Dungeons & Dragons Reviews

D&D Essentials Review

I posted a while ago that I was confused about the goals of the D&D Essentials product line (Confused about D&D Essentials), but otherwise I’ve been waiting to see the entire product line before trying to review them.  Last weekend, I picked up the Monster Vault and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, and while I don’t own all of the products in the line, I now feel ready to share my thoughts on them.


The D&D Essentials line consists of several D&D products that are meant to serve as an entry point for new players:

Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the Forgotten Kingdoms

These two books are the player-focused books of the D&D Essentials line.  Each is a 6×9 paperback book with about 360 pages.  The class and race choices are split between the two books with Fallen Lands containing the more traditional D&D classes and races while Forgotten Kingdoms contains more exotic options.

While the classes contained in both books have previously been published in other 4E books, the D&D Essentials versions are really new subclasses of those archetypes with altered mechanics.  The subclasses deviate from the standard 4E class design in several ways that I’ve talked about in an earlier post (Essential Class Design).

One problem with the books is that there is some overlap between the two.  Roughly the first 75 pages of each book are identical chapters covering an overview of the game, character creation, and the power system.  The final three chapters, which cover skills, feats, and equipment, also contain a large amount of overlap (about 70 pages of material).  Because the two books are designed so that a player only needs to purchase one or the other, duplicate material seems unavoidable, but it does affect the utility of the second book purchased by a player.

Dungeon Master’s Kit

I decided not to purchase the Dungeon Master’s Kit after reading other reviews of it, so the only thing I can share are the reasons I decided not to make the purchase.  The main complaint that I heard from other reviewers was that the book contained a lot of overlap with both the Rules Compendium and the previously published Dungeon Master’s Guide and Dungeon’s Master Guide 2.  Because I already owned those three books, I decided that the DM’s Kit wasn’t a necessary purchase.

For those who have picked up the DM’s Kit, would you recommend it for experienced DMs?  Do the monsters included in the DM’s Kit overlap with those in the Monster Vault?

Rules Compendium

The Rules Compendium is a 6×9 paperback book with about 320 pages.  It contains the core rules for D&D 4E in a single book which is perfect for reference.  The rules are also up-to-date with the current errata.  I highly recommend picking up this book even if you are not interested in the rest of the D&D Essentials line simply because it is a great reference book to bring to the table.

Monster Vault

A boxed set, the Monster Vault contains a 6×9, 320 page paperback book of monster statistics, a 8.5×11, 32 page adventure, a poster map, and tokens for all of the monsters in the book.

As far as I can tell, all of the monster categories in the main book have appeared in previous books, but most of the statistics blocks are new versions of those monsters that reflect more recent design philosophies.  The monster entries also contain more story material than previous 4E monster books.  The monsters skew towards the heroic tier with only a handful of epic level threats, which makes sense considering the D&D Essentials products are intended for new players who will likely be starting campaigns with 1st level characters.

The adventure, Cairn of the Winter King, is geared towards 4th level characters.  The adventure is set in Fallcrest, but it seems like it should be relatively easy to drop into any campaign.  The primary hook is a supernatural cold spell and a plague of undead, and the adventure contains a good mix of monsters including a white dragon and an owlbear.  For the most part though it is a relatively standard dungeon delve, but it does offer some good opportunities for roleplaying interactions with several residents of Fallcrest.

The tokens are made out of the same sturdy cardboard as the dungeon tiles and feature relatively high quality illustrations.  Each token is two-sided so that it can be flipped to a red-bordered side when the monster is bloodied.  For a very small number of monsters, the tokens only feature text such as “minion” or “swarm”.  The swarm tokens don’t actually bother me much, but I’d have a hard time using the minion token because it doesn’t seem like something that should be revealed about an opponent at first glance.

Dungeon Tiles Master Sets

While the Wilderness set has not been released yet, I have picked up the first two boxes.  Each contains a good mix of tiles and a sturdy box for storage that is capable of pretty easily holding a normal tile set in addition to the included master set.

Still Confused?

As details about the D&D Essentials line were originally being revealed, one concern that I had was how the products would fit into the rest of 4E.  At the time Wizards of the Coast had released a very clear plan for new players to purchase the D&D Essentials products but nothing on how a player would transition from the Essentials products to the rest of the 4E products.  My concern was that new players would either be expected to purchase the original core rulebooks or that all future products would be based off of the Essentials line.  Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast has since announced a book to solve that migration problem, the Class Compendium [EDIT – The Class Compendium has been removed from the WotC release schedule since I published this post, see Reactions to January’s Ampersand].  That book will provide much of the material from the Player’s Handbook that a new player will be missing and allow an easy step from D&D Essentials to the main product line.

Final Words

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the D&D Essentials products that I’ve purchased.  The new versions of the classes offer a fresh take on the archetypes and show a willingness to break with the established class structure that I hope carries over into future products.  The only real complaint that I have is the amount of duplicate material between books within the Essentials line and with previously published 4E books.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

2 replies on “D&D Essentials Review”

[…] Cancelling three books seems like an odd move given that a lot of the design and development work had probably gone into them already.  A customer service page on the WotC web site says “We felt that the material in these titles would best be presented in other ways and we have plans to make it available in the future.”  That’s pretty vague, so it could mean anything from plans to move the material into other books, publish it through D&DI, or that no firm plans for it exist yet.  Of the three books, I’m most disappointed with the cancellation of the Class Compendium because I felt that it was an important stepping stone between Essentials and the rest of the D&D product line for new players (see here). […]

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