Thursday, October 14, 2010

The 4E Player's Handbook in 2010 - is it obsolete?

With the recent launch of D&D Essentials (the new intro product line) I have seen some posts about starting campaigns and which books to use and whether the PHB is obsolete. In a D&D environment where rules updates come along every month, it's worth looking into. I thought I would look at the content of and see just how badly out of date the printed version is compared to the current errata. Also, I wanted to look at it from the perspective of someone trying to start a game up now using only the PHB for their players.

The Player's Handbook came out in June of 2008 and as far as I can tell has not been reprinted with any errata incorporated into the text. This one has been important because until recently  THIS IS THE ONLY BOOK WITH THE RULES IN IT. Regardless of the changes, you need this book to learn how to play the game. Alright, now that we've covered that:

Races: Dragonborn, Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Half-Elf, Halfling, Human, Tiefling

Race-wise this is a pretty good mix of classic and new. The half-orc and the gnome are missing but my players like dragonborn a lot - I suspect PC races with a breath weapon will always be more popular than short, bearded magicky types in some circles. The Tiefling seems like a partial miss as no one has shown interest in playing one yet but half-orcs were never that popular in my games either so call that one a wash.

Classes: Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, Warlord, Wizard

Class-wise this really covers all of the oldest-school classes. We're missing the Bard, Barbarian, and Monk from some older versions but Warlords are a very interesting new class and Warlocks fill in the role of Sorcerer as "alternative wizardy type".

It also contains a bunch of feats, 3-4 paragon paths for each class and 4 Epic destinies.

So, first: Could you run a campaign with just this book for PC options? Yes! There is plenty of material here for PC's to work with. Every class has 2 builds so even duplicate classes have some mechanical differences. The only place I can see some constriction happening is at Epic levels where having only 4 destinies with an assumption that a standard party is 5 characters means that someone has to double up on their epic destiny, but that's a long way down the road and with something like "demigod" as one of the choices, I think it would work out alright.

Second, could you convert an existing campaign or campaign world over using just this book? Tougher but I'm going to say "Probably, yes". If you have a Gnome bard and a Half-Orc barbarian in your party, well, that's going to be a little tricky.  I'm not a fan of converting a long-running campaign over to a new system anyway so I probably wouldn't do it. Converting a campaign world though...sure. There could be some hurdles to overcome - how dragonborn suddenly showed up is just one example  - but most DM's who would consider it are pretty good at coming up with justifications for things like that. Finish up your current campaign by having the PC's discover the "Island of the Dragonborn" and save it from a big threat. Afterwards the formerly isolationist Dragonborn begin to take more of an interest in the larger world so that in your next (4E) campaign they are available as a PC choice. Or, stick to your guns and say "no Dragonborn in my world" - it's your game, your world, and your rules so if they bug you, eliminate them.

In my opinion the PHB contains enough class and race options to run a perfectly fine, almost traditional, D&D campaign on its own. Looking at it as part of the universe of 4E material it is limited, but looking at it compared to say Basic & Expert D&D, it's at least as complete and isn't level capped at 3 or 14.

So on to the question of obsolescence. WOTC releases errata about every month. One reason they do this is because they have the DDI, their online package of play aids. Being able to instantly update the rules is a cool idea. making people pay for it is not so cool, but the errata itself is a free download. The problem in my eyes is that this "it's OK to make regular updates" attitude has led to a problem where they don't just release fixes to things that are broken or typo corrections, they feel free to rewrite subsystems of the game and make changes to powers just because they feel like it - it's gone beyond just error fixes. From a player perspective, I don't like it because it feels like my shelf of $30 hardbacks is degrading over time. From a business perspective I think it's a bad idea because if your business is to sell $30 hardbacks then your online initiative may end up damaging those sales as people realize next month will probably change something in that book and it's only the beginning. I don't know how the numbers break down but I would wager that the number of PHB's sold is greater than the number of DDI subscribers on any given month. Over time, who knows? But they do seem to be in conflict to some degree. I wonder how much it gets discussed internally, if at all.

Anyway, let's look at some classes and powers and see what's changed since  the book came out. Up front I know that the stealth rules were changed . The update was printed in the PHB 2 so it is available in a printed rulebook. But let's look at some character specifics. Starting with, say, Clerics:

There are 4 cleric class features in the PHB and only 1 of them has been changed. It makes a cleric's bonus healing apply only to surge healing, not surgeless healing. It's a fairly minor change and will come into play mainly at higher levels. Net impact: small     

There are 4 cleric at-wills in the PHB. Only 1 of them  has been changed, and the change is from granting an ally a variable bonus to granting an ally a fixed bonus, which will typically only have an effect at higher levels or if the cleric has really high or really low stats. Net impact: small.

Level 1 encounter powers: 4, no changes.

Level 1 daily powers: 4, 1 has a wording change to note that it a)allows creatures to move through its effect and b) affects all enemies, not all creatures. Net impact: significant if you take this power, zero if you don't.

In effect, at level 1 a cleric isn't going  to play any differently with the original PHB than they are with a fully updated version. Yes there are a few changes but they are minor and do not change the flavor of the character at all.

There are a total of 65 cleric powers (beyond at-wills).and 10 of them have errata - about 15%

Let's look at some more:

3 class features, 1 of which has minor errata
4 At-Wills, 1 of which has minor errata
There are 75 additional powers from level 1 onward, 10 of which have errata - about 13%

4 class features, no errata
4 at-wills, no errata
There are 67 additional powers 5 of which have errata - about 7%

4 class features, 1 with minor errata
5 at-wills, 1 with significant errata - magic missile moves to auto-hit
There are 76 additional powers 8 of which have errata - about  11%

Looks like we're hovering about 11% average for each class. I was going to stop at the 4 iconic classes but this is interesting so let's do more:

3 class features, no errata
4 at-wills, no errata
There are 63 additional powers, 4 of which have errata -  about 6%

3 class features 1 of which has errata
4 at-wills 1 of which has errata
There are 70 additional powers, 7 of which have errata - 10%

5 class features 1 of which has errata
4 at-wills, no errata
There are 68 additional powers 5 of which have errata - about  7%

 3 class features, no errata
 4 at-wills, no errata
There are 66 additional powers 4 of which have errata -  about 6%

The powers are the bulk of the content in the PHB errata document. There are additional skill uses, some table replacements, some magic item tweaks, and a fair number of clarifications to combat terms - actions, conditions, etc. None of these represent major changes to how the game works or how characters are created and are pretty typical of errata for any good-sized RPG book, especially a main rulebook. They didn't add new powers, eliminate powers, add or delete a race, or add a new skill or a new action type to combat.

As far as powers, at-wills are the ones that are used constantly and to me define the basic flavor of a class. Wizards throwing Thunderwave, Fighters smacking someone with Tide of Iron, etc.  Given that I would say the most significant change out of all of these is the change to magic missile, but even there it's still a single-target ranged attack spell. Sure, now it autohits, but it does less damage too, so it's not a huge power increase.

Looking at all of this I'm going to say there's no reason to call the PHB obsolete. In fact, if you don't subscribe to DDI you need this book for the bulk of the material on these classes! If you do subscribe to DDI I'm not sure you need any of the books, especially if you are just a player and not a DM. At that point, all of them are probably superfluous, not just the PHB. If you are a DDI holdout like myself though, it's still a good book. If you're teaching kids the game it's still a good introduction. If a new player asks you what one book should they get to learn the game, I think this might still be the answer even with Essentials entering the market.

Essentials - the requisite annual controversy for 2010. I have the Rules Compendium and the Fallen Lands book and they are good. I know they are supposed to be aimed at new players but there is a problem: The Compendium doesn't have any classes or races in it,so it doesn't allow you to build a character. The Fallen Lands book has all of the character material but it has only a 20 page summary version of the rules! For the last 2 years the obvious entry choice was the $30 PHB - character creation and the full rules of the game. Now there's a nice big book of the rules for $20 (and it is nice) and a book of characters for $20 which has less character information that the PHB to boot! Now Amazon can make this less painful but ebay and used book stores can make the PHB less painful too.

In the end you have a 320 page core rulebook with 22 pages of errata.  By class, the changes affect less than 10% of powers on average. I don't see this book as obsolete at all and I'm not at all convinced that Essentials is a better 1-book introduction for anyone. I don't think DDI is a great introduction to the game either, though it's certainly one way to "upgrade" as an alternative to buying books. As of today, the PHB is still my #1 way to bring someone into the game.

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