With D&D 4th Edition launching today, there’ll be lots of places where you can read general reviews and discussion about the nitty-gritty of the rules, but I have a hunch that there won’t be many sites other than Gnome Stew talking about the three core books — Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual — specifically from a GMing perspective.

That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing here for players, though, especially in the PHB section. Anyone interested in reading a detailed first-impression review of the 4e core books should find useful stuff here.

Now that I’ve finished my crying jag over the tragic, inexcusable absence of gnomes from the PHB (sniff) — and spent several hours with the core books — I’m ready to share my first impressions in the hopes that they’ll be useful to you.

Just in case: SPOILERS AHEAD. If you don’t want to read about the 4e books in detail, stop here!

Mercifully Brief Setup

So you know where I’m coming from: I’ve been playing D&D since I was introduced to the red box back in 1989, and GMing it since I bought my set of AD&D 2nd Edition books that same year. D&D has a special place in my heart (cue romantic music), and that’s been true no matter what the edition — it’s not perfect, it hasn’t always been my favorite RPG at any given time, but it’s got something no other game has ever quite matched for me.

I’ve been living in a 4e bubble for the past several months, carefully allowing in tidbits every so often but remaining largely in the dark (one of my friends refers to this as my “4e hymen”). I haven’t read the leaked PDFs, nor was I one of the lucky few who got the books early. I bought the books today so I could enjoy forming my own first impressions — and enjoy sharing them with you.

Initial Impressions

The gift set: I opted for the slipcased giftset. I love slipcases, it’ll be handy for transport and it didn’t cost any extra. I’m glad this was an option at launch.

Quality: Physically, these are great books. Nicely bound, good pages and I love the matte/shiny effect on the covers.

Layout: The layout makes me think of a programming guide — I felt like I was reading a book about learning HTML or PHP. That’s not a bad thing! It’s a bit dry, but it’s easy to find stuff, boxed text is handled nicely and — best of all — the type is larger and white space is used better than in the 3.5e books. These are easy books to read, and they look like they’ll be equally easy to reference.

Artwork: WotC has a history of using great artists, and the core books continue that trend. At first, I thought the books felt light on art, but flipping back through my 3.5e core books, it’s about the same — but 4e uses its artwork better, focusing on full-color splash pages and dramatic pieces. The neatest thing for me is that all the art depicts stuff that looks like fun and feels like what you do in a D&D game; it’s well-matched and evocative. And that splash page in the PHB? Man, does that make me want to play D&D.

Player’s Handbook

Structure: This is one of the best laid-out books for players I’ve ever seen. It flows from a short but very informative introduction to the new D&D (points of light, etc.) and the usual basics (notable exception to the usual: describing the GM’s role well) into how to create your character and what all the stuff involved means in play. It’s incredibly newbie-friendly, which should make introducing new players to the game easier.

Classes take up almost half the book, which sounds like a lot until you consider that everything you need for a class is right there in its section. Playing a wizard? All your spells are powers now, and all your powers are in the wizard class section — no more flipping around the book. This is awesome.

Classes are followed by skills and feats (there are a LOT of the latter, though with streamlined descriptions), then equipment and — drum roll, please — magic items. Yes, the thing your players were always borrowing your DMG to look at before is right there where it should be: in the PHB. I can see this being controversial if you want to maintain a veil of secrecy over magic items in your campaign, but most campaigns I’ve been involved in don’t work this way even if you want them to. I favor the simplicity of putting magic items in the PHB.

Sections on adventuring, combat and rituals round out the book. The adventuring chapter does a nice job of explaining not only the kinds of things the PCs will be doing (and making them sound like fun), but also outlining advancement and the general structure D&D proposes for adventures. Combat is a bear — there’s a lot of information here, and a ton of options.

The combat chapter is laid out very well, though, and it does a good job breaking down the copious amount of stuff involved into manageable chunks and making it all easy to find. But if you were hoping for a lighter approach than 3.5e, you’ll be disappointed — it’s highly tactical, grid-driven and detail-oriented. More about that later.

Layout: The format for powers is very easy to understand, and things like racial abilities are broken out much better than they were in 3.5e. Overall, the layout is clean, tidy and transparent — all good things, IMO.

Solid simplifications: A lot of extraneous crap gets simplified, including:

  • Hit points: You gain a fixed number each level, and start with more.
  • Skills: You don’t buy ranks, you just use 1/2 level as your main bonus, with +5 if you’re trained in the skill.
  • An even more unified d20 mechanic: Nearly every roll is d20 + 1/2 level + modifiers.
  • Saves as AC: Instead of rolling to save vs. something, the attacker/effect rolls against your defense — a wizard’s spell might be Intelligence vs. Reflex, for example).
  • Criticals: No roll to confirm (thank god), you just do max damage.

If you’ve read the Saga Star Wars rules, a lot of that should sound familiar.

Progression: There’s one chart for ALL classes. That’s right: one chart. Everyone gets the same basic benefits at the same levels, with their individual classes determining what they can choose and what specific benefits are involved.

Powers: If you’ve seen or used the Book of Nine Swords, you know how much fun that approach to powers and abilities is in play: You can do stuff all the time. In 4e, every class works that way.

Characters get a mix of at-will (use any time, usually only 1/round), per-encounter (once per encounter, they come back after a short rest) and daily (once per day) powers. Cool stuff you do all the time is in the first two categories; crazy powerful stuff you save for boss battles is in the latter. (Weird shit no one ever memorized except under special circumstances now = rituals. Yay!)

My take? This is the single biggest, most impactful change to the whole game, period. It’s also the single change that will increase the amount of fun your players have at the table the most — it’s that important. As a player, you don’t have to fret about burning up your cool powers before fighting the Big Bad; as a GM, you’ll know your players will have ammo for every fight — and that no one will get bored or frustrated over saving/not saving their powers.

Combat: There are fewer types of action (just standard, move, minor and free); grapple now = grab, and it makes sense and doesn’t blow goats; diagonal movement works the same way as lateral movement; attacks of opportunity remain, although as “opportunity attacks” (yay!) and rolled into the broader category of opportunity actions — these and other logical simplifications look like they’ll streamline combat.

That said, without actual play I have to say combat doesn’t look all that different. Playing without a battlemat sounds like a nightmare (and snips a lot of the enjoyable complexity out of the tactical options built into each class), and I can still see how 4e combats could take a long time — though maybe not as long as the several rounds = several hours timeframe of 3.5e. I was hoping for a combat chapter that made battlemat use less mandatory and combat seem like it would faster than 3.5, and this doesn’t look like either of those things. This is the hardest aspect of the PHB to get a good bead on just by reading it, so I’ll leave it at that — I could be 100% wrong.

Little stuff: I’m sure I missed a lot of stuff in my first pass, but overall I see a lot of small refinements. For example, you’re assumed to be passively taking 10 with any skill where that would make sense, like perception skills. Little stuff like this adds up, and speaks of the attention the designers put into this puppy.

The video game thing: Based on preview material, a lot of folks online have said that 4e sounds like World of Warcraft. After two hours with the PHB (and about 400 hours of WoW), I can say that this is a fair comparison: There are a lot of elements of 4e that have a video game feel to them, many of which I’ve talked about already.

This is a very good thing.

Why? Because WoW and games like it do some things very well, and some of what they do well translates nicely to tabletop play. For instance, the 4e PHB suggests two basic builds for each class; WoW is all about obsessing over character builds. But you know what? From what I’ve seen over the past several years with 3.0 and 3.5e, so is D&D. Lots of people make characters this way, and while it’s not for everyone it makes a great point of entry for new players.

Ditto with roles. Each class has a broad role: leader, defender, controller or striker. They have no mechanical effect on the game, but they offer useful shorthand that says “Play me if this aspect of combat sounds like fun.” And, incidentally, they map pretty well to classes in WoW, and the way classes interact in major battles (on raids, for example). But, again: good thing. I like shorthand that helps my players make good decisions about what to play, and gives them an idea of what they might want to focus on throughout the game.

Some of the other similarities are less direct, but I found myself thinking, “Okay, this reminds me of WoW” a number of times while reading the PHB. The way powers work (almost like cooldowns…), how abilities interlock, the ability to retrain (swap out) abilities you don’t want anymore every level, etc. And every time, I wasn’t bothered by the similarities — most of the time, I liked them. I reserve final judgment until I’ve played the game, but in terms of first impressions I came away pleased with the WoW-like aspects of 4e.

Dungeon Master’s Guide

Well fuck my ass: I sat down to start the DMG, and was literally shocked several times in the first few pages. You know what I’ve never gone to past DMGs for? Advice on dungeon mastering. Why? Because they’ve all sucked in that department. The 4e DMG is a complete departure: It’s a DMG that’s actually going to be useful, especially for first-time GMs.

Very first page: “It’s just as vital for everyone at the table to cooperate toward making the game fun for everyone as it is for the player characters to cooperate within the adventure.

Third page: “It’s not the DM’s job to entertain the players and make sure they have fun. Every person playing the game is responsible for the fun of the game.”

Those three sentences right there are more and better GMing advice than I’ve gotten from the 2e, 3.0 and 3.5e DMGs combined.

And the first section doesn’t stop there — it continues with practical, experience-based, real world, useful, first-time-GM friendly, foundation level GMing advice. Exactly what should have been in past DMGs and never has. If a new GM asked me to recommend a book that would teach her the basics, I’d hand her the 4e DMG.

Hell, part of why I started my first GMing blog, Treasure Tables, and part of why I started Gnome Stew, was because there’s not nearly enough of this kind of practical, straightforward GMing advice in mainstream RPG books — D&D, up until now, being one of the worst offenders.

The hits keep on coming: Guidelines for how to spend your prep time wisely, broken down hour by hour? Check. Advice about recaps, connecting character backgrounds, keeping different types of player interested, allowing time for socializing and a myriad of other stuff we all deal with every day at the gaming table? Check, check, check check check.

The first 33 pages of the book are absolutely packed with useful GMing advice on a range of topics, written in an easygoing style that makes GMing sound challenging and fun while giving you lots of tools to help you run any RPG — not just D&D — well. And again, that’s doubly true if it’s your first time in the GM’s chair.

Pound for pound, I’d put those first 33 pages up against any other GMing advice section in any other gaming book and expect them to do quite well. You may not agree with 100% of it, but this is required reading. I’m thrilled and surprised (still in shock!) to find required reading for GMs in the 4e DMG.

Artwork and layout: Everything I said about the PHB holds true here, too. I love that the crystal ball on the cover shows the scene from the cover of the PHB; that’s a nice touch. The interior art, especially the splash pages that introduce each chapter, is some of my favorite gaming art ever. Taken collectively, it’s cohesive despite being done by many different artists, and boy does it evoke D&D — I want to know more about the people and places depicted, which feels right for artwork in a book about GMing.

Alternating genders: Not just he, not “We say he but mean everyone,” not he and she, not he/she (or worse yet, s/he), just the most logical approach: Use one gender in one discrete chunk of text (like a paragraph), the other in the next, etc. Thank you.

Combat: The combat chapter offers up advice on weird environments (aerial, underwater, etc.) and special cases, as well as more general tips for running combat well — including practical stuff like using initiative cards. In a game as focused on combat as D&D 4e is, it’s entirely appropriate for this to be right up front after the general advice; it’s a good spot for this chapter.

Combat encounters: Especially as a GM who always hated building and attempting to balance encounters in 3.0 and 3.5e, I dig this chapter. Why? Because it makes that a lot easier. Instead of CRs, you build combat encounters much more simply: a challenging encounter for 4 PCs of 7th level is 4 monsters of 7th level. Mixing and matching isn’t much harder, and there are guidelines for doing it well. It still sounds like more work than I’d prefer, but that might not be borne out by actual play.

Monsters also get roles, just like PCs: artillery, controller, brute, lurker, minion, skirmisher and soldier. As with PC roles, these roles give you, the GM, an idea of what each kind of monster can and should be doing in combat. They really shine a bit further on, in the section on encounter templates, which gives you groups like “commander and troops” broken down by roles with examples for easy, standard and hard fights vs. this group. Good stuff.

Noncombat encounters: This section takes one of the most boring things about 3.x — making umpteen climb checks to scale a cliff, and then possibly dying when you miss the last one — and fleshes it out into something fun: skill challenges. The basic subsystem is achieving X number of successes before Y number of failures, but the real meat is in the advice and examples for rolling multiple skills into each extended challenge.

In the first example, a negotiation with a powerful NPC, uses for Bluff, Diplomacy, Insight, History and Intimidate are all spelled out, with consequences and tips for each one. This isn’t revolutionary stuff, but it’s solid. I’ve never built encounters like this, but I can see how they’d be fun to design as well as fun to play — they have a firm underlying structure that allows plenty of room for improvisation on both sides of the screen.

Adventures: After puzzles (so-so) and traps and hazards (nicely done, with clear stat blocks for everything) comes a substantial chapter on adventures. Even if you’ve been GMing for years, I predict you’ll find something useful here; I have trouble with structure (I tend to meander), so I got some good advice. As with a lot of the pointers in the DMG, this chapter is especially strong for first-time GMs.

It covers quests and how to use them (quests formalize awarding story XP for completing goals, and give your players easy hooks to grab onto at the start of adventures), and by opening with a bit on published adventures it offers new GMs a good starting point: learn the basics, then design your own stuff. I like that approach.

XP and rewards: No longer do we have to worry about 13.3 encounters per level (did anyone actually do that?) — now the formula is built around 8-10 encounters per level. As a fan of XP by GM fiat, I like that that’s included as an option, as is advice on speeding up or slowing down advancement, and on what that means in terms of real-world playing time.

Milestones are a nice addition: When the PCs do two or more encounters in a row without resting, they gain an action point. Treasure parcels will probably tick some folks off, but I like the idea. Instead of tracking wealth by level or rolling randomly, a parcel for each level 1-30 is presented, with each parcel containing four magic items and six monetary rewards. Give out each of the 10 items/piles of money before the next level, and you’ll stay on track.

Reverse engineering this and considering it in light of the magic item selection from the PHB, I see 4e being less item dependent than 3.0 and 3.5e — a very good thing. I’m playing in a 3rd-20th 3.5e campaign right now, and item management makes my eyes bleed. I’m in favor of anything that cuts down on the importance of gear and the time it takes to deal with it in-game, and 4e looks to have substantially improved on both counts.

Yes, the campaign chapter is solid, too: By this point in the book, I’m getting used to the idea of finding good GMing advice in the DMG. Topics include themes (from dungeon of the week to unfolding prophecies), sub-genres of fantasy, linking adventures, starting small and ending campaigns with a bang.

What makes D&D tick: In one page, the intro to this chapter lays out a broad template for a D&D fantasy world that actually reflects the way people play D&D — and that, looking back at what I’ve read so far in the PHB and DMG, marches in lockstep with the way 4th Edition has been designed. Not only that, but it sounds like a fun outline for a world. It’s followed by solid, if somewhat brief, sections about settlements, weather, the planes and the evil gods that aren’t written up in the PHB.

The best bit? Artifacts. They’re badass, yes, but they also have goals — and the more closely your actions match those goals, the more badass they are for the PC bearing them. Each artifact has a simple chart and subsystem for determining its concordance; the higher the concordance, the more stuff the artifact does. If the score gets too low, it abandons you.

Crunchy bits: The DMG wraps up with monster design rules and templates, a mixed bag section on NPCs (great: the Seven-Sentence NPC approach resurrected; not so great: still too many steps to stat up a simple NPC; decent: a quickie breakdown for each class) and a hodgepodge of short bits about random dungeons and encounters.

Fallcrest: Ending on a high note, you get a complete town, Fallcrest, suitable for starting PCs (including a beautiful map and key NPC stats); a writeup of the Nentir Vale, the area Fallcrest is in; and one of the dungeons in that area. At 23 pages, this is a great resource.

Size matters not: This is a slim book, 224 pages to the MM’s 288 and the PHB’s 320, but I don’t feel cheated. There are sections that could be longer, but the most important stuff is there and done well, and the less useful sections tend to be appropriately brief. On the whole, this is a great book for D&D GMs as well as GMs in general.

Monster Manual

Layout: New monster, new page. There was a huge divide among D&D players about this when 3.0 came out; I’ve always been solidly one the new monster, new page side — it’s just easier to find what you need, and on balance it tends to mean longer entries for each monster. I’m glad they went this route for the MM.

Artwork: It’s awesome (surprise!), and more importantly there’s a picture of every creature. I hate monster books that don’t do this. Not only that, there are pictures of most of the sub-entries (types of ice archon, for example). The couple of pieces I saw that were reused from 3.x books, while good, irritated me a bit.

Stat blocks: The proof is in the playing with stat blocks, but my impression is that the new format is excellent. It follows the same approach used for class powers, with good use of background shading, no wasted space and a simple, consistent structure. New and welcome are the little graphical icons for attack type: melee, close, ranged, area and melee and ranged basic attacks.

I never liked any of the various stat blocks used from 3.0 to 3.5e, so departures from that style work well for me. Remember how stat block lines a monster didn’t use (special qualities, let’s say) still appeared in their blocks? No longer the case; now if it’s not needed, the line is gone. Lessons Were Learned, and all that, and I think this MM will be much easier to use during play than its predecessors.

Great monster mix!: This is is the best introductory collection of D&D monsters yet. Here’s why: There are no dumb monsters; while many creatures have sub-entries, they don’t feel like filler; all the iconics are there; there’s a bias toward land- and dungeon-based critters, with fewer dud water beasties; very few animals (no druid, no need for most of them); and no templates (better saved for another book, IMO).

There are about a dozen monsters that were new to me, and all of the classic D&D creatures — from dragons, devils and kuo-toa to gelatinous cubes, carrion crawlers and mind flayers — are present. That seems like a good balance for the first MM.

Abominations: The tarrasque has cousins. Very cool.

Gnomes!: Gone from the PHB, but here in the MM — in two places, actually. They have a monster-style entry (as do all the major races) in the main section, and a racial writeup at the back (same format as the PC race writeups). You can use any of the writeups in that section to make NPCs and PCs using those races, but there’s a caution that their powers are more in line with monsters than they are PCs. I’d rather have had gnomes in the PHB than eladrin, but I like tieflings and dragonborn — and it’s not that hard to just use these stats. Everyone will feel differently about the PC races that made the cut, but overall I like the mix, even (sacrilege, I know!) sans gnomes.

Recharge ability: Dragon breath is the iconic example of a monster ability that is only usable every few rounds, and that’s been formalized and broadened to include lots of monsters this time around. If a power has the recharge property, you roll a d6 every turn and compare it to the number(s) shown on the cute dice icons in the stat block; if you get one of those numbers, it’s recharged. That could be pointless busywork or it could inject a fun level of luck into combat encounters.

DR is gone: I always found 3.5e DR too fussy, and I’m glad to see its been replaced by a line for immune/resist/vulnerable. One more fiddly notation you don’t have to monitor in 4e.

The absence of flavor: I miss the longer fluff in the AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendiums. For me, it helped bring out the world and ground me in the setting and flavor of the game, even if it wasn’t always directly useful. 3.0 and 3.5e largely eschewed flavor in favor of more crunchy, directly useful stuff like tactics, and 4e goes that route as well. Sure, there’s a lore section (an Arcana role to find out tidbits about the monster) and a brief intro, but that’s it.

Especially for major, iconic monsters like orcs, I’d love to have seen culture and roleplaying tips included (we can skip breeding habits and the average number of orc babies available for slaughter per village). I’m probably in the minority on this one, and in any case the PTB at WotC have decided that when it comes to monsters, quantity + crunch > flavor.

That said, the artwork is so consistently good and evocative that this bothers me less than it otherwise might.

Closing Thoughts

Physical design and layout: The more I handled the books, the more I liked their exterior design — the dramatic Wayne Reynolds covers, the matte/shiny effect and the fantastic locations illustrated on the back of each book just worked for me. And the more I read, the more I liked the slightly bland interior layout; I’ll take bland and highly functional before over-designed and fussy any day.

As a GM: You will have an easier time GMing this than 3.0 or 3.5e. Anyone, player or GM, frustrated by the focus on bookkeeping or the need to metagame every combat to decide what abilities to use — both keystones of 3.5e — will be pleased by the changes in 4e. If you liked the Book of Nine Swords or Saga Star Wars, chances are you’ll dig 4e, too.

Overall, 4e looks excellent: I was excited about 4e’s release, but after slowly souring on 3.5e I was nervous that the new edition wouldn’t live up to my expectations. It did, and it exceeded them across the board. I was most surprised by the usefulness of the DMG and most pleased by the structure of the PHB — and the implementation of at-will, per-encounter and daily powers, which will completely change the way the game is played and the level to which your players enjoy it.

Man, that was a fun way to spend launch night! I’m dead tired, but I’m glad I did this. Writing about my first impressions encouraged me to look closely at all the books and think about them critically, and hopefully you got some benefit out of my noodling.