Saturday, December 11, 2010

the great essentials hullabaloo

That first Encounters session back in early October was a lot of fun, but it was also my introduction to The Great Essentials Hullabaloo.

I wondered what was going on when I noticed that Eldeth, my pre-gen male dwarf fighter dude, bore very little resemblance to the fighter character class I’d been studying in my spiffy new 4e PHB. I mean, Eldeth had something called stances and I was certain I hadn’t read anything about those in the PHB. In the PHB, I’d also been impressed with a fighter’s ability to use Combat Challenge to mark targets, but I was dismayed to see that Eldeth apparently didn’t have that capability. What on earth was going on?

The guys at the Encounters session clued me in on the fact that Eldeth wasn’t a PHB fighter… no, he was an Essentials fighter. Essentials? What’s that? I heard various answers from several D&D veterans that night at the gaming store: Essentials was WotC’s clumsy attempt to push aside 4e & introduce Edition 4.5 … Essentials was a tragic dumbing down of the core rules & character classes meant to appeal to teenage videogamers … Essentials was ‘D&D Lite’ (said with a disdainful roll of the eyes). Huh? I was confused.

When I got home and started to research the matter on the internet, I discovered that WotC had set off a firestorm of criticism and confusion with the launch of their Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line of products. The line comprises ten products for players and dungeon masters, released from September (starting with the Red Box) to December 2010 (ending with The Wilderness dungeon tiles). I’ll give a brief overview of eight of the products, and then spend a bit more time looking at the two books at the center of The Great Essentials Hullabaloo.

Dungeons and Dragons Roleplaying Game Dice. Everyone who plays D&D needs dice, but you can find a perfectly nice set at your local gaming store for much less than the $12.95 you’ll pay for these “official” game dice. In fact, the only reason I can think of to purchase this product is to get the D&D dice bag.

Dungeon Tiles Master Sets. Three master sets of Dungeon Tiles (The Dungeon, The City, and The Wilderness) let you create encounter areas for any adventure. Each set contains 10 double-sided sheets of illustrated, die-cut terrain tiles printed on heavy cardstock. Each set is $19.95. If using Dungeon Tiles is your thing, then you’ll want to pick up these sets.

Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, better known as The Red Box. The first release in the Essentials line, the Red Box ($19.99) was specifically designed to introduce brand new players to D&D. It contains a solo adventure that guides a new player through the character creation process. It also includes a group adventure for characters of 1st level. The Red Box focuses on the classic D&D races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling) and classes (wizard, fighter, rogue, cleric), so it gives enough of an experience to newbs to hook them without overwhelming them. The box includes a 32-page book for players (with rules for character creation and a solo adventure), a 64-page book for Dungeon Masters (with the rules of the game and advice on how to run an adventure), 2 sheets of tokens for characters and monsters, cardstock character sheets and power cards, a double-sided dungeon map, and 6 dice.

To be honest, there are only three reasons I can think of to get the Red Box: (1) you’re a D&D virgin desiring the easiest entry point into the game, (2) you’re a veteran player wanting to teach someone how to play D&D, or (3) for the nostalgia value.

Dungeons & Dragons Rules Compendium. This 6”x9” paperback book ($19.95) contains the core rules in a portable, easily referenced format. Unlike the 4e PHB, which includes material on classes and races, feat descriptions, & a catalog of magic items and rituals, the Compendium is pure rules material. It includes rules updates and clarifications (errata), reflecting refinements since the current edition was released in 2008.

Even though I already had the PHB, I also ended up purchasing the Rules Compendium. It’s an incredibly handy resource to tote along to a game session. Whether you’re new to D&D or a seasoned gamer, I’d recommend having a copy of this book at your game table.

Dungeon Master’s Kit ($39.99). This kit was designed as a product for the new dungeon master to move to after the Red Box, but veteran gamers may also find it to be a worthwhile purchase just for the cool two-part adventure (Reavers of the Harkenwold) which is included. The kit includes a 256-page book (6”x9” softcover) of rules and advice for DMs, 2 sheets of PC and monster tokens for use with the adventure, 2 double-sided battle maps, and a fold-out Dungeon Master’s screen.

I picked up the Dungeon Master’s Kit since I’m interested in DMing 4e sometime in the future. I don’t have the two hardcover 4e Dungeon Master’s Guides, so I can’t really rate the softcover DM’s Kit book as compared to them, but the Kit book undoubtably has all the information and material that a new DM needs to get a low-level heroic tier campaign up and running. Even leaving aside the book, I’d think the updated DMs screen, rollicking two-part adventure (which will take players from 2nd to 4th level), tokens, and battle maps are a worthwhile investment for any DM.

Monster Vault: Iconic Creatures for All Campaigns ($29.99). This product collects some of the most iconic monsters of the D&D world in one handy box and presents all-new variants, including new spins on such beloved monsters as dragons, orcs, and vampires. The monsters described in the Vault are designed to be easy for DMs to use and fun for players to fight. In addition to combat statistics and full-color illustrations, each monster entry comes with story information to help DMs incorporate the monsters into their adventures and campaigns. In addition to the 256-page softcover manual of iconic monsters, the hefty box contains 10 sheets (!) of tokens for the monsters that appear within, as well as a 32-page adventure (Cairn of the Winter King) that showcases several of the monsters.

Future DMing was also my excuse to purchase the Monster Vault and, I have to say, this is one fan-freakin’-tastic 4e D&D product. I was blown away by the large number of tokens, which will definitely prove very useful for someone like me who doesn’t have a ton of minis. The new ‘monster manual’ is beautifully laid out, with most entries consisting of a two-page spread with an illustration of a monster and some lore about its origin, habits, allies, and ecology. You’ll also find some information on how to run the monster in both combat and noncombat encounters, as well as details about adventure and campaign hooks related to a monster. Following the illustration and lore is a series of monster statistics blocks representing different varieties of a type of monster.

The two products at the center of The Great Essentials Hullabaloo are the clunkily titled Heroes of the Fallen Lands and its companion volume, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. Both of them are 365-page books printed in the 6”x9” softcover format and retail for $19.95.

Heroes of the Fallen Lands (released Sept. 2010) contains details on the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard classes, along with rules for human, dwarf, eladrin, elf, and halfling characters. Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms (released Nov. 2010) contains details on the druid, paladin, ranger, and warlock classes, along with rules for dragonborn, drow, half-elf, half-orc, human, and tiefling characters. In addition, both provide an array of feats, weapons, armor, and adventuring gear, as well as a basic summary of the rules of play.

Someone reading this in the future (Hello there, future reader person!) may wonder what the fuss was all about, but much of the recent confusion and criticism surrounding Essentials stems from the fact that the classes presented in the two Heroes books are new, very different takes on existing classes found in the PHBs. Looking through a ton of forums and blogs, it became apparent to me that a lot of the negative, kneejerk reaction of many veteran gamers to Essentials was because they feared the release of Heroes of the Fallens Lands in September meant they’d be forced to rebuild the PHB dwarf fighter (or whatever) they had been playing in August. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

I think the most important point to understand is that the two Heroes books, like the rest of the Essentials line, are meant to serve as a starting point for new D&D players. That doesn’t mean veteran gamers can’t be excited about the different options presented in them, but the books were designed— first and foremost— as an easier, less expensive point for new D&D players to jump into character creation and game play. So that veteran gamer playing a dwarf fighter (or whatever) in August didn’t need to rebuild that character once the Essentials products were released. The Character Creation Police aren't going to come knocking at anyone's door to force them to throw away their PHBs and use the Essentials builds.

Once I started to look into it, The Great Essentials Hullabaloo appeared to be an ill-informed reaction by some veteran gamers, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. Essentials isn’t a new version of D&D. With the two Heroes books, it’s just new, optional builds for existing character classes.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

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