Review: The D&D Starter Kit

I can’t work Wizards of the Coast out. For the past few months they’ve been pushing Open Grave like crazy folks; to an extent I can understand they’re justifiably proud of the supplement as it’s an excellent piece of work, but let’s face facts. If you’re into 4e D&D and it’s within your budget, you’re going to buy it regardless. Not much of a marketing push is needed.

Meanwhile, the D&D Starter Kit was released a few months ago with ne’er a fanfare. I doubt they even let off a damp party popper. Which is pretty strange given that this (much moreso than Open Grave) is what they need to be pushing, and hard. Books such as Open Grave, PHB2 or new adventures aren’t going to get many new players into the game, but a Starter Kit is designed with that in mind. It should be proudly displayed on their website’s front page with a huge banner saying “THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED TO GET STARTED!”. It should be in toy stores across the land next to huge cardboard dragons. We should be seeing new downloadable content every week explicitly marked as being “Designed for use with the D&D Starter Kit!” so newcomers to the game feel welcome and know where to get kewl goodies without feeling overwhelmed. It wouldn’t take a lot of effort – just a little reorganization of Wizards’ site to make it more newbie-friendly. A fair chunk of great content is there already that just needs corralling into a special Newcomers area. I’m thinking printable battlemats, PDFs of the counters, new characters and a couple of adventures designed to be played with the provided Starter Kit Dungeon Tiles.

I mean, how hard could it be?

But instead……… nothing. The only conclusion I can come to is that Wizards’ are embarrassed with the D&D Starter Kit. Want more proof? Try to find it on Wizards’ site. Not easy, is it? The question though is whether they should be embarrassed by it. Quite simply: is it any good?

The short answer is yes, it’s a very good product but it has one serious omission to mar what could otherwise have been a perfect D&D set. Price-wise it offers excellent value, and at $16.99 it’s positioned at just the right purchase point for parents and kids alike. This is a box that should just walk off the shelves and (if Wizards/Hasbro got their marketing act together!) be one of the biggest sellers of 2009.

If you’re an old school gamer and remember the D&D Red Box Basic Set you’ll weep with joy over this Starter Set. It’s an edition of D&D containing a Quick-Start Book and Dungeon Masters Book. There’s Dungeon Tiles and Counters a-plenty just begging to be popped out and played with. This is a very tactile set as a whole; hand a box to a couple of kids and they’ll be fiddling with the contents and itching to play immediately. Oh, and there’s a full set of dice too. The only thing that’s missing is the yellow crayon to colour in the numbers. Ah, happy times are here again.

The Quick-Start Book is largely a re-run of the one provided with The Keep on the Shadowfell. That’s not a bad thing as it does a terrific job of introducing the game and showcases just how simple and fun D&D is to play. It’s rounded out with 5 ready-made characters (Dwarf Fighter, Halfling Rogue, Eladrin Wizard, Human Cleric, Dragonborn Paladin) that are a great showcase for the system.

Dammit, I can’t put it off any longer. The Starter Kit lacks just one thing, and it’s a biggie.

There are no character generation rules in the set. None. Nada. The players get those five characters to play, and that’s your lot. If one of the character dies (or the player wants, say, a Human Wizard) then tough – you’re left looking at the same 5 sheets whether you like it or not. What I’d expect there to have been was enough information to generate a 1st level character from a subset of the race and classes from the PHB with a handful of Powers. The pre-gens are nice, but could easily have been reduced in size to a single page (or even half-page) each meaning 5 pages to introduce character generation. That’s enough room for a one page overview and a page on each class. If more space were needed there’s a fair amount of duplication between the Quick-Start and Dungeon Masters Books, so a little re—organization would have freed up all the room needed to include this most essential facet of the game.

Or, as I put it when I first heard that the Starter Kit didn’t include chargen: “A Starter Kit without Character Generation is just an adventure with Cliff’s Notes”.

A Starter Kit is all about setting expectations. It should showcase (and simplify, if needed) the key parts of the game. Not including Character Generation in even a cut-down form is akin to omitting combat, monsters or…. well, anything else, really. Just like the Red Box sets of yore this Starter Kit should have been a complete set providing all you need for low-level play. That is, after all, what it promises.

But enough of that. Dumb omission, folks!

Thankfully though, what is there is Very Good Indeed. The Dungeon Masters Book contains a very simple short introductory adventure made up of 3 encounters that steeply ramp up the combat difficulty. It’s typical of 4e D&D with much more emphasis on combat over role-playing (ie, there is none worth mentioning) I’m coming to see that as a strength rather than a weakness – I can add the role-playing elements in myself. For an adventure designed for new gamers though, more opportunity for, y’know, role-playing would have been a good idea, don’t you think? As a showcase of the combat rules and (especially in the final encounter) the necessity of tactical play, it does the job.

We’re given a wealth of information how to create exciting Encounters and details about the different Monster Roles as well as the Target XP totals and XP Reward tables for levels 1-5 and rules for using Traps and Terrain. Skill Challenges are also covered (but the numbers are pre-errata). So far, so good; it’s a terrific DMG in miniature with just enough content to make it usable at low-level even when you have the full Dungeon Masters Guide. Unlike the Quick-Start Guide, this’ll get a lot of re-use at the table.

If that was all it had I’d be happy, but we’re only halfway through. The rest of the book contains over 60 statblocks for iconic monsters from 1st to 5th level – and I certainly didn’t expect that in a Starter Kit! This is a complete mini Monster Manual with more than enough critters to provide hundreds of hours-worth of gaming goodness. We’ve got stats for everything from lowly Kobolds to a Young Black Dragon and enough Rats, Beetles, Goblins, Drakes, Kruthiks (yay!), Wolves, Jellies and Undead to start any adventuring career off with a bang. No Treasure though, which is….. strange. OK, that’s two omissions.

The completeness of this DMG & mini Monster Manual makes the lack of character generation all the more inexplicable. It’s like they put together a kickass starting Dungeon Masters resource and got bored while making the Players Guide so stuck the Quick-Start Guide from Shadowfell in there instead. So yeh, it’s embarrassing.

Back to the original question. Is it any good? Yes. That DMG alone is worth the price of entry. Add in the dice, dungeon tiles and counters and this is a great value purchase even if you own the three Core rulebooks. For low-level (1st-3rd) games, it’s the only book a Dungeon Master would need at the table.

What’s disappointing though is that it could have been so much better.

24 Comments on “Review: The D&D Starter Kit”

  1. No Generation Rules?? Yeah, I’d call that a very big miss. I can understand why there was no fanfare. I’d say that turns this item more into some sort of cheap door prize rather than a usable system. Of course, I think me and my friends made up some rules to use with B1 module we had when I started to play DnD.

    Bonemasters last blog post..Friday Update

  2. How hard could it have been to errata out the mistakes?

    This came out way after the August 11th errata, did it not?

    And Wizards should be all over the place with this thing, pushing it everywhere…

    At Borders over here, it’s nestled right between 3.5 copies of Elder Evils and 20 4th Ed. DMG’s… not a good place.

    This should have been a mainstream product sold at Target’s and Wal-Mart’s of the world. Hasbro should have the leverage to put any D&D misconceptions aside and get this stuff in stores where people will actually see it.

    The fact is, our hobby is a word-of-mouth one, or kept alive by us who never want to stop playing. Wizard’s does nothing to nurture new players. No amount of new editions is going to fix that unless marketing and promotions start speaking to a different audience who may not know what d20 dice are for….

    newbiedms last blog post..Your PC’s life events in D&D

  3. For the past few months they’ve been pushing Open Grave like crazy … but let’s face facts. If you’re into D&D and it’s within your budget, you’re going to buy it regardless. Not much of a marketing push is needed.

    Uhhh… Open Grave? If it’s 4Eish, yes, they need a HUGE marketing push because I am into D&D, I have budget, but no interest at all in TacCombatRUs&Dragons. Maybe I’m part of the group called “The Lost Cause”, but D&D has definitely become a multiple edition playground.

    I think that belies that WotC just doesn’t know WTF to do. They clearly thought 4E was going to sweep everything else away, that thought somewhat explains the immense hubris shown by the new license (whatever acronym it is now.) and now it hasn’t. If anything, WotC should be doing all they can to market all pieces of 4E, including the starter pack.

    Which, I will admit, I would have bought just so I could run something 4Eish if someone *really* wanted to. I prefer OD&D, but I’ll play D&D. I’m just not going to buy each 4E book just because I “love D&D and have the budget.” If that’s what WotC is banking on, they are in for a long slog, I think.

    t’s typical of 4e D&D with much more emphasis on combat over role-playing (ie, there is none worth mentioning) I’m coming to see that as a strength rather than a weakness – I can add the role-playing elements in myself.

    I see this as a HUGE weakeness.

    Of course, YOU can add that in. Any experienced DM can do so… but what about Jane/Johnny newbie who picks this up as *the* starter kit to their entire knowledge of the hobby?

    If Holmes or Moldvay had been just combat, if B1 and B2 had just been tactical combat scenarios, then we would be thinking it was Squad Leader with swords/spells, not D&D as we know/love.

    I find that strange, everyone goes on and on about how the new DMG helps to promote RP, and yet the DMG in the starter set gives it short shrift. Just like the failure of pregen, the failure of really supporting the R in RPG seems to indicate that WotC is really somewhere else in the universe when it comes to RPGs.


    Chgowizs last blog post..Quickie – DM tool discovery

  4. @Chgowiz Yeh. Pushing Open Grave isn’t going to change your mind though no matter how hard they tried, whereas a Starter Kit might just be something to tempt you – with the right marketing, of course.

    Me, I don’t mind role-playing lite adventures because they give room for me to breathe – but the Starter Kit isn’t the right place for them. If you’re going to teach role-playing, teach role-playing. Otherwise, it’s nothing more than a funky board-game.

    Ball. Dropped. Again. Shame, because there’s so much in the Starter Kit to recommend it too.

  5. No character creation rules is a big mistake. It’s a shame, because the rest of the set sounds like just what the hobby needs, an affordable way to introduce new players to the game.

    Wizards has sucked at marketing for a while. They almost totally ignore the Star Wars game despite the fact that they crank out a book every other month for it. Support by production great, support by marketing fail.

    Ozs last blog post..Land of the Lost trailer

  6. I really don’t understand peoples need for rules for roleplaying. It’s all about creative interaction and dialogue no? Rolling dice and checking charts is hardly roleplaying imho. I can get that kind of roleplaying in a videogame.

    Maybe I’ve been playing a different game all these years, but I think D&D has always been about combat. I’ve been playing with battlemats and minis every since 1st edition, the difference now is the rules are clear.

    @Chgowiz – I think it gives it a short shrift because the entire book is very short. It’s meant to hook video game kids into the hobby. If they had 10 pages on RPing diplomacy between you and the King of whateverland, the book would be in the trash. Wet the appetite, then they buy the real books and learn more in depth info.

  7. Tom, I’m not sure I agree with that.

    Holmes and Moldvay did not have “rules for roleplaying”, yet it was pretty clear from the art, from the tone and from the snippets we did get that roleplaying and adventure were the order of the day, not tactical combat uber alles. What I get from Greywulf’s summary is that the Starter kit is exactly that – a D&D tactical combat primer.

    If you’re going to have a starter kit, I think it behooves it to stretch out and give some sort of RP “fuzzy”, especially since the PHB and DMG (by reputation) have so much about RP. I think if Holmes/Moldvay (which I tend to view as the Starter Kits for my age/generation) had been tactical combat only, we would have had a much different D&D in those days.

    Chgowizs last blog post..Villians and how I’d love to play them

  8. What’s missing is role-playing opportunities in the mini-adventure. That’s just three combat encounters in order. In the rules section themselves there’s talk about using skills out-of-combat, playing to character, etc. It’s just the adventure itself that falls short in this regard.

  9. @Chgowiz – Fair enough. Honestly, I can’t remember which were ones were Holmes, Moldvay, or Gygax. I mostly played advanced.

    I guess the only point I would make is that those boxed sets were complete games, whereas I think this starter set is meant to be an ad for the new complete game. I imagine the designers wanted to give these WoW playing kids something they can pick up and play, with monsters and cool battles; something they would think is fun.

    D&D is competing with different hobbies to a different audience then what 1970’s had.

  10. Tom – interestingly enough, “Holmes” (aka the “Blue Book”) is known to be a “starter” set for the 1st Edition AD&D, complete with text that told players that if they wanted to go above 3rd level, buy the AD&D rules. There is some contention to that, but that’s the prevailing conventional wisdom.

    Moldvay, which is the “Basic” book rewritten in 1981, was intended to be a true game system in and of itself, spawing the various follow-on sets and culminating in all sets being published as the “Rules Cyclopedia” which our OP/host has reviewed in great detail (very well done) here.

    It’s funny that the topic comes up to different audiences, and this is something that I think WotC struggles with. I believe, at a core, we’re not that far different than kids of the 70s and 80s. Yes, there is more ‘competition’ for eyeballs and coin – XBox, WoW and the Internet – but at a core, kids who are fascinated by the fantastic and have enough imagination will reach for a roleplaying game.

    I’d like to believe it would be a worthy successor to the 70s/80s D&D, but so far, I find 4E lacking. It’s a fine fantasy tactical combat simulator, but I believe that the focus of what WotC publishes has changed, not the hobby itself. The “hobby”, I believe, reflects who we are as a society more than what WotC wants to publish. The old-school renaissance is witness to that.

    I think if kids were engaged rather than given the lowest common denominator, we’d all be pleasantly surprised.

    Chgowizs last blog post..Villians and how I’d love to play them

  11. Interesting, I’ve never hear that about the blue book being intro set… guess they didn’t market that very well huh ;)

    “but at a core, kids who are fascinated by the fantastic and have enough imagination will reach for a roleplaying game.”

    I think that’s debatable, but I’ll just leave it there and agree to disagree ;-)

    Doesn’t really matter, the old versions are still there to be played.

  12. Whoops, submitted too soon.

    I was going to say the old versions are still there to be played, and the internet will keep them alive for those who are interested. WoTC will need to make new versions to stay in business, for better or worse.

    One question though, why do you think TSR was going bankrupt and needed to be saved by wizrds?

  13. why do you think TSR was going bankrupt and needed to be saved by wiz[a]rds?

    There are a ton of stories, just as much speculation and a lot of hard feelings over that topic. You can start by reading the fairly accurate wikipedia article on TSR, Inc. and then go from there. Bottom line, in the vast majority of opinions, is that TSR was plagued by bad decision making and poor business practices. They had good product, but bad choices in management. (Which is true for a great many wonderful products lost to us today…)

    There is no doubt that a publishing company needs “churn” – however, WotC could take a page from GW and learn that one can have “churn” and still have fairly compatible and likable products.

  14. No Surprise that GM had to sink like the Titanic.. Just the pain and hard work of 300 Million Taxpayers going down the drain.. Whose responsible for that?

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