Essentials Versus Core

Talking to the average 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons player, you would think a new edition came out last fall. But it didn’t. That is to say, it’s still 4th Edition; new rules are just heading in a slightly different direction. So why is everyone so confused? One answer: When you rebrand your product without a proper plan of executing public awareness, you confuse your consumers.

Here’s what’s going on.

Between 2008 and 2010, 4th Edition pretty much had the same design template for everything that was made. All classes had at-will, encounter, and daily powers. Races all had two ability score adjustments. Powers all operated the same. And so on and so forth. All of these rules were put forth in the books that most of you are probably aware of: the three Player’s Handbooks, the various class power books (Arcane Power, Martial Power, Divine Power, et al), and any of the tertiary supplements (such as the Dungeon and Dragon magazines).

Then, in the fall of 2010, Wizards of the Coast implemented a marked design shift; classes strayed away from their normal template (fighters no longer got dailies, races could pick from a list of ability score adjustments instead of just two, etc). They put all of these rules adjustments into two new books: Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms.

For existing players who have been paying attention, this isn’t going to be as confusing as you think.

You see, ever since the first Player’s Handbook, they’ve been introducing “builds” for classes. So while I might play a fighter and Brian might play a fighter, I play the Great Weapon Fighter build, which focuses on offense, and Brian plays the Guardian Fighter build, which focuses on defense. They all fall under the blanket of being a fighter, they just have slight differences. And yet, despite these differences, they each operate from the same template: they have at-Wills, encounters, and dailies. Just like every other class.

In Heroes of the Fallen Lands, they introduced a new fighter build: the Knight. It’s still a fighter and it’s still balanced against the other fighter builds, it’s just different—it’s been Essential-ized, and thus, does not get dailies. Every class build in the two Essentials books got some kind of tweak from the normal way they had been doing things. Nevertheless, the key here is that they’re just builds and they still work great alongside any other builds, including those from the online magazines, the Power books, or any of the Player’s Handbooks. They don’t replace any of the previous builds.

Here’s where things get tricky. Remember when I said races got updated too? They received what is known as “flex stats.” For example, in the Player’s Handbook I, elves received a +2 ability adjustment to Dexterity and Wisdom. In Heroes of the Fallen Lands, they revised the elf (and every other race) to include flex stats. Now, you receive a +2 to Dexterity, but can choose to take your second +2 in either Intelligence or Wisdom. This opens up the race to be good at more than just one class. This is a good, albeit, confusing thing. In addition, other racial abilities were adjusted, based on fan and playtest feedback.

The reason it’s confusing? Races don’t use builds—which means the races in the Essentials books override the races listed in the Player’s Handbooks. Oy vey.

The Rules Compendium is another beast. Yes, it has the title “Essentials” on it, but that’s only because Wizards of the Coast wanted a consistent branding, dress, and style to their new books so as to not confuse new players. (HA!) In reality, The Rules Compendium has nothing to do with any of the other Essentials books. All it is is a collection of rules from the first three Player’s Handbooks (minus races, classes, powers, feats, equipment, and rituals) with all the current errata applied, and then printed in a handy paperback format.

In a fiery nutshell: Save yourself a headache and purchase a D&D Insider account from Wizards of the Coast. The cost, split for five players and a DM, is $3.98 per person, every three months. For that price, you gain access to a database with all the most up-to-date rules, including the character builder. Totally worth it.

Hopefully that clears everything up!