Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Delving 4E: An Interlude

AKA "Delving 4E Part 3.5"

In my last post, I gave my thoughts about the classes and builds of 4th Edition, specifically some of the stuff I liked with regard to conceptualizations (is that a word? spellcheck says yes). The post only addressed classes in 4E PHB, and long-time players of D&D will notice the conspicuous absent of a couple-three loooooong time classes of the D&D game: the druid and the bard.

The druid is the real glaring absence...available as a player character class since the days of OD&D (it first appeared in Supplement 3: Eldritch Wizardry), the druid is a standard class in both AD&D 1 and 2, D&D 3 (and 3.5), and even makes it into BECMI as a "proto-prestige class" of cleric (see the Mentzer Companion set). It provides a natural (as in "nature") counterpoint to the cleric's more organized worship and is a bit of a bridge between the magic-user and cleric archetypes, gaining some of the spells and benefits of each, as well as hybrid selection of weapons and armor.

It is also the favorite class of my buddy +Heron.

The bard's history is a little shorter, only first appearing in an appendix of the original AD&D PHB, and never in any of the "basic" games (the one in my B/X Companion doesn't count). Unlike the druid, the bard has undergone several significant revisions over the years, beginning first with its jump from 1E to 2E (where it went from a more martial class to more "trickster" as rogue subclass) and from there to 3E where it became a hybrid support class with an emphasized arcane (wizardry) flavor, and a favored class of gnomes (by 3.5).

The bard was my favorite class back in my 1E days. But that's a post for another time.

I should probably also mention the assassin, which first appeared in OD&D's Supplement 2 (Blackmoor) before the 1E PHB. While 2nd edition initially axed the class, it later appeared in the Al-Qadim setting book as a religious-zealot reimagining, as well as a "monster class" (the Headsman/Thug) in the BECMI Master set. As of 3E, it still wasn't a core class, though it makes and appearance in the 3E DMG as a prestige class. As it's been MIA for so many years, its absence from 4E isn't nearly as surprising as the lack of druid and bard options.

Welp, the fourth edition's PHB2 does contain both the bard and the druid, along with updated versions of 3E's barbarian and sorcerer class, and something called an assassin rewrite of serious religious overtones (something reminiscent of video games like that bald Hitman guy with the numbers on his scalp or the white-hooded Guild dudes).

[for the record, I draw a very severe distinction between the raging berserker of 3E and the flavor/skill-heavy barbarian that appeared in the 1E Unearthed Arcana]

The PHB2 also adds three completely new (to D&D) classes in the invoker, shaman, and warden, as well as additional race options in the deva, gnome, half-orc, and shifter. As I said in my earlier post, I'm not a fan of 4E's races (especially the new ones), though I have to admit the gnome tickles me a bit with its "fade away" power (would have been a useful ability for my old gnome assassin, Shoon Grinblade).

Even the cover art is bad.
Here's the thing: with one possible exception, all these classes leave me ice-cold. Or worse, they just plain irritate me...both in conception and execution, most of the stuff in the PHB2 is a big bucket of crap. In my opinion, of course...perhaps other people have found these options to be fun, interesting, and exciting. For me? No, sorry.

I mean the druid...the druid, what the f---! The druid is some sort of lycanthrope from the get go (though only a fight-worthy one...the PHB2 suffers A LOT from the basic premise of fourth edition...). The warden appears to simply be "the other druid" for people who don't want some sort of were-priest. Maybe they had too many options for druids and split it up over two or three classes? But then, you've already got this shifter race, and... I don't get it. What's with cranking the animalism up to 11 in this book?

When Heron told me druids were his favorite class and was waxing eloquent on their virtues, never once did he mention the way their dire wolverine attributes matured with level progression.

[ child just saw the PDF images of the gnomes on my computer and asked, "Are those gelflings?" We just watched The Dark Crystal the other night]

[it's funny because they don't really look like gnomes]

Anyway...aside from the gnome and the concept of a shapeshifter race (I'm a fan of Roberson's Cheysuli books, and I think the archetype is pretty good "fantasy;" I've used it to good effect with, for example, DragonQuest in the past), the only thing I really liked in the PHB2 was the bard, and its optional martial build, which reminds me very much of my "glory days" playing 1E AD&D. It would be tempting (for me) to play such a character...but then, I suspect, that even the most martially oriented bard would look pretty tame next to other class-builds (and not just the fighter). Maybe.

So, yeah; that's it for the PHB2. There's nothing else here that I really want to comment on. Not in a positive, constructive fashion anyway.


  1. Sorry, I can't help correcting you on a few things:

    Eldritch Wizardry was the druid's first appearance as a class, true, but it appeared in Greyhawk as a monster

    The bard first appeared in issue #6 of The Strategic Review (and you could play as one right off the bat!). 2e's "trickster" bard actually came from an article in in Dragon #56. The more martial bard came back in 2005 as a prestige class.

    2e brought the assassin back even earlier than Al-Qadim — it was a kit in The Complete Thief's Handbook

    Shamans have been in a distinct class since 1989, and in 3.0 were the revised shukenja class of 1E

  2. @ Prof Oats:

    Appreciate that, though I don't consider Strategic Review to really be "canon" (as far as "official" core classes), and the monster in Greyhawk isn't a playable, standard/core class.

    (similarly "kits"...whether in Al-Qadim or TCTHB...aren't really classes; that's why I was hesitant to even cite the assassin since it's been absent as a core class since 1E)

    Where did shamans first appear? My short foray into 2E was very late in the game (circa 1997), and I don't recall them. Were they a "kit" for the priest class? Were they comparable to the class (concept-wise/power-wise) as it appears in 4E? I have a copy of the '85 Oriental Adventures (somewhere, back in Seattle), but I don't remember the features of the shukenja class.

  3. As an actual class (not a kit or primitive cleric), I believe their first appearance was The Golden Khan of Ethengar for BECMI. Can't say how similar it is to the 4E version

    Why wouldn't you count SR?

    1. Hmm...I have the Ethengar gazette back home. Is the class the same as the monstrous spell-caster option given in the Master set?

      I don't consider articles published in periodicals to be official (compared to actual game books), mostly because they are A) subject to change, and B) often submitted by authors other than a game's designers (or official staff writers).

      But maybe I have a faulty understanding of what the Strategic Review is/was.

    2. Fair enough, that's kinda my policy too. I just retroactively consider something canon if it became an official part of the game afterward. With the SR, you'll find quite a bit of material that would almost immediately become an official part of the game. It just seems really weird to say all that stuff first appeared in AD&D

    3. @ ProfOats:

      I can grok that. But look at it from this angle: what about all the stuff that appears in a serial publication that DOESN'T make it into an official product? Dragon had a ton of non-core classes pass through its pages back in the day, and only three (modified from their original articles) ended up in Unearthed Arcana. And when you see multiple takes on the same class (like the Witch) in the same publication, which version should be considered "official" if you're considering all articles as canon?

  4. The shifter race and were-druid seemed like a wink-and-nod to furries. Gave me an "ugh, this is D&D now?" feeling.