Countdown to GenCon 2012

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons "Red Box" Starter Unboxing and Review

A couple of weeks ago I was checking my twitter account, and noticed a direct message I had missed.  In short, @Dreadgazeebo (author of the excellent Dread Gazebo blog at had a contest where he would give away a Red Box set to one of his twitter followers chosen at random, and I was the lucky follower.  How cool is that?  I actually won a twitter contest, and I won something cool!  I got my address information to him, and shortly my prize arrived.  I have to say here that he's a really great guy with a very informative and helpful blog going.  I really shouldn't say have to...I just want to because it's true.

As I mentioned in a previous entry, I started on the blue/gray boxed set.  The original red box was 2 sets past that, but I remember when it came out.  Since I haven't played D&D in more than 10 years, I thought it would be really neat to be able to unbox a new basic set and compare after so many years and editions.  My initial reaction is best summed up by watching I think:

Like I said in the video, these were my initial impressions.  Some of them were wrong, but I think I was generally on track.

So what's the set like when you dig a little deeper?

The Players Book is the starting point.  The more I think about this book, the more I like it for a truly new player.  First, it's done in the "choose your own adventure" style, where you bounce around numbered paragraphs depending on the actions you decide to take.  The book guides you through the very basics of the game by actually getting you into a very simple encounter and teaching you character creation and basic game mechanics while you're playing.  One of the really nice things about this is that a new player will get a feel for the game right off the bat without having to have other people to play with.  Further, there's not a lot to read and learn, so it's not intimidating.  It stresses play over rules and concepts over details.  I know I would have loved this when I started playing.  The mini-game is simple and not very exciting, but it does develop a good feel for how play works.  The one problem I did see by the time I finished the book was that it does take the how-to-draw-The-Tick method.  In issue #1 of The Tick (the comic), there's a one page guide to drawing The Tick.  The instructions are: 1) Draw an oval, 2) Draw a line through the center of the oval, 3) Now draw The Tick holding the oval with the line through it.  Similarly here, the book introduces one very basic concept at a time until the last part, then it throws the entire combat system at you.  Sure, it's not that hard to learn, but it's kind of a shocking break for a new player who's been absorbing one rule at a time up until that point.

This does bring me to some of the other contents of the box.  First, a full set of good quality polyhedral dice is provided.  I guess this is no big deal now, but I wish I had these when I started.  My basic set had chits:  Cut out squares with numbers that you drew from a cup to simulate a die roll.  Chits two ways about it.  I really appreciate that Wizards of the Coast included dice here.  They also included tokens for a variety of characters and monsters and a nice fold out map to play on.  Fourth edition D&D is a very figure oriented game compared to some of the previous editions, and it's nice to have a something to start with.  The tokens are printed on both sides, and the players have a red side to indicate if they are bloodied.  This will help a new player a lot with visualizing the action, and I think will end up selling minis pretty quickly.  The map has several sections for the included adventure, but they can be mixed and matched to generate other dungeons and outdoor areas.  There are also power cards included.  These are super handy for new players, as it gives them the full details of what their characters can do in a simple, easy to organize way.  No more flipping around a book to figure out what you can do and what the mechanics are.  Very smart.  The cards are a little hard to get out of their pages as they are pre-cuts that need to be punched out and the cardstock is not very thick.

The Dungeon Master's Book is where all the meat is of course.  Still, it shortens the game down to a small number of pages.  This makes it clear that the overall thrust of the box is get-out-there-and-play.  I think that's great, and I think the box succeeds for a very modest price.  The Dungeon Master's Book fleshes out the remainder of the needed rules in 19 pages, and then continues the adventure that the Player's Book started.  The idea is that now anyone who bought this box will have found the other people needed to play, and can graduate to having a dungeon master.  The adventure occupies a good portion of the DM's book, and seems aimed at teaching the basics of DMing while staying simple enough that both players and DMs spend more time playing than wrestling with rules.  It's not just hack and slash either....there are puzzles to solve and situations that require a non-combat approach to survive.  Playing through this, you'll get a little taste of a lot of the aspects commonly found in an adventure.  The last portion of the book gives the budding DM a cast of monsters they can use to create their own adventures as well as a small area that is suitable to set a campaign in.  It also provides advice and guidelines on designing stories, adventures, and encounters so the players and DM can move forward on their own.

Finally, there is the download code for an additional adventure in the same setting to keep things going.  It's interesting that it's a solo adventure in the style of the Player's Book.  This means a player will have something to do if they can't find a group right way.  Doing it as a download means Wizards of the Coast can offer this without having to increase the production cost of the box.

When I think the package over as a whole, I have to say that I think it's really well put together for the purpose it's suppose to serve.  It's not for players who know the game well, it's for brand new roleplayers.  It gives them all the tools to play without overburdening them with the full weight of all the rules that really make up Dungeons & Dragons 4E.  It's a starter, not a tome of all knowledge, and it whets the appetite for more.

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