2011 Product Reviews for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

This has been the lightest year for publications since 4th Edition launched back in 2008, but I figured I’d end the year with a quick recap of my personal opinions on the various books and products that Wizards of the Coast have gifted us with this year.

DN1 Caverns of Icewind Dale – I’m an unabashed fan of Dungeon Tiles. I think it comes from how impressed I was once I got my hands on them combined with my childhood love of Lego building blocks. I bought this set only recently, and only really because it was the only set I didn’t already have one or two of that wasn’t out of print. I rarely use ice or winter encounters, so I probably could’ve saved my money. If you frequently use those type of environments, this is a great set. This is also the only cavelike Dungeon Tiles set that’s currently in print and it doesn’t look like any of the sets coming out soon are going to include them, at least from what I can tell.

Heroes of Shadow – Some good ideas and some really bad ones. This book and the one that follows it on this list were what we got instead of a Ravenloft campaign setting. I loved the revamped Assassin, which is more traditional and less mystic ninja (as the original Dragon Magazine version was) and the Blackguard has some interesting potential. Some of the classes were horrible ideas from the start, such as the infinite stacking of undeath (Revenant Dhampyr Vryloka Vampire) and the insanely boring Vampire class in which there’s pretty much no choice at any level whatsoever. Also wasn’t a fan of the two new Mage builds as they didn’t seem to add enough flavor and were woefully underpowered compared to other builds.

The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond – This was another mixed bag for me when it should’ve been a shoe-in. I’m not a fan of boxes when books work better, but that’s probably due to my personal distaste for tokens and poster maps which make me feel like I’m paying extra money for stuff I’ll never use. The deck was the best thing about the set, and thankfully all the rules were presented to run a Ravenloft game in 4e even if they didn’t call it Ravenloft.

DN2 The Witchlight Fens – I like this set much more than Icewind Dale. Swamps and marshes are far more my domain as a DM, so combining this with DT2 Wilderness suits me perfectly. Same high quality, art fits with the previous sets, and this set is far more versatile than the Icewind Dale set.

Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale – My biggest disappointment of the year. What I really wanted was basically Monster Vault 2, a second book updating monsters from the Monster Manual, Monster Manual 2, Open Grave, etc. to the design style from Monster Manual 3 and Monster Vault. What I got was a very good group of monsters for use in a campaign tied deeply to the Nentir Vale telling stories I wasn’t really interested in telling and only about 120 pages worth of them at that. And I had to pay a premium to get more blankity-blank tokens and poster maps I’ve never used and probably never will. I want to make it clear, this book is very good and well-designed. I just expected something completely different and it colored my opinion of the material.

Neverwinter Campaign Setting – I have to be honest, I’ve only skimmed over this book. I’ve never really understood Forgotten Realms as a setting, but I’m really trying. I swear! I really wished more work was done to make the Backgrounds in this book more unique, rather than just being another set of “+2 bonus to this skill or that skill” with a different name. The Themes, however, are very well done as are the racial variants (something I’ve wanted since 4e came out). Not a big fan of the Bladesinger class, but there’s nothing really wrong with it per se, just not for me personally. And that’s pretty much as far as I got in the book as everything else is pure Neverwinter setting information, which made no sense to me as someone not already that familiar with the setting. Maybe once I finish some of the novels, I’ll appreciate it more and understand it better. But for a book that really wasn’t written with me in mind, there was a lot of good in this book.

Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium – Probably the best “Here’s a book with just a bunch of magic items” book I’ve ever seen. Books like these always feel like a tax levied upon me as DM/GM, since I have to buy them for my players to use as a reference. Shadowrun’s been the only game system I can think of that made these interesting with their Shadowtalk sections for the new gear, and Wizards of the Coast used something similar by putting in a lot of writing in-character. By the way, is it just me or is Mordenkainen kind of a dick? “Don’t use the arcane arts? You suck. Use the arcane arts but not as a wizard? You suck. A wizard but not one exactly the same way I am? You suck.” The new approach to magic items is exactly what the game needs as all the magic items feel magical, with a history and personality rather than just a generic grouping of game effects. This was the most pleasant surprise I had of the year.

Madness at Gardmore Abbey – Take a classic D&D artifact and completely castrate it. That’s what it feels like this set did bringing the Deck of Many Things to 4e. Now I have to preface this by stating that the Deck of Many Things played a key role in my first ever game of D&D, so it holds a special place in my heart. I love the adventure seeds presented here (if not the adventure itself) about the Deck being scattered and needing to be reassembled. However, using the Deck as it was originally used in previous editions just doesn’t translate to 4e. The rewards are fine, but the penalties are far too low for them to be a real threat. It’s an extension of 4e “no more save or die” design philosophy (one which I personally agree with wholeheartedly), but I feel that the Deck of Many Things would’ve been a great place to throw that into the game. There should be the threat that picking the wrong card will be an instant end. It adds to the thrill when you flip it over and it’s something good. Again, I must reiterate my distaste for paying for maps and tokens I’m never going to use, but I must say I do like owning an actual Deck of Many Things.

Heroes of the Feywild – This was another big hit-or-miss book for me. Anything describing the Feywild itself was pointless for me since I have my own ideas on how the realm of the Fae is in my games. I like that Wizards is taking a bit of a chance here by forcing story-related fluff onto races, with Satyrs being always male and Hamadryads being always female. It’s something that can be easily ignored if you don’t like it, but it adds something to the game for it to be there. The races are great, especially the Pixie (though do you have any idea how hard it is to find Tiny-sized minis?!) and the class builds aren’t my thing personally but seem far better done across the board than Heroes of Shadow. The stand-out here though are the Themes. I love using the Fae in my games (probably due to the amount of urban fantasy novels I read and their ubiquity in them), and these Themes fit perfectly with how I like to use them. Just like with the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, the Backgrounds are boring. But the feats…I’ve had players who would’ve given an arm and a leg for the Two Weapon Expertise feat in my last campaign, which is ironic considering they would’ve then been disqualified from taking it.

DN3 Shadowghast Manor – Considering I posted an entire review of this set already, I have to reiterate how much I love it. It’s perfect for me and my gaming style as I have a preference for the macabre.

The Book of Vile Darkness – Speaking of my taste for the macabre…I have to admit that I haven’t given this set much attention yet. I only just got it a few days ago and I’ve been busy with other things. Unfortunately, it looks like this will be a disappointment for me. Another stupid poster map I have no use for, and the books don’t look like they live up to their promise of helping me as DM make my villains more evil or give me the tools to run a game of evil PCs. Most of the latter actually seems to just be a lot of advice on why it’s a bad idea and how to get around the reasons it’s a bad idea while still calling it a bad idea. Sorry, but I paid for the book already. That means I probably already know what I’m getting into. This may actually be more useful for other DMs, since my early games ranged from morally ambivalent to downright evil – both as a player and a DM – so I’m used to this sort of gameplay and how to make it work.

So I believe that’s about it. Or at least that’s all the stuff I’ve gotten my paws on over the year. I’ve also picked up the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and Pathfinder Beginner’s Box, but the former has reviews all over the place while the latter has a very detailed unboxing video available from Paizo, and attempting to review either would spark edition wars. And I’m fiddling around with a Pathfinder vs. D&D 4e post anyway, so maybe I’ll open that particular can of worms next year.

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Published in: on December 30, 2011 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  

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