Player’s Strategy Guide is the latest hardcover 4E offering from Wizards of the Coast, and it’s very different from your usual RPG book. No rules here. Not a single Paragon Path. Not even a magic weapon. Just years and years of gaming experience distilled into book form.
The book that the Player’s Strategy Guide reminds me of most is the AD&D (or 2E, if you will) Campaign Sourcebook & Catacomb Guide. That gray softcover was aimed at DMs, not players, but it was similar in spirit: here’s how to run the game most effectively while maximizing everyone’s fun and enjoyment.
At first glance, you might be worried that the Strategy Guide is a power gamer’s paradise, a book filled with charts and formulas showing the perfect optimizations for every possible character. There’s a fair amount of that in here, it’s true (but I’ll explain in a minute why that’s actually better for non-power gamers). There’s also more than passing attention paid to role-playing well, creating interesting characters, linking characters together, linking them to the campaign, and in general getting the most out of your D&D adventures regardless of your play style.
Scattered throughout the book are sidebars called “Tell Us About Your Character.” Each one is written by either a D&D designer or a relatively well-known person who happens to play D&D. Geek culture paragon Wil Wheaton gets a page, as does John Rogers, creator of Leverage, which is probably my favorite current TV show. The book describes Leverage as, “the story of a party of 10th-level rogues who take on corporate bad guys.” I’ve always called it, “a smarter A-Team.” Anyway, these bits are informative and entertaining, and each person brings unique insights, not just to character creation, but to their overall approach to playing D&D.
The meat of the book, though, is the Xes and Os, the chalk talk, the game day breakdowns, post-game analysis, the sports metaphor driven into the ground by a Robot Viking writer with way too much caffeine in his system. It starts with basics: how to make a good character. Which races go well with which classes (and how to build effectively against type…you know, sort of like a Drow barbarian?). There’s a fantastic section called, “How To…” that details the most efficient way to achieve some specific character attribute. Which class, race, feats and powers will guarantee your character always goes first in initiative order? What combination leads to a defender that can tank huge amounts of damage? It lays it all out for you.
From there, the Strategy Guide gets into party mechanics. What classes and roles work best together, what you might be able to do without if you have a small gaming group, and how to build parties with feats and powers that compliment reach other are all covered. Then there’s specific battlefield tactics. When flanking matters, whether you should use magic items or consumable potions, when to take an extended rest, and how to maximize the party’s healing are in here too. There are even detailed combat examples, outlining how sample parties could deal with particular encounters. It’s literally like having a D&D coach.
I especially like the character troubleshooting section. We’ve all had characters that aren’t working the way we want them to, and with the number of books and options available in 4E these days, it can be daunting to figure out what’s wrong, even for an experienced player. My brother, for example, frequently seems frustrated by his characters (although they seem fine to me, sometimes they don’t meet his expectations when he created the build).
All this build optimizing stuff might seem pretty dry, and totally unnecessary to a player not focused on wringing every bit of damage-per-round out of a striker. On the contrary: this book is written with a dry wit that I find very engaging. It’s a pleasure to read. Some of the advice is delivered in a brusque manner that furthers the resemblance to a grizzled old coach handing down wisdom — like the section on advice for characters who take the Leader role, which ends with, “If you need any of this advice, don’t be a Leader.”
As for the necessity of this kind of knowledge, even the most story or role-playing focused player at some point wants to know the best way to do things (there are, of course, players with no interest in mechanical attributes and combat effectiveness under any circumstances, which is awesome, I like games like that as well, but this is 4E we’re talking about here). This book provides a clear map to those players when that time comes. Now you don’t have to feel intimidated about making a suboptimal build choice because you’re not the kind of player who pores over every rule book seeking the perfect feat or combination of powers. That curmudgeonly D&D coach is there to help you along.
On top of all that, there’s some great logistical advice, like how to keep a gaming group going in the face of absent players, the benefits of a white board, and the pros and cons of various kinds of status markers.
I offer admiring applause to Wizards for publishing this, a book that defies the formula they’ve laid out with most of the previous 4E books, and probably won’t sell well due to the lack of giant lists of unneeded magic items and superfluous Paragon Paths. But this book ought to be on your gaming shelf right alongside your Player’s Handbooks and Monster Manuals.