The Players Handbook Review You Don’t Want To Read

I’ve written this and re-written the following five times so far, and each time my opinion of the new D&D 4e Players’ Handbook has got steadily worse.

But first, the good stuff.

4e is great. I love the whole idea of Powers. I like the new Classes, and am even starting to give the Dragonborn some love. Combat is cooler too. While combat encounters will take the same amount of time as one from Third Edition, the characters take more turns, quicker – so it feels faster. That’s a Very Good Thing! Yups, there’s a lot to like about 4th Edition. Give it a few years to supplant my 3e supplement collection, and it’ll be terrific.

But.

The Players’ Handbook is a train wreck.

I mean that both metaphorically and…. uhhh….. more metaphorically. It’s a train wreck because it’s a mess, but also just like a train wreck all of the important trainy parts are there, just strewn all over the place in a very untrainlike fashion. There’s bits of engine where you expect the driver’s compartment to be, the wheels are 300 yards away from their natural location (assuming trains were natural, and they’re not) and the driver is… well, let’s not talk about the driver. It’s better that way.

Ok, enough of the metaphor. I’m sure you get the idea.

Hmmmm. I ought to put in a disclaimer about now, and a little explanation. I’ve RPG’d for roughly as long as RPG’ing has existed as a hobby. I’ve played a metric shedload of different games that all promise to be the next big thing – some of which were, most of which weren’t. I’m no more tied to 3rd Edition than I was to Rolemaster, HERO, GURPS, Bunnies & Burrows or pretty much anything else that’s crossed my path along the way. I certainly don’t think that change is always a good thing, but it’s frequently necessary. When it comes, evolution is almost always better than revision by a completely different design team. Compare Classic Traveller with Traveller:The New Era if you want proof.

In short, I’m not some 3e grognard fanboi who doesn’t like 4e just because. Heck, I do like it. But I don’t like the PHB. Here’s why.

Top level, the PHB ticks all the boxes – there’s a rather spiffy introduction, chapters of Character Generation, Races, Classes, Feats, Skills, Combat and more. It’s great to see magic items in the PHB too, emphasising further the the PHB is the go-to rulebook whether you’re generating characters at 1st level or 25th.

What is there is so poorly referenced, badly structured and just downright lacking that it’s a crime. When you’re seeing commenters on other reviews suggesting using sticky tabs to mark pages like that’s a good thing (no, you’re fixing what’s broken!) or that it gets easier to find things with practise. Well, duh. That’s true whatever the system, no matter how good or bad it is.

One of the important parts of any rulebook is that it has to be easy to find stuff. This game needs a Glossary, bad. It needs a bigger, better index. The one-page index is already a joke among my players. In comparison, the 3.5e PHB has a damned good 3 page index and 11 page glossary. That’s 14 whole pages of frickin’ useful in-game essential goodness missing from the 4e PHB. My impressions are that the PHB designers spent so long congratulating themselves for making such an awesome game, they forgot to actually write the damned thing. Ah well.

Also, the Powers are completely and utterly all over the place, and – get this – they’re not listed in the Index!!!!. FFS people, what’s so wrong with putting all of the Powers in a chapter together in alphabetical order then using page references and lists when needed. That’s how Skills and Feats works, after all! The number of times my players have played Hunt The Power in the PHB already is beyond a joke. If you can’t even get this right, give us a fucking index. It’s not too much to ask.

The Character Class chapter is a joke. It’s over 120 pages long, of which 80% is a listing of Powers sorted (if you could call it that) by class and level. That’s ok-ish when you’re generating a Fighter, but less than friendly when you’re mid-game and want to double check a Range. What would have been so wrong with having a Character Class chapter containing, y’know, Character Classes and putting another Chapter listing all the Powers? Jeez.

When it comes to actually creating characters, Chapter Two is just as messy as it tries to serve double duty explaining how to play the game and the steps involved generating a character at the same time. Not good, not good at all. Separate and inform first, then provide the means. It’s no good showing Powers with damage calculations when they’re not explained until much later in the book. Why the heck this book was allowed out in it’s current structure, gawd only knows.

Then there’s Powers.

Powers are the single most significant change to the game. They grant abilities to every class which are usable at-will, per encounter or daily. Every class gets 2 at-will, 1 encounter and 1 daily Power at first level (the Wizard incongruously gets 2 dailies but has to select which one to use each day), but there’s so fucking few of them to choose from it’s laughable. Look, if you’re going to offer a whole new meta-game system, jump in with both feet.

Here’s a quick head-to-head.

1st level Cleric in 3e can pick from a total of 37 0- and 1st level spells, using just the Core Rules alone, plus their Domain spell. A 4e Cleric chooses 2 at-wills from – get this – 4 Powers then has 4 each of encounter and daily Powers to pick 1 each. That’s 12 in total of which they get 4 (5 if Human). It’s the same story for all of the other Classes – there’s just nowhere near enough Powers in the book. As a Core Rule book if should have easily double the number of Powers, right there and ready to use.

Here’s the thing. Restructure the book and remove duplicated Powers and you’ll have room for more. Take out the page-and-a-half double spread artwork at the beginning of each chapter and you get back 15 whole feckin’ pages. With an average of 10 Powers per page, that’s one hundred and fifty new Powers in the same pagecount we’ve got now, just by taking out the spurious padding artwork.

Then there’s Rituals. And frankly, I don’t know why they bothered.

Rituals are kinda like Powers except they take longer to use, might have a longer duration and cost cold hard cash to use. Oh, and they’re tucked right at the back of the book (y’know, where the damned glossary should go!!) like the embarrassing afterthought they are. Here’s a thought. Instead of tacking another mechanic into the mix, why not just make ‘em Powers that are usable per week, per month or whatever. This means they could go into that Powers chapter that’s missing, meaning more room for more Powers as there’s no need for a crappy explanation for a crappy subsystem.

I reckon with restructuring, loss of spurious artwork, duplicates and the rules for Rituals there’d be room for at least another 250 Powers – that’s 30 more per Class. Perfect.

Sure, I know that the limited number of Powers is designed to get us to buy more books from Wizards to fill in the gaps, but here’s the thing. I’m not stupid. The 3e PHB contained hundreds of spells, yet I still bought the Spell Compendium when that came out because it’s a great product. I’m not going to buy more Wizards’ stuff just to patch up existing holes in the game that have been put there intentionally. This isn’t Shareware where you’re offered a crippled version of the product to tempt you to buy the full product. I bought the book, so don’t short-change me dammit!

If PHB II is going to contain Powers from sources other than Arcane, Divine and Martial, filling up the holes left by the loss of the Barbarian, Bard and Monk in the PHB then it’s going to be a while before we get access to the number of Powers that should have been in the PHB in the first place. Sheesh.

As an aside – I don’t mind the loss of those three classes much, really. What’s annoying is that there aren’t enough Powers to be able to simulate them effectively with the existing Classes as a stop-gap. Give me Powers right in the PHB geared toward Unarmed combat, Raging and some Divine music-based Powers and I’d be a happier man.

Going down to the nitty-gritty of the rules themselves we’ve not played enough to take it apart sufficiently to comment much, but a few things stand out.

If you’ve played as long as I have, Page 38 couldn’t have shouted out more if it was circled in red and triggered a siren when opened. That’s the page for the Eladrin Race and contains the dreaded Fey Step Power. I know I’ve ranted about this before, but I’ll briefly explain why it’s so broken and why it has to be nerfed to being a Daily Power, immediately.

In short, Fey Step is a 25’ teleport ability usable once per encounter. They sounds all fine and cool on paper, but it’s a Very Bad Thing Indeed. Per Encounter Powers can be used at most once every 5 minutes. That’s 288 times per day. See the problem yet? Even if you enforce 8 hours of sleep, every Eladrin character could teleport up to 192 times per day. Do the math. In comparison, a 3rd Edition Wizard could cast Dimension Door (it’s nearest (but longer ranged) equivalent) once per day – when he reaches 7th level.

192 (or 288) times per day at 1st level, compared to once at 7th level. Oh, please.

That Fey Step means you can’t put your Eladrin in jail. You can’t have them stuck at the bottom of a pit trap. You can’t have a corridor blocked by a 20’ chasm. You can’t….. awe heck, I’m sure you get the idea. If you end up needing to meta-game around a given Power, that Power is broken. Changed to being a Daily Power it’s acceptable as this puts the choice back onto the player – do they use their Fey Step now, or save it for later? That’s tactical, and less open to abuse.

The equipment list is very limited too, lacking several of the core essentials for any dungeon adventure. Where’s the 10’ poles (personally, I prefer quarterstaves anyhow) and flasks of oil? And why the heck is a Rapier not on the list of Proficiencies for Rogue when they’re entire Power style is based upon swashbuckling? Heck, they can use Piercing Strike and Riposte Strike, but only have melee proficiencies with dagger and shortsword. What gives?

Finally, many of the 3e combat Feats have translated to 4e Powers meaning they’re locked to a certain class and only accessible through use of a multi-class Feat. That’s a fiddly mechanism when all you want to do is to let your Paladin use Cleave! There should be a group of General Powers which are open to all, regardless of Class provided the level requirements are met.

Overall, my impression of the PHB is that we’re being short-changed. The poor layout and structure means there’s just not enough Powers to make character generation sufficiently flexible. The gaps in the equipment list and downright useless Rituals section just don’t help what should be a showcase book for a darned good game.

The crazy thing is that Wizards’ should be able to make this a stunning product. They’ve certainly got the experience and people who can do this, because they’ve done it before. The Star Wars RPG contains the entire system in one book covering one of the most iconic settings of all time complete with new-player friendly (and GM useful!) starting character templates. d20 Modern is another one-book system that’s pure brilliance. Surely they could have made a better D&D PHB than this.

Apparently not.

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  1. Greywulf says:

    Existing, imported comments, are here.

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