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Review: Player’s Handbook 2

Review: Player’s Handbook 2

The release of the second “Core” Player’s Handbook for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is a major event for the system, as it finally completes what some players wanted from the start: rules for the gnome as PC race, plus rules for the bard, druid, barbarian, and other core classes missing from the initial release.

Calling the book “Core” raises the bar, of course. Gamers expect that this book is the equal of the first three, and — in some ways — that effort is doomed from the start. After all, if the classes in Player’s Handbook 2 were better, they would have been included in the first Player’s Handbook, right?

Regardless, I’m happy to report that almost every player will find something worthwhile in Player’s Handbook 2. The book has some serious flaws and offers 96 less pages for the same price as Player’s Handbook 1, but it expands the universe of play significantly.

Dungeon Masters, on the other hand, are better off waiting for the Monster Manual 2 and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. Here’s why.[More…]

Races of Stone Revisited
First off, the book really is another player’s book, with the page count devoted almost entirely to races, classes, and PC equipment. The only items of any interest to a DM are the (quite necessary) errata to the Stealth rules. But that’s half a page. Everything else is about the player experience, as it should be.

First order of business is the races and their Paragon paths. These are a mixed bag.

It’s hard to say with complete confidence until they hit the table, but the first impression is that these races were put in Player’s Handbook #2 for a reason. Half of these races are on the fringe of fantasy. Races of Stone might be fine as an optional splatbook, but goliaths are sort of the D&D equivalent of the wookie. That is, they are great in small doses, but boring on prolonged exposure.

In fact, the goliaths are a dud compared to, say, the 1E and 2E half-ogre, which had an identical role without the constricting stone/mountain background. To top it off, the art doesn’t match the description, and making them big and dumb and stony doesn’t seem to improve on “I’m a big, dumb half-ogre”. The wookie role was a pretty narrow specialty even in the 1E and 2E days. It hasn’t changed.

Worse, the goliath competes for the same ecological niche as the half-orc, which (from a racial powers perspective) seems like the better bet for barbarians, as the half-orc gets an offensive power and goliaths get a defensive one.

Overall, goliaths and shifters are pretty tough to fit into mainstream Tolkeinesque fantasy. Only two of the races appeal to me as “core fantasy”, and even those require some ret-con work for a DM with a standard campaign. Since we can probably expect PHB3 to add another 6 or 8 races to the core, the default D&D world is starting to look pretty crowded.

Angels and Gnomes
That’s not to say that picking one or two races won’t make your campaign richer. The deva is a likely candidate. It swipes the akashic memory and reincarnation shtick from Arcana Evolved, and with Planescape potential, it’s my favorite of the new races. It makes great mysterious, otherworldly PCs, and the racial +2s for Int and Wisdom are perfect for wizard, cleric, invoker, and avenger. So, yeah, it’s a keeper. The paragon path associated with the race is good, but I suspect the human paragon or the half-orc paragons will prove more popular because they provide more reuse of powers.

For my money, the standout race here is the gnome, which has been largely reinvented here. Only the paragon art seems very gnomish to me (the others are warmed-over halflings), but the gnomes-are-ideal bards twist is perfect. It is an ideal mechanical pairing, just like deva/avenger or dragonborn/paladin, and it plays to the gnome’s new trickster role well. From a flavor perspective, it just melds with the mechanics really well, and at the same time it defines the 4E world in a new way. Well done, says I.

While the gnome/bard is one of those smart design move that seems inevitable in retrospect, the race is stuck with the fomorian backstory (gnomes are YET ANOTHER oppressed race, groan). Most DMs will likely give them a different backstory. (Hell, any of the gnome backstories from KQ#4 is better than what we get here).

Mechanically, the gnomes only fall apart a bit in their racial invisibility power, which makes things tough on a Dungeon Master. By the rules for invisibility in the PHB1, he’s supposed to “guess” where the invisible gnome PC is on the tactical map. But since the PC mini is right on the table, the DM most likely winds up rolling randomly for the monster’s “choice” of square. It’s not exactly an elegant solution. I’ll be curious to see how this one really works in play, especially with the new Stealth rules hitting the table.

Language and the Dumb: WotC Goes Emo?
There’s no polite way to say this, but a lot of the writing and language in PHB2 are just a little stupid. This isn’t restricted to things like the (embarrassingly bad, half-page-long) index, but rather it’s about the low quality of the prose throughout.

The paragon path for the elf Twilight Guardian starts with “Despoiler! Feel nature’s wrath!“. The Druid entry starts “I am the seeker. I am the stalker. I am the storm.” Both strike me as better left as flavor text on a Magic card than inspirational material for serious D&D players. Maybe it’s just the prevalence of elfy-welfy stuff around the Primal source that’s getting under my skin, but…

Well, fantasy writing has always made room for bombast and overblown, purple prose, but this book cranks it up a couple notches. Words like “peril” and “supplicate” are dropped into sentences that really don’t need them; almost every tagline is “ferocious” or “erupting” or “assaulting”. These are not huge problems; individually, they’re pebbles. But even enough pebbles can be a problem.

It reminds me of some of the worst examples from the White Wolf books of the 90s. Hell, some of the Primal language in particular would be right at home in a Werewolf supplement. Ah, well, flavor is not a 4E strong point, but we’re heading into the realm of comedy this time out. I found myself laughing fairly often, usually not a good sign.

Beyond the pulp diction, there’s plenty of other examples of the flavor just not synching up with the mechanics, or failures of language and mythmaking. The devas are reincarnation-flavored and derived from Hindu myth, but their suggested names include Biblical nods like Samel and Zachar (Samuel and Zacharia).

There’s the lurking sense that the designers are cribbing from bad manga, rather than building on the shoulders of the D&D game’s own mythos. That’s a lost opportunity, and it’s a shame that a game that once prized itself on appealing to an educated audience is no longer even aiming for that. Basically, the PHB2 assumes you are sort of an idiot, whereas Gygax always assumed you were smarter than the average reader. The shift leaves me a little offended.

Positive Surprises: Bard and Avenger
Ok, I’ve slammed some of the choices and simply been surprised by others. Why do I still like the book overall? The PHB2 is full of great, playable material, the crunch that WotC does so well.

As a prime example: the truly entertaining bard (a jack-of-all-trades, notoriously tough to design well!). The bard does a little bit of everything and makes an ideal trickster character. From a rules perspective, the bard is an improvement on the warlord. Jeff Grubb pointed it out to me: just compare the Majestic Word of the Bard to the Inspiring Word of the Warlord. The Majestic Word is slightly better, given a Charisma of 18 or better.

Furthermore, all the Bard level 1 at-will abilities inflict damage, while only two of the Warlord’s level 1 at-will abilities do. This is one of the consequences of having 16 core classes; their roles overlap, and inevitably some entire classes will lose out. When players look to choose warlord or bard, the question becomes, “Why play the warlord?” Yes, this is power creep. As a player, I’m willing to forgive that for the strength of the design.

I’m also a fan of the work behind the avenger, because that class subverts the 4E emphasis on teamwork. The avenger’s premise is as a solo, dueling, mano-a-mano striker, like the assassin in previous editions; the twist is that he’s now a religious assassin like the Al-Qadim holy slayer. Both in tone and in role, this is a real change from PHB1. If you have a game group with a lower teamwork quotient, someone will take the Avenger. I’ll be curious to see whether the loner aspects of the class are picked up in future supplements, or toned down.

Does it live up to PHB1? Of course not. Do we care? Hell no, it’s packed with goodness!

For most players, picking up this book is a no-brainer; show up for the mechanics, ignore the emo bits, and you’ll have a good time. For most DMs, you can definitely wait for the DMG2; there’s absolutely nothing here you need to run a game.

Player’s Handbook 2: A 4th Edition D&D Core Rulebook (Amazon)

Want to learn more about Player’s Handbook 2? Read on…

Got an opinion on the PHB2? Tell me about it in the Forum!

7 thoughts on “Review: Player’s Handbook 2”

  1. Dear Mr Baur,

    A huge THANK YOU for that review. I found myself nodding at every point. The bard and the avenger are most certainly the design highlights of the book or, so far, of the edition.

    But what I liked most is that finally finally FINALLY an industry insider has had the guts to call out WotC on their embarassing prose style in 4E products. The German translation has gone to extreme lengths to (successfully) render the hilarious PHB 1 into a product that you can read without (as you so aptly put it) laughing out loud at all the stylistic blunders. Thank heaven WotC did the only reasonable thing and put that superior product off the market right away!

    So yes, I hope your review gets all the notice it deserves. I’ve started to link it on a couple of forums, but the following lines ought to be plastered right onto anyone’s shelf of 4E books.

    “it’s a shame that a game that once prized itself on appealing to an educated audience is no longer even aiming for that. Basically, the PHB2 assumes you are sort of an idiot, whereas Gygax always assumed you were smarter than the average reader. The shift leaves me a little offended.”

    A good day, and thanks for an entertaining AND educational read.

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