‘Fraid so. In a hobby where our only limit is our imagination, it seems like that’s something in short supply among we blog writers with darned near everyone filling the ether with their thoughts and opinions about the Red Box and the Essentials line in general.
And I’m not going to be any exception :D
The Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Red Box Starter Kit (to give it its full unofficial title) tells only one lie in the name. It is Dungeons & Dragons. It comes in a Red Box (and, let’s face it, Wizards of the Coast could have charged me twenty bucks for just an empty red box, and I’d have been happier than a squid in ink) and it is a Starter Kit.
What it isn’t is Essential. Neither you nor I need this product any more than we need dice, paper, rule books or an internet connection. Food, air and water – they’re essential. A red box copy of D&D? Nah.
Maybe D&D OMG I FREAKIN’ WANT THIS STARTER KIT just wouldn’t fit on the box lid.
To repeat: If you own a copy of the PHB, MM and DMG then you don’t need this. If you get the other books in the D&D Essentials line, you don’t need this as they contain the full rules in unabridged form. If you as happy playing D&D in whatever version, edition or variant you prefer, you don’t need this.
But want this? You bet your shiny ass you do.
Just like the previous excellent but all too flawed D&D Starter Kit, this is a complete boxed set designed to draw newcomers to the game. In this case, there are three major changes: firstly, it contains character generation (which I’ll come to Real Soon), it takes a step back from the Scary New Stuff introduced in Fourth Edition (buh bye for now, Dragonborn Warlocks). And it comes in a Red Box.
This is D&D of a style back before it gained an A… at the start of the name. This is Gygax, Moldvay and Mentzer era Dungeons & Dragons where the races are Human, Dwarf, Elf and Halfling and the classes are Fighter, Rogue, Cleric and Magic-User Wizard. Not, of course, that you actually had different Races and Classes back in the day (dude, Demi-Humans are just another kind of Class. An Elf Fighter? That’s just freaky!), but you’ve got to give them top marks for trying.
On paper at least, the Starter Kit sets out to reach that old school vibe. With the Red Box (I mentioned it already? Oh.), the two books (one marked clearly READ THIS FIRST! and AGE 12+) and choice of Races and Classes, this is a D&D that pays homage to its forebears in a way that the 4e PHB just didn’t. Even the tone of the writing is warmer and less clinical in style. This is the friendly version of D&D that wears a cardigan and smokes a pipe. The 4e PHB has a lab coat and a big stick. That’s quite a difference. The rules aren’t rammed down your throat so much as patiently taught by a favourite uncle. I like that.
The D&D Starter Kit is a clear case of less being more. With a much lower page count (32 in the Player’s Book and 64 in the Dungeon Master’s Book), the Starter Kit manages to put across the essence of D&D, and that’s something which the PHB sadly lacked and the DMG (excellent though it is as an all round Dungeon Master’s Guide) only barely touched upon. The other stuff – the new races, classes and higher levels – can (indeed, should) come later. The Red Box gets it right.
One area that I expected to be disappointed with was character generation. When I’d heard that char gen involved walking through a Choose-Your-Own Solo Adventure, I expected Wizards to have completely dropped the ball (yet again!) and fluffed one of the most important parts of the game.
Except. It’s brilliant. It works. It’s fun (Go on. Just watch a 12 year old do it. DO IT NOW!) and there’s still enough room for the player to customize their character to a reasonable degree. The whole of the 32 page Player’s Book is taken up with this so the replay value of that one book alone is well worth the price of entry. After a one page intro, it’s straight into action with the Goblin Attack. It’s a two-part Solo which generates the character and teaches the rules as you go along and by the end of it your hero (for he/she is alone at this point) will likely have picked up two Major Quests along the way.
Interestingly, that first Goblin Attack encounter doesn’t use minis or a battlemat to play out. This is pure in-your-head D&D, and yes, it’s still Fourth Edition. In a later encounter (outside the Monster Lair), the player is introduced to using battlemats & minis but this Player’s Book makes it clear from the start – either way of playing is good. Score one for 4e!
Likewise, the Dungeon Master’s Book jumps right into the action with a single encounter against Gray Wolves and Goblin Cutthroats. Again it’s battlemat based but the emphasis is clearly on role-playing with the fledgling DM being shown how to set the action and characterize the setting & monsters. This mini-DMG covers all of the main rules (Combat, Healing, reading Powers, etc) in a way that shows just how simple 4e D&D is to play.
After that it’s into The Twisting Halls, a surprisingly large (in 4e terms) adventure composed of no less than 7 Encounters including one of the best examples of a simple Skill Challenge to date. There’s also a wonderfully old school Chessboard Room that could have come straight out of the mind of a teenage Dungeon Master from 1978 (ie, me). It’s not the pinnacle of Adventure Perfection (and nor should it be), but it is a surprisingly good and enthralling romp all round. It’s certainly a better adventure than The Kobolds Hall in the Core DMG. Kudos to the writer!
After that, we’re onto a section about designing your own Dungeons, creating Encounters and setting Quests. This is information that could easily have come from any decade or edition of D&D, and it firmly cements the game as being one designed with fun in mind. And we’re only on page 46.
Want monsters? The Red box has monsters: Doppelgangers, Dragons (Black and White – coloured dragons are too expensive, perhaps), Drakes, Goblins (including a Hobgoblin and a Bugbear), Humans (a Bandit and Town Guard – no Human Mage, unfortunately), Kobolds, Lizardfolk (is calling them Lizardmen sexist now?), Oozes, Orcs, Rats, Skeletons, Spiders, Stirges, Wererats, Wolves and Zombies.
Phew! That’s more than enough foes to populate any number of low-levels dungeons, and all written up in the nifty MM3 statblock format meaning this is the go-to book to replace your Monster Manual I in a starting campaign.
So, what’s the flaw? There always is one.
There is, but it’s minor and one that’s a part of 4e D&D rather than the Starter Kit itself. Character Advancement is just too darned fast. Back in the day of the original Red Box, three character levels was enough for months of play. I’ve known groups play Classic D&D for years and barely even scratch 5th level. Many would argue that advancement back then was too slow, but 4e goes the other way; by the time your new heroes have completed The Twisting Halls adventure they’re expected to be 2nd level already meaning there’s just one more level to go before they have reached the limits of what the Red Box can provide. At this pace, that’s just one more adventure.
I would multiply the XP requirements by 3 (so you need 3,000XP to reach 2nd level and 6,750 for 3rd) and turn that low-level game into a truly Epic Campaign of Awesomeness.
All powered by a single Red Box.
(I mentioned it comes in a Red Box, right?)