4e Review: The Player’s Handbook, Part I: Overview

With 4th Edition upon us I’ll be taking a close look at the Player’s Handbook with slightly less intense looks at the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual.  My review will be broken into two parts (as if the title wasn’t an indicator) a fairly laborious Overview of the PHB and some of the major changes followed by a somewhate less laborious commentary on what has me crazy excited and what I’m not a huge fan of (Hint: the latter is a tiny list).  So read on for an introduction to 4th Edition.

Character Creation:

There is nothing new here really.  Stat generation hasn’t changed much.  The changes that are there are minor.  Character creation allows for use of a standard array (pre-generated stats) that is handy but no as fun as either point build or the ‘classic’ 4d6.  There is a handy table of pre-generated stats for the point build system that is damned useful and, for me at least, runs a close second to the standard 4d6.

Races:

Here is where things start to diverge from expectations.  Off the bat you’ll notice that all stat penalties are gone.  This is a brilliant idea since it levels the racial playing field, so to speak, allowing each race to stand on its advantages rather its disadvantages.  In addition to differing racial benefits and abilities every race, with the exception of humans (who balance it out with other options), gets a +2 bonus to two different statistics.

Some have argued about the reasoning behind the inclusions of the chosen races: tieflings but no aasimars, dragonborn in place of half-orcs, the total exclusion of the gnome.  By and large I’m satisfied with each choice here providing options for both crunch and fluff.  The multiple stat bonuses and other abilities make choosing a race both important and long-lasting, the latter enhanced by racial feats and other options gained or chosen at later levels.  The double bonuses also make for interesting class options and an almost total elimination of stat bonuses pigeonholing races into a specific classes; a fact further aided by class powers that occasionally offer a choice of primary statistics (the Warlock in particular comes to mind who can choose Constitution or Charisma as the basis of their powers).

Classes:

The first thing to note is the unified advancement table.  All classes gain abilities/feats/etc. at the same rate, this leveling of the playing field aids in making each class stand out on the merits of its powers and your own desired play style.  From there one moves into classes; the area that constitutes the main departure from older mechanics.  First, it should be said, that WotC has put a strong emphasis on the idea of class roles typically defined by how your character functions in combat and how they interact with other player characters.

WotC introduced four main class roles: Defenders, Stikers, Controllers, and Leaders.  Each are pretty self-explanatory and each typically embodied by two classes.  The core classes and their roles are as follows: Cleric (Leader), Fighter (Defender), Paladin (Defender), Ranger (Striker), Rogue (Striker), Warlock (Striker), Warlord (Leader), Wizard (Controller).  I’m a little disappointed that the Wizard is the only controller but since WotC has previously stated its intent to issue Player’s Handbooks on a semi-regular basis I’m sure we’ll see more in the future.

Each class gets what amounts to its own chapter, the first few pages detail basic abilities, the majority of pages given over to class powers.  There are some general changes to how classes work.  Each class gets to choose a limited number of class skills (from a list specific to each class) to be proficient in, adding a static bonus to those skills.  Skill points are gone entirely replaced with a bonus equal to half your level, and I say amen to that.  Some might argue it takes something away from character creation but really, by choosing specific trained skills you are in essence, maxing out those same skills you would have thrown the majority of your stat points into anyway.

As stated the meat of each class section is taken up by powers.  Powers are divided into “at-will”, essentially whenever they want to, however many times they want to, “encounter”, once per combat (with some exceptions) that a regained after a short rest (i.e. 5 minutes of doing nothing), and “daily”; once per day only regained after an extended rest.  Powers are further divided amongst those between attacks and utility.  Utility powers typically do things other than damage, or no damage at all.  Attack powers typically do damage (duh), plus added effects.  At-will powers form the foundation of your character’s attacks with there being little or no excuse not to use them.  Most powers provide for some kind of tactical advantage and, glancing at each class, it’s obvious that each class offers unique ways to play powers off of the powers other classes.

I admit I’m a little disappointed in the lack of higher-level at will powers.  You can trade out powers at higher levels but, with the exception of perhaps the rogue, there seems little to actually trade.  At-wills do get a small progression as you gain levels but only play will reveal how effective those increases actually are.  Each class is fairly open in how you choose powers, the exception being the Warlock who is tied to specific powers when he chooses his Pact (the flavor and nature of his powers).  At first glance this is a bit limiting but makes the class almost ideal for beginning players who might find the proliferation of powers a bit daunting.

Each class section is capped off by Paragon paths.  Chosen at 10th level Paragon paths are similar to prestige classes from 3.x and further specialize your character’s specific abilities.  None feel overpowered and all are interesting.  Again, not having any 10th level characters, I can only judge what’s on paper and nothing seems out of place here.

The idea of class roles turns what was a by-product of class abilities and statistics in previous editions into a recognized mechanic in 4th Edition.  This has the greatest impact of multi-classing which is less viable an option than in previous editions.  Sure the PHB offers a variety of feats that give access to powers from other classes, typically moving them one step away from their usual frequency (at-will becomes per encounter and per encounter becomes daily) but it is really a token effort that adds flavor to a character rather than a mechanic used build something completely unique.  A huge part of that is the fact that multiclassing a character gives you access to abilities but not class features or other aspects of a class.  Which means where a fighter/wizard in 3.x here would have both weapon/armor proficiencies and class abilities of a fighter and a wizard (including hit dice) the same isn’t true in four.  The fighter is still a fighter, but with some spells.  Again, this prevents mutliclassing roles and allows the choice of abilities to better reflect the role of your class; or at least that’s how I see it.

Multiclassing with the feats however does grant you access to the paragon paths of your second class, a fact which could create some very interesting builds.  As a second option at 10th level you can forgo a paragon path to switch out more abilites for those of your second class.  I understand the decision, and I’m almost willing to bet we’ll see some kind of errata on it, either in a PHB 2 or as an actual erratam but I’m just not sure how far multiclassing can without breaking the reliance on class roles.  Still I think that the variety of powers per class make multiclassing less of a necessity and the intent of introducing hybrid classes, the Swordmage announced for the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting for example, will likely cover most bases.  But only time and play will tell in the long run.

Combat:

The meat and potatoes of 4th Edition, combat is where everything comes together.  Things have been simplified without being dumbed down and combat is almost like a wholly new experience.  A player’s turn in combat consists of three actions: a standard (i.e. attack), a move (a…uh move), and a minor (typically an ability or power).  As in previous editions each of those can be be substituted for something else with a handy chart provided to list all of the possible.  In addition all player’s have an action point that when spent allows them to take another action.  Action points are earned by reaching a “milestone” usually every other encounter, though I get the impression “milestone” could other things if the DM deems it so.

Familiar abilities are including, in particular Bull Rush and Grapple, each essentially pared down to a single roll (a skill check vs. one of a defender’s AC scores).  Fighting Defensively, and Total Defense actions are back and present.  Combat, is changed mostly thanks to powers (which provide various tactical options), a simplification of familiar rules, and the recalculation of movement in squares rather than feet.  The biggest changes here are in death, dying and healing.

As mentioned in previews once a character hits 0 hp he falls unconscious.  From there he gets three shots to stabilize on his own by making a save (10+ on a d20), if he fails three times he dies.  Once stable he could still die if he takes damage that puts him at a negative number equal to his Bloodied hit point total.  In other words a character with 50 hp reduced to 0 that takes 25 damage from an area effect spell would die since it puts him at -25 hp, equal to his bloodied score of 25 hp.  Likewise a damaged character that is still conscious but who takes damage to put him over that level dies outright.  So characters are still frail, but slightly more resilient than in previous editions.

Healing is accomplished through healing surges.  Every character has a certain number of these per day and each heals a number of hits equal to a quarter of your full hit points.  However, in combat you can only use a healing surge once.  This is called a Second Wind and, in addition to healing you, grants you a temporary bonus to your defense scores.  Certain classes grant further use of healing surges when in combat (Cleric, Warlord) and the heal skill can aid unconscious characters, but that second wind plays a crucial role in especially difficult combat and adds a certain amount of tension when things start going south.  Outside of combat, during a short rest, characters can spend as many surges as they feel necessary before moving on.

All in all the changes in combat are subtle things that improve the flow of the game without sacrificing the depth of action older players are familiar with.

Rituals:

The end of the PHB deals mostly with rituals, a fancy name for those spell you never, or very rarely, used in combat.  Spells like scry or locate object, utility spells that helped you outside combat or in your downtime.  Rituals have a longer casting time (5 minutes or more), last longer (25 hours or sometimes permanent), and have a material cost (typically marginal).  The enchant magic item ritual is it’s own affair and blessedly simple compared to the ridiculous formulas from 3.x.  All in all rituals are useful spells and the strong serpartion of combat and non-combat spells certainly aids in reading a Wizard/Cleric’s character sheet.

Final Notes:

There’s a lot I missed here, and hopefully I’ll comment on it in Part II, but feel free to comment/question and I’ll do my best to answer.  I completely skipped over equipment so if you have questions there please feel free to ask and I will cover magic items in my next post so bear with me.  All in all I’m very pleased with the book, it’s throrough attractive product; easy to read and easy to understand and a strong initial showing for WotC.  Here’s hoping the future products maintain the quality seen here.  Stay tuned folks, for further commentary.

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3 thoughts on “4e Review: The Player’s Handbook, Part I: Overview

  1. Pingback: Summer Gaming Mallaise « King of the Nerds!!!

  2. BroccoliRage

    Yep…looks pretty freakin’ stupid.

    This is exactly why I haven’t left 2e. This isn’t even D&D. 3e and 4e aren’t even the same system, they’re just new systems with “D&D” slapped on the cover of them.

    I’ll be giving this one a big “pass”.

  3. Could you be a little more specific as to why you haven’t switched from 2e? I started playing in the last days of 2e and jumped right into 3e without feeling too much was lost in the process.

    I’m guessing you’re talking about the jump to the emphasis on “encounters” in the later editions. But I could be wrong.

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