Dungeons and Dragons Essentially Covered – The Unfortunate Schism

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And now I return with the final part of my experience with D&D Essentials.

I have a problem with Doritos.

…Yes, Doritos.

Whenever I walk into a 7/11 (or specifically, the snack aisle at the Real Canadian Superstore), I stand there like Solo in Carbonite (with my hands by my shoulders, grabbing an invisible wall) pondering what brand of chips to purchase.  I take longer than any of my friends as I constantly change my mind and consider the long term enjoyment of the selections before me.  I’m apprehensive that my decision will come with regret.  Will I buy Ranch and discover later I really wanted Zesty Nacho, or worse, Pringles?  Very often, the final decision is based on time and not preference.  I ultimately grab one almost at random.  When I related the initial paragraphs of this article to a coworker, he agreed, adding that when he plays Everquest2, he is laden with dozens of spells he hardly uses.  Most have specific applications that never emerge but others, he simply forgets about.  He added that despite the initial satisfaction felt about having so many spells, he now feels that EQ2 offers too much.  I’m in the same boat dealing with Dragon Age.  I have taskbar with a dozen powers.  I don’t know what half of them do.  When I enter combat, I simply start clicking right to left and repeat until I run out of energy.

Are the eighty-plus powers offered to the average 4E class simply too many?  When playing a cleric or a wizard, this is a condition you accept and embrace but does a fighter really require this much variety?  Most fighters just want to hit monsters until gold comes out.   My players mention that often.  If so, then why did they recoil so vehemently towards Essentials when I brought it up?  I mean it, the conversation became so elevated, I was 30 seconds from ending the session and sending them home.  This brings up the most important issue with Essentials, the schism.  With 4th Edition, the rules around powers were received so poorly by certain segments of the fan base that they simply jumped ship.   As for companies, it had nothing to do with the system.  It involved the delays and stipulations with the GSL.  I would postulate that Pathfinder wouldn’t exist if 4E was released publically like the old 3.5 system with the OGL and SRD.  Is the demographic of 3.5 players that didn’t approve of 4th Edition really that significant?  It reminds me of the conversation I recently had with Michael Evans of Neuroglyph Games, where we both expressed curiosity over the existence of Essentials.  We agreed that the number of people playing massive multiplayer online role playing games far outweighs the number of players keeping with 3.5 (or 3.75) that are simply waiting for a better version of 4E in order to abscond from their current system.  If someone has put cash on the barrelhead for Pathfinder, I find it difficult to believe that they would simply uproot their divergent support for Paizo and jump across the chasm back to D&D.

To aggravate the situation further, Essentials now runs the risk of splitting the industry again.  3.5 players that haven’t moved on probably won’t, because they like their system and remember better times when the industry was united and 640K of ram was enough memory (too soon?).  Followers of Pathfinder are united under one banner and 4E players were united under theirs until recently.  Now Essentials is coming off as the upstart duke with a thimble of regal blood making a play for the throne.  It is dividing the market yet again.  We are now presented with two groups–the traditionalists and the essentialists.  I would speculate that WOTC didn’t believe such a schism would occur or if it did, it would not affect their business.  Initially, I would have disagreed, but after reading Essentials, I had changed my mind.  After witnessing my players’ almost irrational response to Essentials, I am back to disagreement.  A schism is developing, and I don’t why.  The specific word I would use is “shouldn’t”.  A schism shouldn’t happen, yet it is.

Despite what Bilbo would have my other players believe, Essentials does not actually change 4th Edition.  In my view, it only offers certain players a simpler, more direct path.  One aspect that I have noticed that I think few people have commented on is that at no point does it say you have to abandon the traditional rules set.  You don’t.  If you have a group with traditional characters, one player can adopt an Essentials class without the entire group being forced to follow.   The Essentials character simply won’t be fidgeting through a dozen powers every turn.

Bilbo and another (I’ll name Tarzan), both accused Essentials of going backwards—of making 4E look like 3.5, which if anything  is mathematically improper.  I made the declaration that if Essentials had been presented originally as 4E in 2008, we would love it.  Tarzan denied this emphatically, saying he would not have enjoyed it.  Some people have issues with speculating on a situation that demands the ignoring of present information .  This speculation is based on the assumption that original the 4E system would not have existed at all.  I believe the fans would have embraced Essentials whole heartedly and in greater numbers than those that took in the original 4E.  Alas, we cannot turn back time (wabac machine in the shop).  D&D is dividing again and there appears little anyone can do to suppress this seemingly unreasonable fate.

Do I like Essentials?  I think I do…as a game designer, the classes are easier to write.  I think it takes the strengths of both 3.5 and 4E and melds them into a system that is still 100% compatible with 4E but incorporating strengths lost with the transition.  But as a GM, it doesn’t affect my life, other than speeding up combat even more.  It removes the power fidgeting I have noticed in my group (two members still insist on having an open PHB in front of them for referring to their powers).  It is possible to make an edition that lacks valuable features from its predecessors.  Electronic games are famous for this.  This is not to say that Essentials is BETTER.  I think it files a niche.  Would I use it?  As a player, I totally would.  But I am a GM with a different mindset.  Would I add it into Amethyst?

Why yes we are.

Next book.

Essentials is simply a variant character creation system using the same framework as 4E.  This is not like the Gamma World, which takes the core experience and deviates significantly from the base system.  With Ultramodern4, our next line up, we are doing something similar to Essentials, but U4 is the psychological mirror to that.  Where Essentials makes the experience easier but more rigid, Ultramodern4 adds an additional level of complexity to character generation, increasing diversity and allowing players more customization options than even the founding Fourth Edition did.

We’ll see if it works.



Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

2 thoughts on “Dungeons and Dragons Essentially Covered – The Unfortunate Schism

  • November 18, 2010 at 6:35 am

    i think the core problem was that 4e is so open and versatile, that after a year and a half of releasing new stuff on a monthly basis they realized they needed to streamline it a bit better, hence essentials.

    I think 4e and 4e-ess can work together with little effort, so it comes down on what books your group bought.

    that being said ive had this similar conversation with members of my core group, felling as a dm there was just too many character options and that i would cut off all future campaigns to level 12.

  • November 26, 2010 at 10:16 am

    So, in summary, you believe that 4e characters have too many options, and the quality of those options means that most people are going to choose the same ones (as a few of them are notably better than others.)

    I think that most people seeking to optimize characters will indeed choose options that are proven powerful, but isn’t it worth having other options for the flavor? I prefer cool ranch doritos to nacho. If most people prefer nacho, and my store sells them more often, they could discontinue sales of cool ranch in favor of nacho, which would mean I would go to another store. So how do WotC lose by failing to limit my choices, while creating a “department” in their “store” that caters to those with focused tastes?

    From what I’ve read so far in my Essentials books, they do seem to be about limiting choices, in favor of playability. For the more casual players in my group this was a boon, and we promptly converted their characters. For the rest, they preferred the choices on offer, and stuck with base 4e.

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