Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition core rulebooks, book 1
Rating - 4: useful for any campaign (buy it)
This is unusual for my gaming book reviews in that it is an entirely new system. All the previous reviews were for books in existing systems, which gave them context. Was X or Y a good addition to game Z? Here we have an entirely new game, which you could take or leave as a whole. Despite that, this book at least is one that you may want if you are the sort to read reviews of gaming books, even if you do not plan to play D&D 4th Edition.
Do I need a summary? D&D is the original tabletop role-playing game. This is its 4th Edition, the Players Handbook being the core book of actual rules, with character creation, races and classes, spells and abilities, and magic items.
I say that you may want the book because of the central place D&D has on the gaming scene. I don't think you can be an informed consumer of or commenter on role-playing games without some awareness of D&D, World of Darkness, GURPS, or other major systems. This is the meta-game, and if you want to see what system you will enjoy most, you need to know your options; whatever one you pick, you can steal from the rest. This may not concern you at all, but then why are you reading a review of a D&D book? You apparently care enough to read the review, so I will proceed on that basis.
Funny enough, the new system in many ways caters to the person who does not care enough to read reviews about it. If you are into meta-game thinking, character optimization, plotting out long-term plans before starting level 1: that kind of thing is rewarded far less in 4th Edition. Character advancement instead takes a menu approach: pick one of these four powers at each level. Careful planning is not needed with re-training built into the system.
Page 29 of the PHB is the essence of character advancement. One table applies to every class. Every level you pick something off this level's menu. This makes spellcasters much simpler while giving Fighters more options (see Tome of Battle for the beta version).
Character abilities are arranged around daily powers (large, 1/day), encounter powers (medium, 1/fight), and at-will powers (small, unlimited). Everyone gets comparable numbers, with comparable power levels, so the system is more balanced. A Fighter could conceivably take a Wizard after level 5, which you did not see in 3rd Edition.
Multi-classing options are down. You pick a class, with some inter-class swapping available via feats. You are a Fighter, not a Fighter 4/Barbarian 1/Ranger 2/Rogue 3/Dervish 10. The new edition has Paragon Paths, which will be its equivalent of prestige classes (including expected proliferation in future supplements). Pick one per character, the focus you want for him/her.
The rules facilitate a kick-in-the-door style of play. They focus on combat options. On one hand, this makes sense, since you do not need rules telling you how to pretend to be an elf. You can just pretend to be an elf; the rules are there to adjudicate conflict (combat). On the other hand, downplaying the role-playing elements feels like a shift in the game's attitude. It reads more like a MMORPG or wargame. The powers and combat rules assume miniatures; this simplifies many things, but the rules only make sense in terms of battlefields built from squares.
A more important way that it is MMO-like is that it needs content patches. To use our terms, this is a stable release that is light on content. Let us hit that stable part first. If there are holes in the rules, they are not so glaring that I could spot them before putting them in use. The rules are simple, streamlined, and they should stay out of the way of gameplay. We do not want massive slowdowns like 3E grappling rules. The less time you are staring at the books, the more time you are actually playing.
The content that exists is good. There are eight races and classes, and they cover most of the major fantasy archetypes. Fighters have options for sword-and-shield or big two-handed weapons. Rangers can be Legolas or Drizzt. Wizards get fireballs and battlefield control.
The downside is that those are the only options, and expanding the list takes more work than previous editions. Your Cleric is channeled into one of two paths, battle cleric or healing/support, and all the powers and paragon paths assist those two roles. Your Druid does not exist, and making a new class involves writing the full 15-page menu of options for powers, if you want the class to have any options at all.
No Druids, no Monks, no psionics. Those are all coming in future books. Note the subtitle: "Arcane, Divine, and Martial Heroes." The initial release has a place carved for expansion packs (MMO!). Future books should also add more options to the classes' menus and more paragon paths. It is a readily expandable system that looks like it plans that as a revenue model.
For the present book, do not expect much in the way of shape-shifting, telekinesis, or unarmed combat. There is no rage, no incarnum-shapers, no truenames, and no animal companions. Warlocks are in, but Bards are out. Illusionists and diviners have a small set of rituals instead of a class.
If this were an MMO, I would recommend waiting a few patches to see how the new content fleshes out a pretty good skeleton. As a book, it has no monthly fee (unless you go for D&D Insider), so you are free to buy it now and poke around for interesting bits.
I nearly forgot the traditional chapter-by-chapter comments that gaming books get:
Chapter 1, "How to Play" (8 pages), is the by-now more or less classic D&D introduction. This is a role-playing game, these are dice, here is a quick example of play.
Chapter 2, "Making Characters" (20 pages), explains in general what will follow in specific. It is here that you get the outline of all the changes to come. These are the eight races, these are the eight classes, and these are the four roles the classes fulfill. This overview transitions into the start of character generation, ability scores, transitioning into the role-playing aspects of the character: alignment, deities, personality, appearance, background, and language. It concludes with the basic mechanics of attack rolls, skill checks, and leveling, which makes this chapter a bit of a catch-all. The leveling section includes the new concept of three tiers of play. Note page 29.
I think this is a healthy introduction, especially for new players. Establish your character concept before getting into the crunch. Do you want to be an elf, dwarf, or dragon-man? Do you want to hit things with swords, arrows, or fireballs? Are you a hero or a mercenary? While it is organizationally odd to include the mechanics of skill checks in that, it explains the meaning of all the crunch that follows.
Chapter 3, "Character Races" (18 pages), devotes two pages to each race. Dragonborn, dward, eladrin (high elf), elf, half-elf, halfling, human, and tiefling. No gnomes or half-orcs, although see the Monster Manual for some options.
Chapter 4, "Character Classes" (126 pages), is the bulk of this book the way that spells were the bulk of previous editions. This is because each class's menu of abilities reads a lot like a spellbook. Belay that: it reads like a stripped-down version of a spellbook, with a one-sentence description followed by pure crunch. It is good crunch, well organized and mostly clear, although I did not see where "[W]" was explicitly defined. Each class has about two pages of its description, picture, and abilities, followed by 10 pages of powers across its levels and 3 of paragon paths. Each class has two builds and four paragon paths, except for Warlocks (3). This ends with the four shared epic destinies.
Chapter 5, "Skills" (14 pages), is shorter than you might expect. Skills resemble 2nd edition more than 3rd, although with the added functionality from 3rd. "Thievery" subsumes disabling traps, opening locks, picking pockets, and sleight of hand. "Perception" covers list, search, spot, and track. The skill system is further refined by binary training: trained gives +5, untrained does not. Done, no skill points or 1st edition percentages for each Rogue skill.
Chapter 6, "Feats" (20 pages), puts them in the three tiers of heroic, paragon, and epic. Each race and class gets its own feats, in addition to the shared feats. This is also where the two pages (!) of multiclass rules are hiding, since that is accomplished via a small set of feats.
Chapter 7, "Equipment" (46 pages), includes all the magic items. Weapon and armor rules are different but not significantly less complex. Magic items have had some streamlining, and you will note how this section is far shorter than previous editions' DMG magic item sections.
Chapter 8, "Adventuring" (8 pages), is a short version of the rules that are in the DMG. It is a very short version, since one-quarter of the space is pictures.
Chapter 9, "Combat" (32 pages), explains all the details of the terms that have been in use for the past 250 pages. Action points, pushes and pulls, movement types, healing, and dying are all in here.
Chapter 10, "Rituals" (20 pages), is the actual spellbook. Rituals are shared spells that lie outside the normal encounter system. The real utility spells have been moved here, things like teleportation, scrying, enchanting items, raising the dead, illusions, and Tenser's Floating Disk. They all take a bit of money and a bit of time, sometimes a lot of time. Non-combat spells have been banished to the back of the bus.
The index is passable. The character sheet will probably get beat up with frequent erasures for hit points, encounter abilities, etc., while running out of space at higher levels. For style points, there is a lengthy page of playtester credits, and the designer credits page mentions all the previous editions and dedicates the book "to the memory of E. Gary Gygax."
I should comment on the art. I liked the simple 3rd Edition covers, but I also love Wayne Reynolds. William O'Connor has most of the iconic art for 4th Edition, and you can see what a great choice that was. He does excellent illustrations that focus on a single color, and his artwork does much of the heavy lifting in selling the new dragonborn race. Eva Widermann has good smaller pieces that have strong lines. Lee Moyer and Anne Stokes have some nice work, and Matt Cavotta bears note for the dynamic scene that starts out Chapter 9.
This is the crunchiest of the three core books, with the essential pieces of the rules. The DMG is the best written of them, as a book to be read rather than an explanation of tables and technical aspects. The MM is the prettiest of them, with a full-color illustration of ever variation on every monster presented.
Gameplay recommendation: cards or something similar to track powers. Photocopy each power you have and tape it to an index card, with different colors for at-will, encounter, and daily powers. Have a discard pile for powers used this fight. Refill your hand of encounter powers at short rests. Refill everything at extended rests. Tokens or chips that represent your healing surges may or may not be going too far.