The Wait is Over... The Magic has Returned: WotC Releases the D&D Starter Set! (A Pre-Release Review

After more than two years of anticipation, a plethora of playtests, and enough questionnaires to befuddle a beholder, RPG fans are finally getting their first tangible product of Wizards of the Coast’s new edition of Dungeons & Dragons! The role-playing game known under the working title of “D&D Next” during its design and development phase will have its first release coming up on July 15th – the D&D Starter Set!

And tonight, in gaming stores and comic shops around the world, D&D Encounters events are running at full steam, bringing together D&D fans to play the current season’s adventure Dead in Thay. But there is little doubt there’s a great deal of discussion about the release last week of the Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons – a completely FREE 110-page PDF containing all the essential character creation guidelines, spells, gear, and combat rules to play the most recent incarnation of this classic Heroic Fantasy Role-playing Game.

Of course, all this is a tantalizing lead-up to the official release of the new Dungeons & Dragons edition at GENCON next month, when the first hardcover book – the new Player’s Handbook – will finally be made available to the RPG Community. All of which leaves many D&D fans and tabletop gamers with one big question:

So what exactly will the D&D Starter Set offer to D&D gamers and other role-players when it’s released next week?


D&D Starter Set (Boxed Edition)

  • Designers: Mike Mearls & Jeremy Crawford (Lead); Christopher Perkins, James Wyatt, Rodney Thompson, Robert J Schwalb, Peter Lee, Steve Townsend, Bruce R. Cordell (Deasign Team); Richard Baker, Christopher Perkins (Adventure)
  • Illustrators: James Jones (box cover); Eric Belisle, Wayne England, Randy Gallegos, Mark Stawicki, Kieran Yanner (rulebook illustrators); Daren Bader, Mark Behm, Conceptopolis, Wayne England, Tomas Giorello, Ralph Horsley, Aaron J. Riley, Tyler Jacobson, Vance Kovacs, Daniel Landerman, Raphael Lubke, Brynn Metheney, Steve Prescott, Ned Rogers, Carmen Sinek, Ilya Shkipin, David Vargo, Kieran Yanner (adventure illustrators), Mike Schley (cartographer)
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Year: 2014
  • Media: Boxed Set (Rulebook 32 pages; Starting Adventure 64 pages; Set of 6 polyhedral dice)
  • Price: $19.95 (On sale for $12.95 for pre-order from Amazon.com)

The D&D Starter Set is an introductory product providing essential rules and content to play the newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons RPG. The full-color boxed set comes with a booklet providing rules of play, along with 5 pre-generated character sheets. There is an adventure module – Lost Mine of Phandelver – which takes the heroes on an expansive quest series from Level 1 through Level 5. The boxed set also includes one full set of 6 polyhedral plastic dice – d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20.


Production Quality

The production quality of the D&D Starter Set is exceptional, with truly great design, layout, and writing that one would come to expect from veteran game publisher, Wizards of the Coast. The writing is top notch, and the layout of the booklets (rules and adventure) is easy-to-read and user-friendly both the Dungeon Master and the players.

The booklets are printed on high gloss and weight magazine quality paper, coverless, with pages that are single-folded and held together with staples. Tables of contents can be found on the front facing page of each booklet, while the backs have an Appendix of Conditions (rules booklet) and an index of rules (adventure booklet). The five pre-generated characters come on heavy stock paper sheets, printed front and back in gray-scale, presumably for easy copying. And the six-polyhedral dice are made of quality hard plastic, iridescent blue with white numbering, and appear to be as good as any dice one might purchase from Chessex or similar gaming dice manufacturer.

The artwork and illustrations for the D&D Starter Set are gorgeous, which again should come as no surprise given the artists that WotC employed for this initial product. The art itself is vibrant and dynamic, from the cover art of the box depicting a fearsome dragon on the attack to the interior illustrations of characters in action, monsters, and even magic items. The artwork-to-page ratio is generous, and the overall effect of reading the booklets is a nearly constant flow of inspirational “eye-candy”. The maps and cartography in the adventure booklet has a real “wow” factor, and those familiar with Mike Schley’s previous endeavors are already aware of how amazing his maps can be - whether geographical land maps or dungeon halls.


Everything you need…

On the cover, the D&D Starter Set box lid promises that it contains “Everything you need to start playing the world’s greatest role-playing game”, and the designers definitely make good on that promise. Admittedly, gamers would still have to at least have some pencils lying about to mark off hit points and what-not, but otherwise, the rule booklet, pre-generated character sheets, adventure module, and dice are the essential ingredients for several nights of tabletop gaming.

The Starter Set Rulebook

The 32-page rule booklet is a bare-bones set of instructions on how to play this edition of Dungeons & Dragons. There is no character generation information at all, just information on how to play the game, how to manage combats, out-of-combat adventuring guidelines, and a section on spellcasting – complete with descriptions of 28 Clerical Spells and 30 Wizard Spells.

The first 6 pages of rules covers the basic concepts of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, spelled out in a straightforward but easy to follow manner. The ubiquitous “What is Roleplaying” discussion is done in a few paragraphs, with a greater concentration on the basic game mechanics of ability scores, dice conventions, Advantages and Disadvantages, Ability Checks, and Saving Throws. Important notes and rules clarifications appear in parchment-colored boxes which do stand out on the page.

The next 6 pages gives out the rules for combat, detailing how to handle initiative and surprise, what you can do on your turn, attacking, dealing with damage, and healing and dying. Combat is streamlined and simplifies actions down to a movement plus one of nine actions during a player’s turn – Attack (includes Spellcasting), Dash, Disengage, Dodge, Help, Hide, Ready, Search, and Use an Object. Other special combat circumstances and concepts such as cover, unseen foes, opportunity attacks, and fighting with two weapons are also covered here as well. The rules for combat feel quite complete, and open to plenty role-playing descriptions and situations which the DM should be able to resolve with these guidelines. Overall, the combat rules appear to be largely based upon 3.5/OGL d20, but presented in a basic way that should be accessible to even novice gamers unfamiliar to any version of D&D.

And then the next 6 pages pertain to adventuring, which is to say, activities and game mechanics dealing with out-of-combat situations. Travel, resting, and experience rewards are discussed here, and a modified version of the 4E short and long rests rules are located here. The use of the hit dice as a standard for healing is an interesting dynamic for the short rest, with the randomness of the dice never guaranteeing that a hero will be fully mended on his or her own. There is also a section on equipment in this section, with a decent selection of armor, weapons, and standard delving gear described with prices and currency.

The final 12 pages is devoted to explaining spellcasting and presenting the 28 Clerical Spells and the 30 Wizard Spells, with descriptions. Spellcasting has become a hybrid between Vancian Magic where spells are memorized at the beginning of the day and the Sorcerer class casting method from 3rd Edition D&D, where a character has spell "slots" of various levels. This applies to both Wizards and Clerics, which nullifies the process for casting a healing spell by burning a pre-memorized spell. Another nifty mechanic of this hybrid Vanician-Sorcerer magic system is having spells do increased effect by casting them in a higher level slot. So if a Wizard casts a Magic Missile spell using a 2nd Level slot, he gets one additional "dart". Likewise a Cleric casting an Aid spell from a 3rd level slot instead of the 2nd Level gets to add additional temporary hit points to the recipient. Wizards and Clerics also have access to cantrips which are castable at will and do not use up a spell slot to cast - likely a design variant on the 4E At Will Powers. Overall, this new D&D magic system seems to be a compromise between two systems, and should satisfy those players who like Vancian Magic and those who enjoy having a spontaneous caster.

The back of the Starter Set Rulebook booklet has a reference page of conditions which can occur in combat. Blinded, Charmed, Frightened, Grappled, and Stunned are just a few of the conditions which can afflict a character or NPC or monster, and this reference looks to be quite handy to have at the gaming table during play.

The Character Sheets

There are 5 ready-to-play characters enclosed in the D&D Starter Set: 2 Fighters, 1 Cleric, 1 Wizard, and 1 Rogue. All are 1st Level, and their sheets completely filled out with race, background, alignment, and even personality traits, as well as the ability scores and class features and traits. All that is required to start playing is giving a name to the character and familiarizing oneself with the class abilities, then any player could be off and adventuring. Even a good selection of starting gear was chosen for each character.

The Human Fighters are designed to be quite different from each other - one being of Noble background and the other a small town Folk Hero - and they even have different fighting styles they use in combat. Players should have no trouble differentiating between the two in both combat and in role-playing styles. The High Elf Wizard was raised in a temple as an Acolyte and was therefore quite sheltered, while the Hill Dwarf Cleric was a mercenary Soldier and hardened by training and battle. Finally, there's a Lightfoot Halfling Rogue which, not surprisingly, has some involvement with the Criminal underworld. Overall, a very good mix of characters, and the designers include Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws with strong role-playing potential.

The back-side of the character sheets has game play information useful for roleplaying the character - racial information, class explanation, and details about the character's background. There is also a section on advancing the character in level past 1st, and spells out the new features, traits, and spells which are gained by the character on up through Level 5. Presumably, characters in a standard campaign would have some choices as they go up level, but for these characters, their future ability score increases, and new powers and traits are already pre-determined. This was likely a design decision to make the D&D Starter Set easy for newbie players to get into role-playing, but might chafe veteran D&D gamers a bit.

The Adventure Booklet – Lost Mine of Phandelver

The Lost Mine of Phandelver is a massive adventure, set in the Forgotten Realms near the city of Neverwinter, and capable of taking the heroes from Level 1 all the way to Level 5 - assuming, of course, they survive the dangers and perils along the way! The adventure is designed in 4 parts, with the characters leveling up at the end of each part, and reaching Level 5 at the very end of the adventure.

The adventure showcases a wide range of locales, settings, and role-playing situations, not to mention a huge variety of monsters and NPCs to encounter. The heroes will be delving into caverns, tromping through ruins, and visiting town settings all through an interconnected questing storyline. Monster types include humanoids, evil NPCs, undead, and all manner of beasts, mundane, magical, and aberrant. And besides being a showcase of several facets of adventure that can had in a D&D campaign, its well-written and appropriately balanced for the characters at each level.

The Dungeon Master has access to a nice adventure overview, hooks to get the player-characters engaged, and some beautiful maps and illustrations to enhance the experience. Additionally, the designers include "boxed" read-aloud text to assist neophyte DMs in their first endeavors, as well as two appendices containing Magic Items and Monsters. The designers even included suggestions on how to keep the adventure going after this one ends, utilizing the Monster and Magic Item appendices to create more encounters - although it is recommended that if the players want to advance beyond Level 5 and DMs want to increase the challenges, the new Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual will be available soon.

Overall Score: 8.3 out of 10.0

[Editor's Note: The scoring system for these reviews will now be based upon a scale of 0 to 10 instead of 1 to 5. This will allow a more diverse scoring and a better representation of the quality of the product in comparison with other role-playing products.]


Conclusions

If the D&D Starter Set is any indication of the quality and work that will go into the rest of this new edition D&D product line, then it's very likely the game has a real future for years to come. The streamlined rules, pre-generated character design, and the sample adventure would seem to indicate a real focus on featuring "role-playing" over "roll-playing", And as this new edition brings together mechanical elements from several past editions of D&D, it might have greater appeal to a wider cross-section of fans of this fantasy role-playing game.

Pairing the release of the D&D Starter Set next week with the recent release of the free Basic Rules PDF is a solid marketing strategy with the potential to attract veteran D&D fans back from other game systems, and to offer the game to new gamers just learning about RPGs. And while the boxed set isn't going to be enough to create a whole multi-year campaign of D&D adventures, its very competitively priced to still be a great introduction to the new edition's rules, and can provide quite a few hours of epic heroic fantasy for both new gamer and more experienced role-players alike.


Editorial Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary playtest copy of the product from which the review was written.


Grade Card (Ratings 0 to 10)

  • Presentation: 9.5
  • - Design: 9 (Beautifully designed; great presentation; exceptional writing)
  • - Illustrations: 10 (Beautiful artwork; tons of illustrations; awesome maps!)
  • Content: 7.5
  • - Crunch: 8 (Solid rule system; good explanation of mechanics; a bit derivative of earlier editions)
  • - Fluff: 7 (Lots of good role-playing material; fairly in-depth for a starter boxed set)
  • Value: 8 (Great price point! A ton of fun adventure with new D&D rules!)
 
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Comments

dd.stevenson

Super KY
After more than two years of anticipation, a plethora of playtests, and enough questionnaires to befuddle a beholder, RPG fans are finally getting their first tangible product of Wizard of the Coast’s new edition of Dungeons & Dragons! The role-playing game known under the working title of “D&D Next” during its design and development phase will have its first release coming up on July 15th – the D&D Starter Set!
Super nitpicky nitpick: the name of the company is wizardS of the coast.
 

TerraDave

5ever
[MENTION=85633]Neuroglyph[/MENTION], thanks!

Any thoughts on how this compares to other starter/beginner products?
 

Uchawi

Visitor
The magic is back but the martial may be waiting outside to get invited back into the building. Backgrounds, skills, equipment, and similar ability is not a distinguishing factor to make classes unique in my opinion. How the class may specialize as it levels is more important to make each one unique. So I will have to wait and see how flexible martial classes are in reference to maneuvers or something similar within the class. I agree magic classes are the most flexible they have ever been, so those classes are back in full force.
 

TerraDave

5ever
It doesn't have models, they are sold separately by Wizkids....so thats a bummer.
I am sure lots of us want to mine something like this for minis.

Part of that is probably cost. But, beyond that, going back to a more free wheeling "theater of the mind" style is a good way to say "this is not a board game". Its how I learned to play, as did many others here. Of course, I have used minis at the table since 2E, but I see the advantages for an intro product.
 

Xodis

Visitor
I am sure lots of us want to mine something like this for minis.

Part of that is probably cost. But, beyond that, going back to a more free wheeling "theater of the mind" style is a good way to say "this is not a board game". Its how I learned to play, as did many others here. Of course, I have used minis at the table since 2E, but I see the advantages for an intro product.
Yeah, I get why they are not in there, still makes me a sad Panda though lol. I remember playing old school RPGs and wishing we had something better than some paper and pencils to map out combat. I was shocked when I discovered the world that is RPG miniatures lol.
 

Kai Lord

Explorer
Hi everyone,

I just wanted to chime in here because I frequented this site about 10 years ago when 3.x was all the rage and haven't been back much since (marriage and kids and moving away from my core gaming group contributed to me skipping 4th edition all together.) But I just want to say that I'm getting a really warm and exciting vibe about everything I'm reading about the new Basic, Starter Set, and 5th edition of D&D. It also brings a smile to my face to see a lot of forum members still here that I remember from years ago.

I love cinematic styles of role-playing but am also EXTREMELY nostalgic for past editions (especially BECMI and AD&D.) This new edition seems like it will go a long way toward satisfying both aspects of play that I enjoy. Very exciting and kudos to all of you for still maintaining a very fun forum to read!
 

Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
- Crunch: 8 (Solid rule system; good explanation of mechanics; a bit derivative of earlier editions)

If I am understanding your meaning correctly (of the portion in bold [bold added by me]), and this was a goal of this edition (to echo earlier editions to draw players from previous editions), and since this is a new rendition of an ongoing property, isn't this a net positive rather than something that should be seen in a negative light?
 

Rune

Once A Fool
That seemed a very odd critique to me, as well, given that that's the entire point of a new edition of anything.

Also, I wondered why combat seemed to the reviewer to be derivative of 3.5 specifically and not 3.0 or, really, any other edition.
 

Neuroglyph

Visitor
@Neuroglyph, thanks!

Any thoughts on how this compares to other starter/beginner products?
Well, having played both Red Boxes in their day (Old Basic D&D and the 4E version), I think this particular product rates pretty high for getting players immediately into the action of playing D&D. I also think the starting dungeon material is WAY better than previous starter boxes provided... the module is really a mini-campaign of its own!
 

Neuroglyph

Visitor
If I am understanding your meaning correctly (of the portion in bold [bold added by me]), and this was a goal of this edition (to echo earlier editions to draw players from previous editions), and since this is a new rendition of an ongoing property, isn't this a net positive rather than something that should be seen in a negative light?
Well, first off, 8 out of 10 score is hardly indicative of this review castigating the designers... but I do see your point.

I think where I see it as a (slight) negative is that, from a historical perspective, each edition of D&D has innovated new game mechanics and had a very different "feel" from other editions. These rules don't "feel", at least to me, to be the dynamic mechanical innovations we've seen in past editions.

As the Chief Reviewer here at EN World, I've had the privilege and pleasure to read and review many new and innovative game systems, many of which take role-playing in a completely new direction. Based upon the D&D Starter Set rulebook, there's a lot that's familiar, but maybe a bit too familiar and a repetition of the past. And to me, that seems like a bit of a let down.
 

Gundark

Explorer
8/10 for value? The starter set is really cheap! $13 bucks US from Amazon or $20 off the shelf.....What would the price had to have been to get a 9/10 or a 10/10?
 
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Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
I definitely think this is the best starter set I've seen in this price range. It fulfills the stated goals admirably. Even so, if I were making the decisions, I would not have targeted the $20 price point, but would instead have targeted the $50 price point and built a more complete game around a printed version of the basic rules.
 

Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
I think where I see it as a (slight) negative is that, from a historical perspective, each edition of D&D has innovated new game mechanics and had a very different "feel" from other editions. These rules don't "feel", at least to me, to be the dynamic mechanical innovations we've seen in past editions.

Right. Well, I guess I did understand what you meant. So, despite them saying up front that their design goal was to embrace previous editions and make a game that was supposed to blend the best of editions past, you feel they should have chosen to do something different and be innovative. It's always a tough call for a reviewer to approach a review by way of whether the designers accomplished their stated goals or whether, no matter their goals, if they produced something you were hoping they would produce. I do understand your point and appreciate that you only counted it slightly against them. I'm not in any way questioning your final numbers or other conclusions. It just vexes me when a review discusses what the reviewer would have done rather than whether the producer accomplished their goals, so when I see a review that says both and even holds it (even slightly) against the producer, it seems odd. I may be alone in that vexation.
 

Stormonu

Hero
Well, first off, 8 out of 10 score is hardly indicative of this review castigating the designers... but I do see your point.

I think where I see it as a (slight) negative is that, from a historical perspective, each edition of D&D has innovated new game mechanics and had a very different "feel" from other editions. These rules don't "feel", at least to me, to be the dynamic mechanical innovations we've seen in past editions.
I don't think you could say that of 1E -> 2E either; that edition change was primarily a re-organization and incorporation of elements from non-core rulebooks (DSG & WSG proficiencies, for example).
 

Fenris

Visitor
I definitely think this is the best starter set I've seen in this price range. It fulfills the stated goals admirably. Even so, if I were making the decisions, I would not have targeted the $20 price point, but would instead have targeted the $50 price point and built a more complete game around a printed version of the basic rules.
Perhaps. Maybe a second, expanded started set. But a $20 set is absolutely perfect for introducing teens to the game. Heck I think my old Red Box basic set was $20 as well. If the game doesn't take, it was only 20 bucks. I am very happy to see it at this price point. It will make a great gift now for my son (who lives away from me and so I can't tutor him directly) as well as nephews. I am hoping it will be the same catalyst as it was for my gaming start.
 
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Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
Perhaps. Maybe a second, expanded started set. But a $20 set is absolutely perfect for introducing teens to the game. Heck I think my old Red Box basic set was $20 as well. If the game doesn't take, it was only 20 bucks. I am very happy to see it at this price point. It will make a great gift now for my son (who lives away from me and so I can't tutor him directly) as well as nephews. I am hoping it will be the same catalyst as it was for my gaming start.
Sure. It's not a bad model. Just not the direction I would have gone.

It's worth noting that, if you consider inflation and the increased cost of printing and shipping, it's significantly cheaper than red box was.

Having read through the contents, the Starter Set is essentially an adventure with dice. Which is also why it's easy to recommend to people who will by the Trinity.
 

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