How did D&D 5 stand up to this challenge?
In summary: mediocre / mixed.
The players responded really well to the choices of race / class / background. A lot of interesting, creative ideas emerged from this triple choice combo (plus the alternative racial backgrounds I'd prepared for the game setting).
It's complicated. Way too complicated for beginners, in my opinion. This is coming from the perspective of someone who usually introduces new players to B/X (Labyrinth Lord). B/X character creation is super minimal, so even though the mechanical parts are a bit on the random / incohesive side, there are so few choices to make that even beginners are done with it fairly quickly. Choosing equipment is the only bit that tends to be very time consuming. Not so D&D 5. The choice of race / class / background is simple enough -- players can just go with what they think sounds cool -- but each choice brings with it a ream of traits to read and note, proficiencies and saving throws to mark, equipment to record. Admittedly, the equipment choice is simpler as it's done for you (no more shopping from lists), but overall it was a long and arduous process, compounded, unfortunately, by the fact that we only had a single PHB and no "cheat sheets" (not sure if such a thing exists for D&D 5?).
The players were fine with making the basic choice of race, class, and background but balked at the amount of information each choice entailed they read and record. How about cutting out that second part of the equation? Something like this:
- Character creation session: choose race, class, and background. Do not read the sections on your selected race or background, just go from the DM's verbal description of them / your imagination. Do not record any mechanical information related to them. Just focus on understanding your class for now. Note down the equipment (and only the equipment) provided by your background.
- First session: play your first adventure.
- Second session: before the next session, read the section on your race and record any additional mechanical bits on your character sheet. Play the second session.
- Third session: before the next session, read the section on your background and record any additional mechanical bits on your character sheet. Congratulations, you now have a fully fledged character! Go forth and play your third session and onwards.
- Fourth session onwards: note to DMs: you should not allow characters to progress beyond 1st level until at least the fourth session -- with level advancement comes further choices (for some classes) and rules.
ps. this is my 400th post on this blog!