I’ll spare you all the boring minutae of how I’m handling the transition back into public transit, as they get a little squicky if you’re not into the thought of envisioning me naked. Honestly, I don’t blame you; I don’t even like to look at myself naked. Still, there’s something to be said for preparation beforehand, and that’s all I’ll say.
Let’s talk D&D, shall we? I picked up the last of the Essentials books this afternoon, and now I have a complete set of those. The DM kit and Monster Vault proved to be pretty valuable purchases in that if I want to start up a campaign amongst some friends, I can. That’s a pretty big if, but I’m getting sidetracked. The Essentials books seemed a little strange to me, because they’re shallow enough to be considered “starter” kits, but in-depth enough to warrant the thought that this was where 4th Edition was headed. WotC’s marketing of the books didn’t help that, either. For the longest time I resisted picking up the two “class” books, because I thought their content was more or less duplicating the three Player’s Handbooks I already own.
To a certain extent, it is, and then again, it’s also more constrictive. Each of the two class books– Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms– details the basics of a handful of the classes. Fallen Lands provides clerics, fighters, rogues and wizards, while Forgotten Kingdoms offers druids, paladins, rangers and warlocks. That’s where things get tricky, because of each of the classes offered, you’re provided a single buildout path. Your powers are mostly selected for you, your paragon path and epic destiny are also chosen, and it’s all very cut and dried. That’s great for a player just starting out, and each of the books offers a pretty good mix so that a new player can try something different without being overwhelmed, but overall the books aren’t as valuable for experienced players as the hardback Handbooks and (X) Power books. There’s also a handful of changes to the existing races and feats, and a crapton of ease-of-play charts and pointers. Most of the critical stuff in the books are available on the Insider service, and what’s not does sort of lend some value to the paperbound copies.
What I’ve found to be pretty damn worth the cost, though, are the other three core books: the Rules Compendium, the Dungeon Master’s Book, and the Monster Vault. Of these only the RC is available “standalone”; the other two are in the DM’s Kit and Monster Vault box, respectively. Honestly, though, those aren’t bad deals either. For me, one of the things preventing me from DMing effectively was a lack of miniatures or figures to place and block out encounters. Both of the boxes contain cardboard tokens for monsters and players, printed with nicely-detailed artwork. This is mostly because WotC discontinued the D&D Minis game, as (like me) nobody wanted to buy randomized miniatures if they really just wanted a dozen goblins for an encounter.
Right, the books. The RC is basically everything you need, at an absolute minimum, to play the game once you’ve got characters rolled up and a DM ready to go. It’s organized far better than the PHBs and DMG, everything is clear and concise without being terse… Think of it like this: if the Player’s Handbook is a boring ol’ human, then the Rules Compendium is an elf: just plain better, and it knows it. There’s some updated charts here for DCs and suchlike, which may be useful to some players, but for the clarifications and the ability to leave at least one or two hardcover books back on the shelf when you go to a game, it’s a steal at twice the price. Despite the fact that it’s not red, I can promise you you’re likely to find what you’re looking for in the book three times faster.
The DM’s book is less impressive in that it covers a lot of the fluff of the Points of Light setting, but it also goes into some of what makes a proper or thrilling adventure. DM guides and advice are a dime a dozen, but like the RC, the DM Book streamlines a lot of the tedious parts and makes it easier to quickly and efficiently find stuff. (A side note: it bothers me that there’s no real “Trap Manual”– basically, doing for traps, hazards, and dungeon features what the Monster Manual does for the flora and fauna of the world.) The DM’s Kit isn’t a bad deal, honestly, as it includes some dungeon tiles and a few handfuls of character and monster tokens as well as a short adventure to run. The main complaint I have with the DM’s Book, and this may just be a first-print issue or something, is that the cover isn’t made of the same paper or whatever as the other Essentials books. It looks and feels cheap and flimsy… but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Finally, the Monster Vault book is pretty much the Monster Manual, shrunk down and stripped of some of the cruft that served comparatively little purpose. While fewer monster illustrations sounds like a bad thing, the overall effect is that the illustrations now correspond to the tokens included in the kit, and there are in fact more monster listings for each monster type (so for example, under “Elf” there’s listings for Lv2 Scout, Lv2 Minion Hunter, Lv3 Guard, etc. etc. up to Lv13 Drow Arachnomancer). The standard amenities of list by level and so forth are included, but again the chief advantage is the compact size. Upon further inspection, the Monster Vault uses the same flimsy cover that the DM’s Book does, but it’s a thicker tome than the DMB, so it’s a bit harder to notice the cover’s cheapness.
So that brings me to the downside of the line, beyond the fact that two of the most useful elements are saddled with tokens that I realize not everyone might need or want. The Essentials line is bound in a softcover format, along the lines of a mass-market book. It’s roughly 10% or so larger than the standard manga page size (or roughly the same size as the oversized omnibus page size becoming more popular these days), and while it’s a very well-printed book, its binding… well, I just fear for the day when something happens to this book, and I fear that day may be unnecessarily soon. On the other hand, I defy you to find a nicer full-scale RPG manual for a Jackson; when the pages do start dropping out, it won’t be an arduous task to replace the thing entirely.
WotC’s been releasing more and more Dungeon Tiles sets and flogging their overpriced dice sets alongside the books, but overall between the Essentials, the new Red Box set (which, I kid you not, I saw at Target once, and when I went to get another copy later on, the clerks said they couldn’t keep it in stock), and just some general nice press here and there, I think they’re doing a damn good job of opening up the hobby to more and more mainstream people. It doesn’t hurt that the generation that’s taking the reins of the world now– mine– is on the whole more receptive to nerdery than peoples past, either. I’m really impressed with the concept behind the Essentials books, but I wish WotC had made it clearer on the “where do you go from here?” aspect.