D&D Essentials: The sky has not fallen

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!

6 thoughts on “D&D Essentials: The sky has not fallen

  1. I can see why people are still shy from the 3.5 release, but I do agree with you, it doesn’t make any sense. Essentials doesn’t invalidate everything, and rather than having some sort of kludgy conversion guide, everything in 4e has been errata’d anyway, so even if you’re playing without Essentials you’re still playing with all the rules present in the Rules Compendium.

    I guess being a geek involves acting on emotions as much as on logic.

  2. I like Essentials. I actually found “Traditional” 4E to have way too many unnecessary options. Fine if you like that kind of thing, but it just wasn’t for me. I love how Essentials stripped it down to a simple but no less elegant version of the same game. That the two “versions” are completely compatible is a huge plus. I’ve played campaigns that freely mingled characters from both “versions” and it plays seamlessly.

    Screaming at WoTC because you don’t like the way they’re designing “your” game is pointless. Magic the Gathering players have been complaining about changes for years, but WoTC keeps making them, and the game keeps going. Maybe some of their decisions haven’t been executed perfectly, but they’ve done what is right for their business and they’ve kept the game alive and strong for 20 years. Hopefully they can do the same (and longer) for D&D.

  3. There was a follow up post at Neuroglyph in which he states the reasons for his skepticism of Essentials.


    I think he nails the problems Essentials brings to the table. I’ve tried a high level Essentials rogue… for one night. Boring didn’t begin to describe it. I felt like I was in 3.5 again.

    My main fear with Essentials, so far, is the obvious slant toward heroic tier. They even affirmed this fear in a recent Rule-of-Three article.


    I’ve ridden the wave since 2nd Edition. So far, every revision has been an improvement. With Essentials, I feel it’s a step backward.

    That said, I’ve run Encounters since nearly day one (I took two-months off, now am back in). I’ve run well over 60 Encounters sessions, and seen a lot of different Essentials builds. Some classes (Druid) are better than their original. I think the fighter auras are a great revision. I like the flair of the new warlock. I think Essentials is a great stepping stone, a learning tool toward true 4e.

    In the heroic tier, Essentials can hold its own. After that, the characters lose the drama of “Core 4e” and get overshadowed in the greater limelight of explosive high level powers.

    • Thank you for the comment. Yes, I knew about the follow-up post on Neuroglyph Games and linked to it in my original post.

      As I tried to express, I completely understand if some people don’t have any interest in playing certain Essentials classes because they find them boring or unappealing – I totally get that. What I DON’T get is people banning Essentials from their tables. If you don’t like those classes, don’t use them. But are they overpowered or something like that? I don’t see it.

      As for WotC focusing future support on Essentials classes and the heroic tier (and by the way, I disagree that the Rule of Three column you linked to says that they’re focusing on Heroic – it says that they WANT to do more for Epic but they’re not sure how), I completely understand if some players are disappointed in that decision because they prefer the PHB classes and higher-tier material. But again, why does that mean that Essentials needs to be excluded from a game?

      I just don’t understand the strong negative emotions Essentials provokes in some D&D players and DMs, to the point that they play “no Essentials” games. If a player doesn’t like the stuff, they shouldn’t use it for their characters, but why all the fuss with DMs banning Essentials from their tables?

  4. As you know, I was playing the Essentials Warpriest in our campaign and decided to switch to a 4E cleric build at level 10. In my case, it wasn’t that I felt the essentials build was boring, but I did feel a bit limited by how melee-centric it was. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

    That being said, would I allow Essentials material in my campaign? Yes. I already do. In fact, I encourage newer players to look through those materials. The essentials builds are very streamlined and don’t overwhelm newer players with a dearth of superfluous options. I think that’s where some of the beauty in the product line lies.

    My other opinion is that the Essentials line brings back a bit of the feel of classic D&D. Way back when (we’re talking 2nd edition and earlier), you didn’t have a huge amount of customization to flirt with. You made a fighter and you swung swords at monsters. How you played the character was what set you apart from every other fighter out there — not which build you chose.

    In today’s gaming market (especially after 3.5), I think most people simply expect an enormous amount of options to fiddle with, and by the later tiers of play, Essentials builds have all the core talents they need, but less of the “frills”. A lot of their power is simply built-in, which plays to the simplicity of each class.

    I didn’t mean to go off on a ramble here, but I felt like I should weigh in.

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