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It's my understanding that WOTC is releasing a string of 4e products under a label they're calling "Essentials", that there's substantial revisions/errata attached to this product line, and that the primary goal is to provide a superior learning curve for players who are new to RPGs.

My question is this: What problems or deficiencies in the existing 4th edition architecture, perceived or real, are the Essentials revisions intended to address? Also, am I correct in understanding that all extant 4e products will be revised as needed to be fully compatable with the new version of the rules?

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I'd attach a "ddessentials" tag if there was one. Please note that I have no interest in starting a 4.5e skubwar (which is why I was suprised to note that the 4e tag reads "4.0"), and forgive me if I've totally misunderstood the scope of the Essentials line - I can't isolate the signal from the noise that WOTC PR is putting out, and anywhere else I go the subject will invariably devolve into trolling and flamewars. –  Burrito Al Pastor Sep 1 '10 at 23:02
    
I think this will be divisive and cause arguments, and that it'll be hard to get decent answers to it given that essentials isn't even out yet. I'd consider waiting to ask this question until anyone could answer it in anything other than opinions. –  mxyzplk Sep 1 '10 at 23:06
    
I took a shot because I'm a masochist. There are people with Essentials books in their hands answering questions, and some of my answers are based on what they've said. If this gets flamey I'll vote to close, but I'd like to see if we can manage to avoid Edition Wars, because I think that'd be a substantial accomplishment. Also -- added the tag because I think Essentials-only is going to be a reasonable way to want to play the game. –  Bryant Sep 1 '10 at 23:23
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It's definitely a question that's historically been prone to some ugly debates, but it's still ultimately a question that I think needs answering, if only because I don't know the answer myself. More importantly, I think that we need to be able to talk about potentially divisive things, like controversial edition changes or revisions, if RPG Stackexchange is going to distinguish itself above other RPG communities. The ratings structure gives us a great way to filter out the trolls, and I think it'd be a shame if we failed to use this platform to its utmost potential. –  Burrito Al Pastor Sep 1 '10 at 23:38

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Kudos for tackling the tough subject with grace. I'll see how well I can answer this. If anyone thinks I've gotten evangelistic, please let me know and I'll try and modify my answer to reflect your concerns.

What Is Essentials?

There will be several products released this year and early next year under the Essentials banner. Here's a list of the key ones. If you get those, you will have a core set of rules that allows you to easily play and run D&D 4e.

There are few core changes or errata that originate with Essentials. Combat works the same way, magic works the same way, and so on. There have definitely been a lot of errata and rules changes over the last two years, and Essentials will include all of those, but Essentials in and of itself is not the reason for those changes. For better or worse -- and there are arguments in both directions -- WotC decided to aggressively fix balance problems in 4e. That's not new to this release.

The classes presented in Essentials -- fighter, cleric, rogue, wizard, druid, paladin, ranger, and warlock -- are not the same versions as those we've seen so far. In some cases they're pretty similar, and in some cases they're fairly different. However, they are fully compatible with existing characters of those classes, in two key senses.

First, you can take an Essentials wizard and plop her down in a campaign next to a wizard as presented in the Player's Handbook and nothing at all needs to be changed for either of them. The core gameplay is completely compatible, again. D&D 4e is designed so that classes are heavily modular; a given class can have multiple builds which function differently, and one class may gain powers differently than another, but in the end you're just rolling an attack and applying damage and/or conditions.

Second, material from Essentials serves as a resource for existing classes and vice versa. For example, you can choose Essentials wizard powers for your classic wizard without problems. Likewise, an Essentials wizard could take PHB wizard powers. No need to house rule or adjust. In some cases, this won't make sense -- for example, Essentials fighters don't have dailies, so they can't take PHB fighter dailies -- but even in that case an Essentials fighter could take a PHB fighter utility power.

All that said, Essentials is going to feel different. Fighters, for example, work much more like third edition fighters. I suspect some people will want to play Essentials-only games, and I think there's good reasons why you might want to do that. Further, if you learn to play an Essentials fighter, there'd be a slight learning curve if you then wanted to learn how a classic fighter works.

Why Essentials?

Only Wizards knows for sure, but they've talked about a bunch of things. They want to have a better entry point into the game. The Starter Kit will be sold in Target for $20, and that's a lot more accessible than telling new players they need these three $35 hardcover books.

They also clearly want to attract players of older editions. As noted, the fighter is simpler and does away with some of the immersion problems people have had. The classic 4e fighter is centered around powers, and the Essentials fighter returns to the mode of just using basic attacks -- but doing cooler things with them.

I believe that Wizards would like to have a new core rule set that collects all those errata. I don't find the PHB to be useless... but I also get most of my rules info from my DDI subscription at this point, and I'm really looking forward to the compiled Rules Compendium. It's a pain looking up finer rules points in three or four different places.

What Happens To Old Stuff?

Nothing. There is not going to be anything like the Complete Class line which made the old class books obsolete. Essentials options don't overlap with classic options; if I want to play a two-weapon fighter who gets by on mobility, the Tempest Fighter from Martial Power is probably still the right way to go. The monsters from the first three Monster Manuals are completely functional and don't need to change -- at worst, you might want to up the damage for the ones from MM1 and MM2. The campaign books don't need new editions. Etc.

Most of the books announced for 2011 are not Essentials books; they don't have the Essentials name and they don't have the Essentials trade dress. I believe the intent is that they'll be equally useful whether you have the old core books or the new Essentials books, which makes sense because it's theoretically the same game.

Caveats

The proof is in the pudding. A few core rules are changing with Essentials. Racial traits are slightly different here and there, for example, but in all cases the changes are optional rather than forced. Magic items get a new rarity scheme, and I don't know exactly how that's going to interact with old magic items.

All the above wall of text is what I think, but I do want to look at the books and find out for myself.

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That almost answers my question, and I'm going to take the blame for opting for inoffensiveness over clarity. The fact of the matter is, I like 4e as a whole, but there are specific elements about 4e that I don't like, and that I wish would change, and "errata" means "changes" - the thing you mentioned about fighters working more like 3e fighters really sounds interesting to me, for example. However, I was under the impression that it was closer to release than it apparently is. I may have simply asked this question too soon. –  Burrito Al Pastor Sep 1 '10 at 23:44
    
I gotta admit it'll be easier to answer in about a month. I know some of the new fighter stuff, but not all of it. –  Bryant Sep 1 '10 at 23:52
    
That's a lot ... so it's like 4.5 that's backwards compatible ... great. –  C. Ross Sep 14 '10 at 15:37
    
@C.Ross: Less that, I think, than a version of 4E that's geared toward people whose favored editions were those before 3rd. From what I've seen of the Essentials stuff, it's very much "can I play a character like the one I played in the 1980s in your game?" –  Jadasc Sep 14 '10 at 15:53
    
Okay, good enough. Fighters hit things with swords instead of using powers? I'm sold. –  Burrito Al Pastor Sep 16 '10 at 18:34

My favorite essentials change is item rarity. I'm sure everyone has been in a game were the group finds a neat item but everyone has already used their "starter cash" to pick out the perfect gear so the item goes unused. The item rarity change puts the power back into the DM's hands (well it was always there but now its supported by rules text).

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Are we sure that is an essentials change? The rarity system is probably going to come out in Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium, which is a core book. –  Peter Seckler Sep 2 '10 at 11:38
    
I've heard the rarity system discussed in relation to the essentials line--MME will probably use it as well. –  Numenetics Sep 2 '10 at 12:26
    
It's confirmed as being in the DM Kit -- see here: enworld.org/forum/4e-discussion/…. Take the vitriol with whatever measure of salt you prefer, of course. –  Bryant Sep 2 '10 at 16:57
    
Aha! Well, I stand corrected!.. the way it is described sounds pretty cool as long as we get further randomized tables. I may have to write some. hmm... –  Peter Seckler Sep 2 '10 at 18:51

Until we get the books in our hands we can't be sure what changes Essentials will hold for the core rules. But remember this D&D 4.0 is an exception based system. In that it is similar to Magic the Gathering. MtG is not the same as it was back when it was first released. However it is the same game. What makes it different is the mix of card that is part of the core set. Despite not playing for a number of years I am confident I can go buy a deck of magic cards and starting playing. I will definitely have to learn new strategies and new ways of building my decks. But I am still playing the same game.

And this looks to be the situation with Essential D&D. Instead of just the core Fighter there will be the Essential Fighter and so on for the rest of the classes. You will have status effects, at-will powers, encounter powers, and perhaps a few dailies. And you will still have to read the text carefully and understand the standard terms.

If they do the Essential Red Box right then it will be a lot easier for people to pick up and try 4e D&D. In addition because 4e is an exception based system that means how the game feels is dependent on the bag of powers, classes, and feats. You can have the same system but a different feeling game by altering that mix. See Dark Sun, and Gamma World for example of what they can do. We will see how good of a job they do with making the Essential version feel more like traditional D&D.

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