Is it Only an “Essential” Reaction?

Note: This is a post to pose a question, not challenge what version of a game someone wants to play, or say that their enjoyment/choice is any less deserved or important. No trolling, only actual discussion please.

I’ve noticed many people on RPG Bloggers and others whom I talk to regularly via email seem to be unsatisfied with 4e Mechanics, especially once the players get to higher level. Some say that the easy prep and manageability of adventure crafting when the game was first released and at lower levels disappears once the game reaches Paragon level and beyond.

There have also been posts made about the clutter of errata, changes and fixes, etc.

Many people are wondering if the Essentials line is basically 4.5 using smoke and mirrors to hide its true purpose. Others say it is just another way for WotC to pull in revenue, and I am very inclined to agree with this statement.

WotC keeps saying that this game is a way to lure in new blood and refresh players who feel the game has grown too complex, overburdened and stagnant.

While I don’t doubt that WotC wants to pull in new blood and keep old blood buying their products, I think the real smoke and mirror here is to cover up what WotC has done.

They have errata’d and released and pushed till peoples eyes roll up in their heads, blood trickles down their nose, and they are found dead in their basements. Cheesy poofs still clutch in hand.. Oh so sad.

Mike Shea’s post over at Critical Hits had a couple of statements that really jogged my brain on this:

4e has changed a lot over the past two years. The mechanical design we see in later books is quite different from the design we see in the early releases. For DM’s, I think these design changes are clearly seen when comparing monsters at the paragon tier and above across all three Monster Manuals. I’ll talk more about this in a bit. For players, it’s seen clearly in the huge number of updates to the core classes and powers in the original Player’s Handbook. The core classes today are very different from those in the original Player’s Handbook. The recent change to Magic Missile is one such example.

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. I know I’ve stopped doing so. I might as well be bringing a Laura K. Hamilton hardback for all the good they’d do me at the table.


While current players have the character builder to keep them updated, DM’s don’t have it as easy. Unlike the Character Builder with it’s continued updates, WOTC never actually updated the original monsters with the updated math we find in the Monster Manual 3. Our first Monster Manual is pretty useless above level 10 and there’s no other way to update the monsters within other than to do it ourselves.

*scratches head* I like the idea of the character builder and can understand and appreciate the ease of it.. but to MAKE it essential to play a game and make the books you’ve spent your hard earned money on in just 2 years really just boggles my mind.

So I’m wondering if WotC is launching the Essentials line to combat this. To hopefully get players who are turned off by the whirlwind of information that has been placed before them.

What about you? Is Essentials more of a plan of action or a reaction to how 4e is now currently being perceived? Especially in light of Pathfinders success?

Author: Mike Evans

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn.

14 thoughts

  1. I take issue with a few things you say here, but instead of getting into all that, let me turn the question back at you. How is Pathfinder NOT just another book of Errata made by a company that also wants to pull in revenue?

    I’ll certainly grant that Pathfinder is well designed and adds to the D&D 3.5 engine, but it is, in and of itself, just a “3.5 + .5” itself, right? And having played consistently throughout 3rd ed, I can recall there being a decent amount of errata then too, it just didn’t come out on the same schedule.

    I just find it hard to accept that this is a problem with one game (that’s newer) and not another. It’s also not the case that Pathfinder being successful means that 4e is not.

  2. Fair enough:) Thanks for commenting Dave:).

    First I did not mean to say that 3.5/Pathfinder is perfect and without faults or its own mountain of erroneous information, because you are right, it does.

    Nor was my comment on Pathfinders success a jab at 4e being unsuccessful. I meant it more as a marketing tactic to generate more interest in the 4e mechanics VS the Pathfinder mechanics and not a degree of success VS Failure or better VS sucky. That was not my intention.

    Is Pathfinder 3.5 with a bit of plaster to fix up the holes and a fresh coat of paint.. Maybe some new furniture and throw pillows for color? Yes.. It is.. And I will be the first to admit that. Does it do the job well? Yes it does.

    Is 4e Essentials the same thing? I’m just curious how people view Essentials, which is why I posed the question  I didn’t ask it to poke fun at a system that people enjoy.

    I do have a question for you. You say Pathfinder is “Just a3.5 +.5.” If that is the case, would Essentials just be a 4e with a .5 added on? 

  3. Personally, I don’t see Essentials as 4.5 at all. I see it as a set of current and cleaned up rules + optional add-ons. Nothing more. When a module comes out a year from now, I highly doubt that it will say “Requires Essentials Ruleset”. It will work just as fine with the current 4E rule books.

    As to the Monster Manual, I just used some creatures from it this past weekend. I dropped some of their HP, increased their damage a bit, and it took me all of 20 seconds per monster. It wasn’t hard at all, nor did I have to even think about it overly much.

    I’m a big time believer that I’d rather have errata coming out consistently (like WotC) rather than almost not at all. I’ll give you an example: Exalted. Almost everyone can agree that it’s a great world with great flavor, but the rules are… lacking. White Wolf is glacially slow at providing any type of errata, even if it is simply to clarify some of their more obtuse rules. I stopped playing that game because of this very reason – lack of updates/clarifications.

  4. Unfortunately, the “DDI” Character Builder / errata intense model (I call it the MTG model) that WotC has followed has made 4E an unplayable game for my group. Most of us are not paying for the DDI subscription and do not use the Character builder. The Player’s Handbooks are so heavily marked up with errata that players using the Character Builder and players not using the character builder have two different versions of the characters and as a GM I cannot keep track of which version of Magic Missile is which, let alone some of the more esoteric character builds.

    And trying to play 4E with a different group – with a different level of errata adherence – is worse then trying to figure out OD&D house rules.

  5. That’s interesting. We use DDI and split the cost among the group. I *love* my digital tools. 🙂

  6. “You say Pathfinder is “Just a3.5 +.5.” If that is the case, would Essentials just be a 4e with a .5 added on?”

    I’m not arguing either of those actually- I’m saying if, going with your example, “Many people are wondering if the Essentials line is basically 4.5 using smoke and mirrors to hide its true purpose” that Pathfinder is basically 3.5 + .5 with a different name under the same token.

    Personally I don’t think of either one as a .5 since they’re both fully compatible with everything behind them, whereas going from 3.0 to 3.5 required a bit more work (which was clear when WotC started releasing new version of the same Prestige Classes.) Both Essentials and Pathfinder have the stated goal of remaining compatible, which is why I don’t view it as a “.5” situation, though obviously, everyone’s definition of what constitutes a half edition or not varies which makes it somewhat moot. It just seems like a double standard in most cases.

    I’m not sure Essentials/Red Box is aimed at Pathfinder in any way- it’s a starter box that is an easier “in” to the game than buying multiple books which includes everything needed to play. It’s easier to get bookstores to sell them that way, which I guess you could call a marketing tactic. The real tactic is that it provides new options for existing players or players who weren’t previously interested, so it’s not “just” a beginner’s product.

  7. Speaking as someone who’d never heard of 4E “Essentials” before stumbling on your question, I’m only drawing on my generic observations of the hobby to answer with. But what those generic observations tell me is that any successful RPG with fans who clamor for ongoing support from the publisher must eventually come to suffer from “bloat”. That it’s happened so quickly with recent editions of D&D is nothing more than a testament to their popularity.

    You can see the same effect at work in any fictional universe with a hungry fan-base to feed. Star Trek stands as the iconic modern example of this phenomenon, with the way the most recent version said, “Enough!” to the years of churning out spin-off after spin-off, and wiped the slate clean. But comic book publishers are notorious for reinventing their heroes (and universes) to cut through old baggage, and a soap opera wouldn’t be a soap opera if our hero couldn’t be re-cast as the villain at the drop of a hat. To quote the Mad Hatter from at least one of the many incarnations of Wonderland, “Clean cup! Clean cup! Move down! Move down!” The legend of King Arthur, alone, has been reinvented so many times in so many different ways it can make your head swim.

    I understand that this phenomenon must be frustrating to RPGA gamers, and for anyone else who feels obliged to keep up with the cutting-edge, current version of their RPG of choice. But that’s one of the big reasons I’m not an RPGA gamer. It’s just one of the challenges to that particular model of role-playing that I refuse to deal with. Intellectual property can be replicated endlessly, ergo supply will grow to meet whatever demand exists. So as long as gamers are scrambling to buy every latest-and-greatest rulebook from WOTC, WOTC will make sure that you can’t possibly collect them all, and that’s just the basic business sense of following money as its laid out in front of you. There’s not a one of us who wouldn’t do the same if that’s how we put bread on our dinner table.

    Now, if gaming in the circles you game means that you HAVE to buy every D&D book as it comes out, well… playing in those circles is a personal choice. Either it’s worth the cost to you or it isn’t. If it is, keep paying it. If not, stop. But railing against the phenomenon is like shouting at the sea that it needs to let up on this whole “tides” scam it’s got going. The true beauty underlying the tabletop RPG hobby is that it’s exactly whatever you and your friends make of it, nothing more and nothing less. So pick exactly the inspirations and the rulebooks that fit your style and your budget; cobble the pieces together into your own unique brand of fun; and let the sea of market forces roll on without you.

  8. Well, there’s definitely a lot of confusion, but mostly from the non-players who end up in the spectator seat.

    First of all, people seem to forget that for the first 6 months or so, nobody had the character builder. It’s great to have- I wouldn’t want to live without it– but it’s not a requirement.

    Essentials is definitely aimed at new players, not on making the existing players rebuy stuff. I think the errata issue is separate but related. By that I mean, I think they are putting out a spell called Arc Lightning that is Int vs Reflex, 1d6+int damage, 20 range. That is almost *exactly* what the old Magic Missile spell did (except it was 2d4 damage and did force damage vice electrical). But having Arc Lightning out there means they are free to change Magic Missile back to it’s original form, and make it more of a controller spell. And a wizard could take both and they’d be different enough to matter.

    4E and essentials are the same game, same version. Essentials are the 10 items (half of which are boxes of dungeon tiles and a set of dice) that are meant to bring new players in. The rules in the Rules Compendium book.. are the 4e rules. The 4e Rules..are the same rules in the Essentials box. They might be phrased differently. They might have a different typeface. But they will say the same thing.

    You know how there’s a Holmes version of D&D Basic, and a Moldvay version, and a Rules Compendium version? And they’re all basically the same game..?

  9. I see Essentials as more of a 4.1, not a 4.5. The impression I get is that WotC isn’t going to muck with the “engine” of the game, just re-do some character advancement rules.

    They imply they are doing this to simplify some things to make the game friendlier for new players. Given the two-edged sword that is WotC’s product output in support of 4e, this could be a valid point. If you want to make a character, how many books do you have to go through to see all of your choices?

    The cynical among us will also consider Essentials just WotC trying to wring more money out of gamers. They are a business after all, and they need to keep selling product to stay in business, which means getting new customers to buy existing products and/or getting existing customers to buy new products. The problem they face is that as a general rule gamers are frugal, they are smart, they are tech-savvy, and they are creative. So some will disappear into the wilderness of the internet to forage for their game materials and make up what they need to fill the gaps.

    My other thought is wondering whether Essentials will be just essentials, or will it also bloat into the multi-book monstrosity that 4e character rules have become?

  10. Answering the question, “What do you need to play D&D?” can cover a range from “a die, a pencil, and a sheet of graph paper” to “a DDI subscription, computer, automated gaming table with terrain models, and $1,000 in books.”

    I suspect the primary intent of Essentials is just to cash in on a lower cost-of-entry bracket of the market.

    Giacomo’s points about what you feel you need to play D&D are eloquently put. Ultimately, it is your choice as to what version of the rules (or, for that matter, which part of the rules) you’ll use. It doesn’t make it either right, wrong, sanctioned, or unsanctioned. It’s just how you roll.

    1. “Ultimately, it is your choice as to what version of the rules (or, for that matter, which part of the rules) you’ll use.”

      I don’t think this is the issue, I think it’s the confusing morass of products a DM is expected to be familiar with to run a game successfully. And WOTC has pretty much decided to release a new product when the old product is in duct tape and chewing gum mode.

      For example, if a new player has essentials, and brings that to the table, and I have PH1, which rule do I follow? Am I really expected to print out 100 pages of changes AND familiarize myself with the essentials product, all while maintaining my DDI subscription?

      I have a feeling most of the folks who think this announcement and the state of 4e is acceptable are probably players, or are playing in heroic tier. As a 4e DM right now I feel overwhelmed and a little betrayed, I guess. Making changes mid-stream to a line that I have invested over $500 in seems like a massive kick to the nuts.

      Yes, I expect changes, but not when the product has yet to mature. WOTC are focusing on rules changes when they should be creating CONTENT, imho. To bring up Pathfinder, look how many modules, adventure paths, etc exist for that line. instead, they are re-releasing rules, etc. IMHO, give everyone with the core books a pdf of the new rules in the book format and update MM1! Or something. Don’t pepper us with core products and rules updates when we should be getting games material.

      One more gripe, they managed to make Tomb of Horrors a $30 10-level spread adventure? come now, that should be a $14 module.

      Anyways, back to my office to whine a little more to myself, lol.

  11. My thoughts haven’t fully crystallized on the matter of Essentials, but I do have this to say about errata: If it takes too long to fold it into the material that I’m preparing for next week’s session, then I don’t use it.

    For me, it is less important to stick to ‘updated up to the minute’ versions of rules than it is for players to trust their DMs well enough that their fiat seldom leads to heated disputes. Errata’s importance only grew because of tournament play and parent company organized events that need to deal with matters of balance to correct exploits or adjust deficits.

    Matters that you don’t seriously need to deal with in your private game, unless you have a player who flat out refuse to correct a character mechanic that is obviously being exploited.

    I live where sanctioned play events from U.S.-based hobby game companies are near nonexistent, so the culture of ‘company-approved mechanical fixes’ isn’t deeply ingrained. (Except maybe in the Magic: The Gathering circles)

    That said, I’m pretty sure that on any given session (and I game 3x a week) I’m probably using the wrong monster math, my players are using the wrong iteration of their powers and I’ve probably made use of outdated interpretations of skill checks.

    D&D is a game with infinite layers of rules complexity interlocking with social complexity. There is no way that any given ‘state of the rules’ can somehow affect the elements of the game in an adverse fashion unless players and DMs let them to.

  12. I’m currently undecided on Essentials. I don’t know if I want to allow players for my upcoming Dark Sun game to use the rules or not. I’m tempted to say “Yes” to stay in spirit with 4e and just being a good DM; at the same time, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of 4e books players could draw from several months ago. That’s why i stopped buying books and got a DDI subscription instead. At this point the books are errated so quickly and so thoroughly that I don’t see a point in shelling out $$$ for books. At least Character Builder is up to date. I also noticed that MM1 and MM2 monsters on the Monster Builder have now been put into MM3 style stat blocks, although their powers have not been updated.

    I can’t help but feel a little jaded by the Essentials products, as I feel that the books I bought 2 years ago are now, or soon will be obsolete. I think most players will prefer class features that scale in power to class features that don’t. What’s another power or two; Like a lot of the splat books, I’m sure the Class Features from Essential builds will eventually, if they don’t already, surpass previous PHB-version features and powers, so that players will feel obligated (or at least highly drawn to) the Essentials products. Still, as DM I will have the final say as to what options players can and can’t use. Most likely I’ll allow players to use the most up to date options until I decide to let my DDI account go. As for errata, I gave up trying to stay up to date with that a long time ago. I prefer as “house rule as needed” approach, poaching errata if necessary.

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