4e from Two Months In

August 26th, 2008

It’s been about two and a half months since my initial reviews of the fourth edition’s Player’s Handbook (link is to the first of the series), Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual, and about two months since I started playing in a 4e game.  Seems like a good time to follow up on my previous impressions.

When I first read the PHB, I was fairly impressed by its layout choices and content.  The more I use it, however, the more irritating I’m finding that layout.  For the most part, things are contained reasonably well within their individual chapters, and perhaps I missed some of the problems in my initial posts because I went chapter-by-chapter.

The problems arise when I need to find a specific piece of information, such as the range of a power.  Sure, I know it’s in the chapter on classes… but there’s nothing for it except to page through the listing of that class’s powers.  There’s no index or table of contents that points to powers by name.  The powers are broken down by level, but I might not know the level off the top of my head.

In other cases, I might need to flip through several sections to find where a rule is located.  Learning what [W] means, for example, requires following text through at least three pages in different chapters of the book.  Some rules are only referred to once — the almost offhanded remark about the ability to change the fluff of a power, for one, is easy to overlook on a casual read through.

Propagandroid’s impoved PHB index does much to improve the usefulness of the book.  Cheers.

I should add that I still appreciate many of the decisions of the physical layout.  The larger font and better use of whitespace make the 4e PHB easy to skim.  The artwork is still pretty nice, and the title page spreads make it easy to tell when you’ve flipped to a new section.  The chapter-numbered tabs down the side of the page are nothing short of brilliant.

But the placement of the actual information within the book is somewhat lacking, and the absence of a useful index or a glossary only compounds that problem.

The 4e DMG, on the other hand, I’m growing to like more every time I look at it.  The advice on running a game comes too late for me — I’ve been playing for a quarter-century, and running games almost as long.  But it’s solid, useful advice.  I wish that this book had come out 30 years ago, because it would’ve changed my early game.  I would have learned the art of gamemastering much more quickly.

I really can’t recommend it enough.  Even those GMs who are planning on exclusively running games other than D&D might want to pick up a copy.  It is quite simply one of the best gamemastering manuals I’ve ever seen.

Admittedly, it’s pretty light on the crunchy bits.  Most of those are subsumed into the PHB now, and all of the monsters are in the MM.  It does, however, show you how to easily build encounters, modify monsters, award treasure and experience, and use traps and interesting terrain.  The chapter about Fallcrest and the Nentir Vale also provides a starting location suitable to be dropped into many campaigns, fleshed out enough to be useful with little preparation, left undefined enough to be modified to suit the GM’s needs, and strewn with dozens of potential plot hooks.

An experienced GM won’t really need this book.  But the above bits are useful enough that he might want them anyway.  For newer GMs, this is an incredible introduction to the other side of the screen.

My thoughts regarding the MM haven’t changed much.  The collection of creatures presented is well-chosen.  Missing creatures like the centaur, the mephit, and the blink dog are… well, missed… but the book serves its function admirably, and the monsters it does contain cover most of the iconic bases.  I could easily run a campaign from level one to level 25+ using only the monsters in the MM (plus a few NPCs) without having my players notice the absences.

As a further plus, the modification of monsters in 4e is incredibly easy.  The DMG‘s guidelines work well, and it’s also possible to take an existing monster statblock, strip away the old flavor, add the new flavor, maybe modify a power or two, and rename the result.

The lack of fluff still makes the book less fun to just read through.  I’ve noticed, however, that it does make it easier to apply campaign-appropriate fluff of your own without clashing with players’ expectations.  Since it’s a gaming rulebook, I’ll consider that a net plus.

On the whole, the 4e books still get a thumbs-up.  The DMG is unquestionably the best of them in my mind, while the PHB is the worst — still adequate, but it could’ve been so much more.

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Related posts:

  1. Dungeon Master’s Guide
  2. PHB chapter 4: Classes
  3. Monster Manual
  4. Class Design for 4th Edition
  5. Review: Manual of the Planes

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6 Comments

  1. greywulf, Aug. 26, 2008, 7:05 pm:

    My findings too, exactly. I’d give the DMG 10/10, the MM 8/10 and the PHB a could try harder 6/10.

    Overall though, I’d give 4e as a whole 9/10. It’s better than the sum of it’s parts :D

    greywulf’s last blog post: I got an Audrey Hepburn thang going on

  2. jonathan, Aug. 26, 2008, 8:17 pm:

    I second your second! Overall, i think 4E is a plus – especially from the layout/design/printing side of things. Yes, the PHB could have been improved – but I’m thinking they were up against a deadline and had to just cut/chop/edit things at the last minute. Like, whats up with Rituals being tacked on to the very end… tradition?

    jonathan’s last blog post: "Tinglefoot, Tinglefoot, Tinglefoot Cube" Rediscovered…

  3. Scott, Aug. 26, 2008, 9:59 pm:

    I can only assume that that happened because rituals, unlike powers, aren’t restricted to a certain class… but I might have expected them to show up earlier, somewhere before the equipment chapter, either right before skills or right after feats. They are a class feature for both clerics and wizards, so I’d expect them closer to the chapter on classes.

    In fact, when I rolled up my RPGA wizard, I forgot to assign him rituals until someone at my first table reminded me. I just paged straight through from powers to skills to feats to equipment, and stopped there.

    A minor annoyance, really, but most of them are. And most of them should’ve been avoidable.

  4. Tezrak, Aug. 27, 2008, 1:35 am:

    I just played a pre-generated Warlord in a one-shot game last night, and was a little disappointed at how many of its powers (a) require an attack, (b) are melee only, not ranged, and (c) Strength vs. AC or whatever, as opposed to Int or Cha vs. AC. Commander’s Strike is the only exception to this, and is the closest thing I think of when I think of the battlefield commander exhorting his/her allies. I had to wade into battle right alongside my allies, my Str was not as great as my Int or Cha, and my powers wound up missing quite a bit. I’m hoping that Martial Power will at least add in some powers for the Warlord that will allow it to do more ranged stuff.

  5. Tommi, Aug. 27, 2008, 3:14 am:

    The warlord class description is pretty explicit about strength being the recommended highest stat. They are supposed to be melee fighters.

    Clerics are more skilled with lasers.

    Tommi’s last blog post: In spite of laser clerics, or not bashing 4e

  6. Scott, Aug. 27, 2008, 4:37 am:

    Commander’s Strike isn’t ranged, either, incidentally. It’s a melee weapon attack. You just let someone else make the actual swing.

    Strength is definitely a necessity for a warlord. I’m puzzled that a pre-gen would have low strength… was this from a module, or made by the GM?

    Pretty much all non-utility powers require an attack, so the warlord isn’t unique in that.

    I have a feeling that the bard is going to turn out to be the class you were looking for. Int- and cha-based, probably; ranged, very likely.

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