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I’m not saying I hate Essentials, but my players are obviously not impressed. We argued recently. Voices were actually raised. This article is not so much a review of the Essentials line, as I’ve only read through one book and part of another. I have neither cracked open the Red Box nor made a character with this new system. I will instead attempt to offer an opinion on what I’ve learned and tender a commentary on why Essentials exists and what it may and can do to the industry, good and/or bad.
Back when the original Amethyst 3.5 was released (yeah, I’m plugging again, bear with me), sixty days before the release of 4E D&D, there was considerably antagonism from me and my group towards it. One player, referred ever-always as Bilbo, liked the new approach and convinced his friends, including me, that we should adopt it. Bilbo explained the system, helped us make characters, and staged several encounters. We embraced 4E soon after and the rest fell into footnote. Just over two years later, we now find Essentials before us.
What is Essentials? Let me cleave through the minions and answer truthfully. Essentials is an attempt by WOTC to merge beloved elements of the old 3.5 into the current 4E setup, essentially (heh) creating a bridge system that allows 4th Edition to play like 4th Edition but resemble 3rd Edition on how it does it. The claims that it changes the mechanics of 4th Edition are undeniable false. The rules have been updated via numerous errata but you can find those for free. Most of them deal with clarifications and missing information. With the exception of a few elements, the Essentials Rules Compendium is simply the recent updated rules for 4E presented in digest form. If you went through the trouble of updating your PHB like myself (by the way, don’t do that—it makes a mess), you basically have the compendium (there are a few other changes like updated rules for skill challenges, but these are minor). All I am saying is that if you want to play Essentials and you’ve played 4E (owning the original books), you DON’T need the Red Box or the Rules Compendium. Acquiring one of the class books and/or monster manual will be more than enough.
Speaking of the errata, this is a rather difficult subject. The last update amended mount rules, which utterly destroyed one of Amethyst’s lifepaths and paragon paths. They have revised charging and clarified certain powers. The recent update rewrote the humans and offered variant attribute modifiers for the other races. Despite some of these sweeping changes, I will give WOTC credit. These updates are free and none of them have altered the game so much as to make it incompatible with earlier versions of 4E (mount exception accepted). We couldn’t say that for the previous 3rd Edition. Back then, WOTC released all new books, made us pay for them, and to pour peroxide on the whole affair, made it incompatible with its predecessor. The release of an errata is a precedent Dias Ex Machina can follow. If they release an update, then we can as well (we recently announced a free update that will revise Amethyst races to follow the current paradigm of D&D).
So if little changed in retrospect, what’s the big deal? Well, if you played 3rd Edition as much as I did, you’ll immediately notice the elements of 3rd Edition that were brought forward into Essentials. Clerics regain domains for one. Even through only two are presented in the Heroes of Fallen Lands book, the option is there for adding dozens more. Wizards regain their spellbook and schools of magic. This brings the best of both worlds into the class. You still gain encounter and daily powers, only now you keep gaining new ones instead of swapping them. You are limited on the number of encounter spells in an encounter and daily spells in a day by a table that looks remarkably similar to one seen in the original 3.5 book.
Yes, the revision that people declared would pacify 4th Edition made the cleric and wizard MORE complicated. So what gives?
It’s the other classes that became the concern. With the fighter and rogue, you only gain one encounter attack power and no daily attack powers. As you progress, you gain more uses of the mentioned single encounter power. The fighter power, by the way, mimics a design used in Ultramodern4. In U4, I have numerous daily powers that don’t require an attack roll. They activate on a trigger that requires you hit with another attack. This is a brilliant solution to the complaints that daily powers are a mixed bag. So with the fighter ability, you only activate the power if you hit, so it’s never wasted. With stances that duplicate at-will powers, a traditional 1st level 4.0 fighter and an Essentials 1st level fighter are very close in variety and nearly identical in damage potential. The original fighter has an encounter that could miss but also daily (that could also miss). The Essentials fighter has a higher average damage output because of features like Heroic Slayer (adding your Dexterity along with your Strength for damage rolls) but looses that amazing, yet haphazard, daily power.
It’s when those fighters progress where things get troublesome. Both variations gain a choice of utility powers (so that hasn’t changed) but the Essentials fighter no longer gains powers. He simply gains more uses of his encounter power along with general features that all fighters gain. Meanwhile, the traditional fighter selects up to 4 encounter and daily powers, swapping them around after 10th level. So the fighter and rogue definitely have limited customization past 1st level. There is no denying that…but is limited freedom actually a criticism?
More on that next time…
…You didn’t think I could cover all of this in a 1000 words did you?
Stay tuned…next time I bring up psychology, Betty Crocker, and Wheel of Fortune.