Since the D&D Essentials line was announced, there has been a lot of speculation that it is meant as a ‘stealth’ edition. In fact, Bill Slavicsek took the time in his most recent Ampersand column to debunk this concept. He specifically notes that the Essentials products will be “fully compatible with the rest of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game.” and that “The rules of the game are the same as those featured in the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. The presentation is new, rewritten for clarity and friendliness.”
I believe Bill Slavicsek is telling the truth, at least as far as it goes. I am sure the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products will be usable with our existing books. However, I think it is informative to look back to 2003 when we were awaiting the release of the Dungeons & Dragons v.3.5 (D&D 3.5e) rules.
Back then there were a lot of concerns that D&D 3.5e was a ‘stealth’ edition as well. Just like now, we were given a lot of assurances that D&D 3.5e was merely a minor rules update meant to streamline and enhance the gaming experience. Wizards of the Coast insisted that the two systems were compatible and our investment in D&D 3.0e books would not go to waste.
Once again, Wizards of the Coast was telling the truth, at least as far as it goes. It was possible to intermix D&D 3.0 and D&D 3.5 books. In fact, in the campaign we were playing at the time we did exactly that. No one was forced to convert their character to D&D 3.5 if they didn’t want to. A D&D 3.5 ranger was completely capable of being in a party with a D&D 3.0 druid. If the effects of two wizards spells didn’t sync up exactly, it could easily be explained as the unpredictability of magic or differences in their schooling.
So why did D&D 3.5e feel like a stealth edition?
The biggest problem was probably that as more books came out they were filled with revised versions of pre-existing materials. In the core books this was inevitable. The problems really began with the supplements.
Almost every supplement that came out for D&D 3.5e had revised versions of prestige classes, feats, spells, and monsters. The D&D 3.0 versions of these were considered obsolete and many Dungeon Masters began to ban material from the older books. Thus the promise that our investment in the old books wasn’t wasted proved to be untrue and the fears of a ‘stealth edition’ became a reality.
So will D&D Essentials have the same problem? It really depends on whether Wizards of the Coast chooses to look forward or back when designing upcoming supplements. It will be really tempting when new supplements come out to tweak old favorites and release an ‘Essential’ version.
This isn’t because Wizards of the Coast staff are evil or lazy. Rather it is the nature of being a game designer. By their very nature, game designers are creative people who are constantly tinkering with the rules in an effort to make them better. They are the kind of people who will jump at a chance to improve a paragon path, epic destiny, feat, power, or monster that they feel is flawed.
D&D Essentials will give them this opportunity, but this is one case where they should let opportunity pass them by. Rather than revisit the past, the Essentials supplements should move the game forward. We should see new paragon paths, epic destinies, feats, powers, and monsters. Otherwise D&D Essentials will be seen as a ‘stealth’ edition no matter how many times we are told it isn’t.
Besides, there will be plenty of opportunities to revisit the old favorites when D&D 5e comes along.