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Is D&D Esssentials Worth It?

posted Tuesday, November 2nd 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

I’ve been hoarding links on D&D Essentials. Here are the most interesting I’ve read.

The Alexandrian takes a look at the Essentials Starter Set, with a historical comparison to the 1983 Red Box and a frank discussion of the place of the new game. The Alexandrian has previously been critical of 4E, having been a 4E playtester. His most notable complaint is the article Disassociated Mechanics, lamenting 4E’s lack of the fiction-to-mechanics tie that characterized good 3E sourcebooks:

Of course, you can sidestep all these issues with house rules if you just embrace the design ethos of 4th Edition: There is no explanation for the besieged foe ability. It is a mechanical manipulation with no corresponding reality in the game world whatsoever.

At that point, however, you’re no longer playing a roleplaying game. When the characters’ relationship to the game world is stripped away, they are no longer roles to be played. They have become nothing more than mechanical artifacts that are manipulated with other mechanical artifacts.

The Escapist, home to video game review series Zero Punctuation, snuck in a D&D column when I wasn’t looking and set up an interview with Mike Mearls, who is now D&D’s lead designer. It gives a sense that Mearls’ predecessor Rob Heinsoo is responsible for the “disassociated mechanics” situation and that Mearls is hoping to set things right with Essentials. It’s certainly the case that Essentials is an effort to bring back players who disliked D&D 4E’s direction, though it’s subjective whether those changes improve the game or merely pander to old players.

In response to feedback, The Escapist published the full transcript of the interview with Mike Mearls. He goes into more detail on what seemed missing from 4th edition:

If you look the 4th Edition handbook and you look at those players – you have to be well versed in D&D to understand the difference between the classes. It’s the old – I see this comment a lot online – “It doesn’t read very well, but it plays very well.”

I think what we were looking for in Essentials, especially for beginners, because there’s plenty of people out there who have stopped playing D&D – you want them to go “This reads well too,” because you’re dealing with an audience that isn’t already playing your game. [...]

Just going forward from a design standpoint, when you have more visceral design like that, I think it just leads to more interesting challenges for designers. You’re looking at things in more of a world point of view – “What is this guy doing in the world of D&D and how do we express this mechanically,” rather than vice versa.

Outspoken blogger RPGPundit loves the Escapist interview, going so far as to suggest that Mike Mearls May or May Not Be Off the Kool-aid.

Eberron creator Keith Baker had an interesting opinion titled Simulation vs Disassociated Mechanics:

In my mind, the issue is that if you’re looking for a realistic simulation, you’re in the wrong place. 4E isn’t trying to be a documentary about martial arts, realistically showcasing what can and can’t be done. Instead, it’s a Jackie Chan movie. [...]

For me, this is exactly what limited-use powers are. If my adventure is a movie, they are the moves that only get used a few times in the movie – the cool movies that ad some flair and excitement to the scene. This is tied to what I mean if I call 4E “cinematic” – because when I say cinematic, part of what I mean is that flavor is more important than realism. I don’t storm out of the Jackie Chan movie saying “Why didn’t he just trip that guy?” – because I know going in that realism isn’t what he’s aiming for.

I don’t like this rationalization. It would make this the least realistic D&D edition yet, and that’s abandoning what made the game popular. A commenter named Michael Pfaff makes an insightful reply that I think sums up the disassociatd mechanics issue:

The real disassociation [...] comes from when those mechanics aren’t tied to anything from a fictional perspective.

In older editions of D&D (3E and prior), you had to fictionally look into a medusa’s eyes in order for it’s “gaze” to affect you. Without this fictional action, there is no effect. In the 3E SRD, the description even states, “It uses normal weapons to attack those who avert their eyes or survive its gaze…”

This makes sense. I can fictionally say, “My character closes his eyes, or shields them from the medusa’s gaze.” Right?

However, in 4E, the medusa’s power is written with no fictional backbone, only it’s mechanical weight [...] by RAW, my character can only not be affected by this attack if he has the “blind” or “blinded” keyword.

Nothing I do fictionally matters. I can avert my eyes, I can conceal my eyes, I can close them. I’m not “blind” though, am I? So, the medusa’s gaze attack affects me none the less.

Keith Baker replies:

You can say that “The rules never clearly state that a character can voluntarily blind himself by covering his eyes”, but in doing so you’re really missing the flavor I LIKE about 4E, which is that in encourages improvisation. The 4E approach to skills has always been “Rather than concretely stating everything that can be done with a skill, we expect you to be creative in your application of it, and for the DM to be the final judge of what can and can’t be done.” This is spelled out more clearly in the Rules Compendium and Essentials, but it’s always been the premise, and again, it’s always been my favorite thing about 4E.

Finally, Chatty DM at Critical Hits reviews the D&D Essentials DM’s Kit.

Comments

  1. David Devine

    November 3rd, 2010

    Keith’s final response makes me think of Games Workshop and Warhammer 40k … they’ve set the rules up in such a way that they are very mechanistic … A has B effect under C circumstances … but more than just in a general sense, but in a very specific way (as noted in the comment about being Blind).

    After making such a big deal about the wargame like nature of those rules, they now want to extricate themselves by saying “Oh those things? Don’t take them too seriously.” (I know that D&D came from Chainmail which had a much greater wargaming feel to it, but it has evolved since then into a roleplaying simulation)

    Ultimately, I think the 3.5 -> 4.0 is a reboot of the D&D franchise. People who have never played it before will never know the difference … some fans will like the changes and some won’t.

  2. Dave

    November 3rd, 2010

    The medusa gaze issue is really funny to me. I never understand why some people think that if the rules don’t explicitly mention something then you can’t do it. It makes perfect sense that a PC could close her eyes and become voluntarily blind (she would be immune to gaze attacks, but would also suffer many penalties, so why not?).

    It’s like how 2nd edition gave you an “open doors” rating. Anyone who thought this meant you had to roll dice in order to walk into the pub was taking the rules much too literally. When it comes to D&D, the rules are not “everything you are allowed to do”, but rather examples of many things you would want to do, and guidelines for how to do them.

  3. Links Roundup: 8th November 2010 « Jonathan Drain’s D20 Source: Dungeons & Dragons Blog

    November 8th, 2010

    [...] Is D&D Esssentials Worth It?, via D20 Source. I’ll put this here and see if anyone notices I’m linking my own blog. [...]

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