4e PHB Readthrough – Chapters 1-3

As I read through the 4e PHB, I bring to you a play by play commentary. I’m trying to wipe what I already think I know and just take the book as it comes.

First Impressions. The layout is decent, though unexceptional – you’d think the RPG with the most money thrown at it would look the best. I am not sure I like the art style – it’s too “busy” for me, and all the characters look stiff or stilted, not natural. But for the record I didn’t really groove on the 3e “spiky partial pencil sketch” model either. So that’s a wash.

Chapter 1 – How to Play. Part of this chapter is the usual intro to roleplaying for newbies complete with the de rigeur “children’s game of make-believe” comparison. The couple interesting bits are “A Fantastic World,” where they set the stage for their “points of light” setting. I don’t really think D&D needed a default setting more hardcoded into its pages, but I reckon it’s not too hard to ignore it and swap it out. The other interesting part is in the description of the DM, where they’re careful not to say that the DM sets the rules. He builds the adventures, plays the monsters, and “referees” how to apply the rules when it’s unclear. That concerns me a little, the “DM is at the mercy of the rules” thing was previously limited to the pages of Knights of the Dinner Table.

More stuff… They have the decency to call miniatures “optional,” we know that’s a fib but it’s nice to believe. I don’t like how they separate encounters into ‘combat’ and ‘non-combat’ – seems too scripted, like a ’90’s computer RPG – you’re meant to fight this guy but parley with this guy.

Chapter 2 – Making Characters. This mainly sums up the process and lists the races, classes, etc. It also covers the division of classes into controller, defender, leader and striker, the unnecessary WoW-like terminology they’ve adapted. At least they note in the “leader” entry that a leader isn’t necessarily the party leader.  Yeah, who could get confused by that?

Ability scores are described minimally. Then we get to a good core mechanic I like – Fortitude defense uses the best of STR or CON modifiers; Reflex, DEX or INT; and Will, WIS or CHA. That’s spiffy.

Ability score generation is less so. Guess what the standard method is? “Standard array” of 16, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10. Point buy is an option, and random generation is a secondary option! I don’t mind saying point buy rather than random gen, many games do it point buy, but the standard array method is such a dumbing down even beyond a point buy system. Don’t want anyone to have a stat penalty to deal with!  Or do math, apparently.

Alignment. Alignments are now good, lawful good, evil, chaotic evil, and unaligned. I like the “unaligned” change, but the bizarre lawful good/chaotic evil thing is puzzling. Even in the description of lawful good it notes that of course even a LG character challenges naughty leaders and social inequity. LG as described is more “Really, really good”. Chaotic evil is similarly the “Really, really evil” – Law and Chaos are frankly deceptive terms to use, and to a new player must seem puzzling. If they’re going to decide that people are too retarded to understand “lawful evil” or “chaotic good,” just remove law and chaos terminology entirely!

Personally, I hate this change. Odd as it sounds, the D&D alignment system, with its two perpendicular axes, helped me learn tolerance as a kid in school. I was pretty politically active at the time and thought about moral issues a lot. The alignment system was a reminder to me that someone who differs on a moral topic isn’t necessarily “less good,” they just may have a different ethical stance regarding goodness. The alignment system and Gygax’s 10 cent words were two of the things I can point at that improved my life out of D&D. Playing tactical mini combat games – no real benefit I can quantify.

Deities. They go into the deities here. A decent mix of old faves and new made-up ones. Bahamut, Corellon, Ioun (in Boccob’s place), Kord, Moradin, Pelor, and Sehanine are joined by The Raven Queen (Wee Jas retasked), Melora (joining all the pesky nature and sea gods together into one), Erathis (goddess of civilization), and Avandra (goddess of adventure, a merging of Olidamarra and Fharlanghn). They save the evil gods for the DMG since no right thinking young sprat would want their PC to worship one of them, but they do list them – Asmodeus, Bane, Gruumsh, Lolth, Tiamat, Vecna, and newcomers Torog (Underdark) and Zehir (dark, poison, assassins – Pyremius and Beltar merged).

Then there’s a short bit about personality and appearance. And languages (a slightly weird place to have it, but whatever). The language names are goofier – “primordial” and “supernal”, for example. Orcs speak Giant now, not sure why. Humorously, they come up with fancy names for the scripts – like elven is written in “Rellanic” – but then they don’t use that term in the visual example graphics, just calling it “Elven script.” Ah well.

Making checks. At this point I’m getting a little dizzy at the kinda random order of the topics. But I like the core mechanic, it’s quite simplified! Attack rolls are all d20 + 1/2 your level + stat modifier + whatever special modifiers you get from class, race, power, etc. vs defense So “BAB” goes the way of the past the way THAC0 did. Similarly, skills are d10 + 1/2 level + stat modifier + other modifiers. So are ability checks (although if they’re doing this, I’d think they should not do so much in terms of the stat bonuses with level – I don’t mind “higher level guys are stronger!” but that’s double dipping.) So kudos for the new core mechanic! I like simplification.

The levelling is next, and as I just alluded to your stats go up a lot with level. You up 2 stats every level ending in 4 or 8, and up ALL stats every 10th level! So you’d expect a fighter who starts with an 18 STR to be to 22 STR natively by level 14. Dizzamn!

You can retrain (swap out) one ability per level, which is nice.

They explain the heroic, paragon, and epic tiers. I like the concept as long as it’s kept more theoretical – unfortunately from the “Rituals” excerpt I know that’s not the case (10x cost to rez paragon, 100x cost to rez epic). Like the “class roles,” as long as it’s just a description I don’t have a problem, but when it starts turning into rules it gets retarded.

The character advancement chart is interesting. On the one hand, they’ve finally merged “the chart” for all classes. Everyone, at level 14, has 2 at-will, 4 encounter, 3 daily, and 4 utility powers. And 9 feats, etc.

Then they describe the character sheet for two pages, what each blank means. A couple of these have page or chapter references but more would be good I think.

Chapter 3 – Character Races. We start off with the dragonborn, the whole-cloth new race in 4e (the tiefling is new as a core race but was there in 3e). They’re, you know, Klingons that look like dragons. Honorable warriors, yadda yadda. Bonuses to STR and CHA. Don’t mind them, but not sure why getting rid of half-orcs in favor of them was needed; they fit that niche. But, nothing wrong with them (except that female dragonborn have titties, despite their young hatching from eggs – a topic beaten to death on the various forums, but it’s still stupid). They have a breath weapon, which is fine but I wonder if it scales at higher level – the 1d6+CON mod damage does go up to 2d6 at L11 and 3d6 at L22, but at level 22 3d6 damage isn’t even foreplay.

Side note – movement speed is noted in ‘squares,’ which I frankly find offensive. That’s a really bad gamist thing to do; it doesn’t even pretend this isn’t a tactical minis game. I would even find it tolerable if they said “30′ (6 5′ squares).” But this “distance? What is distance in if not in squares?” separates the game terms too much from the in-game terms, causing cognitive dissonance for simulationists and role-players alike. Shame on you, WotC. It gets worse later when anything that moves another person “slides them” a number of squares. No, you’re not doing a judo toss and throwing someone ten feet, you’re “sliding them two squares and they become prone.” Gawd.

Next, the dwarves. CON and WIS bonuses. Oddly, they’ve lost any kind of stone/stonecrafting abilities or bonuses, and any anti-orc/giant/goblin bonuses. And their default weapons are all hammers, not axes. They’ve gone for a smaller set of racials, which is fine – poison resist, hammer proficiency, encumbered speed, and movement resist. Other than that – still dwarves!

Eladrin. “High elves,” though they don’t use those words – the magicy smart sword elves. DEX and INT bonuses. Not sure who liked the “eladrin” name so much from 3e that they just had to use it for a core race, sounds “made up” to me. But these guys get a couple crap racials (ah, the “trance instead of sleep” power that has come up in exactly zero games I’ve been in) and one awesome racial – teleport up to 25 feet (I’m not going to say “5 squares” because I’m not a schmuck) once per encounter as a move action!!! Man, that’s… Something! As in overpowering, as a racial ability. PCs in my 3.5e games go to a lot of trouble (thunderbolt shirts, etc.) to be able to do that even once a day.

Elves. “Wild elves,” though again they don’t say that – the wilderness bow wily elves. DEX and WIS bonuses. OK racials – reroll one attack per encounter, bow proficiency, +1 Perception bonus to allies nearby, unimpeded by wilderness terrain “when you shift.”

Half-elves. Man, there’s whitespace on this page! +2 CON, +2 CHA – interesting and IMO fitting bonuses. Get one power from another class and +1 Diplomacy to nearby allies.

Halflings. Jeez,the art here makes them look like crazed ass-kickers. +2 DEX, +2 CHA. Fear bonus, opportunity attack bonus, make one opponent reroll an attack per encounter. Nice. (What’s with all the racial CHA bonuses? This better be the last one.)

Humans. Even more whitespace! +2 to one stat of your choice. Bonus feat, bonus at-will, bonus skill, and +1 to all defenses. Sweet! (Not as sweet as that broken fey step thing, but nice.)

Tieflings, the demon f**kers. INT and CHA bonuses. OK, what is it with these CHA bonuses?!?  Is it just that since CHA is the “dump stat” they might as well give bonuses to it rather than “something useful?” Attack bonus against bloodied foes, fire resist, and “infernal wrath” – an encounter action to get +1 to hit/+CHA to damage. Fair.

All right, more next time!

6 responses to “4e PHB Readthrough – Chapters 1-3

  1. As annoying as squares are, they’re still vastly better than original AD&D’s inches, which were not only the same sort of gamist abstract, they also meant something different indoors than they did outdoors!

    As for Dragonborn’s breath… it may only be 1/2/3d6+CON-Mod damage, but it’s done with only a minor action (so you can still do a regular attack after it), is reasonably likely to hit (has an inherent +2/+4/+6 bonus to-hit) and has feat-expandable area and die type (and likely more in future splatbooks). And it synergizes well with some class powers, especially the Fighter’s Combat Challenge, which means anyone within the breath attack has to either focus on the Dragonborn or take -2 to their attacks. In their design goals, this is a perfect fit… The Fighter’s job isn’t to do damage (that’s up to Rogues, Warlocks, Rangers, and Wizards), it’s to draw attention away from the softer targets (which would be anyone) and take punishment in their place. It’s not there to hurt anyone, it’s there to put an exclamation point on the “If you want to get to them, you have to get thru me first.” It’s not a main course, but it’s a nice little appetizer to open the fight with.

    And I wouldn’t worry about Eladrin’s 25′ encounter power teleport too much… Warlocks can start off with a similar (if only 15′) teleport every time something dies, which is in addition to normal movement rather than in place of it! Essentially, all the movement-focused powers seem (to me) to be there to encourage more movement during combat. Ranges have been shortened, line of effect rules slightly tightened up, and lots of powers require or enable special movement (extra moves, off-turn moves, teleports, location swaps, pushes, pulls, shifts).

    Also, note that those “+1 to all attributes” bonues come at 11 and 21, the same as the step to a new tier (epic or paragon), which is also the same time many powers automatically step up in effectiveness, and also the same level where enhanced power feats become available. In other words, it is far, far from just Raise Dead that depends on tier. In almost every area of the rules, progression is discontinuous at 11 and 21. Get used to it, I’m afraid; it’s all thru the book. In some ways, it’s almost three distinct games (L1-10, L11-20, L21-30) joined by a common mechanic.

  2. True on the inches thing – that’s what I find so frustrating about 4e. I felt like 2e was a clear improvement over 1e, and 3e over 2e – now, you have some improvements but in general it’s one step forward, two (or three in this case) steps back.

    And good point on the minor action dragonborn breath thing. OK, so both new races are “powered up” over all the classics. Ah well, what did I expect.

  3. To me, feet are artificial unit of measurement. Approximately the only place where I need to use such is D&D (and monster descriptions in ADOM, but those are kinda irrelevant).

  4. The squares thing made my eyes dim red with rage. It was basically marketing subtext of ‘use battlemaps’. Battlemaps available now!


    I am hating 4th ed more and more and more. What they did to wizards is just …. horrible.

  5. I hate squares, I must admit it.

    However, you missed the best thing that dwarves get. Dwarven resilience means that they can use their second wind (get 1/4 of their max HP back) as a minor action, not a standard action. This is huge for a race that is supposed to excel at fighting upfront, since they can keep on wacking away at their foes while they heal up and get bonus defences too.

    I’m finding with my 4th ed game that I started a few weeks ago that combat’s kinda neat and fast-paced. The book is terribly organized for a beginning player, but better once you get playing. For a player to just have the PHB open to their class section is much better than the previous versions and having options for weapon-wielding classes to choose from is much cooler than the previous swing-miss dynamic.

    And for however much you may lament the changes to mages, the mage in my group couldn’t stop laughing when he sent volley after volley of magic missles at foes while sitting at 1st level. I think you forget how much this sucked in the old editions.

  6. The first chapters definitely depict most of what is wrong with 4e, particularly the races and classes.
    Although, dragonborn and tiefling were both eminent in 3e.
    As a race, dragonborn is described in Races of the Dragon and also noted in other supplements. They just picked out “cool” races to be the core ones (eladrins – what the fried egg?).

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