Saturday, October 23, 2010

4E Essentials Heroes of the Fallen Lands - A Review

This is a 368 page softcover digest sized book with a cover price of $19.95. The interior is full color. This and its future companion, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms and the just announced Class Compendium: Heroes of Sword and Spell are intended to be the "class books" for the Essentials line and are intended to be paired up with the Rules Compendium to give a player everything they need to play their character in a D&D 4th edition campaign.

So how is it? Well, it's a) pretty good in general and b) it has a very old-school take on the classes it contains. This is a very long post but I've found that with 4th edition a lot of the differences crop up in minor details so it's worth spending some time digging in to really understand what is new and how it compares to previous material. Consider yourself warned...

The book starts out with 30 pages of the rules of the game. It's probably enough to give someone an idea of what's going on but it's not a full set of the rules. (I do think a boxed set with this book and an adventure module would be better than the red box we got though. Make it a special training adventure and reference back to the page numbers in the HotFL book and you could really help someone learn how to play). It's good enough to get started, especially if you have an experienced player teaching them too.

Then there are  25 pages on character creation - ability scores, alignment, level advancement - the general part of how characters work.

Following this are 13 pages (wiith good examples) of how powers work and what the descriptions and terms mean. This almost seems like a waste of space at first glance but since so much of the game is presented in terms of a "power" I think it is important to make sure anyone trying to play the game has a solid introduction and reference to the concept and the presentation. This is the best breakdown yet of these things and it's a good move.

Next is the meat of the book: 170 pages of character classes, builds, powers, paragon paths, and epic destinies. Now overall compared to a PHB the selection here is limited. We get 5 new builds for existing classes, 1 built-in Paragon Path for each build, and 1 Epic Destiny that is usable by all classes. PHB's in the past have had from 12-16 builds of new and existing classes plus 4 or more paragon paths for each class (plus racial paragon paths) plus 4 or more epic destinies. So volume-wise it's not impressive. Quality-wise it's very good because each one is very old-school (as in AD&D-style) in its approach. Let's look at them class by class:

Cleric - the single build included is the Warpriest and it remains a divine leader class and build. In 4E terms it's roughly similar to the Battle Cleric build in the PHB 1 but it has some important differences.  Now the problem with the PHB 1 cleric was that strength was the key stat for melee attacks, wisdom powered ranged attacks, and charisma was a kicker stat for many powers - trying to keep 3 stats up to a decent level is very difficult so it was almost impossible to make a general old-school cleric that could fight in hand-to-hand and throw nasty spells and heal his companions well. Most people specialized, and since there were plenty of melee characters much better at bashing heads than a cleric they specialized in ranged radiant damage and healing - thus the term "laser cleric". It appears that the goal of this new cleric build is to make the generalist old-school cleric a) possible and b) reasonable by not making it a sucktastic spread-too-thin choice. It does this by making all of the warpriest powers (if they are an attack) wisdom vs.something. No more strength, no more charisma - it's already more effective than the battle cleric could be. It's the most single stat focused build I've seen other than the Wizard so slap down that 20 wisdom and go nuts!

The warpriest adds another level of customization by adding Domains. Now domains go all the way back to 2E as a cleric feature. Back then they mainly affected what spells you could choose. In 3E they determined what bonus spells you could choose at each level. This is a new version for 4E and they determine your initial at-will powers, some of your encounter powers, and some daily powers, as well as granting some class features at certain levels. The storm domain looks very flavorful with a lot of melee, close burst and close blast powers - it's basically what you would expect of a cleric of Thor: up front smacking down orcs and blasting them with lightning and thunder.  The sun domain  is mostly radiant damage melee attacks with a secondary healing or defensive effect - use a healing surge, take another saving throw, gain some temp hit points - but it also has a fair number of blinding effects at the mid to high levels too. I think both builds look solid, fun, and flavorful so what more could you ask? More domains of course! I'm betting we see those through the online DDI stuff or an expansion book down the road. Mechanically both builds rely on Wisdom for attacks with Con showing up as a kicker for heals and some other utility powers. I expect to see a lot of Dwarf Warpriests in the near future.

The old school feel continues with the other class powers and features too: Level 1 Channel Divinity power = Smite Undead; Level 2 utility powers - Bless, Cure Light Wounds (among others); Lvl 6 utility power Cure Serious Wounds (among others); Level 8 utility power Resurrection; Lvl 16 utility power: Cure Critical Wounds (among others); Lvl 22 utility power: Heal (1 other choice). Some of these were in the PHB 1, but combined with the other traits of these classes you can replicate many of the powers of an old-school cleric in 4E AND not suck while doing it - it's a triumph of design and intent over rigorous adherence to system rules and I am very impressed.

Fighter - for fighters we get two builds, the Knight and the Slayer.The knight is another defender but for the first time in 4E the Slayer is a Fighter build that's labeled a striker - odd, but let's see how they work.

Knight - Starts with the usual defender numbers and weapons but also starts with plate proficiency - nice. This is mainly a sword and board fighter - two-handers should look at the slayer.  In a change from other fighters though they do not mark. Instead they have an aura (radius 1) that inflicts a -2 to hit on all enemy attacks that don't include the knight. That's actually nice because it affects multiple targets - you're not tagging them one at a time. The knight also gets another power - whenever an enemy in the aura shifts or makes an attack not targeting the knight then you can melee basic vs the enemy and even on a miss they take your strength mod in damage - however it's an opportunity action, not an interrupt . So this has much of the capability of a regular fighter mark but it works out differently in practice.The knight is not going to be quite as good at locking down movement (he doesn't stop movement like a fighter's combat superiority power) but he is better at punishing an enemy for violating his aura via the miss effect on his battle guardian power. It's an interesting difference but not a clearly better or worse option than what other fighter builds have.

The other big change with the knight is that they do not have daily powers. Daily powers for martial characters is something that bothered me when I first read 4E and while I've mostly made my peace with it I can see it being an issue for some people. This build eliminates that issue. This fighter has a selection of "stances" (starts with 2 gets more as they level up) which is basically a defensive or offensive posture - bonus to damage, bonus to hit, move self, move enemy etc - and combines this with their melee basic attacks and encounter powers to decide how they want to fight this round. Most of the powers gained as you level up boost your to-hit bonus or your damage bonus while a few give you a bonus to movement or defenses. There isn't a lot of flash here- it's all about hitting and doing damage and occasionally doing something else, which is very much the fighter from Basic, 1E, and 2E and even some in 3E. In short it's the old-school fighter in almost every way which should make a lot of people very happy. The only really important stat is strength. Con shows up in a few places but that's it.

Slayer -  This is an odd animal at first glance - it's tagged as a striker, but it has defender hit points and surges and has scale armor proficiency, so it looks more like a PHB 1 fighter up front. It is aimed at two-hander (or great weapon) fighters and focuses on the greataxe or the two-handed sword. It also eschews dailies and traditional at-wills for stances + melee basic attacks. Most of the stances are based on boosting to-hit, damage, or movement. Most of the powers of the class are focused on damage boosts but there are a surprising number of mobility boosts, saving throw bonuses, and even a couple of heals in there, including an ally heal at level 6! It's a very focused class - do more damage and do it a lot - but it has some nice little wrinkles like that which should make it fun to play. Strength is again the main stat with Dex showing up as an important kicker stat in some powers so it's worth pumping up too, probably over Con. .

Thief - The thief is a rogue build that is again a martial striker.  This one is much like the fighter builds in that it skips at-wills and dailies for "tricks" that combine with melee basic attacks to give you options. The tricks allow the thief extra movement, extra damage, combat advantage, free stealth checks, and some status effect options. They are more versatile than the fighter stances and there are more of them. There are two important class features beyond this though: 1) They start wih weapon finesse which lets them use Dex instead of Str for melee attacks. (that's a bonus to attacks and damage BTW) and they have the backstab power which is +2d6 at 1-10, 3d6 at 11-20, and 5d6 at 21-30. It's once per encounter at lvl 1 but goes to twice per encounter at 3rd, 3 per encounter at 11th, and 4 at 13th - that's pretty nasty. The only restrictions are that it's only with certain weapons (light blades, shortbow, hand crossbow, or sling) and they must be granting combat advantage but that isn't difficult to set up with the various tricks. The higher level powers include a lot of movement and shifting, some defensive boosts and that's really it - it's going to be a very mobile character that can set up conditions fairly easily that let it absolutely rip an enemy apart in a few strokes. The primary stat here is Dex Dex Dex. Charisma shows up in a few places but your other stats will really be dictated by what skills you want to excel at - you get a decent selection of them so let that be a guide. It's another very stat-friendly build.

Wizard - the wizard build here is the mage:  an Arcane Controller that follows the traditional 4E power structure of at-wills, encounters, and dailies. Out of all the classes in this book this one is the closest to its existing companion builds - they get the spellbook feature (covered better here but really not different) the same cantrips as the PHB wizard, and they all start with the revised auto-hit magic missile which is nice old-school flavoring. The only new wrinkle here is the "school" feature so let's look at that.

Each mage picks a school at first level : Enchantment, Evocation, or Illusion. This is somewhat similar to 2E or 3E specialty mages and how they did things but it has more mechanical impact since spells are handled differently now. The school choice determines your other at-wills (you get three with this class build - magic missile and the two from your school). Evocation is ranged elemental damage of various types, Enchantment is a lot of psychic damage and your target hits someone close by, and illusion is a lot of psychic damage plus some secondary status effect. They are almost all ranged/close blast/area burst and all are Int vs. some non-AC defense. Most of the evocation spells are "creature" and not "enemy" targeting but the enchantment and illusion spells tend to be more selective. Primary stat is still Int Int Int. One nice wrinkle here is that mages do get some skill boosts by school at certain levels which helps broaden their talents. There's nothing revolutionary here compared to existing wizards, but if you want to play a blasting mage this is a good way to go, and if you want to specialize in enchantments and illusions there's a lot to be said for taking this path. New schools have already started appearing on DDI according to reports and it will be interesting to see what else they add.

After classes there is the lone epic destiny included in this book. It's solid but not flashy. I think it fits the fighter types and maybe clerics better than other classes. Considering it includes yet another stat boost, a 20 hit point boost and a +1 to fort, reflex, and will it definitely will make a character tougher, but it's not very flavorful for wizards and maybe even the thief.

The last big change in the book is the race section. This is 30 pages on  Dwarf, Elf, Eladran, Halfling and Human and the change is that now instead of a fixed +2 to two stats for the non-human races it's a fixed +2 to one stat and a +2 to one of two other stats. Dwarves used to be +2 Con, +2 Wis. now they are +2 Con and a +2 to either Wis or Str. I'm fine with this change as it eliminates almost all need for subraces  and gives a player more options while retaining the main flavor of a race. Humans are still a +2 to any one stat but lose the bonus at-will and gain a new encounter power: A retroactive +4 to an attack or saving throw. It's nice but I like the bonus at-will better for most characters. There's more background on the races and it's a better presentation to a new player so this section is a "good" almost all the way around.

The skill section is 16 pages and includes more examples and revised target numbers for a lot of things. It's an improvement over the PHB 1.

The Feats take up about 15 pages and have dropped the whole heroic/paragon/epic restriction and now just scale with tier or level . This is a much more efficient way to present them and one I heartily approve of. There are some nifty new feats too so most players should be quite happy with the options here.

The equipment section is much smaller. It includes the basic gear. weapons and armor from the PHB 1 minus superior weapons and any of the new stuff from the Adventurer's Vault. Not a huge issue. The magic item section is pathetic though, and if you thought the PHB1 had a limited selection, well, this is much much smaller, really a token effort that looks more like a "we had to have it" placeholder than a real usable selection of items. There is another magic item book coming so I assume that's where the bulk of it will be found.

Then a glossary and in index wrap the book up

So what do I like about the book overall? I like the old-school flavored class builds and I like the lower price point - those are both good moves.

Would I recommend it to a new player? Well, if they were just getitng into it and had no one to play with who already knew the game then it's really a toss-up between this and the PHB 1 - the PHB 1 gives you more classes and races and a more detailed breakdown of the rules.  If you are joining an established group then this book is pretty good and is probably the way to go.

What do I not like - not much. The magic item section is weak. I am not a huge fan of the change to the human racial power but that's a small complaint. The 5 class builds and 5 races in this volume do seem very limiting compared to the 16 class builds and 8 races in the PHB 1 but it is a cheaper book.

Overall this isn't quite the home run that the Rules Compendium is but it's very good and has a strong dose of traditional D&D flavor without some of the rules artifacts and "weird" races that bothered people when 4E first came out. Call it 4 stars for this vs. 5 for the Compendium if you need a numerical rating. It's a very strong effort, I consider it a "win" and I am looking forward to the next book in the line to see what they do with the other classes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

4E Essentials Rules Compendium - A Review

It's a 320 page digest-size softcover. It contains all the rules for the game. It's 11-something dollars on Amazon. It's good. Buy it if you play the game at all. It's not an "Essentials" book - it's THE 4th Edition D&D Rulebook now - period.

I could write a lot more about this, but that's what really matters. In a completely different fashion from the disaster that is the Essentials Red Box this thing is a home run on all counts. It's up to date. It's complete. It has a table of contents, a glossary, and an index. It has all of the non-character rules from the PHB. It has stuff from the DMG's like encounter building, terrain, and traps.

Stuff that's not in it: Skill Powers, Hybrids, Rituals, Martial Practices. Monsters. Magic Items.

The biggest change in it is probably the magic item rarity where items are now divided into common, uncommon,and rare. I kind of like this approach as it gives one more way to measure the relative value of an item before placing it in the campaign and it expressly mentions that uncommon and rare items cannot be made in the current game world. It limits the off-the-shelf items available to PC's and makes magic a little more exotic - both good things. On the other hand, as a DM I'm going to decide on the placement of every single item in the game anyway, so it's not like this is going to suddenly either open up or restrict what my PC's end up owning. It's probably a good change but it's not a huge change.

What about new players? Should they start here? Probably not. See yesterday's post about that. But it would make a great Xmas or birthday gift after starting someone on the PHB.

Given the importance of DDI to the company, I wonder if books like this (and the other Essentials books) might not be the way to go in the future. I love my full color hardbacks of the modern era after 2 decades of black and white, but if most players are going to use the online version of the rules for character and monster building then maybe $20 softcovers are better than $30 hardcovers. I don't know what percentage of D&D players pay for DDI but maybe more of them would do it if the books were cheaper - it's just a thought on my part.

If that was the approach I almost think this one should be labeled "2010 Edition". Just go ahead and announce that every year, say at Gen Con, that you're going to release the Rules Compendium for that year which will include all of the updates from the past year in a new printed version.  This would keep the off-line players in at least the same ballpark as the online players AND it would mitigate the RPG publishing problem that sales decline once the core books have been published and purchased. this way you would have a new core book once a year, on top of whatever supplements and things are published the rest of the year. I think it would sell alright.

Anyway, Rules Compendium: The D&D book I will use the most over the next year and the book with the widest appeal to all 4E players & DM's.  It's as good as it should have been, which is a good thing for all of us. Thank you WOTC I hope this one does very well for you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

4E Player's Handbook 3 - A Review

Another nice-looking 224 page hardback rulebook, this one was published in 2010 and to me is where we start to get into the more optional races and classes.

We get 4 new races:
  • Githzerai - yeah, those guys from the Fiend Folio, but not the coolish ones on the cover. the also-rans from inside. They don't do much for me in a traditional D&D campaign but if you're doing something out in the planes then they probably have a place. 
  • Minotaurs - I admit I like having these as a race. They were playable in an old 2E Dragonlance supplement but this version is balanced for the rest of the game and make for a nice alternative to goliaths in the big bruiser department. Not really a traditional D&D race but at least they aren;t from another plane. Plus in my projected mythic Greece campaign they fit in really well. 
  • Shardminds - My first WTF race in 4E. Then I read the background and they are kind of cool, being the remnants of an ancient magical gate that was destroyed and let in all those nasties from the Far Realm like Beholders and Mind Flayers and Aboleths. There's just no way to fit them into something like a traditional Greyhawk campaign but in the Realms you can fit in darn near anything and in a planar campaign they would fit in fine as another group of aliens out in the void.
  • Wilden - another WTF race that doesn't rally fit into a classic campaign but is probably easier to work in than crystal-people. These guys are sort of guardians of nature, plantlike humanoids from the feywild looking to sort some things out. They have aspects (sub-races) based on the seasons kind of like Forgotten Realms genasi and their elemental aspects.   
 So the races are a little mixed. This also marks the new approach to racial attribute bonuses. Previously each race received +2 to each of 2 different stats. Dwarves were +2 Wisdom and +2 Con, for example. Beginning with this book (and continuing into the new Essentials books) each race has a fixed +2 to one stat plus the choice of a +2 to one of 2 other stats. Dwarves are now a +2 to Con and then a +2 to either Wisdom or Strength. I'm mostly fine with this as it does increase race/class flexibility, but it needs to stop there/ or else risk losing all flavor. As long as one of the stats stays fixed then I'm OK with it and hopefully that's where it will stay. Plus I see it as a better answer than adding in numerous sub-races like we saw in Unearthed Arcana, 2E, and 3E. Want to play a Mountain Dwarf? take the +2 to Strength and call it a day.

We also get 4 racial paragon paths, one for each new race.

We then get 6 new classes, 4 of which are based on the new Psionic power source. Most of these vary from the usual power structure in that they get at-will's and dailies but no encounter attack powers. Instead the at-will's are augmentable via psionic power points. Most of them have 2 levels of augmentation with increasingly strong effects. At the levels where they would normally get a new encounter power, instead these classes get to choose a new at-will power but they can only have 3 at-wills at a time. This gives these classes a lot of flexibility during fights as they can decide when and how much to amp up each power. Power points are rather stingily doled out through the levels and the costs to augment various powers increase with level so the options never get out of balance. I wasn't sure about it at first and I would still like to see them in action but I have warmed up to the idea after going through the book again.

Ardent, psionic leader, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Some healing, lots of ally movement and transferred attacks, and some teleports. Most attacks are Charisma vs. AC, melee weapon, and have some kind of secondary effect. This looks like a fairly interesting class, especially when you add in the flexibility of the augment powers.

Battlemind, psionic defender, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. This one's mark does automatic damage equal to the damage the marked enemy inflicted - automatically, no to-hit roll. That could get very nasty at any level.. Most attacks are melee weapon, Con vs. AC. There are a lot of powers that add damage resistance, a fair number of damage + debuff attacks, and some aspect powers that act like a fighter stance power. They look pretty tough and the augments give them a lot of flexibility too.

Monk, psionic striker, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Monks do not get the augmentable ability  of the other psionic classes. Instead they follow the normal at-will-encounter-daily structure of previous classes. Armor is weak, weapon choices are limited. Almost all attacks are Dex vs. Reflex so hitting should be easier than some. Most are also melee 1 or melee touch. Many have a target of more than one creature or are close burst 1 or 2 so there are multitarget options, always nice for a striker.

Psion, psionic controller, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Armor and weapons are traditional wizard-type weapons. Most powers are Int vs. Will, ranged 10. There are some area bursts, but most of the powers target one creature. There's a fair amount of forced or limited movement inflicted by these things - slide, push, slow, immobilize, prone, etc. I can see the felxibility from the augments being a lot of fun here but the focus on single-target effects is going to play a little different from other controllers.

Runepreist, divine leader, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Decent armor selection, simple weapons only. Most attack powers are melee weapon, Str vs. AC, target one creature but there are quite a few close burst powers in the mix too. Those bursts include a lot of ally buffs and the 2 builds tend to take one of two paths: Ally buffs or enemy debuffs, and there's not a lot of crossover between the two. It's interesting but I wonder how effective it is compared to a Warlord, who covers some similar ground.

Seeker, primal controller , 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Light armor and a focus on missile weapons, either bow types or thrown weapons. Most attack powers are Wisdom vs. AC, Ranged Weapon, target one creature. There are a few area bursts but the vast majority are single-target ranged attacks. It seems almost over-focused but if you're looking for a super-archer or a super ax-thrower this one might be up your alley.

Next we get Hybrid Classes. This is a new form of multi-classing where you get 1/2 of one class's abilities and 1/2 of another class's abilities and combine them into one character. With the warnings on this section I would almost call this an experimental rule section.  I do agree with some of the sidebar commentary that they fit best as a 5th or 6th character rather than as a cornerstone as I have heard mostly bad things about them and I am not sure that the versatility is worth the effectiveness that you give up. Still, it's an interesting option and more like multi-calssing in some older editions of the game than the feat based multiclassing in the PHB 1 & 2.

After this we get 6 new epic destinies that are aimed at the classes presented in this book. More = better so this is good.

Next up is Skill Powers and this is a great addition to the game. All classes get utility powers at certain levels which are mostly non-attack abilities (though not necessarily non-combat abilities as there's a lot of healing and movement tucked into them) and sometimes a player may not see a utility power that they like. Skill powers are additional utilty powers for each level at which utilities are available. The character has to be trained in the relevant skill, but other than that it's a one for one swapout or option that any character can take. Acrobatics and athletics give a lot of movement options, bluff has one that lets you un-mark yourself, diplomacy has a daily that lets you buff your allies with a stirring speech for the next encounter, and there are a lot of re-roll the skill check or substitute a different skill check powers as well. It's a really nice addition and an example of how a modular plug-in design enables easy future expansion.

Then we get 17 pages of feats - good.

Then we close with 18 pages of magic items and a few pages of terms and a glossary.

Overall it's a good book, but it's very much optional in my opinion. If you really like psionics, then it's worth picking up. If you don't like them then you can probably pass. Beyond the class and race stuff the part I really like is skill powers but they probably aren't worth the price of the book all by themselves - unless it's cheap. Being a completist I had to pick it up myself but out of the 10 characters in my 2 campaigns right now none of these races or classes is being used and no one has asked about any of them. Considering that the races are all new (to core D&D anyway) and the classes are all new other than the monk, and that the monk was always kind of an oddball class anyway then it's really not an essential or even particularly useful resource for a typical D&D campaign. The main fit that I see is if you're doing an extrplanar/planescape/spelljammer type campaign - in that case it could add a lot.

As far as recommending it to a new player - probably not. I would recommend the relevant power book for a player based on whatever kind of character they were currently playing before I would steer a new player towards the PHB 3. If someone is coming in to D&D 4 from earlier editions and has an interest in psionic characters then it might be a good fit but for most it's PHB1-PHB2-Power Book - and then maybe PHB3.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

4E Player's Handbook 2 - A Review

So the PHB 1 gave us most of the previous core D&D classes and races reworked for 4th edition. It was a good start but if you were thinking about converting an old campaign it was not a complete guide. The PHB 2 came out in 2009 and finishes up the rest of the adaptation process and mixes in some new stuff as well.

The 224 page hardback starts off with new races:
Deva - Effectively they are the aasimar from the Forgotten Realms 3E campaign guide. There's a reincarnation element added in but they are descended from extraplanar good guys - the opposite of Tieflings.

Gnome - Pretty similar to older editions, some built in tricky/sneaky abilities

Goliath - new to me, they're the big bruiser race. Think 1E half-ogres without the bad childhoods or evil tenencies and you pretty much have it.

Half-Orc  - Same idea as before but with a +2 Str and a +2 Dex they are a very versatile race for the way 4E is set up and not just the barbarians they were in 3E.

Shifters - Sort of half-weres there are 2 types with different stat and skill bonuses. They're an interesting addition wiwthout being over or under powered.

One new addition in the PHB 2 is the addition of racial paragon paths. Previously all paragon paths have been tied to a particular class and sometimes a particular build within that class. There are 12 included here, effectively 1 per race. It's a good concept and adds to the choices available to players, always a good thing.

It also adds 8 new classes:
Avenger - a divine striker, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. It's mainly a single target melee damage and lockdown class. Think "Paladin Bounty Hunter". There are a lot of powers that are boosted if there is no enemy adjacent to the target and a lot of move-to-the-target powers. Starts with only cloth armor so it's even more of a glass cannon than rangers or rogues.

Barbarian - a primal striker, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Another single-target melee striker, this one has better armor and slightly better hit points and surges than the avenger. Barbarians have various types of rage they can enter which remain until the character decides to leave them and receive various bonuses for being in them. They hit hard and they are very tough - what more could you ask for?

Bard - an arcane leader, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. The bard is a very versatile leader class - better skills, lots of movement abilities (ally slides) some healing, ritual casting, and nice utility powers. Clerics are better at healing, warlords are probably better at combat boosts, but the bard is just a very solid all-around leader class.

Druid - a primal controller, 2 builds, paragon paths. A lot of nice ranged elemental type powers with the slightly odd addition of beast form powers. The trick here is that certain powers are beast form only. When in beast form, you can use only those powers. When not in beast form you can not use those powers. This creates a bit of a split personality as the druid wants to stand back and throw lighting or frost blasts or something part of the time but will likely not use their beast powers if they do this for the entire battle. this leads to the weird situation of the melee -seeking controller, and given a controller's hit points, surges, and AC, that's rarely a good idea, even with the boost from being a primal class. The one saving grace here is that a druid's attacks mostly target reflex, with some fortitude and some will. None are vs. AC even in beast form. This helps make the melee powers more likely to hit than the usual melee attack powers of other classes.. It's an interesting combination and I like a versatile character, but I'm not yet convinced it's an effective one.

Invoker - a divine controler, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Channel divinity, ritual casting, some nice summoning powers, and a whole lot of ranged multi-target damage. The invoker combat powers are almost all ranged or area burst powers with no melee and few close burst or close blast type powers. This purity of concept lets the invoker stand back and blast away like an old-school specialty wizard - there's little reason to close in on your enemy. They are also one of the few classes to have significant summoning powers which can be fun to play with too.

Shaman - a primal leader, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Shamans have a spirit companion and a lot of the normal leader boosting effects come out of this spirit animal, meaning it needs to stay in close to the party. Most of the shaman's melee powers are performed through the spirit as well so the spirit probably needs to be up near the defenders and strikers in a typical fight. The shaman's other powers tend to be ranged 5 or close burst or blast 5 with some 10's showing up occasionally. This means that while the shaman doesn't have to be  on the front line he probably needs to be close behind. There's a pretty good amount of healing there, and the other powers tend to be ranged damage effects.

Sorcerer  -arcane striker, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Dragon sorcerers get a lot of bonuses tied to melee combat while Chaos sorcerers get effects like the old 2E wild mage where the die roll result brings in some kind of variable effect. About half of the sorcerer powers end up being burst or blast type shots and even some of the single-target powers have a secondary target that can be affected. One could go with the draconic sorcerer and focus on the close bursts and close blasts (many have a draconic magic kicker effect) or you could go with chaos and make a more standoff type mage blaster. Both have the interesting angle of being a  striker that focuses on area blasting effects - a multi-target striker, which has been a rare animal up to now.

Warden - primal defender, 2 builds, 4 paragon paths. Wardens are an extra-tough defender with light armor - extra HP, easier saves, and multi-target marking. Their powers are mainly melee weapon, strength vs AC for at-will's and encounters but their dailies are almost always some other interesting effect - a form of some kind, a burst or blast effect - something more interesting than another melee strike for X damage.

So the new classes are interesting and quite varied. What else is there?

  • We get 6 epic destinies mainly aimed at the classes in this book
  • We get backgrounds - a mechanical reward for coming up with some kind of character background. The benefit is a small bonus tied to one skill and is fine in scope - I see no unbalancing effect from it.
  • 12 pages of feats
  • 14 pages of magic items
  • 6 pages of rituals
  • 5 pages of rules updates and clarifications
 I think it's a solid book and it completes the old-school class and race set needed for a conversion.* Out of the 10 characters in my current 2 games, 4 of them are classes from this book and 2 of them are races from this book as well - a pretty good showing I think. If someone is getting started in D&D as a player this is probably the book I would recommend as the next thing to get after the PHB1. Now Wizards just announced a new class book that will cover the PHB1 classes in an updated format, so some of my opinions might change next year (maybe Rules Compendium + Class Compendium) but until them I think the PHB 1 + PHB 2 gives a player a nice wide selection of things to play in pretty much any D&D campaign.

*other than the monk, but hey - we're talking about monks. They shouldn't be that important anyway : )