D&D Reviews - For Real This Time, No Fooling

OK so yesterday's post was originally intended to be a book review amalgam before I put on the rose-colored glasses and got out the scrapbooks. Today I want to talk about a pair of book(let)s and I may talk a bit about the first 4th edition module.

The books are called Wizards Presents Races and Classes, and Wizards Presents Worlds and Monsters and together they are the bulk of the "preview" materials for 4e. The module serves a bit of this as well - it's called H1 - Keep on the Shadowfell. I call them book(let)s because each book is only about 100 pages long. At first I was sort of dubious about them, and I still think they are badly titled. But they aren't really a "This is wizard and look we had somebody draw a picture!" What they are is actually a series of essays by the people who created 4th edition. (Well and to be fair, there is a "This is a wizard" component.)

Sticking with wizards, there are six pages about wizards in the Races and Classes book. The first two are clearly going to be in the Player's Handbook and are pretty much "So you wanna be a wizard? This is what you'll do." and some pictures. But then there's a half column on the role of the wizard in combat and talking about how the wizard now has an implement such as a wand or orb (Pratchett fans will wonder if the the implement has a Knob on the End) and that implement shapes what the wizard does. Next up is some "crunchy" (i.e. full of rules information) details about the changes from 3rd to 4th edition, including why the changes were made. Next up is discussion of how the wizard class is balanced against the other classes, both how it worked in 3rd edition and what they changed for 4th. The point I'm trying to make is that while yes these books do cover the fluffy "Wizards cast spells and suck at combat" aspects, there's also a good bit of crunchy "this is how 4th edition works" and a whole big helping of "This is what the design goals of 4th edition are and how we got there." It's almost like these two books are the directory's commentary track of the Player's Handbook. For somebody like me with a more than passing interest in how gaming sausage gets made this stuff is just great.

The split of the books is a bit odd. I actually read all of the Races and Classes book and the first quarter of the Worlds and Monsters one before I got the logic. They talk about how 4th edition was developed by two teams - a mechanics/rules team and a flavor/creative/art team. The first book was written by the mechanics team and the second by the creative team. This makes a lot of sense but it's not said explicitly anywhere. Once I got that it was a lot easier to flow with which topic was covered where. I think this is even further obscured by the fact that the "Races" topic is the blurriest and it's what the first book opens with. Are dwarves and elves mechanics or flavor? The answer of course is "Yes". The book focuses a bit more on the mechanics side of the fence but it dabbles more in flavor than the other sections do.

The second book shows a lot of good thought. The whole planar system has been redone and one mantra was "lose pointless symmetry". Did anyone ever really adventure in the Positive or Negative Material planes? Even most of the elemental planes were cast in a way that A ) made them uninteresting and B ) made them impossibly difficult to use. "So it's an endless plane of fire? The ground is fire, and the air is fire? And this rock? No, it's fire too huh? And we can't breathe, because of the fire? What a great place to go." Instead now they have a plane called the Feywild which is an eerie mystical echo of the "real" world. All of the fey/faerie creatures come from the Feywild, and ancient elven (technically they are eldarin, but that's a technicality) cities might exist in the Feywild except for the solstice when they materialize in the real world for just one night. Bam! Already that has more adventuring potential than the Inner Planes ever got in 20 years of D&D.

I'd say if you have any interest in D&D, or even much of an interest in game design as a topic this are worth reading. I really liked reading them, and if it wasn't clear already they really piqued my interest in reading the actual rulebooks.