The New D&D Starter Red Box: A Chatty and Nico Review

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!

The Box…

…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.

The Blemishes

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.

Final Score?

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.


  1. Nice review! You gotta love box sets. 🙂

    Quick question: Did it feel/look like there was an optimized class/race combo for each race presented, or did that seem to be a non-issue for a “lighter” product such as this?

    As far as errata, all I can say is, it’s frustrating, but companies both large and small seem to suffer from it. You’d like to think the larger companies would have a better shot at combating it, but it doesn’t seem to be so.

  2. That sounds as great as it shoudl be. I’m sorely tempted to get this for my niece and nephew, the only thing holding me back is that I wouldn’t be there to run it for them 🙁

  3. @Zach: I do love boxed set. Reminds me of boxes of old (the D&D boxed games, AD&D’s Greyhawk, Battlesystem, etc). There is some slight optimization in that the Dwarf makes for a less than ideal wizard (as always) but that only means the PC has an Int score of 16 instead of 18. Ability Scores are not rolled but are distributed from a standard array as the bonuses are not explained. (Part of the things that were simplified).

    @Awwww… set them up on Skype so you can play with them.

  4. Don’t tell my dad, but I’m going to be getting this for him for Christmas. He hasn’t played in 30 years, and I think this is the perfect intro for him.

    That’s awesome that Nico and Alex got into it.

  5. That’s an awesome idea Mark… the mere illustration on the box will make this a 20$ well spent!

  6. Digressing a bit, but I’m bemused about the new magic missile. they claim it’s a return to the original form of the spell, which is fine, the autohit/autodamage can be linked to some very interesting abilities and are great for plinking especially when partymembers are giving generous damage adds, but it doesn’t get an escalating number of individually targeted missiles? Sounds a bit less classic all of a sudden.

    At least it’s a ranged basic.

  7. I DMed the “Learn to Play DnD” at Gencon using this set.

    It is a really nice set for someone who is learning.

    Plus it has the nostalgia factor with the box art. I plan on buying it.

    Now, I wonder if I can get my wife playing using this. =)

  8. @Sian: You got a point there, but I’m willing to bet that the Minion economy/balance would be broken with multiple at-will autohit missiles and the R&D team was more concerned with that economy than going 100% back to the roots of the spell… ahh the joys of compromise.

    @Craig: Your wife will most likely try it if/when you have kids/nephews/nieces/cousins who will play with you at the same time.

  9. “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?”

    Is that your quote or is that from the actual text of the game?

  10. Ah, there is no sound so sweet to a gamer as a spouse discovering the joy of their hobby…

    A good review chatty, and it seems as though the starter set does exactly what it should.

  11. @walkerp: That’s my own summary of the whole product.

    @Colmarr: I know! Alex plays boardgames and even some of our cardgames, but it was so cool to finally play D&D with her. Thanks for the Kudos. I think that as long as people remember that it is a Starter for a lighter 4e, then expectations can be better managed.

  12. It sounds interesting that there’s actually some simplification. Do you believe that this simplification can carry over to other products in the line (for example, can I play a game from 1-30 without butting heads with “advanced” rules?) or that it’s just the starter set, and the rest of the line will be business as usual? I would definitely appreciate the culling of some portions of the rules, but I’m skeptical any would be.

  13. Thanks for posting this review! 🙂

    Like Wyatt, I’m also hoping you can play a full game (1-30) without needing the advanced rules…

    Two things I’m hoping to hear more about:
    1) How fast did it play using the streamlined rules compared to regular 4e?
    2) How do the power descriptions compare to the ones in regular 4e?

  14. great 🙂

    thanks and indeed your final scores says it all 🙂

  15. Thanks for the review. I’ll definitely pick this one up for my girls when it hits the shelves. My 7 and 5 year old had a hard time with 4E so we play 1E now. They are pretty hilarious. The first time they found a locked door they went to look for a beaver to chew it down. Now they carry around beavers everywhere they go.

  16. @Wyatt and Stuart: The rules are simplified in the context that this is a starter set… I don’t know enough to claim that Essentials will be the same. I’ll say that the complexity of the game rises from its many many many exceptions in powers, items, classes and ubernumerous options in the players/DM hands at any given time in upper levels.

    I mean, the whole 4 kobolds and a white dragon (started at bloodied since I had only 2 PCs) lasted 20 minutes tops… but at 1st level, it always does if you use minions properly.

    So the streamlined rules didn’t change anything about the 3 actions, the Attack of opportunity, Immediate reactions and so on. They cut down on non-power combat options, conditions and other similar items. Based on that, I’d bet that the D&D compendium will be 4e compleat… if Wizards of the Coast is brilliant, they’ll offer a “lite” version in the compendium. But I doubt they will…

    @Fabio: Indeed it does… thanks so much!

    @metaDM: Your girls are going to be a bit too young to play the “do your own adventure” without falling of their chair bored… but I’m sure they’ll love the dungeon… it’s full of nooks and crannies to explore.

  17. Something tells me that future generations of gamers will follow Nico’s gaming adventures the same way they follow Wil Wheaton’s now…

  18. Mission accomplished, indeed.
    Sounds like a nice gateway product that can bring beginners on board, while giving them an appetite for more. Wish they could have updated B1.

    @MetaDM, ok I laughed my head off at the beaver image.

  19. @LordVreeg: I’ve read that Season 3 of D&D encounters was designed around the Keep on the Borderlands.

    And I agree with you, tame Beavers FTW. If I ever play Pathfinder, I’m taking one as a Druidic animal companion!

  20. I’m in the nay category. I saw the box in my Local Game Store, and I was not impressed. My son, 8, can easily handle running any character in 4e, but for him to DM he needs to sift through huge daunting amounts of information. There is a lot of… detail.. in full 4e.

    So… apart from playing with the character generator, 4e hasn’t exactly shifted him over to DMing, but he wants to. He wants to run an adventure, but he doesn’t know where to start. I figure that he could easily handle a simpler set of rules… level 1-10, standard races and focus him in on what he needs to build and run an adventure. That is was I was hoping for in the Red Box. Is that what the rest of the Essentials is?

    I suppose the free character generator would work well for this Red Box? And I suppose that my monster manuals that are all laying around would provide him with adventure fodder… His friends all want to play already…. I have 2.5 cubic feet of minis…

    Perhaps the biggest issue is me letting go. After all I have been impressed by what he does with all my minis and a few rules. I just need to let go, and give him very basic rules, and letting him go with it.

    I guess I will reconsider. I think that with what I have, and the Red Box, my son will be able to have fun, and that’s what all this is about.

  21. @UHF: I guess it all comes down to how close to your son you want to share the D&D experience. DMing can be learned without a system… or a severely broken one like I had when I was a kid (i.e. I didn’t understand the rules so I made them up).

    The Red Box has some great basic DMing techniques to help novices master the crunchy parts of DMing: Building encounters. The rest, including the exploding dogs and water breathing radioactive goblin mutant zombies are all up for the kid to invent.

    As for char gen, there are none in the Starter set… you answer questions and POOF, you have a PC (baring some paperwork), but as you say, the Char Builder can help that too.

    From the various emails we’ve exchanged, I think you would be better off letting your son create his own game and let him GM it to you while, as you put it, let it go.

    My 2 cents.

  22. Shawn Merwin says:

    I’m going to get a bumper sticker that says, “My other red box is red too.” Great review! I am really looking forward to playing through this with my wife and daughter!

  23. Hi there Chatty I have a question about the rogue. In the Essentials Rogue preview WOTC tells us that at will powers are gone, replaced with melee basic attacks and movement action powered rogue tricks. Was the Redbox rogue your wife used like this? I’ve heard reports that (like the Magic Missile) the version of the rogue included may be an earlier version not compatible with the later products. I’d be really curious to hear if it had at will powers or not.

  24. @Jools: The rogue had 4 at-will powers in the box. 2 Attack ones and 2 movement ones. It also had one, non-attack, non racial encounter power (Backstab, a bonus to hit vs Combat Advantaged opponents) and as far as I can recall, no daily powers. So yes, there was a departure from the standard, non-essential rogue… but the rogue had At-will, non-basic attacks.

  25. Interesting, that is definitely at odds with what the preview article told us to expect – that’s a shame. I guess this product was rushed somewhat. Ah well, I’m sure the rest of it is a fine product.

  26. Nice report.

    I’m curious, though: “Finally a D&D starter where there is both a dungeon & a dragon in its prepared material!”

    Both the 3.5e starter boxes came with a dungeon *and* a dragon in their prepared adventures… and even with the dragon miniature.


  27. @Chatty: What’s wrong with making it up as you go along? That’s at least half the fun, isn’t it? 😉

  28. Great review! I attended the WotC preview session at GenCon that included explanation of the Red Box and Essentials. I came away with the same impression you have: This is NOT a new edition but rather a great introduction to the game I love. If it helps “grow the game” then I’m all for it. This will be my “go to” present when I want to spread the word to all the uninitiated out there!

  29. Did the set also include a ‘long-range’ opponent like Bargle (in the original RedBox), to implant a Revenge subplot?

  30. @Merric: Oh, yeah? I missed those. My bad, chalk this up to lazy research then.

    @Lawful: Totally! That’s what games are for.

    @Poet22: Great idea. The box will be a great gift for the holidays. Hopefully we’ll see a new printing with the mishaps corrected.

    @Frank: Sadly no, the bad guy fights to the death… but hints that he serves a higher purpose.

  31. Interesting. We were chatting about design errors in postD&D RPGs just today; it’s vaguely amusing to see many of them listed here as positives.

    Nico seems a good deal more perceptive than his dad:

    “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.”

    Welcome to modern D&D, Nico. Be sure to leave your imagination at the door. 🙁

  32. @Tom: Nico is 4 years younger than the official entry age of the game and doesn’t read English well enough (he’s French) to do the 1st part which is a choose your own path adventure tutorial to create his PC and learn the basics of the rule and is only represents 10% or so of the game’s content/potential.

    Your analysis, while entirely in your right to share, is unfair as far as that part of the product goes. I agree that the skill checks part should have been more inclusive of the whole list available. The rest was Nico having to wait after me as I translated the book on the fly to build his PC.

    That’s why I told people to pre-prep the PCs for pre-teens.

    But hey, if you see it like that, that’s cool with me, I just happen to disagree given what Nico and my wife did when they played in the following adventure.

  33. I’m in total agreement that I wish the Red Box had been the game I purchased oh-so-many-decades ago. Because there were times when I was dying to play and no group was available, back then even repeating the solo adventure would have sufficed.

    I can, however, see the argument about the box design. It really is a marketing ploy, tugging at the heart-strings of us old-timers when in fact it’s intended for the uninitiated masses.

    If this were truly a starter kit for absolute start from nothing neophytes, then that box could have looked like anything and it would still have the desired effect. But as you said, the Red Box has to achieve enough sales to justify its creation, and to do that they need the nostalgia gamer.

    Yeah, yeah, I’m just speculating. But hey, it’s fun. I would still recommend it and might use it to teach my own wife how to play.

  34. When somebody gets done with Red Box, should they immediately get the 4th edition books, or is there another stepping stone?

  35. @Ben: The product-line that follows the boxed set is the D&D Essentials, starting with the players books: Heroes of the Fallen Lands/ of the Forgotten kingdoms and then the others (DM kit, D&D compendium, Monsters Vault and the various Tiles kits).

    Alternatively, although they aren’t printed anymore, you can get the original D&D 4e corebooks (Players Handbook, Dungeon Master Guide and the Monster Manual) and have what you need to play a similar, if somewhat more complex game than essentials.


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