The intention behind this book is to introduce new races, classes and powers as options that players can choose when designing their characters. The Introduction launches off with some grandiose claims about being a 'significant expansion' - well, it is fair to say that five new races and eight new classes broadens your options... it just depends if what is offered happens to suit what you want to play. The second part of the Introduction presents the 'Primal Power Source' which underlies the supernatural powers available to the barbarian, druid, shaman and warden classes presented later on. It links to the spirits of nature, the power of the world itself that originally arose to protect it from the depredations of squabbling deities and primordials. Having banished them so that they can only exert an influence the primal powers, a myriad of spirits, have established what is perceived as the 'natural order' - the cycle of life and death, the turning of the seasons. The characters who draw on them are thus firmly rooted in nature.
Chapter 1, however, looks at new character races. While the original eight races in the Player's Handbook may be the most common ones from which adventurers are drawn, they are not the only ones. So now the gnome, the shifter, the deva, the goliath and the half-orc join them. Gnomes and shifters appeared in the Monster Manual, but although it is stated that information here supplants that in the Monster Manual, some guidance on how to apply the process to other 'monsters' that you fancy playing as characters would have been appreciated.
Presentation of each race follows the same pattern as in the Player's Handbook, including the rather patronising "Play a XXX if you want to be..." notes in case you struggle to see the potential in a given race. First up is the deva, who is an immortal reincarnated spirit present as yet another cycle on the wheel in the form of the character. Memories of past lives can surface, dimly, and these elegant humanoids are forever aware of the struggle between good and evil both in the world and within themselves. Gnomes are quintessential tricksters with natural stealth skills, and they enjoy humour as they explore the world around them with avid curiousity. Next, goliaths are large and strong, with origins in mountainous areas and a comptetive nature. Half-orcs - familiar to those who have played previous editions - combine the combatative best of both humans and orcs. Finally, shifters are ferocious fighters who are able to take on some aspects of the beastial, even if they do not shape-change completely as a lycanthrope does. Two types are given, one with wolf characteristics and one with cat tendencies. While it would be quite easy to come up with shifters linked to another animal type, no guidance is given to help you develop such. Each race is described in somewhat stereotypical detail with the general characteristics which typify members of that race, plenty and enough for you to see ways in which to play one.
The chapter ends with a selection of paragon paths based on race - both the new ones here and those in the original Player's Handbook - rather than on character class. To qualify, you just have to be a member of the appropriate race but once chosen the paragon path works much like any other, providing specific powers and other advantages to the character following it. Should you choose one of these, your character typifies the best of his race, tapping into the very myths and legends that underpin their culture - nice!
Chapter 2: Character Classes is the biggest part of the book, because of all the new powers and class features that need to be described as each new class is introduced. The eight new classes are distributed between the three sources of power and all four combat roles. And at last I have my beloved bard back! He and the sorcerer draw on the arcane power source, with the avenger and the invoker drawing on the divine and finally four based on primal power, these being the barbarian, the druid, shaman and warden.
Avengers serve their deity by wreaking havoc on that deity's enemies. This class is somewhat akin to the monk of old, save that a character is more likely to fight with weapons than his bare hands. The barbarian is a wild and ferocious warrior, and like the avenger fills the striker role. The bard mixes music and magic in the leader role while the druid wields primal power as a controller with the ability to adopt a beast form. The invoker literally calls down the power of his god to strike his foes, and if he chooses the appropriate paragon path can even become an angel. A shaman considers himself the voice and hands of the spirits, doing their work in the world; and attracts a spirit companion to his side. The sorcerer is the embodiment of arcane power, drawing on draconic or chaotic sources to channel raw magic through himself. Lastly, the warden is a protector of the natural world, a defender incarnate. Each comes with several paragon paths based on that class which may be chosen once the character reaches the appropriate level, drawing on various aspects of that class. The chapter winds up with a selection of epic destinies, open to characters of 21st level or above who meet the prerequisites.
Next, Chapter 3 looks at Character Options. While race and class provide much of what defines a character, there are other aspects that go to making your character an unique individual. First discussed is the concept of a background, providing a range of options to choose from or to use as inspiration for one of your own devising. It's not just flavour, you can extract tangible advantages in the shape of skills, languages or other benefits based on where your character came from or what he did before that fateful day when he became an adventurer. There's also a collection of feats to choose from, some based on the new classes and races presented here while many are open to all. Next comes an assortment of adventuring gear. Of particular use is a selection of musical instruments, vital to any budding bard. There's also some magical items, chiefly magic armour with a whole range of new features to choose from in designing that special suit. Magic weapons are not neglected, and there are also rods, staves and totems. This section rounds out with some musical wondrous items for bards to drool over. Next comes a whole lot of new material on rituals. One of the most interesting bits are some ideas of variant ways in which characters might choose to record their rituals - the traditional leather-bound tome does not survive too well in the hands of a barbarian or someone who prefers to live in deep forests or high mountains. So knotted threads or painted hides, carved wood or... well, see what you can come up with... might replace the conventional book as repository for your character's ritual musings. Lots of new rituals as well, of course.
Finally, an appendix presents rules updates for powers and the stealth skill. They provide quite a lot of detail and are intended to supplant those previously published. The book winds up with a glossary and index.
There are a lot of new character options to consider and digest, obviously widening the range considerably. Everything is still completely focussed on combat, though, all the powers are aimed at making each class - in its own way - a potent force in a brawl. Material for those for whom fighting is not the be-all and end-all of their character's life will be able to extract snippets of use in creating and playing a properly rounded character who can live in the alternate reality of your game as well as fight in it but, as with the rest of this edition, combat is the primary focus.
Return to Player's Handbook 2 page.
Reviewed: 25 April 2009