Review: D&D’s new Red Box is adventure reborn

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The Red BoxThe Red Box has returned to help bring Dungeons & Dragons to a new generation.

Like the 1983 original (also known as the Basic Set), this Red Box consists of two booklets — one for players and one for Dungeon Masters — plus a character sheet and a full set of polyhedral dice. But this incarnation also includes items that have become staples of this generation’s D&D games: a double-sided battle map, power cards and character tokens. And it offers one free adventure module download from D&D Insider, the online toolbox and new home of the Dragon and Dungeon magazines.

The new version shares the original’s iconic Larry Elmore box art and dragon-ampersand logo, although the artwork on the individual booklets is updated, but a variation on the theme, and the typography inside is 4th Edition D&D standard.

As in the original version of the Red Box, the player’s book introduces the game through a solitaire variation of D&D that resembles a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The new edition takes this approach a step further by mixing character creation into the narrative, whereas the original assumed you started as a human fighter (and, back in the day, character races and classes were fused into one).

After you’ve followed the steps to create your player character and read through the interactive single-player adventure, you’re ready to move on to the DM booklet, which introduces the concept of running an adventure for a group of gamers and provides a scenario to follow-up on the solo quest in the player’s booklet. It even gives you the tools to build your own adventure to throw at D&D players, with a robust catalog of monsters and rules explanations that puts 2008’s Keep on the Shadowfell to shame. That starter set, now available as a free PDF, was a decent introduction to 4th Edition, but can’t compete with the Red Box in clarity or ease of use.

Where the new starter set fumbles is in the physical quality of the two booklets. They are glossy and well illustrated in full color, but the flimsy covers won’t stand up to much use and sharing with friends as the instructions suggest to introduce the game to as many people as possible, unless they live in the sturdy box, which just isn’t conducive to frequent use. The product’s longevity would have benefited greatly from the same thick cardstock covers that the booklets in ’83 used.

Rules CompendiumHeroes of the Fallen LandsPriced at $19.99, the Red Box is designed to be only a launching pad into D&D, not a complete roleplaying game in and of itself, but logically steering advancing players toward new supplemental products like the Rules Compendium, character creation books such Heroes of the Fallen Lands and November’s Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdom, and a boxed Dungeon Master’s Kit and Monster Vault. This development caused a bit of controversy in player circles when it was seen as a phasing-out of the expensive hardback Player’s Handbooks, Dungeon Master’s Guides and Monster Manuals that have been the format for the game throughout many editions.

But Wizards of the Coast, which runs the D&D brand for Hasbro, insists this new “D&D Essentials” line is merely a new avenue to introduce players to D&D, and not, as many have feared, yet another new edition — always a touchy subject in such a pricey hobby as roleplaying games. (Some gamers, however, welcomed the idea of the Essentials-only approach as a more cost-effective model for players, but that doesn’t comfort those who already invested in the hardcover line.)

The new Red Box could easily have been just another in a long line of boxed starter sets, an obvious and desperate gimmick to breathe new life into the 35-year-old granddaddy of all RPGs. In truth, however, this is the starter set that D&D has needed for decades: intelligent, useful and brimming with possibilities for the imagination — and more than just the same rules in a shiny new package. The new solo adventure is just as compelling a read as the one in 1983, and the adventure in the DM booklet is a fine introduction to the social game, while the rules explanations are among Wizards of the Coast’s best efforts yet.

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