Through some obscure manipulation of the gaming industry ether, I was able to secure a pre-release copy of the much talked about new D&D Starter Red Box. Nico and I have been playing around with it and I thought I’d share my thoughts.
Chatty’s Ultimate Capsule Review
The first product of the D&D Essentials product line, while likely to be the target of hordes of people who will complain that it is not what it could never be… is what I wished I opened in 1986.
It is an introduction to the D&D game that goes directly to the heart of things:
Here, let us show you how to make a PC while reading a “be your own hero”story, learn about skill checks and let’s end it with a tactical fight. You liked that? Get 4 more friends, make basic characters and play this level 1 adventure that brings you to level 2. Want more? Here’s material for the DM to create adventures to (almost) bring you up to level 3.
Welcome to D&D!
…is beautiful. It features the same Larry Elmore art that featured on the last edition of the Basic Red box (Mentzer edition) from the 80’s and scores a direct hit to the nostalgia part of our gamer lizard brains.
It contains softcovers Player’s and Dungeon Master’s Booklets, a sheet of 2-sided counters (PCs and monsters, including 2 dragons and a Gelatinous Cube) printed on thick cardboard, a set of opaque, white-inked black polyhedral dice, a foldup battlemap, 4 blank simplified character sheets and several sheets of punch-out power cards made of thin cardboard.
Nico, my 8 year old son, had lots of fun punching out the counters while I read the players book intro real fast to start the game. I was so looking forward to this…
The Solo Game
The box expects one player, presumably a kid who got the box as a gift or an adult curious about the game, to create their first D&D PC through reading a “choose your own path” adventure. The booklet guides the reader to make a few fundamental set of choices that will lead to a completed character:
- Class: Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, Cleric
- Race: Elf, Dwarf, Human, Halfling
- A preferred power (or two)
- The PC’s Skill Set
Lets be clear here, as I know this will anger many who clamour for “Basic D&D 2.0”, the starer is what is says on the box, a starter set. It is a complete game, but not a complete game system. Beyond picking among 4 basic classes and the same number of races, a handful of powers and skills, character generation is arguably anaemic (but better than the previous 4e starter set). The task resolution systems (skills/combat) are also simplified while still being very much 4e.
Nico and I played through the players book in 2 sessions. He grew bored a few times as he found we were spending more time setting up the PC than actually playing. He also got frustrated a bit that the skills we choose for his wizard never came into play in the skill-checks part of the adventure.
Nico: Why did you chose these skills if they don’t help me run after the fleeing goblins?
Chatty: Wizards are not very good at running in the wild, trust me, it will get better soon.
I’d suggest parents playing with pre-tweens to make the PC beforehand (with input from your child) and start the solo game with a fully fleshed out PC and ignore the char-gen parts.
Once Nico got to choose the spells (mostly fire-based, as can be expected from a geeky 8 y.o.) and fought against the goblins in their lair, things picked up for him and he loved casting Burning Hands over much of the map.
Speaking of maps, three are supplied: a previously published “monsters lair” from D&D miniatures, along with “‘The crossroads” from the same starter set and an exclusive dungeon map made of tiles reproduced on a full-sized battle map.
Once the lone player has played through the first Player’s playbook, he/she has 2 quests, a basic grasp of the game and a guide to teach it to up to four others (which implies photocopying the power cards if you want to allow multiple players to pick the same classes).
The Full Starter Game
That’s where the second book, the Dungeon Master’s, comes in. It presents the game’s rules, in a simplified form (ex: gone are some conditions like restricted) and with a lot less skill/combat options (ex: no rule 42 charts, no traps, no alternative combat moves like Bull Rush and no skill challenge rules). It also includes a fully fleshed out dungeon adventure covering about 10 encounters featuring goblins, kobolds, drakes, a dragon.
Finally a D&D starter where there is both a dungeon & a dragon in its prepared material!
The book included tips and tricks to run games and does a very decent job to explain what the DM’s responsibilities are. After the adventure, the book provides rules to level up all classes to level 2 (with appropriate power cards). It also describes how to create further basic adventures, including a decent bestiary and dungeon design advice, that can bring PC to the cusp of level 3, including a little DC chart, a list of lvl 2 Treasure parcels and a 2 page gazetteer on the Nentir Vale region, the core D&D 4e setting.
To summarize, the new Red Box is a 20$ starter set that introduces players to the D&D 4e game. The game delivers a 4e-lite experience that most likely should succeed in teasing those interested by the game’s structure of play. It is very much 4e (auto-hit Magic Missile that Nico absolutely loves) with many of the fiddly bits removed.
Oh and there’s a bonus solo adventure you can download by entering a code on the Wizards of the Coast website before the end of the year. That’s a nice little bonus.
Trial by Ice Baby!
I’ve started playing the second part with Nico and my “I’ve never tried RPGs before” wife Alex (Elven Rogue). They both were awesome roleplayers trying to come up with a plan to invade the dungeon by distracting the guards with illusions and trickery.
When my son declared that a halfling wizard’s Second Chance power (monster rerolls attack on a hit) allowed his PC to turn back time a few seconds and dodge a White Dragon’s breath attack, this power’s flavour text instantly became canon.
Later, when Alex’s Rogue attacked the bloodied Ice Wyrm and missed, she triumphantly invoked her Elven Accuracy power and cried “yes!” noisily when she rolled a 19 on her d20. Not bad for her first RPG session ever.
Some dark spots appear on this otherwise very well thought of product. Some incoherences in the rules appear due to what I assume to be incomplete editing. For instance, the rules on teleportation mention what happens to immobilized and restrained creatures that teleport, but the section on conditions makes no mention of the restrained status.
Similarly, the Magic Missile spell mentions that it can be used against up to 2 targets while my sources informed me that this has already been changed by the recent Magic Missile errata to one.
Nothing major… but these easily spotted editing issues are a continuing trend with Wizards product that can and do annoy customers.
That being said, I’m highly satisfied with this product and I would have bought it had I not been offered a review copy. I feel that it’s biggest shortcoming will be its impossibility to meet the inhuman expectations that the emotionally charged community will place behind it. I predict the Internet will ignore the “Starter” tag on the box and try to compare the new Red Box to its legendary progenitor.
This Starter Red Box is not the first step into a parallel line of D&D products, like the 198os editions of boxed D&D were in regards to Advanced D&D back then. The new box is what you should buy your nephews and nieces after they spend an afternoon playing with your minis in the basement. It’s what you should suggest to your coworker who’s always wanted to try D&D but was daunted by the number of books at the game store.
From there, the Essential line will feed this new generation of customers because, let’s be honest here, while we can all enjoy D&D as a game, it remains a brand that pays the salaries of the designers, writers and marketers that put all of this together.
I don’t know about you, but I much prefer an approach like Essentials, which I can stay away from if I so choose, than getting tricked into another 3.5. But that’s an editorial for another time.
Now Nico wants to get his friend Felix and Charles to join us as we get ready to storm the goblin-infested dungeon again. Hell even Alex is more than willing to give it another try, provided the party has a fighter she can depend on to flank monsters with.
Mission accomplished Wizards. I can’t say anything more.
(Update): It turns out that there is a skill challenge in the introductory DM-tun adventure. It is broken down in simple terms to run it but doesn’t tell the DM how to build more.