It’s Monday and as of last week the Wizards Premiere stores have been selling Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms and Monster Vault, which means for most intents and purposes the entirety of the D&D Essentials line is now out there for people to play and read. As people absorb and utilize the material we should be able to gain a general sense of exactly what Essentials really is and what it means for the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. That said, one of the biggest concerns/complaints/or whatever you choose to call it that I’ve heard raised about D&D Essentials is whether or not it is D&D Edition 4.5.
After considering the idea briefly, I came up with an answer that satisfies me and I believe settles the issue pretty soundly. Is D&D Essentials a 4.5 Edition? The answer: Yes and No, simultaneously.
Before you jump the gun that this is a cop-out answer, allow me to explain it a bit. With every previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons that I’ve played we have bought several books and begun playing, and shortly afterward the game was decently house-ruled as our group saw fit to change things to make the game more fun, balanced, or what have you. This trend changed with 3rd Edition when 3.5 was released. D&D 3.5 to us was basically a large batch of errata that greatly improved how the game played and resolved many of the issues that we had dealt with for years or that had emerged over time and many of which we’d implemented house rules to mitigate or avoid already. It sucked to have to pretty much have to re-buy an edition of the game, but that was something that had happened before in the history of D&D it simply wasn’t as transparent. People react different to buying “Advanced” rules than they do buying the same edition they already owned simply with a .5 upgrade.
Fast forward to 4th Edition, and if you stick to the same edition philosophy than we haven’t been playing D&D 4.0 since about two months after the game was released. For the first time that I remember an edition of D&D has seen regular errata and updates throughout the course of its existence, which means early on we were playing D&D Edition 4.0.1 and then later perhaps Edition 4.1 and so on. The underlying mechanic behind 3.5 and any errata to 4th Edition is that the new material replaces the old material, no matter how much they might have said 3.5 was compatible with base 3rd Edition anyone that really looks knows that it was intended as a replacement. So if the root of the question asked above turns out to be “Is D&D Essentials the same thing to 4E that 3.5 was to 3E?” then the answer shakes down to “No.” The reason I say it is not is because a large part of what 3.5 was to 3rd Edition has been happening for the entire run of 4th Edition, and that is the aspect of errata and updating of rules to improve the game.
Though a part of Essentials is presented with a new batch of errata for 4th Edition such as the Magic Items and new Feat rules, the bulk of the books are taken up by the Essentials builds for the core classes that are 100% playable with the old material. Hell, I’ve always been of the opinion that Essentials is really just a representation of 4th Edition in a different style, similar to the new builds that have been presented in the various Power Source books but with a specific focus on changing how the players interact with the game rather than simply introducing new takes on the same mechanics. For instance, the Fighter’s new encounter powers are the same as reliable encounter powers except that you can choose to use them AFTER rolling to hit rather than before. I like this distinction because it makes me feel like the Martial classes have resources that are always at their disposal while Arcane and Divine classes have to prepare or risk their resources before they commit to the roll.
In order for D&D Essentials to feel like D&D 4.5 to me it would have to include new Essentials material for all of the primal and psionic classes in the PHB2 and PHB3 as well was what’s already been released. We may see that in the future, but at the moment everything I have heard from WotC is that D&D Essentials is a limited run of products (all of which are out as of November) and that we will not be seeing. That said, things can always change but I don’t see a dire need for the later classes to be revamped in the same was as many of the classes presented in D&D Essentials.
At the root of this discussion I believe there are a handful of concerns that people are expressing when they talk about D&D 3.5, and for the most part they are perfectly valid concerns. With the change in how 4th Edition has been updated regularly with errata, many of those concerns have been around since shortly after 4th Edition was released. With this in mind, I theorize that we may never see a 4.5 or a 4.75 for this edition but that the concerns, fears, benefits, and drawbacks that all come from the ideas of sub-editions have been, and will continue to be, spread out over the lifetime of the edition.
For some people this means that the negative feelings that come with something like 3.5 may be attributed to all of 4th Edition, but at the same time the benefits that many people saw in 3.5 or more accurately D&D Edition 3.x are ongoing with 4E. This means that in the future, if someone asks me if D&D Essentials is just 4.5 or if someone states something along those lines, I’ll politely disagree and instead say that D&D Essentials is just D&D 4.x and that 4.x is what we’ve been playing all along and what we will continue to play for the life of 4th Edition.