The Saving Throw
D&D Essentials: Heroes of the Fallen Lands 2010
You know, I've seen a lot of people walkin' 'round with tombstones in their eyes. But the pusher don't care, ah, if you live or if you die.

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Overall Review
published by Wizards of the Coast reviewed by Scott Wachter
365 pages, 2010, $19.95
Game Setting .5
Art 4
Character Generation 2.5
Game Rules 3
Intelligibility 4
Review Scoring

Lately, it has become very difficult to discuss the 4th edition of the D&D ruleset without comparing it to a few competing options currently on the market and getting embroiled in one of the hottest edition wars in years. Which isn't going to happen in this review of Heroes of the Fallen Lands, from WOTC's Essentials line manuals and supplements for 4e. The line is intended to introduce the game to new people. As an introduction it's very solid; a firm handshake with solid eye contact, but after that it just lingers a bit with nothing more to add.

The text of the game has sacrificed any sense of personality for completely clear, unambiguous transmission of the rules to the reader. For an introduction to the concepts, it's great, hammering in all the terminology and rules into new players' heads concisely, right down to the core concept of the d20 mechanic. Which is amazing if you donít have anyone else to walk you through the game. The book also tries to give a player advice on the basics of role-playing but it mostly comes down to how you can assign stats based on your character's backstory, which is surprisingly tepid in comparison to the fantastic game mastering advice offered in the 4th ed. Dungeon Masters Guide.

Character-wise, options are painfully limited. For races you can choose between Human, Halfling, Elf, Dwarf, and Eladrin, all of which are recycled from prior D&D manuals and not at all exciting. Dwarves, Elves, and Humans are the same as ever, while Eladrin look down on Elves the way Elves look down on everyone else. Halflings, have stopped being rural English stereotypes and have become river-based semi-nomadic Romany-types, which I can't give too many points to for two reasons: 1) I donít like it and B) I think this was a trend started in the latter days of 3.5 so it's not even recent innovation.

Classes fare better with new takes on the fighters, clerics, rogues and wizards with new sets of powers and paragon paths for each. Fighters and rogues come out quite well with a shift in tone away from the fantastic. Most of the new fighter powers are called stances and tend toward the mundane side of where you deal extra damage or get a small effect after a successful hit with a few other powers that add an extra effect on a healing surge. Rogues get a lot of movement abilities and a few underhanded attacks. These are in contrast to the typical 4th ed. attack powers where the character would fly across a room, blade on fire and cause his target to explode, which is terribly difficult to reconcile with the more humble origins you tend to get from fighters and rogues. For all the good those classes get, the caster classes feel incomplete. Clerics get two domains and wizards get three schools of magic, which if you aren't familiar with D&D is not enough of either of them. What is good is that for each of the class variants (two for cleric, two for fighter, effectively three for wizard and one for rogue) the book gives you a step-by-step progression for the class, picking out the best powers and feats for that class. The problem is that there really isn't much else beyond those builds.

It's almost tempting not to grade the setting considering how little of it is present, but what little there is the same generic, bland, Tolkien-esque fantasy that has been part and parcel of WOTC's D&D products for years. The lack of setting material (let alone interesting setting material) in a intro product is disheartening, if the goal of the writers was to interest new players. By including a unique vibrant fantasy setting to encourage interaction, WOTC has made a serious misstep. Boring though the setting may be; it is depicted beautifully. The art and interior production values are astounding, with great full-page action spreads that fuel the reader's imagination.

The skill section is just as dry, but well explained, as the rest of the book, with some really great tips on how to use each skill in a non-standard way, which is refreshing in an introductory D&D product when skills are assumed to be entirely self-explanatory. Following the skill section is the lackluster feat chapter, consisting mostly of proficiencies and simple stat boosts. I realize most of the flash in 4e characters comes from powers but this is entirely uninspiring. Carrying the lack of inspiration forward is the chapter on magic items, a bare handful of unique items and several tables detailing benefits and costs of weapons and armor with +1 to +6 enhancement bonuses. And just when Iím ready to throw the book down in frustration with its utter blandness, we get a great glossary and a solid index.

You may have noticed that I point a lot of incompleteness in text, so have the authors of this book and while they're pointing it out they also point out what other books you can buy to fill in that gap, it comes across as hella disengenous. This book could have been a fantastic introduction to fourth edition D&D, but as it stands it feels like two-thirds of a game manual and one-sixth marketing ploy, which is still adds up to being an incomplete product. If you are completely new to gaming this is a good point to get a feel for how it works, but if you're just looking to get your feet wet with 4e, you may as well go straight for the deep end with a real Players Handbook.

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