4th Edition vs. Essentials

On both the Wizards.com and RPG.net forums there're plenty of topics concerning Essentials: aside from both forums having their own stickied threads, there's also threads that ask if its successful, is it 4.5E, is it compatible, is it better, etc. While I can't say for certain if it's been successful--though I have enjoyed all the products to an extent--I can comment on the rest.

When people ask if Essentials is 4.5E or if its compatible, I wonder what the hell they're reading. My semi-local store gets books out ten days early, occasionally ratcheting it up to eleven, so it's entirely possible that maybe Wizards shipped out revised sets of books between then and the other release date. It also reminds me of a similar discussion that I had with someone else a long time ago who didn't like 4th Edition, but for some reason enjoyed content out of the Essentials line--even though there's no difference between the game rules, only some of the class design (and even if you try to count stuff like races getting floating ability score bonuses or magic item rarities, it's been errata'd anyway).

I've ran and played games that mix Essentials content with not-Essentials content, and you know what? I didn't have to implement rules variants to make it work. The slayer still rolled a d20 for her attacks, and the warlord was able to use the +1 lifedrinking greataxe (even though it was a level 3 uncommon) from The Twisted Halls without having to convert anything. When the players settled down for a short rest, they all got their encounter powers back and could spend healing surges to restore lost hit points. When they took an extended rest? Yes, not only did each of their Action Points get reset to 1, but their healing surges also got replenished.

The only appreciable difference is when you look at the classes, many of which I find to be largely unsatisfactory because of their rigid progressions. If you play a slayer, you get power strike. If you play a mage, you get magic missile. If you play a sentinel, you get combined assault. Now, this isn't a problem as long as the class delivers a solid concept that you also happen to like. For example, I like the hexblade because I like everything that the class offers. Slayer? Not so much because I'm stuck making routine basic-fucking-melee attacks, with the exception that once during a battle I can mix things up by lumping on some more damage.

Yes, I know that they have stances that modify their basic attacks, but you know what? Those are just roundabout ways of performing the at-will exploits that fighters get. I also know that basic attacks are usable with opportunity attacks and charges, which makes it easier to apply those bonuses, but a fighter's (amongst many other classes without the Melee Training feat) basic melee attack is good enough that I can confidently employ it during the rare opportunity that a monster tries to attack another player, or run from me (usually when the DM is trying to end the encounter faster).

I've also read that because classes like the slayer don't have exploits that specifically allow them to smack someone with a shield, that somehow it's okay to swing from chandeliers or slide down stair rails (sometimes both!). This mindset is frankly baffling, given that in Dungeon Master's Guide page 42 provides a solid foundation for this sort of thing, while Dungeon Master's Guide 2 provides rules for terrain powers. Perhaps their DM is allowing them to treat sliding down a rail like its a charge attack, which means that they have to use their basic melee attack, which gets modifiers that fighters simply wouldn't have--if they didn't have access to exploits that can be used on a charge, that is.

Now if I were behind the screen and a player declared that they wanted to slide down a stair rail, I'd probably call for a skill check, granting the character an attack or damage bonus on a melee attack they made, not just a charge (and make them fall on their ass if they fail the check). Is it overpowered? No. It's just a situational bonus, contingent on a skill check, with an annoying penalty for failure. But, the player is aware of this. They know what they are getting into. Also, it's not like stair rails are everywhere. I'd prefer to make it worth their while when the opportunity presents itself instead of giving it a lame bonus that will probably make them shrug and say, "fuck it, I'll just stab the monster." You know, like grappling rules from 3rd Edition.

Which type of classes are better, Essentials or otherwise? I prefer the older style because I like having options. I like being able to choose from a variety of class features and powers in order to build the type of character I want. I'm a big boy, I can weed all of ten options in order to pick out a few that fit the concept I'm trying to build. I'd rather have a fighter than five different fighter subtypes that all dictate what I get, leaving me with a smidgen of customization as if to say, "I guess I can trust you with this much not to hurt yourself." I'm hoping that class design doesn't revert back to the days of 3rd Edition monks, but this is certainly a step in that direction.

In the end though, they are the exact same game, it's just that some books have different build progressions than what we're used to. You didn't hear people bitching that the druid got three at-wills, or that psionic classes only usually used power points, did you? Okay, you did, but they (probably) weren't on the streets preaching that it was 4.5E.


  1. Essentials are interesting if you want to introduce new players into roleplay. I've played a few sessions with the "red-box" release and a few learned the basics of a 20 dice format similar (not EQUAL) to D&D 4th. Obviously, it doesn't come with the same amount of options, but that's in fact the problem with new players. They ask me "So what's this for?" I can't really explain them the power o class function in rule terms, so I prefer to show them how a roleplaying session goes in simple terms. They quickly can get a hang to it and learn more easily how to play D&D in later adventures in the classic format.

    I highly recommend the Essentials format to introduce new players, specially young ones. For the meantime, it's been quite a blast in my town.

    Best regards.

  2. The WotC boards have a fine tradition of pointless nerd battles. I can remember plenty of "this is the breakdown of 4e" when the druid was announced with 3 at-wills. Psionic power points: "the beginning of the end." And, if you're some kind of rigid purist, the Essentials classes must seem like an absolute nightmare. You can almost hear the panic in their posts, "My structure! It's... gone! These classes break all the rules that provided order to my world." We all know that if essentials had been released first, and core was being introduced now, they'd be complaining about core.

    I've posted comments here a few times about how I like the Essentials classes. All of them. I'm one of those guys who generally likes less complexity in my game. I choose items with static bonuses. My Knight generally sticks in that "+3 damage" stance. It's just how I like to play. I'm glad that essentials gives me that option. I also like how it makes all the classes feel very distinct. No more "fighter daily spells."

    I have to say that I agree with Skotos about using Essentials to introduce new players. I've started an Essentials game with my kids (8 and 12 years old), and they really seem to like it. My son (the 12 year old) was hoping to play Dark Sun, but that adds even more complexity to the game, and I wasn't sure my daughter would be able to follow along. However, a basic essentials game seems to be working out great for both of them.

  3. @Skotos: I find that most players--new or veteran--prefer having more options, especially when they aren't required to use them all. When running an Essentials-only game months ago, the new players found the repetition boring, especially when they'd heard that other classes have more variety. I do agree that it would be a great vehicle for getting the game going quickly, but I would try to avoid that as much as possible with new players.

    @Paul: This is why I rarely go there with the intention of posting something. I think that less complexity has its place for some, but I find that that lack of complexity makes the classes less distinct (including the lack of daily powers), especially when two players choose the same class.

    I can't comment on getting younger players into the hobby (since I only know one person with a child that plays), though when looking at the various classes I don't think it would be much harder to use classes from Player's Handbook.

    The main points I was trying to get across is that I don't mind how WotC structured the new classes, just that about half of them failed to deliver a compelling concept: hexblades and executioners look good, but the slayer and thief seem very boring. This is also the problem with having such a rigid class structure, because my enjoyment of a class might hinge on being able to easily pick a different power suite.

    Additionally, I completely disagree with people who perceive the reliance on basic attacks as a go-ahead for using unorthodox tactics.

  4. Antioch, thanks for your opinions on "4e vs. Essentials". I am a return player (after a 25 year hiatus from 1st Ed.) to D&D and decided to jump lightly back into the game by getting the red box. I am enjoying it immensely. Now I want to jump with both feet back into the game and am trying to figure out which books to buy.

    What to do? I downloaded a pdf version of The Players Handbook and DMs Guide to get an Idea of what I was getting (back) into. What I noticed mostly was all the errata and changes made. So what I was reading was outdated.

    So I bought the Essentials DM Kit, because most people who review it think it's a great buy. So do I. Now, with some thanks to your posting, I'm going to go with all of the Essentials line because 1) The Essentials books have all the errata included. 2) These books are cheaper new, via Amazon, than the hardbound books are used. 3) From my research it's all the same game. 4e is 4e. 4) I like the organization of the books: heroes, DMs, monsters, and a single Compendium of the rules.

    In conclusion, when you are on a budget, want to get into the game, and the essentials line is not altogether different from a more expensive version AND the two can work together seemlessly. Getting the Essentials line is a no brainer. Thanks again.

  5. @Thom: DM's Kit is an excellent buy, and I'd recommend it over the DMG simply because it has all the current errata (as well as a fairly open-ended adventure with maps and tokens). I'd also recommend Monster Vault over Monster Manual for the same reasons. The only downside is that both are more costly than their counterparts.

    I cannot recommend the paperbacks over the hardcovers: in those cases its going to depend on how much flexibility you want, though I do like the added options for humans and half-elves. The only reason I'd go with the smaller handbooks over the hardcovers is if you happen to like the somewhat simpler classes.

    Good to know that you're enjoying 4th Edition.

  6. The major problem with combining Essential and Standard 4.0 is the Feats.

    There are many feats in the Essentials that are either flat out better than Standard Heroic Tier feats, or a combination of Heroic and Paragon Tier feats.

    This leads a DM to question whether to allow Standard Characters to use them, or to reserve them only for Essentials Characters.

  7. @Anon: I see no reason to restrict feats. I know that some--particularly expertise and defense boosters--are better, I don't think that they utterly invalidate the others (though I'd allow them to swap if their characters already had one or more). Honestly, the only problem I've experienced with Essentials is players wanting more decision-making.


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