The Essential Review

The D&D Essentials sub-line has been released and we’ve now seen what the products have to offer. The flame wars on the message boards continue to burn, but are hopefully dying out. I first mentioned Essentials here, and was not overly favourable to the idea. Now, a couple months after the books have released, seems like an opportune time to offer a quick review of the product line, a step back to critically look at the books evaluate where they met or failed to meet my expectations.

The Line Itself

Let’s start off looking at the concept of Essentials itself.

First off, the crux of the line is that the books are designed for new players, while the initial 4e books were not. That’s a lie, albeit a small one. The initial 4e books do present the game easily for new players, although they strike a balance between accommodating old and new players. The first couple chapters are all but skippable for experienced players. I’d argue that the introductory “how to play” and “what is the game” sections are among the best, and for all the complaints of 4e = WoW there was more role-playing advice than earlier editions. While not designed for new players, the 4e books were more accommodating for new players than almost any other edition.

Really, Essentials is a way to reprint the high-selling core books again without resorting to an edition change, a micro-edition change (i.e. 3.5), or just re-printing with errata (which would induce feelings of buying the same content again). It’s not 4.5, it’s something new; it’s not a new printing like in 2e or an edition facelift like in 3e, it’s the same edition and game presented in a new way with new content.

There’s some oddness to the idea. As the point of Essentials is to create an easier entry point – for new players baffled by the sheer volume of books on game store shelves – adding ten more books some counter-productive. It adds another level of potential confusion (is Essentials the same as these other books?) and the potential for misinformation (the D&DE = 4.5e forum protests). There’s also the touted idea of Essentials as an “evergreen product” that might always be in print. Except, WotC is really driven by its monthly releases and its new products. Most publishing companies are continually focusing on “the next big book” and WotC is no different. They’ve shown their willingness to quickly cut product lines that are not doing well (especially those related to miniatures), so I can’t imagine a product designed around long-term sales over an indefinite period of time doing well by their standards, it won’t have the same satisfying spike in quarterly sales. Especially since 4e only has so much time left.

Crimson Case

The first product of Essentials was the infamous Red Box. This is a bit of a curious product. It’s unfocused at best, trying to do many things at once. It’s the new starter set to offer a quick intro to the game for brand new players AND it’s a nostalgia-heavy product to lure back old players who got into the game in the ‘80s AND it’s a giftable product for gamers to give to young potential gamers to sell them on the game. The best results seem to be at getting old players back into the game. Priced very similar to one of the Heroes of ____ player books with a tenth the content, it seems an inefficient way to get players into the game.

The box itself is frankly “meh”. It gives the impression of three levels of play, when it sounds like there is only enough content to get to third level, where they have to stop. So, you can play up to 3rd level, so it’s two levels of play. The rules also don’t mesh with the published books, suggesting they continued to develop and tweak the rules after they had to send the box for printing. More development earlier followed by restraint might have been preferable.  And there are only enough power cards for one of every race, so if two people want to play elves it gets tricky.

The box itself doesn’t lend itself to introducing an entire group to the game. It introduces the game via a choose-your-own adventure that only one person can do at a time, meaning the rest of the group sits and watches for a lengthy period. And it doesn’t necessarily lead to a balanced group. And the choose-your-own adventure only works for a single of the player books, not selling the second.

It’s not a bad product but it’s only an adequate starter set, slightly inferior to the first one released for 4e.

Big Book o’ Rules

I love the Rules Compendium. It’s hands down the best product in Essentials, being useful for every group regardless of the flavour of 4e they play. It’s portable and well-index & organized, easy to reference without slowing play. Add some sticky tabs from any office store and it’s perfect.

Or close.

The book is missing some rules. The vehicle rules from Adventurer’s Vault are absent, as are many of the new weapon keywords and other content from later books. So it’s all the rules for Essentials but expanded games you’ll still need to reference other books or consult the Compendium.

The book contains a little more fluff and world information than necessary. It didn’t need to include any information on Nentir Vale, the gods, and the Points of Light setting. That’s wasted pages for anyone playing Forgotten Realms orEberron or Dark Sun or a homebrew campaign. Really, the majority of players. This makes the absence of rules all the more noticeable, as I’d rather have vehicle rules and the brutal weapon keyword than a pantheon of boring gods.

It’s a worthwhile purchase, especially for the revised and tweaked Skill Challenge rules and DCs.

Heroes of Adjective Noun

I like how Essentials handles PC classes. The initial batch of 4e classes were too samey, and needlessly so. Every class was as 3e sorcerer with the same power and resource management. Essentials really nails that it’s possible to have the hard math and balanced classes of 4e without giving fighters spells or every class having the exact same arrangement of powers.

The races are mostly good (except the needless drow nerf). The books are fairly solid and the builds interesting. I like much of the increased fluff for spells and races. It really helps the edition be more than just a game. I like the mixing of power sources (primal-martial ranger), the addition of a striker fighter, the return of a pet druid, and the like. Some of the builds (thief, mage, hunter, warpriest) seem a little redundant and don’t really stand out from the PHB1 options. It might have been preferable to just tweak the PHB1 variants rather than make something new yet unremarkable.

I was initially disappointed by the amount of content. I made some epic Essentials pre-gens to playtest some solo monsters, and after the second character I just gave every PC the exact same gamut of feats with only one of two variations. But with two player books this should be less of a problem, and the fixed number of options makes the game significantly easier. There are many people happily playing Essentials-only games to avoid the glut of content WotC has released. However, this benefit will quickly vanish as WotC churns out more Essentials-compatible content (Heroes of Shadow and Dragon and probably all the books for 2011) leading to the same imbalance and overwhelming options created by the “everything is Core” philosophy.

The BIG flaw with the book is the names. There’s nothing that says “players start here” or “basic rulebook” in the names. Essentials was meant to be an easy entry point, but this triples the number of potential starting books, adding another layer of confusion. A player wanting dwarves and fighters might buy the book with dragonborn and paladins, and vise versa. New players now have to ask a store-clerk where to start, assuming the books are being bought in a FLGS and not a box store where the clerks might be as baffled as the new player.

Masterful Tiles

I love the Dungeon and Wilderness sets. Great stuff, both as expansions on the existing sets and as starter stets. Very well done. The boxes are fantastic. They’re both a way to store and transport tiles (needed) and tiles in and of themselves.

I use a variety of mapping options. I’m giving Gaming Paper a try and have a couple smaller wet-erase mats as well as a collection of assorted pre-published poster maps. And a Gale Force 9 licences map of King’s Road for all those road-related ambushes. But for dungeons, the tiles work so very well, laying the tiles down as you explore and flipping tiles to reveal discovered traps (fire, pits, acid, etc). With the new set I’ve added a new trick: random traps. The trap is revealed to everyone when I flip the semi-random tile.

I was disappointed by the City set. The box sides were generic and I don’t like the emphasis on streets and interiors. Halls make sense in a dungeon, with the negative space being walls, as it is impassable. For cities, this is not so. You can climb the negative space, hopping from rooftop to rooftop. Fights can be set above the streets as well as below. I’d have preferred the set be buildings with no streets, with the negative space between buildings assumed to be streets.

DMing for Dummies

This is a handy box for anyone not planning on getting the Monster Vault or Red Box. But it’s the least impressive bit of Essentials. The DMG is serviceable for both new and old players. There’s little truly new content that isn’t handled by Updates or the Rules Compendium. The DMG with a separate box of tiles with a small update would have handled this product fine, and been both cheaper and more comprehensive. Alternatively, there could have been an advice on running the game included with the Monster Vault making that an all-in-one DM product. This might make more sense than having the DM required to buy 2-3 products compared to a player’s 1.

The advice is good, the content still valid, and the rules solid. But it just feels like much more of a rehash with absent content. The lack of trap and monster creation rules hurts, especially with the dearth of epic tier monsters. Really, this product feels like it was made to fill a niche, for a perceived need to fill all three Core books with three separate Essentials products. 

Beastie Bank

The other essential Essential product is the Monster Vault. I’m a little more hesitant to review book because neither I nor my players own a copy. I’m getting the monsters through DDI and have a giant tackle box of minis so the dozen sheets of pogs have less appeal to me. As I rely on customized monsters, I have plenty of monsters already.

However, the quality of the book should not be overlooked. The creatures included use the greatly improved design of MM3, with higher damage and (finally) some protection for solos against being stunlocked. Just like the classes of Essentials are what they should have been at release, so are the monsters finally what they should be. Iconic monsters have more of their classic abilities, creatures have been revised to play smoother and with more fun on the table. This is what 4e should have been two years ago.

The inclusion of the cardboard tokens (aka pogs) is a plus. While I think future books (the forthcoming Threats of Nentir Vale) do not need included tokens, it makes sense for a starter monster book to include them. For brand new DMs it is a great idea. I’d prefer the future sets to have separate token sets so mini fans can choose not to get a pack of pogs while players who enjoy tokens can buy extra.

The book does have its flaws. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, it relies on variant monsters over themes and alternate powers. Sometimes the book seems to spread-out the iconic powers over the multiple foes. It favours classic D&D monsters to identifiable foes from mythology, which might be significantly more recognisable to brand new players. The first few Monster Manuals of 4e seemed to really suffer from a limited selection of beasts, in part because almost every monster needed a variant or two, but also to pad future monster books with more iconic and must-have monsters. Between the Monster Vault and Threats of Nentir Vale we *should* have an acceptable number of monsters… for the heroic tier. That’s the other flaw of the Monster Vault, it all but ignores epic tier monsters. I.e. the monsters that most needed a revision and update. The vaunted “hard math” begins to break down at the epic tier, most well documented by Mike “buy my book” Shea aka SlyFlourish, as seen here. Given Essentials all but fixes much of the rest of 4e, it’s a shame we need to buy even more books to have a workable epic tier game, Essentials is far from complete.


That’s my review, excluding the dice. Because WotC and official D&D dice have always been terrible. $13 for dice and a bag is also a tad pricey, with an unnecessary amount of packaging to make it the same size as the books.

I’m growing fond of Essentials. If I start a new 4e game I’ll probably go with Essentials only. It’s simple with a restrained power level. The options are not overwhelming, but I can allow a trickle of other options if I so desire. Or not.

At this point, the only thing I’d like more is a hardcover printing of Essentials, so the books would match the rest of the books on my shelves. The paperbacks just look out of place, and just won’t last as long as the hardcover products. If they can reprint the core books as special collector’s editions they can re-release the Heroes of X books as a solid and sizable hardback book.