Continuing on from my discussion previously on the history of 4e and what I like about it mechanically, this time I’m going to speak to the various books and resources published so far for 4e. Just as fair warning: This is likely going to be a huge post, so bring some popcorn.
The Big Three
These are the classic three: Player’s Handbook (PH), Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), and Monster Manual (MM). I’ll cover the other generations of these (PH2 and 3, DMG2, and MM2 and 3) in a minute.
The Player’s Handbook is quite nice compared to previous incarnations of it in 3.x and 2e D&D. There’s a nice fat block discussing what RPGs are and are all about. 3.x had little more than a few pages that felt more of like you were reading the definition from a book rather than having it described to you by a friend, for the most part as sparse as the blurb about RPGs and roleplaying in 1e (Which was before there was very much examples to draw upon to explain what RPGs were!). Some complain that it’s unnecessarily wasting pages on what players already know, but I digress; I think that a complete neophyte, coming and reading those paragraphs, would be far more interested than they would reading the similar section in a previous edition.
The content is nice as well. You get basically all of the classics: Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Rogue, and while it’s missing some like the Barbarian, Druid, and Bard, overall it gives a nice healthy spread. Combat is cleanly and clearly explained (Reiterating: Unifying the rules into Blast, Burst, and Wall for areas of effect is a miracle. I for one will not miss the death of cone-shaped areas of effect), and of course it contains all the bits and bobs for Equipment, Rituals, Skills, and Feats. One nice change is that it also contains the full set of offered Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies, which (iirc) the 3e handbook didn’t offer but instead stuck in the DMG.
One notable section that’s missing that was in 3e is the mini-DMG section, allowing you to play a few levels at low levels as it provided rudimentary monsters and traps. I think this was due to the overlap with what the Red Box offered, but it was a section that I appreciated them putting in the 3e book. It’s also seems like a better idea from a business perspective, as that way someone only has to buy a single book to try it and get engaged (And then buy more), instead of needing to buy multiple $30+ books at once and possibly getting scared off.
For the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a huge portion, probably verging on a third to half of the book, is about how to run a campaign, engage players, and be a good DM running successful games; things that most experienced GMs and DMs are familiar with. I cannot overstate how valuable this is, and would even push it onto people who are wanting to GM for the first time in systems other than D&D. There’s full rundowns on different player archetypes and how to engage them, how to maintain tension and interest in sessions and over the course of a campaign, how to design engaging adventures and encounters, and more. Many argue that this is all self-evident, and means that section of the book was “wasted,” but I think it actually makes the book one of the bar-none most valuable books a DM could have.
The rest of the book contains traps, encounter hazards, magic items, and Skill Challenges. The last item there I have mixed feelings on: As-written, Skill Challenges are difficult (Iirc, this was a typo in printing, and the DMG2 had guidelines for how to design them appropriately), but they also feel quite dry and more about roll-play than roleplay. On the other hand, they are a really nice way of deciding ahead of time how to set up a complex encounter, including more social, long-term, or wide-ranging events. I think I was initially put off from them because of the seeming sterility in the concept, but looking back at my method of DMing encounters and skill rolls, this would be a nice way to structure them to keep a bit more consistent and difficult (Currently, I have players roll between one and three times in related checks, but it’s usually absurdly easy for them to pass the tests).
Again, the DMG is missing a few pages of monsters that would reduce the number of books players would need to get to play a few levels (Seeing as the PHB didn’t have it either)
The Monster Manual is just about what you’d expect, although it does drop some classic monsters (Which appear in later Manuals) in favor of some of the new ones. Overall, it’s nice and clean, although I do wish there was a description blurb for each entry instead of a general description and/or the Skill-related information. One argument brought up was that there’s too little information, and a better option would be a return to the exhaustively-detailed entries in AD&D’s Manual. I believe that those were simple a great deal of unnecessary page-filling rubbish; I never have needed to know the exact climate to find an Ankheg in, or cared about a Bullette’s brood habits, and in the one-in-a-million time I did need that information, I’d rather make it up than waste 50% of my book on never-used trivia.
Another nice aspect of the change to 4e was both the condensation into the monster stat blocks, which makes playing spellcaster enemies interesting and viable instead of pulling teeth, and the shift in how the planes and such are. This heavily removed the idea of “Basically all gods are good, and only good gods have angels” that I remember from 3e, and encouraged the use of spellcasting angels and such as party opponents instead of only as DM mouthpieces and foils for evil-only parties. Earlier versions might have allowed for this already and probably did, but 4e seemed very open about the idea that angels and other godly servants could be a very common enemy, even for good parties.
One thing to note is that the math was wrong for the MM1 and 2, and that monsters are too tough and encounters too drawn out. The fix is an easy one: Just double the monster’s damage and halve their health. However, even after making that change I try and avoid using too many Brutes in my games, and avoid Soldiers entirely. The Brutes have so many hitpoints that it takes forever to whittle them down, and Soldiers fill an unwanted niche between the Lurker, Skirmisher, Brute, and Minion, and fulfill none of the roles well, taking forever to kill but never serving to really threaten the party.
Three Five Extras
The Player Handbook 2 introduced a smattering of new races and classes. Overall, I like the Goliath and Deva (Fantastic RP opportunities there with how their race works), am neutral on the Gnome and Half-Orc, and dislike Shifters (They feel like a halfhearted attempt to satisfy people looking to play werewolves without shattering the rules/balance). For the classes, I love the Barbarian (Fantastic setup. Glass cannon that gets tougher/killier as they kill more enemies), Sorcerer (The various magic sources give these character’s builds completely different flavors. I personally like Dragon magic myself), and Warden, am neutral about the Invoker, Druid, and Bard, and detest the Shaman. That last one is mostly about a horrible Half-Orc Shaman I played, who for some reason acted as the party damage sponge, was unable to get an AC high enough to prevent being smushed constantly, and in general was such a handicap that it wasn’t real fun to play using. Oh, and he couldn’t speak Common, so he had to converse through our party’s That Guy. Barrels of fun, I tell you…
Player’s Handbook 3 introduced yet more races and classes. This time the focus wasn’t as much on Primal-powered heroes, but rather on Psionics. Up-front admission here: I somewhat dislike the entire concept of psionics, especially in D&D which already has magic. I feel the two types of abilities have a heavy overlap, making psionics a bit unnecessary, but I do enjoy their mechanical setup that allows players to “Charge” abilities using their Psion Points. The races I liked include Minotaurs, Shardminds, and Githezera, as these each have rich RP possibilities or are cool concepts, or both (The backstory and idea of Minotaurs being maze/trick resistant is quite cool imo). The Wilden I intensely dislike, mainly because it looks weird as hell, to the point of seeming like it would have been more appropriate in the Heroes of the Feywild book. For the classes, I am neutral on the various psionic classes (Ardent, Battlemind, Psion, and Monk, although the Monk has some interesting Power choices and flavors) as I am for the Seeker, and I actually find the concept behind the Runepriest quite fascinating. It seems at first glance like it might better fit as a Paragon Path for Clerics, but like they did for many normally-Paragon-Path-but-too-cool-to-not-use-earlier classes (Like Assassins!), I appreciate it being available to Heroic Tier characters.
Not much offhand I can recall about the Monster Manual 2. More cool monsters, more cool options. I personally think you can never have too many enemy choices as a DM. Again, same note as with the MM1 applies: Double damage, half health.
Again, same comments here as for the MM1 and 2, but with one big qualifier: Everything got balanced. There had apparently been a math error with monsters in the MM1 and 2, leading to tough monsters and ridiculously drawn-out fights. The MM3 was the first to have the balanced stats, but the retcon for previous monsters is an easy one: Double the damage, and halve the health.
With Our Powers Combined
The various Power books are quite nice, and give some helpful options. They’re superfluous for the most part if you have the D&D Insider subscription, but I anticipate they’ll be invaluable whenever Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro decides to shutter the online Character Builder and it’s updates (Why they decided to kill the offline-capable character builder in favor of a Silverlight-powered app will forever boggle my mind. The older offline one even had more useful character sheets)
Again, the various Heroes books are rendered largely unnecessary by D&D Insider, but offer some great options offline. The Heroes of Shadow particularly is great for parties filled with “morally ambiguous” characters.
The Handbooks are nice little tidbits, mostly good for backstory on the two “new” races 4e introduced (They existed earlier as half-dragons or half-demons, but 4e really mainstreamed them in a nice clean fashion). There’s also some minor player options if you’re using either of the races, as well as a bucket of story hooks.
The Monty Haul
These are great for a GM, and while the Adventurer’s Vault 1 is nice, I would actually recommend getting it last. The Adventurer’s Vault 2 has a great selection of party items (Ones that function best when the players are together and working/using them together, interesting items that are housed in player “lairs” (Home bases) instead of brought out and about, and “set” items familiar to anyone who’s played a computer RPG in the last two decades (Items give greater bonuses when you gather more from the same set). Mordenkainen’s setup has mostly the same type of content as the Adventurer’s Vault 1 and the DMG’s magic item selection, but gives each a richly detailed history or story hook associated with it. It’s a great way to make sure your magic items feel real, rather than like an expected character upgrade. Adventurer’s Vault 1 has nice stuff, but nothing fancier than you find in the DMG.
Manuals of Up and Down
Now we start to shift into more setting-related content instead of just player-oriented stuff. I personally love the setup for the planes, as I gushed about before, but these are quite nice books to clearly give the nuggets of setting you can drop in and out as you like. I personally prefer The Plane Above, but all of them are quite valuable resources. The Astral Sea is definitely aimed at upper-Paragon and Epic tiers, so you might not need them immediately, but they’re a great set of locations to go to once your players are at that level.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go
I’m going to actually hit here the three main settings WotC introduced, in order of my like of the setting.
Forgotten Realms: I think I might have mentioned this previously, but I’m not a huge fan of the Forgotten Realms setting. I grew up playing Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, but the setting overall has always felt like “Generic D&D, with NPCs you might recognize!” I was always hesitant to DM in it, because I didn’t want to step on the toes of established canon, and I felt like I was both expected to make sure all the setting celebrities showed up (Drizzt, Elminster, etc), but also make sure they didn’t steal the show. While I am glad that 4e splintered the setting to allow it to more easily fit with the “points of light” vague setting for 4e and harder for a DM to tread on the setting canon, I still wasn’t interested enough to play.
The Neverwinter setting is somewhat better, but actually feels too small, and still suffers from the feel of being “Generic D&D,” which is a real shame as I loved Neverwinter Nights and the setting of a barely-controlled town of thieves presented there. It felt like they went part of the way towards making a really unique location (“The city was almost completely destroyed! And no-one knows what will happen to it now!”), but reigned it in to keep with the tone of the rest of Forgotten Realms.
If they’d gone whole-hog, and had something like it tearing itself apart in slow motion, still travelable but with the shards people live in that have been flung the farthest only reachable by air, with factions trying to control what’s left of the city as it continues to disintegrate, trying to stem the explosion or speed it up, that would be a much more engaging story. Maybe introduce a constant mechanic of Orientation; Players start as Oriented, but being knocked down or slid might incur a check to see if they remain Oriented. Disoriented players can’t keep a good footing on the shifting and expanding macro-shrapnel and might fall into pits or be slid/flung through the air at the DM’s discretion, and players can make checks against their Orientation, gambling being Disoriented against getting Combat Advantage or similar.
Hang on a sec, need to go write that down…
Eberron: I am conflicted on this setting. On the one hand, it is a damn sight richer and more vibrant and interesting than Forgotten Realms, and while some might find it at their saturation point for steampunk aesthetics, I love it and can’t get enough of the lightning trains and flying airships powered by bound elementals. It does verge on being too much sometimes, but not enough to turn me off of it.
On the other hand, Eberron is, from what I can tell, heavily angled towards being an intrigue/diplomacy/high court type of setting, of terse negotiations followed by thievery and only occasional out-and-out brawls. D&D 4e, while a wonderful system, handles that sort of setup somewhat lightly, relegating it to skills, and as a result I feel like more fighting-focused characters who aren’t silver-tongued would basically get left by the wayside. In addition, the overall setting, while excruciatingly detailed to a level to rival the Forgotten Realms, is for the most part forgettable at best. All I recall is the misty totally-not-magical-nuclear-fallout area, there was a war involving five (?) kingdoms that just ended, leaving a state of Cold War detente, and a few distant islands filled with the Misc category of enemies like lizardmen, and something about a possible goblin homeland. The rest is so dry that I don’t feel like it’d be worth the effort of doing an intrigue game in 4e given how unengaging the politics are to me personally.
Dark Sun: While originally I preferred Eberron, after playing in Athas (My wife DMed, as she adores the setting) I am completely hooked on Dark Sun. The setting is refreshingly different, and the change to somewhat-assumed staples of D&D (Using magic, metal weapons/armor, enough food/drink to get from point A to B in almost all regions) makes it feel like an entirely new game, in a very good way. It doesn’t have as much content as Forgotten Realms or Eberron, but that’s because instead of having separate player and campaign setting guides, they give you an entire Monster Manual for specifically Athasian monsters. It’s fantastic, and has just some incredibly interesting beasties (Like the salt vampires or the giant sand-kraken/Sarlacc) that help make for really cool encounters.
The only downside is the abridged lore/traditions/backstory, but as it turns out AD&D produced oodles of Dark Sun material that my wife and I have been steadily collecting, we have all our bases covered. The art and styling is really fantastic, and the Preserver/Corrupter dynamic for arcane magic and the complete lack of divine magic makes for some awesome RP encounters when someone wants to play a wizard or sorcerer.
Hammerfast and Menzoberranzan both offer lots of politics and local figures, but are basically two flavors of the same dish (One is dwarven ghosts and tombs, the other drow and spiders and backstabbing). They’re both good, and nice if you’re looking to have a “home base” the party is operating out of, and offer lots of RP and NPCs for players to spar off against, but not as many combat encounters.
Halls of Undermountain and Vor Rukoth are also very similar, much more oriented towards combat encounters and exploration than intrigue and politics. Undermountain is laughably huge, and basically designed to allow for DM fiat in dungeon layout after a certain point early on in a dungeon delve. The town above is somewhat interesting, but unless your party is incredibly interested in dungeon crawling, I’d advise giving it a pass. Vor Rukoth is only slightly better, this time exploring a huge above-ground city instead of a huge below-ground maze. Again, there are some interesting characters and locations in and around the ruins, but it’s very combat-focused.
Underdark, however, is fantastic. This is a must-add for a collection, especially for upper-Heroic and Paragon-tier players. Lots of interesting monsters and encounters, but more than that it has a ton of different locations and areas, each with vivid descriptions, and the few organizations it has make for amazing party foils, with a Level 30 Solo demigod that’s disgusting and incredible. Honestly, this should have been an Underdark Campaign Setting book, with a player guide to match. The nice thing too, for those of you out there with Drow fatigue, is that it’s actually quite Drow-lite. It does mention them and their areas, but no more than it does Mindflayers, Formians, or any of the other factions in the Underdark.
The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond is nice, but not great. There’s a great map, lots of enemy tokens, and two books full of encounters that I literally cannot recall a single passage about despite having read it cover to cover. However, it contains a deck of Shadowfell effect cards that offer some nice RP and gameplay changes, and if you can find the whole shebang on for discount, I’d advise getting it for the map, tokens, and cards alone.
All of the Fluff
These are actually quite nice. The Dragonomicons delve into both the physiology and nesting habits of the various hues and types (Remember earlier how I said I didn’t like how the AD&D Monster Manual cluttered the entries with trivia? This is the book of trivia, and it’s much more complete and easier to use in this format as well), as well as adding a plethora of new species and types and named dragons to use (Unfortunately, most of the named metallic ones are specific to Forgotten Realms), while the Demonomicon basically does the same but for, you guessed it, demons. I do wish there was a “Devilnomicon,” as of the two “species” of monsters, devils seem to be far more interesting as they focus more on intrigue and backstabbing than the brute force and domination demons typically rely on.
Open Grave is really quite nice. For the most part, it’s a mini-Monster Manual, but it also contains quite a few Artifacts and named enemies, as well as some interesting trivia about how undeath works and such. If you want to run more than a little undead in your game, I advise picking this one up.
The Book of Vile Darkness, I haven’t really used. It has a spread of nice new player class options, and material for a DM to use in designing an evil campaign, but as I haven’t used it I can’t speak to how effective it is. However, I would like to put a good word in for them bothering in the first place to help DMs who are planning on attempting the difficult task of running an evil campaign.
Dungeon Delve is a nice set of Encounters, but that’s all it is; Encounters. It makes no attempts to hide this, and in fact seems geared towards the idea of being used in the way Dungeon Delves were done competitively at conventions. This is actually a brilliant fit for D&D 4e and the smooth combat rules it uses, but it probably won’t make very much of an appearance at the table of more RP-centric players
Tomb of Horrors is…disappointing. The adventures and encounters it has are perfectly fine, but it is not the kill-you-dead dungeon of legend. This is a perfect book to run with players who have already played the original Tomb of Horrors, but is terrible to try to use to introduce a new player to the Tomb. The only “adventure” in the original tomb itself has the tomb stripped of all of it’s fangs, and while it would probably be great to run with a party who has encountered the original Tomb and knows what to look out for, for a new party it feels absurdly empty and abandoned. I had to scour the web to find the original Tomb translated to use in 4e, and I would heartily recommend that this book only be bought by player groups who have already experienced the original Tomb in some form.
The Annuals have a nice selection of plots, adventure arcs, and encounters/NPCs. While not required, I would recommend them for any DMs looking for a variety of ideas to spark or add into a campaign.
Behind the Curtain
The Player Strategy Guide is, simply put, designed for powergamers. This is not a bad thing, and 4e actually accommodates powergamers without them breaking the system or requiring DM fiat better than any previous edition I can think of, but that’s what it revolves around. If you want to be the tankiest tank or fastest speedster or healiest healer, this book is great, but it offers little outside that.
These two are, simply put, game designer porn. They were released as teasers when 4e was upcoming, and any story or fluff they contain is likely already covered in full in the Big Three, if not in the other various supplements. However, it has a huge amount of background on why the designers made the choices they did, and it’s really fascinating to read through the various opinions and ideas of the assorted designers guiding 4e to fruition. While it contains literally no usable game information, and no fluff you won’t find elsewhere, I actually find them probably my two favorite books of the whole collection.
The encounter books and booklets WotC has released are many. While my wife and I own every book listed above (We don’t have a problem…), we only have around a third-ish of the Encounter books/booklets. I do really like that WotC has released enough of them that a DM can do nothing but present the encounters and story arcs therein and bring a party from Level 1 to Level 30 if they so desire.
Overall, they are quite nice. There’s usually a lot of NPCs and occasionally maps and regional layouts. THere are of course lots of encounters, which can sometimes make it seem like you bought a miniature version of the Dungeon Delve book, but overall they’re nice. If you find one on discount, or are looking for ideas for a region or plot art, go ahead and give them a look.
Whoo. There will be a final, closing post looking back at D&D 4e, but in the meantime, leave me your comments below: Do you have any D&D 4e books? Is there a favorite setting, race, class, or story arc you’ve encountered from them?