D&D Essentials: Pre-game thoughts

Dungeons & Dragons Essentials - Rules Compendium - cover

I do like the 4E art

I’ve read through the new Red Box (“Starter Set”), Heroes Of The Fallen Lands and the Rules Compendium, getting ready to run my first fourth edition D&D game. I’m only using these three products so far and want to see if I can actually run a game properly. I can, but it’s a can with a but. The problems I have are somewhat surprising.

With the Red Box, you get enough monsters to last a level or two, so the Monster Vault isn’t strictly necessary to begin with. I am going to get it if it looks like we’re playing for any length of time, though. The mere thought of a heavy box full of monsters, complete with counters for them, is very enticing.

You only get a single trap and no rules for creating your own. This is weird considering that traps are a major component of any dungeon. All you can do is look through released adventures and dungeons and wing it based on the examples, but there are not too many of those available for free. I hear that the Dungeon Master’s Guides, part of the vanilla 4E product line, do include full trap creation rules, so I may need to look into those. I can just improvise the effects and experience points based on comparable challenges, but a game master new to the craft might be lost here. It’s a weird omission. (To be fair, I think you get some more traps and rules in the Dungeon Master’s Kit, but as that’s the only thing I would need from it and the rest of content is recycled from Heroes Of The Fallen Lands and the Rules Compendium, it feels like a redundant product for me.)

You get so few magic items it’s not enough to last for the first level with a full party, and no rules for creating your own. This was a major bummer for me as planning and giving out treasure is actually my favorite activity as Dungeon Master. (Really!) Apparently the Dungeon Master’s Kit (also part of the Essentials line) has some more items, but word has it it’s still nowhere enough. I’m not going to get the Kit as it has very little stuff I would use – the rules are reprinted from the books I already have and I don’t want their ready-made adventures and the maps and counters you need to run them.

Now, I understand that magic item inflation was a big issue with pre-Essentials 4E’s lacking game balance, and the players’ ability to create their own really made things worse. This reboot effectively fixes the problem by making magic scarcer and not as everyday… but I can’t understand how come they haven’t released proper replacements.

The kind of set and guidelines put together in this series of blog posts would not have been a massive undertaking for Wizards. In fact, the “Magic item reset” by Perico is probably sufficient to last me through my Essentials campaign, even if it does mean that I have to make custom item cards myself.

Finally, even though the Essentials characters are much simpler than the kinds of characters you can build with the current full 4E set, there’s the issue of how to deal with powers at the game table. Race powers, class powers, feats, and so forth. You absolutely need all the powers per character printed out separately, as there is far too much crucial information per character to write down on a piece of paper.

I thought I could type up all the powers I need using a set of card templates, but having tried it, it is far too much work. This has become my biggest problem, actually. If I was ten years younger, I would just spend the couple of (whole) days writing up all the cards, but that isn’t really an option, now.

From Wizards‘ point of view the way you need the powers printed out is a great reason for you to subscribe to D&D Insider. The Character Builder is probably the one reason just about all D&D groups these days seem to subscribe, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The tool gives you a nice set of printable powers. I’m going to give it a try and see how it feels, although I dislike the idea of subscribing to an RPG toolset for the same reasons I dislike the feeling of subscribing to an MMO.

The DDI subscription would probably help with the missing traps, too, as it includes all the content of Dungeon magazine, with its pre-generated adventures. And there’s a metric ton of existing magic items, overpowered as they may be, available through the subscription, not to mention monsters and every single character option released for 4E (even though I’m only interested in the Essentials material).

The subscription would be a no-brainer for me if it wasn’t for my reluctance to get an ongoing subscription to a tabletop RPG, and the apparent beta status of the software. You can’t create your own items, for instance. Of course you can just add them after your character’s done, but the whole point of the software is that it does all the math for you and makes sure everything’s by the book.

Wizards would do well to acknowledge that most of their hardcore playerbase is all into house-ruling stuff, and they shouldn’t try to stand in the way of that. I’m genuinely bothered that straitjacketing so much of what traditionally goes on in an RPG campaign hurts the whole hobby by limiting imagination. We are all too happy to give you our money, but please let us play the game our way.

In conclusion, my biggest issue is the need to get the powers printed out. And as that’s fixed by the Character Builder, I should be all set. We’ll see how it goes down in a couple of days. These gripes aside, I’m really excited about the game.