I was pretty skeptical about the new races in the PHB3. I have no problem with WotC releasing new races, but my attitude was "Meh, not for my game." Now that I'm actually reading through them, I may have to change my mind.
I think the designers did a great job of giving each new race really strong role-playing hooks that make them intriguing. Let's go one by one:
Initial Reaction: Great, another excuse for players to play as monsters.
After Actually Reading: OK, I actually really like this. Fighting against your beastial nature is a really strong roleplaying hook. The idea that minotaurs revere labyrinths as symbols makes for a really cool, unique flavor. And a minotaur society under constant threat from falling under the sway of The Horned King opens up endless story possibilities. I really like that these guys aren't just another noble warrior class, an area where I feel that the Goliath for instance was kind of lacking.
Overall, this race made me do a complete 180 on whether I'd play a minotaur or even allow them in my game, which is pretty impressive.
Initial Reaction: Living psychic crystals are too weird for my game. And I can't wait to see players disrupt the game as they goofily attempt to roleplay a completely inhuman lifeform.
After Actually Reading: One of my major reservations about these guys is how you would actually play one. I could see all kinds of nonsense being justified by the fact that My guy is a living crystal, dude. But the designers thought about this and gave us some nice roleplaying hooks. I like the idea of wide-eyed, childlike beings with very little control over their emotions. The idea that there is a school of shardminds which wants to destroy all shardminds helps flesh them out as alien, but not completely unplayable. Physically the idea that they are holding their humanoid form together through conscious force is pretty cool.
I'm still not sure why they need to wear clothes.
I still feel that shardminds aren't for every game, and they're going to be challenging for low-level campaigns in the material realm just because every single villager you come across is going to be freaked out by the crystal golem guy. However I would definitely be interested in working them into a campaign at some point.
Initial Reaction: Plant people? Really?!?
After Actually Reading: These guys are still a bit vaguely defined for my taste. There's not a STRONG roleplaying hook here. However, the idea that their personalities can shift with their aspect could be great for a player who is weak on roleplaying. Or it could lead to trouble. I actually find the idea that they are a new race really intriguing. Every other race you meet is ancient and mysterious and blah blah blah, and here you have some guys who are still figuring things out. That is pretty cool and could lead both a DM and a player in all kinds of interesting directions. It doesn't quite square with their description of "keepers of ancient secrets" though. If they're young, how can they know ancient secrets? The idea that they change seasons as they age is just awesome.
Overall, I would have liked to see more roleplaying hooks for these guys. But if you've got a player with some strong ideas or your campaign has a strong link to the Feywild, there's no reason not to include them. I'm not that into the primal nature-oriented stories, but I'd still like to learn more about this newly awakened race and what sort of society they are going to form.
Okay, I'm not going to give these guys a full write-up. I already like the Gith and assuming a game with some extra-planar adventuring they've got a place. They are pretty much what you'd expect. Maybe some new ideas would have been nice, but what is presented in the PHB3 is solid and works well.
Since we've covered all the 'standard' races and then some, it would have been easy for these four new races to devolve into a menagerie or a freak show. I think the designers have done a great job of avoiding that. They've managed to find a unique niche for each race that can fit nicely into many game worlds, and they've come up with RP-rich hooks for players to latch onto.
I can't imagine what races will be left for the Player's Handbook 4, other than the dreaded flying race. For now, though, color me impressed.