Once more, into the breach!
Heroes of the Fallen Lands
Before I delve into it, I want to go into this new "digest" format of the Essentials books. I like it. There is a perception of weightiness to the cut down book that even had Tony impressed. I enjoy the sandy sepia color tone of the books. The font is just a point or two smaller than in a "normal" 4th Edition book (I think, Jeremy could probably get specific on that issue), but the books are definitely a few inches short on the vertical and horizontal axis, and I'm not sure if the smaller font and additional thickness make up for that. I'm not even sure if they need to, these books are sort of a new format for a new style of 4th Edition so I have a hard time guessing how they're breaking everything down and what their new splatbook format will look like. Figuring that out would take more work than I want to put into this. Anyway, I dig the new style. These books are paperback though and despite the built in cover creases to prevent ragged player made creases from being made in them, they probably won't stand up as well to long term use as a hardcover would. (Again, Jeremy might be able to assess that better than I.)
-Rules. There are rules in here for the basic aspects of the game related to what players can do. Healing surges, Grabs, basic attacks, etc. It is in here and laid out in a readable format. Huzzah.
-Character creation. Character creation is broken down in a pretty legible fashion. They're really spamming the "Hey, hey! We have other products with other options you know!" thing. I like the Character Builder and I like buying DnD books, you've won. Chill. The roles are broken down and the basic races and classes are outlined, along with what can be found in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms (which I'll likely grab at some point for giggles and defecations). Anyway, it moves on through the basics in what appears to be a brisk but thorough fashion, outlining skill checks and how to resolve attacks, creating stats and background information. The much maligned (by me!) alignment system is explained, along with the gods of the world. Their evil counterparts are given a brief mention too. Unfortunate limitedness, but 4th Edition has made it abundantly clear that even the hard asses are good guys and nothing you could ever potentially fight will have a good alignment. Why would you? You're the big damn heroes.
-Powers. The section on powers, the types of powers, their use, their targets. Etc, etc, etc, etc. There are about eighteen pages on powers and the basics of how they work and such and it is pretty robust. All the quirks and fiddly bits of the power system are pretty well laid out and explained. The theme of the book, much like the Rules Compendium, seems to be collection, clarification, and updating. (I struggled for a while to find a synonym for updating that had a see so I could make an alliteration, poo.) So everything in here is pretty easily understood and up to date with the current rules. The placement is fitting in the book as well because next come the classes.
-Classes. The four classes (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard) in the book are given brief, paragraph long descriptions.They get into a little bit about paragon paths and epic destinies as well before moving on to the specific class details. I guess I'll break the class section down by the classes in question. The first is the Cleric, but first I want to talk about the newerish format first. The line at the top is the power source and role, which is a good place to start and it kind of makes for a nice three or four line "this is what the class does" and there is also "this class does X as a good secondary role" that you see in some of the more recent handbooks when classes are described. As the descriptions of the class move on we get told the key abilities of the class, what races make good choices for the class, and so on. Before we start getting into actual powers and abilities we're given a few pages of suggestions that start with races and move through feats, equipment, skills, and ability scores. It all seems to be solid, helpful, advice, there if you need it and easy to breeze through if you don't.
-Cleric. Ahem, excuse me, the Warpriest. Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, etc appear to be categories of classes now. Warpriest, Slayer, Knight, etc seem to be the classes. Domains are back, which is cool, I always liked domains. I think they were "back" in an earlier product, Divine Power maybe, not sure. Anyway, I thought domains were cool. I find these...lackluster. The Warpriest can choose powers from the Sun and Storm domain. Fine, good for Pelor and Kord. What about everybody else? Am I supposed to believe that a Warpriest of The Raven Queen would have the sun domain? I'm sure you can find a way to fit one of the two domains with each of the core gods, but it just feels like if they were going to make the whole domain thing a core feature of Warpriests, it should be more robustly presented. After that comes a list of powers and abilities that are pretty much 100% of what I am looking for if I were to want to play a Warpriest. The capabilities of the Warpriest are outlined at each tier of play, along with the powers and features granted to a character via their domain. Ultimately, the Warpriest pretty much operates exactly as the Cleric does.
-Fighter. I like Martial classes and I tend to gravitate towards them for a variety of reasons that won't be explored here. There are two Fighter types in the book, the Slayer and the Knight. The names are incredibly fitting, the Slayer is a striker and the Knight is a defender. I am extremely pleased with what they've done to the Fighter class as a whole. No more daily powers for Fighters that I can see. I love that. Being able to only do your super awesome signature move once a day was/is a stupid limitation for Martial classes. Making a lot of Martial daily powers reliable was even more goofy. That doesn't do much more than say you can fail at it as many times as you want, but you can only successfully do it once. There are still Encounter powers, which make sense to me. Most fights last less than a minute in DnD, if that. It may take the players and DM two hours to finish the fight, but your characters just spent forty seconds or less fighting thirteen kobolds and that isn't a lot of time to be setting up and pulling off sweet moves. The big change is that Fighters primarily attack using Basic Attacks modified by Stances. Stances are chosen at various levels and provide modifiers to your Basic Melee Attacks. You choose a style to fight in and it effects how you attack, I like that. It makes sense to me and it allows the Fighter to differentiate himself from the whole "We're all Wizards!" kind of motif of 4th Edition. I do not enjoy the fact that the Slayer is limited two two-handed axes or two-handed swords and nothing else. Seem like you could effectively slay things with more weapons than those two. The bastard sword is a pretty good option, but requires only one hand to wield. I dunno, I'm sure there will come a point when there are more options for weapon load outs with the Fighter classes. I really enjoy the fact that there are options for Fighters to be Defenders and Strikers.
-Rogues. Rogues are one of my favorite classes, as I said before, I am a fan of Martial classes (regardless of edition). The Thief class has undergone changes similar to those undergone by the Fighter. No more daily powers, but a lot of stuff that modifies what you are doing and what you can do. You have sneak attack and backstab, and I need to look at those for a few minutes before I'll be able to figure out what is going on with them, at first glance they seem like the same thing basically. We'll see. Anyway, it looks like the Thief has Tricks in the same way the Fighters have Stances. Tricks are typically Move Action at wills that modify how the Thief can get to his enemy (or away from him), some of them also modify what the Thief's Basic Attacks do against them as well. I like it. It differentiates the Thief from other classes in the same way that Fighters have been changed, but it keeps the Thief looking and playing different from the Fighter. I'm really interested to pick up Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms to see what they've done to Rangers to change them up, the list shows that they've come up with a Ranger class that is a Controller and I find that very very interesting.
Yay for Martial classes!
-Mage. I'm pretty pleased with Mages as well. First off, you can specialize in a school again, which is swell. Your school choice grants you abilities that modify what you can do with certain spells. I'm glad school specialization is back, it is a bit of a callback to older editions of the game. The spellbook is still here, and a little more central to the character than in regular 4th Edition. We're very much back to the spells per day system of Vancian magic that we didn't entirely leave when 4th Edition came out. I have mixed feelings about this, but I've always had mixed feelings about spells per day. Regardless, it keeps the feel of the Wizard intact. Cantrips are still here, Magic Missile is here (and it auto-hits! Yay!). Fireball, Fly, Disintegrate, Invisibility, Chain Lightning, Meteor Swarm, all our friends are here. I can't point to any one thing that makes me happy with the Mage, but overall, I really like them. I just get this happy gamer vibe off of them that I never got when reading the Wizard info in the Player's Handbook.
-Races. We've got Dwarves, Eladrin, Elves, Halflings, and Humans. They all look pretty much the same as they did pre-Essentials. The Dwarf now has an encounter power to use his Second Wind as a minor action, rather than have it just listed as an ability. Humans also have a new ability to use as an encounter power that allows them to gain a bonus on a saving throw or an attack roll. A big change is that each race has a set +2 bonus, and then another that can be chosen from two choices. Dwarves get +2 to Constitution and a +2 to Strength or Wisdom for instance. This allows for a bit more customization and optimization during character creation. It also makes races a bit more varied, even among those players of the same race. They started doing it in the PHB 3 and it is nice to see the core races get the same treatment. It seems like there is more background content to read on each race than there has been previously, but I could be wrong. This books is obviously a different shape and layout than the original PHB, and I have no intention of counting the words in each description to compare them. Suffice it to say that there is enough information to get the gist of each race, if you haven't already gotten it by reading fantasy novels and watching fantasy movies or playing video games for the past two decades of your life. We're not breaking any molds here, elves live in forests and are agile and dwarves live in or near mountains and they're sturdy. There are sections to read on how each race takes to each of the four classes in the book and there are also some ideas on role-playing each race. Meh, don't tell me how to role-play. I'll play my humans and dwarves the way I want to. That said, I can see how the information would be beneficial to someone with little or no experience with DnD, true role-playing games, or Tolkien inspired fiction.
-Skills are set up pretty much in the fashion of the PHB. Each skill is explained, the key abilities that go with each skill, what training in each skill means, and so on. They also include a chart about easy, moderate, and hard skill DCs, which I believe was in the DMG previously. I think that is a good idea, that way a player has something to look at to gauge exactly how good he needs to be at a skill to do what he wants to do with it. One thing they've added to the descriptions of what you can accomplish with skills is a short section on improvising with them, and I think that is a nice touch. A lot of people think the skill selection in 4th Edition is limited (they're wrong, but I've ranted like a lunatic about that before, heh), so it is a good idea that they're putting info with the skills that will give players ideas on how to use them in unconventional ways.
-Feats. I do not care for the new format of feat organization. In previous books they had this really nice set up where they broke them down by tier, and sometimes by race or class. On top of that, there was a column for prerequisites for the feat and another one for a brief description of what it does. Now, in this book they do break them down by style: Divine feats, Armor related feats, endurance/Constitution related feats, and so on. Then they organize them alphabetically. There is no quick reference table to look at. The book is smaller, so there isn't really room for wide table full of info, and you get an idea about what kind of feat you'll get when you see it on a table and go looking for its description. Now, back to the tier thing. Breaking the feats down by tier is almost a waste of time at this point. They've done it before with a lot of feats, but it seems much more prevalent in this book. Most feats seem to upgrade themselves the higher level you are. I like it, it keeps your feats feeling useful as you progress in your career. There aren't too many feats to choose from in the book, but the way they upgrade themselves makes the majority of them an attractive option. Plus, the Essentials stuff seems pretty compatible with current 4th Edition trends, so if you really really can't find anything in this book, you can find something somewhere in another one I'm sure.
-Gear. There is some gear in the back end of the book. Basic tables and descriptions of armor, weapons, and adventuring gear. All of it is pretty basic info, but it is what you need to outfit your character with gear. The section touches on magic items and the types you can find and how they work, but there are about twelve total in there (twenty-nine actually). I'm not miffed that there are so few described, I hail from an age where the DMG was loaded out with all the phat lewts and the players could only guess what their dark god would bestow upon them. I do feel that if you're going to put your lewts in a player book, put them in there, don't just tease people with the tip.
-Glossary. There's a glossary at the end, it has some pertinent words that are useful to have defined for the reading. There is also an index. Huzzah and shit.
-Character sheet. The final few pages are a character sheet. They're kind of small, so I'm not too sure I give a shit about them. I rarely use standard sheets anyway, so I guess I really don't care about them. They're more robust than the sheets included with The Red Box, but they're still digest sized, so I'm not sure how often people will be using them. I won't. People need character sheets though, and they're there if you want them and can't find ten million better options in the (inter) tubes.
...and that is Heroes of the Fallen Lands. Another note, I really like the titles of these books. Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms really evoke some imagery that I like. I feel like perhaps Wizards is on the cusp of letting go of their "we're going to leave huge holes in the core setting for you to fill in" and finally flesh out a bit of the Points of Light campaign setting. I feel like they could be doing something with the background instead of saying "Arkhosia and Bael Turath existed, now you write out the rest of it."
I think at some point in the near future I will head out and purchase Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, I am really quite interested by the concept of a Martial Controller. I'm assuming it is an archer type class in the vein of the Seeker in the PHB 3.
I've got to say, I'm really jonesing to do something 4th Edition related with this new content. I like the new direction of the Martial classes and I would really like to run a Rogue or Fighter in something. Most of the changes I've read about so far have my full approval, so I am quite interested to see what they eventually do to Bards. Looking at the Wizards product schedule, I don't see that happening any time soon. The next Essentials release is slated for March next year and it looks like it is more options for the Heroes of the Fallen Kingdoms classes, along with Essentials conversions for the Warlord. It looks like it will be a paperback and run around twenty-five bucks at three hundred and twenty pages. ::grimace: Heroes of the Fallen Lands weighs in at three hundred and sixty some pages for twenty at full price (thirteen on Amazon).
As I was saying, I am really wanting to try something out with this stuff. I don't know when I'll have the opportunity to though. My players profess a definite dislike of 4th Edition, except for Jeremy, and we have a hard enough time getting together for our regular sessions. I'm not ready to start retconning Erevan into being a Fighter or Rogue either. On top of that, I find Gamma World extremely enticing. I'm going to avoid that like the plague though, wasting money on this Essentials stuff that I won't ever really run is enough of a silly excursion to sate my gamer gene. I don't need yet another box of Wizards stuff lying around the house. Let Eric or some other poor dumb sod worry about Gamma World, I have plenty of goofy stuff on my plate.