Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: D&D 4th Ed. (NOT 4.5): Heroes of the Fallen Lands

I'm a sucker for shiney new versions of things I already love. I know I'm kind of a sucker, but I love it all the same. When D&D 4th Ed. Essentials was announced, I felt that familiar tingle of excitement I've felt oh so many times before. 4th Edition is the D&D that is our group's bread & butter. It's the first D&D we played as a group and it worked fantastically to draw us away from board games into RPG's. We always have appreciated the pure crunch and tactical nature of 4th Ed. and always done our own thing with the game. We like a lot of the new things that Wizards has trotted out for this edition. For a while we were playing competitive D&D within our own group as Chuck GM'ed all the stages of the Encounters book.

I couldn't wait to pick up Heroes of the Fallen Lands (HotFL), the first in the two book serious of new players handbooks. So what did I think of it? Keep Reading to find out!

The first thing that really grabbed me with the Essentials books was the dimensions. At 9 x 6 inches, the book has a very modern feel to it like a lot of indie games. You can see to the left here the size comparison to the original 4th Ed. Player's Handbook and the Explorer's Edition of the Savage Worlds rules. I love this size as it's incredibly portable and relatively compared to its hardcover older brother. Of course the softcover, as you can see in the picture (notice how the cover of HotFL doesn't sit well after just a cursory look through), does present some wear and tear issues, but weighing in at $20.00 retail makes it not too big of an investment.

The thing that really surprised me when I opened it was how retro the whole thing felt. While it's in full-color and you will find some gorgeous, new to me (note: I don't know if it actually is new, but I haven't seen it before) art, there's very little when it comes to flourishes or fancy borders on pages. In general there's a lot less art, but that's fine, because there's a ton of raw content and gaming fodder in HotFL.

First off I was surprised by how well the book does to explain the rules for 4th Ed. It's got everything the original PHB has in it but updated with errata and in a different format that's easier to read. I particularly loved the inclusion of the At-Will attacks everyone could use (Basic Range Attack, Basic Melee Attack, Bull Rush, Grab, and Opportunity Attack) in the format of a power. It makes these powers much easier to understand (especially Grab!), and it's a nice example of how, a couple years later, Wizards has learned how to optimize the tools they've created.

But this is Player's Handbook, right? So what do I get? Well, the book focuses on the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard - pretty much the classic D&D classes - and gives you some races - Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Halfing, and Human -  to play around with as well.

There's been a lot of talk about the weird new builds for each of these classes. Here's a quick rundown: Cleric gets Warpriest, Fighter gets Knight and Slayer builds, Rogue gets Theif, and Wizard gets Mage. While it's true, Wizards did take the standard way classes advance and make them quite quirky, I like it a lot. One argument I could see that goes against the new system is the linear nature of the classes. There are levels where players won't have a lot of options for what they want to add. It's not the end of the world - and some would call simplifying the brain load requirement a positive change - but I could see where some could have a problem with it.

I'd have to say that my favorite example is the way fighters work in HotFL. Instead of getting two At-Will powers to start fighters can now choose to start with two At-Will stances to choose from. They simulate the At-Will powers but are always on now. Also, instead of having an encounter or daily to choose from, the fighter gets the encounter power Power Strike. As the fighter levels he gets more uses of Power Strike, more stances, and generally improves without wildly adding to his powers list. I love this as it calls back to earlier editions of D&D and generally makes the fighter feel less like he uses magic.

I like the skills section a lot and believe I'm going to be pulling a lot of motivation from it in future games. First things first - it's got the updated stealth rules in it, so I'm very thankful for that! Beyond this helpful inclusion every skills has a box with a couple of ideas on how to use the skill in a way not directly described by the skill entry. It's a smart inclusion and really works to expand the non-combat action of 4th Edition - something a lot of people believe isn't supported at all in the game.

It's going to take me some time to truly digest all these new changes and ideas, but overall I get a feeling that Wizards gave the design team (credits on the cover go to Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicsek, and Rodney Thompson - all heavy hitters fans will likely recognize) a lot of room to run and play. Reading through the sections, you get a feel for the fact that Wizards has learned a lot over the course of this edition.

Is it 4.5 Ed.? Well, I spoiled that in the heading - it most definitely is not. Your Knight build Fighter should have no problem fitting in with a party of Player's Handbook 1 characters. The mechanics are all there. It's the same game you've been playing for the last couple of years. It's just a new, cheaper entry point for the game that shows off just how far 4th Ed. has come and how robust a system it really is.


  1. Thanks for the review.
    Did you pick this up at one of the Premier stores? I am looking forward to picking this up.

  2. Thanks for the kind comment!

    I picked it up this afternoon at a local game shop. They had the rules compendium too but I had to keep budget in mind so I went with the book with the most new content. I was very surprised by how comprehensive it was. I guess I wasn't thinking this would be such a total PHB replacement as it turned out. My expectations were more of a beginner's book. It serves that purpose too, but it's a very nice updating of of the rules for even an experienced player.

  3. Linking to this in my 4e round up post. I didn't get a chance to pick this up yet, but I am going to get it today maybe.

  4. Thanks for the great review! I had the chance to read through a few portions of the book the other day, but the more I hear about it the more I want to actually pick up a copy ... as soon as my gaming budget resets again. :)


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