So, recently my brand new 4th Edition group sat around my ever-so-slightly-too-high dinner table and rolled up a bunch of characters for the impending campaign. Here's how it went down.
First to go were the standard array and the various point-buy options in favour of the rattle of dice on table-top, albeit with a couple of ground rules in place to ensure no-one was too gimped. The result? A bunch of powerful characters with slightly more flaws than they might otherwise have had in the ability score department. This is fine by me as I'm going to be running a campaign with a less-than-optimal 4-player party, so powerful PC's will reduce the amount of work I have to do in tailoring adventures to account for the missing 5th man/woman/monstrous humanoid.
Second on the agenda, class decisions. Pretty much everyone at the table arrived with expectations about their favourite class, but were willing to compromise in the interests of covering the four major roles... a very good sign for the campaign, I think. Result: a dwarven rogue, a dwarven fighter, an eladrin wizard, and (my own character) a dragonborn cleric. Ironically, I was ready to fill whichever role was left over and I ended up with the cleric... which is the class most people associate me with when it comes to D&D. No problems there (and the 4ed cleric just rocks the big one).
Then it was time for the PHB-shuffle as everyone started deciphering the rules and filling in their sheets. I took a bit of time at the start of the session to walk the character sheet and give the run-down on whatever rules were relevant, which ended up being a pretty good method of introducing the guys to the new game. They took to it all very quickly. Comparisons to previous editions, and of course the inevitable comments about WoW (mostly from me, despite the fact I banned the name from the table!), were rife, but it showed everyone was keyed up and getting into the new rules. Any doubt I might have had about whether these D&D veterans would take to 4th Edition quickly evaporated as the various squawks of delight and random exclamations of "Cool!" erupted around the table during this process.
A couple of quibbles about the layout of the books. First, the index is a bit of a failure, which isn't surprising considering that three-hundred-plus of pages of pretty crunchy stuff is indexed on just one side. Really, in this day and age, this is unforgivable. The 3rd Edition index was like a Heward's Haversack of info... no matter what I looked for, it always seemed to be there, and the 4th Edition version is sad in comparison. Second, not listing the powers for each class in either a combined or class-specific table somewhere in the book is a major error. Neither of these sacrifices to the dark and infernal gods of page-count should have been allowed to reach their diabolical end.
Next, some of the early character choices are very tough if you choose not to go with the suggested character builds. On the one hand, this is obvious. New players will undoubtedly go with the builds presented, and probably even assume they're mandatory, so it's hardly a fair criticism. On the other hand there was a lot of combined D&D experience around the table that day so I wasn't surprised to find that my players wanted a bit more freedom. With every class having three prime abilities, and with powers dipping liberally into all three of them for both attack and damage/effect rolls, optimising your first few characters will take time. I couldn't help but feel that the power descriptions could have helped here, simply by stating prominently which abilities were relevant and removing the need to read the power descriptions in detail, perhaps in the non-existing powers table I mentioned above. To be fair this is really a small criticism which will become increasingly irrelevant as we gain the all-important rules familiarity.
Other small editorial tidbits slowed things down too: for example, items have weight but the information on what you can carry/push/drag etc. is not tabulated, and the word encumbrance seems to have been excised from the game entirely. It sounds pedantic, but this is gamer terminology that's ingrained in our minds and its removal seems unnecessary. I also think that the section on reading the 4th Edition character sheet, which is a particularly dense example of the species, should have been much longer and clearer. It took us ages to work out what the 'Attack Workspace' section was for, but I'm more than willing to put that down to us just being thick. What is even less forgivable is the complete lack of a downloadable 4th Edition character sheet from the Wizards of the Coast web-site; instead we had to make do with a reasonable but nevertheless inferior scan from the back of the PHB. Come on, guys. Digital content is a headline selling feature of the 4ed product line. Not to have even this simple download available at launch is absolutely crazy.
The positives far outweighed the negatives here, though, and are much easier to define. Choosing powers was a gloriously exciting exercise, with each class presented alongside a smorgesboard of fun and blood-letting. The simplified skill system takes seconds to get to grips with (and the same amount of time to re-do after you buy armour with a check penalty!). The equipment and armaments section is concise and to the point. Choices at first level are varied enough to give individuality to your creations, but limited enough not to overwhelm. A completed first level character seems just loaded down with potential, screaming to get onto the battlemat and into the minds of the players. I can't help but admire what's been achieved in that respect.
To close up this portion of the review then... is character creation a fun exercise in itself, or is it a laborious grind that gets in the way of the actual game? Definitely the former, which for me is an important tick in the long list of things 4th Edition must get right to earn its place in D&D history. 8.5/10