So here it is, the latest re-creation of the original role-playing game. It opens without preamble, with a chapter on 'How to play' that assumes you have never heard of role-playing games before; but gives a vivid overview of what role-playing is about - structured make-believe - that should leave nobody in doubt about what is in store. Key points include the pivotal role of the Dungeon Master as being able to direct a storyline with complete flexability to respond to player-character actions, and the core idea of having fun! Next comes a brief overview of the fantasy-mediaeval setting (with some preconceptions about the lack of an overarching empire and ancient races that have gone before that may not suit everyone's campaign worldview) and a potted history of the D&D game since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first came up with the concept in 1974.
We then move on to more detail of how the game works, with the main components being player-characters, a Dungeon Master, an adventure (published or written by the DM), and the rules and dice. Miniatures are assumed to be essential as well although I've rarely found them to contribute much to play even in combat. Within the adventure, the game proceeds by encounters - which are either combat or non-combat (everything else, from figuring out a trap or picking a lock to seducing someone or talking your way out of trouble!). Between encounters, you explore the world you're in. Exploration doesn't take turns, but encounters, particularly the combat ones, take a more mechanical turn-based approach. The chapter ends with the core rule mechanic - roll a d20, apply modifiers and compare to a target; if the target is exceeded you have managed to do whatever you were attempting to accomplish.
Chapter 2 is Creating Characters, the real core of the rules as once you know what your character is capable of, he can start to come alive within the alternate reality. It's good to see that proper attention is paid to the concept of role-playing as well as to the mechanics of what the character can do within the ruleset. To begin with, you are encouraged to think about what sort of character you want before you even look at the options like race and class that are available, subsequently making your choices in the light of the character you want to play... although things are a bit biased towards what you fancy doing in combat rather than within the game as a whole. A quick overview of the options is given here, more detail later on, although it's advised that you decide your race and class before determining your ability scores - strength, constitution, dexterity, intlligence, wisdom and charisma - by one of three methods. These are a standard array (six numbers which you distribute as you please), a customised array (start with an array of lower numbers but raise them by spending points) or the traditional method of rolling dice for a random set of numbers. You get racial adjustments to apply after you have allocated numbers to abilities. Alignment is also discussed, but it is an optional extra now if your character wants to take a clear moral stance, and there are fewer to choose from than the 9 used in earlier versions of the rules. It's advised that most players stick to good (or lawful good) or remain unaligned unless the group as a whole wants to indulge in evil. A selection of deities is provided, and it is suggested that most people worship several choosing the one most appropriate for their needs at the time, while clerics will probably devote themselves to a single one - but acknowledging that the others also exist. Finally comes some ideas for those to whom role-playing may not come naturally, a series of questions to consider about what your character is like as a person. You also might have some mannerisms, describe what you look like and think about your character's background before he started adventuring.
Next is a brief word about languages, a review of the different sorts of checks (die rolls) which the game mechanics call for and the detail of what happens when your character gains a level. Characters now can progress from 1st to 30th level, these fall into 3 tiers of heroic, paragon and epic - the assumption being that even a 1st-level character is a hero of some note. Finally there's an overview of the character sheet, showing where you write everything.
Chapter 3 explores Character Races in some detail. Some are familiar, some new and some are missing... and all have racial traits that serve as a collection of bonus features to apply to your character. One new race is the Dragonborn, scaly dragon-descendants who walk around like people but have breath weapons and other draconic characteristics. Dwarves and Elves are familiar, but another new race is the Eladrin - fey creatures similar to Elves (and with pointy ears!), while Elves themselves are closer to nature, wilder beings than hitherto, the Eladrin have taken on the love of artistry and magic Elves had. Half-elves and Halflings remain, both being inveterate wanderers; while Humans are still given the advantage of being infinitely adaptable. New - at least, to the mainstream game - are Tieflings, descendants of human-demon hybrids that are claimed to have once ruled the world... and have horns and tails to prove their heritage. Each race has notes about their general demeanor and some sample character outlines to give you a bit more of an idea about them.
Next comes Chapter 4: Character Classes, again a mix of old and new with notes on the capabilities of each one. Your class is more of a vocation than a career choice. You can be a Cleric, a Fighter, a Paladin, a Ranger, a Rogue, a Warlock, a Warlord or a Wizard... but no longer can you be a bard. Perhaps they'll show up later, but at the moment the emphasis is on classes which excel in combat. Even the Cleric is described as a 'divinely-inspired warrior' rather than as a priest who can fight! (If you thought that was a Paladin, he's described as 'a champion dedicated to a specific deity.') Most of the classes are pretty obvious, although the Rogue is more of a sneaky fighter, the Warlock gains his magic from a pact with a supernatural power (other than a deity, else he'd be a Cleric) with the power chosen affecting what's available to you, and the Warlord is a specialist battle commander. In battle, each class acts as one (or with aspects of more than one) of defender, striker, leader or controller; and draws power from arcane, divine or martial sources. All characters of a given class share some class features, while they can also choose from class-specific lists of skills and powers to customise their characters. For those who want a hand with their choices, there are 'builds' based on different concepts within a given class which suggest a mix suitable to that concept. For those who rise in level, once you reach Paragon status (11+) you may choose a more specialised Paragon Path within your class, and again at 21st level you can choose an Epic Destiny to shape your character's ultimate role.
Powers are the core of class capabilities and are made up of at-will (use as often and whenever you like), encounter (may be used only once per encounter, but as many times a day as you like) and daily (only once per day) ones. An at-will power may be a simple spell or healing ritual, or the ability to use a bow or a sword to effect, while encounter and daily powers are more complex and taxing actions which basically are tiring and require you to rest, or at least take a pause, before you can perform them again. They have a complex yet standardised presentation which shows you precisely what you can do, and provides the game mechanics to gauge your success. To begin with you can choose only a handful of lower-level powers, but as you rise in level the number and strength of the available powers increases. All of which makes for a very long chapter which repays careful study before you decide what you want to play! It rounds off with a discussion of the Epic Destinies available, most of which are open to characters of more than one class provided they meet the prerequisites.
Chapter 5 looks at Skills. The basic assumption is that your character has a basic level of competence in every skill, but can choose to study some of them in more depth. Even without specialisation, you get better as you increase in level, but further study of your chosen skills - a subset of the full list is available to each character class to choose from - grants a further bonus when making a skill check. If you want to learn a skill that's not on your class list, you need to take a feat Skill Training to do so. There are 17 skills in total, all quite broad and often combining both practical and theoretical aspects of that skill. Generic craft, knowledge, etc., skills are no more. You can still choose to 'take 10' on a skill check (accept a result of 10 + applicable bonuses rather than risk a low roll) if not under pressure, and are assumed to be doing so for 'passive' checks - for example, if someone is sneaking up on you, do you notice him even if you aren't keeping a look-out (i.e. have not asked to make a Perception check)? The skill descriptions give detailed ideas for how to use each skill in a variety of circumstances, along with guidance as to what skill checks are appropriate when doing so. Choose skills with care, they are useful and a way in which to greatly enhance your non-combat abilities and to use them to good effect in playing a rounded character, rather than a fighting machine.
Next, Chapter 6 looks at Feats. On the whole, feats are used to enhance what you are already able to do, but they can give you some of the capabilities of another class (useful, since multi-classed characters are a thing of the past although the use of specific multi-class feats enable you to dabble a bit in one other class from your own). You start off with but one feat (two if you are human) and gain one every second level thereafter. You often need to meet prerequisites to take a feat, and generally can only take a given feat once. More impressive feats become available once you reach the Paragon and Epic tiers. Most feats are primarily combat-oriented, enhancing something you do in battle, or letting you mix in something new.
Chapter 7: Equipment ensures that your character has all that he needs to go adventuring. All starting characters have the clothes they stand up in and a notional 100gp to spend on gear. Needless to say, the emphasis is on weapons and armour, which are covered in great detail. An oddity is a restriction on selling stuff... according to the rules you can only sell things if the DM allows it and then only for a fraction of the cost. (Hmmm... scuttles back to see if haggling comes under the Bluff skill...) Only art objects and the like can be sold at full value. Adventuring kit is also included, but in quite broad terms, and there's a brief discussion on how much you can carry.
The next section of the chapter looks at magic items. Although they can be purchased occasionally, the idea is that you find and acquire them by adventuring or use a ritual to enchant one of your own (which costs as much as the purchase price if you found it in Ye Olde Magick Shoppe). Again, if you find yourself with surplus magic items, tough. The rules say that if you sell them you only get one-fifth of its nominal purchase price. Now I'm all in favour of preventing looting for the sheer monetary gain, but I'd prefer to restrict it through role-play - maybe you cannot find a buyer who can afford it, or trade in magic is illegal in this town so you have to make a dangerous journey to somewhere you can sell (or run foul of the law) rather than use an arbitrary rule. Still, there is a comprehensive list of magic items to get you started with your collection. Many, instead of exhausting 'charges' when you use them, work like your own powers - being able to be used at will, once per encounter or once per day. Things like potions are still one-shot, though; when you have drunk one and its powers take effect, it's gone. For weapons and armour, there is a whole range of magical properties which you can apply to a weapon or suit of armour, so it's a very customisable system. Similar effects can be applied to holy symbols, orbs, staves, etc. for those characters who use such items; and likewise shields, boots, gloves, rings, and other ordinary items are also capable of enchantment. There are also some wonderous items, so if you want your very own magic carpet...
Next, Chapter 8: Adventuring gets down to the guts of the game. Going adventuring is what your character was created for, after all. Starting off with quests - why you might go forth and where you can go - the chapter takes a detailed look at encounters and what you can do during them, as well as the rules for exploration, rewards, and the rest and recovery you'll need after you've been doing all these other things! The concept of the 'encounter' is simple: this is when role-playing is set aside while you use your character's statistics and the dice to determine if you succeed at whatever you are doing... obvious if it's a brawl, but a mechanic that come in useful when you are trying to do anything in which you can suceed or fail, be it opening a locked door or trying to convince the guards at the gate to let you into the city. Obviously, as you get more familiar with the rules the non-combat encounters can be woven seamlessly into the storytelling with a few die rolls.
Rewards tend to be quite mechanical. Each encounter successfully resolved should garner you experience points (XP) which are used to gain levels. You can also receive action points. You start with one, and can use it during an encounter to make an extra move or to use certain feats. You gain extra ones at each 'milestone' (these aren't clearly defined, but a lot of the rewards material is no more than summarised here, the full details are in the Dungeon Master's Guide) or you can take an extended rest, lose any you have not used but start again next day with one. Treasure is also a reward, the loot you pick up in the course of your adventures. This might be cash or things readily convertable to cash (gems, artwork and other such valuables) or it may consist of magic items. Wise parties will keep track of what they find and determine a way of sharing it out fairly. There are also the intangible rewards, that is, anything that isn't of monetary value or adds a combat bonus... but for role-playing purposes, being in a High Priest's good books, owed a favour by a wizard or awarded the local city's Medal of Honour has a value all of its own!
The section on exploration is mainly concerned with movement and the rules applying thereto, speeds over different sorts of terrain and the like. Mounts, marching order (and why you need one...), light and vision and other topics are also covered. You also find the rules for breaking things, kicking in doors and so on... and after all that exertion, it's time to take a rest. There are two types of rest each with a set of applicable rules. A short rest lasts about 5 minutes, the sort of thing you might do after an encounter, and you can take as many as you like and circumstances permit. An extended rest is the equivalent to going to bed for the night: it lasts at least six hours and usually includes sleeping and eating. You only need to do this - and only gain the benefits thereof - once a day.
While the whole range of activities that comprise 'adventuring' are key to the game, for many the core activity is combat - it's certainly one of the most complex and rules-intensive parts of the game - and Chapter 9 is devoted to a detailed discussion thereof. To enable it to be administered fairly and logically, it gets quite mechanical with the action taking place in rounds during which each participant - character and monster alike - has a turn in which various actions can be taken. When everyone's had their turn, a new round begins. At the start of the combat encounter, you'll need to determine (with the DM's help) where everybody is and both player-characters and monsters (i.e. all present who are not player-characters) need to roll initiative, which determines the order in which turns are taken for the whole of the combat. The use of some visual means of depicting the combatants and their surroundings is recommended, even if you don't like playing with miniatures it can help to make a rough sketch. There's a whole load of detail about what you can do and how, area effects, range, line of sight and so on... well worth ensuring that everyone has at least a basic grasp of this chapter or else combat can take a very long time while people figure out what they can do!
After you've been in a brawl, chances are you will need to heal your injuries, so the topic of the next section is Healing. Each character has hit points determined by his class, level and Constitution score. You cannot exceed this maximum, but every time you take damage you loose them - being classed as 'bloodied' when you reach half your hit points and falling over unconscious when you reach 0... at which point you are dying and need attention. Each character has at his disposal a number of 'healing surges' which you can use to regain hit points. Once per encounter, and whenever you like outside of combat, you can activate a healing surge to regain one-quarter of your maximum hit points (if you haven't lost that many, you don't get more than your maximum back, of course!). An extended rest enables you to regain the full number of healing surges to which you are entitled by your class and Constitution modifier. Use of the Heal skill, healing powers and the use of various items can allow other people to help you regain hit points as well.
Finally, Chapter 10: Rituals looks at complex ceremonies which create magic effects. They are always performed from a written text, being too long and complex to memorise, although you need to spend time beforehand studying a ritual in order to master it. To actually perform the ritual you spend a length of time specified in the ritual carrying out the necessary actions such as scribing circles, reading aloud from the text and so on. You may also need to purchase items to be used during the ritual. The Ritual Caster feat (available initially to Clerics and Wizards) is needed although you can enlist the help of assistants who neither need the feat or knowledge of the specific ritual. You can do a one-shot ritual from a scroll, and do not need prior knowledge or the Ritual Caster feat to use it, although you will need any necessary items. Rituals can be used to enchant magic items or create an effect directly - such as an arcane lock to protect your treasure, or consulting an oracle to find something out. Curing diseases or enabling you to understand a language you don't speak are some of the other useful things you can do if you know the right ritual... and there are a whole lot more, many based on what you may remember as non-combat spells in earlier editions of D&D.
Overall, I'm pleasantly surprised. The game has been rebuilt from the D20 system, giving something that is coherent and playable. It's a bit combat-obsessed - there again, so are many gamers! - and everyone will find something they cherish has been left out (I want my Bard back!). The actual combat system is possibly over-complex without any options for abstraction for those who do not enjoy being quite so mechanical, but on the whole this is a worthy successor to the tradition that started with Gygax and Arneson...
Return to D&D 4e Player's Handbook page.
Reviewed: 9 June 2008