Playing Essentials Again (and Again and Again)

I get by with a little help from my Character Builder.

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.

Your days are numbered.

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!


  1. Good to hear.

    In my experience, its hard to measure how different anything is based on even a few sessions.

    In my regular sessions, the back rank archer has been thoroughly beat up in the last 3 sessions. (He started the next day at -2 healing surges…) I have no idea why this is. He certainly didn’t get into the fights any more than usual, but he certainly wasn’t lucky. 3 times he’d fallen down pits … and he’s Acrobatic.

    To reiterate, what is balanced about 4e is that its a group game. Everyone participates all the time, and everyone has fun all the time. We all cheer when the boss goes down, even the guy gasping his second to last breath.

  2. “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.”

    Ohmygosh, I love Essentials, and this is one of the biggest reasons why. I’m sure opinions differ radically on this, but I feel that the Essentials classes (and the presentation of the line so far in general) has really resonated with me as someone who likes both the new and old editions, since it seems to provide a good synthesis of their key elements.

  3. Boo! We wanted anger and hate! Wrath! Sworn destruction against everything you once loved!

    Then again, a well-reasoned and fair argument is a rarity these days. I suppose we can learn to enjoy that. Maybe.

  4. I would like to second Sersas comment. I love the synergy of old and new in the Essentials products. makes me feel like I’m playing the sweet spot between 1E and 4E. Delicious!

  5. LyonHearted says:

    Well done. Thanks for putting in the time to put the red box builds through their paces. I’m glad they are viable options and not “musts” or “must nots”.
    One small comment: Your halfling knight’s Second Chance power can not be used when provoking opportunity attacks. Since opportunity attacks occur during your turn, you can not use immediate actions.
    I agree with the battle cleric syndrome. They go down quite often. They seem to wear a bullseye on their chest (shaped like a holy symbol).
    Again, well done.

  6. I enjoyed your point about creating characters by hand. Sure its a lot of work for one person by hand but I feel that this is where the Character Builder tool has led the hobby down a very dodgy path, where DMs often roll pre generated characters for casual players and some players throw a hissy fit if they don’t have a computer printed character sheet and cards. One of the things I like about the Red Box and Heroes of the Fallen Lands is that it takes the new player by the hand for creating their character emphasising coming up with their own theme and background before getting deeply into the creation rules and mechanics. While I like the O4E relation to video games for helping new players into Dungeons and Dragons, I feel that this mindset can lead players think that they are going to be given everything on a plate. I really like the way Essentials encourages the player to sit down with pen and paper to outline their character.

    I’m not against the character builder tool, but I think that DMs and Players need to realise that it is not the only way to create characters, monsters or NPCs.

  7. +1 Bloodwin’s comment. Make no mistake, I’m a committed technophile, but I could never get into the character builder because I love the tactile act of rolling up and writing down a character – it very much captures part of the game’s ‘essence,’ at least for me.

    Plus, I think there’s a really important social aspect of creating characters in groups, table splayed with books – in fact, it’s how I met my best friends in college: they were creating characters for a 3.5 game in the dorm lobby.

    I think digital tools are a wonderful blessing, but I’m in agreement that it’s neat Essentials encourages folks to sit down with the books again and feel the pages.

  8. The Essentials Thief does do a lot of damage. Add a Tactical Warlord spamming Commander’s Strike on the Thief and it gets even better. Or do I mean “worse”? Doesn’t keep the Thief from dying though, as witnessed in yesterday’s session.

  9. I found it interesting about your experience with the warpriest. I ran one at an Essentials demo at GenCon, and took a dirt nap myself through 2 death saves before a miraculous crit roll on the third got me back on my feet. For a melee range healer, there is a definite squishiness to the Storm Priest that is problematic.

    Your knight player’s assessment about daily powers is one of the things I heard stressed time and again by the WotC designers – they like the idea of taking the angst of critical decision-making out of certain classes to make them more “fun” to play. It’s ironic that both your knight player, and my slayer playtester from my Essentials review, both lamented that stress that comes from making an important choice.

    While Essentials definitely offers a “classic” D&D feel, I really would not run a full campaign of it. I simply don’t have warm-fuzzies for one of the intrinsic short-comings of old D&D: lack of options for melee classes. I’m not casting stones at the old ways, but I am more partial to the way that 4E balanced Character options and powers so that every class had a range of special attacks, instead of only letting spell-casters have those choices. Essentials takes something away from that part of 4E I admire, and I just don’t enjoy that.

    @bloodwin and sersa v – I understand your feelings of nostalgia, but my Essentials playtest group (and myself included) found the process of rolling up characters “old school” style to be the worst (boring!) part of the play experience. I haven’t rolled up and written down stats on a character or monster since 2nd edition, and I don’t miss it, and neither do my players. With 3 and 3.5 we started seeing a lot more D&D computer apps, and I reveled in them. And I love how much more we all get done, both players and DMs alike, by having DDI’s CB and AT at our disposal. Automating bookwork is a win-win for me. I would never be able to run two 4E campaigns with completely different plotlines if I was doing things the “old school” way.

  10. @ Neuroglyph, Don’t get me wrong, I like that the Essentials books present this idea but I don’t insist that everyone has to do it. I feel the point of the exercise is to have -the choice- of Essentials or Classic characters for each player. If a player wants to play a PH1 Fighter they can do that alongside Essentials characters. Likewise if the Fighter wants to go Essentials style and whack stuff while others use classic 4E to min-max then that’s cool too. I think there is still some woolly thinking about having ‘all Essentials’ or ‘all classic 4E’ characters. The idea is to mix and match on an individual level. As someone who had to roll all my players characters I love the character builder. But as someone who wants to pass on the imaginative play of D&D I like to move away from the laptop as often as possible. I think my nephew finds the classic 4E paladin a handful and still doesn’t understand his challenge ability after 6 levels.

    My only gripe with the character builder is the cost of printing ink – why is it the cartridges are more expensive than the printer?! 😉

  11. Just a comment on “while others use classic 4E to min-max”. I am pretty sure we will see the same amount of cheese and min-maxing with Essentials down the road. Players love options and WotC loves selling them. Remember how everyone thought 4E was so balanced when it was just the PH?

  12. Halfling knight…that is awesome. Cool to hear about your experience with Essentials, though it’s kinda disappointing to hear that it’s so tricky to write up a character with just pencil and paper.

  13. Shawn Merwin says:

    @UHF: I agree that balance in 4e can be found based on elements of the design that were built into it, and that is a good thing. Balance is a many-headed beast though. In none of the editions of D&D that I played did I ever have a problem with my gaming groups having fun. When I entered the world of organized play, however, it became crystal clear that there is subjective balance (balance that is created from outside the rules) and objective balance (balance within the rules itself). It becomes very clear in large-scale organized play when objective balance is off. When you run games for 30 different groups of players over a 3-month period, and you see all of the players doing the exact same things (choosing the same races, classes, powers, magic items, etc.) to the exclusion of all the other choices. This makes it clear that something is unbalanced without forces outside the rules coming in to create balance or define balance in a different way.

  14. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Bloodwin and Sersa: I agree that the Character Builder is a mixed blessing (as is any tool of convenience). Often I will sit down with a blank character sheet and a pencil and create a character by hand. The math part of my brain loves the exercise. Creating characters by hand does help a player understand better how characters fit together. And I think it is easier to create certain Essentials classes (fighter and rogue) by hand than doing some of the earlier 4e classes. I just felt it needed to be pointed out that even I–who am fairly adept at the rules–took more than just a little time and energy (and erasers) to create even a simple Essentials character. So creating 7 of them by hand made me wish that the Character Builder could have been there to assist me. I would be interested in seeing how a player completely new to D&D, as well as an RPG player new to 4e, managed creating new characters using only the books, a pencil, and a character sheet.

  15. Redwood Rhiadra says:

    I have to say two things:

    One, I agree with Shawn about the importance of crits, and how some players just seem to have crazy luck with them. Last session we ran the Water Cave encounter from Keep on the Shadowfell (against the blue ooze). The ooze was still in the water, only reachable by ranged attacks. Our Dwarven paladin has no ranged attacks except basic attacks with his three throwing axes. Three rounds, three throws, *three* natural 20s.

    (And I know the dice weren’t biased because we play online in Second Life and I wrote the dice rolling script myself…)

    As for Character Builder – I’ve never used it, and neither have any of my players. (Of course, none of my players has anything except the PHB). I really don’t understand why people think it’s so absolutely necessary. The only computer tool I’ve ever used for building 4e characters is Notepad.

  16. @Shawn Having so many of the same builds show up is more than anything due to the Internet. Most people kept their builds to themselves during LG, or the cheese was a feat or two, an item, OR a prestige class. Now the cheese is a series of various interlocking aspects (feats/items/powers/paragon path) and thus you see the combination play out in a boring manner. Some of it is true – a few combinations are brutal. Some of it is fake, because you don’t need any of that to shine in organized play. But, there were ridiculous builds in LG too. I really think the difference is the Internet, and perhaps powers giving one more dimension. The players have not really changed, except via access. Had the Internet been around we would have seen the same kits, the same Skills & Powers discussions, the same dual class strategy, etc.

  17. David Fiorito says:

    It’s interesting how wildly varied experiences can be. During the Red Box games at my FLGS the Cleric was one of the most effective and durable characters in almost every table that ran. I know that a single d20 can throw a wild curve into the game, but to hear the trend elsewhere was so different makes me wonder how and why that happens.


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