Player’s Handbook 2 Review: The Bardening

Table of Contents

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.

The Races

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.

Character Options

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!

20 thoughts on “Player’s Handbook 2 Review: The Bardening”

  1. “I do not believe that every new class needs to be equally deadly. They can all be deadly certainly, and I think it is a little juvenile to have to have the baddest mo’fo’ in the game, I like interesting characters over powerful characters. As a DM it is my responsibility to ensure that all encounters are as challenging as appropriate and that everybody has fun playing their character. Ultimately, the details of the system take a back seat to roleplaying, and roleplaying is about playing a character, whatever his strengths or weaknesses, and trying to negotiate the world and challenges he faces. I’d rather play an interesting character than an awesome character.”

    @gull2112: Hear, hear! There have been power-obsessed players for as long as the hobby has existed, but I think the social dynamic has been skewing increasingly that direction as more and more players enter the tabletop RPG pool through their experiences with MMORPGs. With direct GM intervention at a minimum in MMORPGs, the experience is necessarily mechanics driven rather than story driven. Sure, it’s possible for players to agree to conduct storylines among themselves, but the ability to make a real impact on the environment always starts — and almost always ends — with a player’s ability to game the system.

    To make matters worse, the repetitive grind of accumulating wealth/power by doing the same activities over and over (the faster the better) magnifies the effect of every tiny little advantage players can eke out for themselves. e.g.: A +5% to-hit in a table-top game (where it should give no one pause if you swing your sword exactly ten times all evening) is nice, but that’s only a 50/50 chance it’ll change the outcome of even one die roll that night. In an MMORPG, on the other hand, where you might swing your sword twenty times in a minute? You could land 100 extra blows with that +5% before the tabletop players agree on where to order pizza.

    Likewise, the “equally deadly” thing came hand-in-hand with the MMORPG influence. It’s a huge deal for factions to argue back and forth about “game balance”, which they invariably define as, “no one else can best us in combat — at least not with any frequency”. First one side cries foul; then the other side taunts it as a bunch of cry-babies; then the admins tweak the programming; then the side that had an advantage screams, “We’ve been nerfed! I don’t know why we even play this stupid game!”; then the balance of power shifts and another faction starts screaming bloody murder about the unfairness of life and of no-good, weasely game admins.

    Anyway, the point is that we’ve got this whole wave of fresh blood into tabletop role-playing that doesn’t understand yet that as soon as you’re sitting down face-to-face with a game master, the whole nature of the activity changes. The GM can kill their 523rd-level, 65-strength warrior demigod as effortlessly as he can kill a 1st-level peasant farmer. There just aren’t any Joneses to keep up with anymore, so a player might as well ease up and enjoy the unfolding, highly personalized story and the company of his friends — because if all he wants is to prove his imaginary-martial-prowess, there are much, much better battlefields to prove it on these days.

  2. @Jeremy: Beast form doesn’t affect your movement rate or type. There is a paragon path for bird shifters that provides some limited flight but it didn’t impress me.

    I agree with you about limiting the options. Some DMs feel pressured that when a new race or class comes out they need to allow it, not so! I’m running a germanic/slavic style of game right now so shifters fit right in, devas not so much but it is my right as the DM to make that call.

  3. I’ve had PHB2 for a few days. I’ve not made a character — not on paper, at least, although I’ve worked through pieces and parts of builds in my head. Anyway, I like what I see. I agree that the Goliaths are a little flat as presented, but it’s the job of DMs and players to add life to what’s on the page. I don’t see any of these races or classes as being canon, per se — that is, I don’t feel like I need to use any of them. That’s for our gaming group to decide. I’d wager that we’ve all run games in which certain classes and races were off limits for players, or absent entirely. I think the Points of Light world concept, as opposed to a more formal setting as default in the core books, facilitates this flexible approach. In short, if you don’t like the class or race or feat, simply don’t use it.

    That said, I do agree that the Druid could use some higher damage values for the at-will attacks, and could benefit from more ranged attacks. Otherwise, I think it’s a fine class…how about a human druid, with 4 at-will powers? The only lingering question I have about the druid is how it states that beast form does not change the PCs movement possibilities…what if you transform into a hawk? Or did I miss that sentence?

    I think PHB2 is a fine addition of options to the game. It’s like adding another table or two worth of food to the buffet.

    Although I still hate bards.

  4. All this bard-talk sparked a random cool idea: I think I’ll make a bard based on Leonard Cohen. Not sure if he’ll be a PC or NPC, but he will totally be the shiznit.

  5. Just a side note, I was really sure Yax was going to change my title on this one. I’m thrilled he didn’t. Maybe someday we’ll get the sequel, “The Re-Bardening”

  6. I should add that I really like the backgrounds stuff because it adds a little strucure to an otherwise very open ended aspect of the game, Sure a player can choose his past, but what in-game benefits are reasonable? This gives an idea of what a player can expect from a background advantage and this empowers me to make more consistent game balanced calls. Is it neccessary? No. Is it helpful? Hugely!

  7. @Bartoneus: It’s true, I did write that. And then the first thing I talk about is the backgrounds which essentially offer an absolutely free bonus to groups using the PHB2.

  8. My only disappointment with the PHB2 is that there is no monk class. It is my favorite class and since Star Wars Saga I have been saying that this system screams for a fantasy monk class.

    That being said, I think the power creep is kept in check, if not absent. I am underwhelmed by some of the new races, but that isn’t that big a deal. I like the new primal power source and the new controller classes.

    I do not believe that every new class needs to be equally deadly. They can all be deadly certainly, and I think it is a little juvenile to have to have the baddest mo’fo’ in the game, I like interesting characters over powerful characters. As a DM it is my responsibility to ensure that all encounters are as challenging as appropriate and that everybody has fun playing their character. Ultimately, the details of the system take a back seat to roleplaying, and roleplaying is about playing a character, whatever his strengths or weaknesses, and trying to negotiate the world and challenges he faces. I’d rather play an interesting character than an awesome character.

  9. I thought the melee training was another take on weapon finesse, but allowing any other ability score instead of just Dex. So maybe the wizard demigod gets his +10 bonus to basic melee attacks, a warrior type who is already using strength would have that regardless. It feels more like a math correction so that opportunity attacks for non-strength classes aren’t pathetic later in the game. Sure it can be broken, but i think the more mundane uses for it balance out the risks of a player looking to exploit a mechanic.

  10. I want to point out that while at the heroic tier, taking the melee training feat may only mean “+3 to basic melee attacks instead of just a +1 or +0”, by the time you reach epic tier that is no longer the case because as a character levels up, he or she gets +1 to two ability scores several times. So assuming that she doesn’t invest those +1s to ability scores in strength, the difference would be more like +7 vs. +1 by level 28. As much difference as attacking with or without a magic item, coincidentally.

    And this is not a character that optimizes this feat’s potential. A demigod who puts 18 into an ability score other than strength and has a racial bonus in that score could make the difference +10 vs. +1.

    Also, I agree with Nicholas, the feat just doesn’t make sense! Why on earth would a warlock’s toughness make him better at using a dagger? I can see a lot of people houseruling this feat out.

  11. I actually agree, but this isn’t an example of Power Creep, it’s a possible example of math correction in game design. The nice thing is that if you don’t like it, you can just let players take the feat for free or give them a flat +1 bonus to hit.

    My only argument is that you started the Character Options part of this post with “Power Creep, ahoy!” and I think that’s a gross over-exaggeration.

  12. @Steve V: I just started a campaign with a sorcerer, bard and barbarian. So far the bard seems about on par healing-wise with a warlord, but it has only been one session.

    @Bartoneus: I suppose it is not a big deal, but personally I don’t like it when a feat becomes a must take for every character. I like feats to say something interesting about the character, if everyone has to take weapon/implement mastery too keep up then it doesn’t actually mean anything.

  13. I think I may one of the few that is still disappointed with the bard. To me it looks like it really is still more of a support character than an actual primary character. In a small group, it cannot take the place of the healing abilities of the cleric nor does it seem to have the command of the warlord. This is unfortunate because I was really looking forward to playing one soon. I do think the bard will be a great support character in large groups where you will not have to depend on him/her as your primary leader.

    On the other hand, I’m rocking with the shaman. I’ve already started developing alternative spirits and their powers so I think this will definitely rock.

    The druid, sorcerer, and barbarian are still cool and I look forward to playing around with these builds.

    I haven’t had much time to look at the warden but I get a more militaristic druid feel to it than anything else.

    The invoker and avenger are interesting, but seem more developed towards the I’m infused with my god’s power feel my wrath type of thing.

    I’m happy with the gnome and half-orc races. The shifters look like fun to play. The deva and the goliath do absolutely nothing for me. But I’ll let people play them in my campaign.

    The rest of the book I thought was good, especially the background section, which gives people more ideas on how to flesh out their character. I was a little disappointed that there really wasn’t more mundane equipment, but oh well.

    Overall I am extremely happy with the product and glad I purchased it.

  14. Sorcerers rule. That is all. I could go on and on in an endless diatribe or soliloquy as to why sorcerers are such a fun (and cheap) class to play. Granted it lacks the flexibility of Wizards (but heck, once you know your spells, you can pwn the tile board like there’s no tomorrow), but the innate abilities and Draconic heritage (or so they say) put sorcerers over any other class in terms of burst damage. I’m so glad they added them in PHB2.

  15. My greatest concern as a DM is the races and how they’ll play (or have skill challenges simply done away with the ‘need’ to role play anymore?)
    Where deva’s, gnomes and goliaths may be interesting new races, they strike me as woefully one dimensional for role playing opportunities. I see the biggest obsticle in the multiples scenario ie. 3 deva’s sitting and blinking while remaining motionless, 3 gnomes seeing who can go unnoticed the longest or 3 goliaths challenging each other right out of town. Of course, each of these scenarios can be counter balanced by the player who plays his deva as ‘the animated’ one, the outgoing, obtrusive gnome and the goliath with self control while he’s in the town but I’m afraid those will become cliche all too quickly! Does anyone else see this as a possible problem?
    By the way, my players all love the new PHB2, go figure!

  16. I thought the same thing at first, but then I did the math. With an Avenger/Rogue/Daggermaster using Bloodiron Daggers (+1d10 per plus crit damage, property: do crit damage AGAIN on your next turn), with the crit range of 18-20 at epic levels it gets insane. Combine that with Half-Elf, take Twin Strike as your delittante power and make it at-will, and you see a max of 400ish damage for an at-will power (using oath of emnity). The difference is the 18-20 crit range combined with the double attack rolls, a lot of people think it’s a broken build (I’m not convinced it is yet).

    So you don’t think classes are showing power creep, which I agree with you on, but you didn’t really argue my point that the PHB2 feats really AREN’T power creeping. A +3 to basic melee attacks instead of just a +1 or +0? Big deal?

    My overall argument is that the PHB2 doesn’t really present much power creep, a VERY small amount maybe, but that’s going to happen with increased options and combinations which has been one of the fun parts of D&D in both 3E and 4E.

  17. I don’t think the classes are overpowered. They play with some new mechanics but I don’t think it unbalances anything.

    The avenger gets to make two attack rolls, making him more likely to hit than a rogue of equal level but if the rogue has sneak attack (which he almost always should) he does a lot more damage on a hit. An avenger could multiclass rogue to get the daggermaster crit range. However, it would cost him feats and he would be restricted to using daggers for that bonus. Daggers do awful damage, rogues make up the difference with sneak attack but an avenger wouldn’t have that.

    The half-elf thing is a feat, so still falling under my original complaint. It seemed overpowered to me at first but when I thought about it nothing that useful sprang to mind. Maybe someone could point something out to me.

    Yeah, the warden mark everyone but it doesn’t last. If an enemy wants to spend a turn to walk over and beat up the wizard, there is little the warden can do. His mark will wear off and he would need to break away from his other foes to catch the wanderer. That seems like a personally reasonable trade off to me.

  18. I’m shocked that you would call out the feats section for power creep without looking at the new classes as a better example. The Melee Training feat allows you to use whatever stat you want for Melee Basic Attacks, which isn’t that big of a difference in gameplay and is roughly along the same lines as other feats (like ones that add to AC vs. Opp Attacks, this is just the opposite). Also, a lot of people complain that the +1 weapon/implement feats are simply math correction (and should not cost a feat), not sure if I agree with them but a universal +1 to hit isn’t much of a power creep either.

    Now if you look at the new mechanics presented by the classes, while I don’t personally believe this, there are a lot of factors that others think are insane power creep. The Avenger can roll 2 attack rolls against its oath of emnity, combine that with the weapon mastery feats or daggermaster (18-20) crit range, and you start to get some very large damage ranges. The Half-Elf paragon feat allows them to use their at-will power from another class AS an at-will power, in addition to improving their paragon multi-classing, which opens up a lot of new combinations that people are finding and claiming are broken. The Warden is a defender who can mark EVERY adjacent enemy, though it only lasts until the end of the next turn. Effectively they’re starting to explore new mechanics for the class roles, and this is causing a lot of people to cry out about power creep, but honestly I haven’t heard many people complain about the feats in PHB2 for that reason.

  19. I’m really digging the Avenger class a lot and have imagined this great Deva Avenger that takes advantage of Oath of Enmity and Brutal weapons. Like a complete zealot…but there’s always a twist, isn’t there? That’s what makes good characters better. I wish I had a group to use it in, but as of now, I’m stuck with my Dwarf Cleric…who is equally awesome, if not as zealous.

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