So it is out now…
The book some of you have been eagerly anticipating. Others have been fretting over what will become of their treasured half-orcs, barbarians and bards. Some of you have just been snickering about it and saying “More like World of Board Game Dungeon-Craft the MMO”. For that third group this will be a very short review. PHB2 is still Fourth Edition, it adds some neat new things but if you didn’t like 4th ed. before, this book is very unlikely to change your mind. For the rest of you, let me break it down into some more detail.
So there are five new races in the PHB2, Deva, Goliath, Shifter and our old friends Gnome and Half-Orc.
Gnome and Shifter are almost identical to their Monster Manual versions so we can set them aside, although they do get some feats and other full race perks. I expect former half-orc players to be pleased with their new incarnation. Half-orcs are still strong, tough and hit hard. Additionally, the classic half-orc barbarian is still a winning configuration. The biggest change to half-orcs actually comes from the fluff, rather than the stats. The designers has chosen to leave some ambiguity about how the half-orc race came to be, offering several possible suggestions. This could be viewed as a political correctness move but the designers have also said that they just don’t think enough orcs or humans would keep a “tainted baby” to make half-orcs a viable race.
We are also introduced to goliaths, sort of dwarves’ big cousins. goliaths are stone covered mini-giants, they are big, tough and make for great melee characters particularly in a defender role. Frankly, they are not that interesting though. It feels like goliaths have a lot of overlap with the other tough-guy races, like dragonborn, dwarves and warforged. Their big distinction is a racial predisposition to turn everything into a competition and “daring that borders on foolhardiness”. That sounds like it could get annoying very quickly.
Despite some old friends returning, devas really steal the show. Stat-wise they are the standard haughty intellectual race, even more so than the eladrin. Background is where they really shine, however, and present something never seen in D&D before. Devas are immortals bound to mortal frames to fight for good. If a deva should die on that mission he or she will be reborn, fully grown into a new body with just a hint of the old memories remaining. If a deva should stray from the path and turn to evil he or she will be reborn as a rakshasa. The idea is that deva have died and been reborn thousands of times, retaining just a bit of their former self each time. It has a very “Avatar: The Last Airbender” vibe to it that I think really works.
Also in the race section we see an old idea reborn. Racial paragon paths for all races in the PHB1 and 2. The overall quality of these paths is very high and I’m sure a number of you will be excited that dragonborn can now get wings as shown in the monster manual.
We simply don’t have the space here to give each class the full exploration it deserves. I’m going to do my best to give a quick run down of each class.
Avenger: divine strikers with a very cool religious fanatic feel to them, exemplified by their paragon path “Zealous Assassin”. They play a lot with movement and location around the battlefield. No one gets away from an avenger who has sworn an oath against them!
Barbarian: some might be disappointed with their striker role. Barbarian have lost some of the toughness that they used to have but in exchange they hit like a ton of bricks. They specialize in temporary hit points, lowering their defenses for more powerful attacks and moving from enemy to enemy. Daily powers are all different rages which couple a strong attack with an ongoing effect and power-up of other abilities.
Bard: a strong leader class that has been upgraded with their jack-of-all-trades and public relations job intact. They can be up front as a dashing swordsman with a songblade or in the back strumming a magical lute, either way they feel like a bard. They get special bard only rituals they can cast once a day for free. They have a unique ability to mark a monster on behalf of another character.
Druid: I consider this the biggest failure of the role system, the beast forms don’t work for me as controllers. Many of the beast attacks are psychic powers to account for moving enemies around or scaring them. Even the beast direct attacks do lower damage than you would expect from vicious bear claws. The spell caster parts work well, they fling around zones of fire, vines, winds and storms and very effectively control the battlefield.
Invoker: very interestingly flavored class, divine characters who aren’t fanatical about a particular god but instead try to support divinity as a whole. True to their controller nature, their attack pile on conditions to their unlucky targets. Most unique are their daily powers to call angels and other conjurations.
Shaman: playing a shaman in combat is really playing two characters, the shaman and his or her spirit companion. In some ways the position of the spirit companion is more important, because many of the shaman’s abilities are channeled through the spirit. Otherwise the shaman is a different sort of leader because powers are more evenly distributed among multiple party members.
Sorcerer: a potent striker, distinct from the warlock in its use of bursts and blasts. They are also not bound to a curse mechanic, they just deal pure damage. Dragon magic offers consistent boons, like damage resistances and armor enhancements. Wild magic, as the name implies, offers similar bonuses with a strong random element thrown in. “Wild Mage” is one of the coolest paragon paths that we’ve seen so far.
Warden: a different kind of defender. They wear lighter armor, balanced out by using alternate abilities for AC and the ability to making saving throws at the start of the turn. Warden offers short term marking that hits everyone in a burst around the character. Warden daily powers are transformations into partial animal or tree forms and provide bonuses throughout the entire encounter.
Power creep, ahoy!
PHB2 reintroduces the concept of backgrounds found in the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide. Players are able to flesh out their character with background options that provide a skill boost, new language or new class skill choices. The trouble is that it offers something for nothing. It is not a huge power increase but a DM should make sure that if one character uses it, they all should.
The feats of PHB2 are mostly devoted to powering up the classes and races found in the PHB2. In that regard they serve their function well. There are a few general purpose feats that raise my eyebrow with power creep. One feat allows a character to substitute any ability score for attack and damage bonuses when making basic attacks. This is a variation of a swordmage feat, which made sense for that class but might be stretched too far here. There’s also a pair of feats that provide a +1 attack bonus when using a specific category of implement or weapon group. I can’t imagine any character not taking one of those feats.
The book also offers a smattering of new magical items. The section is devoted almost exclusively to items only of reasonable use to the new classes. The highlights of the section are the totem implements used by some of the primal classes and the songblades and instruments which are implements to bards.
Additionally, there are new rituals which cater to bards and the primal classes. There are no drastic changed to the ritual content here, although there is an interesting shift towards certain classes getting free rituals.
Do you own the PHB2? Have you made a gnome bard yet? As always, we want to hear it!