Sunday, 10 August 2014

Review - Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set

D&D Starter SetLike the rest of the roleplaying community I’ve been waiting for quite a while for this next version of Dungeons and Dragons.

After my less than stellar relationship with D&D 4th Edition I reacted to the news of D&D 5th with indifference, and then I was a little dismissive after reading the playtest rules and after pretty much ignoring the development of the game my attention was finally hooked by the art, release schedule and the snippets of news I was reading on the internet. I have to admit, once I started to take more notice I began to get more excited about the prospect of a new D&D game. This is, after all, the flagship of the tabletop RPG hobby and, no matter what I personally thought of it, I wanted to see it do well.


The game is a sturdy boxset containing the books and tools a gaming group will need. The cover art is very nice, as is the artwork in the books themselves, but design-wise the actual product doesn’t really grab hold of me and scream ‘YOU MUST PLAY ME!’ The presentation is, for want of a better description, bland. The booklets are staple stitched in full colour with glossy pages but they have the cover image and the contents on the front page so they look like books that have had their covers taken off, and the interior, while well laid out, have some but not a lot of art and pages of simple, uninspiring text. For a game that’s supposed to be getting new gamers into the hobby it’s simply not that exciting, and although the artwork is very good and evocative – they appear to have moved away from the improbable high-fantasy design of the previous two editions for something a little more grounded in reality – none of it makes my imagination spark into life. That may be more my issue than the game as I have a long history with the genre and there’s no doubt a ‘been there, seen that’ thing going on in my head. Regardless, as a starter set designed for new gamers I expected a few more fireworks and I simply do not feel that here.

The game itself comes in a box with the following contents:

64-page adventure book – it says that this comes ‘with everything the Dungeon Master needs to get started’, and that’s quite accurate. The adventure book is actually a mini campaign in the Forgotten Realms world called ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ that’ll take the players from level 1 to level 5, and there’s plenty to do in this campaign. It’s a good introductory adventure and includes what amounts to a small bestiary and magic item list, so there’s material you can use here in future games as well as stage other adventures in the campaign area. You’ll get a good 4 to 6 weeks worth of gaming out of this book - assuming you game once per week for about three hours – so that in itself makes the game a great purchase.

The adventure is aimed at making sure that DMs new to the hobby have everything they need to get through their first campaign. It’s a nice little guide to running adventures as well as playing in them and first-time groups will find it a great guide to the hobby. However, as with the rulebook – which I’ll get to in a moment – it doesn’t feel like there’s enough in here to fully explain the hobby to new blood. It feels like an expanded DM section of any roleplaying game in so much as you’d get this information in any RPG rulebook worth it’s salt. It’s good that it takes DMs and gaming groups through a campaign in steps and new gamers will find this very helpful, but I can’t see a group of new gamers who know absolutely nothing about tabletop RPGs understanding everything about the hobby; I think it’ll still take an experienced gamer to play with the group for them to fully grasp the concept and what’s required of them.

32-page rulebook – this is where I expected to find the driving explanations that got to the meat of the gaming hobby, but sadly it’s not there. It does explain the game in a few pages but, like I mentioned before, it’s nothing you wouldn’t find in any core rulebook for any other roleplaying game. I just do not feel it’s doing enough to be a true beginner’s starter set. If you know the hobby but you’re new to D&D then you’re fine, but if you already know RPGing then that kind of makes this whole boxset redundant.

5 pre-generated characters with character sheet – clean, nice and functional. I like the new character sheets, they’re laid out well and very clear.

6 dice – which are blue and do the trick. Another ten-sided ‘10s’ die would have been nice.


Readers expecting me to give a blow-by-blow description of changes to the game based on previous editions are going to be disappointed. That’s not how I write my reviews as I prefer to talk about what the game did for me and how it made me feel.

Moving away from my somewhat negative opinions of the presentation and my view on the new gamer approach the game takes, I’m glad to say that the game system is excellent. I’m a huge fan of Basic D&D and certain elements of the other editions and this game seems to have taken into account tat many D&D players will come from at least one of those backgrounds. It’s still the same system we all know and enjoy and the basics are definitive D&D. There are no power cards, no overbearing lists of talents and no reliance on grids or battle mats but there’s still plenty of options to flesh out a character and give each one their own identity and purpose.

The thing is, the Starter Set has no character creation rules. You are given the choice of five pre-generated characters of different classes – you’ll find these characters suit the ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ adventure well, of course – but there are no character creation rules at all. This not a problem, however – if you go to the Wizards of the Coast D&D page you’ll find a handy downloadable 100 plus page document that has character creation rules, expanded system rules and plenty more magic. What’s more, it’s a free PDF. So, with the Starter Set and these rules, gamers can get plenty of gaming out of the system and get all the way up to level 20. This is where the seasoned players get to experience D&D proper, and they get to use the ruleset to pretty much it’s full potential.

There are a lot of simple changes to the game but by far my favourite is the Advantage/Disadvantage rule. If you have a, Advantage in a skill, then you roll 2 D20s and keep the higher score. A Disadvantage means you roll 2 D20s and you have to use the lower score. It’s quick, neat and adds a great dynamic to the game.

The rules feel very stripped back and simple which is what you want in a starter set, but because of this the game feels incredibly playable – the kind of games I run are very fast and free flowing and I don’t want to get bogged down with rules and tables and page-flipping, especially when I’m running a combat encounter, and this allows me to do that. You still have to watch your book-keeping but battles don’t feel like a lesson in mathematics and you don’t have to worry too much about powers and abilities. You choose your skill and roll your die and that’s that. It’s nice to run a D&D game in which the players will only need the single-page character sheet in front of them and their dice. Other than a pad for adventure notes, the character sheet is all a player should need to play in the game

Of course, the Players Handbook might change this and add plenty of extra options and abilities, and part of me thinks that’s a shame. I do hope that this simple, quick and easy system is what I hoped for and I hope it gets plenty of support.

All in all, I really like this new D&D. My initial sceptisism has been cleaned away and I really like this quick and easy to use game system. It runs and feels like the D&D I remember - a lot more than 4th Edition ever did, in my opinion – and it’s a welcome return to the simple game I used to play in my youth.

It’s the presentation that lets it down for me. I wanted a bit more whiz-bang to really get me excited for the game but, other than the rules, I never really got any flavour from the design of the box, books and extras. Get past that, though, and you’ve got the beginnings of what is going to be a great game, and the system reminds me of what us older gamers loved about D&D in the first place.

It’s a great game system. I’m really looking forward to running more games of this and, looking past the presentation, I hope this is a return to what I love about D&D.

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