The D&D Essentials DM Kit: An Editorial Review

Caveat: This is one of my most critical posts about a D&D product so far.  As usual, I’m willing to have open, frank and cordial discussions about the subject, but I will brook no rudeness nor will I allow any baiting/trolling for an edition war. Thanks!

Jumping right into it…

I’ll go right off the bat and say that this review will not be fair to the product nor to the efforts made to produce it.  That’s why I’m also making it into an editorial.  While I want to share the content of Wizards of the Coast’s latest product in the D&D Essentials line, a product that is actually very well done, my early, negative reaction to it was strong enough that it merits being approached differently.

Also, bear in mind that I’m NOT the target audience for that product, I got it as swag at the New York Comic Con as thanks for my volunteer DMing services.

Capsule Review (Where we stick to facts)

The D&D Essentials Dungeon Master Kit is a boxed set that’s said to contain everything needed to run a game of the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons (minus dice).  Starting off right after the Red Box Starter Set ended, it contains a 270 pages paperback booklet, a DM screen, two 32 pages adventures as well as the tokens and battlemaps to run these adventures.

The Dungeon Master’s Book is divided in 6 chapters: Playing the game (basics), The Dungeons & Dragons world,   Running the game, Combat encounters, Building adventures and Rewards. It covers all the rules needed to run the game, including the grand majority of combat rules.

The 2 adventures are lushly illustrated adventures taking PCs from level 2 to 3 and then to 4 respectively. It involves a well laid-out plot featuring human-centric urban, wilderness and dungeon encounters with several non-linear approaches available for players.  It also includes supportive text and tips to walk DMs through the process of running the adventures.

The two tokens are on the same sturdy cardboard as the one used in the Starter box and, while featuring some reprints of PCs, present normal and bloodied sides for all of them… even the two warhorses.

The 2 full-size, double sided battle maps feature dungeons and outside areas made with pre-existing dungeon tiles as well as some showing original art for a keep and a village.

Finally, the DM screen features the same art as the original D&D 4e DM screen, contains similar (adapted) game info but is made of the flimsier, flexible, non-glossy thin cardboard reminiscent of the Paizo D&D 3.5 screen from Dragon Magazine.

Chatty’s Soapbox Editorial

I opened the boxed set on my way back from New York and while I immensely enjoyed the new maps and appreciated that all tokens now had bloodied sides (instead of 2 different monsters on each side), a few things started bugging me.  As I read the guide from chapter to chapter a sense of dejà-vu was rapidly replaced by disappointment, followed by rising annoyance.

Here’s my beef with the product: taken alone as a product, this boxed set is extremely useful to new DMs, but as a product line,  D&D Essential lost a lot of its new shine when I realized that this book reprinted, word for word, large swaths of text from the Rules Compendium and Heroes of Fallen Lands!

While the Compendium generally covers rules in more details (like improvising scenes and skill checks), both book contain the same “World of D&D” chapters, the same combat rules (with a handful of differences) and the same section on the default gods of the default D&D world.  Also, both have overlaps on Skill challenges and a few other things like exploration, lighting and overland movement.

In many cases, the Compendium has more rulesy stuff and the DM’s Book  focuses on what a beginning DM should know… but I had the exact same emotional reaction to this overlap as I had when Steve Jackson Games published those 5$ Car Wars Booklets that repeated the game mechanics in each product in the early 2000s.

This overlap, while surely a conscious decision on the part of Wizards of the Coast is a head scratcher for me.  It blurs the lines of who should use which book when…

Now my theory is this:

D&D Essentials is first and foremost a rebranding exercise that rides on a needed rules update for the printed game books.  In fact, you will notice that absolutely no direct references are made to prior D&D books and nowhere will you find any reference to the game’s current edition number.  Trust me, I checked when my auditor’s instincts alerted me a few weeks ago.

While the line’s first intent is to bring in new players, it must also cater to the existing player base that want/will buy new D&D products.  In that sense, the Red Box is intended for new players (along with a sizable alternate market of nostalgic 1980’s gamers or geek parents). With that in mind, the DM’s Kit is therefore likely intended for new DMs who want to progress from the Red Box but not jump into the full “updated current edition” yet.

Pretty much like Car Wars existed both as a simpler boxed game and a full Deluxe set in the early 90s.

So that kinda makes the Rules Compedium a product targeting D&D 4e players who want to keep using non-essential material but without all the errata baggage.  In fact, I’m convinced that there’s a marketing initiative behind the Rules Compendium. While it does update all the rulesy stuff, it also has those one page teasers on the Planes of Existence and the published D&D settings without actually saying that you should go out and buy the books. Yet, those teasers don’t give you any usable material to play in them.

(A waste of space in the Compendium I find, but that’s another story)

Seen like that… I can understand the overlapping material.  The actual Essentials player books are for players, the new DM gets all the rules in his Guide and the Compendium is a natural, if overlapping extension of both categories of Essentials books, much like the D&D 3.5 Compendium was back then… only this time, it was written at the launch of the line, not its end.

And underneath all this is the not so secret assumption that the original Core books (and the 4e “brand”) no longer exist but live through the ethereal Library of Worlds that is D&D Insider.  Many players that use it have abandoned their physical books anyway, except to brush up on the fluff… in such case, the Rules Compendium book becomes the only “must have” if you still peruse rules at the table

Please don’t get me wrong… I love the Essential line so far, especially the new PC builds, yet I fear that many customers like myself are going to have similar, negative reactions when they go through the books. Yes, I know some will tell me its not that big a deal, but I feel Essentials comes out at a critical time for a franchise that’s already taken enough, often well deserved, PR beatings, that overlap could have been avoided… or better yet, explained in a sidebar or something.

On the brighter side, based on the little I read so far, the two adventures in the Kit, written by Rich Baker, look absolutely incredible.  Both simple and open at the same time, they may very well be the models of adventure I would like to see more of in the Essentials line.

If you take the starter box and the recent D&D Essentials Gameday adventure (ask your FLGS for stray copies) and the DM kit, you have a full level 1 to 4 campaign path ready!


The D&D Essentials DM Kit is an excellent, high quality product for new DMs that graduate from the Red Box.  Combined with one or both of the Essentials Players books, the upcoming Monsters Vault (or D&D Insider subscription) and a few sets of dice, gaming groups will be fully equipped to tackle the world’s most popular Role Playing Game.

It is not however directly destined for established DMs moving on from the “as released” printing of D&D to the latest version of the rules. That is, unless they want to lay their hands on some world class D&D adventures, new maps, a new screen and a handy booklet, regardless of the overlap with the new Rules Compendium and flimsy cardboard screen.

See, some might not find this to be a such a bad deal after all…

Peace out.


  1. I am a fan of Essentials stuff, but I’m a little puzzled at the way the entire line is being marketed, and where we go from there…. You’re right, there’s no mention of the edition name, and it’s written as if no other books in the line exist but the Essentials stuff. It’s like its own universe almost.

    I wonder where this goes from here, if the Essentials line is successful, will we see more Essentials stuff? The line was supposed to be just 10 evergreen products, remember, so extending it past that would be a break from that.

    Will DDI support Essentials stuff? What will the ratio of Essentials vs. Non Essentials 4e be if it is supported? There are many 4e players that couldn’t give a damn about Essentials stuff and seeing their DDI (which they pay for) get filled with stuff they aren’t using will no doubt bug them (I think anyway). I know I’m not looking forward to the Gamma World stuff in Dragon and Dungeon (I’m assuming it’s coming).

    So yeah, interesting times for 4e.

  2. I very much enjoyed the review/editorial style, and it gave me a nice view of the product as you saw it from start to finish. Thanks Phil!

    My first thought is that I could easily see, if the overlapping parts weren’t included and especially if there was a sidebar instead that said “please reference the rules compendium for …” then people would most likely cry even more foul for the need to buy multiple products just to get a more than basically playable game. That said, I can totally understand that reaction to seeing material reprinted and it reminds me of many other instances of this being done beyond just Car Wars as you mentioned.

  3. newbiedm, you’re not the only one confused by the marketing strategy behind Essentials. I’ve been playing D&D long enough to remember buying the original red box back in the day. I’ve played and DM’d every edition since then, even gritted my teeth and bought all new 3.5 core books, and I was still completely confused by Essentials. The website didn’t do much at all to clear things up, and it wasn’t until I talked to somebody at my FLGS that I finally realized it’s an entirely different (but compatible) product. Having said that, I’m still only *mostly* sure that I can use the Rules Compendium for my non-Essentials 4ed game. (and I *love* the fact that I can leave the DMG on the shelf in favor of a smaller and easier to use paperback.)

    Now if a veteran battleaxe such as myself is confused, I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who perhaps got the new red box as a gift, and is now trying to figure out where to go from there. Do I buy the Dungeon Master’s Kit, or do I buy the Dungeon Master’s Guide? Is Heroes of the Fallen Land an adventure, or rules, and if the latter, is it for the DM or the player, and should I also buy the Player’s Handbook? And hey that Eberron thing looks cool, will it work with my books or do I have to buy the big ones? And then there’s Insider…should I get it, or is that just for those people using the big tall books? It’s an absolute mess, very reminiscent of the old TSR days. But at least TSR had the sense to label their versions as “Basic” and “Advanced.” The only thing that really helps differentiate this line is the physical size of the books, and even then it’s not easy for the layman to tell if they’re part of the other system or not.

    Which is unfortunate. The game (and RPG industry as a whole) needs new players, and as the industry standard bearer, WotC really needed to step up with a cohesive marketing strategy that holds the newcomers hand from beginning to end. The red box was an absolute stroke of brilliance, and the Essentials line itself seems to be pretty solid. But I hear the Ford Edzell was, mechanically anyway, also a solid product. But perception is everything, and this I think is where WotC really lost an opportunity.

  4. “As I read the guide from chapter to chapter a sense of dejà-vu was rapidly replaced by disappointment, followed by rising annoyance.”

    My thoughts exactly. I love 4E and Essentials but the massive reprinting of material in the book is a major waste of space.

    On a positive note the adventures were very good and the rest of the contents of the box set were useful.

    Good review,

  5. Touchy question… Is Essentials calming your friends who have issues with 4e? (stick to yesno…)

  6. Question: does the new DM screen have the same physical dimensions as the old? If so, it might be worth it as I can glue the sucker to the inside of my current screen and get rid of the errata post-it-notes!

  7. Good words, as always, Chatty. I thought this was a pretty reasonable look at the product.

    @newbie: I asked one of the Wizards people at GenCon what the relationship between Essentials and DDI was. They gave me a pretty clear answer that they reiterated a bunch of other times throughout the con – Essentials isn’t a different game, so everything that ever has been and ever will be in DDI is compatible with Essentials material, and vice versa. As far as they were concerned, the distinction between Essentials and “core” material was meaningless when it came to the DDI/magazine article – just write 4E material, was their advice.

    Which makes sense, seeing as how the impression I got from the whole Essentials push was “its not a different game, it’s the same game but printed in some kits with different formatting that are easier for new folks to afford and digest and a couple new bits of crunch here and there – don’t overthink it.”

  8. @Sersa V: but the target audience for Essentials doesn’t go to GenCon. They go to Walmart or Amazon or some other retail store. The newly interested gamer at Barnes & Noble trying to decide if she needs to buy the Dungeon Master Kit or the Dungeon Master Guide still doesn’t have a clear idea.

  9. TheMainEvent says:

    It just seems to me another instance of WotC pushing informed consumers toward D&D Insider and away from print mediums.

  10. “But the target audience for Essentials doesn’t go to GenCon.”

    I disagree.

    Also, I’m not sure how it’s relevant, since I was just relaying where I heard the information first and thought it’d be helpful since newbie asked about it.

  11. I’m really confused about what Essentials is, exactly. Is it simply meant to be an updated version of the core 4e D&D books, but condensed down into a more rules-only format? (Bear in mind I have no experience with the Red Box.)

  12. Essentials could have been (maybe still will be) a great success at a number of things. This includes bringing in new gamers, providing a simpler game that 3.x gamers would like (and thus competing against Paizo, etc.), and refreshing sales by providing a different angle on the game. Unfortunately, the communication strategy has been atrocious and created massive confusion across even the most ardent supporters. When you see multiple EN World posts and DDi articles by WotC trying to clear up the product line, and yet the message keeps shifting slightly… that’s a terrible sign.

    Worse, the games are really fairly different. They could have been much more compatible. As we see new Dragon articles with Essentials content it becomes very clear that the new structure means a lot of content cannot be used with older material. How do you integrate Essentials into Dark Sun, for example? This is a real failure that hurts their bottom line and erodes customer interest/support. A recent product appearance on Amazon shows a book that reprints the PH classes for Essentials (making the PH completely obsolete) and promises a conversion back and forth between old/core 4E and Essentials. Great, but way too late. This should have been a core design.

    You add to this problem the overall goal of the product, which was once something for new gamers (great!) and then transmutes into being a new type of game (hmmm…) and then a new development paradigm and then a product replacement… and now you end up with many frustrated audiences. It didn’t have to be this way.

    The combo of RPGA/LFR being at a low point, Essentials confusion, and DDI tools not coming out on time is creating incredible damage to the company. This seems to be the low point for 4E and WotC and I can’t wait for the company to start communicating properly, start planning properly, and start managing DDI properly.

  13. Rafe: Essentials target is lapsed D&D players who might want to jump up to 4th ed D&D. Essentials characters look and play more like older D&D characters but with more 4e flair.

    There has been a sharp uptick in the number of people showing up in Enworld and the WOTC forums asking about it. Many are 3.5ers who just couldn’t hack the 4e way of thinking are looking at it. (Hence my question above to Phil.)

    Essentials is also coming out with a boatload of reprint (applied errata). And there is a book that was just announced that will help you mix 4e and 4E. But to be clear…. its all compatible in the raw.

    Redbox isn’t for experienced players. (But my son loved it…)

  14. TreacleMiner says:

    Nice editorial, Phil.

    Page 73 in Dungeon 182 seems to clarify who they think the various Essentials products (including the DM Kit) are for.

  15. Good critique of the DMs Kit and Essentials in general. The whole thing has been a confused mess from start to finish but I am now at least starting to see the light.
    I wasn’t expecting the DM’s book to repeat stuff from the RC and am surprised that things like poisons and diseases are missing, but on the whole I’m happy with my purchase, if only to get my hands on a boxed set full of stuff again!



  16. Oh boy, I leave for lunch and BAM! This is awesome! Thanks for the comments. All right, lessee:

    @Newbie: DDI has essential builds in the Character Builder and a toggle to build essentials only PCs (which is reportedly bugged but that’s another issue). But like you I don’t know where this will go. What I hope for is less character options and more adventures/DM tools… but I’m not the median buyer here.

    I too will be watching from the sidelines and dip my foot once in a while. 🙂

    @Bart: Thanks! I’m not so sure about the sidebars. I mean DM guides haven’t had the combat rules in them since 3.0 so seeing them in the Compendium felt to me like an extension of what the 2nd half of the PHB has now become.

    @moxcamel: I recall getting confused in the second half of AD&D 1e’s reign and buying some pretty horrible books and modules. Like that Dragonlance module filled with songs and recipes, the Wilderness Survival Guide… or, in terms of screwing my campaign “balance” Unearthed Arcana and those damn weapon proficiencies.

    But I get your point and I agree that being an informed consumer, unless you are connected to the Wizards site and don’t stray too far into the noisy ether, has been hard in the last 2 years. Maybe we need to leave the net and start talking to our FLGS guy again…

    …except that we now have D&D hostile FLGS employees… because they probably spend too much time on forums and blogs or in similar echo chamber environments.

    @Keleanen: Thanks. It still Is a very good product… it could have been better in my eyes if the editorial choices had been slightly different.

    @UHF: It’s not touchy at all. I have few friends who have ‘issues’ with 4e. The answer: No, I have one player who’s done with D&D and is moving on to other systems. I have 2 others who will play it for the social experience of hanging out, but preferred the grainier character building options and spell system of 3.x. But we have yet to play an Essentials game yet.

    @Dave Tavaner: The screen is exactly the same size… you can totally cut it and stick it to the sturdier 4e one.

    @Sersa V: Thanks for the kind words. I’ll let you discuss it further with Newbie… who’s active on Twitter about it today (@Newbidm).

    @TME: That’s an insightful supposition. I think that getting tens of thousands of people to pony up 7$+ a month is a no brainer for any company. I have found it worthy so far and I don’t even read Dragon or Dungeon mag! (Shhh don’t tell anyone, he he he, I just don’t like PDF mags, that’s why I have a paper KQ subscription)

    @Rafe: UHF makes a good job at it. I say it’s a functional reboot of D&D 4e with a lower barrier to entry than 4e. Those who like 4e were already sold to the game… Essentials is like a second, rebranded wave of the same game (the engine and the math have been tweaked and new PC class builds were added to make it complete).

    @Alphastream: I’m sorry to say… but I think that history will judge 4e as the game that got hampered by a paper company failing to “get” Web 2.0 before its customer base. Great analysis.

    @TreacleMiner: Would you be so nice as to share a quote… I don’t think we’ll get in trouble if you do… and I’ll delete if Wizards minds… I am in many of their cellphones anyway 🙂

  17. Runeofdoom says:

    I am a bit late to the essentials party and I am still waiting on my copies of what is currently in print (hopefully today) so I am admittedly commenting on something I have yet to see. I was just wondering though if it is possible that they have reprinted material in the DM kit from the other essentials books because they intend it to be a stand alone purchase – like the DM just has to buy the DMs kit and a player just has to buy a Heroes of ____ book. I think this is what Bart was sort of touching on and it seemed to make sense to me.

    I’m not saying I think it’s a great plan – I’m still a bit concerned where all this is going – but if that was their intention then it makes sense to me. I remember when I first started nearly 20 years ago with 2nd edition no one told me that I needed a Monster Manual! I assumed they would be in the DM’s guide and when I got all the way back to my rural town to play with my friends none of us had any actual monster information >< I was admittedly under the impression at the time that you bought the book for what you planned to do and everything you needed would be in there because I didn't understand the product line.

  18. @Runeofdoom: I’m pretty sure that’s exactly it. The product line, once I had time to think about it as I wrote my post (I’m geared like that), seem to suggest a Red Box to DM Kit/Vault of Monsters/Player books combo. The Rules Compendium then comes to support this… but it is also available now for players of the original 2008 “version” of the game.

  19. TreacleMiner says:

    Sure, here is a blurb:

    The first thing to keep in mind is that the main goal of Essentials is to serve as a starting point for
    new players. That doesn’t mean current players can’t be excited about the new options presented
    in Heroes of the Fallen Lands or Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms.

    Rules monkeys in particular will want to use them. It doesn’t hurt you to be familiar with
    these books, but they are written to be player- rather than DM-focused, so don’t feel like you must have
    them—leave that to your players. One thing you will want to check out is the updates to existing rules
    that are presented in Heroes of the Fallen Lands (and a similar file that will surely be released with Heroes
    of the Forgotten Kingdom).

    More DM love will come in later months with both the Dungeon Master’s Kit and Monster Vault. If you’re
    an old pro at the DMing game, these products will merely supplement your already formidable arsenal
    of tools with new monsters, adventures, advice, and mapping aids. There are neat things you haven’t
    seen before, which is always a treat, but unless you are still feeling a little uneasy as a DM, you can live
    without them. I’ll be buying the Dungeon Master’s Kit for the new and updated DM’s Screen alone (though
    I’m sure I will enjoy Rich Baker’s adventure, and the advice and rules presented in the DM’s book). As far
    as Monster Vault goes, I’m always a sucker for new monsters.

    At the end of the day, the Essentials line doesn’t change the game you’ve been playing since the
    release of 4E. It codifies updates, and provides a new, arguably easier, and less expensive starting point
    for new players. It’s a boon for those things alone. It affects your ongoing campaign only when someone
    rolls up a new character using its options. Still, for the DM, it provides some great tools … and DMs love
    great tools.

  20. I actually think that blurb is pretty accurate.

  21. @Rich: I agree. I’m happy it got posted here to complement the post outside of the D&D Insider wall.

  22. Great review, Chatty. As someone who already owned the DMG1 and DMG2, neither of these products held much interest for me. I figured they were going to be re-treads of rules I already knew, and from the sound of it, I was right. I plan on avoiding the Compendium and DM’s kit, and I’m looking forward to getting the monster manual, heroes of the forgotten kingdoms, and maybe the new magic items book. Overall, I like what they’ve done with the Essentials line. I think it’s a good jumping-off point for new players. I really hope it works for them, because in a lot of ways, I think the hobby really needs an infusion of young blood.

  23. I have one player who’s constantly overwhelmed by the options (Powers) he has from turn to turn with regular 4e. The simpler 4E Essentials characters (FighterThief) are perfect for him. I will probably recommend that he try a Slayer next.

    Also an all Essentials party would fight faster, since the fightersthieves are all Basic-Attack.

    This is all good stuff.

    Also this was all preplanned…
    Don’t forget what Mearls said to Mike Evans of Neuroglyph
    “And according to Mike, the Design Team was very careful to circumscribe the Class Powers of the Essentials builds so that they would not “break the game”. For instance, the Stance mechanics of the Essential Fighters only apply to Basic Attack Powers, and could not be applied to traditional PHB Fighter At-Wills or Encounter Powers, which a Player might be allowed to substitute for his Essentials powers.”

    And now the new Class Compendium
    “Class Compendium: Heroes of Sword and Spell provides new character options for Dungeons & Dragons® Essentials players who are ready to move beyond the two player-oriented D&D™ Essentials books, Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms.

    This book gathers five classes from the Player’s Handbook—the cleric, the fighter, the rogue, the warlord, and the wizard—and presents them in the new D&D Essentials class format introduced in Heroes of the Fallen Lands, with rules updates and errata. It features rules that allow D&D Essentials characters to select non-D&D Essentials powers, and it grants non-D&D Essentials characters access to class features from Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. In addition, this book presents feats, rituals, and rules for multiclassing.”

  24. So, let me get this straight. I own every book that Wizards has put out for 4e up to just before the Darksun campaign was released. I now see all these “essentials” books and am agast to think that I now have to pick up another set of books for 4e considered play? am I confused on the situation?

  25. @Scot I really don’t think you need any of them, but the Rules Compendium is jolly useful!



  26. Scot, if having the core rules in one concise little book is of use to you, pick up the Rules Compendium. Otherwise, if you’re running a straight 4e game, there’s no reason to pick up any of the other Essentials products. (and don’t feel bad for being confused, WotC have done a horrible job of distinguishing the two product lines.)

  27. Wow, I thought you were going to be really scathing, but you actually made very fair points. The repeating of large chunks is annoying, especially when looking at the current three books as a whole. I think there is bound to be an overlap with the Rules Compendium and the Players and DMs books. But I agree it can be galling if you are reading all three one after the other. I don’t tend to read my D&D rules books that way so I haven’t really noticed it. One thing I did miss from the DM Book was the ‘types of player’ advice in both previous DMGs. I found those articles invaluable for identifying ways to engage my players.

    One thing I have noticed is that skill challenges got little space in both the DM Book and the Rules Compendium. It was almost as if they were being allowed to fade away. While I find some skill challenges hard to get across to my players there has been so much effort by Wizards and the community to explain and promote them that I feel that it would be a shame if they went away. I was also sad to see a lack of rituals. I think rituals are a fun and important part of D&D and something to focus on and improvise with outside of combat. I’ll certainly be trying to find a way to include them in my games.

  28. Runeofdoom says:

    Thanks for responding to my comment ChattyDM – especially since you had actually already said what I commented on in your review >< Not sure how I missed it, I just saw it on a quick re-read this evening. Appreciate you not just telling me to learn to read!

  29. Actually, I think that review was much kinder than the one you did for XDM.

    Reprinting whole chapters is clearly unacceptable.

  30. @Bloodwin: Skill Challenges are actually rather well fleshed out, as rules in the Compendium. I especially like the “correction” mechanic allowing PCs to buyback failures in extended challenges. But you are right, we are not in DMG (or especially DMG II territory).

    @Runeofdoom: No worries, it’s my special way of welcoming you here. 🙂 I’m glad that you re-read again!

    @Colmarr: Ugh. We don’t talk about XDM here. 🙂 I really, really hated that book.

  31. Well, I look at the Rules Compendium, and pretty much see it as a nice “all-in-one” reference, with nothing to do with Essentials. I think that Wizards needs to figure out what “Essentials” is. Well, I mean…I know what it is. It’s poor branding on their part. It seems to be a mesh of “put the options in one place” and “make a new set of options for new players” and “boil down the rules to an introduction for new players”. Too much going on.

    The Compendium should have been marketed on its own, because I think it’s a great tool for DMs.

  32. As the target audience for the Essentials line, I wanted to give some of my comments. First the history: I started play with the pink box – the basic edition prior to red box – when I was 8 or 9 with my brother and his friends, played up through HS, around the early 2e year. Fell out without a game, a little gurps in college, but I haven’t touch a game in 20 years.
    My beautiful wife had grab some stuff at a thrift store – a complete pink box like I had, dice and all, but sadly no crayon :(, and an old MERPS box and some other old obscure stuff I’d never heard of. My see it and wants to give it a try. I knew there as newer stuff, my brother had both played through 3.5, not sure if they ever did 4e. I was elated to see new beginner material for the game. I convinced my wife – a real RPG sceptic – that the kids wanted to play and would really enjoy it and I should by some of the Essentials material.
    Boy did I get a deal – Red Box, Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Rules Compendium and extra dice all for less than the list price of the dice… 🙂 🙂 :).
    My kids love it, especially my 11 yo daughter – with her sword wielding eladrin war priestess!
    I have to say, I was very disappointed in the red box player book – use it once then pitch it because it has no reference material at all. I LOVE the Rules Compendium, its well organized and comprehensive. HoFL is growing on me. Maybe its because I’m still getting used to the rules and jumping right in as a DM without having play 4e, but the math is much simpler than OD&D and there are not as many reference tables – percentile rolls anyone?
    As someone who does not have any other material and no miniatures, the Essential stuff is great (except the player handbook as noted).
    I would consider the DM Kit, just for the tokens and the adventures. I not near the point of needing the monster vault yet. Nor anywhere close to moving beyond the Essentials line. There’s enough here to keep us going for a while. I’m very happy and have great fun with the kids.
    I would like to have power cards for all the stuff in HoFL, but when I get time I’ll type them up and print out my own.


    “This book… features rules that allow D&D Essentials characters to select non-D&D Essentials powers, and it grants non-D&D Essentials characters access to class features from Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms.”

  34. Here’s my take (which I think was mentioned earlier, also based on a Red Box play experience):

    Essentials is a “gateway” experience. It’s totally for new players an DMs who want to get into the game with a simplified learning curve. The point seems to be that you can play essentials, and, when you’re comfortable enough, you can switch over to full-on 4e. You’re never obligated to do so, but if you decide you’re ready, and want the added depth (likely to happen with Fighters and Rogues first), you can sprinkle in other elements. If I should ever find myself in a teaching role as a DM, I’ll use the Red Box to teach new players the mechanics while still playing D&D.

    Even moreso, it allows players of varying skill levels to play together, not worrying that one or more players will make bad choices because they simply don’t understand the rules.

    The Rules Compendium exists to update all the rules, so we’re not constantly racing against errata. I’m actually ok with the idea of getting one of these every three years or so, as rules get updated.

  35. Products such as the Rules Compendium and Monster Vault provide compiled, updated (post-errata) versions of existing material. This makes Essentials a CAPSTONE product.

    However, these same books incorporate new rules and game elements (e.g., new rules on item creation) which will be used in the ‘non-Essentials’ version of the game going forward. This makes Essentials a RELAUNCH product.

    Some elements of the game have been simplified or eliminated (e.g., rituals), which makes Essentials a product for BEGINNERS.

    But some elements (e.g., character creation) have been changed significantly and are available as an alternate way of playing the same game, at the same table, which makes Essentials a product for ADVANCED PLAYERS in the sense that player options (game play) have now been greatly complicated.

    And therein lies the problem. Essentials functions as both a capstone and as a relaunch product, and it is both a product for beginners as well as an option for advanced players.

    Little wonder people are a bit confused.

    Given that Essentials isn’t really all that simple to use — from an RPG noob’s point of view — and given that the combat engine is going to be migrating towards more Essentials-style character creation going forward (i.e., new mechanics, whether labeled Essentials or not), it looks to me like the line is NOT really a simplified on-ramp to the game, but a relaunch of D&D with the Essentials line functioning primarily as an EVERGREEN on-ramp to a game it actually serves to complicate.

    It doesn’t represent a new version of the game*, but clearly Essentials functions as the fulcrum around which the game is heading in a new direction.

    * Technically, every bit of compatible material published for D&D 4e represents a new version of the game. The ‘books’ are books only in the sense that they are bound. More accurately they can be described as technical documentation (yes, even the fluff). However, since D&D isn’t a physical product, it is the documentation itself — the information within the books — which is the product. A new version of the game is created EVERY TIME a new book (new documenation) is published, with every new magazine article, with every new module, heck, even those stupid powers they released with some of the miniatures. There have been dozens of versions of ‘4e’ since June 2008.


  36. Isn’t this exactly what TSR did with the original system, plagiarizing themselves through multiple editions of the same thing that are now treated as apocrypha?

    Copying your own work is still plagiarism. It’s lazy and insulting, and in creative fields it should immediately get you sacked.

  37. Thanks for the break down, I will certainly not be buying this one for myself, but I will be picking up a copy of the Rules Compendium for reference in my weekly games. I will, however, be grabbing a copy for my 15 year old son who has shown an interest in being a DM, but vapor locks when I start offering my sage advice.

  38. I considered the “Essentials” line to be totally compatible with, and part of, the 4E cannon. It is, essentially, a “back to basics” clean-up; primarily a response to the piles of errata being built up, a repackaging of the daunting amounts of material available, and an entry point to 4E for people who are “late to the party”.

    If you look at all of the products, they are essentially updated and compiled versions of existing products: The rules compendium is pretty much just the functional aspects of the DMG and PHB updated and put in a single volume; I consider it the easy reference volume for DMs that the PHB+DMGs 1 & 2 never were. Red box is pretty much a more polished version of the Starter Set with some extra goodies thrown in; and the Fallen Lands / Forgotten Kingdoms are an easy way of repackaging the plethora of “power” supplements (martial 1 & 2, Psionic, etc, etc) into more manageable and entry-level volumes.

    The source of confusion seems to be some of the more obvious rule changes (the revamped melee classes); which is understandable given that this alone (as far as I can tell) is the major deviation from the standard cannon. But, bearing in mind that ALL of the reference documents point out the flexibility of the 4E system (The DMG specifically states the possibility of house-ruling and gives some options for possible rules to institute, etc), this isn’t a break in design concept; and they have worked very very hard to make sure it isn’t a break in compatibility.
    For this deviation, I suspect it is a conscious response to the very fair criticism that all the classes play alike (due to the identical power-advancement mechanics, etc). There would never be a good time to introduce a major change in design philosophy; so I guess they figured that Essentials was a good place to float it in as innocuous a way as possible; especially given the fact that they really can’t just render the entire 4E back-catalogue obsolete.

    The main irritation for me, and something Chatty nails right on the head, is that the unavoidable duplication of rules this reboot introduces accompanies a smattering of new content that you might want, but have to buy essentials products to gain. A key example would be the loot-generation chart from the rules compendium – something I’ll be using in my games; even though it doesn’t justify what to me is buying a reshuffled book containing the errata’d up sections of PHB1 and DMG1/2 that I already have. But, that’s a small price to pay for having a load of new players introduced to the updated and “correct” rules set out in the “new” material.

  39. I bought the Compendium on the understanding that it was a collection of all the rules errata into one streamlined rules book. I think I got what I paid form, but having looked at a few of these online discussions I realise there’s more to the Essentials line than that, and yes I’m confused too about whether this is a rewrite, and update, or a new system. WoTC seem unsure themselves. Still, in terms of value for money, the Compendium was a good buy. Even if I will still need to take all my hardcover books next time I run a session at least I’ll have one book I will always turn to first.

  40. DDI is now Essentials compatible? I’m a veteran D&D player jumping into 4e through the Essentials line and tried out the demo of the character builder in DDI. Problem was I was unable to build my character as I did with the Fallen Lands books, there were completely different selections of feats (skills? can’t remember the exact terminology) and some of the powers and such were not made available to me using the DDI character generator. I thought the builder still needed to be updated for Essentials, maybe I’m wrong though. All I know is despite my best ability my DDI built sheet looked completely different from my Essentials one.

  41. Hi

    What about the DM toolbox chapter of the DM Guide 1? it was reprinted in the DM’s Kit?

    I’m a returning DM and I dont own any of the former 4th edition books.

    I bought “Heroes of the fallen lands” and the “Rules compendium” and just recently ordered the DM’s kit but It hasnt arrived yet.

    I’m interested on the rules for monster and Npc creation and I will be very dissapointed if I find this info missing on the book 🙁

    pd: what about magic item creation rules? If I remember well the former books didnt covered that issue neither…


  1. […] train ride home was 13 hours long.  During that time, I read the new D&D Essentials DM kit, the basic Burning Wheel rules and the Character Generation rules. I will return to Burning Wheel […]

  2. […] Chatty DM at Critical Hits reviews the D&D Essentials DM’s Kit. GA_googleFillSlot("d20_main_skyscrapers_160x600"); Advertise on d20 […]