Podcast #204: RPG Starter Sets

This week, Morrus, Peter, and Jessica talk about what makes a good RPG Starter Set. In the news, what’s in Dragons of Stormwreck Isle, free dice and supplement on D&D Beyond, Cypher System gets an open license, Cyberpunk Edgerunners trailer released, and more! Plus a brand new sketch about unappreciative nobility.

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(Note: Before anyone gets too excited, this image is a very early mock-up of a possible future product that Morrus tweeted earlier this week)


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EN World thread from a user from Turkey who got the regionally blocked content message D&D 5E - D&D Beyond Self-Censorship: Pride Month Digital Dice Blocked In Some Countries

Cypher System released under Open Cypher System License Monte Cook Games Launches Open Cypher System License

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Critical Role NPC miniatures D&D: WizKids Adds Critical Role NPCs To Your Games If You Want 'Em

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Kickstarters

Incredible Items Incredible Items

Gangs of Titan City Gangs of Titan City: Grimdark Urban Roleplaying

Return to Dark Tower Return to Dark Tower Fantasy Roleplaying Game

Find out all the RPG crowdfunding projects ending soon each week with Egg Embry’s RPG Crowdfunding News at RPG Crowdfunding News – Return to Dark Tower, Endless Realms, Incredible Items, and more

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Starter Sets

The One Ring Starter Set https://amzn.to/3MGL1X2

D&D Starter Set (2014 edition with Lost Mines of Phandelver) https://amzn.to/3NDIiyW

D&D Essentials Kit (2019 edition with Dragons of Icespire Peak) https://amzn.to/3zydNX0

Ikea Kallax Bookshelf KALLAX Shelf unit, black-brown, 30 3/8x57 7/8" - IKEA

Dune – Adventures in the Imperium: Agents of Dune Box Set https://www.modiphius.net/en-us/products/dune-agents-of-dune

Pathfinder 2nd Edition Beginner Box https://amzn.to/3aOnbeJ

Dicebreaker Best RPG Boxed Sets for Beginners https://www.dicebreaker.com/categories/roleplaying-game/best-games/best-tabletop-rpg-boxed-sets

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Hosts: Russ “Morrus” Morrissey, Peter Coffey, and Jessica Hancock

Editing and post-production: Darryl Mott

Theme Song: Steve Arnott

Kickstarter Game Research: Egg Embry

Kickstarter Game Theme: Lyrics by Russ Morrissey, Vocals by “drwilko”, Guitar by Darryl Mott

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Darryl Mott

Darryl Mott


Abstruse

Legend
I think the first pathfinder starter set is one of the best. You can use it as a actual game or as a starter set. The adventure in it is the only weak spot.
It's one of my favorites because it meets 3/4 of my requirements for a good starter set and one of my bonuses.
  1. Must have everything needed to play in the box
  2. Price that is a significant discount on the core rulebook(s)
  3. At least three sessions worth of material included to play
  4. Rules in the starter set must match the core rules
A starter set is meant for one primary goal: Introduce the game to new players by reducing barriers to entry. That includes players who have never played an RPG before. That's why #1 is important: If you don't have everything in the box, you've added a barrier to entry because I grab the box off the shelf, open it up, and I'm immediately presented with a shopping list of more stuff I need to buy...I'm going to close the box, put it back on the shelf, make a mental note that I need to buy dice/playing cards/minis/whatever, promptly forget, and the box will collect dust next to Monopoly and Cluedo.

The price is another barrier to entry. If the starter set is a similar price to the core rules, why wouldn't I just get the core rules? My preference is to be at least half the price of the buy-in for the core rules. If the core rulebook is $60, the starter set should be no more than $30. The absolute maximum is $50 because that's the price of a standard board game. Now this is on a sliding scale depending on materials included and the quality of the components and just how prices are going in the industry overall (if a standard board game goes up to $60, then that's the new maximum for a starter set).

More than one session's worth of play is a time barrier. Assume it's a game I will eventually like once I start playing. When I pull that starter set down off the shelf and play it, I'll have fun. Now is it the game itself that was fun or just because I was hanging out with my friends? I'd need to play it a second time to be sure. I play it the second time and yes, the game itself was fun, I'll get to the store or place an order online when I get a chance. If there's not a third session to play, there's a chance I might forget to buy the core rules. Maybe I had to wait for my next paycheck or maybe there's a shipping delay or maybe the wifi's down or maybe the game store has to order it. That third session of play in the starter set (and hopefully a couple more than that) means there's padding to make sure my interest and attention are still focused on the game during the delay in me deciding I want the core rules and actually getting the core rules. Plus it lets me keep playing the starter set with its more basic, streamlined rules while I tackle reading the thick hardcover tome I just bought. (Note: This is the one the PF1e Beginner Box fails - it just has one glorified dungeon crawl with no jumping-off points for follow-up adventures and the adventure isn't one easily replayed)

The last one hasn't been a problem I've noticed recently but used to be a problem. I'd buy a starter set for a game with some very crunchy and intricate rules. Because the designers couldn't streamline those rules effectively because of their complexity and didn't want to devote 10+ pages to one rules system, they created a substitute system to play. This is a cognitive barrier because I not only have to learn the core rules, I have to unlearn the starter set rules before I can do that.

Bonuses would be things that are useful to already-experienced players. The PF1 Beginner Box had a flip mat and quality cardboard stand-up tokens that were great even for people who had been playing D&D for decades. Unique custom dice like the ones in the Shadowrun Sixth World Beginner Box are also cool. Posters, maps, campaign setting information...I know in video games they used to be called "Feelies" but I'm not sure if that's still the case, but cool little props and handouts that can be reused. Another bonus is stuff that's visually interested from afar. While a product that big can't be produced today at the same price as it was in the 1990s, HeroQuest was an amazing game to attract people because if you play in a coffee shop or library, people are going to see all the minis and terrain and stuff and be curious what that game is in a way that people sitting around a table with just a sheet of paper and some funny looking dice won't.

I think the D&D Starter Set from 2014 was a great set that just has the problem of being dated compared to further 5e material that came out. I could play from just the box, Lost Mines of Phandelver was a good 6ish sessions worth of play, the dice were replicas of the ones used in the Community D&D episode so they felt a little more special than just plain old polyhedral dice, and the price point was dirt cheap because there wasn't much in it (I liked that it left me a lot of space I could use to chuck my minis into and go to my friend's house to play) and the economy of scale that WotC can afford.

A very bad starter set was the one for D&D 4e. It wasn't a starter set, it was a convention demo in a box. The included map was just cheap poster paper and not easily re-used because it wasn't generic enough, the included "adventure" wasn't an adventure but three skill checks and a single combat encounter, and the included flat 2D cardboard tokens were on cheap punchboard that was really easy to rip when punching them out. Its only advantage was it was cheap, but it was also its detriment: it looked and felt cheap.

Now there are exceptions for all of these. What Modiphius is doing with the Dune and Star Trek Adventures sets isn't so much providing a "here's an introduction to the game to see if you like it" but attempting to create an all-in-one bundle to buy into the game fully. You buy either of those sets, they're something like $75-100 but you have everything you need to play not just a few sessions but the entire game. You have the full core rules in PDF, you have all the maps and minis and tokens you need, you have a full set of dice, etc. Those are closer to what WotC does with the Gift Boxed Sets with the PHB, DMG, and MM in one set than a traditional starter set.

The potential Level Up starter set would be targeting a similar market. If somebody's playing an RPG for the very first time, they're not going to pick up something with the word "Advanced" in it because that's antithetical to the idea of just starting out. You'd get the basic version first and, after you know that, then get the advanced version. So like they said on the show, it would be less of a "starter set" and more of an "upgrade kit". Here's an introduction to the new rules options available in Level Up that you can add into your existing game. If you want more, we have whole core rulebooks filled with these options.

All of this is my perspective as a consumer and what I would look for in a starter set. A publisher is going to want to trim as much back as possible to keep costs down. Which is completely understandable and there are ways to cut costs without cutting content. When I say I want more than one or two sessions of play, I don't need a full adventure path in the box. Give me one session's worth of adventure and a bunch of potential plot seeds to continue later using the stats and rules already in the starter set, or a link to a website where I can download free PDFs with more adventures. The more familiar a setting for a game is, the easier this is because you're asking for less work from the game master. Shadowrun, I'd want fully written adventures because it's a complex setting that hasn't had a lot of mainstream media penetration yet. Dungeons & Dragons, everyone's seen Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or something similar to have an idea about what a fantasy setting is so it's easier to make up something that fits. Licensed products have it easiest because a new GM can just wholesale rip off episodes of Star Trek shows, subplots from Star Wars movies, side quests in Fallout, etc. to build an adventure around. A licensed Terminator RPG can get away with half a page of bullet point ideas for adventures where BattleTech would need full detailed adventures to take advantage of the setting.

Oh, and one consideration from a publisher's point of view that wasn't brought up: If you've got a chance to get major distribution, you have to have a boxed set. Wal-mart, Target, and the other big box stores don't treat hardcover books like games and thus won't stock them, but if you take the exact same material and put it in a cardboard box, they will. It has to do with how their inventory and ordering systems classify products - books are books, boxed sets are games. Their shelving systems and inventory computers aren't set up to treat books like games, so they won't stock them.
 


GreyLord

Legend
For me, a good starter/basic/beginner set includes

1. Being able to play it right out of the box immediately in some manner (most sets do NOT include this, though getting up to speed is just reading through the rules and using the pre-gens). Few do that these days. The first that did this well was the Basic set of Mentzer's BECMI. The set that did this best recently was Pathfinders 1e Beginner Box. These are the best Basic/Beginner sets for a reason in my book.

2. Get the individuals interested in the full game. If it doesn't get the players interested in the full game...what's the point?

3. Give the new players freedom to explore (by this, I mean, the ability to explore the system more than simply using pre-gens. The D&D starter sets SORT OF do this, but VERY POORLY. They point players to the Basic set online which is free. This is great if they are willing to do the leg work, not so great if they aren't. They bought the starter set to begin with, which implies they aren't looking online for the free basic set already.

The Basic sets for Holmes, B/X, BECMI, and 3e did this terrifically. The Essentials Kit fills this in for D&D today...but really needs to be combined with the starter set for the full experience. Pathfinder Beginner Boxes and the Starfinder Beginner Box do a wonderful job of this.

Most starter sets today that I've played do not though. Probably why I don't get into their systems...either after trying out their sets.
 

Abstruse

Legend
I think part of the problem is we don't have standardized terminology. So we end up with four major categories of products all serving different goals using the same or similar names. So I'm going to create terminology to define them that nobody else will use and will just work to further confuse everyone.

  1. Quickstart: A quick demo of the game. This is meant to give you just enough of the game to get an idea of what the rules and setting are and how it all works in play. Meant for a single session or a short session that only lasts 1-2 hours with the included rules focused on presenting just enough of the rules to cover the included adventure. The target audience is someone experienced with RPGs but wants to test drive a new setting/system/edition. Example: Hundreds of Quickstart PDFs on DriveThruRPG, the D&D 4e "Red Box" set.
  2. Beginner Box: An introductory mini-campaign. This is meant to provide a play experience that is streamlined and easy to learn closer to the experience of playing a board game than a traditional RPG. The goal is to introduce new players to the setting, systems, and mechanics and teach them the basic concepts to play the game with everything needed included in the box. The target audience is brand new players who are curious about this specific RPG or just RPGs in general and doesn't want to commit to the full core rules yet. Example: D&D 5e Starter Sets, Pathfinder Beginner Box.
  3. Starter Set: A package deal to purchase all materials needed to play the full core version of a game including all required accessories. This is meant for people who know they want to play the full version of the game and want to get everything to play in one single box. The target audience is players who know they want to play this game but don't want to sort through guides or buy lists to figure out what they need to play the game. Examples: D&D 5e Gift Set, Modiphius's Star Trek Adventures Borg Cube set.
  4. Upgrade Kits: Accessory packs that contain things needed to play the game except for the rules. These are packages that offer accessories like dice, cards, tokens, maps, etc. that are needed to play the game but do not include any rules or adventures. The target audience is players who already have the core rules and want a single product that will get them all the little bits and bobs that are needed for a fuller game experience. Example: Pathfinder Bestiary Box, the expanded accessory kits with the D&D adventures.

I think the reason we have these discussions is a lot of starter sets/beginner boxes fall somewhere between these categories or try to do more than one at a time, which means failing at one or both of the goals. Modiphius's newest boxed sets like the Star Trek Adventures Tricorder Set or the Agents of Dune set fall somewhere between Category 3 and Category 4. They're basically accessory packs for the game so you don't have to go buy individual dice packs or card decks, but they also include a code for a digital download of the core rulebook. The Shadowrun Sixth World starter set is somewhere between Category 1 and Category 2 because it only has one adventure that's only a session's worth of play, but the rules aren't focused on the adventure and there are links to get free or very cheap Shadowrun Missions organized play adventures.
 

I think part of the problem is we don't have standardized terminology. So we end up with four major categories of products all serving different goals using the same or similar names. So I'm going to create terminology to define them that nobody else will use and will just work to further confuse everyone.

For me I want something that can lead to a more advanced version or can serve as a stand alone game.

B/X is a great example as is Pathfinder 1e Beginners Box. Both can be used to run campaigns or just a stepping stone. So maybe this should be called "Basic Set". Though I am 5 times more likely to play B/X than 1e and Beginers Box Pathefinder versus Regular Pathfinder.
 

Abstruse

Legend
For me I want something that can lead to a more advanced version or can serve as a stand alone game.

B/X is a great example as is Pathfinder 1e Beginners Box. Both can be used to run campaigns or just a stepping stone. So maybe this should be called "Basic Set". Though I am 5 times more likely to play B/X than 1e and Beginers Box Pathefinder versus Regular Pathfinder.
The problem with B/X, BECMI, and the rest is that they're not the same rules as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The Basic and Advanced splits were completely different rules systems that just happened to share some overlap. It'd be like trying to use the Star Trek Adventures Tricorder Set as a starter set for Fallout. Yeah, they're both sci-fi games that use the 2d20 System, but they work very differently and the former isn't going to prepare you for the latter.

Pathfinder 1e was a better example except for the lackluster adventure. If you could combine all the materials included in the PF1e Beginner Box with an adventure closer in scope and scale to Lost Mines of Phandelver, it would work perfectly in that regard. Here's a stand-alone game with about 20ish hours of gameplay included that you can then expand as much as you want with the core rules.
 

The problem with B/X, BECMI, and the rest is that they're not the same rules as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The Basic and Advanced splits were completely different rules systems that just happened to share some overlap.
True, and good point. But back in the day most people I played with ignored 70% of the wonky AD&D rules and ran it like B/X the big difference being the separation of races and class not being the same and some different hit dice and ability modifiers. I can still rember my brother telling me Wizards could use staffs in 1e vs just daggers in B/X and how excited I was by the power creep.

2e had some starter sets that were more full games I think. The orange Lankhmar one being particularly interesting as it present a complete game with only minor rules changes. It's a forgot gem in my opinion.

If you could combine all the materials included in the PF1e Beginner Box with an adventure closer in scope and scale to Lost Mines of Phandelver, it would work perfectly in that regard. Here's a stand-alone game with about 20ish hours of gameplay included that you can then expand as much as you want with the core rules.

Couldn't agree more. If the 1e pathfinder box had a sandboxy adventure like Lost Mines it would have been perfect.
 

Fandabidozi

Explorer
I love the three FFG Star Wars starters. Great to play, quality tokens, makes you start creating your own ideas for adventures. Additional online adventures and those gorgeous dice.
 

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