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Review of Player’s Strategy Guide by Wizards of the Coast

Know thy self, know thy enemy.  A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” ~ Sun Tzu (The Art of War, 6th Century BC)

I was a little surprised when one of my most experienced Players, someone I have been playing D&D with since the early 90s, showed up to our latest campaign session with a copy of the new Player’s Strategy Guide tucked under his arm.
psg cover
Now my Player had been one of my biggest proponents for changing my long-running D&D 3.5 game over to 4E, and has been buying every “official” book, supplement, and dungeon tile accessory that has hit the shelves.  Seeing the Player’s Strategy Guide at the table, I assumed he was merely being a completist collector, but I was corrected very matter-of-factly: “You should review it.  There’s some really good stuff in here.”

Well, not one to miss out on an opportunity, I immediately borrowed his copy until out next session.  And so here is my review of the newest Player Supplement from Wizards of the Coast, and what I found in the pages of this new book surprised, amused, informed, and annoyed the crap out of me – all at the same time.  Yeah, it’s that kinda book.

Player’s Strategy Guide
  • Authors: Andy Collins & James Wyatt (leads), Eytan Bernstein
  • Cover Illustrator:  Mike Krahulik
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Year: 2010
  • Media: Hardcover Book (160 pages)
  • Cost: $29.95 MSRP (Amazon, $19.77)

The Player’s Strategy Guide is a an official supplement for use with D&D 4E, and contains advanced information, tips, and advice for creating and optimizing Characters, optimizing adventuring parties, using strategy and tactics in combat, and general information on 4E game play and etiquette.  The book contains observations made by the Authors, as well as from a wide range of 4E Player contributors, both from within WotC and from outside sources.

Overall, the production quality of the Player’s Strategy Guide is excellent, with material presented in a logical fashion, with writing that is sharp, in some cases witty, and generally an enjoyable read.  There are numerous sidebars containing everything from Player Advice, to Character “Theory-craft” discussions, to actual Character Descriptions by a variety of contributors.  I was particularly taken with Wil Wheaton’s frank and poignant essay about his now web-famous deceased Character from the Penny Arcade Podcasts, Aeolfel the Avenger, who discovered that the term “death-trap”wa not merely a cliché.  Other sidebars include Character descriptions from WotC notables like Andy Collins and Greg Bilsland, as well as unexpected contributions, such as Robot Chicken’s writer Dan Milano and television (Leverage series) writer John Rogers.  The artwork is mainly humorous and fun, consisting almost entirely of D&D cartoons from illustrators such as Steven (Stan!) Brown and PennyArcade’s Mike Krahulik.

The Authors of Player’s Strategy Guide have divided the book into four broad Chapters, covering some essential concepts for getting the most out of your D&D 4E game – from a Players’ point of view:

  • Chapter 1 – Building Your Character
  • Chapter 2 – Building Your Party
  • Chapter 3 – Strategy And Tactics
  • Chapter 4 – Playing the Game

Each chapter is further divided into sub-sections, covering a different facet of 4E gaming.

Chapter 1 (Building Your Character) leads off with a section called “Knowing the Campaign” but might also be subtitled “Knowing Your DM” and describes five Warning Signs that the DM and campaign you are rolling a Character for might not mesh with your personal gaming style.  It’s really some very good advice, as knowing what you are getting yourself into will be important for whether you want to make the time commitment, session after session, to continue to play.  When I recently started a new 4E campaign up, the Players and I had a sit down discussion and a pointed Question & Answer session while Characters were being rolled up.  Surprisingly we covered many of the same key points that the Player’s Strategy Guide did, and I think DMs could benefit from reading this first section when contemplating the type of campaign “atmosphere” they want to have.

The first chapter also had some really interesting Q&A tests to determine:

  • What is Your Motivation?
  • What Class Are You?
  • What Race Are You?
  • What Alignment Are You?

[Editor’s Note:  Even though I am mainly a DM these days, I took the tests to find out my results, and was rather surprised to find that I am a Storyteller/Explorer, with an affinity toward good-aligned Tiefling Wizard/Controllers.  That certainly would not have been my first choice of Character if I ever decided to jump on the other side of the DM screen, but was definitely something to think about.]

The Player Motivation Q&A is used to determine the type of gamer you are, as defined in the Dungeon Masters Guide, and while I acknowledge that the information is useful, I tend to shy away from pigeon-holing my Players as a DM.  And while the Class, Race, Alignment Q&As are interesting, I think they should be used carefully, as they might precludes the possibility of playing something outside ones comfort zone for the sheer challenge of it.

Chapter 1 goes on with some solid general descriptions of the various roles which a Character can be in the party, and how each of the “Motivational-types” is best suited for them.  In most cases, the Authors were fairly spot on, but I have to say that took a bit of exception with the wording of the Striker role – and I might imagine a lot of other Readers will take exception here as well.

In their description, the Authors claim that “Strikers don’t concern themselves with helping other characters at the table”.  When I read this to one of my Players, whose Character “Graves” is an  Avenger (ie Striker), he was really fairly annoyed and downright insulted – and I must admit, so was I.  I was disappointed at the Author’s gross oversimplification of the Striker role, particularly when so many Strikers have defender-like and controller-like effects on their powers which can also act synergistically with other Characters’ powers in their party.  The Avenger in my campaign has used his powers to maneuver monsters into zone attacks, pulled monsters away from “softer” targets like the Bard and the Invoker, and is rather a dynamic tactician at the table.  Having WotC Authors declare that “if you’d rather focus on tracking down and dropping that one annoying monster rather than worrying about what your allies are doing, the striker is right for you”, is actually guiding Players away from maximizing the Striker’s potential as a team player.

Another excellent section in the first chapter was a discussion on making alterations to Backgrounds to better match the Player’s vision and conception for their Characters.  There are some really good ideas in here, and this is good read for Players and DMs alike.

But sadly, there is a considerable amount of material in the first Chapter which, as a Dungeon Master, I am rather annoyed and disappointed with WotC for including.  While offering tips for optimizing Characters is one thing, I think that too much of the first Chapter was devoted to just flat out MIN-MAXING Player-Characters.  Sure, there are Power Gamers out there that do it all the time, but to practically write an “official guide” on how to do it is not very helpful to Dungeon Masters out there – or the long term stability of their campaigns.

For instance, there is a really nice table on matching Racial Bonuses with Character Class and Builds.  Certainly, it is a very useful tool, but it is also practically inviting Players to becoming power gamers.  In this DM’s opinion, Players should be more concerned about playing a sound Character concept, and less concerned about creating the optimal Race-Class-Build combination.  One can only hope that Players won’t find themselves dog-earring those pages to consult those tables all the time.  Frankly, I’ve found some of the most memorable Characters come from a non-optimized Race-Class-Build combination.

That’s not to say that all the theory-craft entries are designed for Min-Maxing Power Gaming.  There is some really good theory discussions regarding the choosing of powers, skills, feats, paragon paths, and epic destinies.  Plus, there is an entire section is devoted to weighing the pros and cons of multi-classing and hybridization, and what bringing in a new role means to the character concept.

But the final “How To” section of Chapter 1 is left me stunned and incredulous, and again as a DM, I have somewhat mixed feelings about giving Players more ways to optimize and min-max their Characters.  This last section just seems to be another lead-in to push Players toward becoming Power-Gamers, and it is not something which any DM wants to see so much emphasis given in an “official” supplement.

The introduction to this final section of the first chapter claims that it is “not a list of optimization opportunities”, but I have to assume that the Authors must simply have an almost child-like naiveté about how their “How To” guide will likely be used.  If you create a list of Race, Class, Skill, Feat, Power, and Magic Items which will grant a Character a particular “edge”, then you’ve created an optimization opportunity package!

The list of How To’s include:

  • …Make the Best Healer
  • …Make the Fastest Character
  • …Get the Best Initiative
  • …Make the Best Talker
  • …Get the Best Armor Class
  • …Never Miss
  • …Never Fail Saving Throws
  • …Have the Most Hit Points
  • …Deal Damage Forever
  • …Teleport Instead of Walking

When all is said and done, fully half the pages of Player’s Strategy Guide is contained in the first chapter, and a good portion of Chapter 1 is how to make optimized, and potentially hard-to-handle Characters.  Frankly, I can just imagine many Dungeon Masters are now grinding their teeth over what their campaigns are transforming into based solely on the contents of Chapter 1 of this supplement.

Now as for Chapter 2 (Building Your Party), it mainly deals with making up parties, and suggestions on how to cover all the basic needs when adventuring in smaller sized parties.  It also has pros and cons about which Character Role to “double up” in adventuring team with 5, 6, and 7 Players in them.  Chapter 2 emphasizes “party synergy” as a key to make a successful adventuring group, and there is some very good advice here on doing that.  Personally, from my DM perspective, I am less annoyed about a party of Characters practicing good synergy and covering all the bases (ie. party optimization) than I am about Players creating their very own overly-optimized Character.

This chapter also contains four sample adventuring parties, each with a short summary of the individual Characters’ powers, feats, and skills, and what role they fill in the group make-up.  Each sample party section contains a Party Optimization and Party Tactics section, as well as how Adjusting the Party, by adding or removing members affects it as a whole.  I rather liked this chapter and was disappointed it was only a little more than ten percent of the contents of the Player’s Strategy Guide.

Moving on to Chapter 3 (Strategy and Tactics), this is actually what I expected to be the largest section of a book called that calls itself the Player’s Strategy Guide, but it really is a little under one-third of the entire book.  Despite its brevity, compared with the massive min-maxing guide that the Chapter 1 turned out to be, Chapter 3 drops some real gems of great advice for Players on how to use Character tactics to win the day over the nastiest monsters.  Some of this is “old hat” to experienced D&D Gamers, such as creating choke points, maneuvering to flanks, and focusing their fire to drop enemies fast.  But there are also some new ideas here which exist only as recently as the advent of 4th Edition, mainly because previous editions do not have rules which cover these tactical concepts, such as taking advantage of terrain by using forced movement, managing encounter resources, and handling action points and daily resources.  One short but important section deals with avoiding a TPK by assigning a person to know when to call for a retreat – a very good idea that is too often ignored until it is too late!

There is a solid discussion of all-things involving Healing, and comparing the various Leader classes, as well as healing from other sources.  This should almost be required reading before starting a new Player off on his first D&D adventure, as it gives Players a real handle on how their Characters can stay alive, and fighting the heroic fight, longer and more effectively.  The section on Monster Roles is something that every DM who has created an encounter knows, but few Players realize if they have never cracked open a Dungeon Masters Guide, and it gives great insight on why certain critters do certain things.  The final section on Troubleshooting combat problems is fantastic, and has advice on how to handle common problems such as missing too often, of running out of healing surges, or how to handle teammates that refuse to use tactics.

Like the previous Chapters, there are two examples provided, called “Tactics in Action”.  The two encounters chosen for the tactical analysis were the infamous “Irontooth” encounter from Keep on the Shadowfell, and the Dungeon Encounter from Storm Tower.  Both of these encounters got a lot of flak on various message boards as being too tough or too hard to handle, and I liked that the Authors take the time to discuss them in detail.

The final Chapter of the Player’s Strategy Guide deals with some basic game-play fundamentals, as well as some Player etiquette issues.  Ideas such as Storytelling and Narrating Powers have been touched on before, but there is a good section on dealing with Skill Challenges while “in-character” that I thought contained some great advice in it.  The importance of knowing when to take rests, keeping a campaign journal, and how to deal with dividing treasure are all important issues that many Players fail to take into consideration until they become major issues in a campaign.  The final section entitled “Don’t Be A Jerk” has some wonderful advice which I plan to photocopy and laminate, and take with me to every gaming convention to offer to Players who fail to heed simple etiquette fundamentals such as “don’t hog the spotlight”, “don’t ignore your team”, and try to keep “interruptions” to a minimum.

Overall Grade: A-

Despite some trepidations I have about Chapter 1 becoming the “D&D 4E Power Gamers’ Manifesto”, I have to say that the Player’s Strategy Guide is really a useful supplement to help Players of all skill levels get the most out of their D&D 4E experience.  It is a pleasure to read, has some great fluff as well as crunch, and even the cartoon illustrations have charm and humor while emphasizing important concepts.  There is tons of great advice, theory, and suggestions to empower Players to create Characters with truly heroic potential.  So whether you are a Player or a Dungeon Master, this book has many wonderful insights into 4E play, and is well worth considering for your hard-earned gaming dollars.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Editor’s Note: This Blog’s Author borrowed a copy of this product from one of his D&D 4E Players (Thanks Chris!) from which the review was written.

Grade Card

  • Presentation: A
  • - Design: A
  • - Illustrations: A-
  • Content: B+
  • - Crunch: B+
  • - Fluff: A-
  • Value: A-

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


One Response to “Review of Player’s Strategy Guide by Wizards of the Coast”

  1. Anarkeith says:

    Great review. I had the same reservations about the book that you did, but it sounds as if the positives far outweigh the negatives. As a player, I’m not generally a power gamer. But I’m not averse to adopting good ideas and synergies. Thanks for posting!
    .-= Anarkeith´s last blog ..Dungeon Mastering at a Convention: I Did It! =-.

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