One of the new product lines announced at D&DXP is "D&D Essentials". It's a new version of the old starter set from the very early '80s that helped get a generation playing D&D and the replacement for other versions of the starter set.
I've often wondered how successful starter sets were. I've seen a few purchased back when they had plastic minis for the non-randomized minis included, but I've only ever seen them sold in the same stores as actual D&D books, typically on the same shelves. While cheaper, the recent generally had the same rules (the 4e starter set felt very similar to Keep on the Shadowfell). I saw some variants in the '90s when it was a very different and introductory game, but I was never sure how well those introduced people to AD&D 2e. I always wondered what the starter set offered that the full books didn't.
Back in the '80s (the first Red Box was published in 1977) there was a clear difference. The starter set had dice and the slightly simpler rules of basic D&D opposed to the hardcover books that comprised Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Unless the Essentials line will be completely different and even simpler I don't see what the starter set really offers as a bonus or incentive.
Looking at the new Red Box, it's cheaper than the core three books, and has some basic rules for the player and the DM. A single purchase of $19.99 than three of $34.99 (or one of $104.99). But it rapidly becomes obvious that there are expansions required as the Red Box only includes the first two levels (one less than the original Red Box and KotS). There are already two player expansions: Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of Forgotten Kingdoms, plus the DM expansion. That quickly goes-up to $59.97 for players opposed to just $34.99, and $99.96 if you include the DM expansion. And those are just the first two expansions.
To be fair, little has been released about the two follow-ups, which might be for new and older players alike. Still, levels go by a lot faster in 4e that previous editions. It took only five games to get my party to 3rd level, and we play slow combat-lite games. It would be all too easy to exhaust the content of a starter set in a month of active play. That's a little slim for something that's 60% the cost of the actual PHB.
Really, what inspired me the most to write this blog on the subject was its look. It's meant to look like the old Red Box.
Here's the thing, why appeal to nostalgia for new players? It doesn't look retro, just simplistically designed. While the design lets old players know what it is, it does nothing for the new players it is meant to attract. Another reminder, the Red Box it is emulating was released in 1977. I'm 30, married, planning kids, and working on a career and the Red Box came-out two years before I was born! The new gamers who look at this product likely weren't born until after the 20th anniversary of the Red Box.
Part of the reason the Red Box was so popular was that it was so easily found. Unless WotC is pushing to have it sold in Wal*Mart or Toys R Us it's unlikely to really spread D&D to a wider audience. If this just ends-up being yet another starter set only being sold in gaming and comic stores then it's a failure, and will only sell to players who go looking for the game or are introduced to it.
This is emblematic of efforts to get D&D to new audiences. They tap into the massive audiences of decade-old web comics – one that regularly references '80s pop culture – and a child actor who hasn't regularly appeared on television since 1991. Not exactly breaking into the fresh blood. Now they're dragging the writers of a late-night cartoon show that specializes in mocking the '80s and early '90s into the advertising mix.