Well, it’s out, and I can talk now. Not too much, but enough.
I got my Player’s Handbook a couple of days ago, and have been poring over it.
And, well, it’s not as bad as I originally surmised, based on the two Wizards Presents preview books. A lot of the sheer stupidity packed into those volumes has been cut.
However, it’s still not a good game. Originally, I was going to just type out the word “Fuck” eight thousand times, but then I was told Warren Ellis did that already, so we’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.
Let’s start with the cover. Yeah, it’s that bad.
I like the art of Wayne Reynolds. His best illustrations have energy and animation, and I like his use of colour, and light and shadow. In the cover of the PHB, though, we are greeted by something big, ugly and scaly that’s wielding something that looks like a piece the Fire Department had to cut off a Toyota Avensis to get the trapped driver out. It is accompanied by a scantily clad wizard chick.
The big ugly is, apparently, supposed to be a dragonborn, one of the game’s new races. It still looks bad.
On we move, through some preface blather, to page 7. Here, we have a sidebar titled “The History of D&D”. It says, among other things, this:
Throughout the 1980s, the game experienced remarkable growth. Novels, a cartoon series, computer games, and the first campaign settings (FORGOTTEN REALMS and DRAGONLANCE) were released, and in 1989 the long-awaited second edition of AD&D took the world by storm.
As every D&D player worth his salt knows, the first campaign setting was Greyhawk. WotC has even sold the setting with that tagline. So, what the hell is this?
It’s either an editing error, in which case they are incompetent, or intentional, in which case they are immoral. The tin foil hat wing of the Greyhawk fandom are already frothing at the mouth that WotC wants to destroy their setting.
Now, a few notes… Firstly, I’m usually not someone who’s interested in the crunch. I like the framework of rules, and I like having lots of crunchy bits like in 3E, because they allow me to customise a character on the rules level. Secondly, I think that a new edition of a game should be judged as part of the continuum, with emphasis on backwards compatibility, convertability and story continuity. These attitudes will be reflected in the review. Thirdly, I will occasionally ascribe motives or explanations for certain changes, that may sound stupid. I can’t vouch for them all, but most of them are from designer blogs, preview articles, interviews, and the like, and they’re real. I’m not linking them because trying to dig up stuff from the WotC website is a futile effort, Gleemax blogs don’t even do direct linking and because life is too short.
Also, as you may have figured out by now, this isn’t going to be very objective and doesn’t describe the actual content of the game much, just what’s wrong with it. There’s a lot.
Here, the basics of the game are explained. D20+modifiers for every check, ability scores and what they stand for, yada yada. Here we also have ability score generation. Method 1 – standard array, of 16, 14, 13, 12, 11 and 10. Yeah, can’t give people negative ability modifiers. That’s unfun. Can’t have unfun.
Then there’s a variant point buy, defaulting to 22 points but with the starting scores at 10, except for one that’s 8. Finally, there’s the novel concept of rolling dice for your ability scores, 4d6, drop the lowest.
Under the topic of “Roleplaying” we find the new alignment system, which they pruned down into irrelevance. Instead of the three-dimensional system of times past, we now have good, lawful good, evil, chaotic evil and unaligned. Especially the evil ones are rather one-dimensional, with chaotic evil as described difficult to imagine for anything but a mad beast.
Here we’re also introduced to the deities of 4E. Some of them are new, like Avandra, Erathis, Ioun, Melora and the Raven Queen. Then we have Bahamut, Corellon, Moradin and Sehanine, who are also new but stole the names of other deities from 3E, and finally, Kord and Pelor, who are more or less their old selves.
Here’s one thing that pisses me off to no end in 4E. They’re changing the setting material and background stuff for no good reason, and often only manage to make it more one-dimensional, less credible and creative. In addition to producing truly staggering amounts of subpar, uninspired fluff, they also produce irreconcilable continuity issues with old D&D material, rendering it unusable in 4E.
Another thing is that they clearly want to create new material, but for some reason feel obligated to make things seem like they resemble the previous editions in some fashion, and thus they take familiar names and give them new meanings. This generates more continuity issues and confusion between editions.
To top it off, they’ve been rationalising and trying to sell these decisions to the fans with a series of half-assed explanations on their website, claiming that things didn’t work they way they used to be, or this was constraining creativity, or that was just bad. I have never seen any of these problems in the game before they brought them up, nor had I ever heard anyone complaining of them. They made them up, out of whole cloth, to justify their changes for whatever reason.
I am somewhat tempted to make a comparison to Hitler and his vilifying of the Jews, but it wouldn’t be fair. I mean, in Hitler’s time, the problems actually existed, he just needed a scapegoat. The 4E designers scapegoated stuff for problems that were completely imaginary themselves. (Edit: okay, that was unnecessary, and I apologize.)
For races, we have the dragonborn, dwarves, eladrin, elves, halflings, half-elves, humans, and tieflings. Dragonborn, eladrin, halflings and tieflings are the new acquaintances. Yeah, even the halflings. They used to be those lovable, larcenous crossbreeds of hobbits and kender, but in the new edition, they’re a race of riverboat-gypsies, and a full foot taller than previously, because apparently a little guy can’t be a hero. Sorry, Frodo.
The dragonborn are scaly Klingons, basically, for those who really want to play a dragon. It’s not an urge I’ve ever had myself or seen elsewhere, but guess it can happen. They get dragon breath, too.
It’s interesting to note that the name dragonborn was first introduced in Races of the Dragon, which, while not being a very good book, did the concept way cooler. In RotD, they were members of other races who were ritualistically sealed into an egg, and they would then hatch and be reborn as champions of Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon.
Now, they’re just the proud heirs of an ancient empire.
Much like the tieflings. In previous editions, tieflings were one of the planetouched races, halfbreeds who had a trace of fiendish ancestry. Not half-blooded, but a generation or a couple removed. Their celestial counterpart were the aasimar. Now, the tieflings are the heirs of Bael Turath, an evil empire whose rulers made pacts with devils and became the first tieflings. There are no aasimar, allegedly because one of the designers couldn’t spell the name.
Amusingly, the half-orc was cut because it implied a rape had occurred, only to be replaced by a devil guy with a tail and horns.
Eladrin, in previous editions, were the chaotic good exemplar outsider race, sort of like elvish angels. They were pretty cool. Now, eladrin are a PC race, taking over the “elves as masters of magic” schtick, while the elf race gets to keep the “elves as masters of woodcraft” thing. Apparently, someone thought it was paradoxical that they could do both, while everyone, including J.R.R. Tolkien, solved the problem with subraces. For those of you keeping track, in 4E, eladrin = gold elves, elf = wood elf.
Dwarves are Gimli, elves are Legolas, humans are humans, half-elves are Tanis. Nothing new here.
Interestingly, the concept of negative ability score modifiers has been dropped. All races get +2 to one physical score and +2 to one mental score, except humans, who only get +2 to one score, which they may choose. Humans also get a bonus feat, a bonus skill, and a bonus at-will power from their class.
The gnome of the previous editions was cut and shoved into the Monster Manual. Interestingly, the 4E gnome seems to be based not on the classic D&D rock gnome, or the elusive and shy forest gnome, or even the Dragonlance tinker gnome. No! It is based on the whisper gnome, from Races of Stone, which I held even then to be a shining example of bad games design, stupid in both concept and execution.
Leave it to these guys to be given a world of options and then unerringly pick the worst one.
Back when the tiefling race entry was released as a preview, there was a bit of noise about how stupid the example names are. Especially the modern tiefling names sound horrible: Art, Carrion, Chant, Despair, Fear, Gladness, Hope, Ideal, Music, Nowhere, Open, Poetry, Quest, Random, Reverence, Sorrow, Torment, Weary.
Yeah, those are pretty bad. However, there’s worse (there always is) – the human female names: Ana, Cassi, Eliza, Gwenn, Jenn, Kat, Keira, Luusi, Mari, Mika, Miri, Stasi, Shawna, Zanne.
Those don’t sound like competent adventurers. Those sound like the new releases for the Bratz toy line – except for Mika, which is a male name in Finland, and Stasi, which was the DDR secret police.
For classes, we have the priest, the warrior, the hun- sorry, I mean, the cleric, the fighter, the paladin, the ranger, the rogue, the warlock, the warlord, and the wizard.
The classes are all tied to their party roles, a concept copied from MMO’s. You’ve got the controller, who nukes big groups of enemies; the defender, who manages aggro and keeps the monsters off the squishy controllers; the leader, who buffs the entire party and keeps them alive; and the striker, who does the most dps.
All classes have a set of powers. These powers are either at-will, once per encounter, daily, or utility. For the divine classes cleric and paladin, these are called prayers; the martial classes warlord, fighter, ranger and rogue call them exploits, and the arcane classes wizard and warlock have spells. There’s an assload of powers, but still only a small selection for every level, and little variation. Pretty much all powers are combat powers – the useful utility stuff has mostly been moved to the rituals, which have casting times measured in hours or tens of minutes, making them impossible to use in combat. Goodbye, creative casting.
In the classes chapter, the game is kinda schizophrenic. On one hand, the classes jealously guard their schticks to the exclusion of common sense – the rogue can’t sneak attack with a bow, while slings and crossbows are fine, because archery is the ranger’s schtick. So is two-weapon fighting, and nobody but a ranger can do it. Then, on the other hand, most of the powers are pretty much the same. Deal damage, plus something extra, like deal more damage, or move the enemy, or prevent the enemy from moving, or the like.
I wasn’t kidding about that aggro management thing, by the way. The fighters and the paladins have “marking” class abilities. Each round, they can tag an enemy, who has to then attack the fighter or the paladin or take combat penalties or damage.
While I see the sense in taking certain inspiration from MMO’s – they sell well and there’s some genuinely good design in World of Warcraft – it’d be better if they utilised some sense in what to take. See, aggro is a function of MMO’s, developed as an artificial intelligence because there couldn’t be a human being controlling every monster the players come across. However, D&D, last I checked, had a DM. Additionally, the mechanic makes no sense in itself. It’s moronic – Dungeons & Dragons can’t compete directly with World of Warcraft. It should emphasise its differences, the stuff it does better than WoW, instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator and trying to be more like a MMO, an endeavour that is doomed to fail.
The clerics and paladins feel redundant. They’re both described as divine warriors who get their powers from a ritual of ordainment. Their powers are very similar and neither class no longer needs to follow any ethos or code to retain their powers. Also, paladins can now be of any alignment. Both classes’ powers are flavoured for the vanilla good-aligned healer/crusader archetype. The only thing to mechanically differentiate cleric of a goddess of love from a cleric of the god of death is a Divinity feat, which are deity-specific and give new powers. If they choose to take them.
Every class has two build options, which are basically two different ways you can optimise your character, based on different ability scores. For example, the fighter’s options are the great weapon fighter and the guardian fighter. One is optimised for dealing damage, the other for taking it. They’re called “options” and “suggestions”, but really, they’re more or less hardcoded into the system through the power selections. I consider especially amusing that the trickster rogue build is optimised for dealing damage with high Charisma score.
The warlord is badly named. None of his class exploits gives him an army, and because of how “allies” are defined, he wouldn’t be much good leading one. Nevertheless, someone apparently thought the name sounded cool, or something, and decided there’s no chance anybody will confuse it with the warlock – which is strange, since every other part of design seems to assume the reader to be stupid. The warlord is a martial leader class that’s a mixture of 3.5’s marshal class from the Miniatures Handbook and the White Raven school from Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords (which I consider another example of piss-poor design work – which isn’t surprising because they designed it under the 4E design tenets and philosophy, not 3E).
And finally, there’s the wizard, the arcane controller. Or not. There’s no wizard. The wizard class is dead. What we have is more reminiscent of the 3E sorcerer – limited in variety but unlikely to run out of magic missiles. As I stated, most of the utility spells like Tenser’s floating disc, or knock, or water breathing have been moved to the rituals section in the back of the book. What’s left for the wizard is just different ways to blow things up, with stuff like a gimped expeditious retreat and shield filling his utility slots.
It’s immensely disappointing. Wizards used to be nothing if not versatile.
Every class has four paragon paths (except the warlock, who only has three). These are the spiritual successors of 3E’s prestige classes, except that they’re not optional, as such – though you can also choose to multiclass, which isn’t worth it. A paragon path is a pile of powers and class features that you get during levels 11-20, which is the paragon tier.
It’s organised in tiers, see. 1-10 is the heroic tier, 11-20 is the paragon tier and 21-30 is the epic tier. At the epic tier, you get to pick an epic destiny, of which there are four. Total. One of them is the wizard-only archmage, another is the deadly trickster for rogue and warlock types, and then there’s the eternal seeker who gets other classes’ powers, and… the demigod. Yeah.
The epic destinies are also campaign enders. Every one of them assumes you to go on a destiny quest and to complete it at level 30. That’s when you become immortal. And the demigod ascends to godhood.
While this stuff isn’t a bad idea in itself, the way the book describes it is immensely cheesy. D&D doesn’t do the high-level, god-fighting stuff very well, from a flavour point of view (and the new edition doesn’t really do anything well from a flavour point of view, but that’s another story). I prefer to use Exalted for that. It retains the proper sense of myth and epicness.
The whole power level seems to have been jacked up from the beginning. A first-level character is already a hero, a power to be reckoned with. Characters no longer grow into powerful individuals, they grow into more powerful individuals. Someone on EN World described this as the death of the Bildungsroman, and I’m inclined to agree.
Pretty much every change in the game that isn’t for the worse is in this chapter – though I dislike the way the whole system was simplified. Some changes are good. Hide and Move Silently were folded into Stealth, Spot, Listen and Search into Perception and Climb, Jump and Swim into Athletics, among other things. However, beyond these, many of the necessary things were dropped from the skill list. Craft and Profession skills are gone, which annoys me.
Another workable concept is the idea of the passive skill checks. When you’re not actively using a skill, such as Perception or Insight, you’re assumed to default to taking ten on opposed checks involving that skill. Thus, when there’s a monster hiding in the room, he doesn’t need to roll behind his screen, ask for everyone’s Perception modifiers and whistle innocently when someone asks if there’s a monster hiding in the room. This is a useful thing. However, the implementation could be better, as Mzyxplk noted in his own review. With the passive skill defaulting to ten plus modifiers, there’s a 50% chance of doing worse when you’re actively trying to spot someone. This doesn’t really make sense, and defaulting to taking five instead would work better.
Insight, by the way, is the new name of Sense Motive, and also used for disbelieving illusions.
I also like the idea of the skill challenges (covered in the DMG). It works, though it’s hardly the awesome innovation they tried to sell it as. I’ve seen similar things in several D&D adventures before 4E. Basically, the idea in a skill challenge is that there’s an objective and you must net a certain amount of successes with a limited set of skills before you amass a certain amount of failures.
Skills, by the way, have been simplified in execution as well. You gain a certain number of skills you’re trained in at level 1, depending on your class but not modified by your Intelligence. If you’re trained in a skill, you gain +5 on checks with that skill. You get half you character level as a bonus on all skill checks.
Then there’s the feats chapter. This is a really boring read and I didn’t like to devote much time to it. Here, you’ll find stuff like the Divinity feats, which are the only way to customise your cleric to give off the illusion of your deity choice mattering. There are class feats, which boost your class features and racial feats, which boost your racial abilities. Then there are plain ordinary feats that generally boost your combat ability. The feats are organised into Heroic, Paragon, and Epic tiers.
The flavour descriptions that 3E feats had are gone. Now it’s only feat name, prerequisite and benefit. I dislike this change.
Here, you will also find the multiclassing stuff. It’s done by feats. First, you pick a class-specific multiclass feat, which gives you skill training in one skill, and a bonus related to the class. The warlord’s multiclass feat, Student of Battle, for example, gives you training with any of the warlord’s class skills, plus a single daily use of the warlord’s inspiring word power (an encounter power that all warlords have). Then, once you have that, you can take power-swap feats at 4th, 8th and 10th levels, to swap your encounter, utility and daily powers with powers from the other class. Once you’ve done all that, at paragon tier, you can skip the paragon path and multiclass instead, effectively taking powers from the other class instead of a paragon path. This means you’ll get four powers from the other class over ten levels.
Personally, I think calling this multiclassing is stretching the definition.
On to the equipment chapter, which is a bit of a disappointment. It opens up with armour descriptions. Armour types have been cut down to the light armours cloth, leather and hide and the heavy armours chainmail, scale and plate. All armour types have masterwork versions with stupid names like godplate and starleather for higher tiers.
Then there’s the weapons. The weapon illustrations aren’t as good as they were in the 3E books, but they are more accurate. No strangely curved rapiers here. After weapons comes the mundane adventuring gear, which is just the bare bones, and shamefully lacks the blanket, a necessary tool for all adventurers since the days of Sir Robilar.
Finally, there are magic items, moved here from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I think is a good decision, because I’ve checked out the DMG and while it is actually a pretty good guide for a newbie, an experienced Dungeon Master should save his money, even if he, for some strange reason, likes this turkey.
Like with the powers, there’s an metric assload of these, with decent variety in effects.
Interestingly, you can also disenchant magic items with the proper ritual. From this, you get “residuum”, which can be used as currency or a component for certain rituals. This is another WoWism, and one I think sucks. It’s too convenient and easy. Too much like a game.
This is a brief chapter, starting with a note on quests. I dislike the way 4E codifies quests. It reminds me of World of Warcraft with its quest log and promised rewards at the end of it. In a tabletop game, it can lead to constraining imagination, predictable adventures and bad gaming. This section’s counterpart is one that I would excise from the otherwise rather good Dungeon Master’s Guide (along with Fallcrest, but that’s another story).
There’s also a section on rewards – what you can expect for completing encounters, milestones (two encounters without taking an extended rest), quests, and so on. This is bad, because it creates an expectation and may lead to a false sense of entitlement in players. Here, we’re also introduced to the action points, which you get every milestone and can use to take an additional action in combat.
Then there are some tables on overland travel speeds, illumination and breaking doors.
Finally, we get the rules on resting. You can take a short rest of five minutes to spend healing surges, or an extended rest of six hours to heal up completely and regain all your healing surges.
My feelings on this are mixed, but I guess it works. Hit points have always been an extreme abstraction, and I suppose this works just as well as the 3E interpretation. It does change the tone of the game, though, since now characters are never badly wounded or need to recover their strength for long. Any hits you take will be gone by morning.
Finally, we have combat, the main (and only) attraction of 4E.
The combat chapter is very neatly laid out, logical, and easy to peruse. It’d have to be, you’ll be using it a lot.
The game emphasises combat and interesting tactical setups. It recommends the use of terrain and environment effects. There are intricate rules about movement – shifting, pushing, pulling, sliding, charging, and so forth, and area effects – bursts, blasts, walls…
Thus, if anyone claims you don’t need a battlemap and miniatures to play 4E… well, he may be mistaken, or he may be lying. The game assumes you have all those – and hey, why shouldn’t it? It’s a miniature combat game at its heart. It’d be foolish to pretend otherwise. This is the one and only thing it does well.
I’m not even opposed to using miniatures. I like miniatures. They bring clarity to the field of battle and facilitate tactical encounters.
By the way, when they said they’d simplify the combat, speed it up? Yeah, right. I’ve only eyeballed it, but the amount of variable conditions, bonuses and penalties that shift from round to round and combatant to combatant is much greater than in 3E. Trying to remember all that is difficult, and it pisses people off when they rememer that they had a bonus they’d have hit with two rounds after missing.
This is the final chapter of the book. The rituals are magic that anyone with the Ritual Caster feat and proper levels can use. They take long to cast and usually have a cost of some sort. Here are all the useful things we used creatively in combat in the days of yore, now excluded from the field of battle by virtue of taking ten minutes or even hours to cast.
Here we also have raise dead, which is cheaper than in 3E. It costs only 500 gold… for a heroic tier character. For some reason, they’ve made the interesting metagame decision to tie the cost to character tier. Paragon tier characters pay 5,000 gp and epic tier characters 50,000 gp (but then, they have abilities that start “Once per day, when you die…”). It irritates me to no end when metagame elements impinge upon the game world like this, and breaks suspension of disbelief and verisimilitude.
While the rituals themselves are a cool idea, the execution just plain sucks.
After that, it’s just playtester credits, where they misspelled my name, and the index.
This is not Dungeons & Dragons. Yeah, I know, it’s a cliché, but it’s true. This game is not the Dungeons & Dragons that I know and love. It’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures, maybe, and even that’s a stretch. It’s a game for simpletons that abandons all pretense of depth in source material and deliberately cuts itself off from over three decades of its own history in order to pander to the lowest common denominator and attract players of online multiplayer games. It is no more Dungeons & Dragons than World of Warcraft is, or Final Fantasy, or Tunnels & Trolls. The inspiration is obvious, but at its root, it is a different game.
Of the other books, Monster Manual is a travesty, consisting of stats, stats, and more stats, with a sentence or two of background material, at best. This is a game where monsters exist to sit in a dungeon to be killed. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is better, and actually can be recommended to newbie Dungeon Masters – as long as the section on quests and Fallcrest are cut out, because that crap is just embarrassing.
All the crimes committed upon the setting that was Forgotten Realms have yet to come to light, but from the previews we know there will be little left of Ed Greenwood’s intricately woven campaign setting in the books that come out a couple of months from now. I quake for Greyhawk, and have only morbid curiosity for their takes on Ravenloft and Dark Sun, two settings that have been named for possible 4E development and at their very core run against the basic philosophy of 4E. Horror and survival adventure run on character disempowerment, and if you pull that on 4E, there’s really not going to be anything left.
Would I play this? Well, sure, as a miniature combat game. For a roleplaying game, I own, without exaggerating, a hundred better candidates, including all previous editions of the game and several adaptations of the D20 system.
I want my money back.