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Essentials Survival Guide
Save My Game
by Stephen Radney-MacFarland

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few months, you probably know that the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line is the new hotness. But you may also be asking the question, “how essential is it for me?” This month, I’ll help you answer that question.

If you are anything like me—a Dungeons & Dragons nerd—you’ll probably want to pick up all the Essentials products out of a mixed sense of fanboy curiosity and the need to have a complete D&D collection. But I also know that, with the state of the economy, not all of you are as eager as me to part with hard-earned cash, and you are probably wondering what in the Essentials line is … well, essential.

If You Can Buy Only One …

Assuming—as I do in this column—that you are a Dungeon Master who runs games at least occasionally, the one Essentials product that I would absolutely recommend getting first is the Rules Compendium. First off, it’s a pretty handy book—it has the grand majority of the rules for D&D, all updated and compacted into a smaller, lighter, and easier-to-transport 320-page tome. If like me you run some of your games away from your home, this book is the next best thing to having it on Amazon’s Kindle application with a tablet.

Not only is it handy, there are a fair number of revisions and new and interesting stuff in the Rules Compendium. First and foremost, at least in my mind, is the section on skill challenges (pages 157–163). While much of it is a rehash of old information (and there has been soooo much written on the subject of skill challenges), there is some new tech there. The first is a list of typical DCs that gives you a little more guidance on what’s a good frequency of moderate and hard checks to sprinkle through your challenges. For you old warhorses, this will seem like common sense, but it’s a boon for those who may still be having trouble fine-tuning their skill challenges.

The second major bit of tech is advantages.

For skill challenges of complexity 3 or higher, advantages are a way in which you, the DM, can add an “easy button.” There are four of these advantages that allow you to gain more from a skill check success or remove a failure instead of gaining a success. The rules on advantages also state that you should add these rules to skill challenges of complexity 3 or higher, so in a way they are a bit of stealth errata for all higher complexity skill challenges.

Skill challenges aside, the entire chapter on skills is a must read. There have been numerous adjustments and tweaks to skills in current updates, and they are all in Rules Compendium. There are even a few new changes sprinkled here and there—for instance, for characters trained in Arcana, detecting the presence of magic now only takes a standard action instead a full minute. No more waiting until the end of the encounter to search for that magical loot! The chapter also contains the newest and greatest incarnation of the Difficulty Class by Level chart. The math is better, and it is handled on a per-level basis rather than every three levels. If you want to use it right away and get some great commentary on the changes, Stephen “Shoe” Shubert has a fantastic Design & Development article about it this month in Dragon Magazine.

Rules Compendium also gives you information on the new magic item rarity scheme and a new way to randomly determine treasure per level.

While the Rules Compendium is a boon for any Dungeon Master, there are a few blind spots you should be aware of. Information on rituals is slim, to put it mildly. Rituals just get a general sidebar on page 134. If you’re waist deep in the paragon tier or higher, your players are probably finding more uses for rituals. The new magic item rarity rules seem to be partially designed to free up liquid treasure for other uses, so for some of you, this will be a tad annoying. Rules Compendium also leaves out some of the rules for weapon properties in the game (, defensive, stout, and fan-favorite brutal) along with rules on double weapons. There is no mention of backgrounds (at least backgrounds with mechanical elements), themes, the piloting vehicle rules, and some other things that tend to be more DM-centric, so they will poke their heads up in the Dungeon Master’s Kit. If you use those rules in your game, you will want to supplement your Rules Compendium with a cheat sheet.

What About All That Other Stuff?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the main goal of Essentials is to serve as a starting point for new players. That doesn’t mean current players can't be excited about the new options presented in Heroes of the Fallen Lands or Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. Rules monkeys in particular will want to use them. It doesn’t hurt you to be familiar with these books, but they are written to be player- rather than DM-focused, so don’t feel like you must have them—leave that to your players. One thing you will want to check out is the updates to existing rules that are presented in Heroes of the Fallen Lands (and a similar file that will surely be released with Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdom). You also should read Mike Mearls’s explanation for the rationale driving some of those changes.

More DM love will come in later months with both the Dungeon Master’s Kit and Monster Vault. If you’re an old pro at the DMing game, these products will merely supplement your already formidable arsenal of tools with new monsters, adventures, advice, and mapping aids. There are neat things you haven’t seen before, which is always a treat, but unless you are still feeling a little uneasy as a DM, you can live without them. I’ll be buying the Dungeon Master’s Kit for the new and updated DM’s Screen alone (though I’m sure I will enjoy Rich Baker’s adventure, and the advice and rules presented in the DM’s book). As far as Monster Vault goes, I’m always a sucker for new monsters.

The same can be said for the Dungeon Tiles Master Set. If you missed out on earlier sets, you will want this. If you already have a bunch of dungeon tiles, then you can afford to wait—put this on your holiday wish list. You can never have too many dungeon tiles, at least in my opinion. My wife has a different opinion on the matter.

At the end of the day, the Essentials line doesn’t change the game you’ve been playing since the release of 4E. It codifies updates, and provides a new, arguably easier, and less expensive starting point for new players. It's a boon for those things alone. It affects your ongoing campaign only when someone rolls up a new character using its options. Still, for the DM, it provides some great tools … and DMs love great tools.

Earn D&D Karma: Become a Red Box/Essentials Mentor

The one item I haven’t talked about is the D&D Starter Set, or so-called Red Box (because, well, it’s red and it’s a box!). Most of you will only want to pick it up for the nostalgia value. Its Larry Elmore cover art and full-on 1981 time machine text treatment feels like coming home. Oh, and it looks oh-so sharp sitting in the gaming cabinet! But more so than any Essential’s product, this is a product that will see little use from a Dungeons & Dragons Insider.

That said, it is great point of introduction for the uninitiated, and you may want to become familiar with it for another reason—to mentor other potential players and Dungeon Masters. Lately a group of my students, maybe sick of hearing me wax philosophical about tabletop RPGs and D&D in particular, decided to pick it up and have a go. These teenage and 20-something video game fanatics are now hooked, and I’m having a blast guiding them through the finer points of tabletop RPG fun.

Bear in mind I’m not running the game for them. One of the great things about the Starter Set is that it not only guides new players through the concepts and procedures of the game, it also trains new DMs to run the game. It’s been a blast helping a budding DM find points of clarity with the rules and edge him on to greater adventure after the contents of that set have been exhausted. After all, helping create more DMs is the best thing we can do for the hobby!

On to the Letters!

If you’re new to this column, every month I endeavor to provide helpful advice to the Dungeon Master out in game space. Admittedly I focus on advice to newer DMs, using years accumulated wisdom, error, and observation to help them avoid problems and get out of DMing jams. I also do this by answering questions that you, the DM on the ground, send me through the Save My Game group on the Wizards Community. If you have a problem, a question, or further suggestions and insights for your fellow DM, I suggest you become part of the Save My Game conversation there.

Here are a few of the questions posted on that group in the past month.

Aid Another, Again and Again

My group has trouble roleplaying. We've been through about five sessions, and they are about to reach level 3, but they still don't get the roleplaying aspect of the game. They continually pause to discuss tactics and rules wordings, so that when the Diplomacy check is made it's not entirely the PC who made it. To a certain extent I'm fine with this; I allow two people to assist and let them give advice on how to phrase things. However, recently it has become a hassle in combat. Originally I did not stop it because they were getting used to their characters, but now I'm having trouble with them planning out tactics that they would not be able to do in a combat encounter. For instance, they go into detailed plans of who should use what power and such.

How do I make them come up with their own decisions instead of deciding as a group? I've tried giving them six syllables per combat round, and they either make ridiculous sentences that couldn't possibly convey meaning ("Tweak missile staff!") or ignore the rule when I'm busy with another player. Help would be much appreciated.

—Hjs102, from the Save My Game Group

One of the great things about Dungeons & Dragons is that it is a game with a lot of breadth. Some players really get into the roleplaying. Some groups really get into the rules. Some of the best groups have a balanced love of both. It sounds like you have a lot of rules monkeys.

While I understand your concerns about slowing down the game, teamwork is also part of D&D, and there are quite a few DMs who would love the level of teamwork, cooperation, and engagement that your players are exhibiting. The best thing you can do may be to try to not let it bother you. It’s going to be hard to stop even if you try, and you may end up accomplishing nothing except squashing their enthusiasm for the game.

During my last session, the rogue in my group was dead, and during the 8 hours it took for the wizard to cast the Raise Dead ritual, the group had to figure out how to prepare for and harass an invasion from a very large hobgoblin army. During the discussion, the person playing the rogue kept giving advice to the other characters. I reminded the player a couple of times that her character was dead, and asked her how she was having this conversation with the other players. This flustered her a bit, because she really wanted to participate in the game. She told me, “These were conversations we had before I died during short and extended rests.” Good enough for me! We moved on. She was happy and engaged, and it got me out of a position of having to (futilely) tell her to zip it every five minutes.

On a rules note, you may want to check out the update on the aid another rules (listed as “Cooperation” in the Player’s Handbook). There are now new, harder DCs (10 + half character’s level) and a penalty for failure (-1 to the skill check instead of +1), which makes those rules less certain and more dynamic.

My Players Hate My NPCs!

I seem to have an unfortunate knack for getting my players to hate my NPCs. Often what I think are subtle hints that a character is not trustworthy make my players ready throw down right away.

I had one scene go off the rails when a hated NPC was chasing a spy from the PCs’ organization, and the PCs jumped in on the side of the spy! Note that this NPC had been a vocal opponent of the PCs within the rebellion, accusing them of showboating and taking risks—nothing deserving of a death sentence (or so I thought). Fortunately, they didn't kill her, but took great satisfaction in beating her into unconsciousness.

In another instance, the PCs picked up very early that the mad wizard of the rebellion was not to be trusted. When it was finally revealed that the wizard was being cruelly manipulated by the villains to get him to betray the PCs, they were far from sympathetic.

Often I have to remind the players of the reasons that direct opposition to these NPCs is impractical, and they only grudgingly put down the giant mallet of NPC splattage. How can I channel this potentially useful player enthusiasm such that the PCs don't devolve into bullies who beat up anybody that rubs them the wrong way?

—Goken100, from the Save My Game Group

This is a constant DM dilemma, especially for a DM who likes to have NPCs with shades of gray. There are exceptions, I know, but over the years I’ve found that PCs are simple creatures, even when their players are not. Even a player who loves relativist fiction and rich character dramas will often reach for weapon or implement at the slightest hint of betrayal.

I’ve found that there are a few reasons for this. First and foremost, D&D PCs are almost always spoiling for a fight. Fighting is fun, most characters are built with fighting in mind, and—let’s face—it the reasons for fighting in D&D are nearly as shallow as they are abundant. Imagine if the real world worked that way; you would see more wanton violence than a zombie apocalypse. Another reason is that the characters are pretty self absorbed. They will forget subtleties concerning the personality and background of your NPCs, because they are typically focused on the subtleties of their own characters (typically subtleties on how to optimize their combat efficiency).

If you want them to understand the motives of your NPCs, try to be less subtle. That doesn’t mean that your NPCs can’t have complex motivations. It does mean that you need to be more direct when letting your players in on the subtleties, and remind them frequently.

For instance, I don’t know how the wizard in your second example was being manipulated, but having the PCs find and rescue his kidnapped family (or familiar?) would have been a great way of getting the point across. Making a connection in a direct and visceral way instead of a more philosophical way makes character care more, because they had something to do with its resolution. PCs are very results-oriented creatures—that’s one of the many reasons they’re always spoiling for a fight.

About the Author

Stephen Radney-MacFarland caught the D&D bug at an impressionable age. Once the content manager for the RPGA, and a developer for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, he is now a freelance game designer doing work for Wizards of the Coast and Paizo Publishing, and he is part of a fledgling group of game commentators and game designers called NeoGrognard. During the daylight hours, he teaches game production classes at the International Academy of Design and Technology of Seattle.