When the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons
came out this summer, of course there was something of a tidal wave of D&D reviews when the core books first came out, but at the time I was still in the process of reading and absorbing the material. It's still a lot to absorb. Since these books cover a lot of material, I'm going to do each individually, so this will be a series of three reviews.
My initial impression is that the books are fairly attractive and user-friendly, with occasionally sketchy but usually high-quality art. Each book is laid out in fairly large type, with most examples in the second person ('You gain proficiency with Light Blades'). Each opening chapter page lists the subsections of the chapter so you know what's being discussed. This may seem like a "dumbed down" approach to some. I say it makes the game easier to grasp, and since a lot of this stuff actually is new, that helps. And with all due respect to the late Founder, E. Gary Gygax, sometimes simpler prose is better.
It should be noted that these books only rarely refer to the rules as a fourth edition. They're just Dungeons & Dragons. But while the game is obviously based on what went before, it, like the new World of Darkness setting and rules system, has only that base relation to the source and is ultimately a fresh start. Thus terminology in comparison is important. Therefore for the sake of this review, terms like "D&D 4th", "4th Edition", "D&D4e" and such will be summed up with the label "New D&D" while references to concepts that applied in more than one prior edition of the game will be "D&D Classic."
With that, let's go over the Players Handbook. After a fairly brief contents section, the book avoids a preface and goes straight into-
Chapter 1: How to Play, which tells the reader how to play a roleplaying game. For those who didn't know. In addition to going over the what-is-a-roleplaying-game question, the what-does-a-fantasy-world-look-like question and so on, Chapter 1 goes over the basic rules of the system. At the core it's still D20: Roll a 20-sided die, add your modifiers and try to beat a difficulty number by scoring high. However there are also three principles to New D&D that many of the mechanics are based on: 1. Simple Rules, Many Exceptions, 2. Specific Beats General, and 3. Always Round Down. In regard to the last, if modifiers result in a leftover fraction, you always drop it, even if it's over 0.5. With regard to the first two, the game says: "Every class, race, feat, power, and monster in the D&D game lets you break the rules in some way" and in such cases a specific rule overrides the general rule. For example, the general rule is that you can't use a "daily power" when performing a charge action, but if the description of your power says you CAN use it when you charge, that specific rule wins (in that case). Some other reviewers have frowned on this attitude as encouraging cheats in the system, or admitting that the general rules are broken. I just think the concept could have been phrased better. In a certain respect it just stands to reason that *generally* characters can't use Arcane spells, except for Wizards and Warlocks, who can. It's no more "breaking the rules" in such case than it is for an old-style World War II tabletop game to say Chindit units can ignore the effects of jungle terrain in a hex, when no other units can.
Chapter 2: Making Characters
The classic six ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma) are listed along with their effects, and as in the D20 versions every two stat points above 10 add +1 to the rolls that stat affects. In a change from 3rd Edition, there are still three categories of defense (Fortitude, Reflex and Will) but the player can choose between two ability scores in adding to the category (e.g. Fort save added your Con modifier in D20, but in here you use the higher of either your Str or Con modifier). Furthermore, these are not added to a save roll but added to a defense score (analogous to Armor Class). In generating your scores, you are still technically allowed to roll for stats (best 3 of 4d6) but this seems discouraged by the system, namely because random-rolled characters are NOT allowed in RPGA events. The other two methods are: take six scores ranging from 10 to 16 and arrange them, or a point-buy system with steadily escalating costs for higher scores.
Alignment took a huge step backward in my opinion, in that you've got Good and Evil (just Good and just Evil) except that you still have Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil, which are basically "goody two shoes" versus "so crazy not even the other villains would work with them." Of course this raises the question of why these two alignmnents still exist if the other combinations don't exist, and reverts to the simplistic equation of Law is Good and Chaos is Evil. Also, there's "Unaligned," which is not "neutrality preserving the Balance" but just "not taking a stand." Which I guess is more realistic than True Neutral. The alignment section leads into discussion of the game world's gods, some but not all of whom are analogous to the classic Greyhawk pantheon.
Interestingly though, this section does include a few useful paragraphs of tips on developing your PC's roleplaying persona, asking various questions like "How do others perceive you in social interactions?" or "How courageous are you in dire straits?" Then after discussing the game world languages (some of which share scripts) the game goes into more detail on the D20 mechanic, which in New D&D is modified mainly in that attacks, skill checks and other D20 rolls always include half your character level (again, rounded down).
Then the game discusses the benefits of gaining levels, which lead to introductions of some important new game concepts. You get the level modifier at every even level, of course. You also get a new feat every even level. At 4th, 8th, 14th, 18th, 24th and 28th levels, you increase two scores of your choice by 1 each. At 11th and 21st level each, you increase all your scores by 1. Most of the benefits are summarized in a table on page 29.
You also start with powers, the type of powers depending on your class. At first level you get two "At-Will" powers (usable at will, once a round), one Encounter Power usable once per combat, and one Daily Power usable once a day. At 2nd level you also get access to "Utility" powers which are not well described at this point. The really new concept here is retraining: Every time you level, you get to change one feat, power or skill selection you made previously - in addition your class may allow you to change a power at a certain level and there are also certain "swap" feats you can take to that effect.
Furthermore the New D&D introduces the concept of level tiers: Much as really old D&D had PC level groups like Basic, Expert and so on, New D&D goes up to 30th level with each group of 10 levels classified as Heroic Tier, then Paragon then Epic, with Heroic play (up to 10th level) being on a relatively normal human level (for characters who use magic and deal with monsters, anyway). The Paragon level (11-20) is where "death becomes a surmountable obstacle" and the character chooses a specific path of advancement along his chosen class career. The Epic level (21-30) is "truly superheroic" and the character is promised dramatic powers from his choice of "epic destiny" at 21st level. The classic threats like demon princes and ancient dragons are met at this point.
Then the chapter closes with an example of the official character sheet, which looks a bit... busy.
Chapter 3: Character Races reviews the character races, their backgrounds and (primarily) what cool stuff each gets. Each is described on the following lines: Most get a +2 bonus to 2 assigned scores (no penalties), each has a combat movement rate in grid squares, each has "Normal" vision with some having low-light vision to see in dim conditions, each speaks Common (Human) and another language, and each has specific benefits depending on background, which may include a Racial Power, listed as per the power format in Chapter 4.
Dragonborn are, well, humanoid dragons. With three fingers on each hand. In the early days of the world they controlled a great empire, and are strong, charismatic and noble. They also get an Encounter Power of dragon breath. Note that while dragonborn can have the color of any standard D&D dragon, their breath weapon doesn't have to match that dragon's color (e.g. a red-scale dragonborn might breathe frost instead of fire). Dwarves are the good old dwarves of D&D Classic, except that here their emnity towards giants is explained by the fact that in ancient days the giants enslaved the race, forcing the dwarves to fight for their freedom and defend it from that point on.
Then you have the Elves. Sorta. The Eladrin are a "mysterious" race with obvious fey origins and magic powers, while the actual Elves are closer to nature (and the other races) and experts at woodcraft. It is explained that in the dawn of their history, the eladrin/fey peoples were all one race, but when the evil Drow faction rebelled, the resulting civil war resulted in the Drow being cast out and several refugee communities settling in the mundane world outside the "Feywild." Over generations, the Elves, like the Drow, became a truly separate race. The effect is that the D&D Classic elf culture is split between its "fairie spellcaster" (Eladrin) aspect and its "sneaky ranger" aspect (Elf) - or more precisely the Eladrin most resemble the old High Elf/Grey Elf groups and the New D&D Elves resemble the old Wood Elves. The two racial writeups also demonstrate that racial bonuses are not made equal: The eladrin get an extra skill from their education, sword proficiency, +1 to Will saves, +5 additional bonus against charm, "trance" (they can take an extended rest of only 4 hours instead of 6, and are still considered alert during that time) and the encounter power of "Fey Step" (short-range teleport). Elf-elves get bow proficiency, grant *other* characters a +1 Perception bonus, can ignore terrain effects during movement "shift" and have an encounter power that allows them to re-roll an attack once, but they have to take the second roll, even if it's lower. "The legendary accuracy of the elves." Right. Only Imperial Stormtroopers are that accurate.
Half-Elves can get racial feats for either Human or Elven blood, and they're also considered more charismatic and better leaders than either parent race. Certainly this was true of Tanis Half-Elven, but I don't know why that would apply as a racial trait. Halflings are of course quick and skilled at dodging, and as in D&D 3rd, they have something of a traveler culture. They're also the only "Small" player race, meaning they can't use two-handed weapons and must use certain hand-and-a-half weapons (like longswords) with a two-handed grip but get no damage bonus in doing so.
Humans get no magic racial powers of course, but they're optimized for versatility: They get only one stat bonus but can apply it to any stat, they get a free skill and feat (similar to the previous edition), and an extra "At-Will" power and +1 to all three defense categories on top of that. Humans are also culturally dominant; the last world empire was a human land, and like Rome, its culture remains the standard of civilization long after its fall. Finally, Tieflings are descendants of a Human dynasty that bargained with devils to gain infernal traits, which passed down through the bloodline. But they were confronted by the main dragonborn empire and the resulting war destroyed both nations, forcing the tieflings to live on the fringe or as minorities in human lands. Tieflings are considerably uglier than their Planescape counterparts, more closely resembling Warcraft Eredar. In addition to fire resistance, they get combat bonuses against "bloodied" opponents (those who've already lost half their hit points), giving them a great motive for sadism or bloodlust. Their attribute and skill bonuses, and their infernal background, make them perfectly suited to the new warlock class (see below).
Chapter 4: Character Classes leads us to the new class rules. These are quite detailed in that each class has its own set of special powers and they're all listed in the class descriptions, so this actually doubles as the "Magic" chapter in some respects.
In the basic game, classes are defined in three categories: Arcane, Divine and Martial. Arcane characters (Warlocks and Wizards) learn magic knowledge and their powers are called spells. Divine characters (Clerics and Paladins) gain powers from their investiture in certain religious orders; their powers are called prayers.
Martial characters (Fighters, Rangers, Rogues and Warlords) gain training in non-magical combat arts and develop combat abilities called exploits. It is mentioned in a sidebar that the "missing" classes like Barbarians, Druids and Monks will get their own supplemental Players' Handbooks, and each class will have its own unique source of power (like ki for Monks).
In addition to picking a class, you're also supposed to know your role - your class' mechanical function in a party. Controllers use their powers to isolate or herd groups of opponents to make them easier for the team to deal with. Defenders ('tanks' in MMORPGs) are supposed to get to the frontline and absorb the brunt of hits not merely with their armor and hit points but with class abilities that allow them to draw enemy aggression ('aggro') away from the more vulnerable party members. Leaders use their powers to either coordinate or magically enhance other team members, improving the strength of the unit as a whole. And Strikers strike. They specialize in damage, usually from a distance or ambush, because they don't take hits nearly as well as the defenders. In terms of classic D&D, Wizards are controllers, Fighters and Paladins are defenders, Clerics are leaders (in games, they're hardly ever group leaders or battle coordinators, but that's the combat function they serve in this paradigm) and Rangers and Rogues are strikers. Of the new classes, Warlords are a martial class designed as leaders, while Warlocks are defined as arcane strikers.
Again, each class gets a certain number of "at will" powers to start with, in addition to encounter and daily powers. At 2nd level and afterward you also get "utility" powers that boost you or an ally. Note that in this system, a power's Level refers to the actual character level at which you're eligible for it, so a 6th level Daily Power means you can get that power upon becoming a 6th level character. Which thankfully clears up the D&D Classic confusion with the overuse of the word "level." There are a whole bunch of other keywords regarding the power categories, damage type (ranging from 'fire' to 'radiant' and 'necrotic'), effect type ('charm', 'healing', etc.) and whether a power benefits from the use of 'implements' like holy symbols or requires the use of a weapon (in some cases an unarmed attack counts as a weapon). Thus for instance the Cleric power "Channel Divinity: Turn Undead" reads with the stats "Encounter / Divine, Implement, Radiant" means it can be used once per encounter, is of Divine origin, gets a bonus depending on the bonus of the implement (holy symbol) and does Radiant damage. As a combat effect, it reads: "Standard Action - Close Burst 2 - Target: Each undead creature in burst - Attack: Wisdom vs. Will" all of which means that it requires a standard action in combat, it has an area effect of 2 squares by 2 squares, affects every undead in the area, and each has to be attacked with the Cleric's Wisdom check vs. the undead's Will defense stat. In some cases a Hit has a specific effect, while a Miss can do half damage or lesser effect even though the attack missed. In this case, Turn Undead does 1d10+Wisdom mod in radiant damage, and the target undead is pushed back a number of squares equal to 3+ the Cleric's Charisma modifier, and is also immobilized until the end of the next turn, while a miss means the undead takes half damage and is not pushed or immobilized.
This is how all the class powers work. This approach makes it easier to "read" the classes in relation to each other, and much like the introduction of interchangeable parts in industrial production, gives the class rules a greater degree of efficiency. But also like assembly-line production it makes the classes a bit alike, which probably explains why the roles are so strongly emphasized in game terms. It also explains why there is no real multiclassing anymore: It's not really necessary, especially with the multiclassing and "swap" feats (see below).
Each class description starts with the armor and weapon groups the class starts proficiency with, a bonus to one or more Defense scores, a fixed number of starting hit points and extra points per level, a fixed number of "healing surges" (see below), at least three skills chosen from a short list, two or three preferred "build options" and the class' automatic class features. After the main powers are described, each class also has several Paragon Paths listed for it, giving additional more focused abilities after 10th level.
Clerics are "leaders" in the sense that their powers buff their allies and heal them, healing in most cases done by triggering the target's healing surge ability, which means the target can't have used up his number of surges per day. Some other powers actually damage a target and allow friendly healing at the same time. Many of these abilities have the "Radiant" descriptor, making them useful against Undead.
Fighters not only deal and soak heavy damage, their Defender role gives them certain "tanking" abilities starting with the "Combat Challenge" class feature, allowing the Fighter to mark a target so that it gets -2 to hit anyone who is not the Fighter, and in addition the Fighter can do an "interrupt" attack on an adjacent enemy who shifts position or attacks an ally. Many of their encounter powers get bonuses when used with specific weapon groups, encouraging development along "heavy" or "light" attacks among Fighters who emphasize Strength or Dexterity respectively. The powers themselves resemble 3rd Edition Fighter feats but allow even more variation in tactics.
Paladins, like Clerics, are Divine-powered characters, with a similar focus, but even more combat-oriented. Their "Lay on Hands" ability allows them to sacrifice a healing surge to give an ally a free healing (Paladins also start with more healing surges than other classes). They also have a 'Divine Challenge" similar to the Fighter challenge but which actually does Radiant damage to the target if it doesn't attack the Paladin. Likewise their powers are somewhere between a Cleric's magic and a Fighter's skill, but even more focused on drawing enemy attacks for heroic 'last stand' actions. (Note that while a Cleric's alignment must merely be 'compatible' with his deity's, the Paladin's alignment must be identical to his patron's.)
Rangers, as in 3rd Edition, specialize in either ranged combat or two-weapon skirmishing, and in accordance with the actual "ranger" concept rely greatly on hit-and-run tactics. The choice of specialty, made at character creation, affects the character's other class abilities (e.g. granting a different bonus feat for Archer style vs. Two-Weapon style). Unlike D&D Classic Rangers, they have no spell ability. Their natural cunning does allow them to grant allies advantages in combat ('You are wise in all things. The sooner your friends realize this, the safer and better off they'll be').
Rogues are much like melee Rangers in requiring hit-and-run tactics to prevail in combat, but they are less hardy and lack the Ranger's option of ranged combat mastery ('You do best when teamed with a defender to flank enemies'). They get a few more skills than other classes, and their utility powers make good use of them. Even more than the Ranger, their abilities rely greatly on the combat positioning/shifting rules, in that they can switch positions with a willing ally, do move-by attacks, and the like.
Warlock doesn't merely resemble the World of Warcraft "lock", it is such an obvious steal that Blizzard could easily sue Wizards, except of course Blizzard already stole Orcs, Paladins and a lot else. The Warlock, in contrast to the Wizard, is intended to not merely damage but de-buff or undermine his targets with his curses. The main difference from WoW is that the Warlock can actually choose between three spirit pacts: The fey pact with ancient wild spirits, the infernal pact with rogue devils or the star pact that derives from astronomical studies of the Far Realm that scar the mind and soul. The flavor text on these powers gives us examples like: "You open a short-lived planar rift to the depths of the Nine Hells. It appears as a fiery crevice beneath your enemy's feet, into which he falls screaming, and disappears. A few moments later, a flaming arch appears in the air where he was standing and disgorges a broken, mewling piece of charred meat." METAL.
The Warlord is the closest thing to an original class concept in the system, again designed as a Martial Leader, whose main exploits are intended to "buff" the team via battlefield tactics. At the same time, Warlord is intended to be combat-effective in its own right, more so than the Cleric. I like it.
Finally, Wizards are almost as flimsy as they were in D&D Classic, but the fact that their minor powers are all at-will effects gives them much more endurance. The trade-off being that the vast array of potential spells the classic Wizard did have access to is now reduced to a list of powers comparable to those of other classes. The Wizard is also described as "the master of utility spells" but many of their non-combat abilities are actually rituals (see below) and other former "class features" like the use of a familiar do not exist. (If anything the familiar option would be even more appropriate to the evil-witch concept of the Warlock.) In New D&D, the Wizard's role is to control enemies with area attacks, mesmerizing spells, and so forth.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Epic Destinies, which somewhat resemble the older D&D Paths to Immortality, in that characters who get to Epic tier are usually powerful enough to gain immortality through a "Destiny Quest" (described in the DMG, allegedly) that brings a final climax to the campaign. Everything in the Epic tier of adventures basically leads up to that point, thus a character can choose an epic destiny path upon reaching 21st level (note, the PC doesn't have to do this immediately, and once he chooses a destiny, he gets all its benefits retroactively). However, the basic game only lists four destiny paths, two of which (Archmage and Demigod) are pretty obviously linked to Arcane and Divine classes, while Deadly Trickster is geared towards Rogues and "Eternal Seeker" could be taken by any character who isn't satisfied with the other three choices.
Chapter 5: Skills is the skills system. Skills are pretty damn simple, even in comparison with prior D20 versions. Buying a skill simply means you get +5 to use that skill. You only do this once per skill bought. There are no ranks and therefore no "cross-class" skills; each class gets its own list of class skills allowed, with the possibility of getting others via the multiclassing feat option or a specific "Skill Training" feat. Note that since all characters add half their level to skill rolls and very few skill applications cannot be used untrained, it's not that big a deal to be untrained in a skill. Apparently by the time a character is considered a paragon, he's done enough adventuring to have a little skill in everything. For that matter, this also applies to combat; a Fighter isn't a master of melee because he gets a higher Base Attack Bonus but because of his various exploit powers. On that score, all of the Rogue's various non-combat abilities have been rolled into the single skill "Thievery" (which is also a class skill for Warlocks...), which only reaffirms the Rogue's new combat-intensive role.
Chapter 6: Feats gives the new feat system for D&D. As in prior editions, you start with 1 feat with Humans getting a second at 1st level. In this edition, you get another feat at each even level and also at 11th and 21st levels (the entry points of the Paragon and Epic tiers).
New D&D has several new categories of feats: Class feats that apply only for a particular class (Expanded Spellbook is an example of a Wizard feat), Divinity feats that optimize Cleric and Paladin abilities, Racial Feats that can only be taken by a particular race, and Multiclass feats (see below). Feats are also classed by level: Heroic tier feats can be taken by anyone who meets the prerequisites, Paragon feats require a minimum level of 11, and Epic feats require a minimum level of 21.
"Multiclass" feats are a bit misnamed, really: Taking a multiclass feat doesn't allow you to multiclass the way you could in 3rd Edition D&D. Rather it allows you to be a dabbler in another class (much as the Dabbler feat in CONAN allows you to dabble in minor sorcery), so that you generally get one skill or ability from that class list and a minor power. Also, you can't take more than one multiclass feat. Note however that there are also "power-swap" feats at certain levels that allow you to trade one of your primary class powers for a power in the class you "multiclassed" in, and at that point you can change the decision which power to swap anytime you gain a level thereafter.
Chapter 7: Equipment shows how adventuring gear works in this game. All characters, of all classes, start with 100 gold pieces for gearing-up funds. Amazingly, with all the other paradigm changes made in this game, (some of which were actually needed or desirable) D&D still assumes that armor makes you harder to hit. However there's a distinction between Light armor (up to hide) and Heavy armor. Light armor is worth less Armor Class bonus but allows the wearer to add either his Dexterity OR Intelligence modifier to AC. This of course means there's an overlap where the best Light armor is better than the worst Heavy armor to a character with a Dex or Int bonus.
The range of weapons is similar to that of D&D Classic, although any character can use a weapon he's not technically proficient in; "proficiency" simply means you get a bonus to attack rolls, the exact number depending on what type of weapon it is on the chart. Damage is expressed as [W] where W equals the damage die or dice of the weapon; frequently powers or other effects will multiply weapon damage such that if your sword does 2d4 and you use it with a power that does "4[W]" you roll 8d4 damage.
"Adventuring gear", including such stuff as thieves' tools and 3rd Edition's "everburning torch", is listed on one page with prices on the next. Gear includes holy symbols and other implements; a non-magic implement confers no bonus to powers used with it, although a "staff implement" can also be used as a quarterstaff. Perhaps because it is one. In addition to the prices of gear, page 222 also gives prices for mounts/transport and the rules for encumbrance (Strength x10 is the number of pounds you can carry before being encumbered).
Then this chapter gives us the magic item rules. Yes, the Players Handbook is the book with the magic item rules. And yes, all magic items have a level, although contrary to pre-release reports, the item level is not the minimum level to use it; a 10th level Fighter could use a 20th level sword assuming the DM let that into his game. You can use the Enchant Magic Item ritual to create an item of your level or lower. There is another ritual for disenchanting an item, gleaning a certain amount of "residuum" that can be used in enchanting other items (there's that Warcraft influence again...). The game deliberately assumes a magic item economy (which is probably why this is in the players' book) where characters will trade off or sell items they can't use, and there are standard prices for items listed by level.
Items are "read" in terms of category, price, enhancement (what the item enhances), effects on a critical hit (if applicable), special properties, special powers, or other special (miscellaneous) properties. For example, a Holy Avenger is either 25th or 30th level (prices listed for each), is a weapon (which could be an axe, hammer or heavy blade), has +5 enhancement to attack and damage (+6 for the 30th level), a critical hit does +1d6 radiant damage per plus AND you get to spend a healing surge, always has the property of doing +1d10 damage with any attack that has the radiant keyword, has the Daily Power allowing the wielder to spend a minor action to add +5 to all defense scores for himself and nearby allies through the next turn, and finally has the special property of being usable as a holy symbol implement with a bonus equal to its enhancement bonus (but is not cumulative with weapon proficiency bonus). From that point pages 227 to 255 cover the various items available, in this format.
Chapter 8: Adventuring goes over what characters do in the game. A goal within an adventure is called a quest. An adventure may involve multiple quests, or a single major quest may split off into other goals (you go to an ancient tower to retrieve an artifact, and discover that monsters are using human slaves at the site, so you take it upon yourselves to defeat the monsters and free the humans). It's mentioned that with DM approval, you can create your own quest- for instance maybe your mother was a great hero who died in this ancient tower, and you wish to retrieve her remains for burial.
At this point play is described with in-game terms. Encounters are where characters use their combat powers or non-combat skills to overcome a challenge and advance the story. Combat encounters are self-explanatory. Noncombat encounters involve "skill challenges" in which you have to accumulate a certain number of successes on your skill rolls to get past the obstacle course, persuade the dragon to help your party, or whatever.
Rewards for progress include experience point awards for each encounter, "milestones" for two consecutive encounters (the milestone reward is to renew your base 1 action point), and of course the possibility of magic items, loot, and intangible rewards like the gratitude of those you've saved, which may lead to influence and titles as your reputation grows. Page 259 implies that every ten encounters should cause you to gain a new experience level.
Next the chapter describes the exploration rules, including how fast you go through certain terrain in noncombat situations, visibility/light conditions, and "interacting with the environment" (i.e. breaking objects). Finally Chapter 8 goes over rest and recovery, distinguishing a short rest from an extended rest. A short rest is a "catch your breath" period of 5 minutes allowing you to reset your encounter powers or spend any healing surges. An extended rest (including sleep) is at least 6 hours (after which you must wait 12 hours to do another extended rest). It resets your action point score to one, regains all encounter/daily powers, all healing surges and ALL hit points. "I think 'e got better."
Chapter 9: Combat goes over the New D&D combat procedures. The core rules assume the use of tools like miniatures and a "battle grid" (map). It's mentioned that you don't have to use the battle grid, but there are several reasons why you want to do so, namely the importance of terrain and position, which matter as much as they would in a wargame. Not that roleplaying games ever completely dispensed with their wargame roots, but this version of D&D has definitely re-affirmed them. And as they say, imagination "sometimes needs help," especially in a large or complex combat.
A combat round is six seconds. As in 3rd Edition, you only roll initiative once per encounter (Dexterity check). If it was determined before combat that any participants are surprised (failed a Perception check against the enemy) there is a surprise round that takes place where the surprised characters do not get actions.
In a standard (non-surprise) round each combatant gets up to one standard action (usually an attack), one minor action (defined as 'simple actions that usually lead to more exciting actions' like drawing a weapon or opening a door) one move action (movement up to your rating in squares, with position shifts in a square costing one square per facing shift) and a certain number of free actions that take little time, like dropping an item. You are also allowed to sacrifice your standard action for a move or minor action, or a move action for a minor action, so you could double-move and do a minor action, do three minor moves, or any other combination allowed. There are also "triggered" actions that you can perform during an enemy action, like the dreaded attack of opportunity (here called opportunity attack) or "immediate" actions that can take place outside the main combat sequence, like readying an action ('as soon as he does X, I do Y'). There are other options, such as the use of the aforementioned action point to do an extra action (or to use certain paragon powers). There are rules for things like delaying one's action, grabbing a target, and even using a basic attack (At-Will, standard action, Strength vs. AC, 1[W] + Strength damage). Page 289 has a handy list of examples for each type of action.
Again, Fortitude, Reflex and Will have been re-engineered as defense scores along with Armor Class, base of 10 modified by attribute and other factors. Saving throws have also been re-engineered: Usually the saving throw only refers to an attempt to throw off a continuous effect (like poison) and is a difficulty 10 roll NOT modified by level or attributes.
In combat, your character is bloodied when he goes to half his maximum hit points. In combat you can also use a healing surge (restoring one-quarter of your max HP) depending on circumstances (usually it has to be triggered by a healing power). There's also a standard (encounter) action called second wind that allows you to spend a healing surge and get +2 to all defenses until the start of next turn. This means you've got to keep track of new stats: The character's bloodied HP value, the number of healing surges he gets and the healing value of each surge and his second wind. This paradigm changes several things, obviously. First, whereas D&D Classic healing usually had to be done after combat, these rules mean that (as in MMORPGs) healing is an act done in combat like any other power use. This is not necessarily a bad thing (especially if you're an MMORPG player) in that it allows a group to continue longer without resting. Second, the special effects of this also confirm that "hit points" are not your ability to absorb any number of arrows and blows before dying so much as your perserverance and survival skill in combat. Going to 0 hit points (however unlikely that may be in this system) requires you to make a "death save" to avoid slipping further. Blowing the roll three times, or going to negative half your hit points (-25 for a 50 HP max character) means you die. Healing (including the Healing skill) stabilizes the character. An attacker has the option to knock a 0 HP target unconscious rather than kill him.
Chapter 10: Rituals answers the question, "What happened to all those spells we used to have that aren't flashy combat superpowers?" Well, as in Exalted, magic is now subdivided into two categories: the flashy combat superpowers, and all the other miscellaneous spells that need to be cast as extended rituals.
A character can learn rituals if he has the feat Ritual Caster (which is a class feature for Clerics and Wizards). Depending on the category the character needs either Arcana or Religion skill training to use rituals, even though the rituals themselves may use different skills. This also allows allies to aid the caster's skill attempt. As others have pointed out, this allows players to make the Grey Mouser (or John Constantine) type who can't really use "spells" but still has access to effective magic through his knowledge. The ritual usually requires exotic material components of a certain cost, though it's mentioned that you can use residuum as a component in any ritual.
NEXT: How to be a DM. In case you didn't know.