Dungeons & Dragons Essentials after a dozen games

"I Roll Twenties" T-shirt by Penny Arcade

T-shirt design by Penny Arcade

I’ve been running a lot of D&D Essentials lately. I think it’s interesting to see how my initial expectations have fared against nine games into a campaign and a couple of off-shoots.

I’ve ended up with a lot of stuff I have no use for.

The characters are created using the online Dungeons & Dragons Insider (“DDI”) subscription service. You might want to flip through Heroes of the Fallen Lands if you’re a player looking for inspiration, but honestly, I haven’t had a need to open it since subscribing. The computer assisted creation removes a lot of guessing and confusion from the process. We are now also using some characters from the second Essentials player book (Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms), but have no real need to get the book.

The Rules Compendium I do use… a bit, even though looking up the rules from the DDI Compendium is often quicker. Mainly the Compendium’s user interface is a bit shit, so when you know where to look for something in the book, the book is preferred. All told I’d want to have it around when running a game, but I rarely open it.

I use the Monster Vault book, but just for pictures and fluff text for inspiration. It has great fluff text! It’s full of adventure ideas and atmosphere. The box and the cardboard cutouts are useless, as we’re using whatever miniatures we have lying around to represent the monsters. The adventure is of no interest, I haven’t even read it. I get the stats and rules from the Compendium, straight into Power2ool.

The Red Box is only useful as a beautiful thing to have on the shelf. The contents I can’t use, although they’re valuable just because they set me down this path. If someone is interested in the game, I could give them the box to go through and they’d have a good idea of how it works.

I’ve ended up with a lot of stuff I do have use for.

Chessex Battlemat and wet-erase pens. Any notes I’m taking, they go on the Battlemat – mostly how the players are doing in a skill challenge, initiative order and monster hit points. All combat encounters are of course drawn on the Battlemat, too. I love the concept so much I think it’s going to be used in also my miniature-less games from now on – it brings an air of open challenge to the table which I really like. My players are totally into it, too, often suggesting ways to draw stuff better and talking about the stats they can see.

Descent: Journeys In The Dark miniatures. I’ve got a big bag full of white and red plastic figures from Descent. So far I haven’t really needed anything else, and when I do, there’s usually a suitable Games Workshop Warhammer miniature lying around. I also think I’ll at some point put a dungeon together just using the Descent modular board pieces. Should be fun.

Dungeons & Dragons Insider subscription. Invaluable when running a 4E game. I have very little use for anything besides the Character Builder, but that alone is worth it. I wouldn’t mind them adding more in the way of managing your campaign (I have complex Google Docs spreadsheets for everything).

Colour printer. You want to be able to print those character sheets and especially power cards.

Deluxe Dungeon Master’s Screen I’m referencing all the time. Plus it’s big, sturdy and beautiful, giving you loads of confidence at the table! Seriously, it’s the best GM screen ever, four panels full of useful stuff.

Power2ool. I believe I’ve spoken of it’s merits at enough length already, but I wouldn’t want to plan and run a game without it. It’s that good.

Essentials really works for me and my group.

If the aim of Essentials was to lower the barrier to entry for new players, they’ve succeeded. We’re having a lot of fun with D&D and spending money, which would likely not have happened without Essentials. While I can now read and understand powers with ease, the “vanilla” flavor of D&D still feels a bit ridiculous to me. The Essentials streamlining is just about perfect.

There are some things that could be even more straightforward. They could’ve done a much better job streamlining the magic users into something more newbie friendly – as it is, I’d never give a wizard to a new player. They’ll be swamped and paralyzed by options.

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