Review: Essentials Rules Compendium

RulesCompendiumI’m thinking about what 4E books I’ll keep and what I’ll get rid off. I imagine that a lot of 4E stuff will start getting pretty cheap to pick up. I never did get into 4E essentials, but I have picked up the Rules Compendium for the new essentials line.

As a quick overview, the book is a hefty volume covering all the rules fit to print about 4E, updated and incorporating the various errata that has trickled out from WotC since the release of the new edition over 4 years ago. It is packed with text going into detail about just about any rules question that would likely pop up during a game, with plenty of examples and a fair amount of artwork. All in all, a fairly good volume for a ‘rules book’.

There are a few new tweaks to the existing rules buried in certain chapters. The skill DC values have been modified bumping up the values for most checks. Also higher level skill challenges utilize an advantage system. As players score successful checks, these are little perks to give the players a chance to get more successes as the challenge progresses.

Treasure now can be classified by rarity, with items having a flat bonus being common items. Most items with a daily ability fall within the uncommon to rare range. Again, a nice idea giving the DM a little more guidance on how items compare with each other, rather than just being based on the relative level. This rarity also translates to the value of an item, with more rare magic items fetching a greater price.

There are some other nice additions. Randomized treasure is a possibility now, with a DM rolling several times to determine the amount of coins, gems, artwork, or possibility of getting a magic item. Still not quite that definitive D100 chart, but passable. I also like that the standard arrays for ability scores have been expanded a bit. Two options of a specialized array (maxing out a key stat with an 18), or dual specialist are now choices (2 high stats of 16). Which is nice to give those looking for a quick build another option besides the point buy arrays listed.

I also really liked the skills section. Not only do they give a run down of each skill, but they also give a little summary of some out-of-the-box uses for skills. Some great information for both players and DMs to see how skills can be stretched and applied as unique solutions to problems.

However as I started to go through the book, I became to realize more and more what was missing. I figured this would be a comprehensive ‘go to’ book for just about any rules question. Instead I found some things to be what I consider as glaring omissions. This leads me to the problem I see with the Rules Compendium, a lack of focus for its audience.

This book was rolled out with the essentials line. I imagine it was marketed as the ultimate rules resource for players and DMs alike. At the same time, the book had been hyped as a great buy for the guy that’s been with 4E since launch, and this book finally has all the updated rules in one volume, all at their fingertips. Because of being tied in with the essentials line, I tend to think there are some critical parts of the book that have been left out, simply to be covered in other products. If you are an essentials player, no worries. But if you bought this book to serve as a one volume rulebook for older 4E material, you are out of luck.

This mixed bag also rears up with some of the material presented. The powers section covers a small explanation of augmentable powers, which is great. But then in the first chapter you find quite a few pages dedicated to explaining roleplaying games and what D&D is all about. Not to mention quite a few tips for new DMs running their game. Good info is there, but I tend to think shouldn’t the new DM material be presented in the essentials Dungeon Masters Kit?

Again, if the Rules Compendium is going to straddle that line between brand new players and folks very familiar with 4E, and also with both players and DMs alike, there is quite a few missing chunks of rules. This is a slight for a book that claims to be a definitive rules compendium.

No rules for rituals (a little information provided in a sidebar, but still missing some key points), and the same could be said for alchemy. Nothing on feats, especially those related to multiclassing. Nothing on class hybrids either.

Do we need a complete list of every feat or ritual? Nope. However just a summary of the nuts and bolts rules would have been great. How does a player obtain and master a ritual? How many rituals are in a PC book? How do choosing multiclass feats differ from regular feats?

This isn’t just the player side of things either. Why not provide rules for designing traps? At least have the chart for typical damage output for a given player level please. How about the monster design rules? Even a quick summary chart for creating a monster of a specific role (covering the attack bonus, damage output, and defenses per level), or typical minion damage per level would have been great. I’ll also take a moment to point out what I consider a glaring omission, no weapons table. Not even a typical equipment cost list. For a book trumpeted as a handy reference, I’m astounded this was not included.

This last part is also a quibble, but how about summarizing some of the more key tables and charts in the back of the book as another appendix. Yeah, I don’t have to flip through 4 different books to find something now, but I’m still flipping through pages with this book to find the right chart (I guess the deluxe DM screen that came out covered that).

The Good – There is a lot in this book. Much of it is well presented and the ease of reading it (avoiding a lot of rules heavy language) shows through. I’m a fan of the concise format and it encourages people to grab it, throw it in their backpack, and go game somewhere.

The Bad – I think it suffers from trying to be a book for both the essentials only crowd, longtime 4E players, and serve as a guide for DMs and players all at the same time. Trying to cover everything in a single manual likely meant something in the rules had to be left out. And I tend to think these omissions keep the book from really being a stellar product.

The Verdict – For a brand new essentials player, I’m unsure if this is something they would want. I think much of the material is in the red box and a lot more has trickled out in the player’s series of books (Heroes of the Fallen Land) and the Dungeon Master’s Kit. They have quite a bit of rules in only a few books, and much of it is not heavily modified by errata. For the longtime 4E player, I think they will get a bit more out of this book.

This book is at my gaming table when I play 4E. I like using it. I’m glad I bought it. If you hit the convention scene a lot (or need to haul around a lot for games at other people’s houses), the availability of a concise book of updated rules for 4E is nice. But the omissions from this book means I still have to crack open the occasional DMG and DMG2, even the PHB sometimes (or move to the online compendium which is likely going under). I think if portability is an issue, buy this book. Otherwise I think this is an optional buy. Nice to have, but not quite an ‘essential’ rulebook.

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