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This is a continuing review section of the new 4e rules. There is a running score sheet at the end, and links to previous review sections, but the bulk is under the cut, to spare your flist view.

These are also kept unlocked.

The main things left to review of the Player's Handbook are the Feat system, the Skills system, the ritual magic system, and a few miscellaneous issues. I'm not going to review the combat system as a whole as part of the PHB reviews, even though there is a large chapter devoted to it in the PHB. I consider that more of a GM issue. There are also tons and tons of magic items in the PHB, too, but that's a GM issue as well, as far as I'm concerned. To the degree that I review those topics separately, it'll be under the DMG review.

My reviews, my rules.

Anyway, feats. I liked the feat system from 3e and 3.5e. Working under the limitations of the class and level philosophy, feats were a good way to add distinction, in combat and out, to characters otherwise lacking it. Especially fighters. It was a kludge, and I certainly didn't like some individual feats, and I often complained about the illogic of certain feat requirements. But overall, a good solid system which actually made me want to play a fighter once in a while.

The feat system in 4e is... similar, but less. Feats are a bit of a misnomer, now. The class powers are now the things giving fundamentally new abilities, and feats are now described, explicitly, as being more enhancements to things you can already do. All right, terminology aside, that's a fair thing. But, looking through the implementation, it's very... enh. Part of it is that they seem a bit repetitive. Do I need a half a dozen feats that all basically give you a different armor proficiency? Not really. Even allowing for the slightly different pre-requisites, that's something that should be summed up in a small table or a general rule. Likewise, a bunch more feats at higher level giving more but similar armor advantages, or different weapon bonuses. Then, there's a perfectly legitimate set of feats that are variations on the theme of, "This feat enhances a class or race ability." Perfectly legitimate, but once you remove the repetitious items, the list is about half of what it really seems to be.

The objectionable part of the feats, to me, were the Paladin themed-ones, because each and every one was dependent on which god your Paladin worships. Meaning that, once again, there is a poor barrier between background and mechanics-- these feats largely dictate to me that I either need to use the (impossibly lame) official gods of 4e, or scrap most of those feats, or design new ones. Sub-optimal.

Also, as a footnote, I should mention that, just like class powers and everything else, feats now have the same advancement track for each and every class. One every other level (and a few extras) regardless of class. Feats are not just the Fighter Thing.

Skills on the other hand, just annoy me, because they're completely emasculated. There are seventeen skills in the whole system. Period. You get to train in so many skills, based on your class. Not based on your level, based on your class. You don't get any better at your skills, except as your stats rise and your level rises. Remember, the basic mechanic is a die roll, plus half your level, plus relevant bonuses, which usually means a stat bonus or situational bonus.) So what does training in a skill get you?

A +5 bonus.

Yeah, that's it. Period, end of system. Now, there are some non-immediate-combat skills, or some skills that can be applied, conceivably, in non-combat situations, but the rules are obviously set up to worry about combat and near-combat situations. Knowledge checks seem intended to give knowledge about monsters, traps, or other combat situations. Stealth, designed to avoid combat; perception, designed to not get caught flat-footed, etc. That's bothersome. But what's really bothersome is that the skills described are so ridiculously broad. There's now a generic "Thievery" skill (which Warlocks can take, too?!) meaning you cannot differentiate between a pick-pocket and sleight of hand thief, vs a professional burglar or safe cracker. There's a generic "Athletics" skill, because we all know that scaling a wall is really the same skill as swimming. I have no idea where riding checks would go-- either there, or "Acrobatics" I guess.

You can't differentiate because the skill classes are too broad, and because you don't even get skill points anymore, you just get a number of skills you have a +5 bonus in, and the rest you don't. I don't mind unable to create a combat-useless character, but I do mind that you can't distinguish ourself in any meaningful way within the skill system.

Now, there's an old and deep gaming debate on just how support a system can and should give to non-combat activities, and specifically on personality-based activities. On the one hand, my young purist self of ten or fifteen years ago would have argued that the answers should be minimal, and none. In an ideal world, a GM should be building a fun and coherent enough world, and plotting it out properly so that when the characters need some bit of in-world knowledge, they already have it from previous sessions. And personality mechanics? Aw, to hell with that, I'd have said-- just have the players play their character, and have the GM reasonably interpret his NPCs' actions based on what they see.

But the problems with that attitude, my older and wiser self responds, are legion. First of all, you were and are not that mythical ideal GM. Even if you were, this minimal support for in-game knowledge prevents you from running campaigns where the PCs do not start out shrouded in a certain, distinct level of ignorance. And on the personality aspect, well, some of us are great role-play actors, and some of us are not. Or someone may want to play the fast-talking thief when in reality they couldn't fast-talk their way past Winnie the Pooh in real life. Or sometimes, the character just doesn't gel. Whatever, there are some times when some support for this sort of thing is not just good, but necessary, as long as it's used properly. (E.g., a fast talk attempt shouldn't just be a die roll, in my opinion. It should be a die roll after some role-playing attempt, with the roll adding a bonus or penalty to the situation. Trying to fast talk your way past a guard by claiming that someone died, when the guard just saw the guy five minutes ago is still a failure, almost no matter what the die says. Or, more subtly, I'd probably have a high roll give the player some warning that this line won't work before he or she uses it.)

Likewise, it's good to give characters some expertise beyond beating up on things-- mechanics are just a way to normalize that situation, to get everyone's expectations on the same level. But there's nearly no support for anything of the sort, here. There are only three skills that I'd really consider knowledge, here-- History, Arcana, and Religion. Maybe Nature, although that's clearly survival oriented. The personality mechanics are stripped down, too-- Bluff, Intimidate, and Negotiate. And unfortunately, it's not really just a matter of adding new skills to the system, as it was in 3.5e, because the system is chunky and coarse-grained that adding, say, an Appraisal skill now requires anyone who takes it to give up something else entirely. Figuring out where riding checks go means deciding who can and can't do something fancy on a horse... I would have decided this based on which skill, Acrobatics or Athletics, is available to Paladins. Turns out: Neither!

Skills are broken and stupid, and I don't see an easy way to fix them. I'd be tempted to graft 3.5e skills back into a system, but that gets complicated.

Rituals are the last major thing. Ritual spells are all the spells that can be cast, but take so long to cast that the rules say, "No, you cannot cast these during combat. Before combat, if you are clever, but generally, no." Typically they take fifteen minutes or more to cast, and are accompanied by drawn out incantations, gestures, etc. You need a feat to cast them, which Clerics and Wizards get automatically, and which Paladins and Warlocks may qualify for. What's interesting is that a lot of these spells can fail, as they now require various skill checks to proceed.

Initally, when I heard about the Ritual class of spells, I was negative on it, but the more I think about it, the more I think it's a positive move overall. Certainly, it removes the combat confusion of "How long does that take to cast, again?" because ritual spells just don't get cast in combat. I think the main problems here are that the spell lists are skimpy (some of this is because the combat "spells" are removed into the class power section, but still, there are some levels which just don't get new spells) and that there's no longer any dividing line between Cleric and Wizard spells. Some spells are intended for Clerics, since their skill check is Religion, but since Wizards can take Religion as a skill, that's not a huge bar. Or, the Wizard just doesn't get the bonus for having a trained skill. Or an assistant helps him make the skill check.

Miscellanea: Multi-classing! There ain't any! Well, that's not fair. There's rules for it. They just don't do anything recognizable as multi-classing to anyone from any of the previous editions. Basically, there's a short feat-chain in the Heroic Tier that opens up class powers from other classes in a rigid and controlled way. The whole notion of a 7th/3rd Fighter/Wizard is officially dead. I don't really like it.

Retraining! This is a new concept, I believe, as I don't recall seeing it in 3.5e, although it may be a house rule in some games. The basic notion, now, is that your class powers, skills, and feats, are not graven in stone. If you realize you madea bad choice you can, in a controlled fashion, make retro-active changes. Typically, when you gain a level, and typically not more than one change at once. I think, in general, I like this, because it doesn't lock you into a bad choice you made two years ago, but it doesn't let you re-write your whole character every other session, either. Doesn't make much in-game sense, and could sort of lead to Order of the Stick conversations ("Sorry, I retrained two levels ago. Did I used to be an expert about the Arcane? Sorry, not so much now. But I can Bluff! Hey, maybe I can bluff this Nightmare Horse into thinking there's a Riding skill! If I still had Arcane, I'd know how bluffable it was!") but overall, a good thing, in my opinion.

Equipment! Not too much to say except that weapons and armor are kinda bland and boring (as they should be-- I really don't like obsessing on whether a lucern hammer is better than a guisarme-glaive) except that some feats and skills require or buff certain types of weapons.

So at this point, I grade things as follows:

  • Feats: D+ (Too repetitive, not enough substance, too much genre bleedthrough.)
  • Skills: F (Just fundamentally broken. A huge step backwards.)
  • Rituals: C (too skimpy a list. This book is really only 70% complete.)

  • Class Roles:
    • Leaders: A- (seriously, just for moving Clerics out of the medic role, and because I think the Warlord class really adds something)
    • Defenders: B (There's only so interesting you can make a Fighter, but they tried)
    • Strikers: C+ (Rogues are lacking, and Warlocks are too setting-specific)
    • Controllers: B- (They really should have had another type here. I suspect Druids will be future Controllers)
  • Classes Overall: B
  • Paragon: F (Seriously, this is fucked up)
  • Epic: F (Can I give less than an F? How about a Q? Can I give a Q-?)
  • Character Stats: B- (Needs a hack to allow dramatic flaws, but it's an easy hack)
  • Character Races: C (Too much genre dependence over almost half the choices, some of which can't be fixed except by banning.)
  • Class Fairness: A- (I feel like I'm giving this against my will)
  • Class Simplicity: B (Too simple, in some respects. I'll flesh that out more in the next reviews, as it includes feats and skills)
  • Class Aesthetics: C- (This balances out that A- grade, because the spellcasters, while fair, just seem flat)
  • Class Powers: C- (This would be higher, but the Encounter/Daily thing is broken for my style, and because I can't tell without playing whether these class powers are really meaningful on the battleground. Probably would have been a B- without that former.)

This rates about a solid C, actually, since I don't put equal weight on all those categories. It's the Paragon and Epic that really drag things down. If I look at the game as intended only for play below 11th level, it bumps up half a grade, immediately. If I fix a few things that are easily fixable, probably another half a grade to a B-.

I'm not sure if I'll get another review out today; hopefully if not, then at least one tomorrow, and then... well. Maybe when I'm on vacation. The GM stuff will follow, and then the Monster Manual.

Other reviews:
PHB: Characters, Preliminaries and Basics
PHB: Characters, General Differentiation and Advancement
PHB: Characters, Class Particulars and Advancement

Date: 2008-06-21 11:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, and a note: If it isn't immediately obvious by now, you cannot convert a 3.5e character or campaign to a 4e game. People running 3.5e should not buy 4e under the illusion that they can convert. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise. They are lying to you.

Date: 2008-06-21 11:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
To be fair, WOTC has said the same thing here.

Date: 2008-06-21 11:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes. They're kinda waffling on it recently, giving guides out, but they have at least not made the false claim that conversion is simple, desirable, or even achievable in a meaningful sense.

This is the largest fundamental change the system has ever seen, even more than the old degenerate versions like Basic and Expert (vs the "Advanced" 1e, etc.)

Date: 2008-06-21 11:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You really think so? It seems to me like the 2e to 3e change was larger, and that 4e is still more like 3e than 3e was like 2e.

Date: 2008-06-21 11:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

Seriously, the Class Power thing is the fundamental break with the past, and the thing that can't be translated to or from the old system in any realistic way.

The addition of Feats from 2e to 3e was a big break, but not as big.
Edited Date: 2008-06-21 11:26 pm (UTC)

Date: 2008-06-22 02:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
From what I've seen, I'd agree that 4e is more like 3e than 3e was like 2e, but the conversion thing fails because the 2e-->3e change was an expansion that added a lot of rules&options, whereas 3e-->4e is a simplification, and a lot of the conversion of characters would just be removing things with no tangible tradeoff.

And theoretically, people would rather make new characters than pale shadows of their old ones.

Date: 2008-06-21 11:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Your comments on skills are interesting, because that's the thing that I've seen nearly universal praise for elsewhere, as everyone says that the old system just had too many skills that were too finely grained.

Date: 2008-06-21 11:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Either those comments are coming from computer RPG designers, or from people who have a radically different understanding of what skill systems are supposed to accomplish.

As far as I'm concerned, the skill should be the fundamental unit of character advancement, not this chunky, clunky, artificial "level" thing.

Date: 2008-06-21 11:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I feel like I should agree with that in theory, except that in practice the CRPGs I play that are skill-based provide less interesting progression than level-based ones.

One of the interesting articles I read aboot the 4e levelling stuff was treating it from a purely metagaming perspective, about how you should get frequent "cherries" (small rewards) but also infrequent jackpots for maximum psychological reinforcement and to provide you with constant attainable goals while not feeling too incremental, and the system is designed to provide that. That seems like it'd matter more in CRPGs than PNP stuff, but dunno.

Date: 2008-06-22 06:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Then why are you playing D&D? There are plenty of fantasy systems that are based around a skill system and which don't have the problems you've been bringing up.

Or alternately, just add a non-combat skill system. Athletics becomes Combat Athletics, etc., and if you want to pick someone's pocket or climb a wall in a non-combat situation, you need the non-combat skill.

Date: 2008-06-22 06:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Then why are you playing D&D? There are plenty of fantasy systems that are based around a skill system and which don't have the problems you've been bringing up.

Because, shockingly, RPGs are social activities. Given the choices of:

1) Playing a game with a philosophy I don't prefer with my friends,
2) Playing a game with a philosophy I prefer with strangers, or
3) Trying to force my friends to play a game they don't want,

well, my choice is clear.

I play Everway/Amber on the side, which is proof positive that you can get good story-teller type games without elaborate rules support, if you want to, and have the right group.

Date: 2008-06-22 06:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Fair enough. If your players want D&D, then that's what you play. :)

Date: 2008-06-22 03:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well, this is a shame. I really _did_ like playing a fighter under 3rd ed. There was a lot more for me to do other than say "I hit it with my axe", and there was more to look forward to as the character advanced.

I don't have as much experience with 3/3.5e as [ profile] m00nglum & company do at this point, but I thought there was a lot that was done right. For once, it seemed like as an actual player, I could have characters which achieved the mythic status of the heroes in _Deities & Demigods_ -- multi-classing was real for once, cross-class abilities more explicitly allowed, and a lot of differentiation available between characters who were nominally of the same type.

The rules aren't everything, in any (tabletop) RPG, but some sets of guidelines offer more variety than others.

Date: 2008-06-22 03:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, the rules may not be everything, but if they weren't important, we wouldn't have had Basic D&D, Expert D&D, AD&D 1e, AD&D 2e, D&D 3e, D&D 3.5e, and now D&D 4e, much less all the rest.

I've been working on a game of my own since I wrote that review, and I'm sort of surprised I came up with a flat C for the whole Player's Section, to be honest. I expected it to come out at about a B- or B, but I did it like I do trade studies-- weights, grades, and final grade. I think my offense at the Paragon and Epic stuff is telling.

I think for fighters, a 4e version will still be playable in combat. The lack of multi-classing annoys me, and the skill system really annoys me, though. And from what I've read, there are some good things in the DMG-- some are so good (extended skill challenges, especially) that they'll make it back into my game even if it's 3.5e.

Date: 2008-06-22 12:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Extended skill challenges are a neat idea that does not work so well in practice.

Date: 2008-06-22 05:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Extended skill challenges seem brilliant, to me. I liked them when I originally read about them, liked them when I read them in the final rule set, and everything I've read about how they get implemented in real games seems excellent and right in line with how I'd do it, so far.

I'm sure there are ways for them to screw up, but I'm very surprised to see a negative opinion of them. They'll probably be part of the next review, possibly today.

Date: 2008-06-22 03:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Fighters in 4e are a lot of fun, thanks to all those special powers. Whatever failings 4e may have, it very much succeeds in being a fun tactical combat game for all classes.

Date: 2008-06-22 12:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Nothing I have read so far about 4e makes me want to switch to it from 3.5e.

Date: 2008-06-22 02:07 pm (UTC)
ext_12920: (gaming: castle)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, it sounds like it's probably okay for the sort of game they want you to play (dungeon-crawl hack-n-slash tactical combat), but not very versatile, or useful for the sort of plot-and-character-based games we like to play.

Date: 2008-06-22 05:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think like most games, it's going to depend on the GM running it. And there are things in the DMG I've seen that I rather like, and not much (so far) that I hate.

In my mind, it boils down to variations on one question: Would it be easier for me as a GM to get the good stuff from 3.5e into a 4e game, or from 4e into a 3.5e game? I think my final review (however many weekends from now that is) will probably be a comparison on that basis.

Date: 2008-06-22 06:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'd agree with this 100%, and I think that's a good thing. By trying to be everything to everyone, D&D 3.5e was lessened as what it was supposed to be: dungeon-crawl hack-n-slash tactical combat. If you want to play a plot-and-character-based game, choose a system that is designed to support it rather than kit-bashing it into a game designed for something else.


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