Sunday, August 10, 2014

Player's Handbook

So late week I received my consultant's copy of the new D&D Player's Handbook, and have spent the weekend leafing through it. And (spoilers) it makes me excited about playing D&D.

First off, the nature of my consultancy - I was asked by WotC to serve as a consultant, and provided with a (very) early draft of the rules. And, to be frank, I wasn't very impressed, and said so (I believe I used the word "meh" in my initial review). Not that it was horrible, but that it wasn't very impressive, such that if someone pressed it into my hands and said it was their homebrewed set of rules, or their favorite OSR (Old School Revision/Revival/Renaissance) game, it would have been fine. But from the guys who have taken on the mantle of D&D, it fell a little short.

That was then. Now, the book in my hands is a charming combination of old and new, paying attention to the past without slavish reverence, and, more importantly, moving the dialogue of games forward.

(And yeah, I've said this a number of times, but I think of game design as a dialogue - every new edition or new game in the hobby field has a strong sense of "Yeah, that's OK, but HERE'S how you fix it". It is a conversation, and we expect new editions to be better because they build off of what has gone before).

And yeah, I can see the previous editions peeking through from all the angles, from the foundational work of the first AD&D to the increasing AC of 3rd to the heroic tiers and grid options of 4th. Here is the latest version of the UA's Barbarian and 4th's Warlock. It feels complete. It feels right. This is no basic set, no starter, no "to-be-continued" introduction. It feels whole.

Better yet, it is paying attention to its heritage more than any other edition. While earlier editions leaned heavily on mythology or other writers in the field, this one actually fesses up and admits that yeah, people have been writing D&D novels for 30+ years now, and it quotes from them. And it does not rely on a particular home world exclusively - it moves around in its examples from FR to DL to Eberron to mighty Greyhawk. It talks about the gods of all these places, plus game versions of historical pantheons. It becomes a unifying edition.

And hey, in the back, the Great Wheel of the Planes is back. That makes me both very happy and amused.

The rules are both comfortable for us old grogs as well as trying new things. I like the way they settled on the Proficiency Bonus (there were various versions along the way, as other playtesters will tell you). I think the advantage and disadvantage approach is a sweet way of handling such situations without breaking down into a roster-check of every possible plus or minus that some editions thrived on. Still moving my ancient brain around the idea of using Hit Dice for recovery, but I like it as an attempt to blend the short and long rests into the new game. And the inspiration concept feels like it can trace its roots back through FATE and other indie games.

The presentation is clean and the rules are eminently readable. Sidebars highlight but do not overwhelm. And the entire volume feels like the opening gun for new projects of classes and feats and worlds. There is enough here to show the potential, and get you excited.

I've got a couple gripes, but they are mostly in the graphics end (I will probably come up with more grouses about the mechanics as I put them into play, but that is fairly normal - the art always hits you first). The use of a red logo on a red cover is regrettable. I've never been a fan of full-bleed full-page color art, even when it was 2nd Edition. And the halflings look like bobble-heads more suitable for The Great Khan Game. On the other hand, the armor and outfits tends towards useful as opposed to, um, heroic, and it looks like people can actually go into combat wearing this stuff.

The WotC team set a very high bar for themselves, and released this new edition into a very different landscape than any previous edition. It had to separate itself both from other games as well as lay claim the D&D's heritage. That's pretty tough. But I think the new Player's Handbook shows it can be down, and I look forward to seeing the other core books.

More later,