I’ll say right up front that I’m probably not going to run D&D4 for a while. I’ll probably try it out eventually, but right now I’m gearing up for a regular weekly Savage Worlds game.
But here, in the order in which I’m reading, are my thoughts on the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook (be aware that I do have my prejudices, but I’m trying to be fair):
- The two-page spread on page 4 indicates to me that the new edition is influenced at least a little by White Wolf’s Exalted and World of Warcraft. In other words: the action has been cranked up a couple notches.
- The explanations of what a role-playing game is on page 6 and what D&D is on page 7 are hands-down the absolute best I’ve ever read. This looks to be the most new-player-friendly version ever.
- Page 9: Interesting that the book says combat is still grid-based. I bet, like the previous edition, a grid per se isn’t absolutely necessary if the players use wargame-like rules for movement according to a consistent scale.
- Also on page 9 the sentence “Combat encounters are battles against nefarious foes.” cracked me up.
- In general, the How To Play chapter can be skipped by existing players. But it’s full of good info for new players and people who don’t know anything about D&D.
- Character Creation now has you choose Race and Class before generating ability scores. Perhaps ability scores no longer “cap” Class abilities at all?
- The brief section on character roles on page 15 is a concise summary of a subject that deserves several essays. The four classes of (A)D&D2 were only defined that rigidly in that edition, but the roles they served have existed in all editions and is the primary reason why every edition of D&D does the “D&D style” better than all other RPGs: rigid class definition = precise role definition = better party synergy.
- Page 19: Alignment finally makes sense. In previous editions there were a few very “odd” alignments especially Chaotic Neutral (a.k.a. “Chaotic Stupid”). The sacred cows of Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil have been left untouched (because they’re the easiest to understand and the least trouble), but the rest have been condensed into Good, Evil and Unaligned. Paladins and Fiends still get to be particularly dedicated to their moral/immoral ideals, and the rest don’t have to worry about being pigeonholed as badly as before. (Incidentally and possibly ironically, this is essentially the same definitions that the Palladium system has used for ages. But I digress.)
- The condensing of the alignments has led to an odd situation with the default deities: two Good ones, two Lawful Good ones, and seven Unaligned. However, the “Unaligned” gods now seem to more-or-less side with the Good and Lawful Good gods against the Evil and Chaotic Evil gods (six and two, respectively). Skipping ahead to the Cleric class description, a character of any alignment can serve an Unaligned deity and likewise an Unaligned character can serve a deity of any alignment, but otherwise the character’s alignment must match. (I would actually house-rule this so that Lawful Good gods would accept Good Clerics and vice-versa because otherwise it doesn’t make as much sense to me.)
- Gaining levels has changed a lot. Too much to summarize here, but I’ll point out how tiers work: levels 11 and 21 are different to levels 2-10, 12-20 and 22-30. Your character begins at level 1, which has always been different out of necessity. Now levels 11 and 21 now represent the start of new “tiers” so those levels are almost as special as level 1 in terms of what characters get. You start out in the heroic tier, followed by paragon at level 11 and epic at level 21. Getting to the latter two tiers gives any character benefits that were previously covered by prestige classes. But now there aren’t any prestige classes because it’s all covered by paragon and epic tier abilities.
- The other interesting thing is that gaining class features is now standardized across all the classes. In 3.5, at second level, Wizards would get one new level 1 spell and 1 cantrip, Rogues would get Evasion, Fighters would get their choice of a bonus feat, Paladins would get Aura of Courage and Smite Evil, and Rangers would just get a bump to the numeric stats. Progression rates were all over the place, which made it difficult to make new classes without those classes being significantly more or less powerful than existing ones.
- Now at second level, all classes get one utility power and one feat, and this sort of thing happens all the way to 30th level. While it does force new classes to adhere to a structure exactly like existing classes, sticking to that structure should help “balance” the classes more easily.
- Dragonborn, Eladrin, and Tieflings are in, gnomes and half-orcs are out. I’d like to snark that Savage Worlds managed Dragonborn and Eladrin before 4e came out, and Tieflings are just a callback to Planescape, but that would be obnoxious (and not completely accurate). Humans now get a bonus feat, a bonus skill, a bonus at-will power, and a bonus to all saving throws, making them obnoxiously versatile.
- The How To Read a Power section of the classes chapter reveals that all class abilities now work similarly. Fighters no longer get passive Bonus Feats but Exploits that are similar to “special moves” in fighting games and use the same rules as Wizards’ Spells and Clerics’ Prayers.
- Clerics are much the same as before, though Turn Undead has been expanded into the now more versatile Channel Divinity. Clerics also start with the Ritual Casting Feat.
- Fighters have a bunch of new abilities, a lot of which are simply active versions of previously passive Fighter Bonus Feats, but some are completely new. The Kensei Paragon Path is an interesting example of the designers sneaking a little Oriental Adventures material into the PHB.
- Paladins are now more different than Clerics: the default Channel Divinity abilities for Paladins is completely different than the Cleric version. Paladins get Divine Challenge which penalizes an enemy the Paladin challenges in combat.
- Rangers are now completely combat-oriented with druid-like spells gone completely (not that Ranger spells were any use in 3e). Actually Rangers can still potentially use Rituals that mimic spells they used to have, but by default they’re finally the class inspired by LOTR: all action and no distracting “odd” abilities.
- Like Fighters, Rogues are much like before. Sneak Attack has been severely “nerfed”, but Rogues get far more abilities to make up for it.
- Warlocks are the new “awesome” class. They’re not more powerful than other classes, but they have abilities called Vampiric Embrace and Flames of Phlegethos at first level. I personally would have preferred inclusion of Bards, but it’s not bad.
- Warlords are the way Roy has always acted even though he’s technically a Fighter. They are martial leaders and unlike Warlocks are very definitely an essential addition to the game. Warlord powers usually involve supporting allies, but if necessary Warlords can wade into melee themselves.
- Wizards, my favorite class, manage to be even more awesome this edition. (First off, like Clerics they start with the Ritual Magic feat, but also start with Arcana as a trained skill so first level Wizards just have to gain three more levels and a book with the Enchant Magic Item ritual in it and they can start making magic items which, incidentally, no longer cost XP to make. I’ll say it again: no Feats or XP need to be sacrificed for Wizards to make magic items. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) Wizards follow the same progression rate as the other classes, except they can store “extra” Spells in their spellbooks and swap between them. Also, Wizards start knowing the four standard cantrips Ghost Sound, Light, Mage Hand and Prestidigitation for free. There is a smaller selection of spells (as class abilities) this time around, but many of them have been changed into Rituals and are still around in a slightly different form.
More to come next week.