Player’s Handbook 3 (PHB3) Review (Part 1)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 8, 2010

You may think that you know what the Player’s Handbook 3 is all about if you’ve got a DDI subscription, but the preview content was just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re a DDI subscribers who’s considering passing on the PHB3, think again. This is one of the coolest 4e D&D books that’s come out so far.

The PHB3 comes out next week on Tuesday, March 16, but for those of us living in the Greater Toronto Area it came out this past Friday. I visited three gaming stores and a major book selling chain and they all had it proudly displayed for sale. I don’t know if this complete disregard for the street date is limited to my area or if this is the case across the board. All I know is that I was fortunate enough to get my copy of the PHB3 Friday and I haven’t put it down since.

I took some flack for my Martial Power 2 review last month. Some readers didn’t think I spent enough time giving my opinion. With my review of the PHB3 I’m going to listen to the readers and do more than just tell you what’s in the book. But given the amount of material in the PHB3 it’s going to take more than one article to cover everything. So as seems fitting, I’m going to break my review of the PHB 3 into three parts. Today we’ll look at the new races and one of the new classes – the Runepriest.

Considering the amount of content in the PHB3 I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing materials already available in Character Builder other than to mention that they are already available. I will of course add my two cents if I have something new to add.

This time last year, shortly after PHB2 was released, Wizards promised their DDI subscribers that they would release elements from the forthcoming PHB3 through Dragon magazine and Character Builder in the months leading up to PHB3’s release. During the past year I’ve read most of the pre-release materials in Dragon, I’ve played some of the new races and classes, and used some of the Skill Powers. When I finally got my own copy of PHB3 I was concerned about how much of the book seemed new. I was pleasantly surprised. Even though some of the content was familiar, the material provided through Character Builder wasn’t everything. Wizards gave us just enough about the classes to get excited about them and try them out. Looking though those classes I see that there are plenty of additional choices available. And because I already knew what these classes we all about it’s didn’t take me long to devour the new stuff.

New Races

Githzerai, Minotaur and Wilden were all released in other books or as preview content. They are already in Character Builder.


The new race is the Shardmind. They are crystalline living constructs described as “sentient fragments of the Living Gate.” They are telepathic and have psychic resistances. They get +2 to Intelligence and +2 to Wisdom or Charisma. This makes them especially suited to all the new psionic classes with rely heavily on the bottom three abilities. The Shard Swarm racial power is close burst 1 and automatically hits, targets enemies only, those hit grant you combat advantage until the end of your next turn, and lets you teleport half your speed.

I’m happy that Warforged get some company in the living construct arena, but this race seems really strange. Warforged I get. Crafty engineers constructed them. The Shardmind I find a lot more difficult to get my head around. Maybe it’s because I’m not really that familiar with stuff from the outer planes. The PHB3 does provide a little bit more on their origin but I’m still confused. “Shardminds are fragments of pure thought given life and substance.” I have no issues with creating a new race that’s especially geared towards the new psionic classes, but the Shardmind is just bizarre, even for fantasy role-playing. I’m sure some people will love them immediately; I’m not one of them.

New Classes

The PHB3 gives us six new classes (not eight as some people have been expecting).

The Runepriest is the only class that we haven’t yet seen in the preview content. There are also complete rules for building Hybrid characters of all classes (including all six new classes introduced in the PHB3).

The Runepriest

“Runepriests seek to unlock the secrets of the runes of divine power.” These are smiths who know the divine secrets inscribes in forgotten runes. This new class seems tailor made for Dwarves and Minotaurs.

Their key abilities are Strength, Constitution and Wisdom so I think we’re going to see a lot of Dwarven and Minotaur Runepriests. They get armor proficiency with cloth, leather, hide, chain, scale and light shield. They get weapon proficiency with simple melee and ranged weapon. Their bonus to defense is +2 Will. They can select training from eight skills: Arcana, Athletics, Endurance, Heal, History, Insight, Religion and Thievery. I’m not really sure why Thievery is on this list. It doesn’t fit with anything in the Runepriest build.

The Runepriest’s at-will and encounter powers have the runic keyword. Before using a runic power you must choose which rune listed in the power’s description you’re going to use. By choosing a rune you enter that rune state. You remain in the rune state until you choose a different rune or the encounter ends. The two rune states in the PHB3 are Rune of Destruction and Rune of Protection. While in Rune of Destruction allies get +1 to attack enemies adjacent to you. While in Rune of Protection allies gain resist 2 to all damage. (This increases to 4 and 6 at paragon and epic tier).

In addition to the rune state benefit each power does a little something extra depending on your rune state. Take Word of Exchange, a level 1 at-will with the runic keyword as an example. It’s Strength vs AC and does 1[W] + Strength on a hit. But if you’re in Rune of Destruction the next attack made against that target does extra damage equal to your Wisdom modifier and the attacker (you or an ally) gets that same number of temporary hit points. If you’re in Rune of Protection the target suffers a -2 penalty to all defenses and the next ally to hit that target gets a bonus to their AC equal to your Wisdom modifier.

Every runic power has two different secondary effects depending on your rune state. The Rune of Destruction powers are all offensive in some way and the Rune of Protection powers are all defensive in some way. All the secondary effects last until the end of your next turn. This choice makes the powers extremely versatile. It’s like having twice as many powers at your disposal and makes a Runepriests an invaluable party member. They can go from attacker to defender and be equally good in both roles.

Don’t forget that as a leader, Runepriests can also heal. Their Rune of Mending power functions just like the Cleric’s Healing Word except that it’s a runic power too. So when they heal they choose either Rune of Destruction giving each ally in the bust +2 to damage rolls or Rune of Protection giving each ally in the burst +1 to AC.

You must choose a Runic Artistry. Defiant Word gives you your Wisdom modifier as a damage bonus to an attacker who missed you. Wrathful Hammer gives you proficiency with military hammers and military maces and you also get your Constitution modifier as a damage bonus to an attacker who hit you.

In my opinion I think we’re going to start seeing Runepriest become the most common and popular leader out there. I’ve played a Warlord, Cleric and Bard and this new class just seems like it’s so much cooler. My next PC is going to be a Runepriest.

Wizards of the Coast is releasing an official preview of the Runepriest tomorrow, so this will have to hold you over until then. Visit Dungeon’s Master tomorrow for our PHB3 Review (Part 2) and later this week for PHB3 Review (Part 3). If you have specific questions about the PHB3, leave them in the comments below. I’ll try to answer them in part 2 of my review.

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1 Steven March 8, 2010 at 10:27 am

I totally agree with your assessment that this book is worth it even if you are a D&DI subscriber. I am reading the book from cover to cover and enjoying the journey so far.

I fall strongly in the shardmind fanboy club. I fell in love with the race the instant I saw the shard swarm power. Although, I must say, since their origin is in the astral sea, I think it would more difficult to come up with a character background for them; I know nothing about the astral sea.

The runepriest does seem interesting, but it won’t be my first choice for a character.

2 Liam March 8, 2010 at 11:51 am

I think I might be one of the people who like the shardmind right away. It reminds me a lot of the impericist philosophers who thought that there was no external world, and that everything you experienced was either a result of your imagination fabricting a universe for you, or it was just a slurry of impressions given to you by god or some other presence.

Of course the worlds that D&D takes place in tend to be places where there are real physical things your characters can interact with, and the presence of a DM who designs that place gets rid of all external world skeptisism, so it’s not a realisation of imperical thought, BUT (and sorry for the long prelude to this thought) I really like the idea of a being whose essence is the pure exertion of their will. They weren’t born and bound to a physical body. They were a presence in the universe at large that demanded physical manifestation.

The psionic power source is a little wierd, it’s true, but to me it’s always made sense to me more or less in those terms. When someone is useing arcane magic they are using their relationship with the elements to control them in various ways. Warlocks have at power on loan, scorcers have a knack, and wizards have studied the relationships of energies and control magic like an engineer controls polymers. With psionics, they aren’t so much willfully tapping into a power source, it’s more that their will is the power it’s self. When they attack you it’s the physical manifestation of their will to do you harm. they want you to be in pain so much that their will to affect change upon the universe is strong enough that it becomes just as much a part of it as rain, gravity or happiness.

I know it sounds a little bit like BS, but people shooting fire from their hands? Come on!

3 Gary Jacksonq March 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm

A lot of gaming stores have been graced by WotC with early shipments and a blessing for an early release. This is true not only in Toronto, but all over the US and presumably Canada as well. This is a great boon to gaming stores, since it gives people incentive to buy it now at retail from a gaming store instead of waiting a week and a half to get it from Borders or B&N at a coupon discount. I picked up my own copy of PHB3 this past weekend from Dream Wizards in Rockville, MD before sitting down to my weekly 4e game in the store. Speaking to all readers, I encourage you to visit your local gaming store and check it out. You will like what you find.

4 Swordgleam March 8, 2010 at 5:13 pm

I believe there’s some sort of “premium retailer” thing where WotC sends them certain products early.

Thievery makes sense to me for Runepriests, since it encompasses the disable device skill. Since their fluff is smith-like, that’s the sort of thing you’d expect them to be good at.

5 Ameron March 9, 2010 at 10:34 am

I think I might gain a new appreciation for the Shardmind after the Planes Above source book comes out next month. I’m interested to hear what kind of creative back-story players come up with for this new race.

PS – Thanks flagging the ruin/rune mix up.

I hadn’t considered this angle to psionics. The idea that your powers exist because you want them to is quite interesting. Your take on Shardminds also presents an interesting take on the race. Clearly you’re an enlightened mind. 🙂

@Gary Jacksonq
I hope that none of these retailers get into any trouble from Wizards for selling the PHB3 before March 16 (and from what you said it sounds like they won’t). When I saw the PHB3 on the shelf I gave in to impulse and had to purchase it right away. Because I thought I was getting something special I was even more excited when I picked up the book. I wonder if that’s part of Wizards’ strategy. Appeal to impulsive buyers by letting the game stores sell it early. Crafty of them if that’s the case.

I suppose I can see the disable device aspect of Thievery being applicable. I guess my initial reaction was Thievery as pick pockets. I forget how broad some of the 4e skills are.

6 OpenPalm March 11, 2010 at 6:32 pm

I like Runepriests as a 5th man leader/ defender or striker, but I’m not so sure if I would play one in a party without other forms of healing. There just aren’t enough powers that heal, especially when you compare them to a cleric or warlord. Also, no chance to use a primary or secondary stat to boost healing hurts them a lot. I love hammer of vengeance though and I would use that character as a 5th man unquestionably. You essentially have two attacks in a turn. If there was any way to make the second attack one of your at wills, I’d play it in a heartbeat. Just make sure you have a friend that goes right after you and before the monster and if it’s a ranger or avenger, even better. It would also really rock as a warlock hybrid, since you could use eldritch strike and get the warlock bonus damage dice, but that might be overkill to get all of the feats necessary to pull it off.

7 Mindflayer November 26, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Playing D&D 4E for the first time in a party of 3 characters. I chose the Runepriest to cover Leader/Defender role, and it’s fun.

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