What is Essentials?

One of the exciting new things in the land of D&D 4th Edition (4E) is the release of the Essentials line of products. This line has generated a fair amount of discussion in the online D&D community in large part due to the confusion around what the products mean to the game and why they were made. Given this confusion, I’d like to first outline my understanding of the the goals of the products to help frame the discussion.


  1. Introduce players to 4E, both those familiar with older editions and those with no knowledge of D&D. They wrote the original 4E books with the assumption the reader wasn’t new to D&D. The new books aim to be more accessible by reducing assumptions about previous knowledge and, especially for players, limiting choices.
  2. Provide a simplified list of core products for retailers to stock. Compare the list of 10 products found here to the list of original D&D products, 3 player’s handbooks, 2 dungeon master’s guides, and 3 monster manuals not to mention various campaign settings, adventures, and other materials.
  3. Provide new content that even veteran 4E players would find interesting and worthwhile. New class builds, new magic item system, etc.

Thus, while they seek to provide some new content and tools for veteran 4E players, this is just one goal among many. In my opinion, it’s important to keep this in mind when reading reviews from members of the community, myself included. Since many of us are veteran 4E players, products aimed at newer players are less likely to scratch our itch.

Not all of the books are out yet, but here are some of the highlights I’ve gathered from what they released so far.

  • Class builds – Not everyone loved the original design philosophy of the 4e class builds, especially for the martial characters. Heroes of the Fallen Lands offers some new class builds likely to feel more familiar to players of older editions. One example of the change in philosophy is that the new rogues and fighters use their melee basics as their main attack and their moves or minors (stances) augment these basic attacks.
  • Item Rarity – One issue with the original magic item system is that it didn’t give newer DMs information about their relative strength. There also was an assumption that a player could walk into a general store and purchase any magic item they wanted. To change this, the books now separate items into three groups, common, uncommon and rare. I know some members of the community roll their eyes at the groupings, since it’s what they use in Magic the Gathering, but as a newer DM, I really appreciate the new system.
  • Updated Monsters – Since 4E came out, there have been a number of revisions to the design philosophy and math of monsters. However older monsters were not upgraded with each Monster Manual release. Some of the original monsters will be upgraded in Monster Vault. In addition, the Dungeon Master’s Kit, the Red Box and the Monster Vault all include monster tokens, a great tool for DMs who travel a lot or don’t have a large mini collection.

Personally, I really like the Rules Compendium. Having all of the updated rules and most of the information about the default world available in one book is really nice, especially given the amount of errata Wizards has released over the years. The new tiles box sets have me interested in tiles for the first time. The original sets were nice but they were way too small, often requiring two or more sets to do anything interesting and they went out of print way to quickly. Also, I’m really looking forward to the Monster Vault, especially since my players are entering the paragon tier for the first time.

For new players or people who stayed away from 4E because they didn’t like the original class builds, I would suggest picking up a copy of the Red Box and Heroes of the Fallen Lands. If you have the choice, I prefer the Dungeon Master’s Kit to the two DMGs although understand the former doesn’t contain a lot of the more intricate rules such as rituals and monster creation and modification. I found the new book more approachable and the included adventure teaches some of the fundamentals of DMing as well. The box also includes some monster tokens and maps.

Hopefully the new Essentials line will bring new players to 4E, including people brand new to the D&D game and those who played older editions but stopped. Another hope I have is that the new Red Box and DM kit will convince more people to give DMing a try. It’s brought a lot of joy to my life and I’d love to share that awesomeness with others.

So now that you know my thoughts, I would love to hear yours. Do you have any questions about the Essentials line? Have you tried the new character builds? Share your thoughts below.

[tags]Role Playing Games, Dungeons & Dragons, D&D, rpg, 4th Edition[/tags]

3 thoughts on “What is Essentials?

Add yours

  1. How would the essentials line interact with Dark Sun or other CSes?

    You just use character derived using the essentials rules and monsters from the Dark Sun Catalog (or MMs)?


  2. I asked on the DM hotline about using Essentials characters in Dark Sun. They said that the characters work just fine and you can even apply the templates like you normally would.

    So yeah, you would create your characters using the Essentials rules. You can use the monsters from the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. The books also have rules for modifying other creatures to get more of a Dark Sun feel.


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