The Saving Throw
Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition 06.06.2008
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Overall Review
published by Wizards of the Coast reviewed by Martin Drury
320 (Player's Handbook)/224 (Dungeon Master's Guide)/288 (Monster Manual) pages, 2008, $34.95/ea
Core Handbooks 17
Character Generation 17
Game Rules 18
Intelligibility 16
Solid Hit
Review Scoring

   With Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition Wizards of the Coast's game designers set out create a game that was easier to play, easier to teach, and more attractive to new players. The end result might not be perfect, but it meets those design goals.

The graphic elements of all three core rulebooks have been upgraded to the level one would expect to find in a graphic novel or computer game. All three books are bursting with color, from vivid illustrations to the intelligent use of color in order to make reading power entries quick and pain-free. Page and a half illustrations frequently grace the pages, to the point that some might complain they are there simply to increase the page count. Even pages that are lacking in illustrations are easy on the eyes, with the text placed on white backgrounds and broken up in easy to read chunks.

Many steps were taken to make the game easier to play, and for the most part these all succeed. The races and classes are presented succinctly, with information on the benefits and character roles best suited for each and powers detailed with the race or class entry. Despite earlier insistance that races like the Gnome and Drow have been relagated to "monster only status"; the Monster Manual does provide information on how to generate player characters in those and 14 other races. The books spell out the core mechanic in a manner easy to understand, but occasionally there are references to game mechanics that are either explained several pages (or chapters) later, or reference a page in another book with an incomplete reference. A main example of this is how damage from powers (martial attacks and arcane or divine spells, with others to be detailed in future supplements) is described. The mechanic is listed as "X[W]+..." where X is a positive number and the [W] refers to the damage dice of the weapon the player character is wielding. Every attack power with the weapon keyword makes use of this notation, but the [W] notation is not explained until page 276 of the Player's Handbook, after it has been used over 100 times.

To help new and old dungeon master's alike, the Dungeon Master's Guide focuses heavily on providing tips, tricks, and solid advice on how to be a good dungeon master. James Wyatt, the author, has expressed before his concerns and personal trepidation about the first time he was the dungeon master for his co-workers. It seems he has set allaying these fears of other dungeon masters as his number one goal for the book, and has come through with flying colors. The entire book is very accessible to new dungeon masters, but more importantly it is very helpful. The Dungeon Master's Guide is the shortest of the three core books, but it also seems like the one that comes closest to meeting all the goals for 4th Edition. The Monster Manual has been redesigned as well, no longer presenting multiple monsters per page, but the reorganizing of the monsters has resulted in some odd quirks. Specifically, the classification of some monsters has changed from previous verisons, resulting in things such as the Tarrasque appearing under "A" with all the other Abominations. With the improved and easy to read monster stat blocks, however, these quirks are mostly overlooked.

For players of the previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons, picking up the new edition will not be a monumental task. While a large number of changes have been made to the game, they mostly lie in the character generation and powers area, as the core mechanic of the d20 remains in place. Some returning players may find some changes annoying, such as the restriction on what languages a first level character can learn and the fact that there are no longer penalties for choosing a fantasy race (all races but Human get a +2 bonus to two abilities). Another big change is the fact that if a Ritual (either Divine or Arcane magic that is complex and cannot be used in encounters) has been placed on a scroll, anyone can finish the steps needed to complete the Ritual, regardless of whether or not they hail from a class with magical training. Along with going to 30 levels standard, a massive overhaul to the level up system results in player characters gaining many more ability score enhancements (a total of 28 points) over the course of those 30 levels than in previous editions. This, and some other changes that seem to have been made simply because changes were being made, are sure to further angry some purists who have been complaining for a long time that each subsequent edition of Dungeons and Dragons has made the game too easy.

In the grander scheme of things, these changes are largely irrelevant for the player. What remains to be seen is whether or not the 4th Edition is embraced as well as 3rd and 3.5 were especially by third parties. Several issues have been raised about the new GSL which replaces the OGL that existed with those previous editions, but so far major third party publishers have remained quiet as to what extent they will support the new edition.

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