I like Heroes of the Elemental Chaos. When I got Heroes of Shadow, I found that it was mostly just an expansion to the staggeringly limited Encounters line, in that it wasn’t good but it was the best there was. When I got Heroes of the Feywild, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of an improvement it was. Now that Heroes of the Elemental Chaos is out and is even better, I’m looking forward to Heroes of the Astral Sea and Heroes of the Mundane World, That Place We Forget About Even Though Most Campaigns Happen There.
I would discuss the power level of the book, but that’s not my thing. There are plenty of places a person can go if all they want is a way to win at a cooperative game. Instead, I’d rather talk about the implications of the book with a Charisma-based playstyle.
As with most books for role-playing games, HotEC can be roughly divided into two sections: crunch (classes, powers, feats, themes, items, and anything that gives a player or a DM hard numbers) and fluff (introductions, descriptions, backstories, or anything that isn’t numbers). 4th Edition books tend to sprinkle both of them throughout the book. For example, Cleave is crunch, but the italicized description at the top of the power is fluff, and in Essentials, so is the whole paragraph before the power starts. Fluff is the part you throw out and redesign during reskinning, but it’s what tends to explain what on earth a power is supposed to be, and without it we’d just have an assortment of boring numbers.
The fluff in HotEC is magnificent. Chapter 1 goes into what elemental magic is, the reach of elemental magic, the Elemental Chaos, races, and primordials. Essentially, it’s the part of the book you skip completely if all you want is new way to shoot a guy, but for a DM or a player looking for a backstory it’s magnificent. In particular, I have to talk about the section on primordials. They’re a set of powerful NPCs, player patrons, campaign villains, and alternate gods all in one, just waiting for a DM to inject life into them. Wizards basically devoted ten pages to “We’re not entirely sure how these fit into the world. Go nuts!”, which is everything I’ve even wanted in a book.
The classes are similarly great. There are two new monk options based on water and fire, so we finally have a way to play firebenders and waterbenders without wild amounts of tweaking, but there’s also a section at the end laying the seeds for DMs and players to design three more. Druids only got six pages, but they include a new animal companion and what I think are the first beast form attacks in Essentials. The sorcerer got the Essentials treatment in that it lost all encounter and daily powers except for elemental escalation, which can be used a few times per fight, and I love this because it lets me force players to be more creative in their power descriptions than “I guess I hit a little bit harder this time”. The warlock pact option leverages my favorite thing about gaming (randomness) with its mutable damage types, and finally gives us elemental summons like we had from minute one in 3rd Edition. The only downside is the wizard, partially because I’m tired of wizards getting expended in every book, but also because I’ve never been a fan of familiars or their mechanics in any edition. And every one of these classes got a ton of new utilities to tweak a character’s feel and playstyle even more.
The paragons paths I like because they give back a lot of the things we had in 3rd that were missing in 4th, like the doomlords and the
Xaositects speakers of Xaos. I’m also a big fan of the emergent primordial epic destiny and its “become huge” daily utility, even if I can’t see a single redeemable thing about the other epic destiny, the lord of chaos. The items are also neat, though I’m starting to be bothered by 4th Edition’s insistence on adding more and more item slots. First it was tattoos, then divine gifts, and now primordial shards and elemental gifts. Characters weren’t complex enough, but now they can have up to three invisible magic items that take up no slots. Just split the next slot into neck and back, or split head into head and face. We’ll understand.
I do think there was a missed opportunity, though, in giving players ways to add elemental powers to an existing character. One of the running issues I have with 4th Edition books is that each new book gives lots of ways to build a character from scratch, but almost no ways to tweak a character that’s in an ongoing campaign. Paragon paths and epic destinies are great ways to do that, and it loses some punch when the only way to take an elemental paragon path is to play an elemental character, especially when the prerequisites include one of the few things that player’s can’t retrain like a class option. The new feats at least give some way to give a normal person some elemental ability, and if you play one of the classes in the book you can take some elemental powers, but most characters are just left out (if you’re a martial or divine character, you can pretty much take a walk).
Overall, I was actually shocked (shocked!) by how much I enjoyed this book. It managed to expand on some of my favorite things in D&D (sorcerers, world-building, themes) and make some of my least favorite things at least marginally palatable (monks, Essentials druids). It even includes a tiny sidebar in the
familiars elemental companions section giving players the go-ahead to make creative changes, and I like any implicit or explicit allowance Wizards makes for reskinning. I’m also told the book has some good options by somebody I trust to know about power levels, so if that’s your thing, consider that an endorsement. All told, this is a strong book that gives me hope for D&D, especially as 5th Edition starts taking shape.