I can't decide if I think reviewing the Players Handbook
is ridiculous or not. On the one hand, it's a book, and I read it. On the other hand, I've already nattered on about D&D recently
and it's not like anyone reads the PHB as a work of literature.
So maybe I'll cheat a little a bit and do a "review" but mix in a little 4th edition discussion. We'll see what happens. (Editing? We don't need no steekin' editing!)
There's an obvious elephant in the 4th edition D&D room and oddly enough that's World of Warcraft.
I guess this is some sort of circle of life thing where you'd have to expect that WoW only exists because my generation grew up with D&D and now it's time to for WoW to return the favor.
The first time you see the influence in the PHB is when they start talking about character "roles". They've defined four: defender (cue Crow T. Robot saying "It's not
a tank."), striker, controller, and leader. They explicitly describe how each role works in combat and it's a tag on each class - fighters are defenders, clerics are leaders and so forth. In fact they explicitly set out the "classic party" with a fighter (defender), cleric (leader), rogue (striker), and wizard (controller). I think this change is positive really. Putting this explicit focus up front means it's easy to see how each class works and you can see where it helps both a player understand their role and helped the designers really reinterpret each class and "focus the beam" as it were.
The next thing a reader will notice is all of the powers. Everyone has a big stack of powers, no matter their class. Fighters have special attacks they use instead of the "basic melee" attack. Rogues have funky moves where they can move during the attack, or trip their target or force them to move or whatever. Wizards can cast a Magic Missile every round of combat
if they want. The basic melee attack is pretty much something that somebody only does if it's because they were doing something else
that includes a basic attack. Everything is broken up into "At-Will" powers (which can be used every round), "Encounter" powers (usable once per fight), and "Daily" powers (once per day, naturally). Somewhere around here a WoW player will envision a toolbar with powers and recharge timers on it. Again I think this is a great addition. Sure they didn't even bother to file the serial numbers off the WoW implementation, but that's OK. It cleans up so much stuff, it's worth it. Paladins Lay On Hands? That's a power. Wizard casting Acid Arrow? (Melf apparently got demoted. Poor out some CLW potion for the homies!) That's another power. Cleric's Turn Undead? Yep, a power. It makes everything in D&D work in one framework for really the first time ever. But the fact that all of these Powers now have the same structure means one finely honed game mechanic lets everyone do their stuff. Paladins still play completely different from Wizards, but it's not because they have unique game mechanics it's because they have different stats and powers. This means it's possible to grab a character sheet, skim it quickly and nod. You're ready to go and play the game. It doesn't require memorizing your class description so you know how all of your special exceptions work. You still have exceptions but they are all listed as Powers (well, or as Feats, but still. It's standardized.)
So, I really like the new rules. From that perspective the PHB is a great success. It' not necessarily that much of a gripping read, but I've read much dryer and less readable gaming rulebooks. I don't think I'd recommend reading the whole thing straight through unless you plan on playing, but it's organized more as a reference than a linear read.
I haven't actually played yet
with the PHB (but we are Thursday! Huzzah!), but I have done some character creation/review work with it and it seems well laid out. I've already begun to be able to say "OK, for that we'll need to look at the XP chart, which is over here (flip to roughly the right spot)."
If you're curious about 4e, you might find enough of interest in the PHB to own a copy. If you're playing or even thinking of playing it's definitely worth acquiring. There's a nice "gift set" you can get if you want the DMG and Monster Manual
as well which comes with all three hardovers in a slipcover case.