Sunday, September 12, 2010

REVIEW: Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set

As long-time readers of this blog already know, I'm not a big fan of the current direction of Dungeons & Dragons, an opinion I've held since before the release of D&D IV. I was happy enough with the early days of D&D III, but my mood changed for the worse around the time that v.3.5 was released, kicking off a quest of exploration that eventually landed me where I am today. So, if anyone is to blame for setting me down the path to old school gaming once again, it is Wizards of the Coast, but it was the previous "half-edition" that did so, not the one available now. D&D IV only solidified my already-existing opinion, which is why, for the most part, I've not had a lot to say about the game since its release, as you can see if you look over this blog's nearly-2000 posts.

That said, I do have decidedly negative feelings about D&D IV, but they're mostly of a very muted sort. Dismayed as I am by the turn the game has taken since 2008, I can't really muster any real hatred for it. This is not a game I play, so why waste any energy in loathing it? Sure, I'd have preferred if WotC had adopted a more genuinely old school approach to their new edition, but then I wish the Star Wars prequels were better than they turned out to be too. For me, D&D IV isn't generally on my radar and, if others are having fun with it, that doesn't impact me one whit.

Still, when one of the players in the Dwimmermount campaign, who has played D&D IV, brought over a copy of the Starter Kit last weekend, I can't deny that I was intrigued. Though I'm no fan of the Mentzer edition of the Basic Set from 1983, seeing its Elmore cover art gracing a WotC product did pique my interest. Clearly, this was meant to appeal to older gamers who never really warmed up to D&D IV. The Starter Kit looks to have been envisaged as a second chance to introduce the new edition to gamers turned off by its original hamfisted 2008 roll-out ("Zee game is zee same"). Score one for WotC on that, at least, because I did give the game a fresh look thanks to this box, although WotC earned no coin for their efforts. Had a friend not loaned me his copy, my interest would never have been enough to get me to fork over $19.95 for this boxed set and, having now read it, that situation hasn't changed.

The contents of the set consist of two paperback rulebooks, a 32-page player's book and a 64-page DM's book -- again, just like the Mentzer version -- a sheet of tokens, power and magic item cards, a double-sided battlemap, and some dice. The box itself is really very nice: sturdy and deep. Indeed, its depth gives a false impression of just how much material is included in the boxed set, since the bulk of the box contains a cardboard tray. That said, there's no denying it felt awesome to again hold a D&D boxed set in my hands. The books themselves felt very flimsy, like glossy laser-printed pages stapled together and with "covers" that are of the same quality -- a pity. The map and cards likewise felt cheap to me and perhaps they were; I imagine WotC needed to cut corners to keep the costs down somehow.

The Player's Book consists almost entirely of a choose-your-own-adventure type scenario that's intended to introduce players new to tabletop roleplaying (more on that later) to D&D IV. In that respect, it does a pretty good job, since it expects only that the player choose a name, gender, and race before getting into the action. As the players makes his way through nearly 100 numbered sections of the scenario, he's given choices that, besides advancing the action, also introduce game mechanics that are then explained in context. The result is a somewhat stilted "adventure," but one that nevertheless decently presents the D&D IV rules piecemeal rather than in a giant technical manual-like infodump.

Now, I was already familiar with D&D IV's rules, so very little in the Player's Book was new to me. However, I won't deny that this style of presentation was very clear, if a little hokey at times, but then I feel the same way about the Mentzer Basic Set's similar approach. I'm clearly not the target audience for a product like this, though this raises the question of just why WotC decided to use Elmore art on the box cover (art that is not repeated on the inside, I should make clear), but that's a topic for later in this review. As an introduction to the game for complete newcomers, though, I think the Player's Book is rather good.

The Dungeon Master's Book is, I think, a huge step up in complexity from the Player's Book and necessarily so. That said, I found it a lot less "basic" than I was expecting it to be. There are far fewer well-meaning platitudes about the nature of being a referee here than I was expecting. Indeed, the book is extraordinarily light on the philosophy of refereeing, concentrating instead on the rules a DM needs to know in order to run an adventure. On the one hand, I think this is refreshing, far more useful than the usual silliness that passes for referee advice in a lot of RPGs these days. On the other hand, I do wonder if a genuine newcomer will get a good sense of what the DM is and what he needs to do from this book, nearly 20 pages of which consists of an adventure. Besides the rules and the adventure, there is a small selection of monsters included (about 20), and a too-brief overview of a genuinely interesting little sandbox setting, the Nentir Vale.

The Starter Set is a very strange product. It is not, at least from my perspective, much of a deviation from the standard D&D IV rules, though I'm by no means an expert on that score. From what I can see, the set's rules are just a pared down version of what's in the hardcover rulebooks, rewritten and presented in a less intimidating fashion for the benefit of newcomers. It is not by any means a "basic set" in the sense that that term is usually used. There are, for example, no independent rules for creating characters; to create a character one must go through the solo adventure to determine ability scores and to see which abilities and powers go with which races and/or classes. That's fine as a tutorial, but, as a reference work, it leaves much to be desired. Furthermore, the material presented in the game is sufficient to handle a character only up to Level 2, after which one is directed to other supplements in this new line of D&D IV products. To my mind, that limits the utility of this boxed set even to D&D IV players; it's essentially a one-trick pony to be bought, used briefly, and then to be put on the shelf to gather dust as you move on to the "real" products.

I'm far from a neophyte, so it's hard for me to gauge how successful this product is as an introduction to the game. I think the Player's Book is a pretty decent tutorial and I appreciate that the Dungeon Master's Book opts for a no-nonsense, straightforward approach rather than the airy-fairy philosophical jabbering one usually gets in books aimed at referees. But I repeat: this is not a basic set for D&D IV. It is, like all of WotC's intro efforts to date, a piece of crippleware designed to get you to buy into the larger game line. To be fair, the set does not claim otherwise. It calls itself a "starter set" and, as such, it does what it sets out to do but no more. I can now say I have a much better grasp of the D&D IV mechanics than I did before and, while my opinion of them hasn't changed much, there's no question that the Starter Set is better and more clearly written than, say, the Player's Handbook.

But I remain confused about the use of the Elmore artwork. If this product is intended for true newcomers to roleplaying as it appears, then why use art from 25 years ago? If the product is intended to entice old school gamers into giving the new edition a second look, to prove that it really is "old school," then why is it written the way that it is? Simply limiting options to the classic tetrad of character classes and races can't hide the fact that, underneath it all, this is not, as the saying goes, "your father's Dungeons & Dragons." It's a very different game, both mechanically and stylistically, and, while I don't begrudge anyone who favors the new game (even if I do question their taste), I don't see a lot here that's of interest to fans of Gygax, Arneson, Holmes, Moldvay, or Mentzer.

I certainly can't blame WotC for that. I doubt old schoolers constitute a large enough potential market to justify catering to their grouchy idiosyncrasies, especially when they've already got games to which they've stubbornly clung for decades, despite the march of "progress." Reading through the Starter Set, though, did make me long for my old Holmes box. Boxed sets are no panacea for the declining state of the hobby, but there is something magical about them nonetheless. I wish WotC would, say, reissue the Holmes or even Moldvay boxed sets as "Classic Dungeons & Dragons," like Hasbro has done for some of its other games. That's something I'd buy without a second thought.

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 6 out of 10
Utility: 3 out of 10

Buy This If: If you're curious about D&D IV's rules and don't mind spending $19.95 for a well-presented but extremely limited introduction to them.
Don't Buy This If: You either don't care about D&D IV's rules or are looking for a genuine "basic set" for the new edition.

59 comments:

  1. This reminds me of the D&D Starter set that they sold a while back (the one with the actual miniatures, not the cardboard cutouts that the sold afterward). The thing that I liked about the old basic sets was there was just enough to get you going without getting bogged down in the rules. You could run the pre-programmed adventure, or you could write your own. The rules book didn't care one bit. The kit that I got was more of a quick-start rules with a railroad adventure. It definitely wasn't meant to be a standalone kit, and seemed like it was pushing several lines at once (the miniatures, and the "real" books). I think Wizards is looking to pluck the heart-strings of nostalgia for the old box sets, while similarly giving just a tease of the new edition. It's like a $20 shareware sampler of dice, tokens, and enough for one evening's worth of adventure, before expecting and encouraging folks to get the bigger manuals. It'll be interesting to see if this helps with the sales of the regular D&D 4E books, but frankly I see it as nothing more than a free RPG-day quickstarter with dice and chips.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I was talking to a retailer in Minneapolis yesterday who said maybe 1 in 5 people who bring this up to the counter to purchase think it's a reprint of the Mentzer basic set. It seems to be a frustrating situation for them having to explain to everyone what this is and isn't. Of course, there are a lot of old-schoolers in the area so maybe somewhere else doesn't have that issue.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the review, I was consindering buying it, but now I see no interest in it. Could you do a review of the Carcosa supplement?

    ReplyDelete
  4. I reviewed Carcosa a long time ago, when it was first released. Just use the "search" function to look for it. Short version: I like it but have some qualms about some of its content and the way it presents itself. It's worth getting, especially, in the expurgated version, if you like dark fantasy settings.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hmm. This is interesting. I did not know about its existence. I'm a sucker for starter boxes. And I know a couple of IV campaigns around that I've been avoiding b/c I don't want to buy a new rulebook. This might just be a compromise that allows me to take another look at them. Cheap enough to pick up, but not so much that I'll be burned if I never play. Nice review.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have trouble being offended by the appropriation of the Elmore art and Mentzer Basic look, as I always thought both were a bit crap. Are we really that protective of the artistic integrity of Larry Elmore? That's like a Bad Brains fan getting his underwear bunched over the commercial use of a Green Day song.

    I suspect that this box will have the desired effect of catching the attention of more than a few lapsed gamers. WotC has cynically (and correctly) surmised that most older gamers aren't versed in the history of the hobby or interested in whether or not a product is true to its roots. Most gamers, then as now, don't much know or care about anything other than what happens at their own tables. Hell, that's probably the way it should be, although there's no accounting for taste.

    When the subject of gaming comes up in real life with other people around my age, I find myself nodding politely as they tell me about their old campaigns and characters - "old school" to them is the Bloodstone modules and 2e splatbooks. It's like someone finding out you like music and then going on about a great Nickelback show. Just not my thing at all. Folks like us are very much in the minority of the minority when it comes to the type of game we enjoy even among people who played 25 years ago.

    Anyway, I think those folks are the target market - people who played D&D in the early 80s and aren't particularly critical about it as long as it has the right look. They had fun with whatever called itself D&D in the Mentzer Basic and AD&D 2e days, and they'll have fun with whatever calls itself D&D now if they give it another try. More power to them. Beats watching TV.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have trouble being offended by the appropriation of the Elmore art and Mentzer Basic look, as I always thought both were a bit crap.

    You speak wisely.

    Anyway, I think those folks are the target market - people who played D&D in the early 80s and aren't particularly critical about it as long as it has the right look.

    I can believe that that's the thinking, but there's a reason these people aren't gaming anymore. I'm not sure they're a good audience to bank on attracting for the long haul, but then maybe WotC just intends to make a quick buck, I don't know.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think the old art is supposed to draw in "lapsed" players. People who played 20 years ago and haven't paid attention to D&D since. The low price point and familiar picture will probably be enough to sell a lot of copies.

    I bet if they did reprint the old box it'd sell a ton of copies. I'm certainly glad I still have a rules cyclopedia. Wish I had the old boxes still, but it's good enough for my purposes.

    ReplyDelete
  9. When you say "there's no question that the Starter Set is better and more clearly written than, say, the Player's Handbook", do you mean the 1e version or some other version? (I don't even know if they still use Player's Handbooks anymore, that's how Old School I am.)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hmmm. I had hoped that Essential D&D would be a rules lite restatement of D&D4 - something I might be interested in. But even with a spoon-fed programmed introduction if not going to play D&D4 as it's currently offered.

    How does this set related to the Essential D&D rules compendium being published next week?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Most gamers, then as now, don't much know or care about anything other than what happens at their own tables<

    That was me up until a couple of years ago. Look at me now!

    I now know that as far as D%D, I was not missing much. Still not. WOTC only got my money during my 90's MTG phase. Never again.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks for the helpful review, James.

    I'll still probably get this, if only to know what D&D 'IV' is like, even if I never play it (aside from the intro solo adventure). I tried to read the IV PHB, but couldn't force myself past the halfway point.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "I tried to read the IV PHB, but couldn't force myself past the halfway point."

    My gaming group was just chatting about this today during our game session. All of us have the D&D "IV" Player's Handbook and all of us thought it was a dreadful read. It does not do a great job of explaining the rules, and more-over, it's just plain boring. It's not fun to read. It's sad that something that is supposed to fire the imagination instead became a boring list of page after page of different "powers", all of which started to sound the same after a while.

    After all this time, I still continue to pull out my 1st Edition, 2nd Edition and even 3rd Edition Player's Handbooks to read for inspiration or just for fun. But I've never read the 4th Edition PHB all the way through and I don't see myself ever pulling it off the shelf again to leaf through "just for fun."

    How sad.

    ReplyDelete
  14. As a guy who runs a AD&D mega-dungeon campaign and a story driven D&D 4e game. I have to chime in say that I believe the Starter Set and Essentials line seem to be a introductory line of products. It uses the same mechanics as the full blown 4e game, but the classes are simplified and more straightforward. Beholding to their more original designs and following a set path for their progression through levels. Later products will introduce character generation in more detail and there will be a DM Kit box set and a campaign book on the sandbox campaign they mention. This box set really has nothing for someone who is familiar with the game or RPG's in general. It is dumbed down to a fault. It is basically a sampler platter and nothing more. Liked the fresh rolls - sorry there are only 2. And I simply ignored it, as did my players of the 4e edition. If I was just starting the game I dare say the tokens might have been cool. But, I already have minis and status tokens aplenty. Beyond an introduction to the game mechanics and the concepts of the RP gaming. There isn't much here.

    If I had to hazard a guess I would say this product is WotC hoping to expand the game beyond local game shops and other specialty retailers and more into the mainstream like the bygone 80's RPG land rush. You could only buy the Essentials line (much like you could buy the old BECMI line) and not need anything else. And I predict there will also be a not so subtle selling point that you should "grow up" into the hard covers. Much like the old box sets alluded to moving on to AD&D. The Elmore cover art will appeal to parents who are buying Christmas gifts and lapsed gamers who might have played during those days when every one at least dabbled in the game. The original Red Box with Elmore art sold a lot of copies and is well recognized. You would see it in department stores, Sears catalogs, and toy stores back in the day. I can see why they would want to tap into that lost energy and visual recognition.

    It is an interesting product line in that it doesn't divorce it self from the other books. You can easily have a character created with the Starter Set running in the same party has a character created by a power gamer with every hard cover on his shelf. The parts are interchangeable and both use the same rules. Though I have noticed that there is a bit more editing going on in some parts of the game with the release of this line. The treasure system is becoming a bit more challenging for players to acquire magical items for example. And monsters have been changed to be more of a threat in terms of damage formulas.

    My only complaint is that WotC really gives me the impression that they are learning how to do this whole RPG publishing through trial and error. At least they aren't creating a 4.5 edition this time around. And instead of rewriting the whole game they are just coming out with a low cost book that has all the rules updated with errata.

    As for the depth of the box. I play a lot of board games like Arkham Horror, Twilight Imperium, and Catan. I like it when boxes leave room to hold additional future expansions/books. Makes it easier to take stuff to other locations to play.

    But, D&D has always been a moving target in what it is for me. Having been one of those kids who had the Holmes, Mentzer, and Moldvay books and trying to figure out why they were all slightly different.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Just so y'all know--according to my sources certain classes in the box ARE slightly different than in straight up Type 4 D&D and WoTC is planning to make future products consistent with New Red Box presentation of them.

    ReplyDelete
  16. But I remain confused about the use of the Elmore artwork.
    It's only for the first print run. The second printing will go for an updated version of the same image, done in the current house style. I believe the logo will be changed too.

    It seems as if this new Essentials line represents a consolidation of the rules changes made to D&D4 since its release, so as Zak says, what you get in the Red Box is somewhat different to what you get in the three core rulebooks. Indeed, I believe that the core books are going out of print to make way for the Essentials line.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Captain Jack: How does this set related to the Essential D&D rules compendium being published next week?

    As I understand it, the rules compendium is the new edition of D&D4, reformatted and with some minor revisions. Some have called it D&D4.5, but I don't know if the rules changes have been that drastic; there does seem to have been a lot of errata, even during the brief period in which I played the game.

    The current D&D4 materials are going out of print, with the new Essentials line - including the Red Box, the rules compendium and the Monster Vault - taking over as the official "face" of the game.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I had pre-ordered this, thinking it actually was a Mentzer-style Basic Set for 4e, and hoping for a simpler-than-full-4e but still complete game for the level 1-3 range. Luckily I read my first review in time to realise it was not that at all, and cancel my preorder.

    One of my big problems GMing 4e is that much of the time I have no idea what the PCs are doing. The player declares "I'm using XX", Where XX is a Power, and rolls dice and (hopefully) tells me the in-game effect, but XX is rarely self-explanatory and only the best players bother to give any in-game visualisation of what's actually happening. And of course most of the other players don't know what's happening either, except the mechanical effects - Monster X takes Y damage and is Dazed/Stun/Prone/Immobilised et al. At least with the monsters I as GM can provide "flavour text" to go with the "crunch", and I do that with PC powers if I can grasp what's happening, but it's the first time I've GM'd a game where *I as GM do not know what is happening in-world*. It's a strange and frequently frustrating experience.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I was really hoping WOTC was going to rid all their "bloat"rules like healing surges, action points,kewl rules but they of course they didn't.

    Maybe their upcoming Rules Compendium might give on more insight into help tailoring 4E to individual players/ DM's taste, but chances are that won't be the case either.

    One disappointment after another...

    ReplyDelete
  20. When you say "there's no question that the Starter Set is better and more clearly written than, say, the Player's Handbook", do you mean the 1e version or some other version? (I don't even know if they still use Player's Handbooks anymore, that's how Old School I am.)

    I meant the current D&D IV version, although I would never hold up even the 1e version as a particularly good example of a game manual, even if I am very fond of it.

    ReplyDelete
  21. How does this set related to the Essential D&D rules compendium being published next week?

    Interestingly, the same friend who lent me the Starter Set brought the compendium over this week. I flipped through it and what it appears to be is all the non-character-specific rules in the current edition collected under a single 400-page trade paperback-sized book. So, all the combat rules are here, as is stuff about running skills challenges, etc. Again, it's a nicely arranged and put together book and I really liked the size and format (and the quality feels better than the flimsy stuff in the boxed set), but a compendium that's 400 pages (even 400 cut-down pages)? That tells me all I need to know.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Just so y'all know--according to my sources certain classes in the box ARE slightly different than in straight up Type 4 D&D and WoTC is planning to make future products consistent with New Red Box presentation of them.

    I'd heard this too and I have no doubt that it's true, but it's hard to say just from reading the Starter Set, since there are no full character class write-ups to compare with the D&D IV PHB versions and I didn't feel like borrowing that book too for this review.

    ReplyDelete
  23. As I understand it, the rules compendium is the new edition of D&D4, reformatted and with some minor revisions. Some have called it D&D4.5, but I don't know if the rules changes have been that drastic; there does seem to have been a lot of errata, even during the brief period in which I played the game.

    I think it's true that the compendium incorporates a lot of the errata to the game that's been added since 2008, but the underlying game seems to be still fundamentally the same, so I'm not sure calling it "4.5" is really accurate, at least not in comparison to v.3.5. Now, that said, it does look like there are changes present here that are more than cosmetic ones, like the new versions of the four basic character classes.

    ReplyDelete
  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Oops, posted wrong link.

    D&D marketing seems to be on an art nostalgia kick, as seen here.

    http://cyclopeatron.blogspot.com/2010/09/wotc-recycles-classic-trampier-art-on.html

    ReplyDelete
  26. In my opinion, it's obviously who this product is aimed at: parents. Dads and moms will see the cover, feel nostalgia, and buy it for their own kids. Get these kids interested in D&D and then suddenly you've got a new and growing market. The holiday season is coming up, after all. I really don't think WOTC gives a crap one way or the other about all of the grognards and others cleaving to earlier editions. Otherwise they'd do what those people want and re-release the old stuff as PDFs or Print on Demand (or both).

    ReplyDelete
  27. I think the Starter Set succeeds at it's goal as an introduction to the 4e mechanics. In the intro to the DM section they bring up computer RPGs and how D&D is the progenitor of these game. But what rubbed me the wrong way is that I felt they never state the advantage of playing D&D 4e (i.e. tabletop roleplaying) over CRPGs.

    Why should they have to go through several dozen steps to make a character and run an adventure when a CRPG handles all that for you?

    Here is were I think the 4e focus on encounters is self-defeating. The strength of tabletop RPGs is the roleplaying aspect and the imagination of the human referee and the human players.

    ReplyDelete
  28. "I tried to read the IV PHB, but couldn't force myself past the halfway point."

    Me too and I run a bi-weekly 4e game! The 4e PHB is a reference book, and that's about it. I learned the combat rules, I read the powers/feats/rituals/magic items that my characters need, and that's about it. It's nowhere near the enjoyable read that the older editions were. The fun of 4e happens at the table.

    ReplyDelete
  29. The strength of tabletop RPGs is the roleplaying aspect and the imagination of the human referee and the human players.

    Yes, definitely. I think tabletop RPGs will only suffer in comparison if computer games are used as the metric for discussion. As I see it, these are two very different pastimes and, if tabletop RPGs are to survive and prosper, RPG companies need to play to their strengths rather than presenting them as if they were analog video games.

    ReplyDelete
  30. SImply put, the reason the art is the same isn't some hamfisted attempt to get people like you, James. It's to get people who lapsed during the Mentzer days for one reason or another and see the box while they're at Target (They sell it at Target, now. How the hell about that, James?) Christmas shopping for their little cousins or whatever and be like "oh hey, D&D!"

    In essence, the gamers who are old school because they haven't had exposure to 20 years of evolution, rather than those who have rejected it.

    And it seems to be fairly successful at doing so from what I understand.

    I want one badly, but god I do not have anyone to teach in my life who cares to learn.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Also, Kelvin is mistaken. The core books aren't going out of print, the most recent run was simply large enough and the market sufficiently saturated that they expect it to last them about a year before they need to get around to more.

    ReplyDelete
  32. @Scott -

    Loved your post! I agree with everything you said. I especially enjoyed your music analogies. The Green Day/Bad Brains comment about made me spit coffee on my monitor!

    ReplyDelete
  33. D&D marketing seems to be on an art nostalgia kick, as seen here.

    I'm not sure if I should thank you for reminding me of this or not :)

    ReplyDelete
  34. I'm waiting for Dave Trampier to cut his hair in a mohawk, throw on an M65 field jacket, and re-enact certain key scenes from _Taxi Driver_.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I was hoping you'd post a review of this. I'd like to share my thoughts, as a 36 year old father of two boys, 9 and 15. As a kid, I had all the Mentzer era D&D boxed sets and dabbled in 2E for several years as well, before abandoning D&D for other things. I picked the new box up thinking it would be a great family activity, and good math practice for my 9 year old.

    I ran through the character creation with both kids. My younger son loved it, and went into great detail RPing the fights. My oldest was more into the rules aspects and number crunching. That's all well and good, it takes both to make the world go around, right?

    I made a character for my wife and we all sat down one evening and ran through the first group encounter from the DM's book. It took over an hour to run this single encounter. My oldest son had questions about the skill Sneak Attack, which the Player's book instructed to write down as a skill but had no corresponding power card. We just ignored it after a fruitless, lengthy search through both books. They are horribly organized for any sort of reference. After the encounter was over, we quit for the evening.

    I am of the opinion that there is far too much rules-mongering in this new edition. I like the idea of power cards, but it makes things so slow when each character can use so many special abilities! I thought I'd simply slog through it until we got through the DM book adventures at least.

    But then I read about the encounter with the white dragon. To see an interaction with such a beast reduced to "make X skill checks in a row to win" broke my heart. That kind of an encounter should be role played, not roll played through! I put the book down in disgust.

    The next time I was at my local game shop, in the used game section, was a battered copy of the Mentzer Basic rulebooks. I bought both for $6 total and plan to use the nice red box I have to store them in. Might pick up some old 1E AD&D stuff for kicks soon, and I suspect they'll make more memories for us than the new edition ever would have.

    ReplyDelete
  36. It's to get people who lapsed during the Mentzer days for one reason or another and see the box while they're at Target (They sell it at Target, now. How the hell about that, James?) Christmas shopping for their little cousins or whatever and be like "oh hey, D&D!"

    You may well be right, but experiences teaches me that, while this sort of strategy does result in short term sales, it does not translate into creating new players of the game. Back during the 3e days, I bought its version of a starter set for my younger cousins and they were simply baffled and disinterested in the thing. Now, maybe if I'd actually played it with them, they might have become hooked, I don't know.

    Remember I was and am a very devoted roleplaying gamer. How many lapsed Mentzer era players, though, will be devoted enough to play the game with their little relatives, especially when its contents are nothing like the game they played back in the 80s? I'd be amazed if it were many.

    ReplyDelete
  37. @Spawn of Endra: "(I don't even know if they still use Player's Handbooks anymore, that's how Old School I am.)"

    Ha. Having observed that PHB's sell better than other products, they now have an entire PHB product line for 4E (i.e., PHB1, PHB2, and PHB3).

    @JRT: Great link.

    ReplyDelete
  38. With the advent of Essentials, my group finally gave up on the great 4e experiment, after over a year of gamely trying to get the rules to work.

    We went back to AD&D (pre-2nd edition), starting with Keep on the Borderlands. Granted, we miss a few innovations like skills, but still the game is just so much more fun. "I attack" is plenty when even ogres don't have 20 hit points, and it was so nice as DM to actually be master of the game. We'll probably phase in a few 2nd edition things soon.

    Like someone else commented, in 4e, the GM can never be a master. There's no way I can keep track of all the hyperspecial attacks..."Flying Crotchgrab Smash" doesn't really give a hint, and the hundreds of hit points of healing and damage sloshing around just doesn't make for a clean game even if the GM could really follow it all.

    ReplyDelete
  39. James, you should thank Wizards for sending you on this journey rather than blaming them. ^_^

    As I’ve said before, Wizards taught me what I want by giving me exactly what I thought I wanted. Would I have ever found Dragonsfoot and rediscovered classic D&D without 3e?

    Anyway, this review is disappointing. While I’m not a fan of 4e, I thought perhaps Wizards had finally seen the light with respect to an introductory game, but it seems they’ve made the same mistakes.

    The brand name with the most potential to expand the hobby and the market, and they’re squandering it with an overly complex system that turns off many newcomers. It doesn’t help to have a simple “starter set” if you then dump them straight into full 4e.

    Time to sprinkle a few more print-outs of retro-clones and quick-starts thereof around the world.

    ReplyDelete
  40. They are whoring the old school aesthetic to sell the product and, in the process, it will confuse customers. The whole thing is a sham/e.

    ReplyDelete
  41. "Like someone else commented, in 4e, the GM can never be a master. There's no way I can keep track of all the hyperspecial attacks..."Flying Crotchgrab Smash" doesn't really give a hint"

    Yup. GMing 4e I definitely don't feel that I am in charge. Sometimes it's nice to be surprised, but other times I just feel bewildered and a bit lost. GMing OSRIC online recently I've really loved the feel of actually being in charge of the game again, of it being my rulings, not the book's rules, that the game hangs on. It's a big responsibility to do it right, but I think it makes for a better and more satisfying game for everyone.

    ReplyDelete
  42. I am not sure how I see the confusion part.

    The target audience for this set are people that have not gamed in decades or have gamed at all. With the last group they have no prior experiences to confuse them with.

    Personally I think that anyone that reads this blog is by definition far outside of the target market. Not the WotC is trying to exclude us, but they are going where the potential for new customers is. We have games, often several that are called "D&D", we don't need this intro.

    All that aside I do applaud their efforts.
    They are going after a new crowd and they are pricing the game at a level to attract the most casual of buyer. The retro-design sure has it's appeal, but again we are not who they are aiming for.

    Having played the game I can say it is fun. It is easy to learn and I had my kids up and running with it in no time. At the end of the day, that is what I want in a game.

    It's like that old parody commercial for the Wii vs. Playtstation 3. Play the Wii, it is cheap and fun.

    Now if we could only see a D&D Classics line. Hasbro is already doing it with the Star Wars figures. Of course splitting an already small market is rarely a good idea.

    ReplyDelete
  43. I noted that for the D&D Game Day last Saturday, WotC was suggesting that players come enjoy a retro gaming experience.

    ReplyDelete
  44. As I’ve said before, Wizards taught me what I want by giving me exactly what I thought I wanted.

    Too true! It took me a little longer to realize my folly than it ought to have, but, you're right, WotC did do me a service in the end.

    ReplyDelete
  45. I noted that for the D&D Game Day last Saturday, WotC was suggesting that players come enjoy a retro gaming experience.

    In recent months, I've seen a lot of products making use of 70s and 80s nostalgia as a marketing ploy (which is interesting in itself), so I guess WotC is just tapping into that? Sadly, it's all form and no substance and simply calling something "retro" and slapping old art on the box isn't enough to change its essential nature (pun intended).

    ReplyDelete
  46. It never ceases to amaze me how two of the industries which meant so much to me as a kid (RPG and comics) can be so relentless in their efforts to confuse the (potential) market and extract as much money as possible from a shrinking audience. If someone were going to walk in off the street and try to "start" playing D&D, they'd be confronted with a series of high-priced hardcovers (some of them bearing the word "essential" in their title, which sure makes it seem like as if you need to purchase them in order to play the game), a new red-boxed "starter" set whose trade dress looks nothing like the other books, an older "starter" set which *does* look like the other books, *plus* a "compendium" of the rules, all of which bear some unspecified relationship to each other. Where to begin? And if you're the unlucky guy who elected to start with the "starter" set, you quickly find out that in order to play the game in any meaningful sense, you should have just put your $20 towards the aforementioned high-priced hardcovers. If the industry was *intentionally* trying to alienate potential new players it's hard to imagine what else they could do to accomplish that goal short of publishing everything in Sanskrit.

    It's the same affliction which has meant that a decade of Spider-Man (and other comic book) movies (which, measured in dollars are among the most successful movies in history) has translated into no appreciable increase in sales of the underlying property: the budding Spider-Man reader walks into a store and is confronted with, depending on the year and month, upwards of a half-dozen ongoing monthly titles spanning multiple fictional universes, to say nothing of one-shots, limited series and cross-overs. Both industries seem intent on wringing the last available dollar from every remaining fan - and seem to confuse what will appeal to existing customers with what will appeal to new ones.

    ReplyDelete
  47. I succumbed to the marketing blitz at Gen Con and PAX, and ordered the starter box from Amazon.

    I guess I qualify as one of the "lapsed gamers" described above. I used to play a lot when I was a teenager (1st Edition), and am now a middle-aged salaryman who's getting back to the table and would love to play more than I do.

    All of my D&D-playing friends play 4E, and I enjoyed it when I tried it - except that I'm finding it really complicated. I spent much of the game sessions flipping through the rulebook trying to figure out the rules for flanking and combat advantage, and managing all of my powers and healing surges and whatnot.

    Now, I managed to figure out Champions back in the day, so I think I could figure out 4E eventually. But I was an obsessive 14-year-old kid with lots of unsupervised time on his hands back then. My hope for the new red box is that it will provide training wheels to help ease me into the 4E rules. And the red box reassures me with the promise that I will feel as comfortable and familiar with this game as I did in the early 1980s.

    But I haven't played it yet, so...we'll see.

    ReplyDelete
  48. "Like someone else commented, in 4e, the GM can never be a master."

    I completely disagree. In 3rd ed., the DM could never be a master. The players always had special rules or spells that could get them out of any jam. Additionally, the rules were so specific that the DM really didn't have any leeway to dictate how things happened. 4e gives the DM much more control over narration and scene control.

    Where 4e takes away some DM control is in how you move monsters around the battlefield. Players have lots of powers that push/pull/immobilize creatures. I know DMs who hate that mechanic, because they can't just say "the boss walks up to the wizard and pounds him." No, instead, the boss might be dazed or immobilized, and the DM actually has to use some tactics and skill to challenge the players.

    Overall, I think 4e appeals to wargamers. The wargames crowd already expects complexity, and they're willing to accept that in a game that plays cleanly and provides a tactical challenge. That's a fair description of 4e.

    If WotC feels that targeting the wargamer market is a wise business move, that's their right. In their defense, it's been 3 years since 4e was released, and a lot of people are still playing it, so it seems they're doing something right.

    ReplyDelete
  49. I bought this product purely so that I could get my hands on the shiny retro box, to keep my actual Mentzer booklets in. On that count, I'm not disappointed. It's a really nice box.

    What comes inside the box, though, is another matter entirely. I was already passingly familiar with the 4th edition (A)D&D rules, but this is the first time I've really examined them in-depth, and one thing struck me above all else: LOOK AT HOW MANY HIT POINTS THE MONSTERS HAVE.

    Weapon damage isn't all that inflated compared to previous editions. The "basic attack" deals a die of damage plus a middling single-digit modifier, not all that far off from typical weapon damage in a 3rd edition game. But hit points have increased tenfold! Gelatinous cube with 150 hp? Kobolds with 30 hp? When in all the older versions, it wouldn't be unusual to see 15 and 3 for the respective monster's hp totals? NO WONDER PEOPLE COMPLAIN ABOUT THE "GRIND"!

    This sticks in my craw, because it means that the vaunted, carefully balanced math that went into designing 4th edition is actually a carefully concealed shell-game meant to hide the fact that combat is a huge time-sink, pretty much by design.

    Does everybody remember how in the *real* Mentzer basic set, the first example battle was your solo adventure fighter versus a snake, and you just exchanged blows that dealt 1 hp of damage (since the game was explaining the concept of hit points, but hadn't gotten around to rolling damage yet)? That's what *all* combat in 4th edition is *supposed* to be like, spiced up on occasion with encounter and daily powers. It's as if you were playing good old basic D&D, except that instead of all hits dealing 1d6 damage, all hits are supposed to deal 1 (or, if you're casting a spell, 2-3) points of damage. Think about how long combat would take in OD&D if that were the case, and you have a good idea of how 4th edition is *intended* to play.

    The options in the Starter Set player's book, too, seem carefully geared to pushing players toward engaging in combat. Try to select an option that doesn't meet 4e's definition of "heroic" (i.e. violence motivated by lawful goodness) and the booklet tells you go back and pick a more appropriately bloodthirsty-but-not-evil course of action. Oy gevalt!

    D&D is supposed be a role-playing game, not a skirmish sim.

    ReplyDelete
  50. Here’s my take on the confusion aspect:

    I already have a visual guide to D&D editions that I have to break out when talking about D&D to someone in any depth. It’s already confusing enough to try to come up with names for all the games that have been called “D&D”. At least the covers helped. Now, even there you suddenly need a footnote or qualification.

    Or look at the “red box” groups that are springing up. It used to be that you could put a picture of the old red box on a flyer and people would either know what the group was about or at least know that it was about an edition they weren’t familiar with. That’s no longer true.

    It’s not a big issue, IMHO, but it is senseless.

    ReplyDelete
  51. Rach's reflections, do you know if the next print run will include the changes seen in the Essentials line? My understanding was that they just weren't going to bother reprinting the older rules when they had the compendium out.

    If they do, then that might be a problem. As bt says, how does a shopper know what to buy if they see the starter set, the Red Box, the Essentials and the original books, all in a row?

    ReplyDelete
  52. "It's as if you were playing good old basic D&D, except that instead of all hits dealing 1d6 damage, all hits are supposed to deal 1 (or, if you're casting a spell, 2-3) points of damage."

    You're half right. What you're missing is this: Some classes are much better at dealing damage than others. For example, a first level rogue can deal 1d4+5+2d6 damage with a basic attack, not even using an at will power. A dwarf fighter can do 3d10+7 with a daily at level 1.

    Encounter powers do a lot of damage, and they're not used occasionally, as you suggest. No, by 9th level, each character generally has 4 or so encounter powers, and so they're coming out every round. Not to mention the synergy bonuses that characters can get by working together. For example, the Warlord in our group can expend his at-will to allow an ally to take a second attack with a +5 bonus to damage. Groups that work as a team are very dangerous.

    Still... there is a big grind factor, especially with new DMs, who often stick lots of "soldier" and "brute" monsters in a single encounter. It's an issue that's been discussed quite a bit on some of the 4e forums.

    ReplyDelete
  53. "I completely disagree. In 3rd ed., the DM could never be a master. The players always had special rules or spells that could get them out of any jam. Additionally, the rules were so specific that the DM really didn't have any leeway to dictate how things happened. 4e gives the DM much more control over narration and scene control."

    I'm actually on the side of 3e, here, which was actually something of a pseudo-simulationist algorithm which seemed to lend itself to on-the-fly adjustments - and was incredibly easy to "weight" while remaining 5% or so unpredictable. As soon as you've got "Encounter Powers," for example, though, you have to start designating "Encounters," which actually starts mucking about with the pace of a game. 3.0 started the mess with the miniature's handbook (with its unabstractable "positioning"), but you could ignore that and play the game. You can whittle that part out of 3.5 (basically by updating some bits of 3.0) or Pathfinder. 4e seems to have written the aspects so deeply into the game, and added more besides, that I for one CAN'T play the thing without a Grid and set-piece "encounters," at least without rendering a large part of Chargen meaningless and stipping pcs of their abilties.

    P.S.: I got the new box for $15. It's now the new home for my Mentzer books (take out the slanted cardbord, and they'll fit!) and a set of Modlvay/Cook. If I ever feel compelled to use minis for a special combat or anything, the floorplans and chits might come in handy.

    ReplyDelete
  54. I think James, that the Elmore art and revived “red box” format have thrown you for a loop only because you have paid little attention to 4th Edition. Having never been an AD&D fan—I started with the Holmes boxed set and followed all the boxed set lines through Mentzer—I was completely put off by 3rd Edition, which was “D&D” in name only. In every way that really mattered (races, classes, Great Wheel Cosmology, alignment, and edition designation) it was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with a jumped up system and the “A” filed off. 4th Edition—which I tried but did not like—was clearly revised by people like me who had fonder memories of the Mentzer “classic D&D” than OD&D or AD&D. It scaled down the alignment system to something closer to the boxed sets, dumped the Great Wheel cosmology in favor of something that looked suspiciously like the classic universe, and revived the concept of tiered play which characterized the boxed sets. The initial classes and races (aside from the silly new additions) even dumped AD&D touches like Barbarians, Druids, and Gnomes. Heck, the 4e monster manual did not even have AD&D’s metallic dragons, just as the boxed sets didn’t. Mind you, I am not saying 4th Edition even vaguely resembles those sets mechanically—it is the love child of 3.0 and 3.5—but it is clear that 4e was created by people with nostalgic feelings for the old boxes. This “Starter Set” merely confirms what I have felt about 4e since it appeared.

    ReplyDelete
  55. Mind you, I am not saying 4th Edition even vaguely resembles those sets mechanically—it is the love child of 3.0 and 3.5—but it is clear that 4e was created by people with nostalgic feelings for the old boxes.

    This is a very intriguing comment. I hadn't considered this possibility.

    ReplyDelete
  56. 3E is the clear heir to AD&D. 4E is deliberately cut down and simplified, with the DM given much more control and freedom. I found DMing 3E a lot of work, and now find DMing 4E a relative breeze. 4E is a somewhat ambitious attempt to fix some longstanding issues with D&D while paring back the weight and depth of rules it had accumulated. I know that sounds ironic, given the sheer page count, but the actual rules (as opposed to character options; powers and feats) are MUCH shorter and simpler than 3E or AD&D, for that matter.

    Jeff Rients still has the Mike Mearls quote on his page: "Yup, that's right. At WotC we're playing OD&D. I read Jeff Rients' report of his Winter War OD&D game, and I had to run the game."

    ReplyDelete
  57. Hey folks, I actually just did an interview with Mike Mearls on The Escapist, that's all about the red box.

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_271/8109-Red-Box-Renaissance

    It's an interesting interview. Essentials, according to Mearls, actually is the new direction for the game. He even told us not to buy the old books. He thinks the game went wrong in 4e and is trying to steer it right.

    Example quote: "If you look at the Fighter and the way he works in D&D Essentials, we removed the Daily powers to get more of a sense that 'fighters and wizards should look really different,' because that's how D&D originally approached it," Mearls said.

    ReplyDelete
  58. My empathy tells me that Mike Mearls is, by all evidence I've seen, a talented and stand-up guy, and it's cool that he's acknowledging possible mistakes and trying to make things right.

    My schadenfreude, which is more keenly developed than my empathy, tells me LOL.

    ReplyDelete
  59. Just bought this over the weekend for my son who turned 12. Personally, it did 'feel' good seeing the old box of what I remembered getting 26 odd years ago. I still have my old books and it was fun to see not only my son get into it, but my 14 yo daughter excited to create her back-story (which of course has plenty of drama - and a romantic theme). My wife laughs at how giddy I am to do this again, and I thought this Starter Kit was a great find.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.