I received an early copy of the new Dungeons and Dragons Red Box last week and quickly wrangled a group of friends for a trial run. The game consisted of my wife Kara who has only played 4e a handful of times. My friend Alex who has played in my Monday night game for nearly two years now (Holy shit has it really been that long!). The dashing Kris Straub of Chainsaw Suit fame with his months of 4e experience and his lady friend Marlo who had never played a game of D&D in her life. I want to mention my players because I think that your level of familiarity with the game will shape your opinion of Essentials.
The first thing I noticed about Essentials was its character creation process. I have honestly never filled in a character sheet with a pencil. Since I discovered D&D with 4e I have always had the benefit of the online character creator. I have to say there was something cool about filling in numbers and erasing mistakes. The Essentials Player’s Handbook does an incredible job of walking you through this process via a solo adventure.
It’s structured like an old choose your own adventure with questions at the end of each section. When your wagon is attacked by goblins in the beginning the story asks you if your first reaction is to draw a weapon, cast a spell, heal the driver or sneak around behind the attackers. From there you jump to the appropriate section and continue with the adventure. What kind of spell do you cast? do you offer to help or ask for a reward? By the end of the adventure you have completely filled out your character sheet with your class, defences, skills, languages, gear and powers. I honestly found this part to be really smart and a lot of fun.
Once we had characters it was time to play and honestly I don’t think there is much difference between 4e and Essentials. I’d say the biggest change is an overall simplification of the character classes. In my regular game the players are level 20 now and each of them has pages of power cards, items and feats. Even the fighter has a hundred different ways to hit someone with a sword. For the most part Essentials gets rid of a lot of this stuff. Sure the wizard had half a dozen powers but the fighter just hit things with his sword all night.
I guess the idea is to help get new players into the game without confusing them with a binder full of powers as well as get older players to come back. From what I’ve been told this is a return to the roots of D&D where fighters hit stuff and wizards were the ones with all the cool spells. Essentials attempts to solve two problems that I don’t actually have, so it’s hard for me to really comment on it. It does a great job of doing something I’m not interested in doing.
My players all come from video games and almost all of them have played World of Warcraft for years. My wife felt very comfortable stepping into 4e because it felt like building a character in WOW. Even if she is a warrior she expects to see a ton of different powers down there in her action bar. The idea of only being able to do basic attacks from a couple different stances just doesn’t cut it for most of the players I know. They certainly had fun with Essentials but I don’t think any of them would build an essentials character to play in a regular game vs. a 4e character.
As a DM there was really no difference in adjudicating the Essentials game. I can see how someone could play an Essentials character at a table of 4e players with no difficulty. The Red Box is a great product and it really does give you everything you need to play Dungeons and Dragons. They have succeeded in stripping away everything that is not “essential” to playing D&D. The end result just happens to be something I’m not interested in.
I never played the older versions and so I don’t long for some return to the “good old days”. I don’t have a group of friends torn apart by edition wars. Essentials isn’t a new edition or even a dramatic departure from the current game. It’s really just a slightly different way to play 4e. I think it’s worth picking up and showing to your players. I say get it and run it as a one off some night. Who knows, maybe one of them will fall in love with it and want to play an Essentials character in your regular game. There is certainly no harm in exploring different ways to play D&D and in the end that’s all Essentials is doing.