I originally reviewed the first D&D 4th Edition Essentials book, Heroes of the Fallen Lands, shortly after it was released in September 2010. I’ve gone back to re-read my review, and I still completely agree with everything I wrote back then.
In a nutshell, the Essentials books presented some new build options and new feats and generally felt to me to be pretty much like any expansion books that Wizards of the Coast had published for D&D4e (Martial Power, Arcane Power, Player’s Handbook 2, etc.). Good new options; maybe not every player would use every option, but some would probably come in handy.
Lots of people in the online D&D4e community were worried about the Essentials books – was this a new half-edition? But I think most of that concern dissipated in the end.
Thus, I was surprised when I read Neuroglyph Games’s review of the new Heroes of Shadow book over on EN World (plus the somewhat different version on their blog) and the follow up conversation on the Neuroglyph Games blog. The review of the material was fine and useful (I just got the book today, in part because of the positive review), but the author made it clear that he saw this as an “Essentials” book and was therefore seriously considering excluding it from his no-Essentials campaign (which he referred to as “Traditional 4e” or “Core 4e”). From the poll on his review, he’s not alone – there are apparently a significant number of DMs who run “no Essentials 4e” games.
This baffles the heck out of me. I could understand excluding a book from my table if I feel that it’s inappropriate for the game I’m running, perhaps. Heroes of Shadow, for instance, is probably not going to come into play very much in the games I run because it seems to be aimed more at “dark” campaigns where PCs may be flirting with evil alignments, and that’s not the kind of game I tend to enjoy. That said, I would still allow material from the book if a player asked and it seemed to fit within the campaign.
My approach to DMing is to let the players make the choices they like, but to retain veto power. If a player picks a race that doesn’t fit in my world, I’ll let them know that and ask them to pick something else. If they pick a power that I feel is overpowered relative to the rest of the table, I’ll ask them to pick something different. If they make choices that just don’t make any sense with the rest of their character concept, I’ll ask them to change those choices.
It’s very rare that I ever exercise this veto power, and I’m always very nice about it, trying to work with the player to help them find something that both works within the game I’m running but also makes them happy.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I personally feel that excluding books entirely is a pretty silly way to run a game, unless every single thing in the book is completely out of line with a particular campaign. I have a hard time imagining that the Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms books would be completely out of line with very many D&D 4e campaigns, and I gather that the DMs who exclude them are doing so out of protest against WotC business practices, specifically a feeling that WotC has tried to sneak a half-edition by us without being forthcoming about what it really is.
I think it’s fair to disagree with WotC business practices or misleading statements and to not support the company because of it. But these DMs seem to want it both ways – they want to protest WotC’s behavior but still purchase WotC releases that are “non-Essentials.” I just don’t get it.
If a DM wants to run a non-Essentials game, they can absolutely have a lovely time running a game using all of the material that was published before September 2010 – there was a ton of great stuff already published at that point. Everything published since then will have been written with the existence of the Essentials books in mind, just as material written in the summer of 2010 was written with the existence of Martial Power 2 and Player’s Handbook 3 in mind. To expect WotC to publish books that ignore the existence of Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms is silly, in my opinion. Why would they do that?
Essentials is not D&D 4.5. It’s a bunch of new options, some of which you might love and some of which you might think are a waste of time. I honestly don’t understand why there is so much emotion around this topic. I’m not a DM who feels that the Heroes of… books are the greatest things written for D&D 4e or anything like that – they’re simply fine options, much like PHB2 and PHB3. I don’t see anything disturbing or objectionable about them that would lead me to consider banning those books and everything published in their style from my games. And I truly don’t understand DMs who feel strong, negative emotions about these books.
I wasn’t around for the 3.0 to 3.5 Edition Wars, nor the 3.5 to 4.0 Edition Wars. Maybe I just don’t get it. I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to get it!