Heroes of the Fallen Lands
By Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicsek, Rodney Thompson
Trade paperback, 365 pages, $19.99
The store at which I work received a preview copy of Heroes of the Fallen Lands (HFL) the other day, and I figured the least I could to is share my thoughts on it, as well as leaving myself open to answer your questions on this new D&D Essentials product, slated to release on September 21st of this year.
HFL is the first of the new Essentials version of player option books, filling the role that the previous Power books occupied. My initial reaction, after “holy crap awesome”, was apprehension at the book’s trade paper format. Although the $19.99 price is more affordable than the $29.99 pricetag on the Power books, the book is overall less durable due to the paper cover. My copy has already shown some off-the-shelf wear, and I’ve had it for about a day at this point. Personally, I would not mind if the hardcover format continued, however I can understand the philosophy behind the switch.
Inside the cover, the book is laid out in a very easy to read and new-player-friendly format. An introduction to D&D and game overview are included, similar to what is found in PHB1. Chapter 1 is the overview, outlining the D&D world, tiers of play, a list of the Essentials products, and some how-to’s, including turn structure, actions, movement, attacks, HP, and rests. Old news for most of us, and already printed in the Red Box, from what I understand. Still, it is nice to see it laid out plain and simple for new players and veterans alike.
Chapter 2 details character creation steps, what you need to make a character, and characteristics of classes and races. There are a few tables of note here, listing the classes found in both HFL and those found in the upcoming Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdom. Here in HFL are two builds of fighter (knight, a defender, and slayer, a striker), the cleric (warpriest, a leader), the rogue (thief, a striker), and the wizard (mage, a controller). The selection of classes for this book is exemplary of what I understand the idea behind Essentials is: back to basics. Between the Red Box and these iconic classes, we are seeing a return to simplicity. Of course, “classic” 4e is compatible side-by-side with Essentials products (in theory), so those who value choices over simplicity still have a game to play (more on choices later). Classes and builds to be included in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms are the druid (sentinel, a leader), the paladin (cavalier, a defender), two builds of ranger (hunter, a controller and scout, a striker), and warlock (hexblade, a striker). The leader druid and controller ranger are particularly exciting to me, as the druid never felt “controllery” enough and many of us have been clamoring for the martial controller since 2008. The rest of this chapter goes into more detail on what it means to be a striker, etc, further descriptions of the classes and races (dwarf, eladrin, elf, halfling, human) included in HFL. Ability scores, deities, alignment, and gaining levels are also found here. Basic PHB1 stuff.
The third chapter is Understanding Powers. It’s nice to see so much space devoted to a subject like this, as powers really are the meat and potatoes of most characters’ combat experience. Everything found in a power block like keywords, attack types, effects, and targeting is explained in detail and in a friendly manner.
And now we find the fun stuff. Chapter 4 is the classes. Here’s where choice becomes a factor. If you like choosing from a dozen or so powers each level through the Character builder, the builds found in HFL might not be for you. Most classes get two or three choices of powers each level or so, with the martial classes receiving even fewer. The wizard has the most choices, with three “builds” representing three schools of magic: enchantment, evocation, and illusion. At level 1, you choose a school and gain a small benefit related to that school. Additional benefits are gained at levels 5 and 10. At level 4, you also gain the level 1 benefit of a second school. Your choice of school also determines most of your paragon path features. Wizards still get their cantrips from PHB1 Suggestion, an encounter power that lets you make an Arcana check instead of Diplomacy, added in. Every mage gets the new and improved Magic Missile. Of note is the change to the Spellbook class feature, which now functions with encounter, daily, and utility powers. Overall, the mage build for the wizard feels most like “classic” 4e builds: lots of choices, options, and powers.
The warpriest cleric has two “builds” represented here by domains: sun and storm. The sun domain focuses more on defense and shielding, while the storm domain focuses more on damage dealing and destructive attacks. Your choice of domain determines your at-wills, your level 1 encounter power, one of your Channel Divinity powers, your level 1 utility power, and some benefits similar to the mage’s schools. Warpriests of either domain have access to the same daily power choices.
Fighters and rogues have the fewest powers, with no at-will attack powers at all, few encounter attack powers, and no daily powers. Instead, the two martial classes focus on basic attacks and ways to augment them. The two fighter builds (knight and slayer), have an array of stances to choose from at level 1, allowing them to switch tactics mid-battle without relying on attacks to necessarily hit. The knight’s stances are more defense-oriented, while the slayer’s are gear more towards offense. Essentially these are caricatures of the guardian fighter and great weapon fighter builds from PHB1, exaggerated in the interest of highlighting the difference in roles. In fact, the slayer, being a striker, lacks a marking mechanism, whereas the knight retains one in the form of an aura. It’s an interesting approach to a real hands-off method to marking. I’m very excited to see it in action. Along the way, both builds get plenty of utility power options and buffs to their basic features to help them do their respective jobs better. Both the knight and the slayer also get Power Strike, an encounter power that adds an extra weapon damage when you hit with an attack. As the fighters level, they gain a couple extra uses of Power Strike per encounter.
The rogue, like the fighters, uses basic attacks for the bulk of his damage. The thief build of the rogue enjoys many of the class features and benefits as the PHB1’s rogues, however one thing that I noticed right away was the lack of shuriken proficiency baked into the class. I’m fairly certain (correct me if I’m wrong), that rogues were previously the only class with built-in proficiency for a superior weapon, so WOTC might want superior weapons to feel more special overall. I suppose we’ll see. Thieves also get a class feature in the form of Backstab, an encounter utility power that triggers off of making an attack roll on an enemy granting combat advantage to the thief. This adds +3 to the attack roll and an extra 1d6 damage if it connects. Similar to other class features, this scales with the thief’s level, and the thief gains a few extra uses of it per encounter as he levels. Instead of stances, the thief has “tricks”, at-will move powers that allow him to shift extra squares, climb, sneak, and increase damage after the move. All of these emphasize the thief’s role as a squishy striker, and from my DM perspective, a classic example of the skirmisher monster role. Get in, do a ton of damage, get out. The thief also receives utility powers and skill increases along the way to aid in his thievery.
Races retain most of the bulk of their makeup from their PHB1 incarnations. A nice addition to each race, however, is the inclusion of the PHB3-style ability score bonuses, in that each races has one static score bonus and a choice between two for the second. Dwarves have +2 Con; +2 Str or +2 Wis, eladrin have +2 Int; +2 Dex or +2 Cha, elves have +2 Dex; +2 Int or + 2 Wis, and halflings have +2 Dex; +2 Con or +2 Cha. Humans have the same old +2 to any one. Dwarven Resilience has been converted into a power block, but is functionally the same. Another change of note is the creation of a human racial power, Heroic Effort. Triggering off of a missed attack or failed saving throw, this power gives you a +4 bonus to the roll. Gone is the bonus at-will, certainly due to the lack of at-will attack powers for martial classes. If we are really able to use Essentials and “classic” side-by-side, the question of “which human are you?” will be required at some tables, I’m sure.
The last third of the book details skills, feats, and equipment, including magic items. The skills are explained in full, using the latest errata for each skill, where applicable. A good selection of feats follows, both new and old. A neat feature of the feats chapter is, before the feats are listed and explained, they are categorized for easy browsing depending on what your character’s focus is. This makes for quick feat selection, as you can essentially “collect” all the feats in a given category in order to best specialize yourself. The categories are Armor Training, Divine Devotion, Enduring Stamina, Implement Training, Learning and Lore, Quick Reaction, Steadfast Willpower, Two-Weapon Training, Vigilant Reflexes, and Weapon Training. There’s a few instances of overlap, such as superior reflexes listed in both the Quick Reaction and Vigilant Reflexes categories, but as the categories have no mechanical effect on the game, I don’t view this as an issue. Only Heroic tier feats are present, even though each class build brings you through level 30. I have a feeling there will be additional books which cover higher-tier feat choices.
Basic weapons and equipment are listed in the gear chapter. Absent are superior weapons or implements of any kind. The magic items found at the end of the chapter are all of the common rarity level, and include magic weapons, armor, implements, arms slot, hand slot, head slot, neck slot, waist slot, and potions. The book concludes with a glossary, index, and a blank character sheet, which is the new format found in the Red Box, albeit smaller due to the trade paper format of HFN. I am particularly fond of the new skill layout, which is spliced with the abilities in the interest of quick referencing.
Absent from the book are rituals, which I something that I am actually sad to see go. There is no mention of rituals as class features for either the cleric or wizard, and I’m very curious to see what WOTC’s plan for rituals in general is. They may have been deemed “too complex” for Essentials products, and are being reserved for “classic” products only. We will see.
Most of my review has been about the mechanics presented in the book, as that is the easiest to theorycraft and compare with previous editions. However, one of the biggest strengths of HFN is the flavor. It continues the new emphasis on backstory and “fluff” started back with MM3 and continued with the Dark Sun products. Each and every power, class feature, effect, even feats are accompanied by a short blurb about what the feat gives your character, what the power accomplishes, and why your character has this feat. It is an incredible way to immerse new players and old veterans alike in the game world. Even the races have six or so pages devoted to each, going into detail on the races’ backgrounds, what it means to be a member of that race, and how to accurately portray a member of that race in game. In addition, each class section is built in a step-by-step, level-by-level format, so it is easy to level up and develop your character. Much of the art found in HFN is recycled from older books, however there is a welcome amount of new pieces as well. Each chapter starts with a gorgeous splash page, similar to the previous books, and every picture has a caption chronicling the adventures of the heroes depicted. It’s the little additions of flavor that makes HFN really stand out.
I am still not a fan of the trade paper format. I had the hardest time keeping the book propped open in front of me in order to write this review. In fact, the back cover has already detached from the bulk of the book, possibly from being bent open for a few hours. Please keep in mind, though, that my copy is a preview, sent a full three weeks early. Full judgement on the structural integrity of the product should not be passed until ship date. Heck, they may have had a bad batch. That’s probably how I ended up with one.
Overall this little book is a welcome addition to my shelf of D&D books, despite the OCD within me wanting all my books to look alike. Maybe I’ll have to start a second shelf for the paperbacks.
Feel free to use the comments below to ask specific questions regarding the book; I’m more than happy to oblige.