My review of the books.
I'm still digesting alot of it. But I can make these statements. The books are startling. That is the best way I can describe them. That is both good and bad to some, I think it is all good.
1. They are startlingly beautiful. Maybe that isnt the most useful comment for a game book. But they are. They are very cleanly laid out.
2. They are startlingly useful. Their layout format is so easy to use it is amazing. These books were designed to be used to answer your question at the game table during play. No more 10 minute breaks to flip through the PHB. Literally, it takes 2 seconds to find the answer to "hey, does he have cover" or "can I do that with my acrobatics skill" or "what does XXX do?"
3. They are startlingly well organized. The 4E designers were not afraid to change things. They put magic items in the PHB, for instance. Having the powers by class also makes them more easy to reference. And there are nice sidebar "headers" on each page that say which class you are looking at to make it clear where you are in the book. Stuff is more where it should be. There is little to no flipping between books for answers. The DMG is more advice and adventure prep and stuff like that. The PHB is what you need to run the game.
4. They are startlingly unashamed in the changes they made. This is where the books, at first glance, will bother people who are predisposed to not liking 4E. The books dont at first glance seem "comfortable and similar and familiar." They used a new layout and new organization. Looking back on all the PHBs since the first AD&D PHB the format has been about the same. This one changes it all up. And that first impression is a bit startling. Plus, some of the new stuff is front and center. Heck, dragonborn are the first player race. The first bit of art in the book, starting from teh first page, is a dragonborn. That is new content. They dont try to ease you into it. I have said in the past, they didnt just kill sacred cows, they hung their carcass in the store windo--but I think this is a good thing. If you are going to make changes, dont %+%+* foot around the issue, jump in and do it. And that is what they did. I firmly believe that if people want to not like 4E, there is enough there on first glance to support their fears, BUT once you look past that first layer, you will see this is not only D&D, its is better and better organized and all the changes are improvements.
5. There are a few startling omissions. I still cant find a justification for leaving out a druid and a bard. I can see leaving out sorcerer (that was a 3E add on anyway) and monk (not that mainstream anyway, and has a particular flavor that has always clashed a bit with mainstream high fantasy) and the barbarian. But the druid and bard really should have been there. Of course, all that means is that we can create that content for you.
6. Monsters are startling simple and awesome. Dragons are back. They are rad. They are easy to create and modify. Gone are the multi-hour prep sessions for DMs. My only gripe is that a few powers should be more deadly. I think they went overboard the other way in removing save or die powers. But, again, that just lets me provide the alternate rules. I may question a few of their choices--like, why do I need a couple of the lame monsters that are new but you wont give me the iconic iron golem, for instance. But those gripes are few.
7. The game is both startlingly complex and startlingly simple. This is not Basic D&D. It has a lot of options, but those options are surprisingly managable.
8. The books are startlingly fat-free. They are 99% crunch, 1% fluff, if that. They are not for reading anymore. Remember the days you might crack the DMG for a list of suggested reading and to get some fun gygaxian flavor and musings. That is gone. These books are purely designed for game use at the game table. Period. I thought I knew what all crunch, no fluff was, but then I saw these books. These are all crunch, no fluff. I think it is a bold move, but, like many of the above, it will contribute to people who are predisposed to not like 4E to say "this doesnt feel right with me." But if you look past those things, this is D&D.
Bottom line: this is the best designed set of D&D books ever. The MM is awesome. The stuff you need to run the game is in the PHB and is organized so it is really useful at the table. And the DMG truly offers help for the DM in a way we have never seen before.
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