WOTC is coming out with “D&D Essentials”, intended to be a 4e version of the D&D Basic line that ran parallel to 1st edition. Seems like a good time to think about what “D&D Essentials” means.
I have a lot of nostalgia for older D&D versions, and I try to be aware of that nostalgia. Still, it’s hard to pick through and figure out which of my favorite things about old D&D editions were actually cool, and should be brought back or included in future versions, and which were accidents, or nonessential parts of its coolness: elements I love, where my love has more to do with my history with D&D than with their objective loveability.
One of the ways to make this distinction might be to try to separate what I loved when I was a kid newly introduced to D&D, versus what I love now.
My 8-year-old Essentials list:
-Dragons: My first D&D edition was the 1983 red box Basic set, when I was 8 or so. I have a distinct memory of thinking the page of dragons was awesome: their hit die total was so much higher than the other monsters in the bestiary. They were badasses! Also, you could subdue them, which meant that you would have your own dragon. Awesome!
-Dungeons: I liked drawing them as much as playing them. I drew a lot of dungeons, using the dungeon symbol key (squares for doors, dollar-sign S in the wall for secret doors); more dungeons than I ever played.
-Equipment: The idea that you could equip your character for the unknown with wolfsbane and 10′ poles – really be ready for anything – appealed to me. And, of course, I liked the power fantasy of getting magic weapons and items, and the gambling aspects of rolling for treasure on the treasure table.
My 8-year-old nonessentials list:
-HP: I remember thinking that the fact that you got a new die of hit points every level was ludicrous, so much so that I and my friends decided it was a printing error of some sort, and we house-ruled it that you rolled up your hit points normally for level 1, and then for each successive level you got 1 additional hit point. The idea that a 3rd level character had 3 times as many hit points as a 1st level character? Crazy! I see now why in our Basic games, our mortality rate was so high. In the Basic D&D red box, which covered levels 1-3, extra hit points was basically the only advantage characters got when they leveled. All characters used the same to-hit chart and saving throws for levels 1-3. Wizards and clerics got one or two more spells, and thieves marginally improved their terrible chances of pulling off a thief stunt, but fighters got nothing but hit points. So the “one hp per level” ruling was my first bad houserule.
-Halflings: I just didn’t care for them, although I liked reading The Hobbit. I liked the elves, though. I think this had a lot to do with the Easley and Elmore art. Elves looked beautiful and resolute; halflings were pictured as a) pudgy and b) fleeing from stuff.
A lot of my 8-year-old opinions have carried over to my modern feelings about D&D:
My current D&D essentials list:
-dungeons. I like lots of politics and intrigue, thieves guild hijinx, and ship-based campaigns, and but sometimes you have to light the torch and go exploring underground.
-dragons. They should be the coolest creatures in the D&D world. When the party has to fight a dragon, they should freak out a little.
-Lavishing fetishistic attention on your equipment choices, both magical and nonmagical. If that were generalized away into, say, an “equipment” stat, the way wealth is in some RPGs, it wouldn’t feel like D&D.
-The Tolkien fantasy races: elves, dwarves, halflings. You can add more, like dragonborn, though I’ll never really love them, but you can’t subtract any. Except halflings. They can go.
Elements that I love, but I don’t think are actually essential:
-hit points. I’m on the fence about this one. They’re a legitimately foolish combat model but a legitimately great gameplay mechanic. You couldn’t replace HP, but I think you could tweak them a lot. 4e’s extra 1st-level HP and Bloodied condition are a good start.
-Clerics: both their role and their class name. They don’t really describe much in legend and fantasy literature, and perhaps for that reason, they never really seized me in the way that the other classes did.
-The spell system. It’s intrinsic to the coolness of D&D that it has a spell system, but the original system – Vancian spellcasting, 1-9 levels – could be changed. The 4th edition replacement is probably better, but I still don’t think it’s a bullseye. I’d be excited by the prospect of a well-done reworking.
-Also: “Magic Missile” and “Cure Light Wounds” are really clunky names, and I’m aware that my love for them is pure nostalgia. If you were paring D&D down to its legitimately-cool elements, these spell names would go.
-The peculiar stuff you could buy in Basic D&D and 1e D&D. 10′ pole. Wolfsbane. Holy water. Flasks of oil. A hawk. A mule. A piece of chalk. Iron rations. A steel mirror.