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?