by Lee Valentine
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Player's Handbook
Published by Wizards of the Coast
Designed by Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins, and James Wyatt
320 page full-color hardcover
Released June 6, 2008
When one writes a review of the most popular role-playing game product
to hit the shelves in years, one must take care not to appear to be
either a spoiler (who wished he had written such a lucrative product) or
a slavish fanboy. In writing this review of the Players Handbook I find
myself unlikely to fall squarely into either of those categories.
Judging by the materials presented in the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
Players Handbook (PHB) I have found a game which is a good game, but
perhaps one that is not an ideal fit for people like me.
The PHB represents a step forward in RPG evolution for people who love
running combat-heavy classic dungeon crawl adventures. It is a step
back in evolution for people who liked running political games or who
liked characters with abilities more esoteric than zot, zap, and slash.
It is oddly enough a game which, in terms of game balance of problematic
abilities, represents a great leap forward in the ability of GMs to run
epic quest-based games and mysteries. At the same time it somewhat
discourages characters whose primary focus is on activities other than
In order to bring the reader to a point where he understands my
perspectives, even if he does not agree with them, I'll discuss the
mechanics presented in the PHB, noting specifically how the 4th Edition
PHB differs from earlier versions of the game. While this type of
focused comparison will be of less utility to readers who have never
played D&D before, I expect that the vast majority of the readers who
will find this review interesting will be those who have played some
earlier edition of D&D and are merely wondering whether it's time to
upgrade to the newest edition.
The rulebook has a variety of striking full-color art from quite a
number of different artists. The art is evocative, and is helpful in
dividing up an otherwise text-heavy book. The diagrams included in the
combat section were generally helpful and clear, sometimes even clearer
than the text itself.
The cover features a Dragonborn warrior and a human female Wizard (I'll
get to them shortly). The characters have a special gloss laminated
coating over them to make them really shine.
The layout is easy to read, but particularly in the powers section,
sometimes one page pretty much looks like any other, meaning it takes a
little more visual effort to know where you are. To that end PHB
includes lots of visual tabs on the outer edges of the pages that show
the chapter and section. This helps you orient yourself as you page
through the book.
The book's binding is not perfect, and my PHB's cover seems to want to
remain open a little bit with the front cover "hovering" over the first
page. Perhaps the binding is merely too tight for its own good. It
does not seem to have the 1E Unearthed Arcana problem of the pages
falling out all over the place; just a problem staying entirely shut.
The game includes a photocopyable, attractive, two-page character sheet
(see the links at the end of this review for a PDF). In practice, I
found that it lacked organized places to put useful information. For
example, there's no space for the type of armor my character wears near
his Armor Class defense statistics. The character sheet had
insufficient space for languages and powers even for my first level
wizard. None of the places to write-down weapons had columns for the
range of my ranged powers and weapons. Inclusion of the character sheet
was nice and it adds to the appearance of the product, but it was not as
useful in practice as it could have been.
The PHB presents some very simple core rules concepts which are used
throughout the book. The basic mechanic works like this: the acting
character rolls a d20, adds appropriate attribute score modifiers, and
typically adds half of his Class experience level, rounded down. The
result is compared to a character's opposing rating (which equals a
starting value of 10 + similar modifiers). Different character
archetypes (Classes) may get a fixed bonus to attack or defend in a
given category, but gone are the differential charts of attack and
defense bonus advancements from previous editions of the game. Unlike
previous versions of D&D, 4E has the acting player roll all the dice to
determine whether an attack or power is successful. This is typically
what happened with weapon attacks in previous editions, but spells now
function differently than they once did.
In previous editions, magic was either automatic, or granted a "Saving
Throw" to shrug off half or all of it's effects. "Saving Throw" is
something entirely different in 4E. Players have four defensive
ratings: Armor Class, Reflex, Fortitude, and Will. Each roll in the
game pits an acting character against a static difficulty number (if the
roll is unopposed by another character) or against the appropriate
defensive rating of the defender. This decides whether a defending
character is affected by an incoming attack, power, or effect.
Therefore, Saving Throws do not actively resist the incoming attack as
they did in previous editions of D&D. Instead, Saving Throws are
typically a roll of 10+ on a d20 (a 55% chance of success), to shrug off
an ongoing effect. You make Saving Throws for each ongoing effect that
is still affecting your character at the end of each of his turns.
While the game has a number of specific modifiers (attribute scores,
half of a characters experience level, etc.), most of the general
modifiers are easy to remember. A normal good modifier is a +2; a
normal bad modifier is -2. Really good or bad modifiers are +5 or -5
respectively. So, it's often easy to adjudicate something without
looking up a specific rule by using this simple rule of thumb.
This uniformity of mechanics makes the underlying chassis of 4E much
easier for a new GM to run adventures with. It will also make the game
easier to teach to neophyte players.
Attributes and Character Building
Character building is a somewhat involved process. It took me 30
minutes to make each of my two first level characters. If you want to
play a more "canned" character, or you find the options overwhelming,
the book does have suggested starting options pre-picked for you. I
preferred to build my character from scratch because most of the
elements of character building are relatively easy to piece together,
even for a new player.
While players have some freedom to select their character's abilities,
in general, each character is based around a character archetype, or
"Class" - a familiar D&D concept. While there are resources to spend on
options during character creation, there is no unified pool of common
points available for the purchase of skills, attributes, and powers as
in other games like the Hero System (Hero Games). Instead there are
attribute points, skill slots, Feat slots, and various types of power
slots. This makes the math of character creation fairly trivial.
However, the division of the character up into a variety of
non-transferable slots means that character creation is less flexible
than in a pure point-based system, but is also much harder to abuse.
While Attribute Scores for Strength, Constitution, Dexterity,
Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma can be randomly generated, the game
really encourages creation of an array of 6 attribute scores using a
point buy system. Using this method, you start with a default array of
attribute scores including one attribute that starts at a score of 8 and
five attributes that start at a score10. You then are granted points to
modify those values upwards. Adding more to an attribute score is a
pure linear 1:1 increase until the attribute increase to 13, and then
additional attributes cost more points per level. Your average
attribute scores are higher when your maximum attribute score is lower.
Attributes each convert into modifiers using the following formula:
(Attribute - 10)/2, rounded down. Modifiers are used for multiple
purposes throughout the game. The use of a 3-18 Attribute scale is
largely a holdover from 1st edition (1E) D&D and really adds little
except an extra layer of complexity, since you use the resulting
modifier for most purposes. These Attribute modifiers are no longer
tied to specific defensive scores in a one-to-one correlation - for
example, you can either add your Wisdom or your Charisma modifier to
your Will Defense. Attribute scores advance periodically throughout a
character's life span as he becomes more skilled and gains a level of
experience in his character Class.
Each character Class has powers that focus on any of up to 3 different
Attribute scores. This means that a player has to be careful not to
crank up one of his character's Attribute to the exclusion of others if
he wants to be able to diversify the type of powers his character will
have access to. One-trick wonders are possible, of course (such as a
Fighter whose only really high score is Strength), but there is now a
place for a character who has a diversity of above average Attributes
instead of just one gratuitously high Attribute score.
There are 30 levels of each character Class in this version of D&D.
Unlike previous versions of D&D which tended to have a "sweet spot"
where they were neither too fragile nor too powerful (for example, 8th
to 12th level characters), the 4th edition PHB seems to support play
from 1st level to 30th level. Character level is a dominating force in
4E. Players add 1/2 of their level, rounded down, to all their
defenses, to all their hit rolls, to all their attribute checks, and to
all their skill checks.
Skills are unlike 3rd Edition. All characters have all skills
automatically. In a handful of instances a specific aspect of a skill
is usable only by someone who is "Trained" in the skill, but this is
usually not the case. A character who is Trained in a skill gets a flat
+5 bonus over a similar character without Training. Character Classes
typically grant 3-4 Trained skills from a short list of skills that
emphasize the themes of the Class. Each Attribute modifier adds to
skills related to that attribute.
As noted earlier, a character gains a flat bonus to all skills (both
Trained and Untrained) equal to half his level, rounded down. This
means that Attributes being equal, a 12th level character is always
flatly better at every untrained skill than a similar 1st level
character who is trained in the skill. This system is fantastically
simpler than 3E skills, and speeds character creation, particularly when
creating a character starting out at more then 1st level. It
distinguishes character Classes at 1st level (where the +5 bonus is
substantial), but it tends to de-emphasize the differences between
Classes at higher levels (where the +5 Trained bonus makes up a
progressively lower percentage of the total bonus). The +5 Trained
bonus makes beginning 1st level characters more competent in their
specialties than their 3E counterparts.
Skills are much more broadly defined in 4E. "Sneak", for example,
combines "Move Silently" and "Hide in Shadows" from previous editions.
This again makes characters which are less differentiated from each
other, but makes a character's skills much easier to read and use.
Gone from the skill list are all professional and musical performance
skills. So, skills that made a character stand out as unique in some
non-combat circumstances are gone. Examples of missing skills include
"Perform: String Instruments", "Knowledge: Engineering", and
"Profession: Mason". Still present are some information gathering,
thieving, and diplomacy skills, so there is still some support for
non-combat skill use.
As with many other rules sub-systems, the distinctions between character
Classes is blurred when it comes to skills. One of the 4E Feats gives
characters an extra Trained Skill of their choice. The existence of
this Feat means that, differences in Attribute Scores and races aside,
any character of any Class can instantly be as good as a member of a
class that is supposed to be specialized in the use of that skill. I
found this pretty dissatisfying, because the whole point of the class
system should be to make archetypical characters, and if the archetypes
don't really excel at their chosen bailiwick compared to others, it
makes me wonder why D&D is using a class-based system at all in 4E.
Sometimes I want my character to be skill-based; I want that to be what
makes the character shine. The new skill system undermines those
specialized characters by allowing pretty much anyone to be as good as
them at almost anything.
Powers & Feats
All characters get a list of special powers based upon their character's
race and Class. Powers come in 3 basic varieties: powers usable at-will
(At-Will Powers), powers usable once per combat encounter (Encounter
Powers), and powers which your character can only activate once per day
(Daily Powers). In addition to the basic list of powers that every
member of your race and/or Class shares in common, your experience level
gives you access to a number of power slots that you can spend to let
you pick powers from selected lists. Racial powers are merely listed
together with the race. Other power lists are arranged by Class and
then by level.
Feats are typically minor special abilities or bits of character
trimming that help customize a character that last little bit. Many of
them can be chosen by any character, but a good number of them can only
be chosen by specific races or Classes. They typically are not as
powerful as Class-specific powers, nor indeed are most of them as
powerful as some of the upper end Feats in 3E. Feats are plentiful -
characters get one starting Feat (two for humans) and then get a new
Feat at every even Level thereafter. There is also a fairly long list
of Feats to choose from, though some are unavailable to characters until
they reach higher Levels.
In 3E characters could have multiple Classes simultaneously. This is
not entirely possible with 4E. In 4E you have one Class for your
character's entire career, but by spending Feats on multi-Classing you
can forego selecting powers for your Class (or trade them in) for powers
from a second Class. It's officially not possible to have 3 Classes for
a character any more (however, see my comments on ritual magic, below).
Multi-Classing restrictions are nominally only a marginal limit on
obtaining proficiency in the trappings of a different Class. Armor and
weapon proficiencies and skill training are all acquired via Feat
expenditure. Classes specializing in weapons and armor merely get those
Feats for free as a Class Feature. There are no rules preventing
armored bow-wielding wizards who are tracking experts, so if you are
willing to spend the requisite Feat slots you can acquire those
abilities without actually multi-Classing.
Multi-Classing in 4E really lets you gain access not to the external
trappings of another Class, but to that other Class' list of powers,
most of which are combat-oriented with a minority of utility powers.
The first 10 levels of a character's career are his "Heroic" levels,
levels 11-20 are "Paragon" levels, and levels 21-30 are "Epic" levels.
When a character reaches 11th level he becomes eligible to start picking
Paragon powers from a specialized sub-branch of his character Class.
Paragon powers are like other powers, but a character must pick one
specific paragon path when he reaches 11th level, and may not choose
paragon powers from another paragon path thereafter. A character may
forego his Paragon powers to spend some of his character-building slots
toward more-extensive multi-Classing, though.
When a character reaches 21st level he picks an Epic Destiny, which may
edge his character toward becoming a historically famous archmage,
toward demi-godhood, or perhaps toward immortality. This really gives
high level characters a goal both in terms of role-play and in terms of
actual powers to provide structures to very high level campaigns.
Races, Classes, and Roles
Obviously, each character is a member of a fantasy race. While it's
possible to pick some races from the Monster Manual for your character's
race, the PHB focuses on the following races: Dragonborn (fire-breathing
lizardmen), Dwarf, Eladrin (high elf), Elf (wood elf), Halfling (read
"Hobbits"), Humans, and Tieflings (human-devil hybrids). Gnomes and
half-orcs are no longer part of the starting lineup.
Races grant a variety of specialized powers and bonuses to some
Attribute scores. Gone are the race-based Attribute score penalties
from earlier versions of D&D. So a character's lowest Attribute in 4E
is often higher than his lowest Attribute would have been in 3E. There
is very little "fluff" in the PHB - it's almost all rules text (or
"crunch"). What little fluff there is in the section on races hints at
higher powers and other planes of existence from which some monster and
character races originated.
Some of the Classes in the game will be familiar to players of 3E, some
are brand new, and some of the previous Classes didn't make the cut.
Classes are divided into a variety of game-based roles. Defenders
(Fighters and Paladins) practically demand that you fight them or you
take a beating if you challenge their nearby allies. Fighters are a
little more about straight up nose-to-nose fighting, while Paladins
represent holy warriors with healing powers and a penchant for
Strikers (Rogues, Rangers, and Warlocks) want to avoid damage, and are
more lightly armored than Defenders, but they can deal extreme damage to
people who get in their sights. While there are some Rogue powers that
focus on thieving, Rogues, like all Classes in 4E, are strongly focused
on combat. Rogues are reasonable combatants, but do painful things to
people that they manage to achieve some kind of combat advantage over.
Rangers are not the Grizzly Adams, animal befriending, or spell-casting
woodsmen of previous editions - they are all about movement and damage.
Contrary to the description of Rangers as being formidable woodsmen,
with a single Feat expenditure a Rogue is every bit as good a tracker
and woodsman as a Ranger. Rangers have powers named after natural
creatures, but few, if any of their powers are particularly tuned toward
nature. If you think of the two-blade wielding bowman Aragorn in the
Lord of the Rings movies, 4E Rangers capture his combat abilities, but
perhaps little else. Warlocks are effectively users of arcane magic who
have made a pact with creatures beyond the stars, with infernal powers,
or with creatures of the deep wood. Their primary powers involve
curses. The Warlock's Pact, chosen at character creation, can influence
his selection of powers for the rest of his career, as some Warlock
powers work a little better for Warlocks who have a specific kind of
Leaders (Clerics and Warlords) specialize in boosting others. They have
reasonable combat abilities themselves, but are really there to make
their allies perform better. Clerics are priests who enhance their
teammates by healing them. While clerics of different deities have some
distinguishing characteristics, in general they heal and attack. Gone
are Clerical spell domains from earlier editions - 4E Clerics are
actually more limited in the diversity of their talents than even 1E
Clerics. They are, however, fantastically more able to heal on the fly
than any priest Class before, often healing and attacking
simultaneously, without taking the time out to play medic. Warlords
attack, but either through intelligent tactics or through the power of
personality, they direct, support, and choreograph the actions of their
The only Class in the Controller role is the Wizard. Wizards are unlike
those in previous versions of D&D - their powers are substantially less
diverse. 4E Wizards are closer to evocation-specialists, that primarily
distinguish themselves through the different flavors and means by which
they sling damage. Most spells that involve illusion, the undead,
enchantment, powerful divinations, and powerful transport are either
very high level, substantially limited, or gone from the wizard's list
of potential abilities altogether. For example, to create the illusion
of a deer grazing now requires 10 minutes of casting time, 500 gold
pieces of components, and a 12th level caster. Scrying abilities that
were available to 5th level mages are now the province of mages from
16th to 28th level. For GM's wanting to run epic quests, this is a
major plus. Now a mid-level wizard can't scry on the mountain, take the
ring of doom, teleport it half way across the continent, protect himself
from the volcano at his destination, and fly off into the heavens all
before lunch. The downside is that wizards seem remarkably flavorless.
Wizard players primarily get to make tactical decisions about who they
blast and with what type of energy.
Sorcerers, Monks, Bards, Druids, Barbarians, and all other sub-Classes
of specialist wizards are now gone from the PHB.
Magic and Spells
It is impossible to mention Wizards without talking about magic in 4E.
With the advent of powers that can be used at will and once per
encounter, Wizards sometimes run out of their most powerful abilities
which are usable only once per day, but they never completely run out of
effects they can use. The same is true of Clerics and Warlocks. The
long list of diverse effects that one would expect from Wizards and
Clerics is now gone, reducing character building decisions to a much
smaller pool of abilities. Spells that are limited to daily usage
cannot typically, with few exceptions, be used multiple times per day.
For example, for most casters there is no way to "memorize" multiple
copies of an Invisibility spell.
While Wizards don't, by default, start the game knowing how to wear
heavier armors, spending Feat slots will give access to this ability.
This is important because there are no longer spell failure prohibitions
about Wizards casting spells while wearing armor.
Both Clerics and Wizards start the game with access to Ritual magic.
Wizards automatically gain free access to new Rituals as they gain
levels. Clerics have to spend money to get someone to teach them new
Rituals (or alternately crib notes off the party Wizard). Unlike
Class-based spell powers, Ritual magic, though time consuming, can be
repeated ad nauseum provided that you have a well-equipped stockpile of
resources and cash.
Rituals are a form of magic that takes a lot of expensive components and
a long time to cast. Many spells that casters used to cast in previous
versions of D&D with a flick of the wrist can now only be cast
completely outside of combat. Sometimes this can produce undesirable
results. The ability to comprehend an unknown language now requires 10
minutes to cast, so the flavor text noting that "the guttural language
of the creatures before you clarifies into something you understand" is
laughably implausible. If you've got a foreign-language-speaking
stranger in front of you he's unlikely to stand there for 10 minutes
while you ignore him and chant incomprehensibly. Given that the spell
lasts 24 hours, one might presume that you would simply cast it whenever
you are traveling. Unfortunately you must have heard the language to
speak it and must have seen the language to read it within 24 hours
prior to casting the spell, making the ritual useless for impromptu
encounters with strangers. I'm not intending to harp on a single
Ritual, but merely attempting to exemplify a trend among some Rituals.
Some seem to be to involved for their resulting general utility. Then
again, perhaps it is because of their limited utility that they were
made Rituals, as there is no limit, other than available cash, to the
number of Rituals that an individual Caster may know.
Since both Clerics and Wizards have access to Rituals, some of the
Class-specific roles from previous editions of D&D are now gone.
Wizards can, for example, raise allies from the dead if they know the
ritual to do so. While characters can only multi-Class with one other
Class, any character can spend a single Feat to become a Ritual Caster.
I found this fairly dissatisfying, as Wizards and Clerics had lost
almost all their mystique and had already limited their roles to
slinging and healing damage. Now, with a mere Feat expenditure, almost
any other character in the party can match them in some of the only
really esoteric, mystical-feeling abilities left in the PHB.
Most powerful divinatory and teleportation-related magics are rituals,
and most require higher level casters. Low- and mid-level characters
will no longer know everything and teleport around at the drop of a hat.
A friend and I both noted that much of the teleportation left in the
game is only available at higher levels and is primarily transportation
to and from fixed points, reminding us of the science fiction television
show Stargate SG-1. There's even the equivalent of "gate addresses" for
permanent teleportation circles.
Atypical of all previous versions of D&D, 4E includes most of the magic
items not in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but in the Player's Handbook
instead. The number and diversity of magic items is much reduced in
this edition. In 3E, the creation of magic items or the casting of
certain spells could cost a character Experience Points (and thus
Levels). Also, in 3E many undead creatures could drain Levels on a
successful attack. Gone from magic item creation, and indeed from the
whole system, are spells and effects that reduce a character's Level.
The primary things that limit the creation of magic items are a
character's Level and the size of his bank account.
Because of a variety of rules changes, lower level characters tend to
get access to less powerful items and tend to be less able to access the
full powers of their items as often as a higher level party.
Where there is sorcery, players will expect swords as well. Fighters
are much less bland than in previous editions of the game. To offset
this, however, neither fighters nor any other Class tends to be able to
perpetually whip off 3 to 7 attacks every turn against a single target,
even at higher levels. Combat in 4E focuses on generating movement
powers and status effects in combat, such as stunning an opponent,
knocking him prone, etc. Because players generate more effects and
tactical benefits, sword-wielders will feel like they have more choices.
Because they don't always get dozens of attacks every single combat,
combats move along at a much faster pace than in previous versions of
D&D and are a bit more tactically interesting for the blade-wielding
maniacs in your adventuring party.
Attacks are handled largely as you'd expect from 3E D&D. The attacker
rolls a d20, adds his modifiers, and compares the result to the targets
defense. In this edition, as noted earlier, there are now 4 different
defense scores, and so different types of tactics and special powers can
bring down an opponent who has a high defense in one category, but a
lower defense in another. The best example of this is the new grappling
rules which don't use a character's Armor Class as his defensive score -
these rules now use a Strength-base attack vs. a Reflex defense instead
(as a quick aside, for those interested, grappling is much simpler in
One interesting new source of beneficial attack modifier is weapon
proficiency. Each weapon has a bonus "to hit" that only applies when
someone is proficient with the weapon. In previous versions,
non-proficiency was a penalty, but people who were proficient were
merely the baseline. Now, non-proficient people are the baseline and
proficient people are better than the baseline. Different weapons grant
different bonuses to hit and do different levels of damage, so since
Fighters have proficiency with all simple and martial weapons, they can
carry around a small arsenal to pick the right tool for the current
In any typical type of attack in D&D, when you hit you do damage, but as
I noted earlier, all character Classes, and particularly characters that
have at least a few levels under their belt, throw around a lot of
status effects. This can make for a lot of counters, markers, and
durations to keep track of during a combat.
Classes who had high numbers of Attacks per Round in previous versions
of D&D now only have access to multiple attacks when facing multiple
opponents. Powers which attack single targets tend to do more damage
when they hit, effectively making up for the inability to make multiple
hit rolls per Round against a single target. These changes will
result in, for example, a one-on-one combat between a higher level
monster and a Fighter taking relatively fewer dice rolls and modifier
computations than a similar fight in 3E.
Wizards, by comparison, don't inflict the ridiculous amount of damage at
higher levels that they did in 3E. Instead, they are more likely to
have improved range, area, and special effects attached to their powers.
Overall, combats have become a real drag for me in 4E. Each player's
turn thankfully takes less time to complete due to the reduction in the
number of multiple attack sequences per character. That's the good
part. The bad part is that for our group, every encounter lasts 45
minutes to two hours. For a major battle, such as the culmination of a
quest, I don't mind spending two hours or longer on the combat. For
combats with little or no real importance to the plot (like four
wandering goblins plus some rats), I really don't want to spend 1/3 of a
gaming session resolving them. Most monsters have more hit points than
the PCs, and are a chore to cut down. If a combat is going to largely
leave the adventuring party largely uninjured and at full strength after
its completion, why make it such a time drain to get through? This
perception will change from encounter to encounter and from party to
party, so GMs running their own custom-built encounters can run them
fairly quickly, but GMs running published adventures may face
inordinately long combat sessions.
Death, or the lack thereof
For tracking damage in the game, 4E still uses a system of Hit Points (a
character's ability to sustain and shrug off damage). However, it won't
be as familiar as D&D players might expect. While damage is still
rolled for attacks, and while they are still deducted from a character's
Hit Points, there the similarity to previous versions of D&D is at an
end. For example, characters no longer have randomized Hit Point totals
- they are calculated specifically off the character's Constitution,
Class, and Level. A first level character has many more Hit Points than
his equivalent in previous versions of D&D.
In addition, a character's combination of Class and Constitution gives
him a certain number of Healing Surges per day. Spending a Healing
Surge heals a character by 1/4 of his maximum Hit Points, rounded down.
A character can skip one attack per encounter to get his "Second Wind",
allowing him to spend a Healing Surge. In previous versions of D&D
magical healing restored a given amount of health regardless of the
maximum Hit Point total of the character receiving the healing.
Further, in previous versions of D&D a given character could receive an
unlimited amount of magical healing per day. In 4E, most of the magical
healing in the game works off of the Healing Surge system, requiring one
of the characters involved (often the recipient) to spend a Healing
Surge. This limits the total healing that a character can receive
during the day, and also calibrates the absolute amount of each healing
effect relative to the specific character being healed.
Even without magical healing characters can spend any number of their
remaining Healing Surges between encounters. Consider that a level 1
Fighter with a 13 Constitution has 28 Hit Points and 10 Healing Surges,
effectively totaling up to 98 total Hit Points of damage he can sustain
over a prolonged day of adventuring. Additionally, like adventurers in
some computer role-playing games, every time a character gets a full
night's rest, he heals from all wounds.
Characters which are at negative Hit Points and unconscious can't
typically spend their healing surges of their own accord. However, the
party healers can intervene to make sure those Healing Surges come into
play. Magical healing actually works much better on a character with
negative Hit Points than on a character with positive Hit Points.
Consider a character with 28 Hit Points at maximum and a Healing Surge
Value of 7. If the character is at 1 Hit Point and spends a Healing
Surge he goes to 8. If he is at -13 (one point away from death, based
on his maximum) then any healing resets his Hit Points to 0 and goes up
from there (to 7 in this example). So, this example character heals
only 7 points if conscious but can heal up to 20 points if on the very
edge of death. This produces a bizarre yo-yo effect where a character
is in danger of dying and suddenly stands up and is fighting a second
later. Even characters untrained in the Healing skill can make a fairly
easy skill check to allow another character to spend a Healing Surge.
This healing mechanism is integral to 4E due to the increased combat
severity of the new system. In previous versions of D&D, first level
characters and their opponents frequently had problems hitting each
other. A "swing and a miss" was a common element of earlier editions of
D&D. This edition has been recalibrated so that players and monsters
alike hit each other much more frequently. This was presumably a
conscious design choice to create the constant sense that something is
always happening. To offset this, all characters and most monsters tend
to have a much larger pool of Hit Points than you would expect at first
level. For example, the first level wizard that I play started with 22
Hit Points. Many creatures in minor encounters (like kobolds) can have
close to 30 Hit Points (compared to the 2-3 Hit Points you might
expect). In many respects, the first level of 4E is effectively the
fourth or fifth level in a previous edition of D&D, merely renormed and
called "first level".
Monsters tend to do much more damage and hit much more frequently than
you might expect as a player of earlier editions of D&D, again in order
to artificially create tension during combat. However, if a player
character team has at least one character of each one of the major roles
(Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker), then the players will
likely be able to sustain more damage than the monsters in the long run.
In economic terms, combat has been affected by severe inflation of most
of the variables. The one exception to this is perhaps Wizards, who are
able to use their effects frequently but do substantially less damage
than you might expect of a Wizard calibrated up to fourth or fifth
level. The Wizard primarily exists to use area of effect powers to deal
with Minions (a new class of monsters with just 1 Hit Point).
For parties with all the character roles properly represented, who are
facing challenges at or below their level, the new damage and healing
mechanics put them in relatively little danger particularly, if they
choose to face only one encounter per day. Death does not automatically
occur at 0 Hit Points or -10 Hit Points as it did in earlier versions of
D&D. Instead, your character dies when he reaches negative X Hit
Points, where X is half of his maximum Hit Points. While he is at any
number of negative hit points, he has to make a roll to avoid getting
worse on each of his turns, and three failed rolls can make your
character die regardless of his negative Hit Point total.
As a final "get out of jail free card", Raise Dead is now just an 8th
level Ritual, castable by Wizards, Clerics, and anyone with the "Ritual
Casting" Feat who knows that Ritual. Raise Dead's negative side effects
are very temporary and minor compared to the prices characters paid in
previous versions of the game to bring a favorite character back from
beyond the pale.
These changes do not necessarily mean that a party who faces multiple
encounters per day is in no danger at all. After the expenditure of
many healing surges and most of the group's daily powers, the group will
become less able to defend itself. Moreover, this version of D&D is
very much a team exercise - if one or more of the major roles are not
represented (particularly the Leaders who have the best "buffing" and
healing powers), then a group can quickly be in danger against any
encounter at or above their level. A party without a Leader can face
the chance of a total party kill against encounters which would normally
be a cake walk for parties with all roles represented. This version of
D&D can require the Dungeon Master to tinker much more with published
adventures if his players have fewer than five total characters
representing the four basic roles, as that is now the system's expected
The End to the 5 Minute Adventuring Day
The net effect of all these changes is intended to do away with the D&D
phenomenon of the "5 minute adventuring day". In earlier versions of
D&D, Wizards and Clerics often had more options than they do in 4E, but
when a 3E caster cast a spell it was unusable for the rest of the day.
In 4E that's still true of powerful daily abilities, but many good
abilities are still reusable, meaning that players don't have to
constantly stop to let the spell casters rest and regain spells.
Similarly, in earlier versions of D&D Fighters ran out of Hit Points
from all the toe-to-toe combat they engaged in. Now with a 5 minute
break, a 10th level fighter with 69 Hit Points who was reduced to 1 Hit
Point can bounce back up to 69 Hit Points, without aid from a Cleric,
with just a couple of minutes of rest.
I still think that some groups will still have "5 minute adventuring
days" to be extra cautious and all but preclude death from multiple
combats. However, unlike previous versions of D&D, in 4E that will be
one possible choice of how to handle adventuring, not merely the only
way to survive.
Organization and Editing
There are an awful lot of powers, effects, and Feats in the rules. Some
of the rules are not well-indexed, and practically none of the powers
are indexed by name, which sometimes gave me substantial frustration
when I wanted to look something up.
The book is not well-organized for players learning the system. Many
terms and shorthand symbols are used early in the book without first
explaining what they are. The actual core rules come very late in the
rulebook. The rules are, however, well-organized for character
building, which means that the book's organization may be a thorn in
your side while you are first learning the game, but the PHB's
organizational structure will likely grow on you as you get more used to
the game's rules and are using the game for pure reference.
The organizational paradigm for powers is inconsistent in the PHB. All
non-Rituals are organized by Class, then by level, and then in
alphabetical order. Rituals, however, are not listed in the order of
their level, but are instead listed entirely in alphabetical order with
a spell list at the beginning of the section that is keyed to level
order. This caused a bit of cognitive dissonance for me when trying to
choose Rituals as compared to other powers. However, since there are
relatively fewer Rituals, this may not be of great concern to most
The game is also not perfectly edited. Several powers gave rise to
unanswered rules questions, sometimes key rules are buried in fluff, and
I found a few pretty gratuitous editing gaffs (such as what looks like
the omission of around 6-8 consecutive words in the description of Death
and Dying). Given the scope of the work, though, the copy editing is
reasonably good, but the rules are occasionally poorly organized or
vague, giving rise to unnecessary questions. While undesirable, this is
hardly surprising given that this version of the PHB has a character
creation system that is much more intricate than previous versions of
Bridges from the Past
For players with 3.5 campaigns that are interested in trying out some of
the 4th edition (4E) innovations without actually switching to 4E, I
suggest you dust off your 3rd edition version of the Unearthed Arcana
optional rules compendium. You'll find precursors to the new Healing
Surge system, the new skill point mechanics, and many other things which
will seem completely new to players who haven't read Unearthed Arcana.
That is not to say that 3.5 + Unearthed Arcana = 4.0. However, it's
clear that some of the things that have made it into 4E have been
stirring around in the back of the WotC designers' heads since 2004.
If Unearthed Arcana is not enough to push your 3.5 game towards 4E, but
you are still hesitant to entirely give up the familiar for the new,
Monte Cook's Book of Experimental Might (BoEM) available at RPGNOW.COM,
E23, and other PDF vendors might give you some of the same vibe as 4E
from a different author. Cook designed the supplement so that when it
is added to a D&D 3.5 rules set it will generate his equivalent of D&D
3.75. If you are hell-bent on not giving up your 3.5 campaign, then
between BoEM and Unearthed Arcana you can add a lot of the vibe of 4E to
your D&D campaign while keeping a more familiar 3.5 structure. 4E does
not allow for any kind of reasonable conversion of existing 3E
characters, even in broad strokes, so these alternatives may be more
appealing for play groups with ongoing 3.5 campaigns that still have
some life in them.
Need for Support Products
D&D 4E feels very rules intrusive. I needed stacks of custom counters,
status effect reference cards, and power reference cards to quickly and
efficiently manage just my one character (a first level Wizard). Most
of the support materials I used were things I created myself or were fan
creations I found on ENWorld (see the links at the end of this review).
The range of character powers is appreciated, but in practice, I really
needed special cards to write down all the minutiae of my powers.
Second edition D&D had such cards for both Priests and Wizards, but I
often worked straight out of the Player's Handbook as a player.
Previous spells and effects in earlier versions of D&D were often daily
powers with simple all-or-nothing effects. In 4E the effects are often
usable at-will or rechargeable at the end of an encounter, and they can
frequently have a variety of effects which are not simply "hit or miss",
all or nothing sorts of effects. Also, many powers in 4E, rather than
producing novel effects, are really variations on a theme with miniscule
differences which made the powers hard for me to mentally distinguish
while playing. These factors, combined with the relative newness of the
game, and the fact that even powers that have similar names to earlier
editions work in completely unfamiliar ways, really begged for reference
material. Some players, especially those with higher level characters,
may have their character area littered with photocopies of the rulebook
pages. These photos - from Wizards of the Coast, no less - shows that I
am not alone in my use of special reference cards.
Wizards of the Coast intends to market blank power cards, but given the
detailed nature of some powers, the equivalent of a high end index card
for my hand scrawled notations won't really suffice. WotC's new
restricted Gaming System License has disallowed companies like Green
Ronin from producing some of the support products for 4E that they had
planned. So, WotC has left fans to their own devices at the time of
launch. Fans online at ENWorld have already started designing many of
these cards themselves. When your role-playing space has so many power
cards that it looks like a CCG tournament is going on, it's not hard to
imagine that some players may come to the conclusion that this game is
Dungeons & Dragons in name alone. I didn't feel that way myself, but I
can definitely empathize with players who do.
Players and GMs who are interested in narrativist storytelling will
likely find some of these new features of 4E grating. The lack of
magical abilities that are usable for political adventuring and
non-combat adventuring will also leave a bad taste in the mouths of
players who want to do more than sling damaging spells and hack things.
Given that skill use is more reliable in 4E than in previous versions of
D&D, players who want to take on non-combat roles will, however, still
have something to do. Nevertheless, non-combat powers and effects are
strongly in the minority in the PHB, and powers that allow for subtle
flavor and court intrigue are largely carved out from the game or
otherwise difficult to use for all but higher level characters.
While this is a review of the PHB, it is noteworthy that the Dungeon
Master's Guide does contain a section on Skill Challenges and non-combat
encounters. While this is a refreshing idea given the massive combat
bent of the PHB, even the Skill Challenge system tends to treat skill
use as a tactical puzzle as much as or more than a role-playing
challenge. Unfortunately, the PHB doesn't convey a feel for these
mechanics to its reader, giving the reader the impression that combat is
really the primary focus of the game. Further, as I will discuss in
greater detail in my review of the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Skill
Challenge system has some statistical flaws which mean that, in
practice, it is not going to function as well as it seems to on paper.
While I don't own WotC's first 4E module, Keep on the Shadowfell,
according to my Dungeon Master who is running us through the module, it
has special rules that encouraged him to undermine my attempts to use
skills and role-playing to bypass encounters. The module instead
encouraged him to railroad us through one combat encounter after
another. If this is WotC's idea of adventure design in 4E, some
role-players may feel left out in the cold.
Overall, I felt that many aspects of the 4E PHB really screamed
"Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game" and not "Tabletop
Fantasy Roleplaying Game". There is a strong focus in the PHB on the
use of both miniatures (particularly D&D Miniatures) and a grid map.
Many powers and effects in the game (particularly Wizard powers) are
entirely tied to a character's position on the table relative to all of
his allies and his enemies. This is much more true than it was for any
previous version of D&D. Expect players to be constantly jockeying for
a specific spot on your battlemat to best use their abilities. Also,
more than any tactical miniatures game I have ever played, even for a
first level party our battlemat was occasionally littered with status
and effect counters (I counted around 10 such counters at one point).
This will be a major downside for GMs who hoped for faster and looser
styles of GMing that weren't tied to miniatures and maps.
The focus on damaging combat powers, as well as the proliferation of
status effects, really makes this edition of D&D feel like a tactical
miniatures game inspired by the MMORPG scene. Perhaps given the
popularity of World of Warcraft, Wizards of the Coast wanted to cash in
on that style of game. Perhaps designers at WotC decided that since
other games could do narrativist gaming really well, D&D ought to really
do a great job of running dungeon crawls.
In my playgroup of five players plus a Dungeon Master, three of us said
the game ran like a good boardgame or tactical miniatures game. One
player hated it altogether. Two seemed to really like it, perceiving it
as superior to D&D 3.5. I think this wide range of opinions reflects
the fact that the game's systems are not quite as adaptable to a variety
of different play expectations and play styles as earlier versions of
D&D. Most of this does not have to do with the core chassis of the
game. The core combat mechanics are about the cleanest of any version
of D&D. However, the options available, both in terms of character
creation and in-game play, will leave some types of players to feel like
they are playing a completely foreign game that was never intended to
include them. I felt that my options as a Wizard were incredibly
vanilla and boring. I also thought it was laughable that my character,
who was completely untrained in the Healing skill, could, by leveraging
the new Healing skill rules, become the third best healer in the party.
It was difficult for me to suspend my disbelief. By the end of our last
session I eventually gave up all pretenses of role-playing and just
started rolling dice and sliding my character miniature around on the
battlemat, taking the same actions over and over again on each of my
If your D&D games never had much to do with strumming lutes, befriending
animals, and playing politics, and always had more to do with slaying
dragons and quests for treasure, then you'll likely find this a
fantastic version of the Dungeons & Dragons game. If you preferred
playing enchantment-casting demagogues, flute playing minstrels,
mysterious illusionists, and beast masters - creating a more varied
experience overall - then this edition of the PHB will have very little
to offer you in the short run.
There is some future hope for the latter category of gamers. The cover
of the PHB says, "Player's Handbook - Arcane, Divine, and Martial
Heroes". This suggests that future expansions might cover the "lost"
character Classes, to bring back more character archetypes into the
game, and perhaps to expand the powers and skills list. As I said, the
chassis of the game could be easily expanded upon with powers, Feats,
and skills more appropriate for story-oriented gamers. For now,
however, the focus is definitely on hack and slash adventuring, and the
PHB seems to support that mode of play in way that's more streamlined
and more targeted at "dungeon crawl" enthusiasts than previous versions
of Dungeons & Dragons or most other RPG systems currently on the market.
Overall Rating: B+
Appearance: A- (looks great, some problems with book spine)
Rules: B (a growing list of errata, rules confusions, and poor/limited indexing mar an otherwise good core architecture)
Rules Difficulty: Low-to-Medium
Rules Complexity/Intrusiveness: High
Retailer Salability: A