Unsurprisingly, combat still takes up a pretty big chunk of the Player’s Handbook. It’s a pretty big part of the game. In fact, it’s a 30-page chunk as opposed to the 27 pages 3.5e took.
That’s somewhat misleading because of the format changes, though. Larger type and better use of whitespace means there’s less raw text to wade through. Sections are either missing entirely (positive and negative energy, which is now simply expressed in Channel Divinity powers) or vastly simplified (attacks of opportunity, grappling).
There are no more full-round actions. Every character gets one standard action, one move action, and one minor action on his turn. Some powers offer additional actions, and there are still free actions, but for the most part, one-one-one. A character who wants to can use a “lesser” action in place of a “greater” one — a minor action instead of a move, a move action instead of a standard.
The chapter explains some of the basics — how melee, ranged, and area attacks work, what the defenses mean, how a “wall” is different from a “burst”. There are just three areas of effect, in fact: the wall, a contiguous line of squares; the burst, a radius of squares around its origin point; and the blast, a square area adjacent to its point of origin.
Conditions are touched on, and there are still quite a lot of them. Everything from surprised and prone to slowed and blinded to helpless and dying. There’s no more ethereal and incorporeal; now it’s one condition called insubstantial, and insubstantial creatures just take half damage from everything. (There’s still a feat to allow a character’s force effects to do full damage.)
Critical hits happen whenever you roll a natural 20 to hit, unless you couldn’t normally hit that creature and only hit because of the “auto-hit on 20” rule. In which case it’s just a regular hit. A crit means maximum damage with that attack, and possibly some bonus dice of damage. (Almost always, in fact, after the first level or two; all magical weapons add extra damage dice on a crit.)
Flanking, stuns, distraction, surprise, and many other situations now cause the victim to grant combat advantage to the target. That’s a +2 bonus to attack rolls against that target, and if you’re a rogue, you can sneak attack them. Feinting is a once-per-encounter Bluff check; if it succeeds, you gain combat advantage. Pretty elegant, all things considered. There are two types of cover (regular and superior) and two types of concealment (regular and total), similar to 3.5e.
Some of the actions of 3.5e are gone in 4e. Disarm and trip no longer exist as standard maneuvers; there are powers that knock the target prone, though. (I didn’t see any powers that disarm, come to think of it. This seems like a likely addition for the fighter or rogue, at some point.) Bull rush is still here, but simpler. Grappling is completely revamped and now called grab; it’s a strength attack vs. Reflex, and if you hit, the target is immobilized until they manage to escape, or until you’re stunned, dazed, or something similar. A very welcome change to the dice-rolling nightmare that was grappling.
A couple of pages deal with movement and forced movement. The five-foot step has been replaced by shifting, a move action that moves one square but doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks; some powers allow for shifting greater distances, making for battlefield mobility. Teleporting is a lot more common in this edition. Moving around and forcing enemies to move around is also more common, and appears to be key to winning a battle.
Unfortunately, all of this means that a map of some sort is pretty much required to play through combat now. The tactical aspects are front and center. With 3e, it could be pretty difficult to play out an encounter entirely in your head, but in 4e, it’s no longer really a viable option. You’d lose too much of the pushing, pulling, shifting, and other forms of moving that now characterize combat. It might be possible to play out a combat that way, but a lot of the flavor would be lost, and it’d probably devolve to dice-rolling and hit-point-trading.
So I may need to invest in a good wet-erase battlemat, or something. Maybe a decent-sized whiteboard with a printed grid. I won’t mind this so much, provided the combat is interesting. If it’s not, though, that’s a pretty big negative for the game to be saddled with. Fortunately, my Skybreaker GM already has a suitable reusable map surface, and my group already has miniatures or markers. (Rant about the D&D minis forthcoming at some point, though. Fair warning.)
Rituals are what they’re now calling those old specific-purpose spells that were rarely memorized, but crucial to a certain adventure. Scrying spells, wizard eye, enchant an item, water breathing, make whole, comprehend languages… all of these are now castable by taking a feat and acquiring the ritual spell. (Clerics and wizards get Ritual Caster as a bonus feat.)
Rituals tend to take 10 minutes to an hour to cast, which makes them not useful in encounters. They might last anywhere from an hour on up. Oh, and they mostly require a ritual skill check (mostly Arcane or Religion, but also things like Heal and Nature). They also all cost gold. 10 minutes of casting time and 20g per hour of water walk, please, thank you.
That last aspect of rituals kind of kills them for me. I don’t see any need for them to be a huge money sink. Things like raise dead should be fairly available to mid-to-high-level characters, even if death is rarer in 4e. And I’m not sure it will be, at high levels, although it clearly is at lower levels.
I’ll probably just house-rule the gold costs. For spells like water walk, the time is the biggest resource expenditure; if they can take the 10 minutes, I really don’t need to take 20g from my group. On the other hand, something like true portal, which plot-devices a teleport to anywhere, no matter how far away, should be pretty expensive.
Aside from the gold costs, I do like the separation of non-combat magic (rituals) from combat spells (powers). It lets (in fact, makes) the wizard and cleric load up on in-combat spells — healing, damage, control, utility — and still lets them cast those important-to-the-module spells when they need to. And if the group lacks a cleric or wizard, someone else can pick up the feat and fill the role.
Artwork: The combat chapter’s splash page is intriguing, but it’s got some odd angles going on, so it looks a bit strange at first glance. There are only three flavor pieces of artwork in the chapter, but all are nicely done and evocative. More importantly, the graphics illustrating aspects of combat such as areas of effect and clear vs. blocked sight are all clear and well-positioned on the page.
The rituals splash page is simply amazing. Fun things going on, and it clearly conveys the tension of the situation. The perspective is a bit strange again, though — the picture seems slanted. This time it’s a good use of a visual trick to make the viewer feel something’s wrong, though. There are a couple other pieces of art sprinkled through, mostly solid work. The tiefling on page 313 looks goofy, though. Since the picture’s meant to illustrate Tenser’s floating disk, I suppose it achieves its goal; I just wish there were more non-silly-looking tieflings about. Ah, well. Maybe it’s me.
And that’s about it for the PHB. Final thoughts: I like the way the chapter “tab” moves down the page, making it reasonably easy to just open the book to the right chapter. The index, at a mere page, could probably stand to be longer and more thorough. However, the book’s laid out well enough that this isn’t a huge issue. A little more irritating is the lack of a glossary; this is one thing 3e did well, and to see it completely absent from 4e is a letdown. Finally, including a character sheet is nice, but I’ll probably just keep making my own. Yay, word processing.