D&D Essential Conversations with Kato Katonian

by Mike Shea on 15 August 2011

After Gencon 2011 I had a chance to have a conversation with the internet’s Kato Katonian about D&D Essentials, D&D 4e design improvements over time, 4e’s broken bits, and limiting options for shorter 12 session mini-campaigns. Here is an edited transcription.

On Essentials-Only games

From Kato

You’ve made it clear that you think Players Handbook classes are broken and essentials is the way to go, and I’ve been curious as to the reasons behind that thinking. I currently don’t have a full opinion one way or the other because my exposure to essentials classes is very limited and superficial (and, quite honestly, since I haven’t read much on them or used them in play, my opinions are strongly colored/influenced by the “general perception” of essentials, which is usually misinformed and not a fair judge of a product or system). So, my curiosity about your strong feelings for the matter is driven both by my current play experience (which hasn’t shown too much of a problem with PHB classes–caveat, I’ve only DM’ed the Heroic tier), and a basic academic curiosity: what part of the PHB classes and earlier design focus isn’t working quite right in the system.

From Mike

I am at odds with some of my players about Essentials and I think I take a more strict view than most.

First, it isn’t just that it’s broken (although some of it is very broken). It’s also that the stuff developed during Essentials and afterward is simply designed better. I heard Rodney Thompson on a podcast talking about weird powers from Martial Power and say “We wouldn’t do it like that anymore”. They don’t errata everything, just extremes, so bad design from earlier books stay in the game.

To me, post Essentials D&D is simply better designed. Battles go faster, character options are more straight forward, monsters are more fun to run. Things just go smoother with Essentials.

It’s not all just about power either. Slayers and thieves often hammer out more damage than previous strikers. Mages still manage to control a lot of the battlefield. Defenders are just as sticky. It’s just about how well the rest of the game works.

The other reason to limit the game, however, is to get players to break out of grooves they might have built for themselves. If they are given limited options each mini-campaign, they try new and wild things. Just like randomly selecting magical items, his players get to see some cool stuff that would get lost when power gaming.

I really only recommend “Essentials Only” for limited campaigns or one-shots. A full on 1 to 30 campaign should have a lot of options for players to explore, but it’s that level 15 to 30 part where combos get to be ridiculous.

I also don’t limit it to JUST essentials. My Dark Sun game limited it to Essentials, PHB2 and PHB3. My upcoming Gloomwrought campaign limits it to Essentials and Heroes of Shadow. My Neverwinter campaign will probably be Essentials and Heroes of the Feywild.

On 4e's Broken Bits

From Kato

It makes sense that Essentials classes would be more refined than those from the PHB. I’m stuck in the trap of thinking of Essentials classes as “dumbed down” because of the rather confusing (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) way they marketed/presented them. I never really thought of them as being better designed as a result of a couple years of experience.

Limiting to break players out of grooves, though, is a really interesting point I hadn’t thought of. Limiting options to mix things up a bit is definitely a plus. And of course I’m for limiting choices (particularly with races, but also with classes in some cases) to fit the mood/theme of a campaign or one off (and was something that you and others discussed at the DMR seminar).

You have mentioned a few times that earlier classes are somewhat “broken” and I assume you mean broken in terms of being too powerful. So, I’m curious, what have you witnessed that is broken about them? And what did they do with essentials to address that problem? Also, do these problems exist at all levels of play, or only Paragon/Epic? Along these lines, what design differences between essentials and PHB classes make things smoother, etc. (as you mentioned below)

From Mike

I think about limiting classes and races much like a Magic Standard format where you can only play with the most recent three expansions. It’s mainly done to keep the game feeling fresh instead of feeling like the same old thing. That said, I want typical core races and classes so Essentials will always be allowed in my campaigns along with one or two other source books generally. I have yet to run any true “Essentials Only” campaign, even a mini-campaign. I’d sort of like to when I run the Nentir Vale stuff (The two Dungeon Master’s Kit adventures, the Monster Vault adventure, and the Gardmore Abbey adventure).

The broken stuff mostly turns up beginning in Paragon and heading into Epic. Some big things include:

Again, this only really becomes a problem above level 10. I think level 1 to 10 is the true sweet spot for D&D and WOTC is giving that part of the game a lot of support. I’m happy to be the “epic guy” but I’m happier playing where support is best so I’ll probably be sticking to level 1 to 10 for my next two mini-campaigns after my Gloomwrought one (which is level 8 to 15).

As far as specific PHB1 stuff that ends up not working, most of it is at level 11+ but some of it can be seen at lower levels. Rogues have a lot of push, pull, and slide effects that are best given to controllers; the rogue’s minor action low slash is a bit powerful, warlords in PHB1 are extremely powerful party boosters. That’s really not much of a problem until higher levels. PHB wizard spells usually hurt party members which leads to a lot of arguments at the table. The ranger’s twin strike is overpowered due to increased crit chances. All of the feats that boost the critical threat range are trouble but that’s not until level 21. Most of it is ok, though.

Swordmages are a catastrophe. They just act weird as a defender and end up confusing everyone at the table. Later on their crazy teleports and damage mitigation just end up slowing down a battle instead of making the battles move forward.

This brings up a big point with me. To me, a battle isn’t moving unless both sides are doing damage to each other. Some players really love to be unhittable unkillable walls of armor and hit points but that’s not a lot of fun from the DM perspective. Much better are defenders who get lots of chances to attack when a creature violates a mark. The PCs I like best dish out damage to monsters and who might be a little squishy. Big beefy defenders are fine but its annoying to DMs when the defender either can’t be hit or shrugs off all damage or both. It just feels like the battle isn’t going anywhere then.

This is why, in later level games, most of my most dangerous battles revolve around high damage unresistable environmental effects, damage shields, or auras. It’s the only way to threaten the unkillable PCs.

So there you have it, a conversation that covers a few different topics. If you enjoyed this take a look at Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games. Looking for some great minis for your game? Take a look at D&D Miniatures from Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.

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