4e Player's Handbook: A Critical Review by TheGreatEvilKing
PostOriginal SA post 4e Player's Handbook: A Critical Review
The year is 2008. People have finally gotten it through their skulls that maybe D&D classes are unbalanced, there are lot of weird sacred cows that could be killed, the game is bloated to hell and confusing, and people are just about ready for a change - or at least to stop having to ban incantatrix every 3.5 minutes, keep up with the damn polymorph rules because of Joe's druid, and design cool new artifact swords for the fighter to keep them relevant.
Now there's a new game! It's gonna be cool and awesome! Combats are gonna be cinematic, fast, and hardcore! We're finally going to get rid of every character needing a pile of magic items! You can combine any class with any race! Everyone gets powers! This is going to be great! All the overpowered bullshit of 3.5 - and crap rules like Wealth By Level - are going to be swept away!
Well, we didn't get that game. We got:
The one good thing you can say about this book is - well, they tried new stuff. Some of it could have worked in the hands of competent designers. A lot of the ideas were just bad, and the ultimate failing of this book is that for every step forward they take two steps back. Fighters gain powers...but are still useless out of combat and most of their powers are boring damage boosts. Wizards are nerfed...except not really, they still lock down encounters like the third edition wizard. Roles are introduced...but this book makes no effort to actually keep roles distinct. Fans claimed it was the most balanced edition of the game ever...but infinite damage loops were found in the core book before it was released in stores, and the V-classes were garbage.
The truth of the matter is, as much as 4th edition fanboys don't like to admit it, this edition split the D&D community heavily and - worst of all - gave rise to Pathfinder and D&D 5e, both games which are contemptible in their own right. So we are going to look into this mess, and figure out what people actually objected to, rather than the beloved caricature of people who just weren't enlightened enough to grasp 4e's elegant design principles.
Chapter 1: How to play
Standard "what is an RPG" fare. There's not much to object to in here ever since the constitutional amendment that every RPG book must have one of these. If you are in this thread, you know the drill, and the target audience of these books is gonna skip right to the meat of the game. Here we go!
Chapter 2: Character Creation
This is the standard D&D fare, with some differences. You're given the usual list: pick race, pick class, determine ability scores, choose skills, choose feats, choose powers, choose equipment. Now, this is usually out of order as a lot of times people select class before race (you want that strength bonus as a fighter!) and 9 times out of 10 people are picking powers and feats before skills (as those are tha actual meat of the character's combat ability). We get a short overview of races and classes and then something new: character roles.
In 4e D&D each class has a role - controller, defender, leader, and striker. Controllers seriously have no good definition at the time of this book, they either disable enemies or deal a paltry amount of AoE damage. Defenders are tanks, leaders buff and heal, and strikers do damage. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, except that it imposed role protection on classes that really didn't have it before. You could build controller fighters in 3.5, but in 4e you're expected to tank all day every day. It's different and not necessarily the worst thing, but a lot of people weren't happy with it. Personally I don't think the concept of roles is terrible, but I'll cover that more when we get to the implementation.
Next is ability scores, and we get to the first thing 4e actually got right - promoting point buy. Now, most 3.5 groups had ended up using point buy to avoid random character, but 4e opens straight with "pick your ability scores through point buy" and it turns out that's actually a really good way to do it. I give 4e a gold star for this.
Then we have...alignment. Rather than sticking with the 9 traditional D&D alignments or just removing alignment altogether, they left Lawful Good, Good, Neutral (called Unaligned), Evil, anc Chaotic Evil. It is stupid and pointless and gets referenced nowhere in the rules. There is even a little sidebar explaining that alignment is totally different than personality. This has always been supposed to represent that you personally were aligned with one of the great divine powers or whatever, but has always denigrated into grognard debates, arguing over whether the paladin fell, the actual morality of baby murder (really) and other idiocy. Fortunately it's not referenced by the rest of the book much.
There's a short list of deities. They're not interesting enough to write home about. There's Avandra the change god (who is good), Bahamut the Dragon god, Corellon the elf god, Erathis the civilization god, Ioun the knowledge god, Kord the strength god, Melora the ocean god, Moradin the dwarf god, Pelor the sun god, Raven Queen the goddess of death, and Sehanine the moon god. I just saved you 2 pages. Also there's a paragraph on how you could worship a dark god, but that's totally mean you guys and makes you a puppy kicker so don't do it. There's a short section on ability checks (roll a d20) and retraining, but the next meaty part is leveling up and the tier system.
See, in 4e they raised the level cap from 20 to 30 and divided the game into 3 tiers, heroic, paragon, and epic. In heroic tier you are a low level scrub who fights orcs, paragon you are a guy who can fly and teleport, and epic you are a god-slaying world-conquering hero. This is how the game advertises itself. Keep these in mind, we'll come back to them later. The important thing to take away from this section is that as you progress through the tiers you get more and more powerful to the point where epic level heroes are supposed to be people the world plans around. There's a brief explanation of the 4e character sheet and then we get into:
Chapter 3: Races
It just wouldn't be a D&D book if the color of your skin didn't determine how smart you were.
Ok, that came out really badly, but one of the big things this game hyped was that racial penalties were gone now, so any race could be any class. As we got closer to the release date this turned out to not be true, as each race got a bonus to two stats, and classes required two stats...the end result was that there was a decent list of optimal race-class matchups that if you didn't conform to, you were behind the curve. This provoked further hilarity when it turned out that despite all the marketing rhetoric of how the math "just worked" it did not actually work and to fix your character you had to pay $50 more for the PHB2 a year later to get the expertise feats -even if your class stats matched your race.
The odd thing about all of this is that each race had a racial power and that would have worked absolutely fine for distinguishing the races. If the Tiefling had infernal wrath, the Dragonborn had dragon breath, and the humans got an extra basic power from their class, that would have been absolutely fine as an actual choice that doesn't penalize you too hard for wanting to be an orc mage or a tiefling with a greatsword. Telling people that their eladrin wizard is going to use a wand because they have a dex bonus pisses people off. The game alternates between explaining that being a dwarf wizard wasn't a complete waste of time (PHB only, it was) and hyping that you should be an elf if you want "to be a member of a race that favors the ranger, rogue, and cleric classes". It's nuts.
Anyway, on the actual races we dropped the half-orc and gnome from the 3.5 Players Handbook and replaced them with the eladrin, tiefling, and dragonborn. The eladrin are just another type of elf (why?), tieflings are devil people who used to be splatbook-only but are now in the PHB, and dragonborn are lizard dudes who are like dragons but the game is far too scared to just let people play dragons. This leaves us with dragonborn, dwarf, eladrin, elf, half-elf, halfling, human, and tiefling. Each gets a 2-page spread where half of one page is dedicated to the game stats and racial power, and the other page is dedicated to a paragraph of fluff and some sample characters. Couldn't they have spared 4 pages for the gnome and the half-orc?
(The answer is no, because they were saving those to get you to buy the PHB2).
PostOriginal SA post 4e Player's Handbook: A Critical Review continued
Chapter 4: Classes
The real meat of the book starts here. We've got 8 classes - Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, Warlord, and Wizard. Compare this to the 11 classes in the 3.5 PHB and it looks a bit lacking, even if we cut the sorcerer for being a redundant piece of shit. Notably, the bard, barbarian, monk and druid aren't in this book despite being mainstays of many adventuring parties (again - 1 year later, PHB2, $50. Except the monk which was in PHB3 because that class is the abused stepchild of D&D).
New with this book are paragon paths and epic destinies, which are an adaptation of 3.5's prestige class system. Now, the prestige class system in 3.5 was awful. You needed to plan your character's growth to take a prestige class at a certain point, and this either resulted in a free pile of dope powers (if you were a mage in the right class) or pointless gimping and trap options (pretty much all warrior prestige classes not called Frenzied Berserker). 4e takes the approach of just giving people a prestige option at 11 and a prestige option at 21...to mixed results. In 3.5 there was about a 50-50 chance your prestige class would change the way your character played (though the most powerful and commonly used were just your class++). In 4e it's just something you staple on for extra power. Your fighter's a pit fighter now, that gives him...a +`1 AC bonus, bonus damage when using an action point, adding your wisdom to weapon damage, a 2-attack encounter power that dazes. a revenge attack bonus that can be used 1/day, and a daily that's great at hitting wounded dudes. If this all sounds like something a heroic tier or level 1 guy could do...you're not wrong. Even the ultimate powers of the epic destinies, aside from everyone getting a cheat death 1/day, is shit like minor hitpoint regeneration. It's all rather disappointing.
This provides an excellent opportunity to delve into 4e and the class power system. Everyone in 4e gets the same resource-management schedule, with daily, encounter, and at-will powers appearing at various levels and utility powers siloed into their own weird schedule to prevent people from deciding whether they needed to prepare battle spells or utility spells. As much as I deride this book, I'm actually A-OK with everyone getting powers on the same schedule, it's the implementation that fails here. A lot of people like to scream about "weeaboo fighters" and "sameness" but fighters needed some options aside from autoattacking, and Wizards of the Coast quite frankly struggled with multiple casting systems in 3.5.
The system falls apart first when we look at the powers, and later when we look at them with the class's ability scores.
The powers themselves are unfortunately mostly boring and repetitive. Let's look at the fighter. They have a first level daily power called Brute Strike, it hits for 3 times your weapon damage. One of the level 29 daily powers, which is supposed to be a pinnacle of your class very few people master? Same thing, but 7 times your weapon damage instead of 3. There's no upgrade mechanism to these things, which leads to several powers being redundant upgrades. A lot of the powers are thematically similar - the fighter gets a LOT of "make two attacks and do a minor thing" which really makes you wonder why you couldn't have an upgrade system and some conceptually new powers? Sure, in older editions of D&D you were supposed to swap out your fireball spell every few levels for an upgrade with a higher dice cap, but you're slaughtering tons of sacred cows already! You've only got 4 powers per level thanks to your giant-ass power format, can you please give people actual options instead of swapping out the low power buff laser for a laser with the same buff that does more damage? The power level of anything not damage swings wildly between levels - sleep, the first level wizard daily, is arguably the best spell in the game because it incapacitates dudes in an area and hands out free critical hits. The 5th-level dailies up from that inflict strictly worse conditions or low AoE damage. It's kind of amazing really.
This also fails to mention that a lot of the power list grants you the illusion of choice or heavily pushes you toward one power or another. All the classes have two builds given by the designers, and they range from "suggested powers anyone can take" to "running off a different primary stat entirely". The wizard is a giant nerd whose powers all run off Intelligence. The Fighter has a weird choice to make where they can either grab Dexterity, Constitution, or Wisdom as a secondary stat (remember Pit Fighter?) but a lot of the powers also get bonuses based on the weapon you're using. Want to be a fighter with a bow? Go fuck yourself! Want to be a two-weapon fighter? That's in Martial Power! Now, the next thing that everyone is going to point out is that the ranger gets both bows and two-weapon fighting. This is true, and you can play a bow ranger for your archery needs - but the point is that every build needs a ton of powers to support it, and none of those classes can share powers. There is noshared martial power list for ranger and fighter to grab "do two attacks this round" despite them each having a ton of powers that basically do that. This wouldn't particularly even need to hurt role protection. The ranger is a DPS and gets class features that bump his damage, the fighter is a tank and has class features that aggro. We could maybe even extend this to the warlord and give the warlord a class feature that restores other people's HP when he stabs them or something. The end result would be to cut some space and maybe the developers could have included the cut classes. It would have gone a long way toward not leaving fans furious. The alternative would be to actually include more than 2 powers at each level that a given character can select, but how does that sell books?
Another huge problem you can see in the class chapter is that - despite 4e's marketing rhetoric - the classes aren't balanced at all. The bow ranger and the warlock are both ranged strikers. They even have the same class features under different names. The bow ranger gets an at-will power that does two attacks - allowing it to add most of its damage bonuses twice per turn - while picking up encounter powers that let it attack when it's not its turn. The warlock gets no off-turn attacks and its at-wills are all just single target blasts. Even the base damage is worse - the warlock's spells are all locked to a single die ahead of time, while the ranger can change the damage of its attacks by picking up a weapon with a different damage die. The nail in the coffin is that the warlock is somehow expected to balance constitution AND charisma as attack stats while having intelligence for rider effects. This is not going to happen, and the end result is that the warlock is hard-capped out of half their powers, unless they were stupid enough to play a star pact warlock where the powers alternate between Con and Cha. Keeping two attack stats high is difficult, keeping two attack stats and Intelligence high is a goddamn nightmare. The pact was overhauled in errata 1 or 2 years into the lifetime of the edition and virtually every power was rewritten to use either attack stat, but the class is a fairly obvious nightmare even without delving too deep into it. Heck, the known broken classes didn't even get nerfed that much. Muchwas made in the launch of 4e how wizards were totally OP bonkers nuts in battle. A 7th level 3e necromancer can totally lock down an encounter while commanding an undead hydra that has better defenses and damage output than most party fighters. It was hilariously broken and rightfully pissed a lot of people off. Come 4e...and that same wizard lost the hydra, but can use the orb of imposition to nullify the balance checks on save-or-die spells and instantly end a fight by putting everyone to sleep. Sure, you lost the hydra, but both wizards can hold people powerless long enough that you can stab them to death with a toothpick. Future books only empowered the lockdown wizard to the point where the original issue wasn't actually fixed at all. It's amazing.
The last thing is that 4e is absolutely terrified of giving players any form of narrative control. This deserves some explanation. Back in the leadup to 4th edition, there were countless forum posts screaming about how wizards having unlocking lock spells totally pooped all over rogues, who had to roll dice to open a lock, or how wizard flight magic made the climb spell useless when people were legendary heroes. Clerics were ruining
mystery plots with speak with dead, or the mythical teleport ambush killing guys on the toilet, or....
This isn't to say that 3.X didn't have busted spellcasters, because it did. Shapechanging magic was an absolute disaster, mind control was extremely powerful, most travel problems could be solved by diving through the spell list, and if you took the time to combine splatbooks you could put together mages who were literally immune to everything the game could throw at them. Now, non-mages did have some advantages such as diplomacy being more powerful than any mind-control magic save mind-rape and nonmagical stealth being better than invisibility in some ways(can't be true sighted) but the end result was that while you could build a fairly useful rogue fighters just kinda sat around looking dumb when they didn't have to sword things. There was a lot of talk about how fighters should be able to perform mythical feats a la Hercules and the Augean stables, or Beowulf arbitrarily deciding he could breathe underwater OK, or that knight in L'Morte d' Arthur who could just turn invisible. The announcement that every class would be getting special utility powers made people excited for amazing feats of strength and skill.
Naturally, 4e fucked it up. The vast majority of utility powers are in combat repositioning or combat buffs. The actual utility powers that can be used out of combat go to...wait for it...the cleric and the wizard, the two classes everyone complained about having too much utility out of combat. The wizard can fly and turn invisible, leading to more complaints about the mean old mage making climbing skills seem dumb and useless. The cleric gets a pimp car that lets him fly all day and bring 4 dudes with him. The rogue gets...to turn invisible one turn if he takes the right paragon class. The warlock gets a messenger imp, flight, and invisibilty. Almost everything else power-wise is for fighting, healing, or repositioning. Heck, they had to errata the book to let you target objects! This philosophy permeates later books, to the point where the familiar rules specify your familar can't interact with objects at all. We will get to the big out of combat systems, but rest assured they do not work and one of them heavily favors wizards and clerics.
In short, we can really start seeing where a lot of the initial promises and design goals were broken and not met in this chapter, and it just gets worse as the book goes on.
PostOriginal SA post 4e PHB Critical Review
Chapter 5: Skills
Skills in D&D have a long and mostly stupid history. They started out as a bizarre optional subsystem in 2e but ended up introducing new skills so that by the end of 2e you could raise the dead to talk to them just with a few NWP selections. 3e took this and codified it into the core rules, creating a system that had very defined outputs in some cases (you roll X on climb you move Y feet) but required a pointlessly large amount of accounting. A lot of these skills were just plain bad, ranging from taxes to use class features (Concentration, Performance), overpowered bullshit (Diplomacy), worthless flavor crap (Profession), shit that was outclassed by magic early on (disguise if the beholder didn't have true seeing), or just plain worthless in general (Heal). One of the major complaints of people going into 4th edition was that skills were terrible because people could burn spells to automatically succeed at the task in a fashion skills couldn't match while having no chance of failure at all.
4e's solution was to yank as many trump cards as they could out of the powers list - though Athletics still gets chumped by the mage brigade - and leave skills for the most part as they were in 3.5. The list has been pared down a bit, with Climb/Jump/Swim becoming Athletics and Balance/Escape Artist becoming Acrobatics, but skills are still under the 3.5 paradigm of not being allowed to do anything a generic dude in our world couldn't do with the exception of sensing and identifying magic. There is nothing like 2e's speak with dead skill, or any use of Athletics that would let you smash castles and mountains despite the game supposedly ending with stories of people who can take on gods in hand to hand combat.
The other big elephant in the room is that this chapter introduces the Skill Challenge rules. Skill challenges are in the Dungeon Master's Guide proper, so I won't go into them much here other than to say they're terrible. Much was made out of how the initial math for skill challenges didn't work...which was overhauled into a different set of math that didn't work...and at the end of the day I legitimately don't know what the rules are for skill challenges any more because they've been overhauled so many damn times. I've even heard that there are published adventures with "skill challenges" that don't match the mechanics in the DMG or the errata'd mechanics when they were written. The point is that the system doesn't work and doesn't fix any of the problems with them.
That said, the best I can say about this chapter is that it's 3.5's skill system mostly cleaned up with much less accounting, so good on 4e's devs for getting something right. I mean, I still don't actually care about 3.5 or 4e's skill systems at all as for the most part they don't let you do cool stuff, but they're there I guess.
Chapter 6: Feats
Feats are another fairly recent subsystem. They were introduced in 3e as a set of character customization perks which immediately shot the game to shit. Nobody ever seemed to take the time to sit down and figure out what exactly a feat should do. Should it be a harmless fluff thing like making your character a better dancer? Should it provide a small stat buff? Should it interact with your class features, powering them up or giving them alternative uses? Perhaps it should just straight up give you new powers! All of this was stuff that was in 3.X, and all of this helped explode the edition wide open and create power gaps between players. A warrior with Robilar's Gambit was a lot better than some poor newbie who assumed that having 10 levels of paladin meant he could fight real good and took flavor feats. As these things got shoveled into every book, more stupid combos arose out of them where you would put all your feats into having 1 big bonus to fire damage or spell power or whatever and end up hitting wayyyyy above your actual level. This isn't even getting into the poor editing where you get crap like Natural Spell that's just a straight up insane powerup in the core rules.
However, the shovelware nature and ease of writing made feats a subsystem that was of course going to be included in 4e! The designers and marketers were very eager to tell us all in 2007 about how everything was going to be core and there were going to be a ton of new splatbooks that you could use. Much was made of how the classes were going to be split up and there were going to be a bunch of books to buy, so of course there's room for feats because a game designer can crank out a whole feat chapter in an afternoon.
To make things even better the vast majority of feats in this chapter are small and apply to an incredibly small subset of characters. For example, take Eladrin Soldier: it gives you a +2 bonus to damage when you are fighting with a spear or a longsword, and proficiency in spears. Setting aside the fact that longswords and spears rely on strength to make their attacks* and that eladrins don't get a strength bonus, this feat is both terrible - as there's another feat that gives any character a +1 bonus to damage with weapons of their choice but doesn't stack with this one - and leaves the door wide open to shovel in more feats of this caliber. Hell, this book has a similar feat for dwarves with axes and hammers, and it's not hard to imagine that future books could introduce "Vulcan lirpa master", "Drow rapier/shortsword master", "kobold sling/crossbow master" and so on and so forth. The optimal route to go with this chapter is to pick a shtick - say, fire damage or scimitars - and just stack everything that's vaguely related to your schtick onto your character sheet. Your reward will be several fewer rounds of spamming at-will attacks until the monsters are finally gone. Don't stack too hard though - some of the feats have arbitrary feat bonuses (which don't stack) or typeless bonuses (which do!) so enjoy combing through the feats chapter to make The Greatest Pyromancer. Even worse, a lot of the feats have ability score prerequisites which can really fuck you based on your class. The warlock gets most of the psychic and necrotic powers in the book, but to take the feat that boosts power damage for psychic and necrotic you're supposed to fit a 13 wisdom onto your character sheet while possibly having to buff Con, Cha, AND Int. Just don't do it. It's more tedious busywork in a supposedly simpler game.
Lastly we get to the multiclassing system of 4e, and hoo boy is it a doozy. There are 8 feats, one for each class, you can take at paragon tier to get a minor version of one of the class' schticks (usually using an at-will from the class 1/encounter) but more importantly letting you count as a member of that class for the purpose of looting paragon paths and feats. You can be a strength/wisdom beatstick cleric, take the fighter multiclass feat, and get into Pit Fighter which lets you add both your strength and wisdom to your weapons damage. There are also power-swap feats which let you swap a power off your list for a power off another list, which is almost never worth it due to stat discrepancies and the fact you're wasting a feat. If you take all these feats, you can choose to grab more powers off your secondary classes' list instead of taking a paragon path...which you won't do because you lose out on the passives, and those tend to be the real meat of most paragon paths. It's a trap option in a system advertised as having gotten rid of all the trap options. It also clashes with the roles system in a hilarious way, because if I have half defender and half striker powers on my character sheet...what the hell am I, exactly?
Next up: The return of the Christmas Tree the designers promised to get rid of!
*Look, no one gives a fuck about Wizard of the Spiral Tower, ok? Adventurer's Vault isn't out yet with the cunning longswords for the orbizard and Blood Mage push builds/orb builds were the power and the glory.
PostOriginal SA post 4e PHB: A critical review
Chapter 7: Equipment
Unusually for D&D, this chapter has not just generic equipment but the game's magic item selection as well. it has the usual pointless shuffling of the bonuses granted by various anachronistic and impractical armor getups (studded leather anyone?) as well as a pointless new currency unit (astral diamonds) for the sole purpose of change for the sake of change. Admittedly, carrying a few diamonds is probably easier than making some kind of magic device to carry a literal ton of gold, but almost every group I've played with has handwaved these kind of personal logistics.
Of more interest are the weapons. Weapon proficiency has had a long and dumb history in D&D. In the old days the fighter was a punishment class for rolling poor stats and the ranger and paladin could do everything the fighter could do but better. People wanted to know why "being a badass warrior" sucked in a game trying to emulate ancient myths where swording things to death was a fairly effective tactic, so the fighter got weapon proficiencies which let him get extra attacks and more killing power if he stuck with a specific weapon. In 3rd edition this got split off into a series of shitty feats that you only took if the DM pointed a gun at your head, and the "proficiency" terminology was just used for what weapons you could use without penalty.
In 4e it was decided that penalties were bad, and anyone could use any weapon without incurring a nonproficiency penalty - except now all the weapons gave you a bonus for using them if you were proficient. To compound this, all the weapons have different bonuses in an attempt to make them feel different. Now, remember what I said about the to-hit math being borked? People in 2008 were definitely prioritizing getting attack bonuses over most other things, so that immediately locks us down to 10 weapons with max bonus. This isn't something D&D has ever done well - you get a ton of weapon options with a few that are strictly better than the rest of the list - but trading a point of average damage for a +1 to hit is a no-brainer.
They also got rid of weapon sizing, which was a fairly clunky mechanic where a halfling's greatsword did less damage than a human's because it was smaller, and replaced it with the weird expedient where halflings can't use greatswords at all. I don't know why people in the Points of Light setting can't manufacture halfling-sized halberds, but they don't.
You get the usual collection of mundane gear that is written on the character sheet and then rarely checked for (with the exception of rope), but the real meat of this chapter is magic items.
One of the many, many complaints people had against 3rd edition D&D was the wealth by level system. In 3rd edition you had a set budget you were supposed to get at each level which would count against magic items. You needed certain magic items to have numbers good enough to fight monsters, and as you can probably guess the warrior classes needed piles and piles of these things and mages could get away with a casting stat boost and a cloak of resistance (both boring items that boost spell power and saves respectively). In the year before 4e came out the designers said they were going to remove the Christmas tree...then there was going to be a slightly smaller Christmas tree...and then the book came out and it turned out they'd put everyone back onto the schedule of begging for bonuses to be relevant, just like Diablo. Everyone needed a neck slot, magic armor, and magic weapon to keep their numbers at a place where you could fight, except that weapon bonuses go up to 6 to accomodate the 10 extra levels tacked on to the game. A lot of the items have powers, and they're mostly boring. Do you really care that Bloodthread Armor gives you a +2 to AC and saving throws when you're at half health, and are you really going to track it with all the 1-turn buffs and other powers being flung around? The vast majority are small numerical bonuses to something that might be your characters' schtick, and it's yet another thing where you stack up all the bonuses with your favorite keyword - pushing! or Fire! or Saving Throws! - and become a cool dude who can spam at-will attacks for 1 less round of grindy combat. Hilariously even powerful magic items such as the cloak of invisibility or flying carpets get nerfs that make them suck, because god forbid you use character abilities to avoid small unit combat.
It's interesting to compare D&D's treatment of magic weapons to actual mythology, because they kinda diverge heavily. The Greek gods had signature magic weapons such as Zeus's thunderbolts or Hades' invisibility hat. These tended to be character-defining abilities that people didn't get very many of, with people like Perseus getting to borrow four (the Winged Sandals of Mercury, the Cap of invisibility, a shiny shield, and a sword). Of note is that the shield is just really shiny and the sword just...maybe cuts better? Mythological sources don't give weapons as many crazy properties, but if you get a magic carpet or a Tarnhelm you can do crazy shit like fly, shapeshift, and teleport pretty damn far. You're probably stuck with the one item though, better make it count!
D&D on the other hand is going to swamp you in piles of crappy bonuses you don't care about. I don't think anyone actually LIKES Diablo-style itemization where you continually swap out items for new bonuses. People tolerate it because its in a lot of games and is really easy for designers to implement, but I've never seen anyone post about how this hat gives them 5% more fire damage than the hat they got 10 minutes ago and it totally makes their crushing breakup tolerable. People will go for the bigger numbers, but a ring that turns you perpetually invisible is just going to be more exciting than raising your firebolt damage.
Chapter 8: Adventuring
Did you know D&D characters go on quests? On the plus side, that entire wasted page has a picture of a very cute lady warming a poker in a fire, so it's not a total loss. There's a discussion of encounters, and how some encounters are resolved by fighting and noncombat encounters are resolved by skill challenges. As previously discussed, skill challenges are a nonfunctional system that's been overhauled a stupidly high amount of times to the point where I don't even know what the official rules are for them anymore, so we might as well just say "noncombat encounters don't work". Amusingly, the book calls out utility powers as being useful in a skill challenge despite people like the fighter getting nothing that is useful outside the scenario where you are stabbing people.
There's a brief discussion of rewards, where you get experience points, cash, and action points when you've fought enough milestones. Action points are new, you can spend one to basically get another combat turn, or spend it to activate another ability which you won't do because an extra turn is better than 99% of them. It's an attempt to incentivize having multiple fights a day instead of burning all your daily abilities and calling it a day, and it just doesn't work because if you wanted multiple fights a day you should just put everything on the encounter schedule. If the Races and Classes preview book is to be believed, early drafts of 4e actually had everything on a per-encounter schedule and were convinced to ditch it by Mike Mearls (who later spun the draft into Tome of Battle).
There's a short section on "intangible rewards" such as noble titles, favors, honor, and whatnot. In a better and more interesting game, we'd actually have some systems somewhere for what it actually means to become High Priest or Duke and what kind of political/military power you can call upon, but this is just a paragraph about how because it doesn't impact 5v5 small unit combat we're not going to mention it at all.
There are a few more pages on resting and interacting with the environment, including actual strength DCs for breaking through walls, which I missed on the first read. The rules for resting hilariously lock the 8-hour rest to once per day, bypassing the traditional wizard trick of getting up for 5 minutes, blowing all their spell slots, and going back to sleep. The fact that you need to include this kind of clunky fix maybe indicates that daily schedules don't do what you want?
Anyway, that's the chapter. It's time for violence!
PostOriginal SA post 4e PHB critical review - final update
Chapter 9: Combat
As combat is the traditional method of solving problems in D&D, this is a fairly lengthy chapter. Of note is that the first page has a huge sidebar about "use a battle grid, we want position to be important in this game". This pissed off a lot of people who wanted to keep playing with vague descriptions of how you were kinda maybe close enough to the orcs to use a sword, but you're already gathered around a table with dice, printing a 1-inch grid and using some markers isn't exactly a huge financial sacrifice. They've also standardized actions, avoiding the 3.5 problem where every new splatbook had to re-explain quick and off-turn actions because they weren't in the PHB. They're here now. Rejoice!
Other than that, combat is mostly the same with the exception that everything is measured in squares instead of feet, AoEs are squares instead of circles/circle equivalents, and everyone in 4e-land can fold space and time to move diagonally without penalty. That's different, but it's not actually objectionable as...well, you already play D&D at a table with dice, go ahead and use a board. It's a game. What the chapter also points out is that you have a little pile of fiddly ongoing effects, which can end at the beginning or the end of your turn. It also introduces the saving throw mechanic, which is intended to prevent people from getting permanently paralyzed, but manages to fuck up in every possible way. At its core, you have a 55% chance of ending an effect on you each turn, regardless of the effect or originator. If you are a god - an actual thing the game says you can become - and you mind-control a commoner, that commoner has a 55% chance of breaking free of your control every turn. If said commoner somehow gets a domination power and hits you with it, you have a 45% chance of not making your save.
Now to make matters worse, there are of course numbers you can apply to the roll. Notably the divine classes and wizard can penalize saving throws, with the wizard being the outright best at it. The end result is that the wizard can just lock down encounters forever again. This probably could have been avoided by having the attack repeat against the target's defenses, but I don't write rules, I just make fun of them.
To its credit, the book does a good job of simplifying some of the combat terminology, with "combat advantage" replacing the clunky old "denied its Dex bonus to AC" and cutting down on the endless triggers for attacks of opportunity. Combats are still going to be fairly complex due to the nature of 4e powers, but the basic engine doesn't have anything unduly terrible except saving throws and the fact that you can throw nonlethal balls of sulfuric acid in people's faces.
Chapter 10: Rituals
Amusingly, this chapter opens with art of a dead Regdar - the iconic fighter from 3.5 who got killed off in as much official art as possible. We see a dragonborn with a scroll trying to raise him from the dead while a panicking elf lady draws her dagger to fight some jumping drow. This might give you the impression that rituals are powerful and worth using, so let me assure you right off the bat: the ritual system is awful and makes everyone sad.
To start with, you need a feat to use rituals. Now, already we see that wizards and clerics get that feat for free, but it gets better! Many of the rituals are keyed to arcana, religion, and nature checks - skills the wizard and cleric have, but the fighter doesn't. Now, if you get a scroll of the ritual instead of learning to use it yourself, it takes half the casting time and anyone can use it, but that costs more money.
That's the balancing point for these rituals - they all cost money to cast, but provide a list of utility powers that in theory any character can access but in practice is much easier for mages to do as they basically get it for free - wizards even get free rituals known as they level up.
The rituals all take 10 minutes+ to cast, so I hope you didn't want to use magic to break out of jail or something that requires quick action. You'll probably end up yelling at your wizard to take Planar Portal, Raise Dead, and the Item Crafting rituals. Now, to be fair, those are the kind of things that I can see taking time and money to cast. The problem comes when things that shouldn't take long take 10+ minutes and money - for instance, the image spells, or magic mouth (which is a bullshit effect that I've never, ever seen a PC use). This scales to ridiculousness with the View Location ritual, which requires an hour to cast and 1,600 gp (plus a 1000 gp focus) to spy on a location for...up to 30s. Bonus points go to the flavor test:
PHB page 313 posted:
The secrets of the world are yours to plumb, for your magically enhanced eyes can see into the king's chambers, the wizard's library, or the dragon's cave
I have no idea how you're supposed to plumb anything with 30 seconds of viewing time especially if each casting takes an hour. To make matters worse, the money for this all comes out of the magic item budget, so if you want to make sure you have the best *KEYWORD* you don't want to use these things at all. Half of them are "argue with the DM to get advice" anyway, plenty are tiny effects you don't care about (do we really need to charge money and 10 minutes for Tenser's Floating Disk?), and a lot of them would be improved if you could drop them in combat.
For bonus points, the Loremaster's bargain spell mentions contacting a demigod for assistance, but you can't actually just know this stuff despite the fact that you can become a demigod. It's nuts.
One last bonus piece of bullshit to really rub in how bad this system is.
DMG page 27 posted:
For instance, the Observe Creature ritual requires the caster to be extremely specific when describing the ritual's intended target. If allowing the ritual to succeed would throw a monkey wrench into your plans for the adventure, you'd be within your rights to rule that the ritual failed to locate the intended target because the caster's description wasn't specific enough.
That's right, kids! These damn things aren't even guaranteed to work, because this might be a cutscene, and you HAVE to surrender! Fuck you for trying to take actions other than fighting in 5v5 combat!
These things were so hilariously bad that Essentials took them away.
Ultimately, this book set the stage for the collapse of 4th edition as a product. It's not a coincidence that the head of D&D got fired every year or that Pathfinder enjoyed as much success as it did, this book did probably the most to set down the paradigms for 4e that people didn't like. Let's go through it again.
4TH EDITION DIDN'T FIX SHIT
A lot of the major complaints about 3.5 involved class balance, and mostly came down to the wizard being a guy who could end combats forever while the fighter sucked and could maybe do one trick. The wizard also got a bunch of flak for being able to do things out of combat to solve problems that the martials couldn't do. Now, this iteration of the fighter is actually hardcore and can win fights. Good for him. You can build 3.5 fighters who are hardcore, can win fights, and have mechanics to keep the monsters off the back ranks, that's not even new (spiked chain tripper). The wizard can still end encounters in a turn by firing off Sleep with an Orb of Imposition, and while it requires a very specific build it's exactly as powerful as it sounds. Out of combat, the wizard is still better than the fighter as they get rituals for free! The fighter even gets boned in skill challenges, because their only social skill is Intimidate, and that's an automatic failure! Good luck convincing the DM to let you use Endurance, sucker!
Now, this doesn't come up as often in discussion because the eternal debate is "wizard vs fighter", so the fact that warlock and paladin are trash garbage almost never gets brought up when people are wildly insisting that 4th edition fixed everything. That's still 1/4 of the classes in your book, and they were even advertising the warlock as the cool new hotness class!
The only things you can argue 4e fixed are the abilities they excised from the game entirely (in this book) - summoning, polymorph, etc. While they avoid the trap of having Gate be able to summon Angels who are better than you and can summon more angels, they do not get credit for not trying to solve the problem at all. People want to play shapeshifters, angel summoners, necromancers, faustian demon summoners, mounted knights, etc and when you tell them that you need to wait another year and pay $35 for actual summoning rules because "we can't figure out how to balance it", people get furious. It's the precursor to the Republicans complaining about Obamacare for 7 years and then coming up with a plan that costs more money and covers less people. Sure, they may have legitimate complaints about how health insurance premiums are way up, but their actual solution is terrible and they should be ashamed of themselves. The fact that when these rules came out they required you to spend your turn yelling at the lone skeleton like it was some kind of pokemon just made everything worse. The "no narrative skills" problem didn't get addressed for years, and when it did it involved giving utility powers to the wizard and cleric and reducing the fighter to an auto-attack bot.
The game didn't even work as intended, because you could completely ignore the roles and make a party of three bow rangers, orb wizard, and consecrated ground cleric and own everyone forever without caring about positioning. Now people are going to point out that a lot of these criticisms were mitigated, and maybe they were after the years of errata and splatbooks. Yet, at that point it's in the exact same state as 3.5!. Yes, if the DM and players work together you can get a tactical battle that doesn't revolve around burning your encounter powers then at-wills to slowly attrition the mobs for hours, and if you use the MM3 revised monster math maybe it's even faster...but this is exactly the same as explaining that if you have people use beguiler, warblade, and favored soul you can get a more balanced 3.5 party as long as you avoid X spells and prestige classes, and for gods sake don't have the ice devil spam wall of ice and retreat. Yes, you can build a good warlock now with all the Dragon/splatbook crap I'm sure, but you can build a competent fighter in 3.5 with enough dumpster diving and charge bonuses! Hell, you might even be able to build a competent utility wizard with enough splatbook utility powers and free ritual shit, I don't know and I don't have DDI. I look at the 4e threads and see people talking about "themes" and "backgrounds" - those aren't in this book! The only actual difference seems to be that the class named "fighter" is considered useable by the 4e fanbase, while the 3e fanbase tells people not to play it.
And at that point, why did you have a new edition at all?
THEY DELVED TOO GREEDILY, AND TOO DEEP
Those of us who fought in the 2008 Edition Wars (instead of say, meeting women or something healthy) probably remember the old $e meme that used to float around the Wizards of the Coast forums as well as Enworld before Morrus purged all the non-4e fans. Sure, Wizards is a business, and they need money to eat as well as produce D&D books. I don't have a problem giving people money for a good product. What I dislike is being told that things are arbitrarily spread out around various splatbooks to get people to buy it. Heck, even with this caveat people pre-ordered tons of 4e, people were excited for 4e, people wanted to like it. There was a small minority that noticed that maybe splitting all the classes into separate books was an obvious cash grab, but the vast majority were willing and eager to try 4e.
Then they saw it, and people realized that no, they could not just port their 3.5 characters and campaigns over to 4e, and furthermore the PHB2 wouldn't be out for another year with druids and bards and other characters. No, they did not want to play dragonborn warlords. No, we were not going to refluff our Thyrm cleric and just say that the radiant damage was actually ice bolts. No, we'd actually like to finish this campaign. Et cetera.
In short, 4e's insistence on extremely narrow character classes bit it in the ass. If you had a cleric of a trickster god in 3.5 you got shoehorned into shooting Jesus lasers or bashing people with a mace. Now, they could have possibly fixed it by shoveling new classes out the door really quickly for people to buy, but they were too busy making a whole new book for rangers/warlords/fighters which gave us such gems as "fighter with two weapons", and "ranger whose animal is too stupid to attack each turn on its own power" - both of which the system needed and people wanted, but their release schedule was FAR too low for them to match the character options available in the 3.5 PHB, and they very often had no clue how these mechanics were supposed to work. When they DID put something back, it often had many mind-boggling restrictions (such as familiars being unable to interact with the outside world, or the ritual to raise a 1 hp zombie having it completely unable to hit people, or the ritual making a giant beast not making it better at combat...the list goes on, and on...). The 4e team declared that they had all the answers, so playing 3.5 was a fool's game...but they obviously didn't, got caught out, and disgusted potential fans.
We see the foundations here, where the entire book is padded to disguise the fact there aren't as many character options as they want you to think. Each class has two builds, each build gets two powers, and there's a good chance powers from one build get locked out by the way you build the other. Hell, people like the fighter have powers locked to specific weapons. You are not churning out all those powers for every character concept supported by the 3.5 PHB, and that's because you locked all the classes to specific weapons. Someone wants to play an archer bard? That's yet another splatbook!
Yet this is all usually drowned out by the chorus of "4E === THE WOW" which, while there are some similarities (and the designers referenced WoW for design ideas), people would have forgiven WoW influences if the game had let them continue playing their characters and actually fixed all the problems they identified. People would have thrown money at WotC like a lonely man in a strip club.
Instead the product crashed and burned, leaving us with Essentials, Pathfinder, and 5e.