Monday, July 21, 2014

The New D&D Starter Set - Pros and Cons

Reviews for the new starter set for D&D have been popping up over the last week and they are almost universally positive, which is good, but surprising. I keep thinking back to the reviews of the 4th edition starter and they were mixed at best for what is a very similar approach.

  • The new set contains pregen characters, a small rulebook, and an adventure that will take a party to 5th level (and dice).
  • The 4E Red Box contained a limited character generation system through a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style short adventure, a small rulebook, and adventure material to get characters to 2nd or 3rd level (and dice).

The main criticism of the 4E set was the limited long term value of the material. You could make a few characters, run through the adventure (and a downloadable adventure) and then other than future use of the poster maps and the tokens there was not much left to do with the contents.

I see the same issue with the new set, but it seems to be less of an issue for people this time. Pregenerated characters are an issue I will address below but this set has the same limited-use issue: once you finish the adventure there is not much utility left in the box. Sure, it has a longer adventure, but it doesn't have the poster maps, tokens, miniatures, or pawns that some of the other recent starter sets had that might be useful components for games down the road, so there is a tradeoff.

Later 4E starter

Finally - pregens. Including only pregenerated characters in this set is a real negative in my opinion. The 4E set had limited character creation so that at least the player got to pick a race and class and some details - like a name - to make it their own. Making players take a character they didn't create lessens the connection and the feeling of having a personal stake at risk in the game. This isn't Conan, Gandalf, Sinbad, and Lancelot teaming up for some epic quest - this is a party of beginning heroes so give the players an option to create them right there in the box!

Pathfinder Beginner Box

Bonus comparison: The Pathfinder Beginner Box had pregenerated characters (the iconic characters for the 4 main classes) but also included basic character generation rules so that it had the best of both worlds - the speed of play of pregens plus the more personal touch of player-created characters. It was more expensive, but I suspect that was more due to the 80-plus pawns included in the game rather than a few extra pages of rules.

Original 4E starter

The earlier 3rd and 4th edition starter sets included miniatures and poster maps or dungeon tiles but did not have character generation rules so there has been a general trend over the last 14 years towards making these kinds of products a very limited introductory item and less of a true gateway like the old Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer Basic sets. I thought the Pathfinder set might change this trend but apparently not.

3.5 starter

Now the ray of sunshine with the new box is that the new D&D "Basic" rules are available as a free PDF download. That's good. I was thinking the decision not to put character creation rules in the game was still driven by the idea that people might not buy the Players Handbook when it comes out if they had basic rules but clearly that's not the reasoning anymore. Could they really not include some of that in the box? A printed version of the basic rules for character creation for the 4 core classes and a few of the races, through level 5, would have made this a much stronger product for actually exploring the game. I expect the $20 price point forced a ruthless paring down of material though.

3.0 Starter

For me, a huge part of the fun of the game is making up your own character, not playing someone else's. Thinking that it's not essential to me is missing the whole point of why people play the game. Including them as a quick start option, sure - including them as the only option, well, that's just bad. It's saying that individual characters aren't that important and I think that's a bad way to get started. Sure, those of us who have been at it for awhile know that you can have fun playing almost any kind of character if the other players and the DM are good and into the game, but for new players "my character" moments are one of the first things that distinguish RPG's from boardgames.

Also, practically speaking, with the modern emphasis on selling books full of character options, I don't see how de-emphasizing character creation in your first product is a smart move. I'd think the plan would be to emphasize that instead but maybe this is part of the new approach to the game they're supposed to be taking.

In the end this isn't aimed at me and it's probably not even aimed at the apprentices anymore considering they have a fair amount of RPG experience now. I may give them a copy to try out but there's not really a burning urge for a new edition here since they're happy with 4E/Pathfinder/Savage Worlds/M&M/Shadowrun. I do have some interest in running at least a few sessions so I can talk about it with some experience but I am not sure when that will happen. If I do, I'll post about it here.


Simon Gaudin said...

Interesting Article & well timed since I am going to be doing a demo game tomorrow evening.

I will post a link to this article on my blog as It will I think be of interest to the audience of as well

Blacksteel said...

Cool, thanks. Like I said I think the pre-gen only approach is the only real down side to the new set and a good DM can mitigate it. Good luck with your game!

Barking Alien said...

This is a great article and very well thought out, but it tells me something about the two editions in the bigger picture.

I can't speak about the Basic/Starter Sets or whatever you call them. I didn't buy the last one, or the one before that, and I'm certainly not going to buy this one.

That said, I hated 4th. I think 5th isn't bad. That's pretty much what it boils down to. It's not about what you get in the box, other than the game mechanics. The game mechanics for Next, for 5E, are simply better received.

Blacksteel said...

I'm pretty sure you're right. There was a lot of nostalgia associated with the 4th box since it copied the Mentzer Basic Set's look, but it didn't have anywhere near the content of that box. I think that drove some of the "backlash" against it too, even from people who otherwise liked 4th edition.