This is a review of the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. This review assumes familiarity with some basic terms used in Dungeons and Dragons, such as Armor Class.
The Player’s Handbook is organized into 10 Chapters:
1. How to Play
2. Making Characters
3. Character Races
4. Character Classes
Each Chapter begins with a 2-page spread that includes art and a summary of the contents of that chapter. The chapters are very well organized: headings are common and bullet points numerous. There is also a good bit of artwork, making the book very easy to read. The book's table of contents is good. The index, on the other hand, is only a single page, and should be longer and more detailed. It includes some items which would be easy to find without using the index, such as specific skills (organized alphabetically in the Skills chapter), while leaving out things that could be difficult to find (such as retraining, which is fortunately in the table of contents). Also, a full index of the class powers organized alphabetically would be helpful. Still, I am very impressed with the organization within each chapter.
How to Play gives an overview of what a roleplaying game is and the basic mechanics of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It also gives three basic principles for interpreting all of the rules: Simple rules with many exceptions, specific beats general, and always round down. Basically, the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons uses an exception based system. There are general rules which are cohesive and follow similar structure. There are also many exceptions to those rules, and when there is a conflict, the specific exception beats the general rule every time. The “always round down” rule is given such prominence because many derived values, such as skill checks and defense scores, add half your level to them, and you always round the half down to obtain those derived values.
Making Characters gives the steps involved in the character creation process. This includes both mechanical and roleplaying choices for the character. It explains what each ability score means, and what core abilities (such as defense scores) are derived from each ability score. It is noteworthy that the ability scores are paired, and each defense score is based on one of two scores, rather than only one particular score. This chapter gives the rules for determining ability scores, presenting rules for random rolling, point buy, or using a standard array of ability scores. This chapter also includes brief descriptions of the gods, including 3 commandments/teachings/rules for each god. I personally like this way of presenting the deities, as it gives specific things that the deity stands for and requires of worshippers. There is information on leveling up, including rules for retraining. Each time a character gains a level, he can swap out a feat, trained skill, or a power for a different one if they so choose. The rules seem solid, and players that discover they do not like the way they built their character will not be stuck with their bad choices. Also, this allows for the easy introduction of new options that come out in supplements. There is also a chart that specifies what a character gains at each level. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the three tiers of play (Heroic, Paragon, and Epic), each of which encompasses ten levels of play, and an overview of the layout of the character sheet.
Character Races presents each of the races. Each race takes up two pages, with mechanical information in a standard format on the left page, and roleplaying information starting just below it and continuing to the next page. This means that there is a lot of roleplaying guidance for players. This information begins with a brief description, followed by reasons to play that race (both roleplaying and mechanical), physical qualities, how to play (including characteristics and names), and three sample adventurers of that race. I was impressed with the presentation of the races, and enjoyed reading them. As the designers promised, the races all feel very different, and each race’s abilities solidify the flavor of that race. Even apart from different stat modifiers, each race has special abilities that make that race unique, and that will remain useful throughout the adventuring life of the character.
Character Classes presents each class in turn, with a brief roleplaying quote followed by the mechanical information for that class. Mechanical information begins with the class’s role, power source, and key ability scores. These are basically guidelines which will help the player choose the appropriate class for the character they want to create. The roles are striker (high damage output), defender (taking hits and keeping enemies away from allies), controller (debuffs and crowd control), and leader (buffer and healer). These are the same roles that characters have always filled in a D&D party, and explicitly stating this should help new players figure out which class is appropriate for their character. All too often, in 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, a new players would have a character concept, but get caught up in the name of the class or something in the description and create a character that does not mechanically do what they picture the character doing. The Power Source lets the player know the source of the character’s power (Arcane, Divine, or Martial), and Key Abilities guide the player in selecting which ability scores to emphasize when creating the character. Note that which Key Abilities are most important will often depend on which powers the character plans to take, as well as which build options the player chooses. The mechanical information continues with armor and weapon proficiencies, defense bonuses, hit points at first level, hit points per level, healing surges per day, trained skills, build options, and class features. The most interesting aspect of this for me is the Build Options. Each class has two Build Options, and which one you select will have a great impact on the character, since certain powers for each class gain a bonus if you have the appropriate build option. This is an excellent feature of the system, as the player is not prevented from branching out and taking powers from the other build option (in fact, this is likely to happen quite often), but characters that focus on their build option will be good at the area they wish to specialize in. For those that feel such things are overly restrictive, it is worth noting that the powers that care about which Build Option you chose are only a very small subset of the powers, and so will not take over the character. Following the mechanical information for a class is a list of that class’s powers, organized by level. This makes it very easy to look at and compare powers side by side when leveling a character up. I personally like this format, as leveling up is the most common time a player or DM would want to look up a power. After the powers comes a list of the paragon paths, which grant a character additional powers and abilities beyond those granted by race and class. Each class has four paragon paths, except for the Warlock, which has only 3. Each Paragon Path has a prerequisite of being a member of the appropriate class. Note that the Paragon Path section also includes the rules for multiclassing, which I will discuss in more detail when I discuss the Feats chapter. The chapter concludes with a description of Epic Destinies, which are intended to guide your character to his fate at the end of the campaign and beyond. Each Epic Destiny gives the character additional powers, including an “Immortality” power which allows the character to completely recover from near or possibly beyond death. However, with only four Epic Destinies listed, this section seems a bit sparse. Two of them, the Demigod and the Eternal Seeker, have no prerequisites beyond being the appropriate level and are generally applicable, but it still feels very limiting. It is likely that many more will come out on D&D Insider or in other supplements, but it feels like this aspect of the game will be lacking with only this rulebook.
Skills contains everything a player needs to know about skills. The skills are designed to be very broad. A skill check is made by rolling a d20, and adding to the result one-half the character’s level, the appropriate ability score, +5 if the skill is trained, and miscellaneous bonuses. A character’s trained skills come from the character’s class. The only way to obtain additional skills is to take a feat. Although I will miss the customization of skills from 3rd Edition, the simplicity of the 4th Edition system does have its appeal, and I am very happy to see the skill list consolidated into something more manageable. Also, the fact that all characters have a certain basic competency with all skills means that characters that are not trained in a skill will not be completely useless whenever that skill comes up.
Feats are much more common in 4th Edition than in 3rd Edition. A character gets a feat at each even level, as well as at levels 1, 11, and 21. Feats are organized by tier. Most feats have prerequisites that you must meet before taking them, but rarely do these prerequisites include other feats. There are several feats that require the character to be a member of the appropriate race or class to take them, and enhance that race or class’s unique abilities or play into its flavor. One of the feats allows a character to gain an additional trained skill. Several of the Heroic Tier feats improve as the character advances in tier, and many feats continue to be valuable at higher tiers. This helps make up for the fact that the Paragon and Epic tiers have fewer feats than the Heroic tier. Note also that a character can, after reaching the higher tier, retrain feats from the lower tier into feats from the higher tier. This chapter finishes with the Multiclass Feats, which explains how 4th Edition Multiclassing works. Basically, there is an entry multiclass feat for each class. Each entry multiclass feat grants a new trained skill (either a particular one or one chosen from the new class’s class skill list) and an at-will class ability or at-will power as an ability usable once per encounter (the cleric and warlord abilities are exceptions, as they grant their healing abilities usable once per day). These feats are very powerful, as they give the character a trained skill (which in and of itself costs a feat) as well as a powerful ability. However, they are balanced by the prerequisite stats, and the limit on what skills can be taken. Still, I anticipate them being extremely popular. This entry multiclass feat also makes the character count as a member of the new class for several purposes, including selecting paragon paths. In addition, the character can forego taking a paragon path and its associated powers in order to gain powers from the new class instead. A character can only take one entry multiclass feat. The entry multiclass feat serves as a prerequisite to three other multiclass feats, which allows the character to swap out a power from the original class for a corresponding power of the new class. There is a feat to swap out an encounter, utility, and daily power. There is a general feeling that this is underpowered, since you are spending a resource (a feat) to swap one resource for another. Having not seen it in action, I am currently withholding judgment on this issue. It does seem weak, but I have not had time to thoroughly check out the available multiclass options. In any case, a character can choose which, if any, of those feats to take, as none of them are required in order to take the others.
Equipment explains what different items do. It begins with a note on coins and currency, then describes how armor and shields work. It is noteworthy that armor does not have arcane spell failure, allowing for armor wearing wizards, although they would need to be proficient in said armor. If a character wears light armor, they can choose to add their Dexterity or Intelligence Modifier to their Armor Class. If a character wears Heavy Armor, no ability modifier as added to the character’s Armor Class. Masterwork armors are made using special materials and methods, and must be magical. After armor and shields, the chapter discusses weapons. There are three levels of weapons: Simple, Military, and Superior. Weapons are also classified as melee or ranged and one-handed or two-handed. In addition, weapons can have a variety of properties. The weapons charts give the bonus to attack rolls granted by proficiency with the weapon (+2 or +3), the weapon’s damage, price, weight, group, and properties. Weapon Groups are important for some powers and abilities. For example, the Rogue’s Sneak Attack works with Light Blades, so Rogues are more likely to use weapons from that group. Weapons generally have 0-2 properties, which can help differentiate weapons and includes High Crit, Off-Hand, and Reach. The weapons section finishes with rules for buying silver weapons and for selling equipment. The Equipment chapter goes on to detail mundane equipment, mounts and transport, and carrying capacity. The chapter finishes with descriptions of magical items, a significant change from previous editions, which reserved such things for the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Identifying a magical items powers is now free and simply takes 5 minutes. Magic Item prices have been standardized. Each item has a level, and all items of the same level have the same price. This section organizes the magic items by the location it will occupy on the body. Most items can actually have several levels depending on their enhancement bonus, and the prices for each of those are listed. There are a good number of items, definitely enough to get started, especially with the scaling factors. It is worth noting that spellcasters can use magical implements such as rods and holy symbols, which add to attack and damage rolls just like magical weapons do. All types of magical items can have special powers, which can be at-will, encounter, or daily. There is a limitation on how often a character can use the daily powers of items. A character could wear four items that have daily powers, but a Heroic Tier character can use only one of those items’ daily powers each day. At Paragon tier the character could use two of them, and at Epic the character could use three. I was happy with the magical item section, as it means that players will not need to purchase the DMG to see what their items do. Also, the unified levels make it easy to figure out how powerful items are, and eliminate the requirement to look up every item to determine its value.
Adventuring gives a basic description of quests, encounters, rewards, and exploration. This chapter includes an introduction of Milestones (completing two encounters without sleeping) and Action Points (a character can spend an Action Point to take an additional standard action in combat). A character gets one Action Point when he wakes up from 6 hours of rest, and another one every time he reaches a Milestone. Reaching a milestone also allows a character to use the daily power of an additional magical item. The chapter finishes with terrain and its effect on movement, charts of travel times based on mode of transportation, light, and rest and recovery.
Combat contains the vast majority of the general rules on which the game is based. It is unfortunate that the framework of the system, which gives perspective to the exceptions, is located near the end of the book. However, the information is very easy to find in this chapter, as it takes up almost half of the table of contents at the start of the book. Given that this review is already lengthy, I will forego describing this chapter’s contents in detail. The use of bullet points and illustrations makes this chapter easy to read. The rules include descriptions of a variety of corner cases. For example, there are specific rules for standing up from prone when someone is in your square. The rules in this edition seem intuitive to me, and I am very happy with the layout of this chapter and the detailed table of contents.
Rituals seems to be an odd chapter to finish out the book with. The vast majority of non-combat utility spells are now rituals instead of spells. Any character that has Arcana or Religion as a trained skill can take the feat “Ritual Casting” in order to use Rituals. I absolutely love this change. Rituals allow any character, even noncasters, to have some access to magical powers. The rules can now represent a character that has had some arcane training, but did not advance far enough to learn full spellcasting. In addition, it allows for spellcasters to have noncombat utility spells without diluting the spellcaster’s combat abilities. Characters can acquire rituals in the form of either a book or a scroll. A character must have a book or scroll of a ritual in order to use that ritual. Any character can use a scroll, even those without the feat, but scrolls are one use only. Rituals have component costs, and the components must be of a particular type based on the type of ritual: Alchemical Reagents, Mystic Salves, Rare Herbs, Sanctified Incense, or Residuum. Characters can carry around (and players keep track of) just these 5 types of ritual components needed, keeping bookkeeping to manageable level without completely throwing realism out the window.
I like the system that is presented in the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. The content is solid and the presentation is excellent. There are some minor organizational issues. I also have a few issues with the system, but most of those are minor and easily house ruled away or may turn out to be worthwhile after some play experience.