One of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to any roleplaying game is “where do I start?”. When you’ve got a 300 pound gorilla like Dungeons & Dragons dominating the field 30+ years after its birth, it’s only natural that it’s going to come up as a lot of people’s “go to” answer…but with somewhere upwards of 8+ editions (depending on who is doing the counting), that’s hardly an answer.
Over the course of a few articles, I’m going to look at every edition of Dungeons & Dragons I’ve played extensively and run down the absolutely MUST HAVEs for each of them. As you’ll see, it’s often not a very easy question to answer. I do hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts!
Now we move on to Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition (or 4E), an edition in which many a sacred cow was slain, but so too was any semblance of a clear marketing plan.
Now, I’m of two minds when it comes to 4e. The first is that it may be one of the most interesting, tightest (rules-wise), and best editions of D&D ever (though fundamentally different in enough ways that maybe it’s just the tightest fantasy RPG ever), but this is tempered by the fact that it’s the most damned confusing to buy into.
However you go about it, D&D 4th Edition was a time when Wizards of the Coast got really experimental with their game line, not only in the form of where and what formats to buy (PDF releases that suddenly vanished for years), but also in terms of how they tried to package and repackage some content for different players, and what they put in development to try to recapture audiences…as well as what got cancelled as the line sputtered around before the monumental D&D NEXT playtest arrived.
These were strange times, indeed.
Method 1: Let’s Get Physical…Sorta
- Player’s Handbook
- Player’s Handbook 2 because popular “core” races/classes appear here that weren’t in the original PHB
- Essentials Rules Compendium
- Essentials Monster Vault <- can be replaced by DDI subscription if you don’t need the hardcopy of the tokens
- Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale <- can be replaced by DDI subscription, same as above
That’s a bigger buy-in list than some previous editions (roughly on par with 3rd edition), even with my notes on add-ons. But, with 4e, a person can cheat a little by choosing to purchase a subscription to DDI (Dungeons & Dragons Insider, for those not in the know), which gives you all the monsters, magic items, and character creation options right out the gate.
But that comes with an important caveat: currently, 4e’s DDI tools are in the Archive section of the D&D website, and while there are off-line versions of some pieces, this could become vaporware as soon as the folks at Wizards of the Coast get sick of this stuff sitting on their server, hogging memory. It’s possible it’ll stay there forever, but there’s literally nothing guaranteeing it won’t disappear tomorrow.
Method 2: Embrace the Digital Age
- Player’s Handbook OR Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms OR Heroes of the Fallen Lands <- only if you’re a player
- Essentials Rules Compendium
- DDI Subscription
Same caveat on DDI. If you really know what you want out of a short campaign or a long-term setting, you could theoretically do a lot of copy/pasting and save down the monsters, items, and whatever else you need, but…that’s a lot of work.
One thing that you can’t do without if you are using monsters from Monster Manual or Monster Manual 2 (or monsters featured in any of the adventures that were published before Monster Manual 3) is Monster Manual 3 on a Business Card. The monster stat/attack math before MM3 was a little wonky, leading to fights that dragged a bit more without feeling especially exciting.
You *Almost* Need This, Too…
You’ll note we’re missing something huge: a DM’s guide. If you’re experienced and you grok the rules of 4e, you probably don’t need one. Honestly! Just get the rules stuff and go bonkers; the system is tight enough to do the heavy-lifting for you, and the Rules Compendium has whatever encounter building and reward-giving tools you need.
But if you’re in search of DM tools, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is great. Maybe even one of the best DMGs in years, focusing almost solely on tips and tricks for being a good DM, as opposed to rulesy stuff. That said, the rulesy stuff that’s in there (maybe 10-20% of the book, roughly) is almost all outdated by errata and Skill Challenge updates that show up in Rules Compendium (and/or DMG2).
I also really want to add DMG2 to the stuff you need list, and I want to be explicit on why. I would do this because it contains three things that are extremely useful:
- Great advice on how to handle players of all types, at the table, every single game session. How to be inclusive without being a dick to anyone.
- Inherent Bonuses and other alternate “awards” that allow you to ignore or tailor your magic items to the campaign, without throwing off the carefully balanced maths of 4e. This is a super-simple, super-easy route that can get you a lot of mileage.
- Other “add-on” systems that are extremely useful, including a really great description of Skill Challenges that’s more or less in-line with the Rules Compendium but with more options and examples, hirelings and henchmen, and more.
DMG2 is all about tailoring the game without busting the math, as well as knowing how to identify different types of players and make them feel included, even when they might otherwise “cause problems” at the table. It’s indispensable, and I’d even argue it’s worth a read no matter what edition you play.
The Problem With All of This…
…is that it’s not beginner friendly: you kinda have to pick and choose a specific DMing style of play, which is a very nebulous, subjective thing to make a clear, informed decision about before buying into a gameline. Which is sad, because when you boil down D&D 4E, it’s probably one of the most easy to pick up and learn for a lot of different peoples’ learning styles.
It’s just so poorly organized as a game line.
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