Sunday, July 10, 2011

D&D Essentials: An Evaluation

I originally wrote this last year, but never posted it. It's interesting to note that since I wrote this, Pathfinder has passed D&D in sales, at least in some locations.

D&D Essentials have now been out for a while, and I've had the chance to look them all over, so I thought I'd give my overall impressions of how the line has done in meeting its goals.

The first step is to establish just what the line was meant to do, as it's not entirely clear. It appears that it was meant to establish a more friendly starting point for new players, but there's also evidence that it was meant to try to create a "feel" that would appeal more to players of older editions that have complained that 4th Edition D&D is too different from those editions. I think that the Essentials line has had mixed success on both counts.

I've touched briefly on the new "red box" before. As a standalone introduction to the game it's fine, but then becomes worse than useless as gamers transition into the rest of the Essentials line. Someone made the boneheaded decision to go to press with the red box before finalizing the details of the two players' books: Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. As a result, characters created with the red box are incompatible with the latter books. This is a complete waste, making a lot of the nifty player aids provided in the red box useless outside of it.

To make matters worse, the issue is barely touched upon on in the rest of the line, aside from a mention somewhere that players should rebuild their characters if they are using ones created with the red box. Epic Fail.

Seriously, when creating a line meant to introduce new people to the hobby things should be as seamless as possible. If you had wanted to set out to design something as unfriendly to new gamers as possible, it would be hard to come up with something "better" than this.

It's a real shame, because despite some other criticisms of the line, it's pretty solid once you get beyond the "red box".

Enough on that though, lets move on and evaluate the rest of the line.

One interesting decision when laying out the line was to have a great deal of repetition between products. It appears that WotC has sought to cut down on the number of books required by each player to have at the table, or even to own. To that end, a lot of the rules to be found in the actual Rules Compendium (the core rules for the Essentials line) can be found repeated in the other books in the line.

Both "Heroes" books have around a hundred pages of rules covering the basics of play, character generation, powers, and skills that are covered both in the Compendium, and repeated word for word between the two Heroes books. Note the hundred pages of repeated content, because we'll come back to that later when we discuss some things that are missing from the line.

The Dungeon Master's Book from the Dungeon Master's Kit also repeats about a hundred pages of rules from the Compendium, although largely a different set of rules than those repeated in the Heroes books. Altogether that's over 300 pages of repeated material in the line, and the books average 300 pages each!

It's sort of nice that players only need to have a Heroes book with them in order to have both character information and basic combat and skill rules at their fingertips, but given the small size of the Essentials books overall, I don't think it would be a great imposition for them to have had to have both a Heroes book and a Compendium, or even both Heroes books and the Compendium.

This crossover between the books also makes it a bit unclear as to just what is needed to play the game. It appears possible that the Dungeon Master's Kit and one of the Heroes books together contain everything needed to run some basic adventures, especially pre-published ones, however, there are some additional rules in the Compendium not reprinted in either the Dungeon Master's Book or the Heroes books, so eventually someone is probably going to want to get that. It's not clear when that point might be though. Surely none of the books point it out.

We'll leave that for now and take a look at the other purpose of the set: the nostalgia factor. This is the attempt to get fans of older editions of the game to take a look at the new version. I think this is pretty much a lost cause as long as Pathfinder is out there, but let's take a look at it anyway.

The red box creates a huge feeling of nostalgia, but this is probably becomes more of a negative once people get past the red box and realize the issues of compatibility I mentioned before. It just makes it more likely they will get fed up with WotC for screwing things up yet again and go back to Pathfinder or Swords & Wizardry.

Skipping the red box and moving on to the Heroes books, there's a bit more success. The classes in Heroes of the Fallen Lands are iconic. The Knight feels like a classic fighter, the Warpriest feels like a classic cleric, the Thief feels like a classic thief, and the Mage feels like a classic wizard. The four together capture the iconic core of a classic D&D adventuring group. The fifth class: the Slayer, captures the feel of the more reckless classic fighter, but doubles up on the Striker role with the Thief. This brings up one of the issues with the Heroes books as a whole: four Striker classes compared to two each of the other three. Plus the "bonus" class available from D&D Insider is also a Striker.

The Compendium says that it's a good idea to cover all roles, but we have over twice as many choices for the Striker role as any other! Is the Striker an OK role to double up on? Maybe, but it doesn't say that anywhere in Essentials.

The races in Heroes of the Fallen Lands are also the classics, with Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, and Eladrin. OK, Eladrin are not classic in the sense that they did not exist in prior editions, but they were basically one of two ways that Elves were interpreted in the game, so in that sense they still fit.

Moving on, the classes in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms are less attractive to me personally, but seem to do a good job of capturing a more classic feel. The Hunter captures the ranger that combined both martial and magical abilities that appeared in previous editions of D&D. I actually prefer the more purely martial take that the 4th Edition PHB takes, but that's admittedly a change from previous editions. The Scout is Drizzt, and while traditionally Drizzt broke the rules of D&D, I suppose that for many he represents what D&D should feel like, so I suppose it's appropriate to include the ability to play him here.

I've never been a big fan of druids, but the Sentinel seems to represent them fairly well. Same goes for the Cavalier. The Hexblade seems to be an oddball. Again, I'm not a huge fan of warlocks, but this seems to be a particularly specialized kind of warlock, whereas most of the other classes seem to be meant to be more generalist in their nature. I suppose the problem may be that the PHB already does a good job of capturing the classic feel of Warlocks.

The races presented are OK. In the name of repeating stuff we get Humans again, we also get the half-elf, half-orc, dragonborn, tiefling and drow. These choices are more to round out what D&D is today as opposed to the classic feel of previous editions, especially with the presence of dragonborn and tiefling. Also, drow PCs to me are what dragonborn PCs are to the generation that grew up largely with 3rd Edition: an abomination meant to be a sop to teenagers with power/emo issues. So, I'm a bit prejudiced against this volume of Heroes. Overall I think it does a decent job at what it sets out to do.

A problem with both Heroes books is what they leave out. The Warpriest has domains, the Mage has schools, the Cavalier has virtues and the Warlock has pacts. The problem is that while there's obviously potential for more, the Heroes books only present two of each. I suppose this may be in the name of keeping things simple, but it really just feels incomplete. We now come back to those 100 pages wasted in each book repeating rules from the Compendium. Those pages could have instead been used to give us a complete set of options for these classes.

That leads us to the one book we haven't touched on yet: the Monster Vault. Overall this is a nice volume, but it's not nearly as flexible as the Monster Manuals because no where in the Essentials line are rules for altering the level of monsters, or for monster templates. Now, it was a pretty easy cut to make things simpler, but it results in far less utility. We return to the waste of pages in the Dungeon Master's Book where we repeat about a 100 pages from the Compendium again. That space could have been used to put the rules for tweaking monsters and would have gone a long way to making the Essentials line more useful.

So in the end, are the Essentials essential? The answer is no. They just muddy up the whole picture as to what you need in order to play with no clear line drawn as to where to go when you want more. For example, DMs can go to the DMG if they want to be able to tweak or create new monsters, but there's nothing in the Essentials line that tells them that.

I think this was a noble experiment, but that it missed the mark. I'm glad they did it because the Dungeon Master's Kit, Monster Vault, and Dungeon Tiles Master Sets are a great source of counters and maps for use in my Pathfinder game, but it could have been so much more. I can only speculate as to what went wrong and why, but it's enough to know that an opportunity has been missed.


Liz Rogers said...

So if I wanted to play in a 4th edition game, do I have to by the PHB or the Essentials?

Are the two interchangeable? Like someone can create a character out of the PHB and someone else can create a character out of the Essentials books and both play in the same game?

Fulminata said...


None of those questions are answered in anything published in the Essentials line.

I've heard that Essentials characters are slightly more powerful than PHB characters, but that was shortly after release. I don't know if that's still the consensus.

The biggest issue with playing out of the PHB is that they've errata'd the heck out of it.

The real answer to your question is "ask your GM", because they're probably going to have come up with an answer that works for their group.

All of this just goes to emphasize how big a failure the line is as a simple starting point for new players.

The one possible exception is the rules compendium, which was the most up to date source of the core rules when it was published, but that by itself won't let you create a character.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I need some help here. I want to start a D&D group. I've played one time. THe friends I played with aren't avaliable always, and like far away.

For my completely newbie group, I want my players to be flexible, and I want (as DM) to craft my own campaigns.

I realize that the essentials line is for new players (like me) but it seems like it is limiting the player.

Should I go with the easy Essentials or the intimidating regular line?

Fulminata said...

Keep in mind that I don't actually run or play 4th Edition D&D, but based on what I've read and seen, I'd recommend going the Essentials route, combined with a subscription to D&D Insider.

It's a cheaper entry point, there's less errata to deal with, and any flexibility you give up should be countered by the access to all the tools that an Insider subscription gives to you.

While I didn't discuss it in my post, it occurs to me that perhaps the best way to start is to simply get the Rules Compendium and an Insider subscription.

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