D&D Starter Set rolls a natural 20

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Dungeons & Dragons Starter SetAt the risk of mixing metaphors, the cards were stacked against Dungeons & Dragons as the venerable roleplaying game embarked upon its 5th Edition this summer. The last incarnation (4th Edition) met with withering criticism from longtime players with its attempts to appeal to computer gamers, while a rival took advantage of the 3rd Edition’s open-source license to re-create that popular version in all but name and take it places just about everyone had always wanted to go.

While the resulting Pathfinder RPG is a great product that’s been good for the hobby, happily I am able to say now that the balance has been restored: D&D is back, and it’s stronger than ever.

Today marks the wide public release of the D&D Starter Set (a copy of which was provided by the manufacturer, Wizards of the Coast, for review purposes). While “serious gamers” will often overlook such an introductory product, it’s actually a vital part of the strategy to make D&D relevant again, and keep it that way. There have been many boxed Starter Sets, and honestly they have usually deserved to be overlooked. Not this one — taken as a whole, it’s a meaty introduction to the game for new players — its very future — and the individual pieces also stand well on their own. Basically, it’s everything you and some friends need to stage an adventure, right out of the box (with some prep reading by the Dungeon Master, of course).

What do you get for your $19.99?

For starters, you get the dice (obviously), a 32-page Rulebook, a 64-page adventure, and five two-sided character sheets already populated and ready to play.

The Rulebook is a quick overview of how the game’s mechanics work, from abilities to combat, adventuring (travel, rewards, equipment) and magical spells. Nothing goes into any depth here — for example, you can’t create a new character. For that, you’ll want to download the Basic Rules — a free PDF that will be updated as the game matures — and maybe even pick up the Player’s Handbook to go beyond the simple race, class and skill options that offers. With this structure, which could have been horribly complicated, Wizards of the Coast — a division of Hasbro — is turning a business model entirely on its head for the good of the game. 

Wizards knows they’ve allowed D&D to be cut down to zero hit points, and they’re doing everything they can to not only stabilize the patient, but totally heal it and return it to the fight. They even announced yesterday that the upcoming Monster Manual would be growing by 32 pages, with no impact on the already-announced retail price.

The adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, is probably the best intro module I’ve even seen for D&D. It makes sense. It’s fun. It’s basically an entire campaign (or at least five levels of one) that is tailored to the five pregenerated player characters.Is the Starter Set perfect? No. It’s vague in some areas where more detail would be helpful, but the free download of the expanded rules goes a long way toward tempering this. It’s sparse on the artwork, but that’s really to be expected in an intro set. I would have preferred some official guidance for tweaking the rules and adventure for my son, who’s under the 12+ age limit specified on the box — I think if the intent is to grow the game’s fan base, they should have gone farther with the Starter Set and accounted for younger gamers who are drawn in by the spiffy box art.

It’s a great box, too, sure to hold up well for years (unlike some D&D sets I’ve had, several times). I just hope it finds its way into all sorts of unexpected stores, and not just shoved in among the trading card games. This product needs to be displayed in big-box retailers alongside the movies, books and video games, inviting shoppers to take a chance and embark on a new adventure.

The Starter Set is D&D back to its roots — no poster-sized gridded map, no miniatures or paper tokens, just theater of the mind and the potential for a good old-fashioned total party kill.

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