I’ve been a D&D 3.5e Dungeon Master since it came out. Not too long ago, I was DMing a Dungeons and Dragons 3.5e campaign online, until it collapsed under its own weight. My players and I loved coming up with scenarios and worldbuilding stuff on the fly, and having to come up with stats for everything took a lot longer than it did to just think up a character concept.
We ended up switching to a homebrew, rules-light system for that game. But then my girlfriend started reading Dungeons and Dragons 4e campaign logs, and getting excited about the kinds of characters you could play in it. I knew they’d just re-released the D&D “red box” starter set, so I looked into getting that for us to play. And in the process I found out they were creating a whole new, newbie-friendly product line … Dungeons and Dragons Essentials, a set of ten inexpensive books and boxed sets that contain everything you needed to play Dungeons and Dragons.
So far I’ve bought everything in the Dungeons and Dragons Essentials line except the last set of Dungeon Tiles, which doesn’t come out until next month. Here’s what my experience with Dungeons and Dragons Essentials has been like, from a DM’s perspective!
From the red box Starter Set to the Monster Vault, you feel like you’re getting a lot for each purchase. The red box comes with character sheets, cards for each power and magic item, dice, and a two-sided battle map. Plus it includes cardboard tokens and stats for monsters that aren’t even featured in the adventure, tiding DMs over until they purchase the Monster Vault.
Each boxed set aimed at the DM (the Monster Vault and Dungeon Master’s Kit) comes with a ton of “get playing now” stuff, like more cardboard tokens and premade adventures. The included two-sided maps are incomplete for playing out their adventures, but you can draw the missing sections or use Dungeon Tiles — one whole side of the Monster Vault adventure’s map seems to have been made using them.
A novice DM who buys the whole Dungeons and Dragons Essentials line will be able to run her players through 4-5 levels of premade adventures before writing her own, or even reading all the way through the books. And between Dungeon Tiles, monster tokens, and the rules for designing encounters — vastly simplified over D&D 3.5e — it looks like creating your own adventures would be a breeze. I haven’t gotten that far yet, although I was able to improvise a Skill Challenge, a sort of freeform skill-based RP that still grants Experience Points.
While it looks like it’d be easy to create encounters and adventures using the Dungeons and Dragons Essentials line, they don’t give any rules at all for DMs to create their own traps, monsters or magic items. The monsters they’ve got plenty of, even in the red box set. But only a handful of sample traps and magic items are given, and even the monsters thin out towards “epic” levels. Admittedly, D&D 3.5e’s rules for magic item creation were broken, but it’d be nice to at least have some guidelines.
After all the work I had to do to prepare for our D&D 3.5e games, it’s really nice to just be able to pick up the game and play, even as the Dungeon Master … like I said, I still haven’t gotten past the premade stuff. On the other hand, with everything planned out in advance, DMing one of the less-imaginative combat encounters can feel like you’re just moving pieces around. I was excited when one of my players ran from a couple of dire rats and discovered a divination pool, because it let me go outside the box just a bit.
Keeping track of each monster and character’s initiative score during combat is a bit of a hassle. And finally, while having tokens for every monster this time around is a really nice touch, they don’t include any power cards — invaluable for keeping track of which abilities have been used and what they do — beyond the basic ones in the red box. I ended up buying some blank power cards from Made by Wombat instead, and they seem very high-quality.
I have a feeling that with Dungeons and Dragons Essentials, it’s going to be a lot easier than it was in 3.5e for me to create the stuff that I enjoy creating: adventures, encounters, and skill challenges. They have excellent guidelines for making your own, and while it was fun to put together stats for each monster in 3.5e sometimes, it’s really nice not to have to for each session I DM.
On the other hand, without guidelines for making my own traps, monsters and magic items, I’m just going to have to eyeball it based on the sample ones. I suspect that they want DMs to keep buying their products to get more. And while I probably will anyway, I don’t like the feeling that they’re trying to make me.
In the end, though, my players are all having fun … and so am I! Whatever game you play or DM/GM, I hope you have fun with it also.