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Saturday, 6 November 2010

Red Box Fever

With this review we reach the last in the White Box Fever series and its point. Over the last few weeks I have reviewed various introductory titles that aim to bring new participants into the hobby that is roleplaying. Had I more foresight I would have started this series much earlier, so that I could have had this last review out as soon as it was possible after the game’s release, but alas such organisation is not my forte. The product in question is the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, the very first release in Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line that is Wizards of the Coast’s re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. This is product designed to do several things. Most obviously it is designed to introduce players to Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition and do so in a fashion that is easier and gentler than terrible product that was the previous Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set. It is designed to stand out on the shelf not at the local games store where the clientele is going to be more discerning, but at less specialist retail outlets, whether that is bookshops that sell games or in the toy sections of the large discount department stores. It is designed to stand out and be spotted by the kind of adolescents that we were when we started gaming and it is designed to be spotted by fathers who were that kind of adolescent back in the early 1980s when the only means of entry into the hobby was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. Which is why this new Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set sports the same distinctive trade dress as the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. The same red box and the same artwork by Larry Elmore that graced the Frank Menzter version from 1983. Make no mistake, this is not a product aimed at existing players of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but designed to bring younger players into the hobby and older, lapsed players, back into the hobby.

That said, as much as the red box and the Larry Elmore artwork deliver a one-two punch to the nostalgia nerve point, the contents are still Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Very much a stripped down and streamlined version of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but still with its emphasis on combat and skirmish-like play. Further, the back of the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set promises to deliver “Your First Step on the Road to Adventure” and this it delivers by providing enough material to take four or more heroes from first to second level through both solo and group play. Beyond that a Dungeon Master and his players will need to progress via further titles in the Essentials line, in particular, the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Rules Compendium and Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Heroes of the Fallen Lands. In the meantime, the adventure, “Ghost Tower of the Witchlight Fens” is available to download as is “Kill the Messengers,” an extra encounter to run at the end of the scenario included in the box. Together this enough to keep a game going using just the contents of this box for several sessions.

Inside Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set can be found a thirty-two page Player’s Book, the sixty-four page Dungeon Master’s Book, a large double-sided map, seventy-two Power and Magic Item Cards, fifty-six double-sided hero and monster tokens, four single-sided character sheets, and a set of polyhedral dice. The two books are done more as magazines than actual books, and the likelihood that without card covers, neither is going to withstand too much handling. Similarly, the Power and Magic Item Cards are flimsy and could have been done on better cardstock. Removing them from their sheets requires a little care and a pair of scissors, and once separated, it is probably a good idea to put them into clear card sleeves for protection.

The starting point for the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set is the Player’s Book, indicated by the words “READ THIS FIRST!” on its cover. It begins with an introduction to the hobby and an explanation of how to get started before moving the reader onto a solo adventure. Opening with the player’s character travelling with a Dwarf merchant to Fallcrest, the starting point for the core Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition campaign as described in Fourth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and continued in H1, Keep on the Shadowfell, H2, Thunderspire Labyrinth, and H3, Pyramid of Shadows. Reading through the opening section it asks the player to consider why his character is travelling to Fallcrest, a good starting question in terms of roleplaying. Yet when the caravan is suddenly attacked by Goblins, the questions asked shift to a more mechanic bent. The first one is how the player wants his character to respond to the attack, the answer determining his character’s Class. For example, if he leaps into combat, then he is likely to be a Fighter, but a Cleric if he chooses to tend to the merchant’s wounds. The choice of Class also determines the character’s path through the solo adventure. The story and adventure is the same on each path, but the questions which determine various elements about the character vary according to the chosen Class. At the same, the reader is learning how to play the game.

Osdrood
Class: Fighter Level: 1 Race: Human
Alignment: Unaligned
Strength: 18 Constitution: 14 Dexterity: 13
Intelligence: 12 Wisdom: 11 Charisma: 10
Armour Class: 17 Speed: 5
Hit Points: 29 Surges: 13
Fortitude: 17 Reflex: 13 Will: 11
Abilities: Human Versatitlity
Feats: Durable, Improved Initiative
Powers: Battle Fury, Poised Assault, Bastion of Defense, Power Strike
Skills: Athletics, Endurance, Heal, Intimidate
Languages: Common, Goblin
Equipment: Greatsword, Scale Armour, backpack, adventurer’s kit, trail rations (ten days), 50 ft. of rope, belt pouch, two sunrods, 10 gp

Amaranth Bunce
Class: Wizard Level: 1 Race: Halfling
Alignment: Good
Strength: 1o Constitution: 12 Dexterity: 16
Intelligence: 18 Wisdom: 11 Charisma: 15
Armour Class: 14 Speed: 6
Hit Points: 22 Surges: 7
Fortitude: 11 Reflex: 14 Will: 12
Abilities: Bold, Nimble Reaction, Second Chance
Feats: Defensive Mobility
Powers: Freezing Burst, Magic Missile, Phantasmal Force, (at-will); Burning Hands, Illusory Obstacles (encounter); Fountain of Flame, Sleep (daily); Ghost Sound, Light, Mage Hand (cantrips)
Skills: Arcana, Diplomacy, History, Insight, Nature
Languages: Common, Elven
Equipment: Staff, spellbook, adventurer’s kit, trail rations (ten days), 50 ft. of rope, belt pouch, two sunrods, 25 gp

This is an undeniably clever approach. The step-by-step learning process is gentle and it gets the reader used to how the game is played taking his character right up to their first encounter using the poster map. The reader is also expected to take the particular cards for his Powers and keep them with his character sheet. Throughout, the process of creating the character is one of making choices rather than the traditional rolling of dice and making of choices. The choices it offers, such as between the Classes – Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard; between the Races – Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human; or between the right weapon or spell, are limited, but this is not an issue. By limiting choice, decisions can made all the quicker, and anyway, these choices are only designed to take a character to second level.

It should also be pointed out that the choice of Classes in this boxed set – Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard – is a nod back to the contents of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. Of course, that game made each of the Demihuman Races – Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling – into Classes by themselves, rather than the more modern option that allows you combine the Class of your choice with the Race of your choice. Of the four Classes available, the Fighter is the one with the fewest number of choices available and is probably the least colourful or flavoursome.

The problem comes when a group wants to create characters. It is that the Player’s Book is just one Player’s Book and not the Players’ Book. It only really works if every player has read and played through its solo scenario which is a time consuming process. What is missing from the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set is a means of turning the character creation into one that can be carried out as a group. No means of doing this is discussed, nor is there a reference guide to the Powers, so that process has either got to be done separately with each player, or laboriously as a group.

Another issue is that the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set starts at the wrong point. It throws the reader straight into the game without addressing some simple issues, such as what roleplaying really is, how to roll and read the dice, and how to use the contents of this box set. Similarly, there is no example of how the game is played, and that would have been useful for the prospective DM and player alike. All right, so with the solo adventure that is the Player’s Book, the game does a nice job the “show,” but a good example of play would added the “tell” too. Anyway, in omitting the example of play, it commits one of the same errors to be found in the original Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Fourth Edition that made that introductory product so poor.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is much longer and provides much more detail about the game. It took quickly throws the Dungeon Master into handling his first Encounter, breaking a simple ambush between the adventurers and four opponents down and explaining it in some detail. The rules themselves run to just fourteen pages and are well written and should be easy to understand. That said, these fourteen pages are a lot to take in for the first time reader and it is a big step up from playing to running the game even with the first Encounter along the way.

A third of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is devoted to the adventure, The Twisting Halls. This seven Encounter dungeon makes use of one side of the double-sided map, which nicely folds so that only the particular location for each Encounter shows. The dungeon is not linear, nor is it easy. One of the most interesting of those Encounters is with a Fledgling White Dragon. It might be only a Level One creature, but it is a tough opponent for a party of First Level characters. Yet how the adventure addresses another means of dealing with the creature – talking to it. One of the issues that I have had with Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is its focus away from roleplaying and its parcelling up of roleplaying into Skill Challenges. Yet in The Twisting Halls, the Skill Challenge of “Talking to the Dragon” is well explained, covering both the Dragon’s attitude and what the players might do. To my mind this is the best part of the adventure, getting the player characters to do more than just fight. Overall, the adventure is decent and should provide three or four sessions at a play rate of two Encounters per session. It is also enough to get the player characters to Second Level.

The remainder of the Dungeon Master’s Guide discusses adventure creation, in particular, Quests; building a dungeon, including reusing the Twisted Halls map; and designing Encounters. It is rounded out with a selection of useful monsters. Just seventeen, but with their subtypes, they are enough to create several more Encounters. Rounding out the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a description of the Nentir Vale, home to Fallcrest as described above.

The Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set feels like a complete package. True, its content might not give as much playing time as original red box Dungeons & Dragons Box Set, which took the players from first to third levels. Yet playing from first to second level is enough to get a flavour and feel of this stripped down version of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. The design to the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set with its step by step learning process, is well intentioned, but not carried out as fully as it should have been. The step into the game, from solo to group play, and from playing to running the game could all have been better handled. These are not problems for the lapsed player coming back to Dungeons & Dragons after time away, but they could be for the novice player.

Despite my issues with the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, it is the introductory box set that Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition needs and should have got at the time of the game’s launch. Its contents are engaging and well presented, and they serve as a solid learning tool. That it is eye catching and decently priced means that the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set is going to be an excellent Christmas gift.