Build an Essentials character, today!

The good folks at Wizards of the Coast have been teasing us in recent weeks with information about the new character builds provided in the D&D Essentials line. So far we have seen builds for the Cleric, Wizard and Fighter with each one giving us more of an insight into the design decisions they made while putting Essentials together. I’m liking what I see so far, and wonder if it’s possible to retro-fit those goals into the system we already have at the table, right now. Let’s find out.

The main motivator behind the Essentials line (and the Red Box in particular) is to present 4e D&D in a way that’s less intimidating and simpler to get into right from the start. Each build provides a preset path through the levels so that the player isn’t overwhelmed by the array of choices provided by the current ruleset. For example, at Third level the Knight build for the Fighter gets Improved Power Strike rather than choosing from 20-odd Encounter Powers.

Y’see, sometimes Choice is Good. It means you have the flexibility to create exactly the character you want. Choice can also be counter-productive though. A player who is new to the hobby and an old-school gamer who values simpler character design will both appreciate that D&D Essentials isn’t so much about restricting choice but about making the game more accessible. Toss a copy of the PHB to an old-schooler or a new player and open it at a random page. Unless they hit the cool art, I’m sure they’ll run a mile. Page after page of rules intensive Powers staring back at you do not make for an appealing game.

So, D&D Essentials is about simplicity, and that’s a Good Thing. The question is can we simplify what we have right now to create a Fighter, Wizard and Cleric (and Rogue when that’s previewed) in the same same style? Why yes, we can!

To start with, here’s a Campaign file for the Character Builder (right-click, hit “Save As…”) which loads in only the content from the Player’s Handbook. This resets the Character Builder right back to pristine (but fully errata’d) simplicity – perfect for those times when you want to provide a less overwhelming array of choices or have a solid base on which to build your own Campaign Setting file.

To load it in, go to Manage->Campaign Settings in Character Builder  then hit Load Campaign. You’ll notice that some of the elements will have greyed-out ticks beside them; this is because those supplements contain some content that’s duplicated from the PHB. Only the PHB is loaded in full.


Tackling the Essentials builds in reverse order, the Knight is a chivalric Fighter who specializes in heavy armour and shield. While the build doesn’t specify a preference for one or two handed weapons, the lack of races with more than two arms (Thri-Kreen Knight, anyone?) implies that this is primarily a build which focuses on one-handed weapons.

It’s great to see a classic Medieval Knight make a welcome return to D&D. The Paladin has stolen much of their thunder, and I’m loving that D&D Essentials brings the Knight back into the Martial fold as a fighter who serves man but respects the gods (as opposed to the Paladin, where the opposite is true). This build reminds me a lot of the Knight character class from Dragon Warriors, and that earns it a lot of love.

Unlike most other Fighters, the Knight has Plate Armour Proficiency, so that costs a Feat from the start to reproduce it. Add in the character’s free Feat at first level and it’s clear we’re going to need to build our “Essential” Fighter as a Human. I’m finding that with all of my faux-Essentials builds; the classes themselves either gain an additional feat-like feature or Power (in the case of the Wizard & Cleric), but at the price of a little less power overall. These are builds which are not well suited to the power gamer who wants his heavy-hitting Daily Powers right from the start.

So, to recreate something like the Knight using Character Builder and only the Player’s Handbook, select Human Fighter and Plate Armour Proficiency as your bonus Feat. The Knight doesn’t appear to get Combat Challenge but gains Defender Aura instead. This is a mechanically simpler ability which is always active until you turn it off (ie, at the end of the Encounter) and basically means any enemy within 5’ of you is at –2 to attack if they ignore you. They can Shift without penalty, but there’s no fiddly tracking specific foes until the end of your next turn. In short, Defender Aura is a much easier ability to play, though it’s not as good against pesky Kobolds. Heh.

Given that we’re using only what’s in the PHB though, we’re restricted to Combat Challenge and as we’re recreating a heavily armoured Knight with shield, take One-handed Weapon Talent to go with it.

The article doesn’t go into detail about the Battle Guardian and Shield Finesse features of the Knight, but it looks like one of them replaces Combat Superiority. I’m guessing this is to de-emphasise modifiers to opportunity attacks and, again, make a simpler game. For our PHB-only Essential Knight though, we keep Combat Superiority.

Moving on to Skills, and our Knight has slightly different skill choices to a regular Fighter with Streetwise being replaced by Diplomacy in the class list. This is firmly in keeping with the image of a Knight being a chivalric member of the court rather than a street tough warrior. Reproducing that using the PHB only and sticking closely to the rules is tricky without spending his remaining Feat slot on Skill Training. As GM I’d happily hand-wave the player taking Diplomacy as a Class Skill or (if we were using PHB2) it could be added as a Background Option. For the purposes of this build though, I’ll say this particular Knight is a more worldly-looking fighter who had no interest in the politics of court life. He takes Athletics, Endurance, Heal and Intimidate as his Trained skills.

With Armour Proficiency (Plate) filling up his Human Feat slot, I suggest taking Toughness as it’s about the simplest Feat of the lot and is in keeping with the design goal of creating as simple a character to play as possible. Those extra hit points will certainly come in handy too.

On to Powers.

The Essentials Knight doesn’t have a Daily Power, and his At-will Powers are instead Stances which affect his basic attacks in some way. Three are mentioned – Battle Wrath, Cleaving Assault and Measured Cut with only the first two being detailed. Battle Wrath provides a straight +2 damage to basic attacks (including missile attacks too, it seems) while Cleaving Assault is a nifty variation on the Cleave At-will Power. This does damage equal to your CON (not STR!) bonus to an adjacent enemy when you hit another one. As it’s a Stance and affects all basic attacks it means your Knight can Cleave as an opportunity attack! Woot! Loving the image of a foe making a mis-step and the Knight taking out the poor fool and the minion next to him as a result.

For their Encounter Power, Knights gain Power Strike. This is an uber-simple power which adds a straight +1 [W] damage to an attack as a Free Action. You don’t need to call it until you hit meaning it’s not going to fail you due to a dud roll of the dice, and perfect for those times you need to put just a little more effort behind the swing of your sword. This power is a long overdue addition to the game. Love it!

As we’re going for simplicity and avoiding complex in-game choices, our faux-Knight will take Cleave, Tide of Iron and Sure Strike and his At-wills, Covering Attack as his Encounter Power and Brute Strike as his Daily. This gives him a good spread of choices between hitting hard, defending his allies, and making sure the blow lands. While I prefer the simpler Essentials Knight, this is a good enough spread of Powers to keep the chivalric flavour without adding complexity to the mix.

Add an Adventurer’s Kit, Plate Armour, Heavy Shield and Longsword, and we’re done.

Download a pdf or dnd4e (right-click, Save as…) file for Sir Borys, an Essentials-style Knight designed from the ground up to be ideal for a new gamer to play. Rather than use the cluttered and needlessly complex (not to mention pug-ugly) default 4e character sheet I’ve used my own, simpler, Character Sheet layout.

Next: The “Essential” Wizard

6 Comments on “Build an Essentials character, today!”

  1. I’m looking forward to trying this. I have 7 brand new players sitting at my “Encounters” tables. They are trying valiantly to keep up, but this will certainly help.

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