUDGES GUILD module DARK TOWER, by Paul Jaquays, where one evil wizard liked to use magic jar to swap among a collection of bodies of both sexes he kept on hand.