Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Essentials of the D&D Starter Set.

It is not 4.5e. It is D&D 4e with new classes and some reworked powers (for example Magic Missile) Dealing with the changes will feel similar when getting cards with changes or errata in Magic the Gathering.

It not a full ruleset like Mentzer's Basic Dungeons & Dragons. It is designed to take somebody who hasn't played Dungeons & Dragons at all and teach them to play and referee. It has enough additional material to for a couple of sessions of play and for the referee to come up with his own adventures.

It is meant not so much to be read but to be used. From the beginning of the players books to the start of the last chapters of the Dungeon Master's book it is designed be read in order and has the reader doing stuff from the first couple of pages onward.

This places the Starter Set not in the Holmes, Moldavy, Mentzer lineage but in the various First Quest, and other beginning D&D set.

There is very little reference material, in fact for somebody experienced in roleplaying this books will seem tedious and confusing. Only references it has are the power/item/actions cards that are included and a small monster reference. They do get +1 for including two pages about Nentir's Vale in the back. I always like this mini-setting, felt it had great potential as a setting for a sandbox campaign.

The Twisting Halls is one of the places that the Starter Set shines. It is seven encounters that the authors made interesting and challenging. The dungeon for the D&D day is a follow up to this module. It includes a full color double sided battlemap with the Twisting Halls on one side and a some smaller encounters on the other. It has dice, some nice character sheets, and a full color set of counters to use for miniatures

Physically the box is one of the sturdiest I seen. There is a inset that you can remove that they use to package the contents. Once remove I can see that much of the D&D Essential line will fit into it. My D&D 4e referee screen likewise also fits.

The player book is setup in a choose your adventure style designed to teach a person about creating and playing one of the four iconic classes (Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Thief). They use the standard array for assigning attributes.

The Dungeon Master is a more traditional read and has the usual 4e excellent advice on DMing followed by some encounters for a novice referee to try running, followed by the Twisting Hall, detail on creating your own encounters, the Monsters Reference, and finally two pages on Nentil's Vale.

The books are printed in full color magazine style as well as the paper (thick and glossy).

So what do I think about it. Well.... it not aimed at me, my friends, or the readers of this blog. They are not kidding about it being for 24 million players of D&D that are not currently playing. I can see a dad or a mom who hasn't played in 20 years going "oooo... this looks familiar" picking up the Starter Set and learning how to play D&D 4e. The Twisting Hall dungeon, shines as an example of 4e design filled with interesting and created encounters.

But I think it going to fail.

Why? It not because every single starter set failed where the Holmes, Moldavy, Mentzer, version succeeded. Because in the introduction they make the fatal mistake of taking D&D head to head with video games.
The Dungeons & Dragons game is the original pen-and-paper roleplaying game, the inspiration for generations of other games both on the tabletop and on computers and game consoles. If you've ever played Neverwinter Nights, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, or games like those., you already have some idea of what the Dungeons & Dragons game is about. With this book you're about to experience the game in its latest and greatest incarnation.
In subsequent paragraphs they describe how you going to enter a fantastic world of adventure, take on the role of a legendary hero in a world filled with ancient ruins, vast caverns, and wild frontiers.

And so what? I can already do that with those computer games and with a lot less hassle. So what makes Dungeons & Dragon different today. I give D&D a pat in the head for being the progenitor of we see today but those 24 million players are not going to put with the hassles of running a tabletop rpg you got to make a case for it. And they don't do that. Instead it leaps into the details of the mechanics the games which dominates the remaining 96 pages. Yes there are a few pages of player and referee advice. Good advice in fact. But they are overshadowed but the sheer bulk of the encounter and stat blocks. And all the encounters are about combat and direct conflict.

The singular advantage of roleplaying games is in the human element. The human referee, the human players. The infinite imagination and creativity they bring to the table. And that doesn't come across with only 2 pages (6 and 7 of the DM Section) devoted to stuff other than the mechanics of the game.

The encounters the authors made for the Twisting Halls are interesting and well thought out but without the larger picture they are without soul and just pieces on the board for the players to kill. I feel bad hammering this because here and there I can see the authors injecting things that are great hooks for roleplaying. For a novice or somebody hasn't played in decades these are not obvious and there nothing written on how to use them if they do notice them.

Because of this game feels like more complicated version of pushing chess pieces around. It not a problem of mechanical complexity but a problem of presentation. There are plenty of RPGs with complex mechanics that do a great job of promoting roleplaying as well as combat. In today's market the human element of roleplaying is the only thing that separates the tabletop game from it's computer version and starter sets need to pound on that to make a lasting difference for their parent game.

I give Mike Mearls and the 4e team an A for the Starter Set as a tutorial to use the D&D 4e mechanics. But as a introduction to the roleplaying game it doesn't do Dungeons & Dragons justice.

So how can this be fixed with the D&D Starter Set?


With apologies to Mike Mearl and the 4e design team but I had to do it being the grognard that I am.

I will have a follow up on the actual play. It was a lot of fun and I got to referee another person's first roleplaying game.

12 comments:

xaphalanx said...

The first time I saw the box I laughed. I've never felt so insulted by a marketing campaign before. They've now wrapped it in a pretty box to get people in my age group to make an emotional decision to buy it. LMAO. 4e isn't D&D. I'm not buying it.

Yoo-Hoo Tom said...

I honestly told myself yesterday that I would stop arguing with Grogards. Wotc's only mistake here is that they don't put a HUGE sticker on every product that say's, "Some Imagination Required". If you need someone to tell you how to use your imagination then you are in big trouble. I DM'ed a Red Box game yesterday for a group of 10-12yr olds. Not once did they complain about how the Stat Block hampered their ability to pretend they were a halfling rouge. Buy the Red Box and give it to a kid who will appreciate it.

Al said...

I don't think any edition of D&D since B/X has seen been simple enough for an entire group of complete beginners to just dive in and start playing.

Be that as it may, I'm glad there are still attempts at producing beginners' sets, regardless of edition.

Incidentally, I was in your neck of the woods this morning Rob, for the Presque Isle Marathon. Cool place!

JoeGKushner said...

I have to admit I don't know why you put the old image of the boxed set there. I don't recall it being a massive tome of "how to role play versus roll play" as opposed to some rules to get started with the game.

Alex Schroeder said...

I must confess that whenever I have to explain to people what roleplaying games are, I start by asking them whether they play any roleplaying games on the computer. Then I tell them that basically every player runs a character, I am the computer, and since you can talk to me, the game is infinitely more interesting than when playing alone in front of a computer. I honestly think that these days it's a valid approach to take. But then again, I haven't read the D&D Essentials book, so I can't tell whether they made this leap: human referee = more fun than a computer.

Rob Conley said...

@Alex, no they didn't which is ultimately why I blasted the product in the second part of the review.

As a teaching tool to learn the 4e mechanic it is a solid A. But it doesn't make a good case why you should do that.

@Tom - "Use your imagination" is implicit in the Starter Set. But it is better to make that kind of stuff explicit as it reaches more people.

The one thing that tabletop RPGs are better and quicker than video games is the ability to create custom content. Even after two decades it is a pain to make anything "complete" using computer tools. Something that many found out with Neverwinter Nights.

Erin said...

Good review, but I beg to disagree on one point:

It *is* aimed at you. Why else would the trade dress emulate--with disturbing precision--that of the '83 Mentzer edit?

I saw this on the shelf and did a double-take; when I realised what it was, I still picked it up and read the back to see if it was worth checking out.

As much as I take umbrage at letting myself be manipulated by WotC lack of originality, and as much as I relish the sight of them eating their own tail, I have to give it to them: they're finally paying attention to the 30-and-up audience they've been so content to ignore.

jonhendry2 said...

"they're finally paying attention to the 30-and-up audience they've been so content to ignore."

I honestly think they expect the 30-and-ups to recognize the cover, and buy it for their kids, but not necessarily to play it themselves.

Trying to interest new young players is more in WOTC's interest than getting the old players back. Adults have more money, but kids have more time. Probably the ideal from WOTC's point of view is a 12 year old kid with an ex-player parent who's happy to fund the kid's new hobby.

If WOTC talks about 24 million lapsed players, I have to wonder if they think of them as potential players, or more as a 24 million strong force of potential marketers (to their kids).

Rob Conley said...

@Erin - well I did buy it. :D So I guess you are right about that.

Although it sitting on my shelf with the Mentzer books in it. The 4e stuff in a folder with the 4e books.

Erin said...

@jonhendry2: Totally agree. History shows that old gamers aren't where the big bucks are made, but if you can use them to seed the next generation of market share...

@Rob: I almost bought it myself, as a 4E virgin, just to see what 4E was all about. As much as I don't plan to ever play 4E, and as skeptical as I am about WotC in general, that Elmore cover pulls hard, and $17 is such a low entry point...

Reverend Keith said...

Yoo-Hoo Tom summed it up best. I bought it for my daughters, and they had fun playing it. That's a win in my book, regardless of what the grognards think.

Personally, I could care less about 4e (or 3e/o/AD&D for that matter), but I loved hearing my daughters cheer when they killed the frost dragon in the starter dungeon.

Justin Alexander said...

Ultimately the problem is that 4th Edition is very poorly designed to make the case for tabletop RPGs because it was designed in the belief that the best way to compete with video games was to go head-to-head with all the strengths of video games. The entire game was designed to systematize the playing experience -- to control the input of both players and DM so that the game experience could be "balanced" against anything unexpected.

In a more general sense, I am simply disappoint that WotC has yet again squandered the opportunity to produce a true <a href="http://www.thealexandrian.net/archive/archive2010-09.html#20100922</link>gateway product</a> for D&D and, by extension, the RPG industry as a whole.