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Wednesday, 20th October, 2010, 06:41 PM #1
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Review of Heroes of the Fallen Lands by WotC
The first of the D&D Essentials products for Players, the Heroes of the Fallen Lands, has made its debut not only on gaming store shelves, but this season’s D&D Encounters is already using characters designed from its pages. Following the release of the “Red Box”, the Heroes of Fallen Lands is deemed to be the next logical purchase for Players new D&D 4E who are learning the game by following the Essentials product line.
As the first of the two Essentials “Players Handbooks”, the Heroes of the Fallen Lands has a great responsibility to introduce a complete range of rules and character options to new 4E gamers. But does this new Essentials product do a better job of introducing the game of D&D to new Players than the original 4E Players Handbook?
Heroes of the Fallen Lands
- Authors: Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicsek, Rodney Thompson
- Cover Illustrator: Ralph Horseley
- Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
- Year: 2010
- Media: Trade Paperback (365 pages)
- Retail Cost: $19.95 ($13.57 from Amazon)
Heroes of the Fallen Lands is the first of two “players handbooks” for the D&D Essentials line of products. It contains rules to assist new Players to create five different builds of 4E Essentials characters from four different classes: Cleric (Warpriest), Fighter (Knight & Slayer), Rogue (Thief), and Wizard (Mage). Each build is also provided a Paragon Path, as well as a possible Epic Destiny, along with powers for all three tiers of play. In addition, the Heroes of the Fallen Lands describes background information to allow Players to choose from one of five racial types to design their character around: Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Halfling, and Human. Additional supporting content such as feats, skills, and equipment (including magic items) are all provided to allow for a complete character generation experience.
The production quality of the Heroes of the Fallen Lands is frankly superb, utilizing a new 9” x 6” trade paperback format, as opposed to the hard-bound version we have seen for 4th edition sourcebooks released previously by Wizards of the Coast. The book has both a nice feel and appearance, and the content is presented in a straightforward logical way that we have seen in previous “players handbooks”, but in a single column layout. And despite it being more than 50 pages larger than the traditional 4E Players Handbook, the Heroes of the Fallen Lands has a shipping weight fully one-half a pound lighter, and the book is much easier to handle overall. However, time will tell whether this new book format holds up to usage as well as a standard hardcover.
The artwork in the Heroes of the Fallen Lands is good to stunning, with many new illustrations included to enhance the reading of the content material. There are a few illustrations borrowed from other sources, most notably the racial portraits from the 4E Players Handbook, but one can hardly blame the art director for not requisitioning new work, considering how good those older pieces are.
Amenities in the Heroes of the Fallen Lands include a very detailed table of content, a glossary of important keywords, and an index, which makes finding rules and information a fairly easy endeavor. I should note that the print style feels like it is leaping off the page to the eye, and a much larger font than in previous books. But it is really just an optical illusion, brought on by the overall size of the page, although I had to pull out my original 4E Players Handbook and compare to be sure.
Personally, I like the new format quite a bit, and the size and weight of the new book style makes it much more transportable and functional at the gaming table. In fact, I strongly hope that when the time comes to do a re-printing of the traditional 4E Players Handbook, which as we all know is seriously out of date after myriad updates and errata, WotC chooses to use this new trade paperback format. I would not hesitate in the least to pick up a new version of the PHB in this new format if it ever hit store shelves!
The Introduction & Rules
The content order in Heroes of Fallen Lands is fairly close to that of the traditional 4E Players Handbook. It begins in a chapter called “Game Overview”, consisting of a short explanation of fantasy role-playing, the nature of Players and Dungeon Masters, and an overview of the Essentials Products line. There is also a strong recommendation right on the first page to go out and try the D&D Essentials Role-Playing Game Starter Set (i.e. the “Red Box”) before using this book. While appearing to be a strong-arm marketing ploy, I have to admit I thought it was a good choice to include this last item right at the beginning, as it really helps to provide guidance to new D&D gamers on basic play. The overview of the Essentials product line is also a useful tool to recommend which products a gamer is likely to need to further their experience in D&D 4E.
One of the only real differences in the presentation from the traditional 4E Players Handbook is the inclusion of the combat rules in this beginning section. If a new D&D gamer chooses to ignore the advice of getting a “Red Box”, this section might be a bit confusing, providing a considerable amount of rules content that has little to do with creating a character. The material is presented in a much abbreviated form than that of the content presented in Chapter 9 of the traditional 4E Players Handbook, and a new D&D gamer will find themselves pointed to reading more than half the necessary rules from the glossary entries, or from a copy of the Rules Compendium. Combat conditions, movement (by the way, you missed charge in your list of move actions), and forced movement are listed here, but one must turn to the back of the book and look in the glossary for a basic explanation of these important combat rules, where they are described in only the most basic of terms. Charts found in the 4E Players Handbook, like Actions in Combat and Combat Conditions are omitted, presumably not to double print information to be found in the Rules Compendium.
Sadly, I found that this section was considerably weaker than the information provided in the traditional 4E Players Handbook. WotC designers seem to expect that new players will be purchasing a “Red Box” or a Rules Compendium in order to play the game, but it does make the Heroes of Fallen Lands feel just a little incomplete. Experienced 4E gamers will likely not even miss the material, having their knowledge and previous PHBs to rely on.
Character Generation & Classes
The chapter on “Making a Character” is considerably more robust than the introductory chapter, and contains a solid discussion on how to create all non-class related features of a D&D character. Generating ability scores and selecting a class are all discussed in reasonable detail, and there is once again a recommendation to pick up and try playing the “Red Box” first. There is a nice chart of the class builds and races that appear in each of the Essentials Heroes books, letting new players know that if they wanted to create, for example, a tiefling warlock, they had better pick up the Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms book as well. Fluff issues like picking a god, alignment, languages, appearance, and personality are all described here, as well as some really good crunchy bits like penalty and bonus stacking and the nature of temporary modifiers.
In the next chapter, “Understanding Powers”, rules for how powers work, as well as how to analyze and understand a power entry are discussed in great detail. The explanation is very similar to the one that finally made its appearance in the appendix of the Players Handbook 3, and provides a solid background of terms and keyword knowledge before subjecting the reader to the intricacies of the class build information.
Finally in chapter 4, the reader finally gets into the “Character Classes”, and the act of character generation can begin in earnest. Overall, the material is well presented for the various character builds, and it would be no hardship for a reader to design their character from this book. Admittedly, the paragon paths and epic destinies provided for Essentials Characters are a bit simplified; they are nevertheless appropriately designed for use with these character builds.
[Reviewer’s Note: Rather than comparing the relative merits of an Essentials character build as opposed to a traditional 4E build, as a reviewer, I would rather concentrate on the overall aesthetic of this book, and its ability to introduce the game of D&D to new players.]
One of the strengths of the Essentials character builds is in their streamlining and simplicity. There are fewer choices required to create an Essentials build character, with many options coming pre-packaged based upon one decision or another. For instance, a beginning Cleric (Warpriest) decides between a Sun Domain and a Storm Domain, and this comes with specific at-will, encounter, and utility powers pre-selected for the character. Likewise, melee characters like the knight, slayer, and thief choose their at-will stances or utilities, but the remainder of their powers are pre-packaged for them - and daily powers are no longer an option for physical melee combatants in Essentials builds!
It should be noted that the one class seemingly free of pre-packaging is the Wizard (Mage). This class build is almost drowning in power selections, and uses a spellbook to select encounter, daily, and utility powers after each extended rest. The Mage build is frankly as complex as any traditional 4E class build, and simply uses a few different class mechanics than other builds for the Wizard.
Advanced players more accustomed to traditional 4E characters will likely find this pre-packaging of character powers to be somewhat stifling, but experienced D&D players would still be able to quickly create a character from the rules presented here. It should be noted that a character sheet is provided in the back of the book to reprint and use during character generation. To date, WotC has yet to release any Essentials content to Character Builder, so characters must be created by the old-fashioned method of paper and pencil.
The remainder of the book concentrates on completing the character generation experience, and includes information on races, feats, skills, and equipment. The descriptions of “Races” (Chapter 5) is every bit as detailed as the 4E Players Handbook, albeit with fewer choices, although various other races will be coming along in the upcoming Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdom book.
Chapter 6 of Heroes of the Fallen Lands deals with “Skills”, and I have to admit that their treatment of skills is a considerably better presentation than the original PHB. I particularly like the “Improvising with…” sections with each skill, giving suggestions on how a skill might be used and the relative DC of attempting to perform that skill. In fact, there is a Difficulty Class by Level chart provided for the players at the start of this section, so that they know how DCs are likely to increase as they level.
Feats (Chapter 7) are now organized into new types of categories, and one can only hope that this new way of thinking spreads back through the traditional feat content. It organizes feats into logical groups by what a feat actually does, like Divine Devotion, Quick Reaction, and Weapon Training, rather than simple vague headings of Racial and Class-Specific, and Heroic. The selection of feats provided here is but a tiny fraction of the total feats available to other 4E class builds, and are a mixture of some new Essentials feats and well-known traditional feats. It will be interesting to see which of the new Essentials feats will be allowed to be used by traditional 4E builds, as they might be over-powered if used in certain combinations.
And finally, the Heroes of Fallen Lands are shown a selection of “Gear and Weapons” to select and outfit their character. This includes a few magic items (mostly of common grade, with a few uncommon thrown in) and an explanation of how to read a magic item’s power card.
Overall Grade: A-
While I might not like the direction that the Essentials line takes character builds, I cannot deny that the Heroes of Fallen Lands is a well-designed “players handbook” to allow new and experienced D&D gamers to create Essentials characters. Although, there was a disappointing lack of rules regarding combat, the remainder of the book was solidly designed and written to get a character built and ready to play D&D, and to continue the growth of that character on up through the Paragon and Epic tiers. While the Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies for these builds are not quite as developed as for other class builds, the support is there, and new players unfamiliar with the traditional 4E line would be never really know what they were missing out on.
The presentation of feats and skills in Heroes of the Fallen Lands actually exceeds that of the original 4E Players Handbook, and as previously mentioned, I certainly hope we see a revised edition of the PHB under this new format. Although I do have some concerns about how some of the Essentials material will be usable in traditional build, that topic is a matter for another forthcoming book and another review. The price for Heroes of Fallen Lands is quite reasonable, and assuming good care, should hold up reasonably long enough in the hands of gamers, despite the more somewhat more frail trade paperback binding. It definitely accomplishes the goal of being a “players handbook”, and is a good buy for gamers interested in trying to play D&D using the Essentials product line.
So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
- Presentation: A-
- - Design: A-
- - Illustrations: A
- Content: A-
- - Crunch: B+
- - Fluff: A
- Value: B+
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