After Christmas, I finally decided to take the plunge and order the books out of the DND Essentials line that I had been looking at and thinking about picking up for some time. I’d be lying if I said that the 33% off post holiday sale on Amazon didn’t have something to do with it. I got the books after the New Year and have been slowly but surely making my way through the new class options and some of the monsters, and I have to say, I like what I see.
A little bit of background to give this post context. I played in the first DND game day before 4th Edition even launched. I had a buddy working at one of the FLGSs in the area who told me about it a while in advance, and so me and a few other buddies decided to check it out. I liked what I saw, ordered copies of the books for myself and my wife, and poured through them when they got in. I planned on putting together a 4th Edition game, but just wasn’t able to find the time. By the time I looked at it again, there was so much system bloat and rewrites on the rules that the books I had were nearly invalidated. I kept trying to get my head around it, but I was just soured on the whole concept.
Now that I’ve read through the Essentials stuff, I have to say, if this is the way 4th Edition was released right from the beginning, there might not have been the divide there was at its release. It really is a nice marriage between the 4th Edition rules set and the concepts of third edition.
The most complex of the classes are the spellcasters, which is as it should. However, they aren’t as complicated as they have been in previous editions. They look like they’ll play almost exactly as the base Cleric and Wizard does in 4th Edition with some minor tweaks. For example, the Warpriest, the Cleric build presented, draws a lot of its options based on its Domain choice selected at character creation. The two presented in the book are the Storm Domain, making your offense more potent, and the Sun Domain, making your healing magic more powerful and making you the bane of undead creatures.
The Mage, the wizard build draws some of his options based on a school of magic, and is able to draw upon more spell options from his spellbook, making him more mutable than even the base Wizard was in 4th Edition. It’s really a nice marriage between the old Vancian magic system and the current power system. In the base book are the Evocation, Enchantment, and Illusion schools, each of them catering to certain casting styles based on the older edition’s definitions of the schools.
The Sentinel, the new Druid build switches the classes role to a Primal Leader, and regains the animal companion that it lost in the switch from 3rd Edition. However, instead of getting a natural animal companion, the Sentinel summons one out of primal energy and can call it back, even if it is destroyed in combat by spending some of his own vitality. The Sentinel gains it’s companion, and draws its unique powers based on the season they associate with, Spring getting a wolf and Summer getting a bear. They are also able to pick up a number of Wilderness Knacks, affording them certain abilities outside of combat based on where they are and what they’re doing.
The two new Fighter builds changed dramatically. No more is the fighter presented with At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers that let you hit an opponent different ways. Instead, you have several stances that you can switch between that modify your basic attacks, such as inflicting the enemy with the “slow” condition with a successful attack, or allowing you to shift as a free action or push or pull an opponent when you successfully hit. Additionally, we see a role split between the two builds. The Knight is the classic Defender, while the Slayer is a Striker, focusing on giving up defense to deal as much damage as possible with bigger, two handed weapons.
The Thief, the new Rogue build gets neat movement tricks that let him stay mobile on the battlefield and get into position to do the most damage. One such “Trick” gives the Thief a climb speed that they can use during their movement, literally letting them run along the walls in exchange for moving 2 fewer squares that turn. They also get a power bonus to damage rolls made with an attack that turn. The only image in my mind is the Thief turning from the enemy, running up the wall, vaulting off of it with an Athletics check to flip over the bad guy and then stabbing him on the way down. The movement tricks are simply too cool.
The Ranger gets “Aspects of the Wild” similar to fighter stances in that they modify the Ranger’s basic attacks, but they’re modeled after various and sundry animals, such as the “Lurking Spider” or the “Pack Wolf” or the “Regal Lion” each of them giving the Ranger some new ability based on that creature. For example, the Regal Lion gets a bonus to attack and defense rolls against larger opponents. The Lurking Spider gives a bonus to Stealth and Athletics checks as well as giving a bonus to damage rolls against opponents you have CA against. The Ranger is also able to grab some of the Wilderness Knacks that the Druid is capable of taking. We also see a role split here, with the Hunter (a bow ranger) acting as a Controller, and the Scout (a dual weapon “suicide ranger”) as a Striker.
The Cavalier, a new Paladin build acts as the basic idea of a Defender, even going so far as to have an At-Will called “Defender Aura.” I also believe they are the only Essentials build to include marking as a general conceit of the build. The Cavalier is less like the Fighter in that they deal with Daily Powers instead of At-Will stances, but there’s some really cool ideas in this build. They draw their unique abilities from a specific “virtue” they choose. The two presented in the book are Sacrifice and Valor, the former letting your protect your allies at the sake of your own safety and the second pumping your offense.
Finally, the Hexblade is the new Warlock build. They’re still a Striker, and they’re a little bit wierd… but in a really, really cool way. They still gain their power from pacts they make, but they gain a “pact weapon” right out of the gate that they can manifest and channel attack powers through it. As they progress in level, they can also summon allies based on their pact to help them in combat. The two pacts in the book are the Fey Pact and the Infernal Pact, both classic archetypes for the Warlock from 4th Edition.
Every class still gets Utility powers, and there is a very nice mix of powers good both in combat situations as well as in other situations. Even those without Daily attack powers still get an Encounter power or two to their name. Usually in these cases though, they get one signature one that they can begin using multiple times in an encounter as they progress in level, such as the Thief’s Backstab or the Fighters Power Strike ability.
Finally, all classes get certain concrete abilities based on their class, such at the fighter getting bonuses to hit and damage, and the Mage doing various things based on their magical school specialization, making the class progressions look similar to the 3rd Edition progressions (though still easily identifiable as 4th Edition). It gives each class a nice solid feeling to what they’re supposed to be doing aside from a role name (Striker, Leader, Defender, etc), yet still allows for each class to feel different thanks to power and basic option selections.
Lots of other things have been codified, including various feats grouped into similar categories. Most of the feats that give bonuses also tend to scale with your tier, getting better as you go on. For example, a weapon focus feat may provide a +1 bonus to attack rolls at Heroic tier. This bonus will increase to +2 at Paragon tier and +3 at Epic tier.
On the GM side, monster design seems to have taken a minor turn, making Solo monsters more threatening by giving many of them abilities to shake off status conditions without needing to making a Saving Throw. This is something that the more savvy DMs and DND bloggers out there have been doing for a while mind you, but it’s nice to WotC acknowledging that there was a problem there and taking steps to fix it beyond the MM3.
Magic item distribution has also been overhauled. The magic items themselves are still presented as they always have been, but they are assigned Rarities (similar to that of a CCG), Common, Uncommon, and Rare, affording the DM a little more control in the magic item economy at the table. Still I would have liked to see a couple of examples of Rare items in the books. As it stands, I don’t believe we have any of them in the books (though there are published adventures and DDI stuff I suppose).
As much as I like the Essentials line, there’s one thing that keeps me from being completely in love, and that’s the dearth of material for it. About half of the Essentials products released were tile sets and introductory boxed sets, with only three standalone books (the Rules Compendium, and two Players Guides), not including the Monster Vault, which was included in a boxed set. At first, I was disappointed, but then, the game designer inside of me realized that this was nothing but a major opportunity to create some of my own material and get it out there and help to make 4th Edition what I want it to be. So, there’s a good chance you’ll be seeing some more Dungeons and Dragons material on this blog (specifically some Domains and Magic Schools to start with), and I’m definitely going to be putting an Essentials only DND game on the table here at some point.
Bottom line, Essentials IS 4th Edition. It’s not 4.5. It’s not 3.75. It’s 4th Edition, and if you like the basic ideas presented in the other releases you’ll like the Essentials line. If you were reticent about the 4th Edition changes, Essentials might be the style of 4th Edition for you. It doesn’t offer a wildly different play experience, but it does give a slightly different flavor to the taste of the game, and one that might make it easier for the early and virulent detractors of the game to swallow. Give it a shot. You never know. You may just find you like it.