Enough people have been sending me emails and otherwise asking me to give my thoughts on the news that Wizards of the Coast is releasing a stripped-down D&D game in a red box this coming September that I feel some obligation to make a post on the subject. I do this somewhat reluctantly, both because I haven't actually seen the game in question -- few people not associated with WotC have, I imagine -- and because D&D IV isn't a game I play or have any real interest in. Still, given my semi-regular exhortations to game companies to consider producing an introductory RPG in a box, it'd be remiss of me not to say a few words.
First, let me get an irrational rant out of the way: I hate the term "red box" as a synonym for "introductory-level D&D" with a passion equal to that many have for the term "old school." I'm not quite sure why it bugs me so, but it does. Perhaps it's because "red box" is generally meant to refer not to the 1981 Moldvay-edited Basic Rulebook with the rockin' Otus cover but to the 1983 Mentzer-edited one with the anatomically-challenged Elmore cover, which I dislike. As I say, it's irrational and I recognize it as such.
Without having seen the game, I'd say that, on the face of it, WotC is taking a step in the right direction. There is a definite need for a simple, straightforward introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. That such an introduction could be bought in toy and "big box" retail stores is essential if one's goal is attracting a new generation of gamers unconnected with the existing hobby. So, bravo to WotC for the high concept behind this boxed "starter set."
Of course, the actual contents and execution of the product will ultimately prove more important than the high concept and it's here that I'd like to know more. For instance, is this a complete game? That is, is it something one could conceivably play for many months without exhausting its possibilities? The web page linked above notes that it includes "rules for character creation," which makes me happy, since past WotC starter sets haven't included them, thereby limiting their utility. How many levels does this new starter set cover? I've seen conflicting reports on this score and I hope that the levels 1-5 range I'd seen earlier is more accurate than the levels 1-2 I'm seeing now. Just as important is the leveling curve -- how long would it take, if used as written, for a character to reach the "level cap" of the starter kit? These are important considerations.
I noticed that the starter kit includes only the "classic" races (dwarf, elf, halfling, human) and classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard). For a variety of reasons, I like these choices, but it does make the notion that D&D IV expanded beyond "traditional fantasy" in order to appeal to gamers whose experience of the genre is different somewhat questionable. If, as is often claimed, "there's more to fantasy than Appendix N," then why does the starter kit for the current iteration of the game go back to those OD&D staples? It's an interesting question and it makes me wonder who the intended target audience for the starter kit really is.
Ultimately, though, what really matters is what the rules of the starter kit are like and how they're presented. I can't imagine that they're anything other than slightly simplified versions of D&D IV's rules, which, if so, hold no appeal for me. I've read D&D IV and it just doesn't speak to me; a starter kit with a different presentation won't change that. That said, I do think WotC's game could use with a better introduction than the three massive hardcover tomes they're selling now. If this starter set fills that role successfully, then it'll have served its purpose well.
Mind you, my feeling remains, as it has since the D&D III era, that WotC made a big mistake by casting aside the "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" brand name. Had I been in charge, I'd have created a couple of stripped down but complete Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets that one could play profitably without the need for anything else. Then, I'd have created a parallel line of Advanced D&D hardcover books, adventures, and supplements that expanded on the concepts of the boxed sets and were geared toward the hardcore audience of the game. The boxed sets would hew very closely to the classical outlines of D&D as it was in 1974 in terms of classes, races, monsters, and general inspiration.
The advanced line could deviate more, incorporating greater complexity and a wider range of inspirations. Speaking for myself, I never had a problem with tieflings or dragonborn or whatever as PC races; what bugged me is that they were elevated to the same foundational status as dwarves and elves. The same goes for new classes, spells, etc. D&D has always taken inspiration from anything and everything, in the process broadening its appeal. But the foundation needs to be largely unchanging and recognizably Gygaxo-Arnesonian. If it's not, then (for me anyway), we're talking about a different game than the one that first introduced me to this hobby. I already have plenty of those and they're not what I turn to when I want to play D&D.
That's one of the biggest reasons D&D IV holds no appeal for me and likely won't, even after the release of this new "red box." I hope it does well for WotC and achieves its goals, whatever they may be. However, if one of those goals is getting me to give the game a second look, I'd be amazed if it succeeded, but, hey, if someone wants to send me a copy, I'd be willing to give a fair shake.