When approaching this review the first problem I had was whether to review the Player's Handbook (PHB) as an update to the D&D line or as a standalone game compared to other games on the market, as the tone of the review would be markedly different in the two cases. In the end I decided to compromise and try and look at both sides of the coin. The second problem was the sheer number of changes, which would require a review about half as long as the Handbook itself to do it justice. What I will attempt to do is concentrate on those changes that have the most impact while mentioning the other changes in less detail.
To begin, my overall impression was favourable. Prior to the launch of the PHB there appeared to be four main aims: Simplicity; Low Cost; Retain the flavour of D&D and Design a new standard system. In my opinion, Wizards of the Coast have succeeded in the first three at the expense of the fourth. However, three out of four ain’t bad (to misquote the song). The combination of low cost and retention of the D&D flavour should give them a good return market from AD&D players, while the low cost and simplicity may well make this the game of choice for introducing new players. The only market they will miss out on will be the grizzled veteran gamers who are looking for the breakthrough new system, which this isn’t.
Now I'll go on to the detail by examining the look. The cover is interesting and distinctive while the interior art is generally good. I found that the use of art on the coloured first pages of the chapters made them a bit difficult to read but this was not a serious flaw. Starting with a ‘how to create a character’ checklist was an interesting move, but worthwhile. The indexing was adequate but lacked some cross-referencing. The main layout problems I found were with some of the tables, particularly the weapons and the equipment. These were broken down by categories rather than alphabetical, so for some more esoteric items a lot of searching was required (although the illustrations of the weapons helped; it was usually obvious whether the weapon in question was a sword or not).
Let's look next at character creation. The use of 4D6 and ignore the lowest die to generate stats has been a popular house rule in many games and it is nice to have it legitimised. The resulting distribution of ability scores is skewed towards the higher values (a quick check shows that there is only 1 way to get a three (1,1,1,1) and six ways to roll an 18 (6,6,6,1-6) leading to PCs who are more than your average man on the highway. The possibility of adding to attributes at every fourth level could cause problems if the PCs had very high stats to start with but assuming that the 4D6 method is used it appears balanced. In fact it may well be necessary for wizards to cast higher level spells if they have to start with an Int score of 13 or so.
The races and classes are one of the main areas where the feel of D&D has been retained; the old stalwarts are there along with a couple of new classes and the addition of the Half-Orc to the PC ranks. All the races and classes have their special abilities and bonuses but these appear to have been better balanced than in previous versions. These special abilities do include assumptions about the races and their interrelationships, a point I will return to later. There are no longer minimum ability scores for certain classes or banned combinations, which is a definite plus in my opinion. This means that anyone can train for any class, but characters with good stats will be ‘better’ at the tasks typically associated with the class.
The addition of feats (aka talents and advantages in other systems) is also a nod to more recent game design. There are a wide variety of feats that can be selected to improve characters in a number of areas. I couldn’t help wondering how the system would have looked with a more basic race and character packages and more flexibility to build the feats and special abilities; maybe this will come with the D20 system. My main complaint about feats is with the item creation feats. These ask the character to use experience points to create items. I don’t like this intrusion of the meta game concept of experience points into the in game item creation process. I would have preferred reductions in either ability scores or the derived bonuses (with a slow recovery rate) to represent the wizard giving of himself to create items.
The addition of a skill system is very welcome, the D20 mechanic used, while coarse, suits the feel of the system and the use of ‘take 10’ or ‘take 20’ to allow tasks to be completed safely out of combat is a good idea. One irritating feature that has carried over from earlier versions is some arbitrary restrictions on learning skills (i.e. only rogues can ever learn to lip read.). I suspect that house rules to allow all classes to learn all skills but at higher point costs will spring up all over the net.
The rules on multiclassing have been completely changed. The new rules of adding a new class are far more intuitive and, in my opinion, better reflect the fact that changing careers later will take longer to learn. The new rule is, if I have understood it correctly, that character level advances according to the standard table. The character can advance in any reasonable progression at each level, subject to GM permission and some restrictions based on the class combinations. So it will take more experience for a 3rd level fighter to learn the skills and abilities of a first level wizard than the wizard took at first level. This, combined with the restrictions based on level difference between the highest level and the lowest class (with modifications for racial preferred classes) give enough scope to generate interesting and rounded characters.
Next I came to the combat system. In my view this suffers the most from keeping to the feel of previous versions and shows the systems roots in wargaming. The rest of the mechanics of the system have been kept very simple. But once combat starts there are a whole plethora of options or ‘move equivalent actions’ that can be attempted along with attacks of opportunity and move bys. Personally, I would have preferred a combat system that was as simple and abstracted as the skill system, but I have to admit that the system works as is although combat will take up much more of gaming sessions than the exploration/investigation phase.
To give it its due the Combat mechanics use the same resolution method as the Skill system (roll D20 add bonuses and beat a target number), which means that only a single mechanic is needed. However the tactical options available to the character are huge and these options can change the bonuses to the D20 and the target number required. The use of a single initiative roll for each combat is a sensible simplification. If your players like worrying about the tactics of combat and the advantage of a charge over a full attack they will love the combat system.
The magic system has always been my biggest problem with AD&D, the idea of memorising spells overnight to use the next day seemed odd. It also led to PCs concentrating on a small number of useful utility spells until they reached high level. These issues have been addressed, the spells are prepared in advance for an hour but wizards can leave a slot blank and fill it later with 15 minutes preparation. This allows for those situations where you desperately need a particular spell and previously would have had to come back tomorrow. Also the Bard and the (new) Sorceror do not memorise spells at all, but have a reduced list of spells that can be used fairly instantly. The selection of spells available is large and many of peoples favourites are there. I’m sure there will be plenty of expansion of these lists over the next few months. Overall I felt that magic was the most improved section of the system, although the reliance on slots still feels odd.
Clerics now pray to their deity to receive their spells, which has the potential to add to the roleplaying aspects of the game, with Deities (GMs) withholding spells from worshippers who stray from the Path. Also, the ability of clerics to convert unused spells to equivalent (or lower) level healing spells will add a lot more flavour to clerics who won’t get stuck in the walking heal spell factory mould.
Personally the most irritating feature of the handbook is the use of the world of Greyhawk to illustrate the examples. This world has a built in set of assumptions about the relationships between the races and their deities, as well as the use of the classes. This means that to use the system in another setting might leave the GM with a lot of work., particularly if he wants to change the relationship between elves and dwarves (Perhaps they are two branches of the same race and get on wonderfully, for example.). I would have preferred the PHB to have concentrated on the system and used more generic examples or possibly examples from several worlds to show the possible variety.
A plus point was the inclusion of a computerised character generator, a nice touch that demonstrates that someone is listening to what customers want. I have not used it extensively but a few simple tests showed no problems (There is also a patch available online to address a number of reported bugs.). This should make a useful addition to the GMs armoury in recruiting players new to RPGs, as the player only needs a character concept and a few minutes with the GM in front of a PC rather than leafing through the books. The books can then come later once the player is hooked.
At this point the player has all the information needed to create and run characters under the new rules, but what about the poor GM? The last section of the PHB addresses this by providing a GMs survival kit to keep the GM running until the Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) comes out in late September (UK). These notes provide both some samples of information needed to run as well as acting as an advert for the DMG, although the disclaimer is rather strong in stressing that some or all of the information provided may be superseded by the DMG when published.
The only other person who might be feeling left out at this point might be the avid Second Edition player, who has a plethora of books, characters and campaigns all with Second Edition details. To help these people convert, and so buy Third Edition products, a small conversion handbook is provided. This is a useful pamphlet and gives a good guide to the conversion process. In specific cases it is clearly a guideline only as the GM will have to examine the balance of certain issues. However, the existence of such a book is a definite plus point in that it shows that the existing fan base is being considered.
As I said at the beginning, the PHB is overall a good product. While it doesn’t have any groundbreaking game design features it improves on the previous versions while retaining much of their flavour. It has now moved into the category of games I wouldn’t mind playing in, although I wouldn’t want to GM it as any world I might want to use would probably break some of the underlying assumptions of the system.
Also, the inclusion of items such as the computerised character generator and the conversion guide at no extra cost show that the Wizards of the Coast are listening to the existing fans and addressing themselves to the comments coming in. I think that bodes well for the future and I look forward to further Third Edition products.