Treasure of Talon Pass

While I continue to ponder the new core rules and the 4e combat system, I thought I would jot down a few thoughts about the latest official adventure. The Treasure of Talon Pass was released as part of Free RPG Day 2008. Frankly, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing… I only stumbled across the concept and the product by accident. Fortunately Westgate Games in Canterbury was participating (one of the few game shops in the UK that was) so I was able to get a copy without resorting to eBay.

A shame it wasn’t worth it really.

This won’t be quite as damning as my review of Keep on the Shadowfell. The Treasure of Talon Pass is not a complete adventure, and doesn’t pretend to be. It is the finale of a larger adventure; the disappointing last act of an otherwise promising play. It is a dungeon crawl, taking players through eleven rooms of increasing carnage. No imagination is necessary, and there is certainly nothing as tricky as roleplaying to be found in the adventure.

Physically, the product is more recognisable than Keep on the Shadowfell. This is the typical adventure format used for years by TSR. A removable card cover conceals a thirty-two page adventure booklet. The paper lacks the glossy finish of more recent releases, but is far more robust as a result. The adventure is also in black and white to save on costs. However, the general appearance and pagination matches the previous 4e releases, and the art is recycled from these releases as well. Frankly, I’d rather see all 4e adventures in this format. If they were they’d be about £10 cheaper.

Only twenty of the thirty-two pages contain the adventure. The rest of the booklet is made up of adverts and five pregenerated player characters. These are the same PCs that were printed in Keep on the Shadowfell, but they’ve been advanced (incorrectly) to second level.

To be honest, I don’t really know what to make of the product. It was free, so on the one hand you feel privileged to have it at all. On the other hand, I can’t imagine ever using it. Dave Noonan attempts to introduce some hooks to tie this adventure with a wider campaign, but they fall a little flat. Use the same descriptions for other dungeons in your campaign world and introduce a sense of continuity! Put a known NPC’s name on this ancient tapestry to hint at a dark past! It’s not very sophisticated.

Spoilers ahoy.

The plot (such as it is) revolves around the PCs entering a dungeon to retrieve a jade chalice. They arrive shortly after a party of orcs who are also after the chalice. The chalice is a complete macguffin. There’s no attempt to explain why the PCs might want it, why the orcs want it, or what its wider significance might be. The chalice is in the possession of a dragon and his wizard servant, but they don’t use it for anything or even seem to ascribe any importance to it. Their presence in the dungeon is entirely coincidental to the chalice. In short, this adventure doesn’t actually tell a story.

Now, the party of orcs is an interesting idea. You can imagine the PCs battling them, before realising that the dungeon is too dangerous for one group alone. The PCs and the orcs team up, the orcs gain individual personalities, and there’s a lot of roleplaying as the PCs have to work with the orcs to overcome challenges. Then in the finale, the orcs and the PCs must betray one another, and perhaps break the bonds of friendship and respect to attain their goal. Now, that would have be a good and memorable adventure. Unfortunately, Noonan has all the orcs wiped out by kobold skirmishers in room 2, which utterly torpedoes that idea.

I despair for the future of D&D if Keep on the Shadowfell and Treasure of Talon Passare the best adventures Wizards feel they can produce. They’re unimaginative and derivative tripe. While they may have some utility as a primer for learning the combat rules, I wouldn’t let either of them within a mile of an actual campaign. I find it shocking that anyone else would.

What is more, in Treasure of Talon Pass the creativity bar has been set even lower than their last effort. I suspect that because this was a free adventure, the designers didn’t really try to give their best work. There are parts of the adventure that make no narrative sense, and other parts that make no sense full stop. Why is the dragon Skatharilarn in this dungeon? Why does he need to employ the services of a wizard? Why don’t the wizard and the dragon actually work together against the PCs? Why is there an arena that spews forth undead for the party to fight, and why does the wizard decide to lure them there?

If I was Skatharilarn and a bunch of adventures had massacred all the kobolds I had placed on the upper level (and remember these kobolds are good enough to take out a dozen orcs!) then I would hit those adventures as quickly as I could with all the power at my disposal. Anything less is a nonsense.

The fact the adventure is free is not an excuse for it being bad. There’s nothing here of any worth, unless you’re in the market for a new magic item not presented in the DMG. This is a product for completists and masochists. There’s no meat on these bones.

By far the best stuff for fourth edition is being printed on the Wizard’s website. Click over there and have a look at the articles for Dragon and Dungeon magazine while they’re still free. The article on Goblins is particularly good. I’ll probably get around to reviewing these additions to the cannon when all the articles are collected into Dragon #364, which should happen in the next week or so.


Back to the Player’s Handbook.


Player’s Handbook 1 (Chapter Two)

Right, this is where things get more interesting. New rules and new ways of using the old rules are now presented to us in the second chapter of the new fourth edition Player’s Handbook. Character creation, ability scores, making checks, gaining levels… and even a little thing called roleplaying. It’s all in chapter two:

Making Characters

The PHB presents a nine steps in creating your character. It’s a good place to start, although in practice a fighter can’t really select feats or powers until they have decided what weapon they intend to wield. Your choice of race may be influenced by your class, or vice versa. They put the “Roleplaying character details” at #9 in a list of nine. Obviously, a character background should be the first thing you come up with. How you roleplay a character tends to evolve during character generation.

The choices in this Player’s Handbook are now laid out. For those who need reminding, there are eight races and eight classes on offer. The races are Dragonborn, Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Half-Elf, Halfling, Human and Tiefling. The classes are Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue Wizard, Warlock and Warlord. If you thought you understood those classes from previous editions, you might be in for a shock.

The text reminds us that all character classes are designed to fit into one particular role within an adventuring group, and that the most effective parties should have at least one representative of each of the roles. These are:

  • Controller: Wizard
  • Defender: Fighter, Paladin
  • Leader: Cleric, Warlord
  • Striker: Ranger, Rogue, Warlock

I know that the terms Controller, Defender, Leader and Striker are regularly used on Massively Mulitplayer On-line Roleplaying Games like World of Warcraft. There have been many comments accusing the D&D designers of trying to turn the game into a pen and paper version of WoW. I can’t speak for that. I’ve never played World of Warcraft so I’ll probably miss all the similarities that some players will find blatant.

However, I don’t think that apeing the best bits of another game is necessarily a bad thing. If it brings more players to D&D then so much better. They will soon find that computer “roleplaying” games aren’t really roleplaying games at all. I will also say that the introduction of these roles only formalises something that’s been in D&D throughout all its editions.

Anyone who has every played D&D knows that a party needs a wizard (mage), a fighter (warrior), a rogue (thief) or a cleric (priest). If you have those elements, you have a balance of skills that can deal with most challenges. What the designers are saying with these formal roles is that if you don’t have a cleric, then a warlord will fill that role adequately; if you don’t have a rogue then you can make do with a ranger and so on. As far as I can see the roles don’t have any game effects at all, except to give advice for players on how to build a rounded party. Leaders aren’t actually in charge of the group, it’s just a moniker that fits the nature of the cleric’s powers.

The game also stresses that you don’t have to have a balanced party. You can make do without all the roles. And this is something I want to stress. There’s been a lot of criticism of the new edition having constraining rules that hamper creativity. It doesn’t. There’s plenty of advice and encouragement to ignore the rules, and to do things differently if you want to. There’s a degree of honesty in the text; the game designers want you to have fun.

So, do my current parties fit this bill? In the Game of Souls we have Alarius (striker), Amara (defender), Gazahi (striker) Lord Revda (defender), Clara (striker), Jirokichi (controller and defender), Tam (controller and leader) and Lycaon (defender). In the League of Lightwe have Nicos (leader), Brack (defender), Raza (striker), Arvan (leader, controller, defender and striker – druids are very good in 3e) and Elias (defender and leader). I think we have the bases covered.

Ability Scores

You still have the same six attributes you had in third edition. The stat table hasn’t changed between the editions either. An ability score of 10 or 11 still provides no modifier. Positive modifiers accrue at every even number from 12 upwards, and negative modifiers accrue at every even number from 8 downwards. A stat of 3 gives you a -4 penalty, and a stat of 18 gives you a +4 bonus. So far, so similar.

How you generate those attributes has changed. There are three methods proffered by the Player’s Handbook. You can just take a standard array (16, 14, 13, 12, 11 and 10) and assign them as you like. If you’re a bit of a daredevil you can return to the tried and tested method of rolling 4d6, and dropping the lowest die, six times and assigning them where you like. The third method is the method that is encouraged by the rules, and will probably be the one I adopt in the new campaign.

You start with the scores 8, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10. You then have 22 points to spend on improving them. The cost of increasing a stat rises exponentially the higher you have it. For example, it costs 16 of your 22 points to raise a stat from 10 to 18, but only 9 points to increase it from 10 to 16. I won’t bother to reproduce the table here, but you get the idea.

There is no provision for lowering a statistic below 8  – or even lowering any of the 10s you start with to an 8 – to gain additional points. Remember the ethos of the game: no one is truly bad at anything. Players who actively want their characters to have bad stats are few and far between, so I suppose I can see where they are coming from here.

Personally, I have never been a supported of a point-buy system for stats. I felt it lacked variety. If all the NPCs in the world were using the same system then it would be impossible for any one, anywhere to have 18 in all their stats. Statistically improbable, but possible. However, in my years running third edition I have come to the opinion that stats matter. They really matter. A player who through luck has a character with very good stats is significantly superior to those who only have average stats. All the classes and feats and powers might be in balance, but if the attributes are out of whack then you are still going to have an imbalanced party. I don’t care about game balance in the wider world. I do care about balance within a party. Rolling stats creates imbalance. I’m a point-buy convert.

The mathematically inclined of you will notice that using this point-buy system you can only get one very high stat and lots of average stats. So you’re not going to get a fighter with 18 Str, 18 Con and 18 Dex this way. That might upset some players. I doubt it will upset many GMs. I may wind up tweaking this system. I may allow players to reduce some attributes to get additional points, but I won’t be doing that for the first campaign. I don’t want to create a GURPS-like situation where players deliberately cripple their characters in some areas just so they are ubermeisters in something else.

Those of you who are currently despairing then please worry not. In fourth edition, your attributes simply aren’t as important as they used to be. Your powers and your feats are the elements of the game that really ramp up your capabilities. Attributes are helpful, but they apply to less crucial mechanics than they used to, and if they do something essential then you normally have a choice over which attribute applies.

Let’s take saving throws for example. Saving throws as we understand them don’t exist in 4e. They are replaced with three defences (still called Fortitude, Reflex and Will). The defences work like your Armour Class. So rather than you rolling to make a saving throw, your foe rolls to hit a specified defence. It’s the same mechanic, but in reverse. At first level you choose which of two stats improve your defences. You can apply either your Strength or your Constitution modifier to your Fortitude defence, your Dexterity or your Intelligence modifier to your Reflex defence, and your Wisdom or Charisma modifier to your Will defence. One low stat is no longer going to torpedo your chance of resisting a fireball. And it makes some sense. The high Dex character’s reflex defence represents his general nimbleness and reaction. The high Int character’s reflex defence shows that he is clever enough to see what is coming and take a step backwards. Let’s look at the attributes in more details:

Strength: Apply the modifier to basic mêlée attacks and to damage rolls. Certain powers will also use strength, but many other powers use different attributes for their bonus to hit and to damage. Obviously, strength also represents how much you can pick up and carry.

Constitution: The constitution score (not the modifier, the whole score!) is added to you hit points at first level. But, your Con modifier is not added at each successive level in fourth edition. Having a high Con is not going to get you a significant number of extra hit points at high levels. The number of healing surges you can use per day is influenced by your Con. Some powers use Constitution too.

Dexterity: Is used for basic ranged attacks, and many ranger and rogue powers make use of dexterity (as you might expect). In 4e dexterity is only added to you Armour Class if you are wearing light armour. Therefore the fighter who is wearing full plate doesn’t need to have a high dexterity. It won’t do his AC any good anyway. This is another example of high attributes being less essential to your character concept.

Intelligence: Obviously, wizard powers use intelligence in a big way. If you wear light armour then you can apply the Intelligence modifier to your armour class instead of your dexterity modifier. What Intelligence doesn’t do is give you access to more skills, skill points or languages. If you want to have extra skills then select the right combination of feats. You don’t need a high Int any more.

Wisdom: Wisdom influences many divine-based powers such as those of a cleric. Among the attributes it has the biggest influence of skills. The most regularly rolled skill checks (perception and insight) come off Wisdom.

Charisma: This influences the powers of paladins and warlocks particularly. It might apply to the attack roll for a warlock’s powers, for example. As previously stated, it may also affect your will defence.

Attribute modifiers are still added to your skills, so all the stats will influence your skill rolls to some degree. The physical stats have more all-round utility, but if you are a spellcaster you’ll need to have the attribute mostly closely tied to your class as your highest stat. Or not. You might play against type, and that’s fine too. A cleric with a Wisdom of 8 is still surprisingly effective. I think they have the balance right in this.


Which brings us to the section on roleplaying. There’s not a great deal to say about this. It is designed for the roleplaying newbie, and tries to explain how it all works. Again, it serves its purpose adequately, but it’s not really aimed at me (or probably anyone reading this blog). It describes roleplaying in Alignment terms.

Alignment has changed a lot in fourth edition. In previous editions, alignment has been represented as a compass with Good, Evil, Law and Chaos at the cardinal points. Depending on where you fell on this axis, you could generate one of nine alignments. In fourth edition there are only five alignments, and there is no axis there is only a straight line – a sliding scale of infamy. From left to right you can be Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil or Chaotic Evil. The text goes on to describe those alignments in depth, and the definitions are not the same as we have seen in previous editions.

However, the discussion of alignment stops here. It is merely a tool to inform roleplaying if you need it to be. There are no rules that use alignment. There are no mechanics that are dependent upon it whatsoever. If you don’t want to use alignment then it can be completely excised from the game without effecting anything else. And so, I’m going to completely excise it from the game without effecting anything else.

Give fourth edition a gold star. Well done.

What I am pleased to see is that a fair chunk of the discussion on roleplaying is given over to a character’s personality, mannerisms, appearance and suggestions of how they might respond in certain situations. It’s all there to help players bring their characters to life, and make them more than a dry set of numbers. There’s also a section on character backgrounds! It’s nice to see what I have always considered an essential part of the character creation process being given some book-time. This is further built upon in the DMG much to my delight.


Time for a quick look at the default pantheon for fourth edition. I never used the third edition pantheon, so I have very little intention of using the fourth. Some of these gods have cropped up on Iourn before, usually in a different context and often using the second edition source material (which is largely superior to anything that has been published since). The deities are aligned, but again this an be ignored.

There are some familiar faces from previous editions and even from campaign settings such as the Forgotten Realms. Because the ‘default’ D&D setting is no longer Greyhawk, many of those deities have been excised from the game. Also, in keeping with the practice of redrawing the entire D&D back story, many of the gods have had a make-over. In second edition Corellon Larethian was the head of the elven pantheon, the Seldarine. In third edition he was the only god of the elves. In fourth edition, he is simply Corellon and he’s now the god of magic and the fey. If you’re interested the full roster is as follows:

  • Avandra: goddess of change, freedom, trade and adventurers
  • Bahamut: god of justice, protection, nobility and honour
  • Corellon: god of spring, beauty, the arts, the fey and arcane magic
  • Erathis: goddess of civilisation, cities, laws, rulers, judges
  • Ioun: god of knowledge, skill and prophecy
  • Kord: god of battle, storms and war
  • Melora: goddess of the wilderness and the sea
  • Moradin: god of creation, artisans, miners and smiths
  • Pelor: god of the sun, summer, time, the needy and opponents of evil
  • Raven Queen: goddess of the dead, fate, winter
  • Senhanine: goddess of the moon, autumn, trickery and illusions

There’s not much information on each god (they manage to fit six on a page), but what there is, is well presented. The top three commandments of each god are bullet pointed and really help to inform a player of how to play a cleric of this god. I may adopt this format when I flesh out the gods on my Iourn site. What you won’t find in the PHB is details of the evil gods. PCs aren’t supposed to worship them after all, are they? Asmodeus, Bane, Gruumsh, Lolth, Tiamat, Torog, Vecna and Zehir are chronicled in the DMG along with the mysterious Tharzidum. More on them later.

Languages and Scripts

Languages have changed again in this edition. The twenty spoken languages presented in third edition have been reduced to ten. The languages are now: Common, Deep Speech, Draconic, Dwarven, Elven, Giant, Goblin, Primordial, Supernal and Abyssal. Each language is associated with one of six alphabets or scripts.

Languages don’t work like skills, and you don’t buy them with skill points (largely because there aren’t any skill points in 4e). Each race allows you to speak two or three languages. If you can speak a language you can also read and write the script associated with it. If you want access to more languages you must take the Linguist feat. Each time you take the Linguist feat you are able to speak, read and write three more languages.

It’s a simple system, but I really don’t like it. First of all, ten languages is far too few. There are thirty-nine languages currently in use on Iourn. Secondly, there is no way for characters to be illiterate – which is actually quite likely in a cod-mediaeval society. Thirdly, getting access to three new languages each time you take the Linguist feat is just plain silly. I can see why they’ve done it – burning a feat for one language wouldn’t be worth it. But what if you want to learn just one more language? Why do you have to learn three?

These rules perpetuate the third edition standard that you either know a language or you don’t. There is no middle ground. I was originally against this – I liked the idea of gittish adventurers loudly asking the tribal shaman the way to the beach in broken orcish. However, for simplicity’s sake I bowed to expedience. My dissatisfaction with the published rules will compel me to look at this again.

You can read my current house rules on languages over on the Iourn site. I like the way I have divided the spoken language from its alphabet. I will almost certainly be bringing this principle into the fourth edition game, but I’m not quite sure how it will function within the new rules. My gut tells me that languages should be part of the skills system and not the feat system. However, I’m ruling nothing out – and I will probably start play in September with the language rules as they are printed in the PHB.

Making Checks

This is broadly similar to third edition, but needs a little commentary from me. Almost everything you do in fourth edition requires a check of some kind. Wizards need to roll a die to hit with their spells in the same way that fighters need to roll a die to hit with their swords. The target number will be the target’s Armour Class (AC), Fortitude, Reflex of Will defence (if you are trying to hit someone), a Difficulty Class (DC) set by the GM, or an opposed roll against another character’s skill.

All checks made up of the following components:

  1. Half your level, rounded down
  2. A relevant ability modifier

In addition to these two components, any number of modifiers could also apply to the check. These include the bonus from having a trained skill, special bonuses from feats or powers, bonus from your weapon proficiency, bonuses from magic items, penalties that come into play in particular circumstances (your target has cover or concealment) and so on and so forth. As in third edition, bonuses of the same type do not stack. However, there are less types of bonuses now. More on that in later posts.

In general, there are three types of check you will be making: Attack Rolls, Skill Checks and Ability Checks.

Attack Rolls are expressed as “Ability vs Defence”. What this means is you take half your level, add the indicated ability (and any modifers) and compare the result to the named defence – be it AC, Fortitude, Reflex or Will. A mêlée attack with a sword is described as Strength vs AC. A ranged attack with a magic missile spell is described as Intelligence vs Reflex. Are you getting the picture? A common modifier for attack rolls is your weapon proficiency bonus. In fourth edition, non-proficiency in a weapon doesn’t give you a penalty, proficiency gives you a bonus and it varies by weapon. More on this when we get to the combat section.

Skill Checks follow the same principle of half your level + a relevant ability modifier (e.g. Wisdom for Perception checks). If you are trained in the skill – i.e. it is on your class list – you get an extra +5 to the roll. The feat Skill Focus still exists, and still gives you an additional +3 to a specific skill.

Ability checks can be thought of as raw skill checks. If it isn’t covered by a skill then you are making a skill check. The check is (once more) half your level + the relevent ability modifier. In essence your ability check is the same as your skill check for an untrained skill. If you need to roll to knock down a door, then its a Strength check. In third edition, ability checks never improved as you went up a level. This meant that the DC a character could achieve with a skill check was significantly higher than the DC he could achieve with an ability check. This levels the playing field somewhat.

This bonus of half your level (rounded down) appears again and again in 4e. It’s not only added to attack rolls, skill checks and ability checks; it’s also added to your base attack bonus, your AC and other defences and your initiative. Gaining a level really means getting better at everything – even more so than in third edition. As you level, no part of your character is getting left behind. You are always on a par. Question: is this a good thing?

Gaining Levels

You still gain levels by earning experience points (XP). The XP tables, along with the rules for awarding experience are in the DMG where they belong. I’ll get to those in due course. Advancement in 4e, as I have mentioned in the past is tiered. Levels 1-10 is the Heroic tier, levels 11-20 is the Paragon tier and levels 21-30 is the Epic tier. As you go through the tiers you become accomplished enough to face more powerful adversaries in more fantastic and dangerous locations. Your tier is more than just your level, it represents where you stand in the world – your renown and, possibly, your infamy.

At 11th level (when you enter the Paragon tier) you must choose a Paragon Path. This is similar in theme to the prestige classes of third edition. This grants you a handful of extra class features, and gives you a little more choice when it comes to choosing powers. At 21st level you may choose to gain an Epic Destiny, which gives you more powers and reflects how your character will eventually exit the campaign world. And if you think that this means the multi-classing system has changed beyond all recognition then you are right. There isn’t really any multi-classing anymore. We’ll chat about that soon.

Adventuring ends at 30th level. That is the capstone of advancement, beyong 30th level your character moves on to other things. Maybe he ascends and becomes a god, maybe he merges with the magical weave, maybe he retires to Bridlington and starts a business decorating eggs – whatever the case, he has gone. From the point of view of powers and abilities, 30th level is the new 20th. The true class defining powers and abilities that may have been ninth level spells in previous editions don’t kick in until level 29 now.

In theory (as I write this without having run the game) I wonder if I need to adjust my perceived level of Iourn NPCs. I’ve never statted anyone, but I’ve always thought of Narramac as a 21st level wizard, Gaston as a 13th level wizard (he may have gained a level by now) and so on. In the new edition should Narramac actually have been 30th level? Food for thought.

So what else happens when you gain levels? I’ll quickly break it down for you:

  • Ability Scores: In third edition you received +1 to one ability score every four levels. That has changed somewhat. In fourth edition you gain +1 to two ability scores at 4th, 8th, 14th, 18th, 24th and 28th level. At 11th and 21st level you gain +1 to all your ability scores. So you might start with lower stats in 4e, but you have the capacity to do something about it.
  • Level Modifier: Every even level you receive a +1 to everything that is based on one half you level – attacks, defences, skill and ability checks, intiative and so on.
  • Hit Points: Every level you gain extra hit points depending on your class. Steve will be delighted to learn that you no longer have to roll hit points.
  • Class Features: Some class features improve as you gain levels – but not all of them. Always worth checking just to be sure.
  • Feats: You get a feat at first, eleventh and twenty-first levels, as well as every even numbered level. If this seems generous I should tell you that feats are not quite as potent as they once were. However, they are nonetheless essential for rounding out your character.
  • Powers: All classes now get powers. I won’t try and go into too much depth here but powers are classified as either Attack or Utility powers. Within those categories powers can be used At-Will, once per Encounter, or once per Day. That’s pretty self-explanatory. The advancement for powers looks to be a bit of eldritch science, and for the purposes of this review you don’t need to know what it is. What you should realise is that even a 30th level character only has access to two At-Will attack powers, four Encounter attack powers, four Daily attack powers and seven utility powers (that can either be encounter or daily). The days of having access to a hundred spells is over and done with.

A fairly robust retraining mechanic has also been added, so as you gain levels you can exchange feats and powers for other feats and powers. The system is all about fun and playability. You’re not going to be stuck with that crappy feat that you took by mistake at first level.

I’m not sure how I feel about all this. Retraining lacks a certain verissimilitude (it wouldn’t be this blog if I didn’t use that word at least once). Forgeting how to do one thing in favour of another has never sat well with me. But it is part and parcel of the system, and removing it would be to the stinging detriment of the system as a whole.

The number of powers available to high level characters is utterly jaw-dropping to players from previous editions. All those cleric PCs who are used to be able to choose from more than two hundred spells, are now stuck with a maximum of seventeen. It’s not quite that bad though. Powers seem to represent petty magic – the sort of stuff you can do on the fly. Real magic is ritual magic in fourth edition, and that is a fantastic addition to the game – which we’ll talk about when we get to chapter ten. However, make no mistake that this is a change – a very, very big change.

Character Sheet

The chapter concludes with a detailed look at the 4e character sheet. Many roleplaying games have a section like this – I remember the one in third edition Call of Cthulhu most fondly. This is an excellent summary of where to go for all the information you need to fill in the character sheet. And the sheet itself is not too poorly designed. You can download one from the Wizards of the Coast website and have a look for yourself if you like.


Character Races!

Player’s Handbook 1 (Chapter One)

Well, it’s been almost a week since the release of the core rules for D&D fourth edition. I’ve had time to read most of the books now (I’m still wading through the new Monster Manual), so I thought that this would be a good time to share my thoughts. We begin at the beginning with the Player’s Handbook. There’s a lot to say about this one, so I’m going to tackle it chapter by chapter.

In order to help you navigate these pages, I’ve created a new review index that you should see in the column to your right.

Before I begin the comprehensive analysis that the PHB requires, I want to spend a little time writing about my first impressions of the system. This is a different game. It’s not a radically different game (snooker is a radically different game), but there are fundamental conceptual changes that make this the most distinctive version of Dungeons and Dragons to see print. Mechanically, this is still the d20 system. Anyone familiar with third edition D&D is not going to have a problem in picking up the rules. They are very similar. The difference lies in its tone, its direction and its vision.

The goal of the designers of 4e was to make a better game. For them better meant a faster game, one that didn’t get bogged down in lengthy combats where 80% of the gaming group was inactive for an hour at a time. For them better meant giving the GM tools to create suitable challenges for characters in a fraction of the time that third edition demanded. For them better meant balancing the classes so the power level of no one character overshadowed the others. For them better meant fixing a game that simply broke down at higher levels, thanks to the weight of rules, options and unexpected combinations of powers and abilities from different classes.

Have they done all this? Yes. The game will run quicker, the GM is freed from hours in front of complex stat blocks, the characters are balanced with one another, the game looks as though it will run as well at level 30 as it does at level 1. But is the resulting game still Dungeons and Dragons? Will it still feel like D&D when we play it? I hope it will, but I’m not certain.

The ethos behind the game has changed. I’m not talking about the alterations made to the default background, the removal of the Great Wheel, changes to tieflings – that’s just colour; if you don’t like that it is easily changed. I’m talking about game mechanics that deliberately push you to run and to play the game in a particular way. D&D has always been a game about heroes succeeding against overwhelming odds. In fourth edition this philosophy is an inescapable reality.

D&D is now a much more cinematic game. The concept of hit points has been made more abstract than ever, characters now have healing surges that they can utilise during encounters – they take a pounding, shake their head, grit their teeth and carry on (all very Hollywood). No-one is really bad at anything any more. No race gives you racial penalties to your attributes. No-one starts with an attribute of lower than 8. A reduced skill list, and a system where your ability in all skills increases as you gain levels means you can no longer be thunderously bad at anything.

Are these insurmountable problems? No. Do they alter the flavour of the D&D game? Yes. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. Yet. I will know when I start running it. But it is a cause for concern. Regardless of how much there is to like in the new edition, fourth edition is inherently more limiting than its predecessor by design. If you want to play an heroic action game where the PCs are larger than life heroes triumphing over immeasurable odds (with a few death-defying leaps thrown in for good measure) then it is excellent. If you want to play a claustrophobic horror game then it doesn’t look fit for purpose. I can’t see Ravenloft working under the 4e rules.

So that’s my first reservation about the new system. My second is Miniatures. Any assurance from Wizards that miniatures are no more important to 4e as they were to version 3.5 is false. Where before they stated that the PHB, DMG and Monster Manual were all you needed to play, now they have added D&D Miniatures and Dungeon Tiles to the list. Obviously, this a financial decision. Wizards are a small company and have to prove to Hasbro that D&D can make money. It’s a bit sad that so much of the game is now dependent on grids and movement. I’m sure that we can unpick those rules, that we can play 4e successfully without the little plastic figures. That’s largely what this blog is for, after all.

How to Play

Well, that was lengthy. Chapter One is entitled “How to Play”. It is the typical introduction, aimed at those people who have never role-played before. It does the job adequately, underlining that D&D is a cooperative game, that no-one actually “wins” in the traditional sense. It speaks of the Points of Light conceit, that I’ve already covered in length elsewhere, and also has an interesting sidebar about the history of the D&D game. Nitpickers might spot a couple of inaccuracies, but it’s nice to see the game acknowledging its roots.

The chapter enforces the concept of the heroic player character – that all PCs can accomplish feats that no mere mortal can perform. Even seemingly mundane classes such as fighters can perform such incredible battle manoeuvres that they make Bruce Lee look like a little old man wearing a very heavy overcoat. The roles of the player and the GM are explained, as are adventures and the encounters that build them. Encounters are divided into Combat and Noncombat encounters, and there are special rules for each that will be explored later.

It is evident that D&D fourth edition still has its roots firmly in the dungeon. This has been true of all editions of D&D and I suppose you cold say the clue is in the name. It’s called “Dungeons and Dragons”, not “Perils and Politics” (even if that is the way I run the game). We can’t really judge it for being what it is. We knew what we were getting into when we bought the books.

We are then treated to one of those wonderful examples of play, where the designer has thought up an encounter and then quickly converted it into a little play. These things are always hilarious, although this one is a little short. I like the second edition one where the party is after the wererat. Anyway, it’s a story about three adventurers walking up some steps, opening a door and attacking some gnolls. It’s not great literature. There’s also a break in the middle of the narrative for the players to put their miniatures on the GM’s battle grid. That’s the shape of things to come, I’m afraid.

The chapter rounds itself out by underlining the core mechanic of the d20 system to us. This material has already been published on the web, at the D&D gaming day a while back, and in the quick-start rules that came with Keep on the Shadowfell. The core mechanic is to roll 1d20 and add loads of modifiers. Compare it to a target number. The higher the result the better. Not a million miles away from third edition is it?

The core mechanic and the game is underpinned by three basic rules. These exemplify what the designers called the “exception-based” nature of the game. Remember these and you have mastered the game:

  1. Simple Rules, Many Exceptions
  2. Specific Beats General
  3. Always Round Down

So basically, every feat, power and class feature in some way breaks the rules – and that is what the game is all about: exceptions. If you find two conflicting rules, then always take the specific rule. If you have to divide a result by two (or any other number) always round the result down. And that is that. So primed you can embark upon the next nine chapters with a degree of equlibrium.

Chapter One is what it is. It has to be there for neophyte players. It has to try and sell how fantastic a game this is. I only read it because I thought I would be thorough. Before I move on, I’ll just mention the art and the layout as I’ll probably forget to do so later.

All the core books are extremely colourful – in fact class features, powers, feats, equipment, magic items, monsters and so on are actually colour coded. The art is very good and very big. Each chapter opens with a double page spread, and there are often half-pages given to illustrations. The format is very easy on the eye. There’s a little recycled art from third edition here and there, but it’s most all new. There doesn’t seem a need to cram in lots of information, the presentation takes precedence, meaning there’s a fair amount of white space at the foot of some pages in order to keep everything into coherent sections. I like what I see, even if I don’t necessary like what I read.


It’s Chapter Two! This one is all about making characters.