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Friday, 27 August 2010

White Box Fever I

The imminent launch by Wizards of the Coast of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line with the release of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set has peaked the interest of many a gamer. Especially the older gamer who recalls Frank Mentzer's red box version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons from days of yore, looking back upon the core set as a standard by which many an introductory RPG can be measured. After all, for them it was their introduction to the hobby, just as it was mine. If the original Red Box set is remembered with such fondness, it begs the following questions. Does the hobby twenty five years on have its equivalent, an introductory RPG that can invoke the same sense of wonder? That can do as good a job of introducing a new player to the hobby? Over the next few weeks, in the lead up to the release of the new Red Box Set, Reviews from R'lyeh will take a look at what is available, beginning with the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition.

The publication of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition back in 2008 was highly anticipated. It saw a major redesign and change in playing philosophy from what had gone before for the last thirty years. Yet it appeared that Wizards of the Coast was marketing this redesign with a surprising indifference and bar picking up a copy of the Player's Handbook, there was no easy way in which to start or learn the game. This remained a problem until the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set a few months after the release of the three core books, the Player's Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master's Guide. What you find in the box are a sixteen-page “Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Quick-Start Rules,” a sixty-four “Dungeon Master’s Guide;” a sheet of over fifty double-sided counters; three sheets of double-sided dungeon floor tiles; and a set of polyhedral dice. Everything is done in full colour and illustrated with that muscular style of artwork that has come to dominate the hobby's leading Dungeons & Dragons variants.

There not being one of those handy sheets that explains what is inside the box, the starting point is the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Quick-Start Rules or player's book. More of a booklet, being staple bound, than a book, this very efficiently explains the game's rules and mechanics, focusing as the current version of Dungeons & Dragons does, on combat. It is rounded out with five pregenerated characters, a Dwarf Fighter, a Halfling Rogue, an Eladrin Wizard, a Human Cleric, and a Dragonborn Paladin. These are fully detailed, and each of them includes the extra feats, powers, and hit points to be added at second and third level. What this booklet omits are rules for character generation, though this is to be expected, since the Starter Set is intended to be a stepping stone onto the player's handbook. Also omitted are descriptions of the classes, the roles, and the races of these characters, though the races are described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide in terms of being monsters.

Much of the same rules and details are repeated from the Quick-Start Rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but this book expands on this information to guide the DM through the process of running the game. There is advice in sidebars on being fair and a detailed breakdown of what goes into making up a monster in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. This is all in preparation for the book's scenario, “Beneath the Village of Harken: An Adventure,” which looks to be set in the same location as the scenario, H1: Keep on the Shadowfell. The scenario makes use of most of the included dungeon tiles and a few of the tokens. At just three encounters in length, it can be completed in an evening and is enough to give everyone involved a taste of what Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is like. Reading closely, the mini adventure includes some pointers to the DM to help him run the scenario, and in some ways, these are the most useful feature in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The second half of the book guides the dm through the process of Building Encounters and adding traps and hazards to an encounter. This only takes up a few pages as the rest of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is devoted to a bestiary. Nearly thirty pages of monsters!

Physically, both booklets are presented on the same slick, glossy paper used throughout the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Without a card cover, both booklets feel flimsy and not as hardwearing as I would like. One issue with both booklets is the lack of index, the inclusion of which would have aided the prospective player or DM wanting to look up a particular term or rule. Both the tokens and the dungeon tiles are much better done, having been printed on sturdy cardboard. The tokens include lots and lots of monsters as well as those for the pregenerated characters. There is actually quite a lot of variety in the tiles and beyond the confines of the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set a group is likely to get quite a lot of use out of them.

The awful truth is that the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set is not very good, and not very good for two reasons. The first reason is that it does not explain enough. Its explanation of roleplaying is cursory at best, wholly inadequate at worst, and neither booklet gives a single example of play anywhere. There should have been at least two pages devoted to this, just as there should have been another two pages devoted to a detailed example of how to referee a session. Also, where is example of solo play? And while that make look like a cliché to our jaded eyes, it would get a player going as soon as he opened the box.

The second reason is the inclusion of just a single, very short adventure that can be completed in one evening. After that, the DM is expected to write the next adventure. Really? After running a single session of three encounters? In a product that is meant to get the characters from first to third level? Writing an adventure is an incredibly daunting prospect especially if all that you have seen and run is just three encounters. There should have been at least one more adventure in the box, if not more, these additions serving as examples as well as the opportunity for the players to experience the feeling of their characters going up a level or two.

If you want an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, then H1: Keep on the Shadowfell does a better job. All right, so it does not include the character and monster tokens, but it offers more extensive play and the possibility of the characters rising in level.

The terrible truth is that Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set feels like an afterthought, something put together in a hurry to have a product aimed at the younger market in time for Christmas. Worse, it feels like the designers have just cut and pasted large chunks of material from elsewhere without consideration for box's intended audience. Indeed, the only time that this audience is directly addressed is in the little pieces of advice in the all too short scenario.

As an introduction to roleplaying, the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set is useless. As an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set is little better. Both because of the lack of examples and the all too cursory explanations. The result is a product with which you cannot get playing out of the box with any ease and a product that needs an experienced player to help teach the game to the neophyte player. In which case, why not buy a copy of the Player's Handbook and H1: Keep on the Shadowfell instead?

The Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set should have made the prospective new player go "Wow!" and want to make him play. It does nothing of the sort and with the release of the Red Box Essentials set is going to be relegated to gaming history as a disappointing and missed opportunity. If you consider that Dungeons & Dragons is the world's biggest and most popular RPG, it almost behoves Wizards of the Coast to have a product available that effectively and easily introduces players to the hobby. We can only hope that the Red Box Essentials will do exactly that, because Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set does anything but...