Wednesday, December 8, 2010

4E Essentials Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms - A Review

The second player's book for the Essentials line is another 368 page full color softcover. It covers Druids, Paladins, Rangers, and Warlocks with new class builds. The included races are Dragonborn, Drow, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, Humans, and Tieflings. The only duplication among these with the first book is the inclusion of Humans in both volumes. Let's break it down:

This book opens with a 29 page rule/overview/how to play section that is the same as the one in Heroes of the Fallen Lands (for that review see here) and I do think after reading through it again that someone could start playing with an experienced group with this section alone, but it is still not a complete set of rules by any means as it really only covers combat.

Next we have 25 pages of how to make a character - ability scores, alignments, personality, etc.. This looks the same to me as the prior book, it's mainly important for new players.

Following this we have 20 pages about Powers - types, format and presentation, keywords, and definitions. This is an excellent section if you haven't read it in HOFL and is utterly redundant if you have. It is a handy thing to have in a player book for reference during play so this is not a mark against it.

Then we get to the Class chapter, 160 pages long and covering 5 new builds for 4 different classes:

Druid - this druid is the Sentinel, a Primal Leader. Druids in the PHB2/Primal Power books were Primal Controllers, so this is a change.  The most obvious feature here is that the character gets an animal companion who grants either combat advantage in a 1-square radius or +2 to all defenses in a 1-square radius. That's a pretty strong power either way though the defender will probably vote for the bear (defense buff) while a rogue will campaign for the wolf (combat advantage). It otherwise follows the more standard 4E power structure of at-will/encounter/daily powers added to then replaced at higher levels. Attacks are almost all melee/close burst Wisdom vs. AC. There are a fair number of physical buffs that target "you or one ally" so the druid can do a lot of it on his own if he has to. There are some very flavorful knacks and abilities included too - talking to animals or plants, bonuses to skill checks in the wild, the kind of thing druids had a ton of in earlier editions of the game. At the higher levels there are some special abilities that begin to look a lot like 1E/2E druid class features - ignore difficult terrain and change appearance among them. There is a seasonal element to the class as the player has to choose either a "spring" or "summer" association and this will affect a few powers along the way (and the animal companion)  but it's not huge and it only affects a few power choices along the way. In all it's very flavorful and looks like it could be a lot of fun for a different kind of leader than we have seen before in this edition.

Paladin - this build is called the Cavalier and is a traditional defender class. They gain proficiency with all weapons and all armor but have a new wrinkle with Virtues. The book includes two Virtues - Sacrifice or Valor (and gave me a flashback to Ultima IV when I read about them) and a player has to choose one of them which will affect his powers down the road. Sacrifice tends more towards healing and buffing companions while Valor is more focused on offense. They do follow the at-will/encounter/daily power structure of earlier 4E products unlike the fighter in HOFL so as another Essentials Defender there is already a mechanical difference. They do use the same Defender Aura at-will as the Knight Fighter in HOFL so that part is the same - it's the other powers that are different.   Holy Smite is an encounter ability that adds damage to an at-will attack and the ability to use it more than once per encounter is added on at higher levels, so it appears that a lot of Paladin atttacks will be at-wills with the occasional boost from Holy Smite, similar to the way the fighters in HOFL gained extra uses of their power-up ability as they advanced in level. Almost all attacks are melee Str vs. something, mainly AC with a smattering of Fortitude or Reflex. I think a Sacrifice Cavalier could fill in for a Leader class in a small group if needed as there is a lot of healing available to them. The Valor Cavalier is closer to a Striker for a secondary role. This build bears very little resemblance to the !E/2E Cavalier class as there is only 1 nod to mounts at all in the class abilities (a speed boost to all nearby mounted characters) and no ties to lances or particular weapons. That said it does look a fair amount like a 1E/2E Paladin with the Virtues and no worries about having a Divine focus or implement. These builds do give a different flavor from the prior 4E Paladins so they should be interesting to play.

Ranger - Rangers are the most different from the other classes in their 2 sub-builds, similar to the Fighters in HOFL, so I will cover them separately.

The Hunter is a bow Ranger but is typed as a martial/primal controller. The idea is that they  begin as mainly martial characters but as they learn more about the power of nature and the spirits around them their powers start to tap the primal power source. I don't like mudding up the nice clean power source structure 4E has had previously but it does appeal to me in the game-world-logic sense so I'm OK with it.  As archers they get some cool abilities for their at-wills including one attack that ignores cover or concealment, one that lets them slide/knockdown/slow their target, and one that lets them shoot multiple foes at once. Now these are all "Make a ranged basic attack with this special modifier or effect" type powers so they do go back to the HOFL Fighter design philosophy as does the inclusion of Aspects, which are just like fighter stances in that only one can up at a time, it adds some kind of bonus or modifier, and the character will learn more of them as they progress in levels. They also get Knacks like the Sentinel Druid does above and so are very wilderness-flavored. They really don't get a ton of other attack powers, most of their higher level powers are things like traps, some conditional zones they can create - they are definitely not strikers and they do not look like a blasting type controller at all (ala Wizard or Sorcerer). It's an interesting take on a controller type class but I think a lot of players might prefer the Boomstick approach rather than Twang!/Entangle/Leap/Twang!

The Scout is a martial/primal striker (as above) two-weapon ranger, focused on either axe or sword similar to the weapon choices of Fighters in the HOFL book. There is a damage-boosting encounter power much like those Fighters (and the Cavalier Paladin above) that gains more uses as the character levels up. There are aspects just as with the Hunter Ranger so most of the attacks are going to be Str vs. AC with some kind of modifier or special effect. The wilderness knacks are here too, so the flavor of the mountain man fighter is very much present. There are a lot of movement buffs and awareness buffs but for a striker I'm a little underwhelmed - they may be as mobile as a barbarian at times with all the speed and shifting bonuses that they get (not charge-monsters like a barbarian) but they just don't seem like they would hit that hard once they get there. Maybe in play it's different but I don't see an alpha strike type attack for this striker - it's going to play more as a longer term fight,wearing the opponent down while dancing around in difficult terrain and I'm not sure how effective that's going to be.

Warlock - The build here is the Hexblade, a 3E class that was presented as a fighting mage type and is very similar here as it's a melee focused arcane striker, something we haven't seen before. There are only two pacts to choose from, Fey or Infernal. The pact choice determines the starting at-will and encounter melee powers plus the type of pact blade the character begins with. Both types also begin with a range 10 at-will attack power. Most powers are melee or close burst/blast Charisma vs. something and most of the time it is not AC. Fey gets a lot of mobility from various teleports while Infernal goes more for self-buffs. One interesting thing is that both types gain some summoning powers too as a Daily Minor. I'm not sure how this would work in practice but it sounds cool. Maybe the Hexblade fights until he's used up some of his better powers or has taken too much damage then summons up his ally to fight in his place while he tends to wounds or gets healed by another character. It is a different wrinkle for a Striker and I'm curious to see it in play.

The Epic destiny in this book is Destined Scion and is more of an offensive take than the Indomitable Champion from HOFL. Just as an example the top end power in HOFL is the ability to turn a hit on the character into a natural 1. In HOFK the top end power is to turn a missed attack roll into a hit. Nothing earth-shattering, just the flip side of the same coin. Strikers will probably like this one better while defenders may prefer the one from the previous book. I will say that these two Epic Destinies seem a little vanilla for what is supposed to be the peak of power. Compared to "Demigod" or "Archmage" they just are not all that flavorful and suffer from being very generalized since the one destiny has to apply to all classes in the book. . They aren't bad mechanically, just a little boring in their descriptions.

After Classes we get to Races

  • Dragonborn are now Charisma then Strength or Con, racial power is Dragon Breath which is unchanged
  • Drow are now Dex then Wisdom or Charisma, Darkvision, racial powers are Cloud of Darkness and Darkfire.
  • Half-Elves are now Con then Wisdom or Charisma, low-light vision, racial power is now Knack for Success which has 4 different effects and can be used on you or an ally in a close burst 5. It looks very much like a list of leader powers and is goig to be a lot different than a half elf using Dilettante from the PHB1. It's less versatile in many ways (no free attack power) but from a design perspective I can see the sense in doing away with the wild card ability of "choose another power from any other class" as each new class adds to the possibility some weird combo will come about. It's actually pretty flexible as a racial ability - free shift, free save, +2 to an attack, or +4 to a skill check. Make a half-elf sacrifice cavalier paladin and you have a pretty good Defender/Leader in the making. 
  • Half-Orcs are now Dex then Strength or Con, low-light vision, then Furious Assault which is unchanged
  • Humans are the same as HOFL - +2 to any one stat and Heroic Effort - +4 on a missed save or attack.
  • Tieflings are now Charisma then Con or Int, low-light vision, and Infernal Wrath which is the errata'd version of close burst 10 , d6+ stat bonus damage
The rest of the book is Skills (same as HOFL), Feats (a slightly different list than HOFL reflecting the different classes in this book, e.g. more wilderness less divine) , and Gear, including a very limited number of magic items.  Once again no rituals, no exotic weapons, and no multiclassing, all of which are supposed to appear in the upcoming Class Compendium. There is also a glossary and an index, always good to see in thick rulebooks.

So how is it? I will say that it dramatically expands the options available to an Essentials-only game in both classes and races. It would be very easy to run a campaign this way and pretty easy to give it an old-school flavor by limiting players to these two books.

I think the Sentinel Druid and the Hexblade Warlock are both something we haven't seen before and are probably the most interesting mechanically.

The Cavalier Paladin is very flavorful for a traditional Paladin player who may not have liked the original 4E paladin.

The Ranger leaves me a little less enthused. The Martial classes in Essentials appear to be the most simplified of all and while that's fine in some ways and while I liked the fighter options in HOFL of both the Knight and the Slayer,  I do not really see a lot of shine to either of the ranger builds presented here. The bow-controller is an interesting idea but I think it would be better served by the 4E standard power structure rather than the basic + stances structure we have here, and the fact that the Mage Wizard (Arcane Controller) in HOFL was the only class in that book to stick to that 4E power pattern backs me up.

Overall I like what Essentials has given us this year in these two books. There are still some issues to be solved, mainly multiclassing, feats (Essentials feats are clearly better in many cases), and the crossing over of Epic Destinies and Paragon Paths between these new classes and the existing ones.

I would definitely call this the "Expansion" book to heroes of the Fallen Lands mainly because the earlier versions of D&D started with the classes and races presented in that book, and the ones in this book, for the most part, were added later. If I was bringing in a new player with no D&D experience I would probably still start them with HOFL to set the baseline for what D&D is about then point them to this one later. If I were bringing in an experienced player from 1E or 2E or even 3E with no 4E experience, I would also go with HOFL because of the traditional D&D party and class presentation. That said it would be entirely possible to start someone with this book too, it just would not be my preference.

In the end this is a solid book that presents more options for an existing game. there are no new classes, no new power sources, no game-changing updates or additions, just solid expansions to an already solid game. As I noted in my earlier review I consider the Rules Compendium a 5-star product and then called HOFL a 4-star product in comparison. I would call this one 3 1/2 to 4 stars just because it feels a notch less "essential" to me and not because of any major flaws or problems.  I like it and I expect to use it myself or see my players use it sometime in the near future, assuming we get the chance to make up some new characters.