Like many of you, I was very interested to hear more about D&D Essentials. A lot of people whisper the threat of “D&D 4.5” and narrow their eyes as they grab a hold of their wallets for fear that Mike Mearls will pluck it out of their hands. We have a lot of questions rolling around in our heads. As primarily a dungeon master, I have a lot of questions about what this will do to my game. Today we’re going to take a look at what D&D Essentials could mean for us dungeon masters.
Probably our biggest concern is compatibility. Will all of the stuff coming out in Essentials be compatible with stuff I already have? Every word from WOTC says “yes” and I imagine they’re right.
At least, it’s as compatible as the rest of 4e is right now.
That’s a statement with some subtext so let me clarify. 4e has changed a lot over the past two years. The mechanical design we see in later books is quite different from the design we see in the early releases. For DM’s, I think these design changes are clearly seen when comparing monsters at the paragon tier and above across all three Monster Manuals. I’ll talk more about this in a bit. For players, it’s seen clearly in the huge number of updates to the core classes and powers in the original Player’s Handbook. The core classes today are very different from those in the original Player’s Handbook. The recent change to Magic Missile is one such example.
The one thing keeping players sane is the Character Builder. Because it’s constantly updated, we don’t have to worry too much about keeping up with all of the updates. Of course, it makes us look at our core rulebooks and wonder why we bother to carry them around. I know I’ve stopped doing so. I might as well be bringing a Laurell K. Hamilton hardback for all the good they’d do me at the table.
So, considering this, D&D Essentials will likely be as compatible as any other book we have. We could still use monsters out of the Monster Manual 1, but Gods help you if you don’t houserule creatures above level 11 with higher damage output. An Essential cleric can still fight with a PHB3 monk. All the basic mechanics of skills and attack rolls and what not are still the same.
Mixing Essentials with older material will work. It just might not work well, depending on what books or adventures or modules you run. But if you have experience running a lot of games, you’ll know how it won’t work because it isn’t working well already. There’s no way I can run Orcus from the Monster Manual 1 as written against a group of level 30 players with all of the books. He would be a joke.
With all of the books and Dragon magazine articles that are out, we’ve gone from a selection of a dozen feats or so and about four or five powers per level to nearly 100 feats per tier and maybe 15 powers per level to choose from. With all of this we can’t help but min-max at least a little bit. It gets even more out of hand at level 30 when a mixture of powers, items, feats, paragon paths, and epic destinies from nearly one hundred sources can create some catastrophically unbalanced effects. Take a look at the paladin’s ability to do 250 damage on a single hit for example (thank you, Matt James). WOTC cannot even update this sort of thing because it isn’t any one unbalanced effect, it’s a whole combination of powers, items, and feats that, on their own, are fine. When you have too many options in a game, you cannot know how they will be used in combination.
So what will D&D Essentials do for this? If you play it by letting your Essential fighter choose any power from any previous book, it will likely result in something just as unbalanced. All Essentials will do is add more options into the giant pool of options we already have. For some players, it’s overwhelming. For others it’s exactly what they want. For DM’s it’s such a challenge that we simply don’t pretend to keep track of it. We just hope they’re being policed by their neighbors.
But what if you played Essentials alone? What if you built a campaign or a ChattyDM-style mini-series that only used Essential classes with Essential options? That might actually work pretty well, depending on how Wizards balances Essentials classes. With a limited number of options that were built in isolation from the existing game, they could build some really well-balanced classes. You could run a Essentials campaign with some newly built characters that have the power we DM’s expect.
We’ll be interested in how they designed it and how they balanced it. Will they have the equivalent rogue paragon path of Daggermaster with its over-the-top critical range? Will they still have my accursed paladin “Hospitaler’s Blessing” that seemed to reduce beholders to a sack of kobold minions? I guess we’ll have to see.
Monster Manual 1.5
While current players have the character builder to keep them updated, DM’s don’t have it as easy. Unlike the Character Builder with it’s continued updates, WOTC never actually updated the original monsters with the updated math we find in the Monster Manual 3. Our first Monster Manual is pretty useless above level 10 and there’s no other way to update the monsters within other than to do it ourselves.
The Monster Manual 3‘s design made it the first book we could run at the table in a long while without houseruling it. Some things were still missing like stun and daze protection for many Solos, but overall the accuracy, defenses, and damage are well tuned.
With the original Monster Manual so out of date, we can hope that the D&D Essentials Monster Vault is our re-written Monster Manual. Some might be upset buying a book full of existing monsters again. I’m just happy to have an ancient red dragon I don’t have to build from scratch.
So the D&D Essentials Monster Vault could very well be the Monster Manual 1.5 that we’ve (or at least I’ve) been waiting for. We’ll have to see what they include, but I’d assume chromatic dragons will be there. We probably won’t see a new Orcus now that he’s been re-written three times (badly) I don’t expect we’ll see a fourth. That’s OK, Gamefiend and I live for building out our own Worldbreaking versions of a guy like Orcus.
The tool for the job
I am happy to see WOTC’s plan to include everything players need to play in this product line. I was always bothered by the idea that players couldn’t really play Keep on the Shadowfell without buying wet or dry-erase maps from a third party. How would someone new to the game know to go to Paizo and pick up a Gamemastery flip map? I also like that monster tokens are included in three of the products: the DM Kit, the Monster Vault, and the Starter. I have quite the miniature collection going, but I’m guessing a lot of DMs, including new DMs, don’t. Poster maps also seem to be included in every product with an adventure, which is nice. I also heard that all of the adventures they are publishing for this line will use the tiles found in the Essential Dungeon Tile sets. This is something I’m also looking forward to.
Dungeons and Dragons 4.5?
Probably the biggest complaint with this whole release is the feeling like you have to buy stuff you already bought. We don’t seem to mind buying new Power books for our characters or even a new Player’s Handbook, but buying a new Monster Vault full of monsters from the Monster Manual 1 is vexing. Why didn’t they release it right the first time?
We could play armchair product designer all day long but it simply takes us to the following possible actions.
You can ignore this and keep playing with the stuff you have. D&D is still D&D regardless of whether you play with the original un-errata’d Players Handbook or the entire set of D&D Essentials.
You can just houserule the hell out of stuff. I’ve been doing this more and more in my own game to keep up with the pace of power in our player characters. It puts a lot of demands on the DM but the results are a game tuned around your specific players.
You can seek the improvements in the game and buy the Essentials stuff. I know, for the amount of time and energy I put into the game, I’m happy to have an updated Monster Vault. I can’t wait. I don’t know how my players will feel about the Essential classes yet, but we’ll see. Either way, I’ll have some new tools to use.
Is it D&D 4.5? Not really. Because it’s still “fully compatible” with all of the stuff this far, and it is for the most part, it isn’t an entirely new addition.
Whether you’re as excited about this as I am or angry about what this might mean for D&D, we’ll all be watching for the release and what it might do to the game we love.