This is a massive chapter. It takes up about half the book. The main reason for this: Everything about a class is located right in the section for that class. All the powers are there — no more flipping to the back of the book for spells.
Except, you know, for rituals. Which has a separate chapter at… the back of the book. I’m not sure I grasp the logic here. Putting the combat abilities in their respective classes’ sections was a good thing; why not put the rituals there, too, even if it’s in a separate section tacked on after the powers? I’m guessing it’s because there’d be some overlap, and they only want to print each one once, and with no “See the cleric ritual of the same name” messages. Still… it’s a bit strange to segregate the rituals this way.
The saving grace is that rituals won’t be used nearly as often as powers, so having them off by themselves in a separate chapter isn’t really too bad.
As to the classes themselves… they’re laid out pretty nicely, really. Each gets a splash page with basic game mechanics info in a shaded box for quick reference. The rest of the page is filled with some flavor text to give a new player an idea of the concept the class embodies. (Sure, “fighter” is pretty clear, but it’s somewhat useful to distinguish between “warlock” and “wizard”, for instance.) There’s a blurb about creating a member of the class, which encapsulates the primary build options (two per class, usually) and the primary characteristics of the class, followed by some deeper inspection of both the build options. Following all of which, the book introduces the class features and leads into the long list of powers.
It’s a convenient layout. Classes seem less flexible than I’d hoped, though. Most classes have only four discretionary at-will powers to choose from, for instance — and it’s almost always two suited to each of the builds. Clerics, for instance, can be battle clerics, focused on smiting the infidel, or devoted clerics, focused on supporting the… fidel. Or at least the rest of their party.
This will no doubt be helpful to new players. The sample builds will offer some guidance as to how the character can develop, and it’s pretty easy to pick powers that are suited to those builds.
It’s not hard to mix-and-match, either, mind you. But the options are limited. You’ll have two of only four possible at-will powers at first level. (Unless you’re a wizard; wizards get five options.) The human’s extra at-will power isn’t a big bonus, in this light — they get three of the four (or five), which offers them one more option, but usually one that’s counterpoint to the focus of their build.
I imagine that new powers will proliferate in sourcebooks, sort of like feats did for 3e/3.5e. It shouldn’t be hard at all for an experienced GM to introduce some more options, but that GM will need to keep an eye on balance.
Which brings up another point: powers that cause significant “bad status” are scarce. Most powers are focused around hit point damage or healing hit point damage. There’s a lot of causing yourself or others to move around the battlefield. There are a couple of sort-of-common effects like immobilize, continuing damage-over-time, or daze. But things like stun, charm, paralysis, petrification, and instant death are very rare. The ones that do exist are mostly in the daily power category.
I’m honestly split on that. Nobody likes “save or die,” at least not when they’re the ones doing the saving. But it seems as though there’s a lot less opportunity to play the manipulative enchanter type, or the pacifist cleric who takes care of enemies using spells like hold person and sanctuary. I’ll reserve judgement until I play it, but the absence makes me a bit wary.
On the plus side, everyone in the party can do cool things now. There won’t be a situation where the fighter says “I swing my sword… again… for the 20th time” while the wizard is calling down fire, summoning a horde of elementals, petrifying the enemy, and so forth. They’re on a much more even keel now. The wizard’s still ahead in pure damage, especially area damage, but the fighter’s got many powers of his own to help shape the battlefield. Long overdue.
I still miss the monk. The eight classes that are represented do cover a lot of bases, though.
The paragon paths for each class are relatively well done. Each gets three or four paths fleshed out, and I’m certain we’ll be seeing more. Most of the paths presented are fairly obvious general-use ones, though one might question a few of the choices. (Did fighters really need both kensai and swordmaster paths, as opposed to, well, something other than “master of X weapon”?) I have no major issues with them, though.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for epic destinies. This section reads like a pre-alpha document — there are some cool ideas here, but they’re not well explained, and their implementation seems lacking. The options presented are less than exciting, too; sure, archmage and demigod are old standbys, but they don’t seem… well, powerful. The trickster option is a decent one, but it doesn’t seem entirely fleshed-out, either. And the fourth option, for all you fighter-types, is “guy who’s still searching for his epic destiny.” I’m not making that up. As a power, you get the weaker powers of any of the three other paths. Bleah. They couldn’t have spent two seconds on “Dynast-king” or “Leader of a Barbarian Horde” or “Grandmaster Basket Weaver”? (And I’d seriously rather be a grandmaster basket weaver than an also-ran… sorry, “eternal seeker.”)
Basically, I think the epic destinies section just needed more than 3 pages devoted to it. Hopefully it’ll get some more attention somewhere. I’ll definitely need to do some work in this area myself, if I plan to run games beyond 20th level.
Artwork: The splash page featuring the party of adventurers against the white dragon is just gorgeous. Makes me want to jump into a game right now. Each class gets a portrait on its own section’s introduction; these range from pretty decent (cleric) to deeply evocative (paladin, ranger). The tiefling warlock doesn’t look silly, either. There are smaller pieces scattered through the powers sections, about one piece per class; these are mostly pretty good, although the spear thrower on page 153 looks distractingly wrong to me.
Looks like the art’s going to continue to follow the more traditional fantasy style, rather than the dungeonpunk look 3.5e boasted. I didn’t mind the art in 3.5, but I prefer the 4e style.