Review: The D&D Starter Kit
I can’t work Wizards of the Coast out. For the past few months they’ve been pushing Open Grave like crazy folks; to an extent I can understand they’re justifiably proud of the supplement as it’s an excellent piece of work, but let’s face facts. If you’re into 4e D&D and it’s within your budget, you’re going to buy it regardless. Not much of a marketing push is needed.
Meanwhile, the D&D Starter Kit was released a few months ago with ne’er a fanfare. I doubt they even let off a damp party popper. Which is pretty strange given that this (much moreso than Open Grave) is what they need to be pushing, and hard. Books such as Open Grave, PHB2 or new adventures aren’t going to get many new players into the game, but a Starter Kit is designed with that in mind. It should be proudly displayed on their website’s front page with a huge banner saying “THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED TO GET STARTED!”. It should be in toy stores across the land next to huge cardboard dragons. We should be seeing new downloadable content every week explicitly marked as being “Designed for use with the D&D Starter Kit!” so newcomers to the game feel welcome and know where to get kewl goodies without feeling overwhelmed. It wouldn’t take a lot of effort – just a little reorganization of Wizards’ site to make it more newbie-friendly. A fair chunk of great content is there already that just needs corralling into a special Newcomers area. I’m thinking printable battlemats, PDFs of the counters, new characters and a couple of adventures designed to be played with the provided Starter Kit Dungeon Tiles.
I mean, how hard could it be?
But instead……… nothing. The only conclusion I can come to is that Wizards’ are embarrassed with the D&D Starter Kit. Want more proof? Try to find it on Wizards’ site. Not easy, is it? The question though is whether they should be embarrassed by it. Quite simply: is it any good?
The short answer is yes, it’s a very good product but it has one serious omission to mar what could otherwise have been a perfect D&D set. Price-wise it offers excellent value, and at $16.99 it’s positioned at just the right purchase point for parents and kids alike. This is a box that should just walk off the shelves and (if Wizards/Hasbro got their marketing act together!) be one of the biggest sellers of 2009.
If you’re an old school gamer and remember the D&D Red Box Basic Set you’ll weep with joy over this Starter Set. It’s an edition of D&D containing a Quick-Start Book and Dungeon Masters Book. There’s Dungeon Tiles and Counters a-plenty just begging to be popped out and played with. This is a very tactile set as a whole; hand a box to a couple of kids and they’ll be fiddling with the contents and itching to play immediately. Oh, and there’s a full set of dice too. The only thing that’s missing is the yellow crayon to colour in the numbers. Ah, happy times are here again.
The Quick-Start Book is largely a re-run of the one provided with The Keep on the Shadowfell. That’s not a bad thing as it does a terrific job of introducing the game and showcases just how simple and fun D&D is to play. It’s rounded out with 5 ready-made characters (Dwarf Fighter, Halfling Rogue, Eladrin Wizard, Human Cleric, Dragonborn Paladin) that are a great showcase for the system.
Dammit, I can’t put it off any longer. The Starter Kit lacks just one thing, and it’s a biggie.
There are no character generation rules in the set. None. Nada. The players get those five characters to play, and that’s your lot. If one of the character dies (or the player wants, say, a Human Wizard) then tough – you’re left looking at the same 5 sheets whether you like it or not. What I’d expect there to have been was enough information to generate a 1st level character from a subset of the race and classes from the PHB with a handful of Powers. The pre-gens are nice, but could easily have been reduced in size to a single page (or even half-page) each meaning 5 pages to introduce character generation. That’s enough room for a one page overview and a page on each class. If more space were needed there’s a fair amount of duplication between the Quick-Start and Dungeon Masters Books, so a little re—organization would have freed up all the room needed to include this most essential facet of the game.
Or, as I put it when I first heard that the Starter Kit didn’t include chargen: “A Starter Kit without Character Generation is just an adventure with Cliff’s Notes”.
A Starter Kit is all about setting expectations. It should showcase (and simplify, if needed) the key parts of the game. Not including Character Generation in even a cut-down form is akin to omitting combat, monsters or…. well, anything else, really. Just like the Red Box sets of yore this Starter Kit should have been a complete set providing all you need for low-level play. That is, after all, what it promises.
But enough of that. Dumb omission, folks!
Thankfully though, what is there is Very Good Indeed. The Dungeon Masters Book contains a very simple short introductory adventure made up of 3 encounters that steeply ramp up the combat difficulty. It’s typical of 4e D&D with much more emphasis on combat over role-playing (ie, there is none worth mentioning) I’m coming to see that as a strength rather than a weakness – I can add the role-playing elements in myself. For an adventure designed for new gamers though, more opportunity for, y’know, role-playing would have been a good idea, don’t you think? As a showcase of the combat rules and (especially in the final encounter) the necessity of tactical play, it does the job.
We’re given a wealth of information how to create exciting Encounters and details about the different Monster Roles as well as the Target XP totals and XP Reward tables for levels 1-5 and rules for using Traps and Terrain. Skill Challenges are also covered (but the numbers are pre-errata). So far, so good; it’s a terrific DMG in miniature with just enough content to make it usable at low-level even when you have the full Dungeon Masters Guide. Unlike the Quick-Start Guide, this’ll get a lot of re-use at the table.
If that was all it had I’d be happy, but we’re only halfway through. The rest of the book contains over 60 statblocks for iconic monsters from 1st to 5th level – and I certainly didn’t expect that in a Starter Kit! This is a complete mini Monster Manual with more than enough critters to provide hundreds of hours-worth of gaming goodness. We’ve got stats for everything from lowly Kobolds to a Young Black Dragon and enough Rats, Beetles, Goblins, Drakes, Kruthiks (yay!), Wolves, Jellies and Undead to start any adventuring career off with a bang. No Treasure though, which is….. strange. OK, that’s two omissions.
The completeness of this DMG & mini Monster Manual makes the lack of character generation all the more inexplicable. It’s like they put together a kickass starting Dungeon Masters resource and got bored while making the Players Guide so stuck the Quick-Start Guide from Shadowfell in there instead. So yeh, it’s embarrassing.
Back to the original question. Is it any good? Yes. That DMG alone is worth the price of entry. Add in the dice, dungeon tiles and counters and this is a great value purchase even if you own the three Core rulebooks. For low-level (1st-3rd) games, it’s the only book a Dungeon Master would need at the table.
What’s disappointing though is that it could have been so much better.