The relaunch of Dungeons & Dragons begins this week with the release of the D&D Starter Set, a $20 box designed to be the perfect introduction to tabletop fantasy role-playing games. I tested it out with a group of neophyte gamers, and we had a blast.
Wizards of the Coast has been steadily demolishing my skepticism about the new edition, and the Starter Set has finally disintegrated it altogether. The boxed set itself is very nice – the huge, full art on the cover looks great, and it's a big, sturdy box. In fact, a good chunk of it is filled with a cardboard spacer, which means there's room in there for lots of D&D goodies down the line. It comes with a 31-page rulebook, a rather thick adventure book, and a full set of polyhedral dice. Nice dice, with a rich, marbled blue color.
This stripped down D&D rule set covers a lot of ground with not many pages. It introduces broad concepts of roleplaying (telling a story, reacting to situations described by the DM, rolling dice to resolve uncertain situations), then quickly and clearly explains abilities, skills, skill checks, movement, and combat. The last five pages or so are devoted to spellcasting and a short list of spells. In that handful of pages, though, the Starter Set conveys a wonderful sense of boundless adventure. Mike Mearls and the other D&D designers have said all along that they wanted this edition to feel like a distillation of all the elements from previous editions that made D&D feel like D&D. In this short D&D primer, I think they've succeeded. Reading through it gave me clear echoes of the excitement I felt when I was 12 and reading the AD&D Player's Handbook for the first time.
There's no character creation, but the boxed set will carry you to level five. A lot of class information actually comes from the five included pre-generated characters: two fighters, a wizard, a rogue, and a cleric. These are great pregens, with tons of personality and background info that opens the door for new players to try playing in character. Feats, racial abilities, and bonuses for leveling up are also found on the sheets.
It's interesting to see where some of the sharper edges have been filed off the rules of old editions. A good example is the old "Max Dex Bonus" for armor. Your character's dexterity bonus is typically added to her Armor Class, because being nimble makes you hard to hit. Heavier armor has a drawback, though – it limits how much of that Dex bonus you can add to AC. It used to be a separate number for each type of armor, a small but not insignificant layer of complexity when choosing your gear. That concept is still in the game, but it's just an asterisk on the armor chart that translates the rule into broad armor categories. Light armor allows your full Dex bonus, medium allows Dex bonus but to a maximum of +2, and heavy armor doesn't allow Dex bonus at all. I find it ingenious not just because it's elegantly simpler while still capturing the same flavor, but it leaves the door open for modular increases in complexity down the road. Do you want that old-school granularity in armor selection? An advanced combat book or equipment book could easily offer that option.
There are a few other rules I really like as well. Combat rounds are easy to explain – you can move and you can take an action, in any order. The part that's really appealing: a character can interact with the environment or his gear once per turn as a free action. Pull the lever, lock the door, draw your sword, drink the potion on the table, or untie the captive knight. That little rule goes a long way toward keeping combat interesting. It's basically a swashbuckling rule, and lets battles feel crazy and exciting and not just hackfests.
Advantage and disadvantage is another great rule. D&D has long had the concept that certain situations give you a bonus or drawback to your rolls. It has ranged from complicated tables of dozens of modifiers to a flat +2 or -2. The new version is so much better. If you have advantage (your buddy is helping you flank the gnoll, or the horse you're riding is especially well-trained) you roll a pair of D20s for your roll, and take the better of the two. Disadvantage works just the opposite – when the situation is against you, you roll two D20s and take the lower roll. It's somehow inherently more fun to roll two dice instead of just taking a boring 10 percent adjustment on your roll. It can also lead to epic fun moments like the bad guy attacking with advantage, everyone thinks it's certain doom, and he rolls critical misses on both dice.
Beyond the core rules, the boxed set includes a 63-page adventure called "Lost Mine of Phandelver" (both books are softcover, like magazines). Written by Richard Baker and Christopher Perkins, it delivers a lot of action and intrigue. You can play D&D for weeks with this. It has a very classic feel, with a wide assortment of monsters to battle, townsfolk to meet, mysteries to solve, and a shadowy underworld to uncover. The first few sections are ideal for new players, dropping them into situations of gradually increasing complexity. There's a straightforward battle, but then an encounter with animals you can fight or calm. The first dungeon area is non-linear, so players get to experience the joys and terrors or making choices (and suffering the consequences). It can also be quite deadly – I very nearly TPKed the party when they shortcutted directly to one of the dungeon boss monsters (that's a Total Party Kill, something all D&D newbies learn about eventually).
My opinions are less relevant here, since this Starter Set is aimed at less experienced players. What did our players think? Our playtest group is what we semi-jokingly call "Ladies' D&D," a group of women gamers with a wide age range, most of whom are schoolteachers (by no means do we think women need segregated gaming groups — we started it as a way for RPG newbies to try it out in a potentially less intimidating environment, and it seems to have worked quite well). Our players had played a little Pathfinder, but were still pretty new to RPGs, and one of them had no experience whatsoever beyond knowing the dice had different sides "from the Community episode."
I hate to speak for others, but it really seemed like everyone had a great time and picked up on the rules quite easily. It might be more accurate to say they didn't stress about the rules too much, because the rules were clearly secondary to the fun we were having. Everyone dove in with no hesitation, playing off their odd character quirks, making completely outside the box choices, planning out combat tactics, and doing all the other stuff that adds up to "having an adventure." It was also hilarious how quickly they started metagaming, even with no prior knowledge of D&D. "The empty map case was the only detailed thing mentioned, so obviously there's a map we have to find. It has to be important." When the rules were required, rarely did it take more than a quick glance at a character sheet to check an attack bonus or armor class.
Obviously, the Starter Set isn't perfect. I wish they'd fit a poster map into it, although I understand the pressure to keep the price at $20. Spellcasting is a little fuzzy as described, which is probably inevitable given the complexity of that particular subject and the brevity of the rules as presented. The five pre-generated characters are great, but you're sort of stuck with them if you want something different. Of course, a lot of these quibbles are addressed by the D&D Basic Rules, a completely free 100-page PDF that covers the main classes and a limited set of races from levels one to 20. It's a pretty interesting strategy on Wizards of the Coast's part, and one I can't really argue with. They've even included a printer-friendly version. There are also several other adventures available that are designed to be played using 5th Edition rules, so it's possible to expand your Starter Set experience even further.
The Starter Set, in many stores already and widely available by July 15, is exactly the kind of product I've long thought a new edition of D&D needed. I recommend it for anyone who's curious and wants to learn D&D (although it's always nice to have an experienced player around). I think it's a good buy even for experienced players, as an on-ramp for new players, or just a for a solid low-level adventure that comes with a nice set of dice for $20. That's a pretty good deal.
Update: Jonathan Bolding at Escapist has done another excellent review of this boxed set, if you'd like another take on it (we mostly agree, though he goes into more detail about the adventure).