Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Essential Impressions

A small, heavy box arrived from Amazon today, containing the kind of distraction that guaranteed I would not be thinking about much of anything else. Inside were the two books for D&D essentials that I've been chomping at the bit to get my hands on.[1] I got the Rules Compendium and the character book, Heroes of the Fallen Lands.

Between these two books I theoretically have everything I need (less dice) to create characters and run adventures. Practically, the monster book would also be necessary to round things out, but I have that pre-ordered, so I won't hold that against them. I did _not_ order the dungeon tile set despite the fact that it's a great deal because I have enough tiles already, and because I ultimately hope to not need them. More on that in a bit.

So, right off the back, these books are a steal. $20, 6x9, 300ish pages, softcover, full color. This is not as flashy as the hardcovers of the 4e line, but it totally highlights the kind of production clout WOTC can bring to bear. If I wanted to produce a book in this format, it would be Black & White interior and I'd be hard pressed to get the cover price under $25. At scale I might be able to hit $20, but with color? Not a chance. Physically, the binding is very good, the paper is nicely dense and heavy, and the cover stock is ok. I will be curious to see how it weathers, but my fear is it's going to curl. One way or another, this is now also a size that can be sold in places that won't tolerate the big RPG book form factor, like department stores, and I doubt that's a coincidence.

Layout-wise it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect if the current 4e layout went one column. Utilitarian with some recycled art[2] - nothing to complain about, but nothing to get too excited about either. All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the physical books, with one caveat - given the density of the books it's a shame they did not take advantage of a full page bleed (which some of the art uses) to have chapter separators which can be seen edge-on, or thumbed through. Maybe a design oversight, maybe cost cutting - dunno which.

Either way, it is a little emblematic of my one worrisome impression of the books. The large size of the PHB may have made for a more expensive book, but it also made for a friendlier one. These books are dense. The data presented combines with the layout, size and weight of the book to be a little more intimidating than I'd expect. I would be intensely curious to find the opinion of someone whose first exposure to 4e is reading this end to end. My existing knowledge makes it too hard for me to truly judge, but it seems daunting.[3] That said, this is more of a concern with the Rules Compendium which, while it's nominally for all players, will probably end up being the de facto DM's book. The Heroes book has enough basic rules to probably be a decent point of entry.

All that said, I admit I was far more interested in the Heroes book, looking to examine the promised class changes. I did, and I was generally pleased, but I also came to a conclusion that utterly surprised me. See, this absolutely isn't 4.5...

But I kind of wish it was.

There are great ideas in the book. The new at-will heavy martial classes is part of that, but other cleverness shows up in peculiar places, like more powers designed as free actions with a trigger of success. Stop and think about that for a moment, especially through the lens of missed dailies and similar frustrations - imagine using a power that you can pull the trigger on after you hit rather than before. And that's just one thing; there's more. Skill descriptions include ideas for improvising on the skills. Borderline effects that were previously just text have mostly become power descriptions.

It's clever and interesting. I see this and I kind of wish they really had the freedom to make something newer, to shake off the oddly lingering bits (Armor quality is sort of subtly worked in without mentioning it. The layout is not designed for the kind of level tables the new class presentation uses) and run free with the lessons learned.

Now, the fact that it's not 4.5 is a smart business move. the fact that you can treat all this stuff as optional rules for your 4E game (or vice versa) is actually quite brilliant, and perhaps necessary given the open questions regarding WOTC's future publishing plans. Keeping their options open is pretty sharp.[4]

All of this falls short of the real question: Will I run it?[5] and the real answer to that is; I don't know yet.

1 - I could technically have gotten them sooner if I'd gone to an actual store, but I cheaped out and went Amazon. Yes, I know, I could have chosen to support a local shop, and usually I try to, but I'm viewing this as more of an experiment than a real purpose, at least initially.

2 - While Essentials makes heavier use of recycled art, Heroes of the Fallen Lands seems to mostly be new stuff.

3 - The assumption may be that someone comes to this after they've played to read the Red Box. I'm sure that will often be the case, but it's daunting all the same.

4 - It'll be doubly interesting to see if they decide to expand the GSL to include this new stuff, of if that's just going to wither on the vine.

5 - Because of course I'd _play_ it if someone else were to run it.

1 comment:

  1. My reactions have been mixed. For example, the stance/melee basic fighter design just bugs me, but I like the fact that its encounter powers are inherently and automatically reliable. I like a more thematic cleric where many abilities come from a domain choice, not a char-op post and I like that its buffs happen when he heals. I really don't like the attempt to turn all the new class builds into a temple for the 1e/2e players. I like the fact that all of the races they published have new class builds that work well for them.

    There was a collective 'meh' at the gaming table, albeit for players with well-established characters. I offered the opportunity to switch up characters to use essentials builds, and no one was interested. That leaves feats. You didn't mention it, but the feats in Essentials are both more powerful and more flavorful than many of the PHB feats. Those had some players salivating, and I know I found at least 3 useful feats for my character in the other campaign -- that beats the curve for a typical book these days. :)

    What I'm mostly waiting to see is the fallout that hits the rules when October's errata push happens. So far, it seems like they've been willing to make the square peg fit in the round hole by simply pounding it in as hard as they can.

    It seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, but what I really want right now is an updated PHB and Monster Manual that reflects the new reality. Those books have not aged well at all.


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