Caveat: This is one of my most critical posts about a D&D product so far. As usual, I’m willing to have open, frank and cordial discussions about the subject, but I will brook no rudeness nor will I allow any baiting/trolling for an edition war. Thanks!
Jumping right into it…
I’ll go right off the bat and say that this review will not be fair to the product nor to the efforts made to produce it. That’s why I’m also making it into an editorial. While I want to share the content of Wizards of the Coast’s latest product in the D&D Essentials line, a product that is actually very well done, my early, negative reaction to it was strong enough that it merits being approached differently.
Also, bear in mind that I’m NOT the target audience for that product, I got it as swag at the New York Comic Con as thanks for my volunteer DMing services.
Capsule Review (Where we stick to facts)
The D&D Essentials Dungeon Master Kit is a boxed set that’s said to contain everything needed to run a game of the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons (minus dice). Starting off right after the Red Box Starter Set ended, it contains a 270 pages paperback booklet, a DM screen, two 32 pages adventures as well as the tokens and battlemaps to run these adventures.
The Dungeon Master’s Book is divided in 6 chapters: Playing the game (basics), The Dungeons & Dragons world, Running the game, Combat encounters, Building adventures and Rewards. It covers all the rules needed to run the game, including the grand majority of combat rules.
The 2 adventures are lushly illustrated adventures taking PCs from level 2 to 3 and then to 4 respectively. It involves a well laid-out plot featuring human-centric urban, wilderness and dungeon encounters with several non-linear approaches available for players. It also includes supportive text and tips to walk DMs through the process of running the adventures.
The two tokens are on the same sturdy cardboard as the one used in the Starter box and, while featuring some reprints of PCs, present normal and bloodied sides for all of them… even the two warhorses.
The 2 full-size, double sided battle maps feature dungeons and outside areas made with pre-existing dungeon tiles as well as some showing original art for a keep and a village.
Finally, the DM screen features the same art as the original D&D 4e DM screen, contains similar (adapted) game info but is made of the flimsier, flexible, non-glossy thin cardboard reminiscent of the Paizo D&D 3.5 screen from Dragon Magazine.
Chatty’s Soapbox Editorial
I opened the boxed set on my way back from New York and while I immensely enjoyed the new maps and appreciated that all tokens now had bloodied sides (instead of 2 different monsters on each side), a few things started bugging me. As I read the guide from chapter to chapter a sense of dejà-vu was rapidly replaced by disappointment, followed by rising annoyance.
Here’s my beef with the product: taken alone as a product, this boxed set is extremely useful to new DMs, but as a product line, D&D Essential lost a lot of its new shine when I realized that this book reprinted, word for word, large swaths of text from the Rules Compendium and Heroes of Fallen Lands!
While the Compendium generally covers rules in more details (like improvising scenes and skill checks), both book contain the same “World of D&D” chapters, the same combat rules (with a handful of differences) and the same section on the default gods of the default D&D world. Also, both have overlaps on Skill challenges and a few other things like exploration, lighting and overland movement.
In many cases, the Compendium has more rulesy stuff and the DM’s Book focuses on what a beginning DM should know… but I had the exact same emotional reaction to this overlap as I had when Steve Jackson Games published those 5$ Car Wars Booklets that repeated the game mechanics in each product in the early 2000s.
This overlap, while surely a conscious decision on the part of Wizards of the Coast is a head scratcher for me. It blurs the lines of who should use which book when…
Now my theory is this:
D&D Essentials is first and foremost a rebranding exercise that rides on a needed rules update for the printed game books. In fact, you will notice that absolutely no direct references are made to prior D&D books and nowhere will you find any reference to the game’s current edition number. Trust me, I checked when my auditor’s instincts alerted me a few weeks ago.
While the line’s first intent is to bring in new players, it must also cater to the existing player base that want/will buy new D&D products. In that sense, the Red Box is intended for new players (along with a sizable alternate market of nostalgic 1980’s gamers or geek parents). With that in mind, the DM’s Kit is therefore likely intended for new DMs who want to progress from the Red Box but not jump into the full “updated current edition” yet.
Pretty much like Car Wars existed both as a simpler boxed game and a full Deluxe set in the early 90s.
So that kinda makes the Rules Compedium a product targeting D&D 4e players who want to keep using non-essential material but without all the errata baggage. In fact, I’m convinced that there’s a marketing initiative behind the Rules Compendium. While it does update all the rulesy stuff, it also has those one page teasers on the Planes of Existence and the published D&D settings without actually saying that you should go out and buy the books. Yet, those teasers don’t give you any usable material to play in them.
(A waste of space in the Compendium I find, but that’s another story)
Seen like that… I can understand the overlapping material. The actual Essentials player books are for players, the new DM gets all the rules in his Guide and the Compendium is a natural, if overlapping extension of both categories of Essentials books, much like the D&D 3.5 Compendium was back then… only this time, it was written at the launch of the line, not its end.
And underneath all this is the not so secret assumption that the original Core books (and the 4e “brand”) no longer exist but live through the ethereal Library of Worlds that is D&D Insider. Many players that use it have abandoned their physical books anyway, except to brush up on the fluff… in such case, the Rules Compendium book becomes the only “must have” if you still peruse rules at the table
Please don’t get me wrong… I love the Essential line so far, especially the new PC builds, yet I fear that many customers like myself are going to have similar, negative reactions when they go through the books. Yes, I know some will tell me its not that big a deal, but I feel Essentials comes out at a critical time for a franchise that’s already taken enough, often well deserved, PR beatings, that overlap could have been avoided… or better yet, explained in a sidebar or something.
On the brighter side, based on the little I read so far, the two adventures in the Kit, written by Rich Baker, look absolutely incredible. Both simple and open at the same time, they may very well be the models of adventure I would like to see more of in the Essentials line.
If you take the starter box and the recent D&D Essentials Gameday adventure (ask your FLGS for stray copies) and the DM kit, you have a full level 1 to 4 campaign path ready!
The D&D Essentials DM Kit is an excellent, high quality product for new DMs that graduate from the Red Box. Combined with one or both of the Essentials Players books, the upcoming Monsters Vault (or D&D Insider subscription) and a few sets of dice, gaming groups will be fully equipped to tackle the world’s most popular Role Playing Game.
It is not however directly destined for established DMs moving on from the “as released” printing of D&D to the latest version of the rules. That is, unless they want to lay their hands on some world class D&D adventures, new maps, a new screen and a handy booklet, regardless of the overlap with the new Rules Compendium and flimsy cardboard screen.
See, some might not find this to be a such a bad deal after all…