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Player's Handbook (4e)

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The first of three core rulebooks for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons® Roleplaying Game.

The Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game has defined the medieval fantasy genre and the tabletop RPG industry for more than 30 years. In the D&D game, players create characters that band together to explore dungeons, slay monsters, and find treasure. The 4th Edition D&D rules offer the best possible play experience by presenting exciting character options, an elegant and robust rules system, and handy storytelling tools for the Dungeon Master.

The Player's Handbook presents the official Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game rules as well as everything a player needs to create D&D characters worthy of song and legend: new character races, base classes, paragon paths, epic destinies, powers, more magic items, weapons, armor, and much more.

Product History

Player's Handbook (2008) by Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins, and James Wyatt, is the first core rulebook for the D&D 4e game. It was published in June 2008.

About the Cover. The covers for D&D 3e's core books (2000+) were all laid out as faux tomes of various sorts. This first 4e cover changed up that decade-old formula: it showed two characters painted in an epic fantasy style. Notably, one of those characters was of a race never before seen on (or in!) in a core book: a dragonborn.

Together, these elements foreshadowed the big changes that D&D 4e (2008) was bringing to the Dungeons & Dragons game: it was different than 3e, and it was reimagining everything.

Moving Toward D&D 4e. The path to D&D 4e began in early 2005 when D&D's managers began looking for a team to write the new edition of D&D that would follow D&D 3e (2000) and D&D 3.5e (2003). They quickly decided on Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins, and James Wyatt, who held their first design workshop in May 2005. These core designers led a few different teams that worked on the game through September 2006. They then began finalizing what would go into the new Player's Handbook and Monster Manual. Writing followed in April and May of 2007.

Meanwhile, the 4e design team was trying out some of their ideas in live products. Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords (2006) tested the idea of fighters having active powers, while the Star Wars Saga Edition (2007) also contained many design ideas which were at the time a part of D&D 4e. (Not all of them made the cut.)

The general public had been speculating about a new fourth edition since at least 2006; they finally got their confirmation at Gen Con Indy 2007. A countdown on the Wizards of the Coast web site revealed forthcoming "A4venture" (or perhaps "Adventure") just as the D&D team announced the new edition at the convention.

In the year between the "Big Announcement" and the release of the new game, D&D publication was very light. Eberron was one of the few lines that filled the gap, while many publications were editionless — including The Grand History of the Realms (2007), Dungeon Survival Guide (2007), and An Adventurers Guide to Eberron (2008).

Wizards also spent that year previewing the upcoming game. Wizards Present: Races and Classes (2007) and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters (2008) laid out some of the philosophy of the new game and hinted at the massive changes to D&D fluff. Players then got to try out the new edition at D&D eXPerience 2008, from February 28 to March 2, 2008.

Publication for the fourth edition finally began in May 2008 … with an quickstart adventure, H1: "The Keep on the Shadowfell" (2008). Then on June 6, 2008, all three core books hit, the bringing Dungeons & Dragons game into a new era.

What a Difference an Edition Makes: The Philosophy. D&D 4e arguably surpassed D&D 3e as being the most reimagined version of Dungeons & Dragons ever. Though it maintained core concepts like classes, races, and rolling high on a d20, everything else was up for grabs. Many of these changes were the result of new philosophies for the game's design. Fan were able to hear extensive details about these design goals thanks to numerous articles that ran in those two Wizards Presents books, then in Dragon and Dungeon magazines. The result might be the most publicly designed roleplaying game ever.

Overall, D&D 4e was meant to ensure that new players "have an amazing experience that teaches them to love roleplaying". However, lead designer Rob Heinsoo has also detailed a number of subsidiary goals intended to push the game in that direction:

  • Expanding the Sweet Spot. The design team felt that D&D 3e's sweet spot was 4th-12th level — that lower-level characters were too fragile and that higher-level characters were too overpowered by spells. They wanted to make the game more fun at all levels.
  • All Classes Must Rock. D&D had long dealt with the problem of wizards (and clerics) ruling the game at high levels. The design team wanted to ensure that everyone was important.
  • Powers for Everyone. The design team decided to equalize the classes by giving everyone powers, not just spell-casters.
  • Character Roles. Finally, the design team decided to introduce class roles, which would better define what the different classes could do. In some ways, this was a back-to-basics decisions. OD&D contained a mere three classes (clerics, magic-users, and fighting men), and so it was easy to balance a party. However, as character classes proliferated in later editions, it became less clear which classes could fill which roles. Now, D&D 4e could start with eight classes (and add many more in later years), while still clearly defining which each class did.

Many other goals became apparent as additional books appeared for D&D 4e. The most important one was probably moving the game away from being a simulation and toward being a more cinematic gaming experience — something that would allow players to simply reskin their character fluff without it changing the game itself.

What a Difference an Edition Makes: The Characters. Characters saw the biggest revamp in D&D 4e. To start with, all the character classes were unified in how they were defined and how they progressed. They had set bonuses that went up with level, and they each gained set powers as well. For example, at starting level each character got two at-will powers (which could be used constantly), one encounter power (which could be used once per fight), and one daily power (which could be used once per day). The difference in the character classes now focused on what powers they had and what they could do.

These powers had a number of repercussions.

  • Universal powers meant that fighters and rogues could now do cool and different things every round, just like spell-casters always did.
  • At-will and encounter powers meanwhile moved spell-casters away from the idea of "Vancian" spell casting, where spells were memorized and then forgotten every day.
  • The proliferation of at-will and encounter powers also solved a problem that the designers had talked about frequently in interviews and design diaries: "the fifteen-minute work day". No longer would characters enter a dungeon, move through a couple of rooms, then flee to recover their spells. Instead, characters could make epic charges through a dungeon, like you might expect in a legend or novel. (Meanwhile, daily powers ensured that some resources were still limited.)

D&D 4e's clases was also defined in two other ways. As Heinsoo had promised, they had roles that described what they did: controllers (like the wizard) reshaped the battlefield, defenders (like the paladin) sucked up attacks, leaders (like the cleric) healed, and strikers (like the ranger) did piles of damage. Orthogonally, classes also had power sources that defined where their powers originated from; arcane and divine power sources had long been a part of the D&D game, but now the martial power source joined them, to be followed by primal and psionic powers in later supplements.

The redefinition of D&D's classes went beyond the foundation of powers, sources, and roles. Characters could now standardly be played through 30th level — where only 20 levels had been available for normal play in D&D 3e. In fact, character experience was carefully organized into tiers of ten levels — tiers that also defined the first couple of years of D&D publication. Levels 1-10 were heroic, levels 11-20 were paragon, and levels 21-30 were epic. At the higher levels of play, players also got to choose paragon paths and epic destinies for their characters. These class variants had one big difference from the 3e prestige classes that they superseded: they didn't replace the core classes that the players were working on, but instead working in tandem with them.

Meanwhile, everything that was associated with characters changed too — mostly through simplification and a reduction in randomness. Thus, hit points were no longer rolled, while skills no longer accumulated skills points; instead these stats were based largely on character level. Magic items were also built into a character's progression, with each item having suggested levels; variants were often available at many different levels of power. Even alignments changed, dropping back from the ninefold model for the first time since the release of the AD&D Players Handbook (1978). There were just five alignments remaining: good, lawful good, evil, chaotic evil, and unaligned.

What a Difference an Edition Makes: The Other Mechanics. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the D&D game changed a lot too. Generally, this took the form of standardization. Spells now tended to have hit rolls, for example (because everything else did), while higher-level powers tended to multiply damage rather than adding static bonuses (because that fit the traditional high-power model for spells). Saving throws were also changed to become targets (like armor class), rather than something requiring an additional roll

The mechanics of the new game were also more focused on combat than in previous editions. Battle mats had already been critically important for D&D 3e, but if anything that increased in D&D 4e, which made small movements (shifts) an important element of many powers. Meanwhile, spells and other abilities that weren't combat-oriented either disappeared or were revamped. With combat becoming more important, healing became more important as well, and so a "healing surges" mechanic was introduced that let anyone heal themselves. (This was probably also intended to give leaders more opportunity to have "fun" in combat.)

These mechanical changes don't mean that 4e was intended to move away from roleplaying; it just means that roleplaying activities weren't codified like they were in D&D 3e. This move toward freeform non-combat activities was actually another back-to-basics decision that recalled classic D&D design; old-school D&D tended to focus on player ingenuity rather than character skill, and now that was increasingly an option for non-combat play.

D&D 4e also had one major new system that was a massive expansion of non-combat mechanics, but these skill challenge was the focus of the Dungeon Master's Guide (2008), not the Player's Handbook.

What a Difference an Edition Makes: The Controversy. By the late '00s, a number of different RPG publishers had published hugely revamped new editions of their games that had resulted in fan rebellions. MegaTraveller (1987) was one of the first, but Traveller: The New Era (1993), Champions: The New Millennium (1997), and Cyberpunk v3 (2005) were more recent examples of the same pattern.

Meanwhile, D&D had never quite faced this problem. The conversions from OD&D (1974) to AD&D (1977-1979) then to AD&D second edition (1989) were all considered so minor that groups often kept using the old edition's books with the new game. The release of D&D 3e (2000) was clearly a bigger deal, and did result in some discontent. However, rather than long-running flame wars, it instead resulted in the creation of old-school publishers like Necromancer Gamers (2000-2009), old-school survivalist communities like Dragonsfoot (2001-Present), and ultimately the whole old-school revivalist movement (2006-Present).

Unfortunately, edition wars finally caught up with D&D in a big way with the release of D&D 4e (2008), thanks to the vast differences in its characters and in other game systems. Many of D&D's former players felt like they'd been left behind, and the result was a unending torrent of flame wars that lasted from the publication of D&D 4e in 2008 until the D&D 4e line was cancelled in 2012.

The biggest complaints (which were often seen as total gospel by 3e fans and absolute silliness by 4e players) were:

  • 4e was too combat oriented. This focused on the combat emphasis of the mechanics, ignoring skill challenges and the fact that game masters could easily introduce roleplaying without the need for mechanics
  • 4e was an MMORPG. This repeated the complaints about 4e's combat focus, but also claimed that its roles were a carry-over from MMORPGs, ignoring the use of traditional class-roles as far back as 1974.
  • Characters were all the same. This focused on the unification of character powers and progression, and was certainly a matter of preference, though the design team's goals showed many of the advantages of this methodology.

However, the biggest complaint about D&D 4e was really that the game was too different. So much had changed, that some people felt like it was no longer the game they'd loved. In fact, many felt that it was a different game entirely, with its only similarity to previous editions being the D&D brand.

Even designer Rob Heinsoo later acknowledged that they'd changed too much at once. Though he stood by the mechanical changes in D&D 4e, he felt that changing the game's fluff at the same time might have been too much — changes that were revealed in other core 4e products like Monster Manual (2008) and Manual of the Planes (2008). Heinsoo also said this was "mixed up with missteps involving the OGL/GSL and electronic publishing plans". So, 4e had a hard road to hoe, with so many different issues piling atop the massive changes in its core mechanics … and the result was five years of controversy.

A Different Sort of Player's Handbook. Amidst all its other changes, the 4e Player's Handbook was notable for one other thing: it was the most complete player's rulebook ever produced for the "advanced" branch of the D&D game. Not only did it contain all the character creation rules, and all the other core rules, but for the first time ever it included magic items (though not artifacts).

Forgotten Heroes & Resurrected Races. The 4e Player's Handbook contained an impressive eight races and eight classes, but the exact races and classes that were highlighted surprised some.

D&D 4e's core races included the dragonborn, dwarf, eladrin, elf, half-elf, halfling, human, and tiefling. Of these, the dragonborn, eladrin, and tiefling all appeared as core races for the first time. They'd all been floating around in the D&D mythos for a while — with the tieflings being the oldest. However, this was a big upgrade for them.

Meanwhile, the character races were also extensively reimagined, with the designers thinking of new ways to give the races niches and to make them more evocative. This was the first insight that many players got into the massive reconception of D&D's fluff that was at the heart of D&D 4e. It would appear much more extensively in 4e's other books from 2008.

D&D 4e's core classes included the cleric, fighter, paladin, ranger, rogue, warlock, warlord, and wizard. Again there were two surprising newbies. The warlock and warlord had both appeared in D&D 3e days, but hadn't been a core part of the game previously.

With so many new races and classes, it's not surprising that some classics got dropped. The gnome and half-orc were the most notable omissions from the race list, while the assassin, bard, and druid were all classics that were missing from the class list. This generated even more controversy, and the designers later said that they regretted not saying that the first Player's Handbook was just a starting place for D&D 4e. Many more races and classes would appear in the years to come.

About the Creators. D&D 4e was the brainchild of lead designer Rob Heinsoo, who got his start writing in Alarums & Excursions in the '80s. He quickly moved on to contribute to Atlas Games, then to work for Chaosium. He started out at Wizards of the Coast as a writer for their D&D Worlds team, and now was the lead of the biggest revamp ever for D&D.

About the Product Historian

The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to shannon.appelcline@gmail.com.

 
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Reviews (1)
Discussions (8)
Customer avatar
Timothy B September 20, 2017 9:42 pm UTC
PURCHASER
Based on an exchange I had with Antonio E, it appears that the PHB has the errata.

For example, page 42 has "1st-level at-will attack power."

And 222 has "Oil (1 pint)" listed.
Customer avatar
Stephen R Brandon B December 03, 2016 5:58 pm UTC
So it's been a few months since the last discussion about errata and this book. Any chance they've updated it to include Errata? (and if so up to what point?). I'd buy this in a heartbeat if it was fully up to date on Errata.
Customer avatar
Sascha L May 05, 2016 6:50 am UTC
PURCHASER
To my great dismay, I clearly have to say: It´s not errataed, nay! :(
Customer avatar
Jamie L November 15, 2016 11:12 pm UTC
Bummer. Thanks for responding, though.
Customer avatar
Jamie L April 26, 2016 5:24 pm UTC
Has anyone been able to confirm whether or not this release contains the current errata for the 4e Player's Handbook?
Customer avatar
Antonio E November 19, 2015 3:22 pm UTC
In the hope some buyer or the publisher can answer...does this (and DMG and MM) include the errata?
Customer avatar
October 21, 2015 4:22 am UTC
PURCHASER
Like Sean asked, how is this different than the (watermarked) version I bought back in 2008?
Customer avatar
Timothy B January 08, 2016 12:29 am UTC
PURCHASER
Douglas, did you ever get a chance to compare the version available for download to the old version, to see if the errata have been included?
Customer avatar
Sean L October 20, 2015 10:58 pm UTC
PURCHASER
I bought this back in 2008. Why is the download not available in my library now that it's finally been re-released?
Customer avatar
Timothy B October 22, 2015 11:11 pm UTC
PURCHASER
I see that you're now listed as a purchaser. Did you re-buy this, or did your old purchase apply?

Does this version include errata?
Customer avatar
Sean L October 22, 2015 11:50 pm UTC
PURCHASER
They applied the old purchase. I haven't had a chance to check it out yet.
Customer avatar
Timothy B January 08, 2016 12:29 am UTC
PURCHASER
Sean, did you ever get a chance to compare the version available for download to the old version, to see if the errata have been included?
Customer avatar
William W October 20, 2015 8:57 pm UTC
Maybe wishful thinking, but does this include errata? I'm totally down with this, if so.
Customer avatar
JOHN A October 29, 2015 1:28 pm UTC
This was also my first thought.
Customer avatar
Antonio E November 19, 2015 3:20 pm UTC
I'd buy them all if the included the errata. Well, at least the TRUE errata, not the revisions which came later with Essentials.
Customer avatar
May 01, 2016 4:55 am UTC
PURCHASER
Just got it and did a few spot checks against the 6/10/08 errata file and it does looks to be updated to at least that errata file.
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