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Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook: Arcane, Divine, and Martial Heroes (Roleplaying Game Core Rules) Hardcover – June 6, 2008
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Top Customer Reviews
That fact alone would have spawned endless teeth gnashing from loyalists of prior versions - but what differences are we talking about? How different is it?
In a word: very.
4th edition is a sea change in the core rules that is easily on par with the change from 2nd Edition to 3rd Edition.
Start with the thematic changes:
The core races have changed. Humans, Halflings, Elves, Half-Elves and Dwarves are back - they've just been supplemented with three new races. Dragonborn (dragonmen), Eladrin (magical fey of the wood) and Tiefling (humanoids with an otherworldly taint).
Classes from 3.0 and 3.5 have been dropped from this volume (There is no druid, monk, bard, or barbarian). These classes are promised in future Player's Handbooks. Not the most auspicious beginning.
Thematic changes like this are easy to spot - but are perhaps the least important changes in the game. I dislike the concept of Dragonborn ("Dragon-anything" is a label I feel makes its subject seem cartoonish and clichéd), but as a GM - I can easily fix this. In my world Dragonborn will be lizardmen, with a backstory that I choose. I take the rules and make them my own.
The WotC game designers have clearly tried to shift the game mechanics towards customized character development: (a rules buffet, so to speak) - so anyone who wants to have a druid could achieve a reasonable facsimile of powers and rituals and achieve the rest thematically.
Many will have a problem with this - but I frankly don't. Being able to mix and match classes in 3.5 was a radical shift (and a brilliant one) and the re-thinking of that model that occurs in 4th Edition provides more options, not less.
The artwork (particularly the book's cover) will come in for a large amount of abuse - but again, this is such a minor issue. Quality artwork is important for RPG (imagery is the lifeblood of storytelling), but any one picture will have those who love it/hate it. So long as the majority of the art isn't bad (like the schlock in 2nd edition) any gamer is free to switch to pictures they *do* enjoy.
Again, thematic changes will get a lot of attention, but any GM is free to re-imagine any theme that they have a problem with.
On to Rules:
This is where the true sea change is. Any discussion of what is happening in 4th edition can be boiled down to this:
4th edition wants to simplify things and speed up your gaming sessions.
3rd edition and 3.5 attempted to create flexibility and lots of independent rulesets (feats, prestige classes). This was good - but the complexity inherent in this model caused a lot of problems. When scalable feats collided with spells and class abilities - often the only guidance the GM would have is the precise language in the rulebook. Is a charge an attack action? No, it is a full round action that allows you to attack - and so on.
I sincerely believe that 3rd edition was superior to 2nd edition, but I never had as many rules disputes when I played 2nd edition.
4th Edition was clearly intended to address this issue.
Base attack bonus tables? Gone. You get a bonus of half your level, rounded down, to pretty much anything you do (as well as to many stats, like your AC). The advantage of this is twofold - it's easy to remember and it always scales.
All attacks are now attacks: be they claw, sword or spell - the character will roll a die, add their modifiers up and try to hit a defense number. This streamlines combat spells, since instead of a saving throw, you will have a passive defense number that your opponents will try to beat. One roll, from the attacker - always.
This kind of symmetry will allow players to better remember what to do. I'm a target, I do nothing. I'm attacking, I roll.
The combat round has gotten an overhaul, as well. Characters are now allowed to perform the following in a round: A standard action, a move action, a minor action, and any number of free actions. These labels exist in a hierarchy, so the character can forgo a standard action to take an additional use of a lesser action.
Standard actions are the big actions (attack, use a power, etc). Move actions are exactly what you'd think. Minor actions include readying a weapon or maintaining a spell effect. Free actions are virtually unlimited (drop something, speak, etc).
The groupings are intuitive- and the initial adjustment aside - this structure will add some real clarity to the always problematic question of "what can I do in a round?"
Now the biggest shift of all: Powers
All 3rd edition/3.5 casters get weaker and less useful every time they cast a spell, resulting in the entire party needing to stop and camp just to get their magic back.
If the party had an early morning encounter that was intense enough - the caster would spend the rest of the day "empty" and pretty much useless.
4th edition tackles this issue head on. Character have powers that can be used once per encounter. Meaning: no matter how many encounters your spell caster has in a day, they will have something to contribute.
This is brilliant. A real slap-the-forehead moment, even for gamers who (like me) have been playing for decades. Once per encounter powers are scaled to not be show stoppers - but they scale as you get more powerful.
Powers that refresh for encounters are supplemented with powers that are refreshed after an extended rest (much like old times). The difference is that the rest need only be 6 hours long, which fits better with the model of dungeon crawls and treks in the wilderness.
Spells weren't the only resource PCs needed to hole up and replenish. The other one was Hit Points. The old healing model was: everyone gets a pittance for resting, and then the healers burn magic to *really* fix people. This system exacerbated the previous problem of spellcaster depletion. Caster rests, uses all their spell slots to heal other PCs - and is useless for the rest of the day.
Now - everyone can heal by themselves. Every PC has a healing reserve - a set number of times they can heal 1/4th their total hit points. In combat, most PCs are allowed to do this only once - magic and special abilities can increase this.
This seems weird for lots of reasons, but it will free players to pursue action instead of good places to rest. Clerics can still be healers, without being straitjacketed to the role. This is good, really good news for gamers. Parties will still have to hole up and rest, but healing reserves and encounter based powers will ensure that they will never be completely out of options.
And powers aren't just for spellcasters! This, too seems weird - but warrior types are given abilities called "Exploits." These are essentially special moves that enhance the warriors martial abilities. Call them magic or call them tricks their guild master taught them - they are expended in the same way as powers - and the advancement model ensures they will scale better than 3.5's feats.
The last big change to magic is the creation of Ritual Magic. Rituals are spells that take too long to cast in combat (10 minutes or more) but have long lasting, or purely utilitarian effects: summon mounts, scrying, etc. Moving these abilities out of the realm of combat with casting times decreases the likelihood that their effects will collide with combat rules in unforeseen ways. As a GM - I like this a lot. Players will still get creative, but when combat is ongoing - I hate to stop and figure out if a utility spell like Prestigitation can have an effect on combat.
There are many other changes:
-Three tiers of level advancement, each containing 10 levels - entering any new tier affords you new powers and development paths. Each tier contains powers scaled to that tier - no more feat free-for alls.
-Skills have been (mercifully) simplified so that there is better parity among PCs of the same level (The bonus follows the same format of 1/2 level + bonuses). You either are trained in a skill, or you are not. Training nets you a flat +5 bonus. (Gone is the insanity of 3.5 where a level loss had you searching prior versions of your character to reset your skill levels. Remember what INT drain did to skills? the horror!)
There is a lot to like here. The long suffering DMs of 3.5 will finally get some speed back into their game. It will be an adjustment, but the goals of this system are admirable.
That said, I have three gripes.
One is just a personal bias. 3rd edition required miniatures for combat in all but name. 4th edition codifies miniatures. The idea of a purely "in your head" encounter is a rapidly fading memory for gamers like me. Sometimes, you just want to do a combat on the fly, without figures and without maps. WotC has clearly come down on the side of precise tactics - and I truly wish they'd made more accommodations for DMs who don't like to map every improvised encounter site.
Second - while the 4th edition PH's index is merely lacking; its glossary is non-existent. In books of this size - a one page index is just inadequate. To be fair, the books explain any terminology as it is introduced *very* well, but any player who needs to know what a term means would have an easier time scanning a glossary than the entire rulebook.
(DnD Insider claims to have many features to simplify things - but online access has not been the hallmark of my gaming sessions. This may change - but a good, frequently-updated glossary should be available for download on their website.)
Lastly, the unpardonable yet unavoidable aspect of 4th Edition: It is so near the release of 3.5 - and has so many changes that it cannot help but spawn a 4.5 edition in the near future. I was a playtester for 4th edition, so I know they've gotten a number of kinks out of it. But there is no way playtesters and designers got it all. Like every other edition, players will find the weak spots of the new system and eventually rules will get revised.
There is such a thing as buyer's fatigue. I've bought every ruleset since the Expert Set, and having invested deeply in 3.5, I am being asked (along with every other 3.5 player) to start over - again.
I like the rules - and I obviously love the game - but there is a limit to the number of times a game can switch rulesets. If 4.5 comes out in the near future and we are yet again asked to pitch our (still like new) rulebooks in favor of the latest products - I suspect I will not be the only DM to slam on the brakes.
There, rant over.
So, about the book and the game. The book is well built and sturdy. The binding is strong and the text and fonts and design are grade A. This is a book for people who enjoy reading. It is clear and easy on the eyes, with plenty of quality original artwork. Just based on the layout and design, it is by far my favorite PHB of all the D&D hardbacks. It is beautiful. The 1st editions are classics and I love them to this day, but the information flow and layout is simply not very good. The text is very dense and there is not enough artwork IMO. The 2nd edition books were quirky with very limited color (just blue, with a few full page full color pieces throughout(. They maintained the strange 3 column layout that was a holdover from the Mentzer Basic softcovers and modules. Something that actually worked well on a small 32 page booklet but felt strange in a full size hardback. Third edition was an abomination of visual design. Horrible fonts printed over parchment like pages with lines and sigils and all manner of nonsense in the background made every page an impossible chore to read. The covers were hideous and lets be frank, the spines on the 2E, 3E and 5E books are just ugly. The spines on the 4E books are glorious. I own almost all the books across every edition, being a collector, and the 4E books are a sight to behold on my shelves.
As for the content. We get the core races and most of the core classes one would expect. The only ones notably absent are the Barbarian and Druid, and perhaps the Gnome. All of which were introduced in PHB2 (along with the Primal power source). Extras for this edition PHB 1 include Tieflings and Dragonborn as well as Warlords, a class built to lead others in battle, to help inspire and empower other characters with their charismatic words and impressive actions.
We also get all the combat rules, feats, magic items, a simplified skill system and the biggest portion of the book, and probably the most controversial, the "powers". The designers of 4E, I think, made an honest effort to address many complaints about D&D that had existed since the early days of the original game, complaints like wizards start too weak and get too powerful. Like the complaint that fighters don't get enough interesting things to do and eventually just carry the casters gear. That multiclassing was breaking the game. That DM prep was out of control and things like balancing an encounter took hours at higher levels and still was hit or miss. Nevermind whether or not these complaints were legitimate, they existed, were common and even pervasive at the time.
To address this, they made some major changes to the core system. And killed a few sacred cows along the way. If you had ever made these complaints, you were probably happy. If you hadn't, you might see this new edition as solving problems that didn't exist. And even if you were open minded you would eventually admit that the solutions of these problems lead to some problems of their own.
Early in 4th edition (and certainly in this PHB), we see all the classes have a similar structure. You get to pick similar numbers of "powers" (which are really just mechanical abilities of your class) at the same points in the level progression. This enabled a natural power balance among the classes, solving a huge complaint from earlier editions. The casters no longer necessarily ran off and left the Fighters holding their gear. Advancement was now consistent between classes. 3rd edition had started down this path with a unified XP table for all classes. Something that also chapped the hides of traditionalists.
As for skills, gone are skill points. You no longer had that granular control over an elaborate list of skills that included all sorts of esoteric game elements that might never come into play. Replacing it was a much simplified list of skills that could be either trained or untrained and that improved automatically with level. Some will miss the granularity. Others will welcome not having a host of skills that never saw the light of day. The skills include things like Perception, Insight, History, Religion, Thievery, Streetwise, Athletics, Acrobatics, Arcana and Endurance.
Another big change was to saving throws. In early editions of the game, there were 5 categories of saving throws, like vs. Spells, Petrification, or Death Ray. In 3rd edition, these were consolidated down to Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. 4th edition took it a step further and turned them into defenses. So instead of someone doing something that causes you to save against these numbers, now, your enemy would attack you and roll against these defense scores, much the same way the enemies roll against armor class. So instead of having your AC and 5 or 3 Saves. You simply had 4 defense scores. Each one being the target of a various subset of attack types. Saving throw as term still survived as something you did to remove a debilitating condition such as being dazed, or slowed, or poisoned. You would do this at the end of your turn, or continue being subject to the debilitating condition. Also, saves are used to avoid certain things, like being pushed over a cliff or while unconscious to determine if your condition worsens or gets better. In all these cases, the roll requires a 10 or better on a D20. It's basically a "one last chance" roll in these cases.
Monster design took a dramatic shift back to earlier editions. In first edition, monsters were kind of their own thing. They often had their own rules and mechanics, some elaborate and often based on existing rules structures. But frequently they were completely unique. This made monsters mysterious but also someone painful to learn and run. You needed to do a lot of reading to run a monster correctly making pickup games harder. 3rd edition attempted (in its "unification or death" design goals) to unify monster design by forcing it to exist within the exact same rules structure as players. This sounds great on paper but lead to some of the most elaborate and difficult to manage monster blocks of any game I've played. Trying to add classes to monsters and choose their spell lists and determine what that would do to their challenge rating, was maybe the worst part of 3rd edition. The complaints were pervasive and many people would simply stop playing at level 10-15 due to the challenge involved in running those games. 4th edition made a goal of making it easier on DMs, making prep quick and painless and making running the game smooth and simple. They largely succeeded but failed on several fronts. Monster blocks are a godsend. Everything you need to run the monster fits in their stat block. No more looking up spells to run a monster. No more monsters having lists of abilities that will never see the light of day. Creating balanced encounters (or easy or hard) was so simple as to require no math whatsoever. Just pick out the same number of monsters at the save level of your players and you're good to go. Add more levels to make it harder, remove levels to make it easier. From -4 to +4 for super easy to super hard.
So what went wrong? Well, a lot depending on who you talk to. Some will say the feel of the game changed. It wasn't D&D anymore. Some will say they miss some of the options they had before. Some will say the game feels to much like a video game. Some will say the classes having similar structure makes them too "samey". Some will complain the combats take too long. Some complain that too much power was taken from the DM. Some will say the characters are now super powered and its harder to tell more simple gritty stories, rather that something akin to D&D Supers. There is some truth to all these complaints. But a diligent gamer can overcome almost all of them, and find a game that is fun, fast, simple and feels like D&D did decades ago.
If you like tactical challenges and a combat heavy game experience, 4E might just be perfect for you. If you like the mechanics to take a backseat to story, 4E can accommodate you nicely. If you want a game that is obviously derived from its forbears, you may be disappointed. This is really a ground up redesign. Many of the elements share little more than a name with their predecessors.
In closing, I think this is a good game, deserves the title of Dungeons & Dragons and history will view it as an important excursion into the unknown that may have failed but was successful in many ways. In its firey ashes we found 5E which seems to be a grand success, but in many ways has rejected some of the advances of 4E. While this was probably a commercial necessity, it is also somewhat unfortunate. But, thankfully, they kept many of the successful innovations of 4E. DM prep is still pretty simple, the monster blocks are still much better than 3E and the game still has a clean and elegant presentation throughout.
If you like 5E or even 1E D&D and want something a little different with some elements that really make the game stand out, I highly recommend taking a look.
I am absolutely NOT a fan of 4E. I've tried it many times and I just do not like the rule set. The book is beautiful as you would expect from WoTC. But sadly, I do not see the value in buying this system and I hope that anyone that is in love with 3.5 would look to other products for their gaming needs.