D&D5 Review: Starter Set

In the middle of July Wizards of the Coast released the first real 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons product to stores: the latest Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set.

Well... second if you include Ghosts of Dragonspear Castsle. Sixth or seventh if you include the other assorted PDF adventures. But this is the first physical product sold in stores.

Please excuse the lateness of this blog, as I'm sure every major review site has already posted a review or two. Maybe three. My FLGS sold out instantly, as did their distributor, so I had to wait for a copy. Slightly annoying, but it's also kinda exciting to see a D&D product do that well. It even rose pretty high on the amazon bestsellers list; not just of RPGs but all books. 



What Is It?

The D&D Starter Set is a boxed set aimed at new players and DMs. It includes dice, five pre-generated characters created using the D&D Basic Rules, a 32-page book with the rules for play, and a 64-page adventure.

I say "new players and DMs" but I think we can be honest and admit that 90% of the people that buy this product will be experienced gamers looking to purchase the first 5th Edition product (or sixth or seventh...). In a few month - maybe years - we'll see if it's still seeing a lot of use as an introductory product and how well it does as a gift.

It should be noted that this Starter Set is not the product you give new players, but one you give to new DMs. Which is a solid strategy: new DMs will try and find groups of players, and are the ones willing to invest money. Focusing on more DM content makes it an easier gift, as there's more usable content.

Price And Quality

The boxed set costs $20. I've been critical of past $20 starter sets (the last two sets) for having 64-pages of rules and 32-pages of adventure, which takes characters from level 1 to 2 or 3, providing little more than a long weekend of play.

This set flips the size of the book, doubling the size of the adventure and providing enough play to reach level 5. Playing through four levels should take six or so sessions, meaning this adventure might provide over a month of play. That's certainly much more valuable and desirable than two or three sessions.

However, $20 is still pretty darn cheap. These days, $20 is more "impulse purchase" territory than "gift", which will be useful if the boxes can be stocked in box stores like Target or WalMart. Corners were cut, such as only one 10-sided die being included and no fold-out maps, tokens, and such (like the power cards and pogs from the last $20 boxed set). Apparently, the sets have been $20 for a while, with the 3e starter sets also being that price; with inflation, the same product would cost $28. So the value of the D&D Starter Sets has been steadily dropping over the years. At this rate, in ten years the Starter Set will be a box, a d20, and a URL on the back of a flier.

Going up to $30 and providing extra monsters and adventure building content would have been nice. An extra 32 pages of content would have been fantastic.

The Good

The adventure is fairly well designed. There are elements of non-linear exploration in the dungeons, with multiple routes that offer and potential for rewards for clever players, such as ambushing villains before they're ready. It's an adventure designed around strategic rather than tactical play. The adventure features large fights, but also has small incidental encounters such as lookouts or guards. There's a range of combat opportunities. Also, in the middle chapter, the players have the opportunity to choose the order they investigate certain hooks, allowing a choice in encounters.

The adventure provides a lot of advice. It's a decent adventure for new DMs providing lots of suggestions for how to handle certain situations, and guidance on running NPCs, directing the PCs, and even using a map. It holds the DM's hand while not overly leading them, and still giving them the freedom to do their own thing if they so choose.

The adventure focuses on the frontier town of Phandalin, near Neverwinter, with a map of the surroundings. So the box provides a starting location that can be used as a launch pad for multiple future adventures. A place to call home. I like adventures that give the PCs a locale to care about and NPCs with whom they can develop friendships and rivalries.

The pregenerated characters are diverse with backgrounds designed to work with the adventure, providing an initial character hook. And instant motivation to become involved in the adventure. The characters have no gender or name, allowing each player to personalize the character. But personality traits are provided, so it's not an entirely blank slate.

There are a few good NPCs, including Droop the goblin. (What's a D&D adventure without a potential goblin ally/ comic relief?) The inhabitants of Phandalin are given some description and personality and the are several good opportunities to role-play rather than fight. And most of the big NPCs even have some roleplaying hooks. Although, there's no sign of the roleplaying encounter rules we saw during the D&D Next playtest, and NPCs lack bonds and flaws.

Much has been said about the art of 5th Edition. It's not cartoony and WotC has also abandoned the dungeon punk aesthetics of 3e and the exaggerated armour and weapons of 4e. It looks very traditional, with realistic armour and modest weapons. And there are some very different pieces but it mostly looks good. There are a few monsters that are less remarkable. I'm fond of the larger pieces at the start of the various chapters. The pages are also okay, having a slight background that is clean and does not distract from the text. It's a nice compromise from the busy backgrounds of 3rd Edition and the stark whiteness of 4th Edition.

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The Bad

It needs to be said: the lack of characters generation hurts this product. This *should* only be a minor complaints, as the Basic rules are available for people who want to make their own PCs. However, this only works if players know to look for the Basic rules. The existence of these rules are only mentioned twice in the starter set: once at the start of the rules book and again at end of the adventure. But very little attention is drawn to their existence (and the fact they're free goes unmentioned in the second reference ).

Because of the reliance on pre-gens, a lot of world information is buried in the character sheets, such as classes and races. There's no description of what a "halfling" is other than with the rogue. I don't even recall seeing a picture of a halfling in the product. 

There are also a few omissions in the rules, such as the spell faerie fire, which is used by a boss monster but not described in the booklette. But this is a minor quibble and an exception. A bigger omission involves the rogue's background. Each pregen has an origin that drives them towards certain quests, an the rogue wants revenge on the Redbrands, especially the one that betrayed them. Which one was that? The adventure does not say. While none of the pregen adventure hooks are really called out in the adventure (giving the impression they were tacked on after the adventure had been written) this one stands out as an oversight.

Most of the monsters have art, especially some of the odd ones, the ones unique to D&D. The ones lacking art tend to be familiar monsters such as orcs. Most illustrations are in the actual adventure and not the monster section, so finding the illustration requires some flipping. However, the monster art in the adventure tends to be when the monster is encountered so it's not too problematic.

There's also some curious design, such as the times where it's much more rewarding to kill villains than talk. Murder not only nets far more experience, but also awards treasure as well. Defeating an encounter with words or diplomacy should provide just as much experience as stabbing everything. The same goes for sneaking. As a product aimed at new DMs, alternative solutions should have been encouraged.

Speaking of treasure, the adventure provides a lot of permanent magic items very quickly. There are three +1 weapons in the adventure, more than I've seen in some 3e adventure. This is odd for an edition with the selling point of magic being less necessary. One particularly odd bit of magic item placement is an axe that provides a bonus against plant monsters that is likely acquired just after fighting waves or plant monsters. This is a little like providing a key on the far side of a locked door. And there are a number of other permanent magic items as well. Every character should have a couple items by the time they reach level 5. 

There are also four factions that can be joined in Phandalin: the Harpers, Zhentarim, Lord's Alliance, and Order of the Gauntlet. Not much is done with these in the adventure, and they seem a little out-of-place, especially with such a small town having so many factions. This likely ties into the Organized Play program. This could have been part of a document sent to participating stores rather than part of the book, freeing up space for more NPCs and flavour

While it's nice being able to customize the PCs, characters a little too open. Especially given there are minis for each PCs. Giving the PCs names and pictures matching the minis would mean they're not just faceless PCs but characters. Iconic characters, like those found in the 3rd Edition books, can provide a touchstone for players, a shared experience between tables.

The character sheets are also plain. There are a lot of walls of text, and no references to pages or sections in the rule book. The rules book is also written a lot like a traditional RPG book where you need to read all the pages to learn the rules. While I appreciate that format in Basic D&D (and likely the PHB) it's not the easiest method for new players to absorb the rules in a Starter Set. The layout and presentation could have taken some cues from board game instruction manuals. There's a lot of overlap between the rules in the Starter Set and Basic, and no obvious changes between the two products save minor editing for space. The Starter Set will likely work well for someone who gets it, reads it all, and then invites friends over to play. It's less conducive to just jumping in and learning to play as a group.

The overland map is good and features all the places in the adventure but few other locales. It would have been nice way to seed future plot hooks and locations go to the DM without increasing the page count. Some locales of mystery or lore or potential dungeons and ruins.

The UglyStarter_Ex_ToC

The adventure is missing maps for a few places: Old Owl Well, Wyvern Tor, and Agatha's Lair. This is likely for space reasons. However, there's no reason maps couldn't have been provided online. I miss the Web Enhancements of 3rd Edition that offered free expansion content. Similarly, the characters sheets are not readily available online, so you cannot print extras of the PCs (or copies you can write on without damaging the originals). WotC released three as previews, but only on Twitter, which doesn't make them readily available as a long term resource. Similarly, there are also no blank character sheets (outside of the last few pages in the Basic D&D PDF). While you can photocopy the blank sheet for personal use, few homes have photocopiers compared to the number with black-and-white printers. (But this isn't that surprising, as the WotC website is still focused on 4th Edition, occasionally still prompting new players to Essentials).

EDIT: Between the writing of this document and the posting, WotC updated their website. Blank character sheets are now available, including form fillable ones. Yay! And it has been reported that high-rez versions of the pregens are available, but I have not found that link yet. And there's an art gallery, which includes a few images from this book. But not all images and, curiously, the art gallery includes a number of images not from the box. Weird.

All of the monsters are also in the same book as the adventure, at the very end. So some flipping is required. This is not a huge deal and a couple bookmarks (or a Post-It note) make this a non-issue. However, building on the above paragraph, I remember the 3e adventure Red Hand of Doom, which released a web enhancement of all the monsters in the adventure, making that one of the easiest adventures to run of any edition I have GMed. Another potential Web Enhancement we'll likely never see.

The adventure features repeated ambushes, with a couple from deadly monsters. Including a bugbear! This could lead to TPKs. Or, at the very least, a dead PC. This can be a little distressing to a new player, putting them off the game. The very first encounter in the adventure is a surprise attack from goblins. Played smart and using their ability to hide, the goblins can tear apart a party.

This isn't mentioning the dragon, which isn't well telegraphed and just sorta appears in the middle (excluding the fighter background). I can imagine a few PCs stumbling into the dragon's lair and picking a fight they cannot win.  

While the presentation of the adventure is excellent, the adventure itself is overly reliant on dungeon crawls. There are five "dungeons" that feature wandering from room to room killing monsters, and quite a few filler encounters with monsters whose place in the ecology of the adventure are questionable at best. For a product designed to show new DMs how to run the game, there could have been much more diverse encounter areas, such as some wilderness exploration, natural hazards, and the like. To say nothing of puzzles and riddles and creative traps. The dungeons also feature few imaginative encounter areas or locations; there's a lot of featureless rooms filled with monsters. It's all very mundane with none of the fantastic locales of old school adventures.

While the presented NPCs are nice there's no real other NPCs who exist merely for flavour or future stories. Phandalin exists for this adventure and DMs have to do much of the work of bringing the town to life themselves.

The art deserves a second mention. The artwork in the book features two generic backgrounds, ripped parchment and an ink wash. All the pictures have both. It works best as a framing for larger pieces, separating half-page illustrations from text. But for portraits, such as monsters, this is very busy and distracting. Having both feels unneeded. Alternating between the two would have been prefered. At the same time, a lot of pages feel identical; there is very obviously a left page and right page and many look identical on casual flipping. This is not normally a huge problem, but having just spent some time reading Shadows of Esteren, crammed with not only art but unique flourishes, my bar for good looking RPG books was raised making the D&D books less impressive. I keep thinking a background ink smudge, or burn, or blood splatter would differentiate a page nicely without taking away from the word count.

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The Cool

5th Edition demonstrates some incredibly easy monster modification, putting even 4th Edition to shame. Rather than rewrite an entire monster, a few named beasties just have more hp or an extra power. It's very space efficient. And it's a fun way of adding more monsters to the game without having too many options or overly specific monsters.

Similarly, there's some fun treasure. Several of the magic items look unique, have names, and/or possess special little abilities or quirks. It's long been said that +1 swords shouldn't *just* be +1 swords, but 5e is the first edition to really demonstrate that.

The adventure ends with a minor mystery, a plot hook for future stories. That's pretty cool, providing DMs with an easy starting point for a follow up campaign.

At one point the adventure describes what will happen if the PCs try to bluff their way through an encounter and the book says to have the players roll a Deception check *if* their roleplaying is not convincing. This is a lovely little statement as it essentially says solid roleplaying negates the need for a check. It's nicely done and skirts the "diplomacy issue" where the success on the DC trumps roleplaying, or the charming character failing because the player is clumsy with their words.

Comparing Starter Products

Previous D&D Starter Sets could only really be compared with one thing: other D&D Starter Sets. Now there are many other boxed sets available, such as the Star Wars starter sets, the DragonAge RPG boxes, and most important the Pathfinder Beginner Box

It's not entirely fair to compare the Beginner Box to the D&D Starter Set. The latter retails for $35 (formerly more IIRC) and has a Flip-Mat, character tokens, a full set of dice, and almost twice the pages. So quality and quantity of product cannot readily be compared. For example, while the Beginner Box is able to include character generation, it has 64 more pages to work with. 

The design of the common elements can be compared. The Starter Set is very much an adventure with rules cut-and-pasted from the Basic Rulebook. There's no attempt at graphical formatting or arranging information for ease of use or consumption. In contrast, the Pathfinder box barely looks like a Pathfinder product, having very different formatting and layout. The character sheets cross reference sections of the rules and extra effort is made to make everything in the game simpler and more transparent. It is not just another product that just happens to be aimed at new players, but a product that was redesigned from the ground up to be accessible to brand new players. The Starter Set feels very much like any other D&D product except for the extra advice buried deep in the paragraphs of the adventures. 

The 5e Starter Set is an improvement on past Starter Sets, and arguably one of the better Starter Sets that WotC has done. But it doesn't change how people think about Starter Sets, and it doesn't even try to do anything new or revolutionary. 

Final Thoughts

The 5th a Edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set does not try and raise the bar for a newbie product. It settles into the comfortable niche established by many other WotC starter products of the past. It is not exceptional but neither is it terrible. It's better than other recent sets but doesn't offer anything new. It's paint-by-numbers. Firmly average.

But... at the end of the day, a Starter Set lives and dies by how successful the adventure is in play and how easy it is to learn. And there are many, many reports of fun play sessions and first time players having a great time playing the set. It's fun. That's all you really need to know, and everything else is either a perk or nitpicking.

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