Note: This post has been moved here from my other blog.
The PHB2 was released a couple of weeks ago. It has 8 new classes and 5 new races, as well as some new feats, paragon paths, equipment, rule updates, etc.
I feel it's the perfect companion to the first PHB. To be honest, I was buying it mostly for the Bard, which was one of my favorite classes in previous editions. But looking through it, I'm finding all sorts of things I want to try. I think my next character might end up being a Razorclaw Shifter Druid who favors cat forms. I see at least three feats my existing characters might take later, and the new racial paragon paths are pretty cool.
There's a section on Backgrounds, which was probably added for those people who thought the PHB1 didn't have enough roleplay rules. I applaud their efforts, but I don't think this will satisfy the detractors. Basically, it lists a lot of suggestions for various races and character types, giving you a jumping-off point to write your character's backstory. To encourage a fleshed-out background, you get a bonus to a skill associated with that background (with your DM's approval). Other bonuses (like an extra language) might also be allowed. I like the idea, but it's not what I was expecting, and it's definitely not what some of the complainers were hoping for. Most of the roleplay griping I've heard was about the lack of occupation-specific skills like sailing or crafting. The PHB2 doesn't add any new skills into the mix; it only gives bonuses to the existing skills.
Personally I'd have preferred if they'd listed a lot of possible former occupations and hobbies - blacksmithing, jousting, basket-weaving, etc - and allowed you to add a bonus to skill rolls associated with that action, if that specific action came up in the story. You could only pick a certain number, and they would have to be listed in the "background" section of your character sheet before the first time you play the character. Plus there could be rules about related skills... if you were once a bootmaker, the DM might give you +5 if you're specifically trying to make or repair boots, but he also might rule +2 if you're trying to repair some leather armor.
I would have liked something like that, but even that's not really needed. Any DM worth his salt will already give a player some advantage in a jousting tournament, if it's been previously established that the character did a lot of jousting growing up. And any decent player who claims his character was once a professional informant in the seedy parts of town, already took "Streetwise" as one of his skills when rolling up his character. So yeah, it's not what I would have come up with, but at least they're trying to reward well-written characters.
Wizards of the Coast is owned by Hasbro, which may be why they've been trying to promote a more family-friendly image lately. Half-Orcs were not included in the first PHB, because it was difficult to discuss their parentage without including some unsavory elements. While some Orc/Human romances have probably happened now and then, it was generally understood that many Half-Orcs were the result of rape, and Hasbro didn't like that. Well, the Half-Orcs are finally back in, but their backgrounds have changed a little. Half-Orcs are now a full-blood race. So now if you're a Half-Orc, most of the time it's going to be because both of your parents were Half-Orcs. At first I hated the idea, but it's grown on me.
For one thing, I've never liked half-anything being called a race. I would rather they had just listed full-blood races, then added a chapter on possible pairings and the stat changes they would entail. Secondly, the PHB2 still gives "First Generation Half-Orc" as an option, so players who specifically want mixed parentage are still allowed to do so. So everybody wins.
The Half-Orcs also are also more marketable this time around. They are no longer automatically ugly and stupid. They're just taller humanoids with greyish skin and tusks. Going by the book's art, they're actually fairly attractive. You can still make yours a dumb brute if you want (and in previous editions, you could design your Half-Orc smart and attractive, it was just harder), but the "brainless tank" stereotype is no longer assumed. Besides, if you really want to play a big brute, Goliaths are the new Half-Orcs.
Gnomes are back as well, and also a bit changed. I've never played a Gnome in previous editions, so I could be way off here, but they've always struck me as silly-looking eccentric tinkerers. Going by the art in the PHB2, they're a lot more attractive now, looking like half-sized elves. They still work best as magic users, but fast-talking rogues would probably work well too.
The new race I'm most interested in is the Shifter. They're basically werewolves/weretigers without the lycanthropy. Your facial features are a bit doglike or catlike, and you are very in tune with your base instincts - perfect for the new primal classes. My only problem is that I'd really love a Shifter who uses only her claws and teeth, but there aren't any unarmed melee classes. There's rumors of Monks in next year's PHB3, but Monk's carry a lot of excess baggage that I wouldn't wish on an animalistic character. But like I said above, I'm thinking of making a Shifter Druid, and staying in my beast form a lot. That should be fun.
The only race I really don't get is the Deva. These are basically earthbound angels who are driven to glorify the gods. Okay, leave it to me to miss the point of something religion-related, but I'm just not sure how these fit in. I'm sure they added them to complement the new Divine classes, but I just can't imagine these characters being common enough to make it into a PHB. IMO, they should have done like the Genasi and included them in one of the other splat books.
Now the classes... Barbarians aren't much changed from 3rd (well, as much as anything from 3x to 4e can be considered unchanged). They're still just a more brutal version of the fighter. High damage, low armor - because sometimes the best defense is to slaughter your foe before he gets a hit in.
The Bard is very different, and I don't know if I'll like playing them, but I will try. They do make sense for the 4e system. One of the most noticeable elements of 4e is the "roles" system, and a party works best when it has at least one character filling each role. Granted, this was the case long before 4e, and for most other RPGs as well, but 4e is especially difficult if you don't have a well-rounded party. Fourth Edition is hard to play solo, and Bards will have the hardest time fighting by themselves. Bards have always been support characters, and now more than ever, every move a Bard makes benefits one of his party members. Which means that every party will be glad to welcome a Bard into it. Just don't let him wander off alone.
The Druid is a bit different; they really concentrated on the Wildshape ability. You can build your Druid with an emphasis on your humanoid form or your animal form, and it probably feels like a completely different class depending on which one you favor. You can either play your Druid like a nature-based Wizard, casting spells from a distance. Or you can use your animal form to claw your opponent's face off. Changing shape is a minor action, so you can shift, move, and attack in the same turn. That's going to be fun.
Sorcerer is kind of neat. I never liked how Wizards and Sorcerers felt in 3x, because they were basically the same class, but with a different philosophy towards spell memorization. But 4e Sorcerers really look unique. I love the spells with random elements (mostly dailies) - when calculating your damage, you roll an additional d6 that determines whether the spell also paralyzes, shocks, burns, blinds, etc. It's almost like gambling. I've never really been into the pure magic classes, but I may give this one a try. A Dragonborn sorcerer sounds like fun.
The rest of the classes don't interest me, but I haven't looked at them that closely yet. The Avenger strikes me as being another type of Paladin. The Shaman reminds me of the Beast Master version of the Ranger, except with a Native American "spirit animal" theme. The Warden also reminds me of Rangers, except dealing with mountains instead of trees. And I'm not sure what to make of the Invoker yet.
The new feats are nice. A lot of them are made to go along with the new classes, but there's some good ones for the original classes as well. Of course each new class has a selection of Paragon Paths, but the book also contains some race-related Paragon Paths as well. My favorite is the Dragonborn one - it makes your breath weapon more useful and lets you grow wings. There's also sections on new equipment and rituals, some of which is specifically designed for the new classes.
In short, it's not just another splat book, IMO. It's not indispensible, but it is a lot more useful than most of the other supplemental books.