How essential are Essentials?

There’s been a lot of chatter about the upcoming Essentials line to be released later this year. Previews are now coming through the WotC site as I type. I find myself wondering what the purpose of this line is, and whether or not that purpose is best resolved with these products.

What we already know is that this is designed as a new gateway to D&D for new players and DMs. What it isn’t though is a new basic version of the game. It’s still 4e, for good or ill. The cleric preview make sit clear that this is not a seperate game at all, it’s designed to be fully compatible with the 4e we’ve had for 2 years. Part of me wishes there was a clear seperation like back in days of BECMI vs AD&D, but realistically that was never going to happen. Also, the game itself can’t have any of the major mechanics changed without it evolving into a new edition by default. This can’t be seen as 4.5 for PR reasons if nothing else.

So actually, what is different then? It looks to me like it’s mostly presentation and formatting. I applaud that decision, it’s one I’ve been asking questions about for a while now. That said, is the PHB really such a barrier to new or casual players?  On it’s own, I’d say not. Add in all the X Power books and other PHBs I can absolutely see that it becomes a huge morass of decisions, it would put me off for sure. But that would be to ignore the DDI support. My guys don’t crack open the PHB anymore, they use the character builder. Whilst it’s not perfect (feat selection is still eye watering) it does a very good job of trimming the options into bite sized chunks. The fact it prints the power cards is the icing on the cake. What will be the effect of Essentials on the CB? I’m certain it will still spit out a functionally identical character sheet, so I’m not sure how any complexity has been removed from chargen.

The cleric preview seems to show a build prepicked for the character. That’s fine, but again, was that really the obstacle for newbies? I’m not so sure. For me, the mechanics themselves (sometimes) provide the stumbling blocks. I’m talking about immediate actions, that then go on to trigger other actions, that then slow down the whole round while we wait for the cascaded effects to dry up. I’m talking about monsters and PCs carrying 4 or 5 conditions on them that have to be accounted for. None of this stuff is game breaking of course, otherwise I wouldn’t still be having great games every week. These things won’t be changed by Essentials or even by the main line because that would truly be a revision or even a new edition, and it’s too soon for that.

That leaves the existing player and DM base, wondering whather Essentials brings anything to their game. The answer is ‘probably’. The Monster Vault alone is a much needed resource boost for DMs. The Rules Compendium is also a boon. Otherwise? Not so sure.

To conclude, my early thoughts are that this line doesn’t do enough for new players. It helps, but it could have done more. Obviously I’ll reserve full judgement until the whole thing is physically in front of me. So yes, I will be buying the line. Maybe WotC have got it right after all?



Filed under RPG

6 responses to “How essential are Essentials?

  1. Daz

    In the words of Peter Jones “they’ve created a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist”. At least that’s my take on it. Out of all the editions with the exception of Basic (where the elf was a class rather than a race), I think 4e is the most accessible. As you say the additional books beyond PHB1 could potentially be daunting, but you don’t have to use them initially. Moreover, the character builder centralises and filters most powers/feats etc so the player only sees what is relevent to his PC.

    The main attraction to me would be that a lot of what was in the original books is now obselete thanks to copious rounds of “updates”. If I knew the rules compendium and monster manual incorporated all such updates, it might make it worth a purchase. I still prefer to browse a physical book rather than looking stuff up piecemeal on the on line compendium.

    Being the completionist I am I will probably ultimately end up shelling out for these. Any chance of you doing a review of these when you get them? It may assuage my conscience slightly if you’ve given them your seal of approval.

    • Hiya Daz,

      I’ll definitely put it in the ever growing review pile!

      As far as I know the new books will be fully errata’d so there is that. What it won’t have though is re-specced monsters using the new guidelines from MM2 and 3. That’s a shame.


  2. Kevin

    “they’ve created a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist”

    The problem that exists is that there are many pre-4e players that truly hate a lot of what 4e did to the game. Namely the power system. There’s a reason why Pathfinder (basically 3.75) had lines circling the booths every day and the Wizards booth was virtually barren during GenCon. The solution is to make 4e seem more like earlier versions of the game.

    I’ve argued for some time that the “problems” with 4e were more formatting and attitude than anything else. That if powers were phrased more like feats, then a lot of the complaints would go away, and it seems like that’s exactly what Essentials is going to do.

    “I make a melee attack with… charisma for some inexplicable reason… and something funky happens.” Instead, you now make a normal attack, and your powers modify the attack, just like feats do. In the end, it’s basically a cosmetic difference, but it sets a different frame of mind for some people. At least my guess is that’s the hope.

    • Hi Kevin,

      “The problem that exists is that there are many pre-4e players that truly hate a lot of what 4e did to the game. Namely the power system. There’s a reason why Pathfinder (basically 3.75) had lines circling the booths every day and the Wizards booth was virtually barren during GenCon. The solution is to make 4e seem more like earlier versions of the game.”

      Can’t agree with this. Essentials remains power based at it’s heart. The game isn’t changing into something particularly different (and I would seriously doubt it was ever heading back to 3.x) except in it’s presentation (which you mention later). There are still at-wills, encounters, dailies and utilities.

      The whole GenCon thing, well, thats a whole different debate. I’d say DDI has a queue reducing effect though!


      • Kevin

        I in no way said or meant to imply that the rules would be changing, that the game was changing into something different, or that it was going back to anything like 3e. The first paragraph was my “why I think there IS a ‘problem'” in contrast to Daz’s initial comment. The second and third paragraphs are where I discuss what appears to be happening, and my exact words were “the ‘problems’ [are] formatting and attitude.” And that changes in “phrasing,” not content or functionality, are what is happening. I even clarify again at the end that the “[changes are] cosmetic.”

        If your issue with my comment was that you thought I was saying Essentials was making huge (or even many minor) changes to the game, then you misunderstood. I think you and I agree on the types of changes Essentials is going to bring. The only point on which we may disagree is with my premise that a lot of gamers really didn’t like what happened with 4e. You are certainly welcome to disagree with that as it’s hard to prove such statements, but if you knew the gamers I know or walked through or played at the Pathfinder areas at GenCon, I doubt you’d really disagree. The disdain for 4e was very thick in those areas, and the number of Pathfinder players rivaled the number in the WotC areas. I didn’t expect that, actually, nor did I expect the vitriol I experienced whenever I opened my mouth and said something positive about 4e in those areas. Personally, I prefer 4e to Pathfinder and 3e in many ways, but there are plenty of gamers out there that don’t.

      • Hi Kevin,
        I’ve gone back and reread your comment. Your clarification helps, thanks. It initially looked like it was your opinion rather than observed opinion.
        As for Gen Con, I’m just jealous! The States are too far away for me to commit, but I would love to attend one day. Until then, I enjoy the comparatively tiny cons over here.
        Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

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