D&D Essentials has failed

OK. I’ve got my urge to rant and troll out of my system with the title, so now I can carry on with the post in a calm, collected manner.

My encounters, over the years, with Dark Sun have been short and fleeting, but the setting has always managed to catch my interest by virtue of being sword and sorcery but unlike just about everything else that falls into the category.

With the release of the new edition of the setting, I thought that now would be as good a time as any to do something about that interest. One nice book with the core of what was needed. Not a fan produced PDF (no matter how good, a book is a more comfortable read), not something out of print and impossible to track down, but a single tome to set the ball in motion.

Wonderful. Setting sorted.

Then I went to look for the rules, and that is when everything started to fall apart.

Six months ago, I wouldn’t have had a problem. Reservations about 4e in general aside, I would have just picked up the cores (helped by the fact that I keep coming across cheap offers for the limited editions of them). Two things are stopping me.

Errata. I gather that there is a big ball of errata out there that has made some fairly major changes to the core.

It doesn’t help when I come across comments such as:

The one thing keeping players sane is the Character Builder. Because it’s constantly updated, we don’t have to worry too much about keeping up with all of the updates. Of course, it makes us look at our core rulebooks and wonder why we bother to carry them around.

Really? I do not play any single RPG often enough to justify a monthly subscription to the rules.

We also have:

WOTC never actually updated the original monsters with the updated math we find in the Monster Manual 3

So, not only is there a lot of errata, but it seems there should be a lot more.

So we reach the second thing which, while being a barrier to me buying the cores, might just provide an alternative. Essentials.

The problem with Essentials is that it just isn’t all that clear if it is going to be enough to run Dark Sun.

I’ve seen forum comments which suggest it is just about possible, but might need a PHB3 to assist.

I’ve noted the utter failure on the part of WotC to mention Essentials on their Upcoming Products page.

I’ve seen the front loading of the product name completely wreck the usefulness of search results on the WotC site (and am having difficulty believing I’m in danger of veering off into an SEO rant on this blog).

I short, I just can’t find any guidance from WotC on the question “Does Essentials have everything essential to make good use of the Dark Sun core?”, which isn’t a good sign for a product that is supposed to make it easier to get into D&D.

I think I might be sticking to my usual system based around a 20-sider. Would anyone like to try to convince me otherwise?

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19 Responses to D&D Essentials has failed

  1. Me says:

    The reasons you decry the system are the reasons I embrace it. I enjoy a game that is open to change and mutabilit for the betterment of the game.

    • @Me: My chief complaint is the inability to get hold of books which I can be reasonably confident actually give a decent representation of a reasonably up to date version of the game. My second complaint is that despite all the changes, it sounds like they still haven’t fixed everything.

      Change isn’t the problem. Incomplete change and a lack of a reprint of the cores is.

  2. Etherrider says:

    While they may have failed to mention it fully in their products page….Essentials is going to be the main stay of their next “D&D Encounters” season. It was announced at GenCon that Essentials would be the rules used to create characters….not PHBs.

    On the subject of Dark Sun, it would be run with the Core PHBs (1,2,& 3) best. The only classes not needed are the divine classes as they do not exist in DS. The Essentials line does not start out with the psionic classes and DS makes strong use of them. Remember Essentials is designed to be a streamlined version and make new player entry much easier now that there are plenty of splatbooks out. In looking at my DS campaign, I will likely focus on stuff from PHB 1 and 3….with some from 2. I am looking at the Essentials line for the DM materials….hey look at all those monster tokens you get! (I currently make my own…clipping and printing).

  3. Tom Allman says:

    David, Sept. 11th many stores will be kicking off the Essentials Line with the release of the new Basic Box Set. If they have a volunteer they will be running an adventure as well. When I first heard about the “Essentials” I was seriously pissed. But, having had an opportunity to playtest it, I think it will be a great way to teach the game. Yes, the Essentials will fully support all the books. If you are in the NE Ohio area I will save a spot for you.

    • I’m getting the impression that Essentials will be a decent core, but really needs to be supplemented with a DDI subscription. If that can be split, then it might just work out.

      Ohio, however, is about four thousand miles more then I fancy traveling for a game ;)

  4. Neuroglyph says:

    The answer is actually “Yes”, because there is nothing stopping you from using Essentials built Characters to play in Dark Sun. Essentials Characters are nothing but more streamlined builds for the core classes, allowing newcomers to D&D 4E to jump into play faster. And btw, a Slayer (the Striker Fighter build) would make an exceptional Gladiator in Dark Sun!

    But really, as far as I am concerned, all you need to play Dark Sun is the Campaign Book, Creature Catalog, an updated copy of Character Builder, and the Essentials Rules Compendium. The Rule Compendium is every rule you need to play D&D 4E whether you are using the Essentials builds or the Traditional builds.

    Your reluctance to subscribe to DDI is just a tad irrational (no offense!), given that one DDI subscription can be used by up to 5 people – that’s 5 updated copies of Character Builder and Adventure Tools and DDI Compendium per subscription! Split the cost between your gaming group – it’s 2 bucks a month between 5 people. Heck, I spend more than that at the coffeeshop EVERY DAY, and I bet you do too. (I shudder to think what Caribou Coffee makes off me yearly.)

    Btw check out my site, Neuroglyph Games, if you like for an extensive interview with the Essentials Designers I did at GenCon, as well as my GenCon blogs about playing an Essentials demo. It might give you a little better perspective on the product line.

    • That is somewhat reassuring, and you’re right about the cost being more reasonable when shared between five people … now if WotC actually made a song and dance about that, I might have known that I could do that! However, it doesn’t seen to be mentioned on the pricing page, or the FAQ for the character builder, or anywhere that I can see.

      It comes back to my initial problem. WotC just aren’t giving people the information they need to get started in a clear way.

      • MJ Harnish says:

        WotC doesn’t draw attention to it, because it’s not really allowed – while I think a lot of people are sharing DDI subscriptions, I am sure the EULA specifies that the software can only be installed by a single user (I’m not sure if it’s restricted to a single computer or not though). So, you can’t legally share the account info.

        There’s a much cheaper solution though – buy a one-month subscription for $10, install all the software, update it, and then start playing. Download all the Dungeon & Dragon content while you’re at it. Then in 6 or 12 months, if you want the up-to-date info (which most home groups have little need for unless they’re compulsive optimizers or rules fanatics)’ just buy another one month subscription. For as little as $10 you can have everything DDI has to offer, at least up to that point.

  5. Neuroglyph says:

    You’re right about that little tidbit about the 5 updates not being mentioned prominently, and I think that is a huge selling point! I offer my update copies to key Players in both of my two D&D 4E Campaigns – mainly making sure that we have an updated computer with printer at each of the locations we play. And one update for my own laptop which I use extensively during the game.

    As someone else already mentioned, PHB3 might also be a good idea to have handy at a Dark Sun gaming session, but once you understand the Power Point mechanic, everything else you need to know about powers and abilities are in the DDI Character Builder. The rest is fluff – good fluff tho!

  6. Argent says:

    I wouldn’t worry about the errata issue. The game is perfectly playable as written in the original books. The screwed up by getting the Skill Challenge stuff badly wrong at launch but the new rules are on their website I believe – I’ll echo Neuroglyph and suggest getting the Rules Compendium as this will contain the rules amended for errata.

    Most of the errata they publish are really minor things – wording changes or subtle differences to the way a power works – all good stuff no doubt but if you don’t have a 17th level cleric with the Power of Divine Doom it doesn’t matter that they changed it a bit. And in most cases it doesn’t matter that much anyway – as a DM and a party you learn what capabilities you have and you judge the challenge against that pretty much as we have always done. In 3rd ed I always knew that the wizard had a fireball and that it would blast one encounter to pieces, you just plan accordingly.

    I would recommend the DDI subscription though. It makes character creation and update so much easier and allows you to keep things up to date if you do want to track each errata change. It also makes the DM’s life so much easier as the Monster Builder is an awesome tool – want to change a monster? customise it, add a demonic aura, beef it up a couple of levels? takes 30 seconds – worth the price for that alone. I haven’t thrown any MM3 monsters at my party yet but I’m not concerned about minor differences between monsters at the same level from the earlier books.

    I won’t condone the sharing of passwords but I would point out that the programme continues to work once you stop subscribing, it just doesn’t get updated with new content. Buying a months subscription twice a year isn’t going to break the bank and if you don’t read Dragon or Dungeon you probably won’t need to do it more often than that.

    • Sharing passwords? …

      Some poking around and it looks like the “five users” rumour is a case of “you get five chances to upgrade the software with each release”. The terms of use say:

      You are entirely responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of each of your passwords, and you agree to maintain the security of your passwords. You agree not to use the account, screen name, or password of another Member at any time

      That’s a pity.

  7. UHF says:

    I think you are just ranting….

    Did it occur to you to post in the WOTC forums? The game designers actually prowl there. (Occasionally enworld as well.)

    As with many gamers out there, its also obvious that you don’t get 4e. It ain’t easy to be sure, but you don’t get it. (So, start with that humility OK?)

    There are only about 50 pages of rules for 4e, and you can download them for free.

    The 4e game engine is totally modular. The bulk of all the books is just ‘material’… character races, classes, powers, magic items. All pretty much optional. A single month subscription to DDI, gets you and all your players complete access to ALL the material. Not to mention the Adventure Tool which is all the monsters from everywhere.

    As with all games and all that errata, its important to understand how important or unimportant it is. Most Errata deals with play balance, and specifically whether certain things will unbalance the game. If you have a crew of heavy optimizers then I suggest you need to pay attention to the errata, otherwise don’t worry about it. Without the errata, the game is just as playable.

    So. To the meat of your question… No. You cannot play Dark Sun fully with just the Essentials rules. You need character material to play, and specifically psionic characters. You could do that with the Box Set (PHB, MM, DMG) and PHB3.

    But you could easily play it without psionic characters. In my opinion, you’re better off with PHB2 since its got all the primal classes. (Primal sounds like Dark Sun right?)

    Actually your whole approach here seems very narrow minded. A fear of incomplete change… I mean, as a DM you have adjust everything for the players anyways. Right? You could just use a divine class in place of a psionicist anyways right? Or do you need rules to do anything?
    http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4news/20100401b

    • I think you are just ranting….

      I’m not. That is to say, I am not just ranting.

      Did it occur to you to post in the WOTC forums?

      It occurred to me to post it somewhere that I already had an account, and that I knew would hit the radar of some smart, well-informed gamers (since I know there are smart, well-informed gamers who read my Twitter stream and/or the RPG Bloggers syndication service).

      As with many gamers out there, its also obvious that you don’t get 4e.

      Considering that a large chunk of the point of this post is “I can’t figure out what I need to get started with 4e”, it should be obvious!

      The crux of this entry is that WotC has produced a lot of material, and it isn’t clear what you really need to get started in it.

      Now, bringing out a new campaign setting and the essentials range back to back led me to expect that the two would team up nicely. However, WotC aren’t running campaigns about using them together, which gave me pause — especially give that Essentials is supposed to be a clear path for new players into the hobby. I was surprised that there wasn’t some clear guidance saying “Get Dark Sun and the red box and you’ll have everything you need”.

      Now you, and others, have said that since Dark Sun is psionics heavy, and you really need the PHB3 to make the most of it, which goes against what I expected.

      Or do you need rules to do anything?

      New system. New setting. That is quite a lot to digest. I’d like to minimize the amount of stuff I have to change from the outset.

      • UHF says:

        I asked on the wizards forums for you;
        http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/25700977/Is_it_possible_to_play_Dark_Sun_with_Essentials

        I heartily recommend that you try the Keep On The Shadowfell free download, and the free version of the Character Generator to see if you like playing 4e.
        http://www.wizards.com/dnd/TryDnD.aspx

        It is a very different system from what you’re used to, and its not everyone’s cup of tea.

        You will have enough issues with just trying to get used to the new game, but if you like it, you may change your mind about whether its worth investing more in. (All that being said, you really don’t need the Power Books if you use the character generator.)

        PS. The pregen’s suck. I mean.. really really suck. Well, the Dwarf survived…

      • Palmer says:

        OK, there are a few ways to get started with D&D 4e.

        The new Essentials line is designed to make that really easy… for standard Generic Fantasy (which is 99% of D&D games anyways). It’s a streamlined selection of races and classes (all hearkening back to the late 70s).

        The key selling point is that the Red Box Starter Kit is literally a COMPLETE Starter Kit, it contains everything you need to start playing with an entire group, for several weeks.

        It has character creation, DM guidelines, combat rules…
        But it also has a pre-written adventure PLUS heavy cardboard tokens for players and all necessary monsters PLUS preprinted battle maps of the areas in the adventure. Oh, and a set of dice.
        This gives you all the STUFF you need to start playing. To advance past Level 2 (which the starter adventure takes you up to), you will need the Heroes book and DM Kit. (The DM kit comes with 2 more adventures, more monster tokens, and more maps on top of it all). The Monster Vault is also recommended (and comes with hundreds of more monster tokens).

        This is a far cry from the old entry point for the game, which was the 3 core books… and then you had to find your own dice, make your own maps, supply your own minis or tokens and come up with your own adventures.

        Overall, if you’re looking to play “classic” D&D with heroes, castles, dragons and treasure… Essentials is absolutely PERFECT for starting out. Best thing they’ve done in years.

        DARK SUN is a bit tricky. The best way to look at it is that Dark Sun is an “Advanced Setting”. Unlike most other settings, it is not a typical swords and sorcery kind of settling. Magic is rare, clerics don’t exist, and psionics are common. This turns the standard D&D assumptions on their heads.

        Players Handbook 3 includes Psionic classes, which are strongly recommended. In DS, psionics have almost completely replaced magic in the population – many native creatures are psionic as well – including things like unintelligent animals and PLANTS.

        I’d recommend playing “vanilla” D&D first to get a handle on the rules and style before diving in to Dark Sun.

        To get the most from Dark Sun, you would want Player Handbooks 1, 2 and 3, Monster Manual 1, Dungeon Masters Guide 1, the Dark Sun setting book, and the Dark Sun monster book. Which is a lot.

        Honestly, Dark Sun is being marketed to experienced players only.

        Essentials is being marketed to new players, as well as experienced ones interested in some of the new directions they’re going. It’s “vanilla” fantasy because, quite frankly, that’s what everyone wants.

        The previous settings released are still fairly vanilla. Forgotten Realms is PURE vanilla. Eberron is French Vanilla… it’s still the same swords and sorcery, but with some action-adventure and pulp “theme” baked in.

        Dark Sun is just completely different.

  8. Wrathamon says:

    Books recommended to run Darksun…

    PHB 1, PHB 2, PHB 3 (psionic classes), Darksun Campaign Book, Darksun Creature Catalog

    Nice to haves
    Rules Compendium (if you want to play with the latest updates… some would move this up one)
    Psionic, Martial and Primal Power Books
    MM 1, 2 & 3 (you can re-skin and lot of monsters in 4th easily to make new darksun versions)

    Do you need DDI? no, but it’s nice.

  9. OrionStyles says:

    Why I am interested in Essentials. I have DM’d Basic/Expert, AD&D, 2nd, 3.5 but not 3.0 or 4th. To further clarify, I don’t play, I am always DM, so I’ve never even looked at 3.0 or 4th in any detail.

    I can tell you now, my best campaigns were in Basic/Expert/AD&D because the rules didn’t interfere with the fun.
    The worst was 2nd. It started out decent, and then quickly went down hill with the constant flow of new handbooks that really threw things out of whack from the core books. This is pretty much where I knew 4th edition was headed immediately when they dropped some core classes and said they would be in PHB2. Looks like I was right.

    3.5 was great for defining abilities and customizing your character… but some of the rules really get in the way compared to AD&D. eg: Do I really need skills to define some obvious heroic course of action? Hey look, as my skills go up, so do the skills of the NPCs and monsters… I still have a 50% chance of success no matter what level I am. etc… As a DM, mitigating the above scenarios in a campaign is an extra and tedious task I never had to deal with in the first place in AD&D.

    Along comes essentials. Now I am thinking. I will pick up the essentials line, and not worry about a boat load of errata and munchkin add-ons.

    I dunno…. sounds great for my situation, but I also realize alot of people got hosed by 3.0 and 4.0… dunno what to say except learn from the experience like we all did in 2nd. (man, for the entire group combined, we spent a hell of alot of money for a lesser experience over the core AD&D books)

    Uhhhh….. I’m also just so random guy from the web, and landed here looking up essentials info… soo I dont follow this site and have no political motivation other then to share my point of view.

  10. mbeacom says:

    Lots of good opinions here to be sure. So I’ll add mine.

    First, let me say, i’ll not judge your motives, or call you names.

    You concerns/complaints are, for the most part, quite valid. Some though, are more or less based on hearsay, and bad hearsay at that.

    First, yes, WotC has done a poor job of being clear about what you need or don’t need to play. To their credit, part of the problem is that they’ve given us much of what WE ask for. We cried for inclusion of more classes and races. They listened. We wanted more monsters, more settings, more powers. Yes, yes, and yes. Unfortunately, all this content they’ve been spoiling the fans with has confused the issue of the core game

    Second, no, the errata it not the problem the raging min/maxing nerds on the net would have you believe. I’ve NEVER paid attention to the errata. My group plays regularly, and most recently we’ve started a Dark Sun campaign. I couldn’t even tell you what errata exists and yet we play just fine. We carry the PHB to game night and THATS IT! We use no other books or errata for rules and we’ve had zero issues other than a few mild points of confusion from some questionable word choices. All of which, we simply made an agreement on what we understand the meaning to be and move on. Let me be clear….

    You can play purely out of the 3 core books and you’ll be fine.

    Third, you DO NOT need a DDI sub to use the character builder. It’s free to everyone as long as you only create characters from LVL 1-3. But if you’re just starting, this is all you need anyhow. Once you create a character, adding the powers/feats/ changes as you level is super easy. So don’t worry about getting a sub, just use the free version.

    Lastly, essentials is pretty cool. As an old school player, I still prefer the AD&D ruleset to anything that has come before or since. Like Orion says, it’s the only version that the rules were invisible in the gameplay. Everything else has gotten needlessly overcomplicated. IMO, 3.5 was the worst of the bunch. My biggest gripe with 4E is that you pretty much HAVE to play with minis and a battle grid. The way the powers are designed, you simply have no choice. This is not how I would like to play. I like to play with a graph paper map, or something similar printed out to help visualization with the battle being played out verbally with each PC explaining their actions rather than moving a mini on a mat. I may be wrong, but with essentials, I think this may again be possible. We’ll see.

    Anyway, in summation.

    Just buy PHB, MM, and DMG.
    Then get the Dark Sun Campaign and creature catalog.
    Use the free character creator.

    Then have a blast. If you like the game enough, THEN worry about errata, but don’t even consider errata until you know if you like the game enough to bother. And even then, for the most part, the errata can be ignored or followed depending on your ability to notice it or not. Personally, I’ve not really noticed the issues. Most of the errata I’ve seen has been for clarification rather than actual rule changes.

  11. mbeacom says:

    Played an essentials game at the D&D worldwide game day yesterday. It was the Red Box adventure and it was a total blast. I played the fighter and using the stances was simple and fun. Now that I’ve played it, it makes perfect sense what they’re trying to do.
    These new builds are very newbie friendly, but still fun to play.

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