So, with the Essentials line effectively fully released now, I decided to take a look at it. I was an early adopter with 4E, starting with the pre-release sessions and jumping on the Player’s Handbook and DMG the day they were released. We played right up until the two year anniversary of 4E –and by then our frustration with the system (and by ‘our’ I mean my home group) and the direction the game was going in had marred the experience significantly enough that we felt the need to take a break.
Well, it’s been almost six months. I haven’t read a Dragon Magazine, I haven’t bought Psionic Power, and I stayed right the heck away from Dark Sun. After taking a look at the Heroes of the Fallen Lands (HFL) I found myself feeling a little wistful and strangely nostalgic about my first blush love of 4E. HFL actually kinda made me want to play again. I really liked the tone of the book, the way it was written, the layout (one of my primary gripes with the original PH), and overall I even felt the art was an improvement over most of 4E. In general, 4E art is the worst of any edition of the game – in my opinion.
HFL was a great book. I’m happy to say it, I really enjoyed reading it. For my money, it is what 4E should have been two years ago. Two years of play by the fan-base really exposed a lot (LOT) of foibles in 4E’s basic structure and the Essentials books are a good clean-up and reboot of 4E. And I can feel the attempt to appeal to old-school players in the books. The layout of the classes alone is a strangely compelling mixture of old-school charm and newbie-friendly design. Really diggin’ that.
Specifically, just to cover a few bases – let me mention some of the things that I really love, and some that don’t quite make the cut or still make sense to me… If this gets too long, I might split it up and talk about Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms (HFK) in another post.
What I Love
I’m a big fan of the new Fighter builds. I really like the new defender mechanics – and I really like the stance mechanics. I’ve heard people complaining that the fighter is always making the same old melee basic attack… But that makes perfect sense (to me) and I really like the stances you can choose from. I enjoy the way the fighter grows in Essentials and the way the progression works.
I’d like to say how much I like the new Cleric too, but to be fair, I still love the old cleric (as they originally worked in 4E, so it’s pretty much just more good… I love the new Rogue (Heroic Thief, awesome) and I’m a big fan of the way the Essentials Wizard works too. So, pretty much all good here.
I’m a huge fan of the single Epic Destiny for everybody (if you are playing an Essentials-only game – and for the purposes of this post I’m discussing Essentials as a stand-alone product. In fact, Essentials mixing with the original games is a big part of what I’ll talk about when I get to the things I’m not as fond of… HFL also did some nice things for the races… my beloved Dwarves finally got a Strength bonus option which makes me really happy, and the change to their second wind power is completely okay in my book. No problem. Elves, Humans and Halflings all got a little bit of stuff but didn’t change so significantly as to be weird… though I’m also really happy with the option for Elves to have an Intelligence bonus. Also made me happy.
Some of the new feats are very cool – and though I dislike the Expertise feats and always will, I also appreciate the fact that the writers turned Expertise into more than just a must have +1/+2/+3 to hit. They have a little feeling to them now, a little zest.
I’m also a pretty big fan of the changes to magic items (with one notable point I’ll mention below). There’s more in HFL that I want to mention, but that’s the gist. I’m just gonna move on to the “things that still make me crazy.”
Things That Still Make Me Crazy
Eladrin. I’m just gonna jump in with both feet and say it. Why, why, why didn’t the Eladrin bonuses become +1 Charisma, +1 Dexterity or Intelligence? That would have made so much more sense… The writers seems completely oblivious to the problem with Dex and Int as a stat pair – and the classes still don’t have a good answer to the Dex/Int pairing as a deeply useful pairing. And yes, the new stat options are great for more Wizard builds – and yes you can make a decent Fey Pact Warlock now with either the original version or the new Hexblade – but none of their pairings help them at all in becoming better at just about anything else. Of course, with the new version of the Two-Weapon Ranger you can finally be good at that as an Eladrin without jumping through a bunch of hoops. Seriously, still so frustrated with the Eladrin stats I wanna just shake the people who are writing this stuff until their teeth rattle (I’m kidding, just so you know. It’s frustrating, but I’d never threaten a game designer with tooth-rattlin’).
Magic Items. I’m a big fan of the new rarity system. I like the fact that magic is returning to a more mysterious place, a more interesting idea than 3.5’s, “Gotta get ‘em all” magic item method. My only gripe (and it’s petty, I know) is that I’d love them to have come up with a better categorization method than “common, uncommon, rare.” This nomenclature is so ingrained with collectible-game overtones it’s impossible not to feel something’s just little off describing items this way.
Also, again, my gripes with Essentials seem to turn up in odd little corners – like the fact that Fighters are locked into using Heavy Blades, Hammers, Two-Handed Blades or Axes. Why only those weapons? Why no spear wielding fighters? I realize a fighter can use whatever weapon they want, but both the Knight and the Slayer’s 7th level ability locks them into weapons of those types. I found that to be really, really odd. I’m sure it was meant to be newbie-friendly, but it ends up just being a weird restriction.
I’m also not fond of the way that some feats have been altered. Melee Training is the perfect example of this. Why did this need to change? With the new prevalence of basic attacks, most classes that use something other than strength to make basic attacks already have their alternate attribute accounted for with a class ability. So why make it weird for those that don’t – or non-essentials classes where this will still matter, like the old rogue? It’s just a change that felt pointless and restricting – again.
Overall, I really like Heroes of the Fallen Lands (and yes this got long so I’ll need to come back to the Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms and the Monster Vault later). I’m not saying that I’m jumping back into 4E with both feet or anything, I’m not rushing back with open arms, all is forgiven, but I think that if Essentials had been what they released in the first place, I might not be as frustrated as I got with 4E. I don’t know. The whole experience has basically taught me, wait two years before you buy any new editions of D&D. After 3E and 4E both going that way, I’m convinced that the mid-stream adjustment is now going to be the norm from Wizards.
So, next time I’ll cover Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms and try to sneak Monster Vault in there too. Just a quick spoiler – Monster Vault, love it. Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, does not live up to the promise of HFL at all.
Until then, Thanks for Reading, and I look forward to your comments.