Miscellany: D&D 4E Essentials impressions
People who play pen-and-paper RPGs have long been skeptical of "revised" editions of established games, and for good reason - much of the time, these rereleases are just another opportunity for publishers to cash in on an existing game system. While I liked the rebalancing in D&D 3.5, for instance, I'm also cynical enough to note that it forced everyone to go out and buy all new rulebooks.
Over the past year, Wizards has released a "D&D Essentials" line of 4th Edition products aimed at new players, and my friends and I tested it out with an all-new Wild-West-themed D&D campaign. Is it worth your hard-earned gaming dollar?
One of us played a Hunter, a rejiggered version of the 4E Ranger. The Essentials classes are designed to be simpler to play than their vanilla 4E counterparts, while being roughly as effective in terms of combat performance. In game, the Hunter seemed like a decent, Controller-flavored take on the Ranger archetype, trading in the uber-efficiency of the Twin Strike power for the ability to control mobs and effectively target single enemies.
I played a Thief, the Essentials version of the 4E Rogue. Playing a Thief is all about using "tricks," at-will move powers that allow you to somersault, sneak, and shift your way across a battlefield to do massive damage. Your actual "attack" is usually a basic ranged shot or melee swing - all the complicated stuff is contained in the power descriptions of each trick.
As far as being less complex than regular 4E classes, I think both the Hunter and Thief were a success. Instead of having daily powers, for example, the Thief has better and more reliable encounter powers, as well as more useful at-will powers. Best of all, the new classes fit right in with the old ones and none of the old 4E rules have been changed. Someone can bring their old PHB into a newfangled Essentials campaign (and vice versa) without anyone feeling out of place.
By far the most impressive Essentials product in our playtest was the Monster Vault. The Vault contained a separate adventure, a book of monsters (sort of a Monster Manual Lite), and numerous cardboard monster tokens. Unlike the standard MM, there was a lot of interesting, well-written flavor text for each monster entry - perfect for newbie DMs looking for story hooks.
Overall, the Essentials line is a good place for anyone to start playing 4th Edition. The books are full-color, in a handy trade paperback size, and are reasonably priced. The standard 4E hardcover books haven't been obsoleted, they've been supplemented - and, as any hardcore RPG fan will tell you, there's nothing wrong with buying more supplements.