Friday, October 15, 2010

The Essentials Red Box - a Non-Review

Ugh. I'm not going to review this one except by proxy. I have not purchased and will not be purchasing it. If I'm not the target audience for this I don't know who is and I think it's terrible after reading multiple reviews. I have 3 problems with it that tie up in my biggest problem of all:

1) The original red box (and the 2 prior basic sets) gave you complete character creation rules. The 1983 Red Box had an introductory programmed adventure approach to teach the game before delving into the full character creation process - not a bad idea. Making the programmed adventure THE character creation system isn't a bad idea until you make it the only system. How can we roll up a party at the same time if we have to go through a solo adventure to do it? It's ridiculous and a major departure from what it's trying to emulate.

2) The old basic sets covered levels 1 to 3. The new one goes to 2. Considering that only 4 classes are covered and that the game now runs through 30 levels total, I think a starter set should at least be covering 1-3, not going backwards.

3) Compatibility is non-existent between the classes described in this box and the PHB classes, but it's a new build, right? The full build will be in Heroes of the Fallen Lands, right? No! The builds in this box are different from the Essentials classes and the PHB classes, so you can't even carryover your character as-is! You get to go through a 10-encounter starter dungeon, level up to 2, and that's it - build a new character at level 1 if you want to continue - or rebuild it with your new Fallen Lands builds. The old Basic sets (81 & 83 anyway) rolled right into the Expert sets for the next stage - you didn't have to build a new character to move up.

Finally the value for me for this box just is not there. The 3rd edition starter set came with D&D mini's, this one comes with tokens. Older Basic Sets came with a starter dungeon of some type in the book plus a full-blown adventure module that was good for levels 1 to 3, this one comes with a 1-level adventure. Could you start a campaign with this set? I don't think so. It's basically a training product that you throw away once you've played through it. Hell, Keep on the Shadowfell is a better starting product IMO than this - it introduces the rules, let's you dive right in with pre-gen characters, and comes with a real adventure wit ha base area, some NPC's, and some nice fights along the way, and it's cheaper to boot! Once you picked up a PHB you could still use KOTS! Once you pick up a PHB or heroes of the Fallen Lands this box is useless, so why not just skip directly to the real game - it's the same price and has tons more utility than this thing!

Additionally there is for me some sens of betrayal with this one. I started on a Basic Set, many of my older friends started on a Basic Set, and when I first heard abut it I was planning on getting this for my kids to start them off. This thing looks like a Basic Set but has almost none of what made those special. An incomplete, gutted version of the rules, a 1-level dungeon, some tokens, and a map. Put a cut-down rulebook in the box and a revised Keep on the Shadowfell and you might have had something here. As it is, it's an utter failure both as an introduction to the game and as a nostalgia item. It's sad because I am a guy who is a likely sell on either of those things and I rate it a fail on both counts.

Note: There have been some disclaimers that this is not a "Basic Set" but a "Starter Set". One, it looks like the 1983 Basic Set, regardless of what you call it, so it's clearly intended to emulate that product. Two, that's a fairly small semantic difference (outside of marketing-speak) and I haven't heard anyone enumerate the differences to be expected in two products bearing those descriptions. At the most basic level, I would expect it to allow someone to learn to play D&D on their own, with no help. I suppose the new red box does that going by some reviews. The problem is that the old Basic Sets did far more than just teach the mechanics of the game, and I don;t think it does that anywhere near as well, despite dressing it up in classic colors.

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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

D&D Class Diversity Through Different Editions

One of the things that struck me when the apprentices started their most recent adventure is that between their 4 characters and the other campaign's 6 characters I have zero overlap with classes and only 1 duplicate race. The first campaign: Eladrin Wizard, Human Fighter, Half-Elf Bard,  Human Warlock, Deva Invoker, and Goliath Barbarian. Second campaign: Dragonborn Paladin, Elf Ranger, Dwarf Warlord, Shifter Druid. I never had that kind of diversity in any previous version of the game - if we had one big 10-man party I can guarantee there would be at least 2 fighters and maybe 2 clerics. If we're talking 2 5-man parties then you would see at least 1 fighter in each party and at least 1 cleric in each party, probably a wizard in each party and maybe a thief in each. I really really like that in 4E this doesn't happen. I thought I would look at the variety of classes in each edition and discuss this idea a little bit.

Basic D&D - Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Thief, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling. That's it - seven choices. Later products added some races to this mix( like shadow elves) and some higher-level prestige class type things (Paladins, Avengers, Druids) but the 7 above were what most people had available most of the time.


Indented classes are considered sub-classes of the primary class above them. Bard was a weird sort-of prestige class for only humans that was overpowered in some ways but also rarely seen - I'm not counting it as a real class. So we had 10 mechanically distinct classes in 1E and that was fine with most of us, though new classes and NPC classes would appear regularly in Dragon all through the 80's in an attempt to add more. Typically these were more specialized versions of existing classes (The Archer) or an attempt to clean up the Monk and make it into a decent class : ).

AD&D Unearthed Arcana (Sometimes retconned as "1.5 E")

So now we're up to 13 mechanically distinct classes (still not counting Bard). The new additions here are Cavalier (which I loved but had it's limitations as horses rarely fit into dungeons well), barbarian (dramatically overpowered with ridiculous XP advancement requirements) and thief-acrobat (another class you could only enter at higher levels, maybe the original "prestige class"). Paladin becoming a sub-class of Cavalier was a change I hated and in my group we largely ignored it unless someone wanted to play a cavalier-paladin - we looked at them as separate classes in a lot of ways.

One thing that bears mention is multi-classing. Although it was restricted to non-humans only, this upped the class diversity quite a bit as these combos played differently than the sum of their parts:


That's 13 possible combinations. If you look at these as separate class options that takes AD&D up to 23 mechanically distinct class choices and 1.5 to 26. I can tell you that playing an Elven M-U/Thief is different than playing a Human Thief or a Human M-U, so I would count them as separate choices. AD&D had 6 races originally and by the time you combine the 6 races with the class and multi-class options, there's a lot of diversity there. Yet somehow we ended up with somebody playing a fighter and somebody playing a cleric in almost every party. Elements of customization are limited to race, class, and equipment, so 3 elements.

AD&D Second Edition 

Specialty Wizard

2E gets rid of the sub-class concept, drops the assassin, and makes the bard a normal starts-at-level-one class. It also goes back to the classic six races from AD&D So there are 9 mechanically distinct classes although specialty wizards were not much different from mages, effectively. Tome of Magic added Wild Mages, who were quite different. Various other books added specialty priests, many of whom were also quite different. So call it 11 different classes. Multiclassing options were the same as in 1E other than losing the assassin option and they were somewhat more restrictive (fighter/mages couldn't cast in armor anymore) but they were still pretty popular. So call it 11 more options. That puts us up around 22 separate options, pretty similar to 1st edition.

2E also added "Kits" which in some cases were nothing more than flavor with zero mechanical impact, and were sometimes massive in impact, creating almost a sub-class out of one of the standard classes. With the variety of class books, race books, and campaign-world-specific books there not a good way to classify those in a short article like this. Also many DM's didn't allow them or restricted them in various ways, so it's tough to say what was "normal" regarding kits.  Let's leave it at a possible third axis for diversity beyond race and class and put into roughly the same category as Feats in 3E and 4E - a flavor choice that typically has some  mechanical impact too. So we end up with race, class, kit, equipment, and non-weapon proficiencies - so 5 potential elements of diversity.

For D&D 3rd Edition it gets messy. We had the basic classes in the PHB but this was soon expanded enormously by the class books, race books, campaign world books, PHB2, and various supplemental books like the Psionics Handbook.Effectively, what would have been a kit in 2E became a full-fledged new class in 3E or a prestige class, a new wrinkle for 3rd that effectively added a tidal wave of specialized classes available only at higher levels. Combine that with a flood of new races and unlimited multiclassing and you have incredible diversity and choice that's a world away from AD&D. Now not all of those choices are good ones but the breadth of interesting combinations is unmatched in D&D and nearly unmatched in any RPG - I would say only Hero System is more flexible while retaining the detail. M&M is close too. GURPS has a narrower power range, Savage Worlds is less detailed, and BESM/SAS is also less detailed. the problem is that balancing that near-infinite level of choice is nearly impossible. power creep and broken combos sneak in and render the whole thing an unplaytestable mess. Part of the focus of the game (for some people) becomes finding those power combos that make your character unstoppable. Niche protection breaks down as well and your party starts to step on each other's toes until someone feels that their character is clearly inferior to another character and gets unhappy. Not all groups will experience this but at the sharp end of things it can get ugly after a few levels.

Now despite this off-the-charts diversity in 3E, we almost always saw at least one fighter and at least one cleric in every party, plus either a wizard or a sorcerer. Every party - same players, different players, low-level, high-level, it didn't matter, that's what I saw. For the axes of diverstiy we have race, class(es), prestige class(es), equipment, skills, and feats. That's 6 levels of choice but considering you could take 3 classes and 3 prestige classes and still have a reasonable build that gives you 12 different elements of flavor.

Then we come to 4th edition. One of the design goals was to have real math behind the system - normal damage at level X is this, AC's at level X should be in this range, etc - for monsters and for player characters.  Another concept was to incorporate certain expected roles within a party into the class designs and descriptions. Another was to incorporate different "builds" into each class, effectively going back to the 1E concept of a "sub-class" and making some mechanically different choices available even within a particular class. Below is a list of classes and builds using most of the 4E books that are out now:

Class Build Source Role
Cleric Battle Cleric PHB 1 Leader

Devoted Cleric PHB 1 Leader

Shielding Cleric Divine Power Leader

Fighter Great Weapon Fighter PHB 1 Defender

Guardian Fighter PHB 1 Defender

Battlerager Fighter Martial Power Defender

Tempest Fighter Martial Power Defender

Brawling Fighter Martial Power 2 Defender

Paladin Avenging Paladin PHB 1 Defender

Protecting Paladin PHB 1 Defender

Ardent Paladin Divine Power Defender

Virtuous Paladin Divine Power Defender

Ranger Archer Ranger PHB 1 Striker

Two-Blade Ranger PHB 1 Striker

Beastmaster Ranger Martial Power Striker

Hunter Ranger Martial Power 2 Striker

Marauder Ranger Martial Power 2 Striker

Rogue Brawny Rogue PHB 1 Striker

Trickster Rogue PHB 1 Striker

Aerialist Rogue Martial Power Striker

Cutthroat Rogue Martial Power Striker

Shadowy Rogue Martial Power 2 Striker

Warlock Fey Pact PHB 1 Striker

Infernal Pact PHB 1 Striker

Star Pact PHB 1 Striker

Vestige Pact Arcane Power Striker

Dark Pact FR Player's Guide Striker

Warlord Inspiring Warlord PHB 1 Leader

Tactical Warlord PHB 1 Leader

Bravura Warlord Martial Power Leader

Resourceful Warlord Martial Power Leader

Insightful Warlord Martial Power 2 Leader

Skirmishing Warlord Martial Power 2 Leader

Wizard Control Wizard PHB 1 Controller

War Wizard PHB 1 Controller

Illusionist Wizard Arcane Power Controller

Summoner Wizard Arcane Power Controller

Avenger Isolating Avenger PHB 2 Striker

Pursuing Avenger PHB 2 Striker

Commanding Avenger Divine Power Striker

Barbarian Rageblood Barbarian PHB 2 Striker

Thaneblood Barbarian PHB 2 Striker

Thunderborn Barbarian Primal Power Striker

Whirling Barbarian Primal Power Striker

Bard Cunning Bard PHB 2 Leader

Valorous Bard PHB 2 Leader

Prescient bard Arcane Power Leader

Druid Guardian Druid PHB 2 Controller

Predator Druid PHB 2 Controller

Swarm Druid Primal Power Controller

Invoker Preserving Invoker PHB 2 Controller

Wrathful Invoker PHB 2 Controller

Malediction Invoker Divine Power Controller

Shaman Bear Shaman PHB 2 Leader

Panther Shaman PHB 2 Leader

Eagle Shaman Primal Power Leader

World Speaker Shaman Primal Power Leader

Sorcerer Chaos Sorcerer PHB 2 Striker

Dragon Sorcerer PHB 2 Striker

Cosmic Sorcerer Arcane Power Striker

Storm Sorcerer Arcane Power Striker

Warden Earth Warden PHB 2 Defender

Wild Warden PHB 2 Defender

Life Warden Primal Power Defender

Storm Warden Primal Power Defender

Swordmage Assault Swordmage FR Player's Guide Defender

Shielding Swordmage FR Player's Guide Defender

Ensnaring Swordmage Arcane Power Defender

That's 4 Roles, 17 classes , 68 Builds, and that's not counting Eberron, the PHB 3 (still digesting that one), Psionic Power (haven't acquired it yet) or the new Heroes of the Fallen lands from the D&D Essentials line. Those will add another 6 classes and another 20-30 builds. I was very much against making "Roles" an element of a class description when I read 4E for the first time as I thought it was too meta-gamey and pointless as it wasn't part of the mechanics. I was wrong - once players understand what the roles mean as a general category they tend to gravitate to one or two of the roles and start looking at the different classes within that role, then at the different builds within that class - it's very much been a positive, helpful thing and not the metagaming distraction I expected. It's really the key behind the death of the "we need a cleric" phase of party composition, as leaders are quite diverse and cleric is only one type of leader, rather then an essential element of every party.

As far as diversity it's way beyond 1E and 2E on classes & builds alone. 4E is also up to 20-something playable races, most of which are good. Multiclassing is much more limited than in 3E but it still means every character could typically multiclass into any one other class and gain some of the benefits which is still pretty flexible. Beyond that is the option for hybrid classes which are more like 1E multiclassing than 3E multiclassing but add another layer of options. Instead of prestige classes we have paragon paths which come into play from levels 11-20 and Epic destinies which come into play from 21-30.  So for variety we have race, class, skills, feats, equipment, powers, paragon path, epic destiny, and multiclassing or hybrid classing on top of that. That's about 9 axes of choice with a lot of options at each one - the power choices alone at each level add another layer of flexibility comparable to spell choices for sorcerers in 3E.

So when I first read the 4E PHB I was convinced that everyone's options had declined drastically when it came to character diversity, and it had  - but it was still more choice than the 3.0 PHB had in it in many ways when it first came out. Now, 2 years in, I'm amazed at the level of customization and choice available. it's way beyond 1E and 2E and in the same ballpark as 3E with a bunch of supplements.

I put together this post because after looking at my party compositions and thinking about how it compared to earlier versions I was surprised at what I found and thought it was worth pointing out. One of the criticisms of 4E has been a lack of diversity and a sameness to all characters - I don't see that at all.

I admit that I did see a lot of sameness when I first read it as page after page of mind-numbing power lists in the PHB dulled and then killed my enthusiasm for this new game. After playing it though, all those words in those powers mean something - push, pull,slide,stun, shift, daze, close blast, area burst, - all those terms mean very different things in play and I suspect it's not until after you have played and seen the impact of those different description in actual play that it jumps out to you. That's where a lot of the flavor is in this edition - it's not in the class feature mechanics so much themselves as it is in the powers and what they do. Little things like "each enemy in burst" vs "Each creature in burst" and the effect of something like "...and slide the target 1 square" when fighting near a staircase or a pit trap or a well - The powers being all in the same format does look somewhat boring but they come out in play as being very different from each other.

I think more than any other version (and maybe any other RPG I have seen previously) that 4E plays much differently than it reads. I think the format has a lot to do with that. Maybe that's a failure of WOTC marketing or design, or maybe it's the price we pay for a mechanically balanced system. Mechanically and presentation-wise it's a huge change from prior editions but it still does a lot of the same things and IMO it does a lot of them better - it just presents them differently, to the point that I wonder if extensive prior experience is a hindrance in this case rather than a help. Maybe it is. I feel like I've gotten past it now and I really like what I see.

In the interests of the big picture, I will say that if someone I know decides to run a 1E, 2E, or 3E game (or Pathfinder too I suppose)  I would happily join in and play - I like all versions of D&D enough to play them. But if I'm the guy running it then I really see only 2 things I'm interested in right now - Basic/1E for the simplicity and old-schoolness and getting to run classic modules in their original form, and 4E because it just works, for both the players and the DM, and we have so much more to explore.

A lot of things can be said about 4E D&D but "lack of diverstity" or "all the characters are the same" should not be one of them.  Even at first level, there are major differences. Plus, it's the version that finally broke the "we need a cleric" mentality - finally! That alone is a major contribution to player freedom, and it shouldn't be overlooked.