D&D Essentials and the 4.5 Edition Issue

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.


  1. Fantastic way of breaking it down, Danny. I’ll be passing this on to other gamers who question the 4.5edness of Essentials.

  2. Excellently analyzed. I do appreciate having the errata that 4e churns out, though I also think it greatly prioritizes having an Insider sub over purchasing the books (which, in turn, probably encourages more players to turn to piracy for picking up their books, knowing how much gets changed within a month or so of their printing). I loved 3.5, and in fact didn’t get behind 3e until after it was released. I like a lot that’s been released in Essentials as well, though it frustrates me to feel that certain things (such as druid animal companions versus those of rangers) are just…better; this mostly happens when I loved the original concept and now have to choose between loyalty to it or taking the shinier version.

    All that said, I’m not using any Essentials classes in the campaign I just started–mostly because I developed it with the assumption that Dailies would be a significant thing, and don’t want some players to feel hobbled in comparison to others.

  3. I have to wonder if there will even really be a 5th edition. DDI completely changes the dynamic of edition updates I think.

    That said, the fact that Character Builder and others will now be online only does change my opinion of that somewhat. Originally, they would have a problem with people going to a 5th edition given the massive amount of crunch that would be in the Monster Builder and Character Builder.

    However, now, people won’t have the option to use their ‘old stuff’ online, say, in 2016.


  4. Great explanation, I think any of us with tech knowledge understand tiny incremental updates/patches to software. Which is all the 4e system really is, all technicalities aside. I think a lot of people just like getting wrapped up in the semantics of it all.

  5. I think the main question is compatibility and then the answer is “sort of”. Yes, on the surface it’s compatible with all previous books as they are compatible with each other but I know that at the Paragon and Epic tier, things start to fall apart, particularly with monsters.

    I know that Dave posted to Twitter yesterday that he would only be running monsters from the MM3, Demonomicon, and Monster Vault at this time and I agree. So yes, its compatible, sort of, but its certainly evolved quite a bit and old stuff on the DMs side sure needs a lot of re-jiggering to be effective.

  6. Runeofdoom says:

    I think this article is really insightful (!) in how it takes a step back from the semantics of what version we’re playing and instead makes a point of how the game is more organic than ever. In to continue expecting a balance between classes as new content and ideas come out we have to be willing to have fluidity to our rules. In the long run I greatly appreciate the attention they are giving to making sure that original classes stay current and to continuously updating rules. It can be daunting sometimes, but how much errata, essentials etc. I use is really up to me.

    I know that some feel that this somehow “obsoletes” the older books but I certainly feel that I got my money’s worth of enjoyment out of them and I get far fewer opportunities to play than I’m sure many do – and if I choose not to purchase ‘updated’ material I can still play and enjoy the game with what I have.

    As someone who tries to get every published book, I imagine I might feel differently if they were churning out essentials books every month that updates all their previous publications but I find the 2.5 years mark to be a nice pacing!

    Just my opinion though!

  7. One recent development has put a really interesting spin on 4.x for me and that’s the Class Compendium that will be coming soon. If Essentials were a 4.5 then I would have expected them to delelop only Essentials style classes from now on. Instead they have taken the PH1 Classes and added them to the new layout. It’s like Essentials are the traditional style for old school PnPers and the Classic 4e is for people who relate more to MMOs. But the way they are re-embracing the classic 4e classes is really good for quelling the Essentials angst out there.

  8. Can you imagine if they simply sold all the Essentials in one fell swoop AND changed DDI all at once? Seattle would have suffered a nuclear strike… followed by a zombie march on Wizards of the Coast…

    Mike: You are right… however I think the litmus test for compatibly would depend on whether you could still play older material without any effort. I think the answer is yes, but its not as much fun.

    But yes, the game has definitely evolved. I think that much of the original release of materials were still suffering from a 3.5AD&D hangover, not to mention ‘new-rules-screw-up-itis’. Dragons did Claw Claw Bite… etc.

  9. Mark: Thanks!

    Seth: I wouldn’t be too concerned about the having vs. not having of daily powers, because the Essentials builds for martial classes get other things to make up for that.

    Dean: that’s exactly the line of thinking I was on as I finished this post, I started to wonder if there really would be a 5th Edition. Personally I won’t be surprised if it happens in the future, because each edition has brought interesting new things to the game (in my opinion) and I’m very eager to see where things go in the future. That said, 4E has fulfilled an “ease-of-DMing” quota that I have felt lacking in every edition previously, so if that’s not for a while I’ll still be pretty happy.

    Jerry: Exactly, though I avoided using the tech analogy in the post itself because 4E really is just WoW. 😀

    Mike: That’s definitely a point I overlooked because I was focusing more on the player books. It’s also a result of the fact that roughly 50% of the time I improvise or adjust my monsters on the fly anyway, so it’s not as concrete in my mind as it probably is for a lot of other DMs. Good point!

    Runeofdoom: Thanks, and I completely agree!

    Bloodwin: Dave and I were discussing the upcoming Class book just yesterday, we’ll have to see exactly what it is but at the moment I’m very skeptical of what it seems to be doing.

    UHF: I prefer claw-claw-wing-wing-bite myself. 😛

  10. Pete Cooney says:

    Excellent analysis! I’d like to offer a correction, though–D&D 4e had errata only a WEEK after publication. The only thing I’ve seen with quicker errata was the fast-play version of the new Chronicles of the Shattered Empire roleplaying game, which had errata built into its PDF within days–and that’s because it was a “beta” version of the rules. (Great game, by the way, I recommend that people check it out.)

  11. Having looked through the Heroes books, Rules Compendium, and Monster Vault, it seems to me that the primary intent of Essentials is to lower the barriers to entry to D&D. Simpler characters, rules refinements, tokens for monsters (no chests packed with expensive minis necessary.)

    I play with a variety of players. Some casual, some power gamers. Now there’s a bit of D&D for all. It’s all been a bit confusing, perhaps poorly marketed and/or explained. But, for groups like mine, or people who want to try D&D with less investment in the traditional trappings, now there’s an option.

  12. good article I do have some questions thought first would be are all the new books going to be in the esentials format I’m not gonna lie I don’t like change and would prefer my D&D to stay the way I like it with players handbooks and dungeon masters guides. I also worry that the books I have just aren’t useful any more

  13. Thanks for the clarification – a lot of us have been trying unsuccessfully to get a precise answer since Essentials was announced. This seems to make sense to me, and makes me feel better about hanging back until Essentials ends its run. I just want my time on 4E to have been well spent.

  14. I love Essentials. It seems to be more “addition” rather than “edition”. Lots of material and content and clarification. Its existence doesn’t really obsolete any books at all. I’ve bought all the essentials materials so far and I still find all my hardbacks as being useful. I would say that HotFL is only a worthy replacement to the original PHB for new players/old schoolers if you don’t mind/realize they are losing the original fighters/rogues/warlocks , but otherwise, having both is quite nice. Likewise, the DM’s Book is mostly an updated and streamlined DMG for new players who won’t likely be creating entire campaigns from scratch. But, otherwise, everything is just extra content and/or rules for tying that content to existing material. They could certainly have done a better job of marketing, although, I think much of the problems they had with marketing were caused by angry 4E grognards in a self created panic that their beloved hobby was leaving them and were simultaneously ignoring everything that WotC said to the contrary.

  15. I’ve said this before, and probably here, but the Essentials builds are what I originally expected 4e to be like based on the earliest hints they gave us. To my mind, it’s a cleaner vision.

  16. I think what Dean says above is interesting.

    With DDI, they move from selling actual content, to selling a license to content. Once your license is expired, or you’re tired of paying the monthly costs, you don’t have access to the content any more.

    I don’t know if I’m just getting old (early 30’s) but generally enjoying 4e, I can’t imagine going out and buying a whole bunch of new books for 5. I also can’t imagine dropping $20 a month to pay for DDI almost regardless of how many bells and whistles they have.

    Are there any stats for how well received DDI is? Have they been promising enough that WoTC might go online only?

  17. I don’t see them going online only, not any time soon. WotC is a publisher, not a digital content provider. They make a lot of money selling novels, dungeon tiles, accessories, miniatures, etc. They get about $200-$300 per year from me as I buy tilesets, novels, minis etc. DDI is only $6 per month with a subscription. It’s well worth it if you are active in the hobby. They could never replace their current revenue model with an online only presence even if they doubled the price. They would be sacrificing a huge amount of their business. You’d see 3 or 4 more paizo’s popping up to fill the gaps. Now, will they be moving towards MORE online? Sure. That’s natural. They need more .pdf products and more digital online content. But I don’t see a fully digital only model from them anytime soon.


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