By Daniel Weber
D&D Essentials are a new product line designed for new players. It boils down some classes to a single new build (sometimes two) with the express interest of making the game easier for new players to get involved in 4th edition and to create a new baseline for players to build from. The Essentials line comes in three parts: the part for everyone, the part for Players and the part for the GM. The part for everyone includes the new Red Box, the Rules Compendium and the official dice set. The Players books are Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdom. The GM line includes the new Dungeon Tiles basic sets, the Monster Vault full of tokens and monsters, and the Dungeon Masters kit full of starter stuff for the new DM including a new screen. Each is priced around $20.00, softbound, and written to be more accessible to starting players of the game. The starting price point for everyone should be lower with iteration as players and DM’s can pick and choose more effectively, but what are we really getting? How useful is it to new players and how useful to old players? Is there a lot of new stuff or is this version a bit too simple from the older structure of Players Handbook/DM’s Handbook/Monster Manual we have come to expect in the past years?
At the time of this writing I only have the Heroes of the Fallen Lands. There is a document available on the Wizards of the Coasts website that outlines the rules changes presented in the Rules Compendium, so for right now I don’t feel the loss of the core rules since I have Players Handbooks 1-3, the DDI (Dungeons and Dragons Insider, the Digital Support structure available for a monthly fee), and this document. When I have this book I will review it as well, but today our focus is on the new Heroes of the Fallen Lands as a standalone product.
First of all, it is bigger than a paperback but smaller than the traditional book sizes. It is about the same size as a graphic novel, which means long time players will have books that don’t match their collection but will find easier to tote around. The fact that its paperback means it’s a bit lighter than a hardbound book would be, but at the cost of long term durability. The book is designed to be opened for long periods of time, however, as there are professional fold points on the front and back covers near the spine to minimize overall wear and tear on the book. The pages are also very sturdy to the touch and the ink doesn’t run when you run your fingers on the pages. I have my doubts about the book in the years to come, paperback does not inspire feelings of long term stability but when I look at some of my hardback books on the shelf some have weathered time worse than some of my paperback books. I do like the cover art and the cream background feels very exciting and new.
So, to sum up, the physical object leaves me a bit conflicted. I have doubts about its long-term stability, especially in a weekly game, but I like the more accessible size and feel. I worry that I will be buying this book more than once in the future, but the $20.00 price point doesn’t upset me if I did have to replace it. It will be interesting to look back at this in a year and see how I feel about the purchase then, but for the moment I will have to say that for the price it’s a good deal physically.
But what about the content? Let’s roll through chapter by chapter. As this is a book focused at new players that what I am going to spend the bulk of this review looking at. If you’re a veteran player you will want to skim the middle and look to the end when I discuss how useful the book is going to be for those who have been on the 4E wagon since… Well, before the essentials line.
The book opens with the traditional Introduction to Role-playing chapter. Since Dungeons and Dragons is the most likely starting point for players, as it is three times as famous as its closest competitor in the minds of folks who are not in the hobby, this is very appropriate. The introduction even states that if you don’t have the new Red Box Starter set this is the book you want to start with. I found the section short, to the point, and good starting point for the new player.
Chapter One is an overview of the game. The chapter continues the trend of being very direct and simple to read, and key concepts for the game are presented in bold type font so it stands out. The chapter starts with an outline of the basic concepts, flows into a breakdown of the Three Tiers and then moves on to the basic rules of the game in both an example of play and then a detailed explanation of key character concepts such as the Second Wind and Action Points. For those new to Dungeons and Dragons, the core audience here, this edition introduces several new ideas. The most controversial was the adoption of some Massive Multiplayer Online terminology and concepts. The game is now broken into three general “Tiers” of play: The Heroic Tier where the players save towns or a kingdom, the Paragon Tier where they expand to national affairs and save kingdoms (plural), and finally the Epic Tier where they move on to cosmic challenges and save worlds. The game also introduces Powers to each character; each class now comes with a set of highly specialized powers to fill a specific role in the party. Those roles are now also clearly outlined; classes are defined as Leaders (healers and buffs), Controllers (Crowd Control and penalties), Defenders (Tanks), and finally Strikers (Damage dealers). Each character now can recover health several times per day; the number is defined by the class, in an amount equal to ¼ of their overall hit points per “Surge.” Out of combat these can be used at will, in combat they can only be used with potions or as a once per fight option called a “Second Wind” power. Leaders can invoke further uses of these surges with their powers, such as a cleric’s Cure Light Wounds, as can classes with some leader qualities added in. Action points allow a character to take additional actions during a fight and invoke some special abilities at the Paragon Tier and above.
Moving on from this introduction to the rules, we find ourselves in Chapter Two Character Creation. Once again the chapter moves slowly through its material using direct and simple to understand language. It walks through a more detailed description of the different roles, discussed above in brief, the different race options and what the important parts of the character are. Basic stats are generated from arrays, rather than the normal random or point buy methods, giving the new player some common options for building their character. To be honest, a lot of the characters I have seen made with the point buy options have a very similar basic spread so I found this presented a very simple and quick option for the budding role-player. We then get a discussion of alignment, which offers Unaligned, Good, Lawful Good, Evil and Chaotic Evil as options. The chapter concludes with directing the player to pick some heroic qualities to give the character some depth , a discussion of the various gods available in the “Points of Light” setting offered by the basic books of the Dungeons and Dragons line, and an explanation of Levels and experience points.
Chapter Three provides an overview of the ins and outs of the powers to be presented in the classes sections to come. We walk through the presentation and review the common effects and qualities of the powers. Types of powers are discussed, such as Utility powers, and why they are classed as such. It also reviews the common type classifications and why they are important, such as Channel Divinity or Arcane. It also discusses the implements and how they effect the powers they can be used with. In short, is a primer for how to read powers in the future chapters and is structured like a glossary for future reference. It appears first to help make the Class chapters an easier read, but it feels like reading a glossary when you read it.
Chapter Four reviews the four classes presented in this book and the five builds available. Here is what will draw in the older players for these five all new builds and the new powers they bring. Each class is presented in a format closer to the older D20 3.x edition format. The class is presented as the build with some choices at each stage to give some verity, but unlike the older Players Handbooks the powers designed to work with the specific build are only presented with that build. For example, in the first Players Handbook there was the Brawny rogue and the Sly rogue builds, but the powers were presented for both builds at each level together leaving it up to the player to decide which powers they wanted for their rogue. The choices were refreshing at the time for older players or those who are comfortable with evaluating the effectiveness of a particular ability in their head, but for newer players choosing powers that were less than optimal for their build was common. The Essentials class builds are presented almost like stand alone classes, the closest to the older version is the Wizard (Mage) class where the Mage selects one of three schools, but spells from all three schools are presented at each level. It is also very clear that they have worked to strike both a nostalgic feel for older 3.X players who were alienated by some of the more drastic changes in mechanics and giving older players new builds to work with. Each build in the book clearly demonstrates the class’s advantages and makes power and ability selections very clear cut and simple to follow, each class even has its own leveling chart making the class even more of a one stop shop for leveling than ever before.
Consisting of roughly half of the book, and is the core of the books value, I am not going to go over all the special bits for each build. The Build and Class options (presented as Build name and then the Class) are: The Warpriest for the Cleric, the Knight for the Fighter, the Slayer for the Fighter, the Thief for the Rogue, and the Mage for the Wizard. Each build feels very iconic of classic classes presented in older Dungeons and Dragons products, the more off beat classes will be coming in the companion book Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdom which will include new Warlock, Druid, Paladin, and Ranger builds. While these classes are common in the more recent versions of the game when I think back on the epic book series that I read as a child such as the Guardians of the Flame or Dragonlance books I think of fighters, magic-users, clerics and thieves. All four of these are here in this tome, with a classic guardian in the Knight and classic offensive fighter in the Slayer, which continues to strike a nostalgic tone for me while providing a very classic feel for new players. My only complaint is that only one Paragon path is presented per build and only one Epic Destiny is included. I would have liked some more options here, but this is built as an introduction to Dungeons and Dragons and it is clear that they integrated the paragon path for simplicity and the Epic Destiny to make the transition into epic play smooth.
Chapter Five is the races chapter. Each race, including humans, has some stat boosts available to them and some other advantages. Most notable is that each race, now including Humans, has an Encounter Power they can call on during battle. The Human power is new, and is optional for those who prefer an additional At-Will power from their class. There are other big changes but only long time fans/players will notice them, and so it is beyond the scope of this review. What is nice, and in scope, is that the racial information feels expanded giving further insight in the race for new players. The only thing is that this is basic; vanilla Dungeons and Dragons so there is nothing earth shattering presented in these racial write-ups for the returning player.
Chapter Six is all about Skills. With the caveat that the full rules are in the Rules Compendium, this is a pretty complete version of the skills rules. Of particular note is that there are some examples provided for improvising skills and deciding how hard it will be. For example, fixing a wagon is listed as an improvised thievery check. There is some basic information give about Skill Challenges, but it’s only a few paragraphs and a reference back to the Rules Compendium for more details.
Chapter Seven is Feats, and a lot of it is reprints from prior books with new rules. This is to be expected; the original Players Handbook provided the core of feats for the books to come so the reprint is appropriate for the newer players. The feats are organized differently from the past to make feat selection easier for the newer players. Rather than a long list to choose from they are grouped by what they do, such as Armor Proficiency or Implement training.
Chapter Eight is gear and weapons, and aside from the actual glossary is the last chapter. Gear is reviewed and magic items are presented. Magic items are now divided into Common, Uncommon, and Rare items. This is important because those with the right training can break a magic item down and use it to enchant new items. Common items can be bought and sold on the open market, easy to make and get from most dealers. Uncommon are usually found in dungeons, but can be made by players at the DM’s decision. Rare are either unique or are very hard to make and are virtually impossible to get aside from Dungeons. This allows a DM to better control what magic items are in the game and helps keep those really cool items big news when you find them in a dungeon rather than something folks are collecting components for.
Returning players: The new builds are the big news here, but it may not be enough to warrant the book purchase in and of itself. I found that Mage build to be very entertaining, it gives us the option to play the old school Magical Specialist in one of three schools: Evocation, Illusion, and Enchantment. The limited options for the paragon tier are a significant turn off for me, however. If you’re looking for some new options for your characters or want to look at some very different builds then you will likely find some good stuff here like the new fighter Stances mechanic. I, on the other hand, felt like I was flipping through popcorn. Interesting but not terribly memorable. Several of the reprinted powers, such as Magic Missile and Fireball, have undergone some big changes but these are all outlined in the rules update documents which precludes the need to purchase this book.
The races have undergone some very significant changes. Humans now have an optional encounter power to give them bonus to saves that they can take instead of a bonus class At-Will power but it does not really pop out there as particularly impressive to me. It is a nice +4 bonus utility that triggers when you miss a roll, however, so if you’re constantly missing your saves by only a tiny bit this might be just the thing. Each race now give a single stat as bonus followed by a second bonus for your choice of two, for example Halflings get a +2 to Dexterity and your choice of +2 to Constitution or Charisma. Humans keep their flat +2 to any stat of choice though.
So, in the final accounting we have two groups: New players to the Fourth Edition and Returning players. For the New Player this is great starting point! Simple to read, easy to follow, clear and direct. The book is clearly built for you! Classes are easy to understand, the powers are very thematic and feel very classic, and the choices are easy to understand reducing the chance that a starting player will make a bad call for powers. For the Returning player, though, this is a very mixed bag. You may find excitement and interest, but then again you may also find that not enough material is useful to your directly. For players of Wizards, Fighters, Rogues, and Clerics you might pick up a build or some powers but I have a hard time suggesting a $20.00 purchase in this economy for a “maybe.” Take a look at the changes in the online documents, and then take a flip through the book to see if there is anything here you want or need. If you’re a DDI subscriber you may just want to wait for the next build of the Character Builder, the new class stuff will be there and you’re not missing anything earth-shattering in this book.
Style is easy, a five. The book is consistently good stuff, while I may have issues with its long term efficiency the book feels good and is the right size for the job.
Substance gets a five if you’re new, a three if you’re a current player without the DDI, and a one if your current DDI subscriber. Due to it being designed for new players I am going to put its substance at a four for the purpose of the review.