Hi. Welcome to a special free-to-all edition of my regular column. Every week throughout July and August, I’ll be here to tell you about the many exciting things going on around the Dungeons & Dragons brand, including all kinds of details about the upcoming line of Essentials products. What are the Essentials products, you ask? Great question. Let me tell you all about it …
Dungeons & Dragons Essential Products
Starting in September and rolling out until the end of the year, the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products consist of 10 key products that form the basis of the roleplaying game system going forward. These 10 key products are designed to be a great place to start your Dungeons & Dragons game experience, as well as being a set of core reference tools for everyone playing the game.
The 10 key products include items geared specifically for players, some for Dungeon Masters, and a few for everyone participating in the game. With new formats, lower price points, and more directed products, there’s never been a better time to get into the Dungeons & Dragons game.
Who are these products for?
If you’re a current player of the game, these provide a more comprehensive approach to the game rules, new options, and new material to add to your existing game.
If you’re new to the game, the Essentials products provide a great starting place for you to come in and experience the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game.
If you’ve been away from the Dungeons & Dragons game for a while, these products provide a perfect way to get back into the game. Many of the things we did with the new designs was directly inspired by the comments and suggestions of past players and Dungeon Masters.
The Essentials Player Character Classes
Now let me tell you about the heart of the Essentials—the player character classes. The player character classes presented in Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms were designed after reviewing two years of game play. Feedback from players contributed the most in shaping the design, but we also had to keep in mind that the classes needed to be accessible to new players and players returning to the game since the launch of the newest edition of the rules. As luck would have it, there were a number of areas where a design that could bring new players up to speed also matched the feedback for change we heard from a lot of established players.
So let’s talk about what we were able to jam into these digest-sized paperback game books.
The overriding goal for the Essentials character designs was simple: Create character classes with easy-to-understand decision points. A new player might not understand the difference between an attack that dazes and one that knocks an opponent prone. It takes some experience with the game, or an appetite for a more complex or nuanced character, to make such differences appealing to beginners. On the other hand, decisions with obvious contrasts are much easier to grasp and make. Even if you have never played the Dungeons & Dragons game before, you understand the difference between fighting with a sword and shield or opting for using a two-handed axe. One provides better defense, the other better offense. A new player can draw on a basic knowledge built from watching movies, playing videogames, and reading novels to grasp that difference.
Tied to this was a secondary goal: Find ways to give the classes different levels of complexity. One of the genius strokes of the original Dungeons & Dragons game design was that it allowed players to find their own level of mastery. Playing a wizard presented different challenges and required more rules mastery than playing a fighter. We wanted to preserve and return to that aspect of the Dungeons & Dragons game in the Essentials products.
These two points also loomed large in player feedback. Some players missed the diversity of different character class structures. They felt that the current versions of the classes looked too much alike. Others liked the ability to focus on more complex or simple character classes, depending on their tastes. This was an area where the needs of beginning players and feedback from veterans neatly aligned. It was clear that we had to focus on it for the Essentials products.
There are a lot of ways to approach game design. You can create a body of rules to guide your decision and follow them to the letter. You can rely on your gut feelings and feedback rather than a specific script. We prefer something in the middle. Each project develops its own set of rules, rules that exist to keep each portion of the design in harmony with the greater whole. We’ve seen too many designs fall apart because they picked up contradictory goals along the way. Here’s what Mike Mearls, Group Manager for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, has to say on this subject:
To keep a design on track, I create a list of the project’s important features and goals. These features are then ranked, with most important at the top and the least important at the bottom. That ranking creates an easy guide to resolve problems that come up within the design. When there is a conflict in direction or purpose, the higher-ranking feature wins. If it seems like the lower ranking feature should win for the game to work, it moves up on the list. The rest of the design then changes to match this reordering of features. At its heart, this approach’s simplicity is its strongest suit. Over the years, I’ve also found that it tends to take what look like complex issues and boil them down into simple conflicts between two parts of the game. For the curious, here’s what the top part of the feature list for the essentials process looked like:
Compatibility: The Essentials products aren’t a new version of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, though they do give us a chance to clean up and clarify a few things that have been causing issues the past two years. In the end, current players had to endure as few changes as possible. The only changes we embraced were ones that we would have implemented even if we were not producing the Essentials products. That’s why things like the new approach to racial stat modifiers appeared in Player’s Handbook 3 and the higher monster damage appeared in Monster Manual 3. Regardless of the directions the Essentials products took, we wanted to implement these new approaches in the game.
Player Choice: Players had to feel they were making important, interesting choices at each step in the character creation process. From picking a class to choosing a feat, these decisions had to feel vivid and meaningful.
World Flavor: The character classes, powers, and other features had to have a place in the Dungeons & Dragons world. It is easy to divorce mechanics from any sort of grounding in the “reality” of the world. We wanted to avoid that by providing a context and logic that underscored the options we were presenting.”
In the past, we focused far more on the overall structure of the character classes. Each class used the same rate of progression for powers, and class features fell away from a class after 1st level. Structure has fallen far down the list. You can expect to see different progressions in classes and the return of class features as a common element for some classes as they advance in level.
As you can see, we made a number of changes in our approach to class design. At the same time, we placed compatibility as our number one goal. This arrangement forced us to take a path that allowed us to add new design to the game without replacing existing classes. We decided that introducing new variations of existing character classes was the best way to meet that goal.
In the Essentials products, we’re introducing new variations of the core classes in a manner similar to sub-classes from older editions of the game. The easiest way to explain the concept is to show an example.
There are two new types of fighters, the slayer and the knight, in the Essentials products. The slayer is a heavily armored defender whose two-handed weapon attacks let the class lean into the space normally occupied by the striker. The knight, on the other hand, is entirely the selfless defender who protects the weak and innocent from marauding monsters.
As fighters, the slayer and the knight can both take feats, powers, and abilities that require the fighter character class. However, they also have class features and unique powers that other fighters cannot take. The rules for sorting this out are simple. If a class gives you a power that has a level in its stat block, you can swap that power for one of the same type (at-will, encounter, daily, or utility) and the same or lower level. If the power doesn’t have a level, you can’t swap it for a different power.
The great thing about this approach is that it allows us to build character classes that feel unique when compared to other options. We can mold sub-groups of powers to allow a new type within a class to fill a different role or embrace mechanics that highlight the unique features of a specific setting or genre.
With these rules in hand, we designed classes that fit within the story and conceptual framework of our existing classes while stretching the mechanical limits we had previously worked under. I’ll be showing you examples of these classes through the summer, starting with the cleric at the end of this column.
We’ve charted a new direction in class design with the Essentials products. It’s a direction we intend to use from here on out. It’s important to remember, however, that we specifically built this to maintain compatibility with material that came before. A knight can select fighter feats and utility powers from any source, and the same is true for all of the other classes. The Essentials products allow us to roll out new approaches within the scope of the current game, not force you to buy new books and abandon your old ones.
Now, let’s look at the new cleric.
The Essentials Cleric
The warpriest is a cleric that specializes in melee combat. This class uses Wisdom for all of its attacks and focuses on weapon use rather than implements. The warpriest is proficient with chainmail and light and heavy shields. Most importantly, a warpriest chooses a domain that’s tied to the god that he or she follows. That domain shapes the warpriest’s at-will and encounter attack powers while also providing a number of thematic class features. A warpriest can still pick and choose from the wider body of cleric powers, but the class gains a few benefits when using thematically appropriate encounter powers.
Divine Leader: You lead by healing and shielding allies with your prayers, and by drawing on divine power to improve your allies’ attacks. Your high Armor Class and effective weapon attacks let you lean toward defender as a secondary role.
Why This Is the Class for You: You like playing a character who fights in the thick of combat while wielding magic and healing allies.
The gods are a powerful force in the fantasy world of the Dungeons & Dragons game, but they do have their limits. In the earliest days of creation, during a conflict known as the Dawn War, all the gods fought the powerful beings known as the primordials for control of the world. In the aftermath of their ancient wars, the gods were prevented from directly manifesting in the world for extended periods of time. Now they war among themselves, with good deities opposing the endless schemes of their evil counterparts. In the world, they wage their struggles and spread their influence through mortal followers who draw on their divine power.
Clerics are battle leaders invested with divine power. A cleric might be a humble servant of a god or a divine enforcer, protecting what is sacred, questing for holy artifacts, and pursuing adventure in order to spread the tenets of his or her god.
The common folk look to the gods for guidance and aid, and each cleric is expected to act as a deity’s emissary in the world. A cleric might lack a fighter’s skill at arms or a wizard’s ability to call down the deadliest spells. However, some of the greatest deeds accomplished by mortals have been inspired by a cleric’s drive, vision, and ability to turn a fractious group of adventurers into heroes. The type of cleric you can create with this book is the warpriest.
Key Abilities: Wisdom, Constitution
Warpriests use a combination of religious dedication and keen insight to access the divine magic granted by the gods they serve. Using that magic to back up impressive martial ability, warpriests serve as the shield of their faith. Warpriests protect the innocent from marauding monsters and lead adventuring expeditions into the dark unknown. They are drawn to the borderlands between the scattered settlements of civilization and the realms of chaos. There, they attend the spiritual and military needs of the population.
Warpriests occupy the middle ground between the wizard and the fighter. They are trained to use weapons and armor, but it is their induction into the mysteries of divine magic that makes them unique. A warpriest can smash an orc with a mace one moment and unleash divine power to smite a vampire the next. The power of weapons and the might of magic meet in the divine mandate of the warpriest.
Domain and Deity
Clerics derive their power from the gods, and choosing which deity your character follows is an important first step when creating a warpriest. The deity your character follows helps to shape the powers you wield and your place in the world.
A domain is a sphere of power that specific deities control. No god is powerful enough to claim the entirety of creation. Instead, each deity watches over a specific portion of the world and the activities of its people. As warrior clerics, warpriests have an affinity for deities associated with domains that provide the power and might needed to drive back the forces of evil. Two such domains—storm and sun—are summarized below. Each domain mentions specific deities that are tied to it. Your Dungeon Master might also have other gods you can choose from that are specific to the campaign world.
Before you choose a domain, think about the kind of warpriest you want to play. Clerics of the storm domain believe in taking the fight to the enemy. They focus on destructive attacks that set up a clear path for their allies’ assault. The powers offered by the storm domain leave creatures broken and vulnerable against the next attacks they face. Clerics of the sun domain use their power primarily to shield their allies from enemy attacks. Such clerics might use magic to wrap their allies in protective wards or to incapacitate their foes, leaving them unable to attack.
Hit Points: You start with hit points equal to 12 + your Constitution score. You gain 5 hit points each time you gain a level.
Bonus to Defenses: +1 to Fortitude, +1 to Will
Healing Surges per Day: 7 + your Constitution modifier
Armor Proficiencies: Cloth, leather, hide, chainmail; light shield, heavy shield
Weapon Proficiencies: Simple melee, simple ranged
Implement Proficiencies: Holy symbols
Class Skills: Arcana (Int), Diplomacy
(Cha), Heal (Wis), History (Int), Insight
(Wis), Religion (Int)
In the heroic tier, your abilities as a warpriest focus on directing the magic offered by your domain. You learn to call down new effects as your mastery increases.
Warpriest Heroic Tier
Class Features and Powers
Channel divinity powers
||Domain encounter power
||Ability score increase
||Domain encounter power
||Ability score increase
Level 1: Healing Word
Healing word allows you to invigorate and restore your allies using the power of divine magic. As you gain levels, you can restore more hit points with each use.
Healing word is a close burst, but it affects only one creature. You can use this power without provoking opportunity attacks, but remember that you must still be within range of the ally who needs healing.
Benefit: You gain the healing word power.
You whisper a brief prayer as divine light washes over your ally, mending wounds and soothing the spirit.
burst 5 (10 at 11th level, 15 at 21st level)Target:
You or one ally in the burstEffect:
The target can spend a healing surge and regain 1d6 additional hit points.
Level 6: 2d6 additional hit points.Special:
Level 11: 3d6 additional hit points.
Level 16: 4d6 additional hit points.
Level 21: 5d6 additional hit points.
Level 26: 6d6 additional hit points.
You can use this power twice per encounter, but only once per round. At 16th level, you can use this power three times per encounter.
Level 1: Domain Features
When you choose a domain, you establish a path for your warpriest that grants you distinctive abilities. You are a cleric of the storm or a cleric of the sun, forever binding yourself to the faith that grants you your power.
Benefit: You gain benefits associated with your domain, which include special features plus two at-will attack powers, one utility power, and one encounter attack power. See page 109 for the storm domain benefits and page 115 for the sun domain benefits.
Level 1: Channel Divinity Powers
Once per encounter you can invoke divine power, filling yourself with the might of your patron deity.
Benefit: You gain the smite undead power plus a channel divinity power associated with your domain (storm, page 109, or sun, page 115). You can use only one channel divinity power per encounter.
The gods created life, and most deities view undead creatures as abominations that must be destroyed. As a warpriest, you lead the fight against such creatures, scouring them with the divine energy you channel through your weapon attacks.
You scorch an undead foe with your weapon, driving it back and then binding it in place.
(Special) Channel Divinity, Divine, Radiant, WeaponStandard ActionMelee
One undead creatureAttack:
Wisdom vs. Will
2[W] + Wisdom modifier radiant damage, and you push the target a number of squares up to 3 + your Constitution modifier. The target is immobilized until the end of your next turn.
Level 11: 3[W] + Wisdom modifier radiant damage.
Level 21: 4[W] + Wisdom modifier radiant damage.
Miss: Half damage.
Special: You can use only one channel divinity power per encounter.
I’ll be back again next week with more news as well as more on our continuing exploration of the new Essentials player character classes—this time we’ll dive into the wizard class. Until then …
In Case You Don't Know Him
Bill Slavicsek's gaming life was forever changed when he discovered Dungeons & Dragons in 1976. He became a gaming professional in 1986 when he was hired by West End Games as an editor. He quickly added developer, designer, and creative manager to his resume, and his work helped shape the Paranoia, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and Torg roleplaying games. He even found some time during that period to do freelance work for D&D 1st Edition. In 1993, Bill joined the staff of TSR, Inc. as a designer/editor. He worked on a bunch of 2nd Edition material, including products for Core D&D, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and Planescape. In 1997, he was part of the TSR crowd that moved to Seattle to join Wizards of the Coast, and in that year he was promoted to R&D Director for D&D. In that position, Bill oversaw the creation of both the 3rd Edition and 4th Edition of the D&D Roleplaying Game. He was one of the driving forces behind the D&D Insider project, and he continues to oversee and lead the creative strategy and effort for Dungeons & Dragons.
Bill's enormous list of credits includes Alternity, d20 Star Wars, The Mark of Nerath Dungeons & Dragon novel, Eberron Campaign Setting, the D&D For Dummies books, and his monthly Ampersand (&) column for Dragon Magazine.