At the risk of provoking some of the anti-Essentials crowd, I’m going to discuss why I like Essentials, and how it represents positive progress in game design.
Fourth edition began with a structure that defined all classes. Each class got its feats, powers, and features at the same time, more or less. This structure led to the complaint among many that the game was too much like a video game. Power was carefully structured as a reaction to the rampant disparities in previous editions. As a result, fourth edition is a well-balanced game. I realize certain mechanics lead to game-breaking builds and combinations, but given the extent of the mechanical content, the game is, by-and-large, balanced.
Initially, I favored this highly structured system. It was easy to compare classes and powers side by side and say, “this is a striker because it does one extra die of damage” or “this is a defender because it does less damage but keeps enemies from escaping.” This type of structure is friendly to designers, because they have clearly defined guidelines, it’s friendly to developers, because they can compare powers to other powers of the same usage and level, and it’s friendly to fans, because they can analyze mechanics as if they were designers and developers.
As we released more powers and more classes, it began to seem like something was missing in this design approach. As more feats, powers, features, and multiclass options become available, this highly structured approach breaks down to a certain extent. A person can play a fighter without looking anything like a fighter. A warlord can be made into a striker. And classes cease to have as much meaning. One need only look at how many people are playing classes from Player’s Handbook 1 compared to Player’s Handbook 2, and Player’s Handbook 2 compared to Player’s Handbook 3. People want iconic experiences, and they want to feel like their class is different from others. Although some people enjoy the game of mechanic-analysis, it is a game that a relatively small fraction of the gaming community actually plays (though if you’re reading this blog, that probably means you’re a player).
Most people that play games just want to have fun. If you’re playing D&D, you’re probably not “playing to win.” One of the requisites for enjoying a game is having a personalized experience. Even in a social game, you want to feel like your experience is a unique one. You enjoy the camaraderie of a group, but when you go home, you remember different experiences than the person next to you, or you remember the experience in a different way. So where does that leave us in game design? It tells us that we need to create custom experiences by providing a solid foundation of disparate mechanics. What is the appeal of games like Mass Effect? It’s the combination of shared and disparate experiences. You play the same game as another person, but the character and story are different.
The Essentials classes might not be for everyone, particularly people preoccupied with playing the class-comparison game. They are not only different expressions of classes, they are different expressions of the game. These expressions show the capacity of the game to grow in a real, organic way, for an Essentials character can exist alongside a traditionally built one. Food for thought: The new rogue and fighter builds don’t go nearly as far as they could. These are representations of classic classes from D&D, but they still follow some of the same 4E advancement structures with regards to feats, ability scores, powers, paragon paths, and epic destinies. The Essentials builds are not radical departures when compared to the range of possibilities: a class entirely without encounter or daily powers, a class with only daily powers, a class that only advances more slowly, a class that gets feats every level or not at all. The Essentials builds show the flexibility of the system, and they represent what I believe is a healthy direction for any game: a direction with few (if any) buckets and boxes, one in which designers are free to give the players disparate, crazy experiences.