I figure rather than waiting about four months before piping up about this book I’d go ahead and make an effort to get something out now. I actually managed to get my hands on the book in a rather timely fashion over other WotC releases. So let’s jump right into talking a bit about the new Player’s Handbook…
Races – 4 new races are listed in the PHB3. I find it interesting that they’ve really pulled the stops out and had some very unique creatures listed, including a brand new primal creation, the wilden. Some like the minotaurs and githzerai are more standard 4E races while others, like the shardmind and wilden, are really pretty far out fantasy-types. I think it’ll depend a lot on the flavor of the campaign, but most might find the incorporation of a lot of these races a bit tough.
One thing that does bug me a bit is the power creep seeping in with these races. One failing I’ll admit with 4E is the rigidity and importance of ability scores. Once you select your ability scores, it is few and far between in ways to advance them. Unlike older editions with various magic items and the rapid scaling of abilities, you are pretty locked in with your stats in 4E from the start. What else adds to this problem is how monsters scale in difficulty. If you flub an key ability score, 4E is pretty unforgiving as you level up, since much of the monsters are built around players maximizing their character abilities and feats.
The races in PBH3 get around this a bit by having a +2 bonus to stat A, and a +2 bonus to either ability stat B or C. I think it is a little bit advantageous having new races that can really bolster select abilities compared to the older races that were a little regimented. It’s a light form of power creep, and with some players I am shuddering on how these guys will munchkin campaigns.
Classes – There are two classes, the runepriest (a melee heavy leader) and seeker (a primal controller via ranged weapons) that I think could easily slip into just about any campaign. For the most part, I think the seeker is the most basic class introduced in this book. The monk, despite, being a psionic power source, could also fit into an existing campaign world fairly well, as how the use of this power source is not too far away from the flavor of primal/divine/arcane.
The last three definitely embrace the psionic power source using augmented powers. The battlemind, ardent, and psion (respectively, defender, leader, and controller) are the new entries that fit the theme fairly well. I actually think the augmented powers are a little more restrictive in practice once I got to read the rules a bit more. Players start with at will powers, with 2 extra points that can bolster the effects of these powers. There is some versatility in the use of their powers, but the choice of powers themselves is a little restrictive. It seems like a pretty interesting mechanic for 4E.
The monk and runepriest however really get a lot more out of their power use. A runepriest effectively gets a choice of adding one of two small bonuses to each of its powers. The monk gets both a move and attack ability with most of his powers, and can choose to take either one, or both, when a single power is used. As much of 4E tactics are structured around limited choices during a turn, having more choices/abilities adds a lot more tactical options. I see this as some power creep rolling into the game.
Hybrids – For the really unique multiclass characters, PHB3 also introduces rules for hybrid classes. Where the old multiclass character dipped a little into another class while firmly set in another, the hybrid continually double dips into each. They are forced to split HP and armor bonuses, only garnering a little combined advantage with defense scores and weapon proficiencies. As they level up, they have to ensure they get an even split of powers from each class (so a fighter wizard with 2 encounter powers must have one from each class). It’s interesting, and again I am wary of the power gamers out there, but it looks like a decent framework for that person that absolutely has to have an invoker bard. I think it is nice that PHB3 also provides options for swordmages and artificers from the campaign books also.
Skill Powers – Another neat idea. Essentially another pool of power option for players trained in a particular skill. Some of them are quite handy and I think are a good way for a player to pick up an ability or power without having to go the multiclass feat route. I liked the options provided and think this is something that could be added to just about any game.
Feats and Magic Items – A final wrap up of feats and magic items. Most are keyed towards the new races and classes, but there are a smattering of items and feats listed that will work with just about any character. Again, nice to have some new additions and for the most part will fit into just about any campaign (if not aligned with the new races/classes).
The Good – It’s always nice to see some additions to the game that give players some new options. I particularly like the hybrid and skill power rules. I think with these two additions, you can finally really get a character that fits just about any particular idea.
I think that the new races can also accommodate some really heavy fantasy worlds. I also like that having another power source along with a variety of class roles that use this source, as it can lay the foundation for an interesting campaign world. Having more tools and choices will help DMs in the long run, and there are plenty here to make for some fun D&D.
The Bad – Some of the stuff might not fit well within restrictive campaigns. Having a player race of living crystals or primal shifting elementals may not sit well in some worlds. The psionic power source might be a bit too far ‘out there’ also for some games. One thing I don’t quite like is the power creep. I can see players getting a lot of options with these characters that are lacking with the older edition counterparts. This might start surge of campaigns churning over so that players can get a chance to try out all the cool new stuff available. I think long established campaigns might get a little rumbling around the game table over PHB3 being introduced.
I’m also wondering if it is too much, too soon. PBH2 I consider a must buy. It really addressed having the limited races and classes in the first book. This is layering on even more, and it is less than 2 years with 4E being announced. Most of the stuff is pretty far out fantasy. Is this book really needed so soon? I can see some players feeling a little overwhelmed with choices before. PHB3 really ramps up the indecision even more. I’m just wondering are there that many groups that play so frequently, that they are completely bored with the current choices in PHB 1 and 2? I guess so, but less than 2 years into 4E with 3 books for players to roll up characters seems to be a little rapid expansion of the rules.
The Verdict – I don’t see PHB3 as a must buy. I can see many gamers easily passing on the entire book. I see everything in the book optional and none of it really necessary to have. Additionally, I think some of the races and powers might not fit too well with a standard medieval elf-dwarf-human type of campaign. Shardminds and wilden are fantasy, but they are stepping into the realm of some pretty wild stuff. It might not fit everyone’s world very neatly. Because of that I see PHB3 as a niche book for certain campaigns.
I do think you have a group of folks that have explored just about all the race and class combinations out there. They are bored with the current material and are looking for something different. In that light I think PHB3 delivers. So if you are wanting a different character, or getting a more unique flavor in your campaign world, the new player’s handbook is a good fit.