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Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set Review - Dice, Dice Baby

Jonathan Bolding | 12 Jul 2014 16:00
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d&d starter set

As the first step into the new Dungeons & Dragons there's a lot riding on the brand new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set box - and it delivers. It's a solid entry into the franchise's sometimes troubled recent attempts at intro products, with a price point that's hard to beat and comprehensible rules clearly designed for new players to grasp quickly. Introductory products are hard - they have to straddle quality, price, fidelity, and approachability. They need to remain true to the rules while being easy to learn. They need to provide a good representation of what the product line is like while remaining an impulse buy. The D&D Starter Set does this well, with rules that can be grasped quickly balanced by a price that's hard to argue with. While it's not perfect, and there are some reservations that keep it from being the greatest in its field, it's a good portent of a fun game to come.

The set is two booklets, a set of dice, and five pre-printed characters on a fairly heavy paper - all in a pretty sturdy box that could sit alongside books on a shelf, but probably shouldn't be stacked with heavy board games. The booklets are glossy, full color and a tough stock, but are bound with heavy staples - so they're not going to last forever. The booklets themselves are 64 pages for the adventure and 32 for the rules. It sells for the reasonable price of $20. The set isn't a ultra-high-quality premium product made from expensive materials, and it's clear it's not meant to be. The emphasis of the value is on the content, which bears up under play. It took my group of four experienced players about 20 hours - five four hour sessions - to complete the adventure.

Dungeons & Dragons Start Set Monsters

Learning how to play the game from the starter set is a fairly straightforward experience, with the rules laid out clearly in a style that will be familiar to those who've played more recent high-quality roleplaying games. There's an emphasis on a writing style that makes the game easy to understand and rules clear. That's hampered by the text's lack of examples of play, which will probably leave new players with zero prior time with video or tabletop roleplaying games with a slightly harder experience learning to play the game. That's hard to identify as a real problem, though - how many people coming into this game are going to have absolutely zero idea of how to play? Nonetheless, a "How to Play" video from Wizards of the Coast would take big steps to solving that problem - but seeing no reference to that in the game text, it's not an immediately useful resource if it does appear on general release.

The rules themselves are an excellent implementation. They're straightforward and fairly easily comprehensible. Gone are the delineated Move, Minor, and Standard actions on each turn, replaced with a simple Move and Action system that will be very familiar to players of D&D prior to 2008. The game's math is simpler again, with only a few modifiers being added to most rolls, and very few of those relying on things external to the character or monster and therefore requiring an extra step of thought. This is easily the most approachable that D&D has been since the 90s. The advantage and disadvantage mechanics are an absolute treat. Those are used in place of D&D's traditional slurry of small modifiers - +1 for high ground, +2 for flanking, and the like - and replace those small acts of math with a bonus d20 rolled alongside the normal throw. You take the higher of your two dice with advantage, or the lower with disadvantage. Easy to understand for new players and, frankly, just damn fun at the table.

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The pregenerated characters are easy to pick up and understand - both in mechanics and backstories - and while I had some misgivings about the suitability of certain characters for new players, I've since seen that in play they're easy enough for players to grasp and roleplay without falling into unproductive stereotypes. Each starter character has a set of personality traits, a background, and motivations that tie them deeply into the adventure. The dwarven cleric, for example, has a cousin intricately tied into the events of the adventure, and the traditional dwarven family and clan ties mean the character is honor bound to help out. The new rate of experience gain and leveling up is well presented, with players getting a quick level after the first and second chunks of play - opening up the mechanical complexity of their characters at an ideal speed not only for roleplaying, but for learning the game as well. I cannot praise it highly enough - at least as presented in this starter set.

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