Compiled and Edited by Michele Carter
Published by Wizards of the Coast
As a veteran DM of the 3.0/3.5 era, their choices for which races and classes to include are at the same time surprising and reassuring. Their picks have definitely shaken up the status quo, bucking traditions that date back to the late 80's. The Gnomish race, for example, won't be in the first Player's Handbook. Half-Orcs, one of the favorite races of the current edition, won't be addressed until the Forgotten Realms sourcebook in the Fall.
Instead, standbys like the Elf, Dwarf, and Hafling have been refined and polished to clarify their place in the world. Haflings in particular have been given a fictive solidness they previously lacked: they're now a nomadic boat-people, tending to the waters in the same way the Elves tend to forests or Dwarves to hills and mountains. New additions to the racial roster fill in gaps that have been patched previously in non-core supplements. The Dragonborn race, a reptilian species, is the most obvious of these. Previous 'dragon-ish' races have fit into campaign worlds roughly compared to the core races. Tieflings (half-demons) are another example of this trend. A popular player race in 3.0/3.5, it was challenging to play a Tiefling because of restrictions at character creation.
The process of making and growing a character seems to be the element they examine most closely in the commentary sections of the book. One subheading says it all: "Expanding the Sweet Spot". 3.0/3.5, it has often been noted, follows a power curve that starts somewhat underpowered and eventually reaches a point where players are too powerful to be seriously challenged. Though there's a lot of debate on this point, personal experience suggests the sweet spot for D&D 3.5 is about 5th level to 14th. Though many campaigns will never make it that far, it's frustrating to deal with mechanical weaknesses like that over the lifespan of a game. Fourth edition is a valiant attempt to rectify that by making all levels viable for play.
For a player, viability essentially boils down to "fun". At any given moment, is the player having fun at the gaming table? The Classes they've chosen for core inclusion speak directly to the need for fun. While the Core Four (Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, Wizard) are there, they've also included a number of fun tweaks for additional classes. In 3.5 hybrid classes were rough to play; why would you want to play a Paladin (a weak fighter bolted to a weak cleric) when you could play one of the core four and do something well? Fourth edition solves this issue by looking at the roles behind the classes rather than at class particulars. The Rogue, for example, is the classic Striker. He uses stealth and guile to cause spikes of high damage at opportune times. But that's not the only interpretation you can have of that role; the Warlock (another fourth edition core class) is also a Striker, but he relies on Damage over Time spells and arcane blasts to do his job. The Cleric is the classic Leader, keeping his allies up and in the fight by tapping into a spiritual power. The Warlord does the same through discipline and sheer force of will; the same role, but with a different interpretation.
The real advance is that each class role should always have something interesting to do in a fight, because every role is defined. If you're a Defender, and you're not interposing yourself between the bad guys and the party, you're doing it wrong. That great start is expanded by the inclusion of 'powers'. Previously the domain of spellcasters only, powers are going to be a staple for every class. Instead of the Fighter being forced to dully repeat "I hit it" over and over again, every class will have unique moves and attacks that support their role in the party. And if the Warlock (with powers labeled things like hurl through hell or iron chains of misery) are a good representation, each class should be a lot of fun to play.
I've been reading information about fourth edition greedily since last year on the D&D Insider site, and I thought I had a handle on what this game was going to be like. The class book, though, has been an eye opening experience. The designers just 'get it'. Everything that gets in the way of having fun needs to be excised. This book illustrates that, fundamentally, the WotC designers understand that. In 3.5 Fighters have too few options and Wizards have too many. Fixed. In 3.5 race didn't fundamentally matter, and on top of that each race was fairly poorly defined in the core books. Fixed. In 3.5 class roles were a challenge to understand for new and old players alike. Fixed.
Reading this text read like an answer to every player frustration I've experienced in the past 9 years. The game they describe in the pages of "Races and Classes" sounds like an intrinsically different experience than Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. For some people it's not going to be what they're looking for. For me personally, it's everything I could have hoped for and more. It's always been easy to have fun roleplaying; if they can make character creation fun? If they can make combat purely fun? That's an innovation worth rebooting the system for.
My only complaint with this book is the price. For more on that, please read on.
Worlds and Monsters
Compiled and Edited by Jennifer Clarke Wilkes
Published by Wizards of the Coast
For Dungeon Masters, this is far and away the more fascinating book. This stand-in for the DMG speaks directly to the storytelling core of the game, and hints at the kinds of high-adventure tales we'll be able to craft later this year. The game world sounds quite interesting, both for its specificity and its vagueness. Races, for example, are quite specifically outlined. Tieflings, Dragonborn, Elves ... all have specific creation stories that PCs can share as a common background. Racial traits stemming from historical events will add a lot of texture to character portrayals. At the same time, much of the world is being left deliberately vague. This setting is described just enough to hang plot hooks on, but not enough so that as a DM you'll have to deal with backstory cruft.
The world they describe sounds quite interesting, too. They're calling the core concept "Points of Light". Adventurers are heroes living in a world mostly covered by the darkness of wilderness and the unknown. Small cities and villages dot the landscape, providing shelter and a bright spot in this darkness. The wilderness hides numerous ruins, leftovers from the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. The last great human empire fell about a hundred years ago, in the setting, and the result is something akin to the historical dark ages. Layered on top of this ruin-strewn landscape is a faerie realm, accessible via special holes in the world. Monsters live in the deep woods, and dark magics are hidden underground. It sounds like a great place to adventure.
The monsters section of the book clarifies a number of things about what D&D combat will be like in fourth edition, and speaks again to their goal of 'fun all the time'. 3.5 combat was balanced around the concept of a party fighting one creature of an appropriate level. It turns out? That tends to get kind of boring. Fourth edition combat, instead, is balanced around an equal number of opponents for the players. Having the concept of 'slots', where monsters oppose players on equal footing, and roles (not unlike PC roles) ensures that fights will be actually challenging. 3.5 fights tend to be either bloodbaths or total routs, with little room in-between for contesting the outcome.
That concept of roles has been applied to monsters quite deliberately. Balancing a monster party with Defenders, Skirmishers, Controllers, and Leaders will result in a mixed bag of interesting critters. Monster races that tended toward the generic have even been given a degree of specificity. Instead of Gnolls just being Orcs with Hyena masks on, they'll now apparently fight with pack tactics and cowardly tricks. Giving flavour to the opposition seems to be the basic idea: off-the-rack encounters will no longer feel so rote.
Again, the game they're describing sounds like a lot of fun. My frustration with this text was high on the price side, though. While the "Races and Classes" book speaks directly to the core of the new D&D game, and is a great book to throw at someone still griping about the lack of Gnomes, "Worlds and Monsters" seems like it's mostly a lot of set dressing. Set dressing which (I can only assume) will be reiterated in more detail in the core books. Did I enjoy reading it? Of course. It's interesting stuff. But twenty dollars for set dressing is hard to swallow, especially when we're going to have to repurchase that information in the DMG for another thirty bucks.
At a cost of forty dollars for the pair, it's hard to say if the extremely interesting content is worth the price of admission. In podcasts and commentaries WotC has said how they enjoy the 'DVD extras' model, where consumers pay a premium for 'behind-the-scenes' info. If you really enjoy that kind of content, or just can't wait the next four months for the core books, these will be easy buys for you. The ideal would have been if purchasing these books represented preorders for the core books. Pay $40 now, buy the core books for only $20 each? Anything to make this investment last past May? Instead, we're left with the reality that nothing in these books can't wait until June.