In my last column, I gave some initial thoughts on the current D&D Essentials material. My first reaction upon examining them was that they were undoing, for better or worse, the encounter balance that had been implemented among the classes in D&D 4e. Several readers have added their comments on balance in the game of D&D over the years, and it has been wonderful to hear so many divergent views expressed in such a thoughtful and respectful manner.
After writing that column, I decided to investigate Essentials play further—something more than simply playing in the Red Box D&D Game Day and browsing through the books. So I set up a 4-hour game at the local Buffalo Gamer’s Society D&D Meetup. I created 7 characters using the Essentials rules: two slayers with different powers, 2 thieves with different powers, a storm warpriest, a knight, and a mage.
I sent out an open invitation for anyone in the Meetup interested in playing in an “Essentials Only” game. A very mixed group showed up to play, ranging from a nine-year-old with little experience to people well-versed in 4e gaming. Another gentleman joined the group who had not played much since 1st Edition, although he had read about 4e extensively. In all, it was an eclectic mix of age and experience.
Simpler to Create? Sorta…
If one of the goals was to make some of the character classes easier to create than other 4e characters, I have just one huge observation: creating an Essentials fighter or rogue without the Character Builder is much harder than creating any other character with it. The interaction of feats, class abilities, powers, racial considerations, and equipment in 4e D&D forced me to abandon working on the character sheets in pen after only about 15 minutes with the first character. It seems I was constantly forgetting a feat bonus here or a proficiency bonus there as I tried to figure the bonuses to attack rolls, damage rolls, and defenses.
I wouldn’t say that the Character Builder is absolutely necessary to play 4e D&D, but I also wouldn’t want to build more than one character in a short amount of time—even an Essentials character—without it. I would never succumb to the Internet nerdrage that erupted when the release of the Essentials upgrade to the Character Builder was delayed for a few weeks, but I also hope that a quick solution is found to whatever is delaying its release. After a couple hours creating the characters by hand, I looked like John Belushi imitating Joe Cocker because of the hand and arm cramps.
But after spending a fairly substantial amount of time making second-level characters, I was ready for the game. I decided to run Coppernight’s Salvation, partly because I had never run it past the playtest design phase, and partly because it used something other than Monster Manual 1 monsters. I was ready to look at Essentials up close and personal.
A Critical Personal Aside
I promised myself two things when I started writing this column: I would never turn into the guy who went on overly much about my own games, and I would never brag about my family. I am going to go back on both of those promises, but only a little and only to make a larger point. In both the Red Box Game Day that I played and in the Essentials game that I ran, I felt like the thief was overpowered. If I had been keeping track of the damage done by the thieves, as opposed to the other strikers in the games, I’m sure we would have been seeing the thief doing at least 25% more damage, and possibly more.
Then I realized that in both of those games, my daughter was playing the thief. She is not some gaming prodigy, but at this point in her gaming career I have to acknowledge what I can only call supernatural dice-rolling luck. She rolled a natural 20 on attack rolls in those two games combined at least 10 times, and likely more often than that.
Critical hits are one of the most exciting parts of the game, but they are hell on things like playtests and evaluations of rules. Whether it is the PCs or the monster, an abundance of crits can render a playtest practically useless. So when one PC is critting 5 times in a single play session, it can make that PC seem more effective and powerful than the non-critting characters.
Results of the All-Essentials Game
In all, I thought the power levels of the Essentials characters—barring the incredible-critting rogue—was well balanced. The two slayers and two thieves in the same game really meant that combats went quickly. The speed with which the combat ended, combined with some poor initiative rolls on the part of the knight’s player, made it fairly difficult to gauge how effective the knight could be as a defender. The knight rarely got to use his defensive powers, although the player used the hammer hands power to great effect, especially when enhanced by the Bludgeoning Expertise feat.
It might have been coincidence, but I also noted that in both my Essentials game and in the Red Box Game Day, the storm warpriest took a great deal of damage (including the only character death over both games). I mention this because my experience with the previous 4e incarnations of the melee-based cleric usually saw similar results. During one particular bloody playtest I ran during the early days of 4e, I killed the melee battle cleric in all three of the combat encounters. Yes, you heard that right. Three combat encounters, and the same PC died (not unconscious) all three times. The two Essentials games did not see that much cleric carnage, but there were enough death saves made that I took note.
The mage in the two Essentials games did not seem much different to me than the different wizard builds in other 4e games. Certainly the automatically hitting magic missile is a new twist for the class, but the new Essentials builds seem to be not much of a departure from previous incarnations. Mages are still going to be somewhere between strikers and controllers—they work best when the person creating them knows how their builds are supposed to work and play them accordingly. Nothing is uglier than seeing a controller-built wizard played like a striker.
Despite the wide range of player experience with D&D, all of the players seemed to have little problem understanding what their characters could do and how best to use those powers tactically. The two slayers were played by both a very experienced and a fairly new player, and the simplicity seemed to help the new player. The experienced player also enjoyed the experience of playing the slayer. He noted, “The differences between streamlined martial builds and complex arcane/divine characters really sends me back to 2nd Edition AD&D characters, where I got my start with D&D. While these new Essentials builds might appear to have a lack of advancement options, I think they’re perfect for classic D&D-styled games.”
The knight’s player, who played 1st Edition extensively and has only dabbled since then, was also happy with the new rules. “I thought the Essentials rules worked really well, although I don’t see the need to eliminate daily powers. I thought they would add a nice bit of stress regarding when to use them in the game. However since I haven’t played original 4e yet that is just an opinion. Comparing them to other versions of D&D, I feel like it has always been pretty much the same game, using attacks, skills and powers against armor class and saving throws.”
And One More for Good Measure
After these initial two forays into Essentials, I was feeling much more comfortable that Essentials would be a welcome extension of the 4e D&D ruleset. The only nagging question that still remained was how the knight would compare as a defender. As I mentioned, the way the encounters played out made it hard to see how the knight actually held up in actual play. So I created a knight and crashed a running of one of the Chaos Scar adventures from Dungeon Magazine, expertly run by local DM Mark Knapik.
If I were smart, I would have created your typical heavily armored human or dwarf knight with high Strength and Constitution scores. However, I seem to be habitually incapable of creating characters that are built the way they are supposed to be. That’s why I created the halfling knight.
The first thing I decided was that rather than have platemail and no Dexterity modifiers to AC, I would go a different route and use hide armor and let that Dexterity bonus shine. When I started toying with different options, I realized that if I took the Melee Training feat, I could just eschew Strength completely and rely on Dexterity, since just about every attack would be a melee basic attack. Sure, the damage I did would be less because of the feat’s restriction of only half the modifier for damage. And with the way battle guardian worked, I would do no damage on a miss. Also, the halfling’s size penalty would mean lower damage with one-handed weapons in conjunction with a shield.
When the game commenced, I realized that we also had a fighter and a paladin in the party. I figured I would never get a chance to use any of my defensive powers, since the others would be marking everything in sight. It turns out I was wrong. My high Dexterity gave me better initiative rolls, meaning that I could activate my aura and get into the middle of things quickly. The halfling’s nimble reaction feature made my AC very high when I had to move past enemies to get into good defensive positions, and second chance helped negate those lucky hits that got through.
The most important difference between the normal fighter’s combat challenge feature and the knight’s battle guardian power is that the former is an immediate action (once per round), which the latter is an opportunity action (once per turn). This turned out to be a huge difference in the game, especially in the final battle. That battle was odd in that it was almost perfect for a halfling knight. Medium-sized or larger creatures were at a disadvantage, so my character moved to get into a great defensive position (provoking 5 opportunity attacks but getting missed by all of them), and then locked down almost all of the bad guys with the defensive aura. I am not the most tactically gifted player out there, so I figure if I can do that with a slightly gimped halfling knight, the class should be able to hold its own.
I think I have now officially gotten over my obsession with Essentials, and next week I can get back to talking about other topics!