Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set Opinionated Review

So let’s talk the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, released to game stores early this month, and everywhere else last week. The cover art for the box looks awesome, calling back to the cover of the original red box, which will always have a special place in my heart. I mean, let’s take a peek of the two to get my point across.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules

Old School

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set

New School

Warrior in battle with a dragon. Granted, the dragon colors are different, and one is much larger than the other, but it’s still a callback in my book. Awesome!

Also contained in the box are:

  • Six game dice, the standard d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20.
  • A D&D Starter Set Rulebook, 32 pages in length and split into four chapters detailing how to play, combat, adventuring, and spellcasting, as well as a one page appendix of the various conditions one can be afflicted with and how they alter one’s abilities (blinded, charmed, prone, etc.)
  • The D&D Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, suitable for taking a party of adventurer’s from 1st to 5th level. Weighing in at 64 pages, it’s split into an Introduction, the adventure proper divided into four parts of unequal length (as the adventure progresses, it takes longer to get through each part), an appendix of magic items, a second appendix of monster stat blocks, and a one page index for knowing which page to look up rules quickly in the rulebook.
  • There’s also a sheet at the bottom advertising D&D Encounters, which I believe is going to be re-branded D&D Adventurer’s League. On the back of the sheet is a character sheet with the D&D Encounters logo, but there are updated character sheets for download from Wizards here.
  • There are also five pre-generated characters to play with, all with specific ties to the adventure, as well as specific directions on what to do when you level up. Among them are:
  1. A Human Fighter with a Folk hero background, specializing in ranged combat
  2. A Human Fighter with a Noble background, specializing in melee combat
  3. A Dwarven Cleric with a Soldier background
  4. An Elven Wizard with an Acolyte background
  5. A Halfling Rogue with a Criminal background

Kudos to whoever designed these character sheets over at Wizards (or if the task was outsourced.) They have a great, clean, crisp, cool look (Could I have used anymore adjectives beginning with the letter C?) The paper quality of these character sheets is also pretty good too. A part of me wishes they were able to get the space for ‘Inspiration,’ which they added to the downloadable character sheets, but my guess is these went to the printer before that was added. Perhaps a second printing will address this?

Also, I’m not sure people realize that the cardboard platform at the bottom of the box can be removed, increasing its depth, so that more stuff can be put in it if need be. So bonus points for the intelligent design there.

So I ran this adventure at Connecticon, mostly parts one and two, and I have to say it was a blast. I went old school, deciding not to use miniatures and went 100% theater of the mind, and everything worked really well here, with minor hiccups. Also, the adventure is pretty flexible for making on-the-fly decisions. I had one group of five shrink to two (three had another event they had to attend), and I was able to make scale things back without too much trouble. While I haven’t DM’d parts three or four, I’ve obviously read and prepared them in case I needed to run them, and the adventure it’s solid, and not entirely linear; during part two, one could skip to sections of part three, then return to part two depending on how the players…well, play it. It’s really solid, fun, and a great introductory adventure for newer / experienced GM’s and players alike.

There are some constructive criticisms I have though:

  • I’m unsure why the Rules index is on the last page of the adventure, while the last page of the Rules has conditions listed. Since the DM will likely need to look those up when those conditions occur, it makes more sense in my brain for the conditions to be the last page of the adventure, and the rules to be the last page of the rulebook. I mean, one wouldn’t look up another book to look at an index that pertains to a second book entirely, right?
  • The adventure has various maps, including (SPOILERS!): the Northern Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms, Cragmaw Hideout, the village of Phandalin, the Redbrand Hideout, the Ruins of Thundertree, Cragmaw Castle, and Wave Echo Cave. I would have appreciated various versions of the maps that the DM could show players. Player friendly maps, as it were, untagged. A cartographer already made these types of versions, but I think it’d be neat if Wizards took the time to alter their maps and provide player-friendly versions. That is, without the locations marked, numbers shown, etc. Assuming the artists worked in layers (is there a digital artist that doesn’t?), it would be a task that wouldn’t take a lot of time, and I’m confident DM’s and players would be grateful.
  • Creature cards / photos / postcards, or some type of visual aid to show what monsters look like, to help newbies spark their imagination. I realize the onus of this task is up to the Dungeon Master, but it’s always nice to provide a degree of visual aid to the players. Heck, even Chris Perkins in his latest foray with Acquisitions Incorporated, at some point, had the players take a peek at his MacBook instead of relying on purely verbal descriptions.  (Go to about 1:52:00 if you want to skip to this part.) This, of course, led to the line of questioning concerning what could possibly be in Chris’s ‘poop’ folder. (As an aside, yes it’s true, one could hold up the adventure book with the monster on page X, but that’s at the risk of revealing information to the player’s they shouldn’t know.)
  • (MORE SPOILERS!): There is one item that could serve as a handout during the course of the adventure; a note the players find (or should find, at any rate.) It would have been nice to provide this in the box.
  • Related to the idea of creature cards / NPC cards, it’d be awesome if the starter set art was put up on Wizards website for download. I use Hammerdog Games ‘World’s Greatest Screen’ and make my own inserts, and those art assets would be invaluable for me personally in terms of saving time preparing, instead of me scanning / cropping away.
  • I’m a tiny bit annoyed (emphasis on the word tiny) that I have to look up the Basic Rules to find out how many hit points to add per level if someone preferred not to roll, but to take the average. Just as an FYI, in the newly released D&D (and it was like this in the playtest rules, at least the later versions), when leveling up, one could choose to roll their hit dice or take an average. Using the fighter as an example, when going to level two, a player could elect to roll 1d10 + their Constitution modifier, or take 6 + their Constitution modifier. Personally, since the pre-generated character sheets actually reveals what’s gained per level up, I think this information should have been there as well, as it was notably absent.
  • I know percentile dice are not the most used dice in D&D, and they are absolutely not required; one could roll the d10 twice or two d10’s together. The latter, I used to do when I played the Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game as a kid (FASERIP anybody?), but I personally always appreciate a percentile die, and would have liked to see one here.
  • The most minor nitpick of all, but I would have liked to have seen a 6th pre-generated character. At Connecticon, I ran a number of six-player tables, and thus some people had “twins.”
  • The second most minor nitpick of all; both the rules and adventure books are entirely made of the same semi-glossy paper, including the cover pages. I personally would have liked both to have some type of cover made of a different, thicker material. It doesn’t have to be a really thick cardboard, it could be thinner, but it would have been nice to see.

I realize that at least some of my suggestions may have raised the price point, and in the end, they’re minor nitpicks for would could be my favorite edition of D&D…ever? I need to reserve judgment for when the core books are released. August can’t get here fast enough.

Some final kudos: Wizards has made the pre-generated characters available as a download, which you can get here.

People seem to love scores, so if I could score it, I’d give it a 4.5 / 5, or 90 / 100 if you prefer. It’s almost everything I love / want in a roleplaying game: a medium amount of crunch / rules, with emphasis on roleplaying your character and a strong introduction to the hobby for newcomers.



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