Last week, in addition to the bombshell dropped by the new 4E Errata release, Wizards of the Coast announced the nature of the new D&D Essentials Product Line. Now, time and again, we have heard from WotC the adamant stance about not coming out with a D&D 4.5 Edition. However, while they do not call the new D&D Essentials a new “edition” of the game, it does beg a couple questions:
Why are they releasing what amounts to new content in a new product line?
And to whom will the D&D Essentials Line be marketed?
Mike Mearls opened the discussion with his feature article, Commencing Countdown in which he offered considerable information about the product line, and some of the design philosophy behind it:
When the new edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game first debuted, our goal was to draw established players into the game. While we designed the Player’s Handbook to be accessible to newbies, we focused on creating a game that spoke to existing players. Now that the new edition has passed its second birthday, it’s time for us to focus more on new players.
To that end, WotC has announced the creation of a “Red Box”, the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, which will contain “classic races (human, elf, dwarf, and halfling) and classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard)”, as well as a sample adventure, dice, maps, and tokens. On the surface, this seems a brilliant idea to get new Players and Dungeon Masters interested in D&D 4E, but surprisingly, there seems to be more going on than creating a single product “gateway” into tabletop fantasy role-playing.
Did we want to repackage the Player’s Handbook material for the core classes, or did we want to try something different? After much discussion, we decided to push forward with class designs that would appeal to both new and existing players. We wanted to introduce greater differences of complexity between classes while also creating options that would interest veterans of the game.
So rather than creating a new Product Line aimed at “newbies”, it would appear that D&D Essentials plans to market to already existing Players as well. And considering the products planned for release, one might be suspicious that Essentials is starting to feel like a new Edition, hiding under a new name:
- Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game: the aforementioned “starter set”
- Dungeons & Dragons Rules Compendium: “comprehensive book contains the essential rules of the game collected in one place”
- Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Dice: “extra sets of dice so that every player has a set”
- Heroes of the Fallen Lands: “contains these classes—Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard—and these races—dwarf, eladrin, elf, halfling, and human”
- Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms: “contains these classes—Druid, Paladin, Ranger, and Warlock—and these races—dragonborn, drow, half-elf, half-orc, and tiefling”
- Dungeon Master’s Kit: “essential DM product features game rules, advice, adventures, maps, tokens, and a DM Screen”
- Monster Vault: “features a collection of monsters for use in any Dungeons & Dragons game, from 1st level to 30th level”
- Dungeon Tiles Master Sets: “three master sets of Dungeon Tiles (The Dungeon, The City, and The Wilderness) let you create encounter areas for any adventure”
But do not we, the already established Player and Dungeon Master, have these things in abundance? Does WotC expect established Players, who have already been buying all the sourcebooks, to start buying Essential Products as well, regardless of redundancy?
One obvious question arises as to how, exactly, the Design Team plans to “push forward with class designs that would appeal to both new and existing players”? Mike Mearls mentions a couple of points in his article, which would seem to be a fundamental restructuring of existing D&D 4E Classes, by looking “at eliminating daily powers and simplifying encounter powers” and “to embrace something similar to the old sub-class concept from bygone editions.” He goes on to explain that “the classes presented in Essentials are different takes on existing classes, ones that share a similar place in the Dungeons & Dragons world but that use different mechanics.”
This announcement created a firestorm of speculation on message boards and on blogsites, with many Players and Dungeon Masters wondering just what will happen to existing classes, and how these new Essential Classes will replace them. Wizard’s Community Manager, Trevor Kidd, was quick to allay concerns with a post to EN World Forums:
The rules for playing the game don’t change (beyond adding the rules updates into the compendium), and a party could easily have an Essentials build rogue right along side a Brawny Rogue from PH1 – that is, assuming the party wanted two melee strikers.
Well, 4E gamers did not have to wait long for an answer, as just a few days ago, Bill Slavicsek published an Ampersand Special: The Essential Classes with a Cleric Preview. In this article, he discusses more theory and design philosophy of the creation of the D&D Essentials Product Line, as well as showing us a first glimpse of the Warpriest, an Essentials Cleric Subclass.
After reading Mr. Slavisek’s article, it is pretty clear that the WotC Marketing Team for D&D Essential is truly targeting all D&D Players and Dungeon Masters to cash in on the new line – new players, current players, and former players alike!
These 10 key products are designed to be a great place to start your Dungeons & Dragons game experience, as well as being a set of core reference tools for everyone playing the game.
Who are these products for?
If you’re a current player of the game, these provide a more comprehensive approach to the game rules, new options, and new material to add to your existing game.
If you’re new to the game, the Essentials products provide a great starting place for you to come in and experience the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game.
If you’ve been away from the Dungeons & Dragons game for a while, these products provide a perfect way to get back into the game. Many of the things we did with the new designs was directly inspired by the comments and suggestions of past players and Dungeon Masters.
I have to admit that the last comment raised my hackles a bit, as it would seem to suggest that the D&D Essentials line was being inspired and influenced by the “old school” D&D crowd. While I count myself among that crowd, having picked up my first set of books more than 30 years ago, I am nevertheless pleased that D&D 4E is different from previous editions. I relish that 4E “feels” like a new game with some familiar bits in it. And I have concerns that WotC might be giving in to the “old ways”, which could end up bastardizing the current system.
The player character classes presented in Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms were designed after reviewing two years of game play. Feedback from players contributed the most in shaping the design, but we also had to keep in mind that the classes needed to be accessible to new players and players returning to the game since the launch of the newest edition of the rules.
The overriding goal for the Essentials character designs was simple: Create character classes with easy-to-understand decision points. A new player might not understand the difference between an attack that dazes and one that knocks an opponent prone.
Now admittedly, this point does make sense to me, particularly after watching my very veteran 3.5 D&D Players struggle with 4E Character generation. There was an inherent failure, from simply reading the rules and Character power descriptions. to fully realize the nuances of 4E combat just from reading the rules. In fact, back when that campaign started, I ended up letting my Players do serious editing on their Characters after a few encounters, once they had experienced how 4E combat works on the tabletop.
Tied to this was a secondary goal: Find ways to give the classes different levels of complexity.
These two points also loomed large in player feedback. Some players missed the diversity of different character class structures. They felt that the current versions of the classes looked too much alike. Others liked the ability to focus on more complex or simple character classes, depending on their tastes.
Here is where it gets scary again. People who play MMOs can attest to what happens when a game is built too much on feedback: MMO Character Classes “fixed” nearly to ruin by developers listening to the “feedback” presented on message boards. Frankly, in the MMO world, many players are whiners. They kick and fuss about “class balance” and “fairness” until their class gets a big boost, which causes players of other classes to do the same thing. The Developers put out patch after patch, with power levels of classes shifting up and down, pleasing some players, and frustrating others. It is not unknown for an MMOs to patch themselves right out of business, listening to their loudest and most vocal minority.
And in my opinion, it was the removing the “diversity of class structure” was one of the smartest things that WotC did for 4E, making the progression of gaining powers and abilities (At Wills, Encounters, Dailies, and Utilities) equal across all Character Classes. Long time D&D Gamers have seen what happens to the melee classes in previous editions, compared to their arcane and divine powered comrades. In short, over a long-term campaign, Fighters and Rogues become less significant in combat because their “class structure” was not as diverse as Wizards and Clerics. Are we now seeing WotC back away from this design philosophy in D&D Essentials?
It’s important to remember, however, that we specifically built this to maintain compatibility with material that came before. A knight can select fighter feats and utility powers from any source, and the same is true for all of the other classes. The Essentials products allow us to roll out new approaches within the scope of the current game, not force you to buy new books and abandon your old ones.
Well, from a Dungeon Master perspective, that last statement pleases me. I already feel that Players are inundated in an ocean of choices for their Characters, and adding more from D&D Essentials is not required, and can be ignored if desired. In some respects, for existing D&D 4E Players, the Essentials Line sounds like a set of glorified Character Options, packaged with some dice, game pieces, and adventures.
Of course, the big question finally answered in this article was: “What does an Essentials Character Class look like?” Regretfully, we were presented with only a partially preview of the Essentials Cleric, which, if anything, lead to more questions than answers.
The Essentials Cleric
The warpriest is a cleric that specializes in melee combat. This class uses Wisdom for all of its attacks and focuses on weapon use rather than implements. The warpriest is proficient with chainmail and light and heavy shields. Most importantly, a warpriest chooses a domain that’s tied to the god that he or she follows. That domain shapes the warpriest’s at-will and encounter attack powers while also providing a number of thematic class features. A warpriest can still pick and choose from the wider body of cleric powers, but the class gains a few benefits when using thematically appropriate encounter powers.
Why This Is the Class for You: You like playing a character who fights in the thick of combat while wielding magic and healing allies.
So aside from a new Class convention, domains, and the use of a weapon rather than an implement, how does this class truly differ from a standard Cleric? From what I could see, it does not sound as though much has been altered at all. In some respects, it sounds like a divine, rather than psionic, Ardent, who is often in the “thick of combat”, hitting critters and healing allies. Did we really need a whole new product line just to introduce domains?
Analyzing the progression table of the Warpriest, it reminded me quite a bit of the way the old 3.5 Class Level Table was laid out, which does not exactly instill a lot of confidence in this new Product Line. Maybe others like the “retro” feel of it, but I cannot say I am a fan of seeing the 4E line take its cues from 3.5.
And at level 1, with the exception of adding the as yet, undisclosed, “Domain Features”, the Warpriest looks an awful lot like a Cleric – having Healing Word, Channel Divinity Powers, and a Daily Power. So apparently, this is not one of the classes where the designers were looking at “eliminating daily powers” as Mike Mearls suggested in his article. They also add a few powers, which again have not been revealed, such as “Holy Cleansing” at 4th and “Resurrection” at 8th. Of course, any standard 4E Ritual Caster can can already perform a Raise Dead Ritual at 8th Level. Can one infer that a Warpriest is “simplified” by granting him the ritual as an ability, without all the annoying confusion and diversity of letting him be a full ritualist?
They do add a Smite Undead Encounter Power, which inflict heavy weapon damage to a single undead and pushes it away a few squares and immobilizes it. Not a bad ability for a Warpriest, but it bears a striking similarity to the Channel Divinity: Abjure Undead that Avengers already have. The only real difference is the damage (2[W] vs. 3d10), and the Avenger pulls the undead toward themselves, whereas the Warpriest pushes the horror away, before both immobilize it. Is a Warpriest essentially a Cleric with a smidge of Avenger lurking beneath the surface?
I really do not think that bringing new Players into D&D 4E requires this huge, and potentially game-changing, mass-marketing effort. From my own experiences, in one of my 4E games I have 2 Players with only limited D&D experience, and in both games, none of my Players had played 4E prior to me starting my new campaigns. To start their play experiences, it did not require a massive outlay of funds and new “red” boxes, but merely a trip to the store for some dice – although my more experienced Players bought themselves a Player’s Handbook. That and a D&D Insider Subscription later, and we had two campaigns all set to play.
Admittedly, as a DM, I was the one to buy all the new books the Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual in addition to the Player’s Handbook. But for the rest, battle mats and dice I had from long years of play and as a “learner” dungeon, for both DM and Players, we used the Loudwater Adventures from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. It certainly did not require the outlay of a 10 item Product Line to get the campaigns off the ground!
And from my own experiences over the years, new Players are usually introduced to the game by already established DMs, surrounded by already seasoned Players. They are usually the minority in a gaming group, so that they can be helped to get up to speed by everyone around the table. In many respects, D&D recruitment has almost been like the old apprenticeship system, where a new apprentice was immersed in the company of journeymen and masters at a craft, and helped to learn the trade.
From the hype, the D&D Essentials Line would seem to be aimed at a pack of newbie Players lead by a newbie Dungeon Master into the amazing world of D&D, and frankly, I just don’t see that happening too often. Players will be drawn into playing D&D by friends and family members that are already experienced and well-versed in the game, and the D&D Essentials line is not going to be of much help to them – unless the group they play with is heavily into Essentials themselves.
Despite their promises, I believe that WotC is marketing the Essentials Line as another “must have” product for already established 4E Players and Dungeon Masters to spend their hard-earned cash on. And while not calling it a new Edition, are making some pretty substantial changes to 4E Character Classes, and that sounds like a new Edition to me.
Are Wizards of the Coast trying to save themselves a horrendous “edition” backlash, by simply making Essentials Characters and previously existing Characters compatible with each other? After all, if WotC Designer make the new Essentials Character Classes enticing enough and just a little more powerful than their previous Classes, it will not be long before Players clamor at Dungeon Masters to add them to existing campaigns, and will have essentially created a stealthy new edition changeover without anyone complaining.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Artwork courtesy of the Player’s Strategy Guide by Wizards of the Coast.