D&D Essentials

Dungeons & Dragons Red Box coverI’ve been playing in a delightfully bonkers Dungeons & Dragons 4E campaign for a while now and really had a super good time with it. So much so, in fact, that I’ve been craving to run some D&D myself. The problem is that the game is very intimidating. Whenever we’re leveling up our characters, we need (I believe) five books and a computer software to do it. Whenever playing the game, some of us have five pages of powers they have to handle.

When a veteran Dungeon Master said that he had no way of knowing whether his players were just making shit up as they went along, I can totally relate.

“I long gave up trying to figure out what abilities and combinations the PCs had or how they worked. […] People would say things like “deep rumble strike” and then hit an invisible monster for 130 damage. Another would say something “astral wintersgate” and then negate an entire monster’s round of damage. There wasn’t a way in hell I could tell if they had a real power or were just making up nonsense words and then doing whatever they wanted to do.” – Mike Shea on Critical-Hits.com

So I’ve held off for fear of never actually getting to play the game as it would be too cumbersome to set up and maintain. Just enjoy playing the thing and have others worry about all them books, right?

Then the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set AKA Red Box came out and I wanted it because it was just like my first actual RPG, the original D&D Red Box (although mine was Finnish). It works like the old set, offering a starter into D&D, except with the up to date rules. It was cheap enough for me to pick up on a whim, happening upon this token of the familiar in a sea of unknown, being alone in a big nerdy comic book store, waiting for an 8-bit gig to begin in Los Angeles.

I was aware of the “D&D Essentials” books, but browsing them at our DM’s table, I got the feeling they were like condensed reference editions for über players. It turns out that this new Red Box is the first Essentials product and the idea is that together, the Essentials form an easier to get into product line of D&D. And indeed, the box is very easy to get into. It lays down the path very easily – once you’re through the content here, get this one box for the DM and two more books (one for characters, one for rules) and you’re set for another 28 levels.

It uses the same rules as vanilla 4E, but streamlines things quite a bit. Unnecessary combat maneuvers are not touched upon nor missed and most importantly, the character builds are simpler. You still get lots of powers even on the first level, but it’s nowhere as unwieldy. Why you get by with just one book instead of five is that character creation options have been streamlined with a broadsword. You get fighter, rogue, wizard, cleric, and that’s it. You know, there was a time when that was plenty! If you really need a bit more options, there’s another Essentials book with druids, paladins, rangers and warlocks. That already feels like filler to me.

It really is all about the very basic stereotypes and if you think about it, pretty much everything else is just a variation of these purest of forms.

The justification for this is that the vast majority of D&D campaigns are vanilla fantasy with no need for all the options. Our ongoing D&D doesn’t have any straightforward characters – I guess my warlord comes the closest – and the Essentials would not work for this kind of “expert” campaign. And that’s fine.

I think I will be running through this Red Box this summer, and after that, perhaps getting that other box and the two books, too. Straight-up Dungeons & Dragons is what got me into the hobby in the first place and not a year goes by without a fond look back to those days.


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  2. Joonas Laakso

    Actually, it turns out it’s eight books instead of five. Not that you necessarily need all of those, but I would feel like I’m missing out if I didn’t have all three Player’s Handbooks at the minimum (playing vanilla 4E, not Essentials). Regardless, the number of books is just a symptom of the core problem, which is too much choice in character building and hard to follow characters, which Essentials is attempting to fix.

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