Review: Essentials D&D “Heroes” Books

If you’re a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons player then the two Essentials books that you most want to look at are Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. Each book is presented in a similar style to a stand alone Player’s Handbook with Heroes of the Fallen Lands introducing new builds for the classic D&D classes (Clerics, Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards) while Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms introduces new builds for Druids, Paladins, Rangers, and Warlocks. Each of these books stands on its own perfectly well and you don’t need to buy both if you’re only interested in the classes presented in one of them.

As the primary offering of Essentials D&D material for players, these books serve two very important and very different purposes. The first is that they present new and reworked builds for existing 4th Edition classes that change some of the fundamental ways the player interacts with the mechanics of the game. The second purpose they serve is in updating some of the key components of the game such as feats and the magic item system, both of which have been changed for the better in my opinion. If you’re a 4th Edition player and are looking for something new or different for your favorite class, I highly recommend looking through the book that contains that class and giving it a shot. If you’re new to 4th Edition and want a good place to start, the new Martial class builds (the Fighter and Rogue specifically) in Heroes of the Fallen Lands are a great place to start!

About the Books

Both of the Essentials Heroes books are presented in the 6 inch by 9 inch softcover format and are both contain exactly 365 pages of content (plus new and cleaner 4e character sheets at the end). Though I prefer the more glossy cover that the Monster Vault book comes with, these books are still good quality and the smaller size makes them perfect for having at your game table and still having space on the table for the important things like snacks and drinks. As I suggested above, if you’re not interested in the classes presented in one of these books then there is really no need to get it, in fact the first 72 pages of both books are almost exactly the same with the only exception that I could find that Forgotten Kingdoms includes rules for summoning because the Warlock class is the first of Essentials to use it. Also the later parts of the two books are almost exactly the same as well, including chapters about Skills plus Gear and Weapons.

It’s much easier to talk about what is different in each book aside from just the classes presented. Each book presents a different Epic Destiny, both of which appear to be slightly tweaked versions of the Demigod Epic Destiny from the first Player’s Handbook. Heroes of the Fallen Lands introduces the following races – Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Halfling, and Human. Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms introduces the Dragonborn, Drow, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Tiefling races and has the Human race reprinted as well. Both books contain the same feats, except that Forgotten Kingdoms adds a handful of additi0nal feats that appear to be mostly flavored for the classes that are presented in it such as Wilderness and Primal feats for Druids and Rangers. The weird thing is that there are also a few Battle feats and Underdark feats that seem like they would be equally valid in both books, but are only presented in Forgotten Kingdoms. For the most part I like all of the content provided in both of the books, but the inclusion of a very small number of additional feats in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms seems to go against the rest of the decisions made that appeal to the idea of only needing to buy one of the books.

What’s So Essential About Them?

I’ll start with the first book, Heroes of the Fallen Lands, and its new presentation of the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard classes. The basic presentation of each class is still very similar to other classes in 4th Edition, except that each class is given its own chart for level progression with several class specific powers gained along that progression. It’s very reminiscent of how 3rd Edition D&D presented its classes, but the rules and underlying structure of the classes (especially the Cleric and Wizard) are still mostly unchanged from their previous 4e builds. The first important distinction of these builds is that they feel much more rigid and focused than previous 4e class builds. In non-Essentials builds players often chose a class feature/focus that defined their character’s “build” and abilities, but were still given a list of 3-4 powers to choose from and it was left largely up to the player if they wanted to choose the optimal powers for that build or to branch out. This is probably one of the biggest factors contributing to the length of time it often takes to create 4e characters. With the Essentials Cleric and Wizard builds, the player selects either their domain (warpriest) or school of magic (mage) and that more rigidly defines many of the powers that your character has access to.

With the Cleric Warpriest build, you still gain Healing Word at 1st level and you still choose from a selection of daily powers or utility powers at the same levels as other Cleric builds, but the domain that you pick (Storm or Sun in this book) determines which at-will and encounter powers you have, gives you a bonus level 1 utility power, and also determines which type of benefits you get from the Devout Warpriest paragon path. On the other hand the Wizard Mage build presented in this book still gives you a choice from a larger list of at-will, encounter, daily and utility powers but the school of magic (Enchantment, Evocation, or Illusion) determines your starting class features as well as the features of the Enigmatic Mage paragon path. For these two classes, the spell casters of the book, all of their encounter powers now include either effects (Cleric) or miss damage (Wizard) that prevent the feeling of disappointment and waste when you keep missing with encounter powers. Both of these builds are fairly straight forward and simple modifications of the base 4E character system, with these Essentials builds filling a role somewhere between creating your character based on a class build or template and having free reign of creating your character from a complete list of powers and paragon paths.

The Martial Changes

The biggest changes are seen in the two martial classes, the Fighter and the Rogue, with the most immediate change being that neither class gets at-will attack powers as we’ve seen every class and build have in 4th Edition so far. Instead the classes are focused on basic attack rolls that are then modified or augmented (not psionically, I just like the word) in interesting ways by at-will utility powers.

Sidenote: I have to say right from the start that I am a big fan of this change, because for the last two years I’ve believed that the at-will utility powers presented in 4e are some of the best ways to make your character stand out and have them feel unique and iconic with regards to rules and mechanics. Every monk that I’ve seen take Spider Technique (at-will utility that lets you climb walls as a normal move) has found it infinitely more useful and fun to play than any encounter or daily utility could ever be.

The Fighter builds cover two very different concepts, the Knight fulfilling the heavily armored (non-divine) defender spot and the Slayer is the consummate well rounded, decently armored heavy hitter that actually changes this build to the striker class role (all other Fighters are defenders). Both of these builds and the Rogue Thief build gain a selection of at-will utility powers at 1st level, stances for the Fighters and tricks for the Rogues. Instead of a mark and combat superiority mechanic the Knight instead has an aura 1 Defender Aura that creates the same effect as a mark but is centralized on the character rather than being placed on enemies. Stances present a quick and easy way for the Fighter to be more versatile from round to round in combat, as they can be changed with a minor action and have a range of effects from a bonus to all weapon damage rolls, to a bonus to attack rolls, and even a stance that makes every melee basic attack into a cleave. I’ve heard varied opinions on the utility stance mechanic, but to me it is just a basic re-skinning of how 4e at-will attack powers work – the biggest change is that the fighter now has to spend a minor action to switch between his at-will attack abilities.

The Thief still has the same core Sneak Attack mechanic and is still focused on using light blades or small ranged weapons for precise and damaging attacks. Instead of at-will attack powers, the Thief build gains a selection of Rogue Tricks – at-will utility powers that take a move action but replicate and expand upon what base 4e rogues could do with their regular at-will attacks. For example, the Acrobat’s Trick utility lets your Rogue Thief move their speed minus 2, climb during that move, and gain a +2 power bonus to your next damage roll this turn, or the Escape Artist’s Trick that lets you shift 2 squares, and then shift 2 more squares as a free action at the end of your turn. I love the subtle change this brings to the Rogue class, before in 4e a Rogue would be doing a basic move action (boring) and then doing some kind of spectacular trick attack for lots of damage with sneak attack. To me it often felt like a lot of attention is heaped onto the attack and the movement itself is overlooked for the type of Rogue that most people like to play. Now the Rogue Thief build presents a more acrobatic and spry type of character as you use a move action to do cool tricks, and the attack itself is the more mundane action but then often gets sneak attack tied to it so both actions become more interesting across the board.

That said, both the Fighter and the Rogue have a single encounter power that can spice up their basic attacks. The Fighter’s Power Strike attack is a standard encounter power, but you don’t choose to use it until after you’ve already hit with a melee basic attack and then it adds encounter power damage to the attack which adds an interesting and new twist to the idea that we first saw with powers using the reliable key word, except you don’t have the disappointment of missing with a more powerful attack in the first place. The Rogue Thief gains the Backstab encounter attack, which is used before an attack is made but adds a bonus to the attack roll and stacks more damage on top of your sneak attack ability. Neither of these builds gain any other encounter powers as they level up, instead you simply gain multiple uses of either Power Attack or Backstab during each encounter. Daily powers are also absent from these builds, but appear to be compensated for with an increasing selection of Stances or Tricks and several new class features that show up as you progress upward in level. Both of these builds may be less complex than their base 4E counterparts, but I believe they have an added range of versatility that when combined with the simplicity of play style can create some very fun characters to play.

How Could You Forget a  Whole Kingdom?

As you have probably noticed, the four classes presented in Heroes of the Fallen Lands present a new progression of class complexity for 4th edition. Though previously we saw the classes in the PHB as basic in 4E terms, those in PHB2 as a bit more intricate, and the psionic classes of the PHB3 as the most different and complex now we have a wider range of classes/builds that I believe was intended to bridge the gap from many player’s styles in previous editions of D&D over to 4th Edition. The Fighter and Rogue Essentials builds being the simplest, without having to worry about Daily powers or multiple Encounter powers, to the Cleric with its wider range of powers but still more limited selection based on build and the Wizard which is very close to the basic class builds we’ve seen all along in 4e. The second book, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, presents four classes that are spread through the middle of that range of complexity.

The Druid Sentinel build provides a chance for the class to fill the Leader role as a melee combatant with an animal companion much like the Ranger build from Martial Power. Your animal companion has its own full stat block, and you have the Combined Attack encounter power that lets both you and your companion make attacks in addition to the healing word utility and your choice of a single at-will attack power. Much like the Fighter and Rogue builds above, the Druid Sentinel does not gain other encounter attacks but instead can use Combined Attack multiple times per encounter as you level up. As your Sentinel levels you can choose from lists of utility and daily powers, which puts this Druid build somewhere between the martial classes and the Cleric when it comes to complexity of the Essentials build. The new Paladin Cavalier build still acts as a defender and has the same Defender Aura as the Fighter’s Knight build, but the class progresses in the same way as the Cleric with your main choice of Virtue defining your encounter powers and class features while you can choose from lists of utilities and daily powers as you level.

Mixing Melee and Ranged is a Brutal Recipe

Like the Fighter in the first book, the Ranger in this book has two separate builds but this time the class has become both Martial and Primal in origin. The Hunter build focuses on archery (either bow or crossbow) while the Scout build emphasizes dual wielding melee weapons. Hunters are clearly somewhere between the martial classes and the primal/divine classes as you gain at-will attack powers that allow you to make a ranged basic attack and then add a selection of different benefits such as sliding 2 squares or knocking the target prone. In addition the Hunter has a selection of Primal Aspects that are stances changed with a minor action very similar to those that the Fighter uses and has the Disruptive Shot encounter power that increases in uses as you level. The only powers that a Hunter has to choose from a list as they level up are utility powers, as the build does not have daily powers but you do gain additional primal aspects and other class features. The Scout build only gains one at-will attack power, but can choose aspects the same as the Hunter build and also has the same Power Strike encounter power as the Fighter builds.

The last class build presented in this book is the Warlock Hexblade which is a solid melee/ranged striker option for the previously mostly ranged class. The Hexblade has two pact options similar to those of other Warlocks (Fey and Infernal) and gains the Eldritch Bolt at-will ranged attack at 1st level but also gains a melee at-will attack based on the chosen pact. The interesting and unique part of the Hexblade build is that each pact gives you the ability to manifest a warlock’s weapon (Blade of Winter’s Mourning or Blade of Annihilation) that must be wielded in one hand while your implement is in the other. Your pact also grants you an encounter attack power which you gain multiple uses of like the martial classes, but you also gain higher level encounter attack powers so the Hexblade is literally right between the martial and arcane/divine classes. As you level up you choose utility and daily powers just like the other caster classes, but perhaps most interestingly at 9th level your Hexblade gains the ability to summon a Fey or Infernal ally to aid you both in and out of combat.

The Flavor is Still There

You have probably already noticed that I have not specifically commented on the style and effectiveness of powers for each build. The main reason for this is that, as I’ve looked through both books, pretty much every single power has been perfectly in line with what we expect from these classes based on not only their previous 4e builds but also spells and abilities from older editions of D&D that have finally made it to 4th Edition. Also for the most part the powers in these books, aside from the at-will utilities and changed caster encounter powers that I detailed above, are very similar with those of every class we’ve seen in 4th Edition so far. The Druid still feels very much like a Druid even though the Sentinel changes roles, and the Ranger still fits into a similar mold even though it has become the first of the fabled Martial Controller classes.

I, as a DM and a player, am a bit annoyed at the prospect of classes spanning different roles and the potential for a player to say they’re making a Fighter and and then show up with either a defender or a striker. This, however, can be easily mitigated with the careful application of communication, but I shudder to think what is now happening in many of the public and organized play games that are out there. Sure, this is a problem that has been around as long as D&D has, but with class roles it had finally been mostly taken care of and has just now been thrown back into the mix, and I’m generally not a fan of solving problems and then creating them again. That’s a small issue when you consider the whole of Essentials though, and I hope that this post has helped you figure out exactly what the new class builds present and how they are both uniquely different and still just a few small tweaks away from the original classes of 4th edition.

Comments

  1. Fantastic review of the books, Danny. Great information I didn’t know. It’ll help me decide which to pick up.

  2. This is a great review. I really like the changes to how classes are being designed. I think the alternate progressions allow a lot more variety between different characters which should make each class feel more unique. Unlike you, I’m happy with having different roles within one class. The biggest advantage is that it allows the designers to broaden iconic classes and avoid trying to create a new story niche in order to incorporate a class filling a certain role. If this approach had come about sooner, then some of the less iconic classes could have instead been builds of iconic classes (Warlord as a Fighter, Seeker as a Ranger, Invoker as a Cleric, Warden as a Ranger, etc).

  3. Great review. I own both books, and after reading all the builds, one of the consistent design changes that I really approve of, is a reduction in turn to turn book-keeping with the new powers. Many more powers seem to have effects that last until end of encounters. The druid has some buffs that last all day. The defender Aura is just ‘on’, no need to keep track of whose marked. Even the stances, like the Aura – are turned on and give their bonus until turned off. Many zones last until the end of the enc so you don’t have to worry about sustaining.

    And in regards to the addition of alternate roles within the classes – I’m heavily in favor. I’d rather be thinking about a new character in terms of class rather than role. If I really want to make a ranger – if the party needs a Striker, I can make a Scout or PHB Ranger, if it needs a controller, I make a Hunter.

    Anyways, thanks for the review. I’ll be pointing my playgroup at the article since it provides such a great overview.

  4. Excellent Review! I have picked up the Fallen Lands (and for the most part like what I read) but hadn’t decided on Fallen Kingdoms but it sounds like a good interesting read as well. I do agree with your last paragraph about the mixing of the “classes” and “roles”… they had already started that with the whole hybrid thing in PHB3, but it does seem odd to make it potentially confusing again for no reason… why call a “slayer” a fighter when it really isn’t (it has it’s own section of the book, it isn’t just a variation of the “knight fighter”… except now you can let them take feats which all fighters have access to do without specifically saying “knights and slayers and any other fighter types”…)

    That said, I do wonder how much the new Essentials line is getting away from expectign all parties to have a single controller, defender, striker, and leader… in the few games i’ve played where not all roles were filled the game still went on and we had fun, so maybe it isn’t as important to make sure everyone fits into a cookie-cutter template for their class anymore? Or at least, maybe the players aren’t as worried about it but the DMs should be?

    I look forward to the next 2 installments of the Essentials Players line to see where they go from here (and what they do to the older PHB1 classes when they revamp them). – Josh

  5. As Ablefish said, I think role flexibility within classes is important. I’m frustrated by those who insist the roles must each be filled for the game to work. I believe the intent of the role mechanic was to give each player a chance to shine in an encounter. As a DM, I need to be responsive enough that if my players all choose to be strikers, then I create encounters that will challenge and entertain them. Also, it’s up to my players to RP how a group of strikers would work together. Admittedly an extreme example, but I like that WotC are tinkering with classes and roles, and I feel like they are improving the game in response to how people really play it.

  6. Nice review, but one small nit: Backstab doesn’t have to be declared before the roll. While I find it a bit vague, it does need to be declared before I tell you whether or not you hit, but you can see how the dice fall first.

    Both powers are very nice to have on critical hits, of course. 🙂

  7. Nice review Bartoneus, yeah! My cousin is the number one fun of these books. I can just remember when he can’t wait to buy it after the books were released in the market.:)

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