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Players Handbook II
Started on May 23rd, 2006 at 11:17PM CST by Sulerin
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One of my most recent purchases was the Player's Handbook 2. In short, I think this book has something for everyone, players and dungeon masters included. I'll admit I was a bit skeptical at first. The idea of a chapter on character rebuilds was irksome to my DMing style, I'm rarely interested in new feats, and the preview of the expanded classes section of the book wasn't exactly groundbreaking.

In this review I'm not really going to take balance issues into consideration. In my opinion, balance issues are specific to each gaming groups style and given the broad selection of D&D system expansion books there are bound to be combinations of powers that may prove unbalancing in the hands of certain players in certain gaming groups. Likewise, this review is fairly opinion light, focusing mainly on who each section of material is targeted to and some insight into what benefit you might expect to receive by incorporating the materials into your own campaign.

Chap. 1: New Starting Classes (24 pages)
It's too bad that Beguilers are the opening content of the book. The flavor text of this arcane spell casting character class capitalizes on manipulation and deception, which in my experience is fractious behavior among a group of adventurers. This flavor aside, the class casts magic like a sorcerer and has a fairly limited spell selection of enchantment and illusion type spells, not entirely unlike that of a bard. Fortunately they have the option of occasionally adding new spells of their own choosing to their repertoire, so one beguiler is not a cookie cutter copy of all others. Beguilers are wizard-like in their weapon using talents, but bard-like in their ability to wear armor while casting. They can find traps like rogues and they gain certain advantages when spell casting against foes that are denied their Dexterity bonus. Their skills are a generous base 6 points per level and they have a skill repertoire akin to a rogue-sorcerer.
        Next up is the Dragon Shaman. These dragon totemist warriors embrace draconic characteristics to aid themselves in battle. They are melee warriors with a staying power akin to that of a paladin or monk. Each dragon shaman chooses a particular dragon breed (color) as their totem and the powers and class skills which they gain are different for each one. For example, a black dragon shaman gains Hide, Move Silently and Swim as class skills, eventually gains an acidic breath weapon, water breathing, and so on. A gold dragon shaman instead receives Disguise, Heal, and Swim as class skills (in addition to a base set of class skills), as well as a cone of fire breath weapon and water breathing. Dragon shaman are well suited as warriors despite only receiving simple weapons and medium armor skills to start with. Instead they are bolstered with immunities, natural armor, supernatural draconic auras which they can share with allies, good saves, a d10 hit die and so on. Eventually they even grow wings and can fly.
        Duskblades are yet another sorcerer-warrior crossover, but rather than playing a bladesinger or other prestige class, this full class lets you walk the line between arcane caster and warrior from the beginning. They are proficient with martial weapons, all armors and shields; though their spellcasting suffers with the use of heavy armors eventually they can wear medium armor without penalty. They have a limited spell knowledge list that caps out at 5th level spells, but they can cast a lot of spells over the course of a day's adventuring.
        My favorite of the four new classes is the Knight. These paragons of law are guided by a strong sense of fair-play (regardless of whether they are evil or good) and a simple system of chivalry. Knights are peer melee warriors akin to the fighter, barbarian, or paladin class. Their powers revolve around manipulating the battlefield and essentially providing a pivot point for the rest of the party to rally around. They can call out enemies, forcing them to engage the knight in preference to other targets or flee away, protect allies from harm, and make tactical movement of their foes difficult. Their code prevents them from taking advantage of flanking, striking flat-footed foes, or lethally harming a helpless foe. To do so reduces their combat options for the day, but not severely so and an abusive player who regularly breaks their knights code will look at the penalty as more a slap on the wrist than of any real consequence. Still, having some consequence does help shape the attitude of the class and give more reasonable players a reason to try to remain within the bounds of their code.

Chap. 2: Expanded Classes (39 pages)
The bulk of this chapter seems to be geared towards new players. Each class, including many from the Complete class series of books, receives treatment. Included for each class are two pages of tips to add role-playing flavor to your character. Various archetypes for each class are covered and supporting starting packages are also included to assist in quick character creation. Most of the classes also have one or more substitute abilities. For example, a barbarian can trade their ability to rage with berserker strength, a power which trades the flexibility of choosing when to rage for bonuses which become active only when the character falls beneath half their hit points, yet there is no limit to the number of times per day they can benefit from it.

Chap. 3. New Feats (24 pages)
A veritable bevy of new general feats (70 in total) which allow characters to do everything from daze opponents with bludgeoning attacks, make second attacks while using Spring Attack, increase the usefulness of shields, to detecting magic at will with but a gaze. Besides this collection of general feats there are also eight divine feats which utilize clerical turning attempts into other useful benefits such as briefly gaining damage reduction or increasing their magical healing potency.
        Also included are a section of "Heritage Feats" which (only) sorcerers can use. These feats build on the premise that the powers of a sorcerer have their genesis in an otherworldly ancestry, such as a demon, angel, or draconic ancestor somewhere in the sorcerer's bloodline. Heritage feats let sorcerers do things like increase their resilience to fire and poison while increasing the potency of their conjurations of evil outsiders, expending spell slots to exhale a sonic energy scream, or radiate a righteous aura like that of an angel. Most of them are supernatural in nature.
        A smattering of metamagic feats add benefits for elemental-oriented spellcasters and finally six new tactical feats expand the selection available from those originally available in Complete Warrior.

Chap. 4. New Spells (33 pages)
Not since 2nd edition D&D have we seen dual-school spells, but they are back in this chapter. The concept is fairly simple and doesn't require much explanation. Also included is the official revision of how to handle polymorph spells. Wizards of the Coast has done this by creating a new transmutation (polymorph) sub-school that covers many of the sticking points of these arbitration challenging spells. Much of this material regarding polymorph has been available on the Wizards of the Coast website for a while now.
         Bards and paladins receive a number of new spells to their select from, as do clerics and wizards, but most of the new material in this chapter is geared towards the new beguiler and duskblade character classes. Nicely enough, each spell description uses the new split text format where the first paragraph describes the spell appearance in game and the remaining paragraphs describe the spell mechanics.
        As with much of this book, but most noticeably among the spells contained therein, the use of swift and immediate actions is becoming more prevalent. Players who utilize this book have an ever increasing variety of ways to quickly burn through their spells-per-day allotment. While there are a few direct combat spells, there is a noticeable focus on spells which encourage and enhance the options a spellcaster has to assist and work in concert with other party members to overcome foes. Flinging a lightning bolt will never go out of style, but having more spells that encourage a party to work together is a great thing to have. Arcane casters will appreciate spells such as the 3rd level regroup spell which brings teleports their numerous allies to available adjacent combat squares.

Chap. 5. Building Your Identity (17 pages)
Continuing on the theme presented in chapter two, this chapter focuses on the development of character backgrounds, personality traits, and how to be a good player at the gaming table. Experienced players will likely pass by this chapter, but DMs may find the archetypes to be a wealth of ideas for developing the personas of important NPCs.
        Character backgrounds focus on providing the player with a variety of starting points that facilitate character background creation. Backgrounds include the ascetic, drifter, gladiator, and guttersnipe, to name a few. Each provides a paragraph of suggestions for what the adventurer did as a youth and a lengthy discussion of how they transitioned into becoming an adventurer. This is great for players who have a hard time justifying why their character has decided to place themselves into dangerous situations again and again by becoming an adventurer.
        Personality archetypes (daredevil, challenger, companion, leader, innocent, explorer, etc) provides descriptions for each personality as well as suggestions for character classes as well as somewhat stereotypical role-playing traits to incorporate into your characters personality. These traits are later covered in greater detail, providing the player with suggestions of how to use them at the table when they are playing the part of their character. Some suggestions of feats or skills are made. Beginning players who don't know where to start with their character personality will find this useful as they are guided through the process of creating a believable persona.
        Finally, the Being a Good Player at the Table section brings together the advice that has been presented in sidebars throughout many other books. Topics covered include how to manage paperwork, making combat more efficient and less time consuming, and respecting the role-playing spotlight rather than hogging attention.

Chap. 6. The Adventuring Group (15 pages)
One of the harder perennial questions facing a new adventuring party is, "why are we adventuring together?" This chapter attempts to answer that question by providing scenarios to give the characters a believable reason to want to travel together. Keeping in mind that this book is targeted at players, not DMs, advanced topics like how to bring a group together through campaign story line is not a subject addressed here, though the DMG2 provides quite a bit of advice on this matter already. For the most beginning of players, there are several pages that talk about party ability dynamics; how warriors, clerics, wizards, and rogues work together to be a successful party. Suggestions are made for what kinds of character class combinations are good for groups with only three players, as well as advice on how to make best use of a fifth player. These are great gaming skills for early players to learn early on and the advice given here will probably be useful for many starting gaming groups that have trouble acting as a party.
        This chapter also introduces the concept of teamwork benefits. This simple mechanic addresses specific circumstances, such as planning an ambush or sneaking a party about. Each mechanic gives benefits to the group when they work together as a whole under a leader with skills specific to the needs of the situation. For example, a task leader with 5 ranks of Balance can organize a party of characters who have 1 rank of balance to make a massed charge, allowing the party to make a special charge attack where they move on the same initiative and gain a bonus to their attack roll equal to the number of participants in the charge.

Chap. 7. Affiliations (27 pages)
This chapter has a lot of potential and, being a DM, it is probably my favorite part of the book. Affiliations are a rules-light and easy to understand mechanic for measuring a characters influence within an organization. Concrete benefits for being a part of an organization are examined, not merely intangibles like "access to the extensive guild library and trainers." A dozen example affiliations are presented that can be easily altered and slipped into a campaign, giving DMs a way to immediately make use of this book at their gaming table. Example affiliations range from barbaric tribes to knightly orders to ranger troupes and mage guilds. Following the examples are a clear and flexible guide to creating your own affiliations, complete with example advantages and responsibilities beyond those already covered in the example affiliations. Each affiliation is defines by its type (business, cabal, college, temple, thieves guild, tribe, etc), category (social/racial), scale (its realm of influence from lowly street shopkeeper to world spanning empires), its score criteria (bonuses and penalties which define how a member progresses or regresses in affiliation influence), benefits and duties (what characters get back from the organization depending on their affiliation score rating), and executive powers (abilities bestowed upon top ranking members of an affiliation). Each of these aspects are well covered and provide a wide assortment of options for swiftly crafting your own organization. Just the other night I had a player ask me, "what advantages are there to being part of a guild," and this chapter has the tools to turn that question into a meaningful, mechanic supported answer.

Chap. 8. Rebuilding Your Character (15 pages)
I was skeptical of this chapter as soon as I heard it's premise. "Great," I thought, "a cheesy systematic approach for players to change their character race and class mid-game." Really though, this chapter isn't for players, but for Dungeon Masters. It's not for everyone, but at the very least, there are a couple of cool sites that can be inserted into a campaign.
        There's another reason for this chapter though. I've had campaigns that run for three or more years, during which time a dozen rules and setting expansion books might come out. Then I hear from my players, "I wish I'd known of feat XYZ before we got this far into the campaign, now I'll have to wait a year
before I can try it out." When the Epic Level Handbook came out, this was a frequent complaint. Players realized that to make the most out of the options in that book that they would have had to plan for it almost from the start. But how to address this question without breaking the character and campaign story?
        The chapter addresses rebuilding characters from two directions, either retraining or by supernatural intervention. The former shows how to realistically approach character retraining, preventing players from redesigning their characters on a whim or in a manner that abuses the game system. Limitations prevent characters from making vast changes all at once, forcing such changes to skills, feats, spells, and languages to take place over one or more levels of play.
        Supernatural intervention is how the designers address the larger question of "I want a dwarf, not an elf" or "I want to re-order my ability scores" and other fundamental changes. Such changes are facilitated through quests to locations where such dramatic alterations are possible. To aid in explaining such changes two interesting locations are described which characters can quest to in order to fulfill their characters desires for change. Furthermore, strong guidelines for pitfalls and fairly rebuilding a character are included. These rules can be used to change a characters race, but they can also be used to fairly allow a character to explore the potential of a newly infected lycanthrope character.
        None of this is a given, of course. The chapter makes it quite clear that this isn't an opportunity that players can expect to use at their sole discretion, but that the approval of the Dungeon Master is a core requirement as well. Consequently, this chapter is geared almost entirely towards Dungeon Masters.

Appendix (14 pages)
Finally, the book wraps up with fourteen pages of NPC (okay, PCs could use it too) creating goodness. Including five pages of sensible feat progression groups based on the role you want the NPC to play, example packages of equipment for any level for any party role, random personality generator, and several pages of suggested spell lists for different kinds of casters with different focuses. It is, by no uncertain terms, a substitute for some of the powerful NPC generator/builder computer programs that are available, but in a pinch, when there isn't a computer available this has everything you need to throw together a few characters for a one-off evening adventure.

Parting Thoughts
The experienced player will appreciate the feats in this book and a few may be intrigued by the possibility of retraining their character, a few good spells help round out the usefulness of the book, and that's more than 50 pages of crunchy rules goodness.
        I was happy for the lack of new prestige classes, though the fluffy content of chapter two more than made up for it. At least chapter two got some mechanics treatment with the introduction of substitution class abilities, but even without that a beginning player might appreciate the chapter a little bit for the role-playing suggestions. Honestly though, I think most new role-players have watched enough bad fantasy movies that they can come up with stereotypes for each class on their own. If I was going to cut something from the book, it probably would have been this chapter. Brand new players will appreciate the extra starting packages, but this is the kind of information that is at best, "use-once and never again," and was probably better suited to a web-enhancement or web-article on the Wizards of the Coast website. Chapter five falls into the same vein as chapter two, geared mostly towards new or players who lack creativity.
        Since I'm a DM who plays fast and loose with the rules when it comes to NPC generation, the feats are full of ideas, but it's not really a chapter for me. There's already a dizzying array of feats available in the system already, so what's another 90 feats anyway? My players will probably appreciate this section more than me. The spells are probably even of less interest to a DM from a use standpoint since many of them work best with groups of PC/NPCs, though at high levels there's a viscerally satisfying spell for making creatures explode (causing "splash" damage, pun intended). Chapter six, on the other hand, gives some solid advice for starting new campaigns from the perspective of a player. Party cohesion is a big issue for both new and experienced players and this chapter is a start in the right direction. While appropriate for the book, even chapter six could have easily been presented in a couple web-published articles.
        As regards how some of this book could have been web-published, I say this because I think that books should largely be either a tutoring work, which consolidates advice for players and dungeon masters, or they should be a reference work which you keep at the table and use as part of your game. On the other hand, I realize that in order to appeal to the broadest audience that a publisher needs to include both fluff and crunch, advice and reference material in the same book. As a DM though, the best thing for me is a concise collection of rules and building material, so that when I'm creating a story line I don't have to use a dozen different books, but again - this is a book that was written for players.
        Dungeon Masters who buy this book need not despair though, the designers did thoughtfully include not only a useful appendix which pairs very nicely with the NPC development charts in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but the addition of two adventure sites (the Necrotic Cradle and the Gates of Dawn) are interesting to read about and ready for campaign use, even if you don't intend to rebuild a character with their powers. Also, Dungeon Masters will enjoy the crunch-fluff magic mixture of chapter seven which successfully pulls off the difficult task of describing a new and useful mechanic while simultaneously providing a dozen interesting drop-into-your-campaign organizations that are ready to rock and roll.
        I should not forget to mention some other design details. Art in D&D products has steadily improved since, in my opinion, the brief decline at the outset of third edition. This product is no exception. If you're a fan of the artwork that has been included in the last years worth of role-playing supplements from Wizards of the Coast then you will enjoy and find the style presented within this book to be similar and familiar. They layout, pages, organization are all akin to previous releases (unlike say, Tome of Magic which artistically was a dramatic change for a Wizards of the Coast publication). The topics the book cover are not complex enough to warrant an index, and one is not included.
        To buy or not to buy? Collectors will buy this regardless of what I say and true to my earlier position, they will probably find something useful in it for their next gaming session. If you have a new gaming group, are relatively new to role-playing games, or are still trying to figure out how to have a mature and well organized gaming group, you'll find some value in the advice given in this book. As a dungeon master you'll find this book about as useful as one of the Complete class series books. If you're a new player, it will be more useful than one of the Complete class books and if you're an experienced player it will be less useful since you'll probably only be interested in the feats and spells. I wouldn’t spend $30 bucks just for the feats and spells, but with the adventure sites, party cohesion building tools, and affiliation groups added in, then as a DM I think it was worth it.

Affiliations, The Gray Cabal
Posted on June 3rd, 2006 at 5:55AM CST by Sulerin [bookmark]  [printable]  [reply]
If you haven't purchased a copy of the Players Handbook II yet and you're curious as to what an affiliation looks like, you can see my first attempt at one, the Gray Cabal. This is a fairly traditional wizards guild of substantial power, though its centuries old genesis was originally a gathering of psions and lore masters. There you can see how a characters affiliation score is built within the guild and what responsibilities and benefits entail as the character progresses through guild ranks. I'm eager to see what my player's think of this particular arrangement, especially since one of their characters seeks entrance into this guild.