The Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Role Playing Game Starter Set
, or “new Red Box”, as it has come to be called, is an introductory boxed set to the D&D 4th edition role playing game, published by Wizards of the Coast, Inc.
This product is available in most, if not all, local gaming stores, along with some major retailers like Target, or online on Amazon.com, Noble Knight, Paizo.com and similar websites. Its suggested retail price is $19.99 US ($23.99 CAD), though it is common to find it for a cheaper amount.
For this price, you get a Player’s Book, a DM’s Book, a fold-up map of your first dungeon which later be rearranged to form later adventure sites, a set of plain black dice, a single sheet of tokens for monsters and player characters, seven sheets of detachable power and equipment cards (9 per sheet), a single sheet of advertisement laying out the different Essentials D&D products you could purchase from there depending on your role at the game table, whether player or DM, four printed character sheets, and a coupon with a code allowing you to download a follow-up, choose-your-own-path adventure from Wizards of the Coast’s online website.Contents Overview
I thought I’d try a different format for this review. Instead of describing every single chapter of the books as in a usual review for supplements or game modules, I feel it is a better approach to just take the components of the box one by one and share a few thoughts about them. The Box, inside and out:
The box itself is sturdy and rather deep. Glossy exterior, classic art everyone has commented on at this point… it is attractive, seems quite durable, and certainly has a nostalgic feel going for it. The contents within the box are held in place by a sort of cardboard wedge using about 40% of the box’s space. Though this seems like a cheap way to make you think you get more than what’s actually in there when you purchase the product, I feel that you get basically what you pay for in terms of amount or parts of content. The Dice:
these are six (with a single d10 numbered 1 to 10) solid black dice with white lettering. They feel different from usual Chessex-type dice. Their sound is clearer, and they are a little bit harder to the touch. The lettering is very large, very visible. I really like them.The Player’s Book:
This book basically introduces the new player to the basic rules of the game by reading through a choose your own adventure type of text, where you get to choose what weapon to use to fight the first threat you encounter, thus determining what class your character is, then picking up this or that power, or this or that score for your stats. It all reads fairly well (which really surprised me) and is quite entertaining. There are a few instances of bad editing, like power names not matching, or references to your hit points total when, if you were not harmed at all during your first fight, you actually didn’t get to calculate it in the first place, but overall, nothing that should really stop a player dead in his or her tracks. Still, ANY editing mistake in this instance creates confusion, and confusion in an introductory product to a new hobby is just bad. This should have been avoided. By the end of the Player’s Book, you get into a fully fledged out melee against some goblins, using the dice, counters and maps included in the box, and get your first taste of what Essentials’ (and 4e’s) brand of D&D is all about. You can then help your friends read or play through the Player’s Book yourself, and upgrade to the DM’s Book to figure out how to run games for them. Coupon for more Choose-Your-Adventure:
If you want more of what was in the Player’s Book, you can download an 18-page PDF adventure from WotC’s website that basically picks up where the Player’s Book left, and before the adventure goes on via the DM’s Book. Now full disclosure, I haven’t played that adventure, but I downloaded it. It seems alright. It also uses the maps and counters of this boxed set. Seems like a cool add-on if you want to play some more solo before you decide you want to run some games for your friends. The Tokens:
These are thick, glossy, round counters a little less than one inch in diameter that help you represent your characters, your friends and foes on the battle maps. There are also a bunch of tokens for Action Points in the game. The art is good, the look is nice, and they are not confusing. Characters tokens have one side with a sort of green hue along the frame that shows your character in full health, and a side with a red hue along the frame that symbolizes your character while bloodied. Not so for the monsters. There are different types of monsters on each side of each token. So total, you end up with 5 Action points tokens, 12 different recto-verso tokens for characters, 36 tokens that represent 72 medium-sized monsters, and 3 tokens that represent 6 different large-sized monsters. The Cards:
There are seven sheets of thin cardboard paper with 9 cards each (i.e. 63 cards total) that you punch out to use in the game. The cardboard is too thin for my tastes. Punching these cards out was a pain. The layout of the cards fulfills their basic function, but barely more. They are not really pleasing to the eye. These cards are probably the component of the box I liked the less. Amongst the cards you’ll find: 3 racial features cards, 4 second wind cards, 8 magic items cards, 5 fighter powers, 9 thief powers, 15 cleric powers and 19 wizard powers. The Dungeon Master’s Book:
This is where you upgrade from Player’s Book if you want to actually run games for your friends. Now, I really like the structure of this book. It starts right away where you left off with the intrigue of the Player’s Book with a first encounter that introduces concepts like Monster stats, how to run them, tactics and combat basics. Then, the book discusses how to Run The Game, explains its different game play components (with extended sections on combat, movement, actions and hit points, that sort of thing) and gets right into the meat of the thing: the sample dungeon, aka The Twisting Halls. It is a good sample that provides some straight fights, some possibilities of negotiations (and thus an introduction to skill challenges which actually made me understand some uses of skills more clearly, like how everyone’s supposed to play it loose and improvise), a cool Chess board encounter where you actually fight pawns, knight, rook and queen and are supposed to behave on the grid as chess pieces yourselves, which I thought was a pretty neat trick blurring the lines between the abstract grid combat and the actual immersion in the game, and well, more. You then get some basic guidelines on how to level up the characters to level 2, some guidelines on how to create your own adventures (including a neat trick I’m going to talk about with the battle maps), how to distribute experience and treasure, descriptions of monsters to use in said adventures however you want, and finally, a very short (two-page) primer of the Nentir Vale, the basic vanilla 4e setting (which by the way, feels cool, with some neat names for locations, a nice map -though way too small in the book- and so on). I feel the whole structure is progressive. It feels really heavy on the rules at times, but the book isn’t that big, so a player who’s already been hooked on the Player’s Book normally shouldn’t have a problem reading through this and hopefully, his imagination will fire up at the same time.The Battle Map(s):
This is actually a single, huge map which, on one side, depicts the dungeons of the Twisting Halls described in the DM’s Book, and on the other side, represents the wilderness surrounding the caves leading to the Halls on the surface. Now, a very neat trick introduced in the DM’s book is that the map is designed in such a way that you can actually cut it in four different parts that you then can reassemble to form different dungeon environments and layouts. Along with a little bit of imagination, you can actually play a handful of games just out of this map, which I thought was pretty cool. By the time you’re done with the map combinations, that you started to experiment with your own stuff drawn on some paper or white boards or whatnot, you’ll probably have upgraded your game to Essentials at least, which really is the point here. Thumbs up for this idea. Character Sheets:
There are four of them. The Essentials character sheet seems way simpler than the original 4e character sheet. It is reorganized. For instance, I like the way the skills are listed under their related ability score, rather than have ability scores in a box and a huge list of skills on the other side of the sheet or whatnot. Not too much information, nice balance. I like it. You can actually download the exact same character sheet from WotC’s website and print more of them for your friends. Advertisement of D&D Essentials:
Now, this is not just an advertisement. This is a double-sided sheet of paper that basically lays out what Essential product or book is destined for which type of player of the game: this or that product for players on one side, this or that product for the DM on the other. I think this could have been a much better advertisement sheet, unfortunately. I think its organization is more confusing than anything. It might give the impetus to look beyond the Starter Set and start searching for information on the web, say, or ask around in a gaming store, but it’s not a clear breakdown in and of itself.
That’s it. These are the contents of the D&D Starter Set, aka the new Red Box. More general thoughts
I am going to try and answer a few questions I can think of about this boxed set. Feel free to ask your own once I am done with this review. I am new to RPGs, and wonder if this boxed set will help me get into D&D?
This boxed set was made for you. It should provide you with good pointers to start with Essentials/4e D&D. I would encourage you to explore the game through this boxed set, upgrade to D&D Essentials when you feel like it, and/or from there explore other RPG venues to discover all the variety there is in game play, play styles, genres and more within the hobby. I am a veteran gamer/role player and want to get into 4e D&D, is this boxed set for me?
Not really. You can just skip this boxed set entirely and go directly to D&D Essentials instead. Pick up Heroes of the Fallen Lands, the Rules Compendium and/or the DM’s Kit and go from there.Is this product Old School?
No, it is not. For all intents and purposes, this is still D&D 4e. If you are not comfortable with things like skills in role playing games, tactical combat and encounters, and all these types of things, chances are, you will not like this boxed set, or D&D Essentials for that matter. BUT. There is a definite vibe of traditional D&D coming out of the whole thing. Not only in terms of themes or rules, mind you, but also when looking at the product itself.
The D&D Starter Set actually does not remind me so much about the Mentzer D&D Basic Set (the actual, original Red Box using the same cover art), since it is not a self-contained game system you can play on and on like you did with Mentzer D&D. Instead, it reminds me very strongly of Holmes D&D, the Blue Book of 1977. You were basically given a basic understanding of what the game is, how it plays out, along with enough rules to play a few games, all the while with the full expectation that, once done, you would upgrade to the full game system, AD&D First Edition in that instance. This boxed set here does the same thing here, with the expectation that you will upgrade to the full D&D Essentials once you’re done with it. How does the Starter Set fit into the big picture?
Well, there are some problems of compatibility between the Starter Set and the wider D&D Essentials. Some builds are not the same, powers change, that kind of thing. My advice is to simply rebuild your characters once you upgrade to D&D Essentials. They will be 2nd level by the time you are likely to upgrade. Not that big of a rebuild to make. This issue of compatibility seems to carry through to the very physical appearance of the product. It’s like the Red Box was designed well before the other components of D&D Essentials were finalized, including for instance decisions made regarding the format of the books, not just the rules. In that regard, the D&D 4e Gamma World boxed set with its digest-sized rulebook seems to actually fit more into the bigger picture than the D&D Starter Set does.Does the D&D Starter Set accomplish its stated goals?
As a product intended as a Starter Set, a box which introduces you to the game and expects you to upgrade to the full system after a while in the same way Holmes D&D did with AD&D back in the 1970s, yes, I think this product fulfills its purpose despite the discrepancies between the box’s contents and the wider Essentials D&D. As a self-contained D&D set like Mentzer D&D, which it is emphatically not, it fails miserably. The problem is that by using the original Red Box cover, it created this expectation on the part of many veterans of the game. There are no good or bad answers here, only a question of what you think this boxed set should do for you. If you want Mentzer D&D, you’ll be disappointed. If you don’t know what that is, or remember Holmes D&D, all the while accepting the fact that this version of D&D is not like the ones that came before, you might find a nice introduction to the core principles of the game.
Personally, I think this is a good product. Not perfect (there are mistakes and glitches and little things I didn’t like after all), but a product that will do some good for our hobby in the end - and that, I really cannot gather the strength or obstinacy to complain about. My overall note for this product:
4 dice out of 5.
Well done, Wizards of the Coast. More of this in the future. Please.