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How D&D Essentials Changed 4E… forever!

Finally, last Friday, Wizards of the Coast did the unthinkable and changed the face of D&D 4E forever!  They released, in a Rules Update Format, all the changes that D&D Essentials were going to make to “traditional” 4E in order to synch up all the rules.

[Editor’s Note: See Changes Coming in Essentials for the download of the impending rules updates.]

And with the new rules release, it does appear that what WotC had been saying all along is true.  Essentials is not so much a new version of the game, but is simply a lot of rules clarifications and new builds.  Now having perused the changes this past weekend, it does appear that the Design & Development Team has taken to opportunity to made quite a few rules tweaks, but nearly all of those were discussed in the two Countdown to Essentials articles: Powers, Implements, Feats… and Magic Item Rarity – although we did not know some of the details until now!

The Players Handbook… Defunct!

It would appear that the majority of the rules changes and clarifications appear to be aimed at the Players Handbook.  As one of the first 4E books released, it has suffered the most ravages at the hands of new errata and rules updates which have accompanied the “evolving” game design philosophies seen in this version of D&D.  Sadly, without a trusty and recently updated version of Character Builder at your fingertips, using the Players Handbook to create a Character would be a nightmarish endeavor, requiring a considerable amount of sifting through Rules Update documents to create it properly.

All of the original races, for instance, now have expanded options for starting stat bonuses, which definitely expand their ability to be optimized for a particular class.  For example, the traditional Players Handbook Dwarf has had the following update to synch up with Essentials Dwarfs:

Page 36: When adding up your ability score bonuses, you now gain a +2 bonus to Constitution and your choice of Strength or Wisdom.

Just by this one small change – adding an option for a bonus to the Strength rather than a bonus to Wisdom -now allows Dwarf Characters to be more slightly more optimized as Fighters, Warlords, Barbarians, Sorcerers, Wardens, and Swordmages!  And of course all the other Players Handbook Races will have similar enhancements based upon the new statistic options.  Humans are an exception to the rule, but do get an option to add an Encounter power called Heroic Effort in place of the bonus At-Will, which allows them to add a +4 to an attack or saving throw after they miss their roll.  I think this Encounter power will look pretty good to Players who have trouble with bad dice luck!

The other sweeping change Essentials is bringing to the table is to the Wizard Class.  Many of the powers employed by Wizards from the Players Handbook and the Arcane Power supplement are seeing some major changes, often for the better – but not always.  Nearly a score of Wizard Powers are seeing new clarifications and updates due to Essentials, ranging from minor edits to ranges to major changes in damage and combat effects!

There are also a few Feats that are being changed and clarified due to Essentials, but most of those changes seem to be made to make them easier to use for the most part.  For instance the Non-AC Defense feats of Great Fortitude, Iron Will, and Lightning Reflexes now scale with level, rather than having a replacement Feat in the Paragon and Epic Tiers.  This should come as a welcome change to many Players who had to swap out NADs Feats to keep up with monster attack powers.

Although it is worth noting that one Class Feature is being changed by Essentials – the Rogue’s Sneak Attack just became much more potent.  Rather than just a once per round ability, Sneak Attack may now be used once per turn, allowing a Rogue to do significantly more damage in a round should opportunity attacks or a Leader’s powers present additional chances to add in Sneak Attack dice!

And finally, the new rules governing Magic Item Rarity will have considerable affects on the original items presented in the Players Handbook.  By the new Essentials changes, all magic items in the Players Handbook are considered Uncommon, although there are a sizeable list of exceptions for items that are considered Common and can be created by Player-Characters.


But if there is one thing that D&D Essentials can be blamed for, it is in putting the final coffin nail in the first printing of the D&D 4E Players Handbook.  With so many changes having been made, it becomes pretty obvious that WotC needs to seriously consider a reprinting of the 4E Players Handbook – and soon – to incorporate all the various rules updates, clarifications, and the new Essentials changes to the book.

Of course, in the minds of some Players, a need for a new Players Handbook reprinting constitutes a new version!  But I don’t think that is an accurate assessment.  D&D 4E is a dynamic and evolving game, where rules and content have been improved with each new book released.  The new Character options and builds, the new game mechanics, and clarifications have made the game more enjoyable to play and have done a lot to maintain balance between the classes.  For my part, I am pleased to see the game changing as time passes, with better Character designs and better Dungeon Master tools being made available to gamers.  It has without a doubt done a lot to enhance the overall D&D 4E Experience!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

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About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity.


8 Responses to “How D&D Essentials Changed 4E… forever!”

  1. Tony says:

    Great article. I’ve been confused by this whole essentials thing from the start. So these rules in essentials DO affect all normal 4e rules? So one should consider buying the rules compendium even if they have no desire to play an “essentials” game?

  2. Gabhran says:

    “Of course, in the minds of some Players, a need for a new Players Handbook reprinting constitutes a new version!”

    Am I wrong in remembering that the Deluxe PHB had the rule updates (at the time) printed in it, which would make it a new new version? :-)

  3. callin says:

    While I agree the original 4E PH is outdated (and honestly has been for some time already) I still think it is very possible to play a 4E game using the original PH and ignore the Character Builder. To me 4E is all about everything being modular and standing on its own feet within the 4E system. Every class is balanced within the system. To me, the rules from the original PH still allow you to play a character that is comparable and competitive with the updated rules.
    As an example you mentioned that races now have more options with attribute selection. There is nothing to say a player could and would not choose the attribute bonus that is listed in the original PH; i.e. forgoing the new attribute bonus option. Not having access to the bonus choice does not make a character unplayable.
    Another example is the change to Magic Missile. If a player were to use the “older” version would it disrupt or unbalance the system? No. It’s a flavor change. (Personally, I wish they had kept the original MM and simply renamed it something else-Magic Dart.)

    I personally like the fact that WotC is working constantly to update their rules to make them the best rules possible. No rule set is perfect out the door. Intensive play (which takes years) points out subtle issues. As the flagship of RPGs (OK, that’s a bold statement from me) working constantly to improve it is a good thing.
    Is WotC doing the constant updates and tweaks to garner more money? I’m not so sure. If they did release an updated version of the PH, it is not required. They have already released the official changes for free; it just takes an annoying amount of time to manually update everything. If you bought a new version of the PH you are in fact paying WotC to do the updating to your books for you. But, again, it is not a required purchase.
    I would buy a new version of the PH and I hope they are working on releasing one. Perhaps the upcoming Rules Compendium will do the job of a new PH.
    .-= callin´s last blog ..The Holy Table =-.

  4. @Tony – Yep, the new Rules Compendium will contain all non-Character Power and non-Monster based rules – although rules for monster attributes like insubstantial and what not will also be in the new RC. So even if you never play or DM to an Essentials Character, the RC is a useful thing!

    @callin – you’re right, of course, you could play the game using the old PHB and ignoring Character builder and still have a great time doing it. Then again, the amount of time you’d spend making up Characters by hand would be a little frustrating too. I’d prefer to have an updated and correctly errata’d book to go along with my CB though, rather than leafing through a PHB, and 4 pdfs of errata just to check out a rule or power you find in Character Builder. Sadly, the Rule Compendium will not resolve the updated powers issue we find in the PHB at this time. But even still, I like that D&D 4E is an evolving game, and one which is being constantly tweaked, with new content and game mechanics – it is definitely a flagship among RPGs!

  5. mbeacom says:

    A couple of points.

    First, yes, the PHB is sadly now out of date enough to warrant a reprint. I’ve been a staunch defender of the original PHB for quite some time, arguing that you can definitely still use it productively (and my group does). My point has always been that, regardless of errata, it does a damn fine job of instructing players as to the ins and outs of how 4E works, how to play the game. That’s still true. However, a retroactive change to all PHB published racial stat bonuses, is enough, in my mind to warrant a reprint. Callin is correct, that you can definitely still use it. That’s true. BUT I think the changes have been significant enough to make a reprint worthwhile. Finally

    Second, people keep saying things like “The changes brought by Essentials” or the “Essentials Dwarf”.

    Neither is quite accurate. The racial stat change (adding an optional stat bonus) started appearing as a new design philosophy long before we saw anything in Essentials. This philophy tweak was NOT an Essentials change. It was simply a change they wanted to make to 4E that was coincidentally codified in the Essentials products. They’ve made it clear that this would have been the case with or without Essentials and I take them at their word based on the races in PHB3 and even some in the Eberron and Dark Sun Campaign settings had optional stat bonuses (mul and changeling) long ago. Basically, I think they decided they wanted to do it going forward and made the decision to make the change retroactive. The Essentials published materials was the obvious time to do this in print.

    Also, most of the rules changes in Essentials were simply existing errata that were compiled and rewritten, but had already been in existence.

    For this reason, I think it’s pretty clear that the first Essentials book, really IS a reprint of the players handbook, while simultaneously introducing new class builds. If you read the book, it reads almost exactly like the first PHB.

  6. Phil says:

    Am I the only person who thinks that it’s totally insane that they need to reprint the core rules now because of all the changes to the system? Apparently…

    Pathfinder? More and more appealing every day.

  7. Scott says:

    Well phil you can go and play Pathfinder if you like, personally i am waiting for my second box set of Dragon Age to get released.

  8. Scott says:

    Well phil you can go and play Pathfinder if you like, personally i am waiting for my second box set of Dragon Age RPG to get released. I have a bunch of 4e and just am fed up with all the changes and crap, essentials just put the nail in the coffin for me.

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