Few books have been criticized more soundly before arriving in the store than Races and Classes. It's a book timed to arrive in December, in the deep winter of D&D malaise, when many players have stopped buying books altogether in anticipation or dread of 4th Edition, due out in June. Rather than a teaser, with some crunch to tide gamers over the long winter, Races and Classes is a book of essays and artwork. In gamer terms, this is known as "fluff," and fluff tends to be superfluous in the world of D&D, a game that attracts power gamers and "min maxers" like no other.
I scoffed at Races and Classes too, even after glancing through it. Then one day I realized that my long awaited D&D 4th Edition campaign was about to hit the planning stages and all I knew about it was the rumors and random quotes I was reading on Enworld. I was happily surprised to find that Races and Classes is a more concise, nuanced version of what I had come across online, often with better explanations of why something was, not just that it existed in the new edition.
The look of the logo and artwork are discussed in the first chapter. We learn the artists are trying to walk the line of appealing to the average 12-year old without alienating the veteran players. I personally find it a little too juvenile for my tastes, but I can live with that. My preference would be darker, Planescape style artwork of someone like Tony DiTerlizzi or Brom, but I'm generally in the minority on these things. The new artwork and logo remind me of second edition D&D, a simpler, hand-illustrated look.
The section on races describes how the designers chose the core races, keeping iconic races while dropping those that were more fuzzy or somewhat controversial. Gnomes got dumped; they never really had a solid place in the game. Half-orcs also got dropped, with their heritage of rape and misery. New races came out of a pool of nearly 200 races played in D&D games around the world.
The designers found that the tiefling had amazingly high appeal, so they became a core race. Tieflings now have a shared heritage of diabolical origin and a shared physical appearance. Previous tiefling versions had a menu of freakish physical traits you could chose from and a variety of extra-planar origins. The tiefling is much simpler now.
Dragonborn is a new reptilian headed humanoid race they developed based on all the dragon-like races in play; half-dragons, dragon-blooded, you name it. People seem to want to play dragons. They sound like they take the high strength position from the now defunct half-orc. I don't care for how the Dragonborn look, but I'm guessing they'll be popular with all those people who played half-dragons.
Eladrin is a curious addition, as they're not the planar eladrin of the past. They're meant to be a kind of high elf from the faerie realm known as the feywild. With dozens of races of elves in past editions, the designers decided to draw a line and make all elves wood elves, or simply elves. Drow would come later, but if you want to play an elf in core 4E, he's a woodsman like wanderer originating in the forests. If you're looking for an alien, ivory tower, magic dabbling elf, the eladrin is for you.
Other races got slight tweaks. Humans, always known for their adaptability now have a negative trait: corruptibility! Yeah! Halflings were wandering gypsy types in previous editions, and now they're river dwellers, plying the swamps and river trade routes with their boats. Dwarves are intended to be surface dwellers, their mountain homes near the surface of the earth with natural light and better relations with their neighbors. They lose their darkvision in this edition, one of those subsystems in the game that was always a pain in the butt. Darvision? Low-Light? Torch? Lantern? Who really cares.
The most important aspect of race in 4E is that it matters more later on. In previous editions, as the designers point out, your race gave you some random junk on your character sheet and maybe a boost in an ability here or there. That information became increasingly irrelevant as your character progressed. In 4E, you can chose racial feats throughout the characters career, adding additional flavor and abilities that tie in perfectly with the characters class.
The section on classes is all about defining the role of the class and making sure they have an array of powers they can use: a) all the time, b) once per encounter and c) once per day. Every character class gets these, and every character can do a little "shrugging off" of damage, allowing the cleric to spend less time healing them. Speaking of the cleric, those who avoided the cleric role in the past because he was a walking medic will be happy. Healing is no longer in the realm of spells, but instead in rituals. This means clerics don't waste their resources on healing, they can instead focus on their Flame Strikes and related combat goodness.
The Book of Nine Swords and the Warlock class are pretty good 3E guides to what these classes will look like. The goal is to remove the mathematical resource model from previous games and instead create a system where the game can move forward even after the major party resources are depleted. The Warlock, like in 3E, can always do that annoying eldritch blast thing, for example. Characters are also balanced out based on their roles in combat, not their overall role. Just because you get a ton of skills (rogue), doesn't mean your character should get short-changed on the battlefield. Speaking of skills, there are far fewer of them, many of them rolled into others, keeping the bookkeeping to a minimum and avoiding a lot of skill problems like the fiddly synergy point rules.
The magic systems have been designed to avoid overlap and allow each class to have its place in the sun. Mind control magic is minimized in hopes of a future psion class. Blasting large numbers of people (called controlling) is the realm of the wizard. Blasting single opponents with wicked effect is the realm of the Warlock. Clerics have the usual holy flame spells, spectral weapons and ward type protections. There is little overlap here. There is no class that uses someone else's spell list. Each spell casting class sounds unique and fun with their role clearly defined and their power source unique.
Wizard spell schools are dropped and instead they've got implements that focus their power: orb, staff, and wand. If you're doing long distance evocations, you're probably a wand wizard, for example. The Magic system is probably the most problematic"legacy" system of the current edition, and although they don't gut it, they've tried to focus on what works and what doesn't. Save or die spells are gone, for example.
Alignment is optional in 4E. Most people are simple not aligned and spells that depend on alignment are mostly gone. Want to detect evil? That's going to be your personal value judgment, not a game breaking ability used by the paladin.
So for $20 you can have a glimpse into the next version of the player's handbook. The book is a 96-page soft cover, with color illustrations throughout. If you're planning to implement 4E upon it's release, this book should prove a useful guide. I've already tweaked my new home brew world to work better with the back stories of the various races.