Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Essentials. D&D 4, Phase 2.

I picked up the new Essentials book, Heroes of the Fallen Lands, yesterday.  I'll pick up the Rules Compendium a bit later.  First I want to see is Essentials is the way to go for D&D4.  So far it looks like it is.

There is a lot going on in HotFL.  First there is a thin meta-plot running through all the new D&D books; once the world was great and powerful, but now great kingdoms have fallen and the world is slowly emerging from darkness.  It is a neat idea, but to do it in my own games I'd figure out what exactly happened.  I like what WotC did with the Realms, maybe I'll try something like that. It is like Blackmoor after the global shift, or Krynn after the Cataclysm or even Greyhawk after the Rain of Colorless Fire.  But until then let's talk about what I do have and so far that is just HotFL and the "Red Box". HotFL picks up where the Red Box leaves off, but one can start here as well.

HotFl gives us four classes, Cleric, Fighter, Rough and Wizard.  There are "builds" for each, which remind me a lot of the old 2nd Ed AD&D "kits". All the classes have a build and the Fighter has two, Knight and Slayer.  The Cleric/War Priest also has two Domains (from 3rd and 4th Ed).  So my first reaction is that this D&D is trying invoke memories of older editions.   The next book in the line, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, gives more classes, druids, paladin, ranger (with two builds),  and the warlock. So I am certainly going to pick that up.  The roles (striker, defender, leader and controller) are still around, but their role seems a bit diminished.  In fact they are only mentioned in terms of what they do in combat, not much else.

There is some recycled art here, that is fine, and some new art as well. The big thing here is how the rules have been re-laid out.  Melee and Ranged attacks are presented now in the same format as an "at-will" power.  While not exactly, it is good to see this.  Also included are bull rush, attacks of opportunity and grab.  Brings everything inline nicely.

The main races are still here.  There is still the Eladrin-Elf split and Halflings look more and more like Kender everyday, but this should please most everyone except for the gnome fans.  Races get a bonus to one stat and a choice of a second stat.  Seems ok to me.  Makes the races a touch more flexible I think.

In general character creation is streamlined and made easy.  Now like many old-time players I never had an issue with D&D character creation in any edition, but there is a new level of clarity here that I really like.  Alignments are more streamlined, though they are the same as the D&D4 PHB ones.  I do miss "Chaotic Good" and "Lawful Evil" I just don't miss the dogmatic adherence to them.  I like that my devils are now "Evil" instead of "Always Lawful Evil".   There are some more bits on fleshing out your character's personality, but this is D&D not Vampire the Masquerade.  The section on the Gods seems the least changed.  

There is an entire chapter on Powers. Great detail is gone into what powers are, how they work and what happens with them.  A greater distinction is made now between Martial powers and magical ones.  Obviously this is get at the criticisms of "why can my rogue only do this once per day?"
The four classes make up the bulk of the book.  Again I see many similarities here with 2nd Ed AD&D with it's Classes and sub-classes and kits.  So you can be a Fighter, but the type of fighter you are is either a Slayer or a Knight.  Yes Slayers and Knights can also use each other's exploits (Martial based powers).  The powers again a clearer and better explained.

Races come after the classes, which might seem a bit backwards to many, but I'll go with it.  Other than some changes to their bonuses they are mostly the same, even the same art for the most part.  Skills and feats are likewise only tweaked here and there.
There is some equipment listed as well.  But no rituals.

What strikes me most is how much care and attention has been given to re-writes.  Sure there will be many that look as Essentials and say they have all this stuff. And for the most part that is true.  But there is enough changed here and presented in such an ordered fashion that to me at least it was solidly worth the 20 bucks.  It is also a great idea as a gift to that non-roleplaying friend that wonders what it is you do all the time.

So who is this for?

D&D4 has some problems it must overcome first.  The biggest is who should play it followed by why should they choose this over some other game.

The first part is easy really.  The game is aimed at all players.  While the Red Box is firmly aimed at starting players or lasped players, Essentials is for everyone past the Red Box stage.

But that is not Essentials biggest issue.  Essentials is now fighting for a market that is populated by Pathfinder, OSR books (which is still not a majority by any stretch of the imagination) and most of all D&D 4.  Yes, Essentials biggest rival is it's own older brother.

(yes that binder is full (almost) of errata.  What would rather have, a company that never put out errata or one that puts out too much? It also has my favorite bits of various third party products.)

I think it is obvious that Wizards would love to see all "D&D" players, regardless of current system come back and try D&D 4 again, via the Essentials line.  And I also think that their work has been earnest.   I still think that D&D4 is one of the most well designed games of the last 10 years.  By the way, in case you are keeping score, Essentials was released almost 10 years later to the day as D&D 3.0.

While I am not quite crazy enough to suggest this, but I would think it would be nice if the members of the OSR gave D&D4 Essentials a try.  Of course I tell D&D 4 players that they need to play 1st ed AD&D and/or try out one of the clones all the time too.

(the Heir Apparent?)

In the end I give the new D&D 4 credit.  They seemed to have learned from past errors and they have listened to the fans and have tried to build a D&D4 that appeals to most.  Sure some people will hate it, there always are people like that, but I think that if you liked D&D 4 you should like this.

If you want to read more about the new direction for 4e, there is an interview at The Escapist with Mike Mearls.


Aaron E. Steele said...

I saw the new 4E essentials line. I like the softback, trade paperback format. It has a very clean look to it.

I pity the fools who forked out hundreds of dollars for the original 4E hardbacks.

Now players can get the combined essentials compendium and players handbook for roughly $45.

Aos said...

Thanks for the review.

On a somewhat related note, I'm not much for settings, but I must say that they did a lovely job with Dark Sun.

@ paladin- I don't know anyone who paid full price for the first set. I payed $66.00 for the first three books- and I've got monsters too.

Aaron E. Steele said...

@ paladin- I don't know anyone who paid full price for the first set. I payed $66.00 for the first three books- and I've got monsters too.

I would have paid full price, had I purchased them, as I do 90%+ of my purchases at my FLGS. But that's just me, I like to support local businesses. Someone must be buying them full-price, otherwise how are those stores staying in business?

Aos said...

I'm sure your right, really, my LGS seems to thrive on 4e stuff. They have a huge stock and at least a quarter of it is 4e stuff- and I noticed that they sold out of the DS stuff.
I think the physical stores get stuff earlier too- and I bet with most of this stuff you make the majority of your sales in the first week or two.

I'm a grad student effectively living off my wife. Subsequently, gaming dollars are far and few between; so, often it's amazon, or not at all.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Ok. I'll admit, I paid full price for the box set when it came out. I wanted the new rules so my son and I went to our FLGS at midnight to get them.

I still have them (as the picture shows) and I still like having them. But I am a completest that way.

My FLGS seems to be split between D&D4 and Pathfinder. When I was in the other day they told me that the Red Box and the Essentials were doing very well.

Anonymous said...

When I bought 3rd edition, and they then turned around and released 3.5, I never bought another book.

I bought 4th edition, and will not be buying anything now that they turned around and did this.

I don't like feeling like I'm being used to "Beta Test" these games, when the "real, fixed version" is always a couple years away.

I'm done with it. WotC's business plan sucks.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Anonymous that is certainly your choice, but armchair accountancy aside their business plan makes very good sense. These newer books, while not representing a huge shift in rules they do present a huge shift in accessibility. The rules are clearer and they are cheaper.

You can be perfectly happy and still use the 4e books you already have. In fact if you are happy with them I would advise you NOT buying these. Plus if you are on DDi then you will get it all anyway soon and then still use your original books.

I can see a situation where someone is playing a 2008 Wizard whose magic missile needs a "to hit" roll but does more damage and a 2010 "Mage" whose magic missile doesn't need a to hit roll, but does less damage. There is no issue here.

Less rules wise was changed between 4.0 and 4.0 Essentials than 3.0 and 3.5, but at the same time there less recycled text from 4.0 to 4.0 Essentials than there was between 3.0 and 3.5.

NeoWolf said...

(yes that binder is full (almost) of errata. What would rather have, a company that never put out errata or one that puts out too much? It also has my favorite bits of various third party products.)

That's a tough question. Though this also illustrates an area where 4e honestly loses me to a degree. A part of me loves the idea of a game with a living rule set, one that consistently gets updated and revised. After all 4e's taken a very liberal approach to errata. These aren't just corrections, these are updates to the game outright. Essential's isn't 4.5, if anything it's 4.2 or 4.3 because we've already gotten some substantial updates.

A part of me really likes this, but another part of me is horrified at how out of date, literally, my books are. If anything I think your binder has me even more horrified as that's a good visual comparison.

Now I do appreciate that the DDI tools make it easier to keep up with the errata, in fact in lots of ways it makes it very easy to. If you're a player especially all you really need to do is use the character builder and you're set. However that's a hefty fee just to keep up with the rules. Not to mention there's been a firm stance against other forms of electronic distribution. (I really like that Paizo is able to update their PDFs with any errata they may have. Though their errata tends to be more traditional corrections of typos and phrasings, rather than rules revisions.)

But at the same time, I think I may be more of an old fart at heart than I realized because I really like my books. Making them a pain to use reliably hurts. Not to mention I'm quite fond of a couple third party campaign settings, with additional content that you're just not going to find in the character builder. (In fact, I regard this is as the greatest fault in relying upon it. You're fine as long as you stick to WotC content, but outside of that it becomes messy.)

That being said, I'm definitely not dumping 4e by any means. But I am curbing my book purchases as they just don't feel as valuable. I've got quite a few 4e books and I'm "rounding out" my collection with two more. (Psionic Power is on the way, and the Rules Compendium from essentials is preordered as it looks quite valuable.)

I'm still going to be running and playing 4e. (I really want to run a Blackmoor and an Amethyst campaign.) And I'm still gonna buy some 4e related books (I do want to get the Dark Sun books~), but in general I'm done collecting them as it doesn't feel that rewarding when the content gets revised so quickly.

Anonymous said...

4.0 sucks plain and simple. 3.5 was the best one that they ever made. there is no compare to 3.5 from 4.0

Timothy S. Brannan said...


I am sorry you don't have the courage of your convictions. If you did I might be more inclined to hear what you have to say.