NewbieDM Reviews: Essentials Monster Vault, DM’s Kit, and The City Dungeon Tiles

Posted on November 16, 2010 by


I wanted to do a quick review on these Essentials product, and throw my hat in the ring although you can find tons of reviews and unboxings elsewhere online for all of them.  I’ll preface this review by saying that I really like what Wizards of the Coast is doing with the Essentials line, and in my humble opinion, it’s a real shame that this wasn’t the way 4e was originally launched back in ’08.  Having said that, these products aren’t all perfect either, so lets get to the quick reviews.

Monster Vault

Wizards of the Coast seems to be on a box set kick lately, as the Essentials tiles, the Starter Kit, Monster Vault, and DM’s Kit are all packaged in boxes.  That’s not a bad thing, as I’m a huge fan of D&D boxed sets.  The Monster Vault boxed set contains the following:

Monster Vault book – a 6×9, 320 page digest containing information on all the monsters in the book.  There are 63 monsters in the book, along with 9 animals.  All of these, of course, contain multiple variants and level ranges for each creature, leading to a wide assortment of enemies to throw at an adventuring party.  Let’s break down the level ranges of the creatures included:  There are 175 Heroic Tier creatures, 117 creatures for the Paragon Tier, and 12 in the Epic, with the highest being of level 27.

The list of included monsters

As you can see, there are  a very small amount of offerings for DM’s running Epic Tier games.  Why this decision was taken, I’m not sure, but I can speculate and assume that they concentrated on the more iconic creatures in the D&D universe.  There are tons of orcs, beholders, giants, titans, and dragons to keep a party busy for a long time.

The Monster Vault book. Watch out for the Owlbear!

Now, much has been said about the revisions that this book has made to solos and they way they play at the table, and yes, they have changed dramatically.  Now, thankfully solos aren’t creatures that will sit there and take a beating from parties that stun and daze them.  They have abilities to shake those conditions off and be as deadly as the equivalent of 5 creatures are really supposed to be.  Good change, and one that many DM’s have been asking for a long time.

The other thing worth noting here is the amount of fluff that the monsters get.  Gone are the DC checks for character knowledge, and gone are also the encounter groups.  Now the DM gets an almost encyclopedic entry of the creature, and I guess it’s up to each of us to determine how much the player characters know about a creature.  There are a lot of story elements to these creatures, and there is plenty of stuff that the players can, and cannot know.  I wish there was a bit of an instruction about how much and what to divulge to players that may ask “what do we know?”, but the DM’s judgment will be the key here.  In a way, it’s something I’ve been asking for in conversations with other players regarding putting some power back in the DM’s hand, instead of there being a mechanical (rules) way to solve a problem, so I see it as a good thing.

This book will replace my Monster Manual.  Sigh… another book that will never see the light of day again.

Another great thing about this book, and one that I hope the Monster Builder (DDI) adopts is the picture of the monster embedded unto the stat block.  In fact, the picture corresponds to the token of the creature included in the Monster Vault.  Did someone say tokens?  Yes I did.

Every stat block has a token image associated with it.

Token Sheets Did you know that I love tokens?  I have loved tokens since before it was fashionable to love tokens.  I’ve loved double sided, bloody on the opposite side tokens since before it was the kewl thing to suddenly love. But we’re not here to talk about that, we’re here to talk about the included tokens in this box.  And there are a lot!

There are ten sheets of tokens, only labeled with a number on the side so you can choose to have them represent whatever you want.  The tokens are made of cardboard, and coated with a nice gloss that makes them seem very durable.  The sizes range from medium (1″) to huge (3″), and they also include five rings that you can place large creature tokens in to make it a huge sized creature.  it is a neat idea, and allows a greater flexibility of the large tokens.

One thing I found completely unnecessary was the inclusion of black tokens simply labeled “minion”.  I’m not sure, but I gather that there are several DM’s out there who would rather let their party discover that they are fighting minions in a more organic way than having a token spell it out, but that’s just me.  I could have done without that.  Give me environmental elements instead, like maybe fire tokens, or ice ones.

Two pages of tokens.

Now you might be wondering what the best way to store all these tokens is, and I have a solution that I use here at home.  I went on Ebay and purchased coin collector tubes, they are made of plastic, and they are perfect for medium sized tokens.  Check this video out, sorry it’s a little blurry:

But what good are tokens if you don’t have an adventure to run them with?  Well, the Monster Vault includes one, along with a double sided battlemap.

Cairn of the Winter King– The adventure is set in the town of Fallcrest, a location that most 4e players should be familiar with by now.  It involves the party having to stop the threat of endless winter plaguing the land, and it is mostly a dungeon crawl, but it is not a bad or boring one.  In fact, if you are the type of DM that enjoys hamming it up, this adventure may be right up your alley, as it has a few moments of npc interactions that will require that the DM take up several different personalities and voices.  It really seems like a neat adventure in the low to mid heroic tier range, and I plan to run it sooner rather than later.

The accompanying battlemap is no big deal, it has a dungeon on one side, and a village coated in snow on the other.  To me the map looks like a slightly modified reprint of the map that came with the Drizzt and the white dragon miniatures set.

So the question is, should you drop 30 bucks on what is in essence a retconned set of monster manuals and a buttload of  tokens?  My answer is yes.  The tokens and the redone solos are a great addition, but the inclusion of story elements and an adventure seal the deal for me.  I do recommend the Monster Vault, even if you are a DDI subscriber like me.

Dungeon Tiles Master Set:  The City

I’m a little conflicted about how I feel about this set.  One the one hand, I’m really glad we just weren’t sold a bunch of reprints of previous sets, and are getting mostly original artwork; having said that, I think the set is missing a bit of “the city” that the box set claims to be.  I think perhaps I would have liked a bit more rooftop tiles and that sort of thing.  Lets take a look at what’s inside.

As with The Dungeon Master Set, these tiles also come in a box that double as tiles as well.  It is on this box in fact, that we get the only rooftops of the set.

Roofs, each set separated by an alley.

Now look at the edge of the box… why are there dungeon walls there, and columns?  Couldn’t they have drawn out the sides of buildings or something. It would have been odd, given the 2d nature of the tiles, but perhaps something closer to the images on the tiles would have been better.  Those dungeon columns are doing nothing for me.  And I would have gone with a street, rather than an alley in at least one of the boxes.

So rather than describe each tile, I’ll just show you a group picture of both sides…

Sewers and building interiors...

Water, docks, and streets...

So while, yeah, there are cool tiles in this set, and certainly docks and sewers count as city stuff, I still would have liked more rooftops and that sort of thing to create those stealthy and shadowy types of encounters with.  And WOTC, if you are going to give use water tiles, stop being stingy and give us ships already.  And another thing, unfurnished buildings are not my thing.

Give me interesting locales, not empty shells.

So… Is it worth your $19.99?  Only you can decide that.  I find that I will still need to snag a copy of the now out of print “Streets of Shadows” set to fill my needs, but you may not.  I like the set, but I would have liked a bit more.

Dungeon Master’s Kit

Now we get to the product that may interest most readers of this blog, The Dungeon Master’s Kit.  And my verdict?  If you are an experienced DM, this is only worth getting for the included adventure and maps, the updated DM screen (flimsier than the original 4e one), and the tokens.

The DMing book included is mostly reprinted material from other Essentials products, and if you are an experienced 4e DM, there’s little for you here.  If you aren’t, and own the Rules Compendium and the Heroes of… books, you’re likely to see much of the same material.

So lets look at the other stuff that’s included…  First the tokens…  You get three sheets of tokens (one of them is all for PC’s), made of the same nice and glossy material that the Monster Vault ones are made out of.  You also get horse tokens and some pit trap tokens.


DM's Kit tokens.

The Dungeon Master Screen is made of a less sturdy material than the original 4e screen, features the same artwork, and updated info.  I prefer the sturdiness of my original screen to be honest, and some scanning and pasting over my original one may be in order.  This thing looks like a blast of the AC would knock it over.  I don’t like it too much.

Now the adventure, “Reavers of Harkenwold”.  The adventure is split into two 32 page books.  Why that is, I don’t know. Is it cheaper to print two 32 page books than one 64 page one?  Perhaps. I can’t say.  The adventure encompasses levels 2-4, and places the adventurers in the roles of rebels against an oppressive mercenary force that has taken over the land.

It’s worth noting that the majority of the encounter maps are included in the two fold out maps packaged in the box.  A welcome addition and a handy thing for a newbie DM who may be running this for his or her party.  And these maps are pretty reusable too, with nice artwork of farms and house interiors.


One side of the poster maps...

...and the other side.









So yeah, the adventure looks pretty damn good from an experienced DM’s viewpoint.  There seems to be plenty of roleplay, decision making, and non linear fun to make it a wonderfully different experience from other published adventures in the past.

So again, is it worth your hard earned $39.99?  The DM’ing stuff in the book is a bunch of reprinted information.  Too much for my tastes.  So if you don’t need the book, you have to ask yourself if 3 sheets of tokens, an updated DM screen and 64 pages of adventure with a pair of poster maps is worth the money.  Your call.

So now I own every Essentials product except the upcoming Heroes book and the Wilderness tiles.  Do I like the line?  Yes, I do.  I had a chance to run an all Essentials game the other day and it is 4e, no more, no less.  This talk of 4.5 is silly, plain and simple.  One thing that stands out to me though is that the line seems to live in a separate universe from 4e, and the books are written as though nothing else has come before them.  I find that a little weird and sad.  It gives me the impression that WOTC would like to pretend that those early books like the PHB1 and MM1 never happened.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s the impression I get.

I hope this review helps you out in making a decision about what to do with your cash.



Posted in: 4e D&D, DM Tools, Gaming