Why Essentials Has Made Me Excited About D&D Again
Since I’ve talked a lot about Origins and Savage Worlds lately, I figured I would change it up a bit and talk about something else.
I’ve been burnt out on Dungeons & Dragons for a long time. Like many gamers, it was my first role-playing game (my first campaign was a 4th Edition game that started in the Fall of 2008). But over time, I just got really burnt out on it for a number of reasons, which I may go into more detail at some point.
But during one of my Half Price Books runs, I was surprised to find Heroes of the Fallen Lands, a Dungeons & Dragons Essentials book that has character information for creating Clerics, Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards. For those who don’t know, Dungeons & Dragons Essentials is a repackaged, slightly simplified version of Dungeons and Dragons 4e. It’s also fully compatible with all the stuff published with regular Dungeons & Dragons 4e. Since the book was in good condition and half price, I joyfully picked it up. When I got home, I started reading it.
And you know what? I was actually excited about D&D again!
Why? Good question. First, I think a lot of it comes down to the psychological power of new packaging. I had grown to despise 4e in the form it was. Seeing something new, even if it had almost all the same rules as standard 4e, made it seem like it was a new product making a fresh start. I think that alone made me interested in trying it. I’ve even heard stories of people who scorned 4e when it came out but are happily embracing Essentials (much to the confusion of everybody who realizes they’re pretty much the same). All in all, new packaging seems to have been able to get rid of the preconceived notions people had. Good job, Wizards!
The first few pages succinctly explain what a role-playing game is and the most basic rules of D&D (even listing the “most important rule” and the other “two basic rules” that pretty much sum up how to play). I also liked how it said upfront how to do the most common combat maneuvers. For instance, Opportunity Attacks are described on Page 27, rather than being stuffed near the back of the book like in the original PHB. This whole section impressed me and I really felt a new player would be able to read it and get a good grasp on what this Dungeons & Dragons stuff was really about. Making it simple for newbies is a win in my book, even if I’m no longer a newbie.
Speaking of simplicity, I happened to like how at some levels the classes are just given a predetermined ability, making things much simpler and more consistent. At other levels, they are given a small list of powers to choose from. One of my big complaints about standard 4e was that there was so much splat (and the Character Builder was pretty much required if you wanted to use things beyond the PHB). Consequently, players tended to focus on their power cards and not on the story. This new system addressed that issue in a way I like and, at least during my cursory glance at the powers, there didn’t seem to be any must-haves or real stinkers. Perhaps someone who liked the crunch would be less happy with this, but to each their own.
In my mind, less is more, and this applies not only to powers, but also to gear. There are only three kinds of magic weapons: Magic, Defensive, and Vicious. Perhaps a tad limiting, but I happen to like the simple nature of it. And for what it’s worth, there are now 3 good magic items and 0 useless magic items. A very good ratio considering that in standard 4e the good stuff to useless stuff ratio was pretty poor.
The book as a whole was really well laid out. I think that a new player could read the book sequentially and not have to flip back at any point. Feats are organized by theme, like “Divine Devotion” and “Learning and Lore” which give a better idea of what a certain type of character might want to take. Essentials also takes great pains to ensure that you don’t miss any steps. Say you’re making a Rogue. There are large, 48 point headers saying what you get at each level. At Level 3 for instance, it says that you gain an extra use of your backstab ability and at Level 4, you gain the +1 Attribute bonus (which all classes get, but they want to make sure you don’t miss it). Simple, yet effective. Even the Character Sheet in the back of the book was much better laid out, and I truly felt I could fill it in by hand (having made nearly all of my previous 4e characters with the offline DDI Character Builder).
And at the end of the book, they have not only an index, but a glossary! So when you need to know what the “Deafened” status effect does (because really, who remembers?), you can look in the glossary and quickly find that a creature who is deafened takes a -10 penalty to Perception checks. I’m not sure it can get any simpler than that.
I haven’t played Dungeons & Dragons Essentials yet and I’m sure that it still has many of the flaws I’m accustomed to with 4e. But I’m amazed that a new cover, a reduction of content, and a more intuitive layout has made me excited to play D&D 4e again. I guess it goes to show that maybe RPG companies should spend a little bit more time thinking about the presentation and organization of their book and get more player feedback from both veterans and newbies.