Review: Players Handbook 2

I've been waiting for this book for a long time, and even contemplated trying to get it via despite the $70 bill, and while I wasnt one of the extremely lucky people to get an early copy of Player's Handbook 2, I did manage to get it yesterday. Unfortunately that was the day of a ColdFusion final, which when combined with my normal D&D day meant that I barely got a chance to even flip through it. Hell, Red Jason saw more of it than I did.

Now, its my turn.

The basic rundown is that Player's Handbook 2 is a huge content expansion to D&D, providing five full race write-ups that include some that were occasionally missed (like the half-orc and gnome), and eight classes that have a 50:50 ratio of revamp and new. The theme of this PH is primal, with most of the races falling into place along with half the classes, but it also rounds out the divine and arcane sources by pitching us two classes for each.

As the name implies, this book is almost exclusively intended for players. I say almost because it has a lot of new magic items and rituals, which if the players want then your DM will want to know what they do, but also because as a DM you might actually want to use class templates for monsters and in that case you'll need to know what a class does.

This is a big book so I'm just going to tackle it in order.

The first thing I noticed upon opening the book was the art. This was a comment I heard last night--between Red Jason paying attention to Adrian killing us, people shouting for heals, and flipping through the book--was about the art. The art quality seems to have gotten a lot better, in particular the race art. However, while eye candy is nice it wont do anyone any good if the new crunch

Overall I like all of the new races. I played gnomes purely for aesthetics in 3rd Edition, but couldnt care less about the goliath and half-orc. The half-orc's only real ability was that it could use items that were limited to orcs, which at the time I think amounted to two magic items, one of which was an epic-level item. Big deal, especially considering that for your troubles you got a -2 net penalty to your ability scores.

I liked the idea of a shifter, but always felt that they were fairly underpowered (about as badly as the half-orc). Each race now has something that it brings to the table that helps differentiate it and also makes it more desirable to play: I'm strongly considering trying out a goliath, and already have a shifter up and running.

Another very cool thing are the racial paragon paths, which as the name implies are paragon paths that have only a specific race as a requirement (makes sense). By far the coolest of these is scion of Arkhosia, which lets you grow wings that grant an at-will fly utility at level 12 and overland flight at level 16. Most of them have a lot of appeal to a race, and I expect to see a lot of players picking these up.

Here is the meat of the book. PH2 brings eight classes to the table, half of which are entirely new, while the other half are revamps of classes that existed in 3rd Edition but didn't make the cut for the initial launch. The best part is that in reading through each class none of them seem noticeably better than the other classes at what they are supposed to do: the barbarian doesnt seem to be superior to other strikers, for example. Also, none of the classes seem to suck, which was a fear of mine after playing a few of them back in 3rd Edition, specifically the bard.

The bard. Oh, what to say about the bard? Me and the bard go waaay back, since the release of 3rd Edition when I played in my first campaign. One of the players, Bat Jew, decided to make a gnome bard as a kind of foil for my gnome fighter. I went with the concept because it was funny, and thats mostly why I played a gnome: the laughs. Anyway, we played for almost seven levels before the DM had to move, and I have to say that I was severely unimpressed with the character's performance. He was bad in and out of combat, and I think the only shining moment of the character for the duration of the short-lived campaign was when we had to rescue a baby and he cast invisibility on both of us so that we could run away.

Of course, that was the 3rd Edition bard, not the Revised Edition version. Well, that got a pretty thorough playtest when I was running Age of Worms, up until level 14 in fact. Throughout much of the campaign, the player didnt enjoy the combat part of the game at all since she basically just sat there singing and repeatedly missing with most of her ranged attacks. She derived some enjoyment from the character concept, background, and various decisions he made building the character (including having a hippogriff improved familiar with all the durability of cracked glass), but that's all very ancillory when you compare it to the core D&D experience.
My most recent experience with bards was actually last week, when I made a tiefling bard for Red Jason's Scions of Punjar adventure, and I have to say that I already enjoy it a lot more. The basic premise of a bard is no more a "jack-of-all-trades", but as an artist, and this emphasis helps define the class and make it work. In combat, my powers are useful. I'm not carefully treading about failing to hit one monster after another, or expending both 0-level spells to heal a grand total of two hit points. Quite the opposite, I felt useful and functional. In combat I could contribute in a meaningful manner, just as I could outside of combat (and with skills other than Diplomacy, to boot).

Part and parcel of the fear of suck is the fear of power creep. Many people bitched about the druid (amongst other things) on the forums, mostly with highly circumstantial evidence, about how it was better than basically any other class due to wildshaping into specific animal forms and self-buffing. Having seen the preview material and read through the class, I'm happy with the final result. Its a flexible controller that relies on wildshape to determine if you are going to blast things from a distance or close the gap and rend creatures apart in melee. With the way the class is made, you always have the opportunity to do both, and I think thats going to make it a lot of fun.

The class that has the most appeal to me is the shaman. I've found out that I have a secret love of leaders, but what really sells it for me is the fact that you get to control a spirit. Shamans themselves are ranged characters, but throw their spirit into melee and buff allies that are close to the spirit. This is like me playing a summoner in Final Fantasy all over again, but without all the tedious work that often resulted in three wasted hours.

Character Options
The final chapter contains the rules for backgrounds, feats, rituals, and new gear. Backgrounds arent necessarily a new mechanic, but the presentation in PH2 is. Backgrounds are divided into sections like society, occupation, geography, etc. You can pick as many as you want, but they dont do anything by themselves. Once you figure out your background you are allowed to add a +2 bonus to a skill, a bonus language, and an extra skill that you can choose to be trained in. Its simple, its not a huge bonus, and most importantly I think it will be very handy for newer players to help flesh out their character.
I'm playing with a few new people in one campaign, and I think this is something that will help them both out. I've heard that the benefits arent as big as the ones in Forgotten Realms, but the easy fix is to just not use those ones (if you even have the book), or to just increase the bonus slightly.

Many of the feats are intended for the new races and classes, but some can be used with the rest as well, and one is specific for the half-elf. I think that in most cases players will use feats from the same book they pick their race and class out of, though there are a couple that improve upon older feats (like Epic Fortitude) as well as some arguable necessities (such as Weapon Expertise).
I'm not going to get deep into the value of Implement/Weapon Expertise again, I will say that I dont think its necessary but handy for players that took a low proficiency weapon or went with a suboptimal route.

I find Coordinated Explosion to be funny and wish that I knew about it before my eladrin wizard got killed, since I liked to drop Fire attacks on my tiefling warlord because she had fire resistance. This would have been an entertaining way to get a +1 bonus to hit.

Melee Training will be great for classes like the paladin, ranger, and rogue since they can opt to use Dex or Cha or whatever for their attacks. Jennifer's Charisma-paladin works out great until she needs to make a basic attack, at which point her Strength of 12 means she cannot damage the broad side of a paper sack.

There's not much to see in the mundane gear section. We get totems and a handful of musical instruments, but thats it, so we're off to magic loot. There are over 30 types of new armors, only seven weapons, and a smattering of new implements. I would have liked to see more implements, but likely there are enough in Adventurer's Vault to tide everyone over until the next one comes out.

For the bard, they added a bunch of magical instruments which are wondrous items that can act as implements, but also grant a benefit if you play it while taking a rest. This ranges from bonus hit points to bonus damage until the next time you take a nap.

There are new rituals, a little over a third being stamped as bard-only. Some are classic spells that werent put in as powers, such as control weather, lullaby, and animal friendship.

Thankfully not very long, the appendix is mostly devoted to explaining powers and keywords, and it does an excellent job defining them and lumping them all up in one spot. It wraps up with new rules for Bluff and Stealth.

Put simply, this is an excellent book. The best by far. The crunch and the art are both great, and its worth it for the classes alone. If you hate gnomes, or think that goliaths are boring, I still highly recommend this book since its mostly a huge-ass book of classes-and-stuff-that-goes-with-them. A few people are bitching about the price tag, but Martial Power was only five bucks less: I'm more than happy to shell out a bit more to get a lot more.

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