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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
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