Oh gods not another Red Box review

‘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?)

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10 Responses

  1. Crose87420 says:

    Hey, like the review and the style it was written in.

    I have a question since you have the Red Box in hand, well two sorta; Did they happen to include a list of monsters per dungeon level and terrain type as the Mentzer edition did? Also, are there random treasure tables or lists for placing loot on the fly?



    • greywulf says:


      Unfortunately there’s no Mentzer style monsters per dungeon level & terrain type table. I’d have loved to see one in there though.

      Note to self: Build one!

      For treasure, there’s a short list of just nine treasures the adventurers should find while they’re 2nd level (the placement is entirely up to you), and there’s a small random treasure table in The Twisted Halls adventure. Enough to spark the imagination though.

  2. Pobman says:

    I have been debating whether to get this so I could show my 10 year old niece what fun I have with D&D. I think you have pushed me into getting it.

  3. DarkTouch says:

    When it comes to open licensing there is a distinction that is often thrown around. ‘Free as in Speech’ vs ‘Free as in Beer’. I think there needs to be something similar to this statement for breaking down what ‘Essentials’ means.

    A more clever mind than me might do better but I’m going with: ‘Essential as in Baking’ vs. ‘Essential as in Camping’. If you’re making a recipe then you need flower and eggs and milk. Without them you can’t make the cook. On the other hand if you’re going camping you bring just the essentials like your toothbrush. You may already have a toothbrush but you’ve narrowed down what you’re bringing to ONLY the important things.

    The essentials line is like camping. You have your electric toothbrush at home but for the purposes of camping you’re just bringing your little fold up toothbrush. You have your tricked out Sorcerer, Shaman and Barbarian classes but for here you’re just bringing your Fighter and Cleric.

  4. RetroThomas says:

    Very good review. Thank you for writing it. While my time with 4th Edition is done, I’ve been curious about this fabled Red Box. Perhaps its existence is a good thing and that its availability will allow some young people to get in on the hobby.

    Then again, can you imagine what might have been if you started with 4th Edition? I guess I have a much warmer feeling when I think about gamers that have young kids playing Mouse Guard or Swords & Wizardry with them. Thanks again :)

    • DarkTouch says:

      While I am not currently a 4e player, (Pathfinder instead) I am rather suspect of the implication that kids whose first RP experience is 4e are in some way getting a sub standard introduction to the hobby.

      • RetroThomas says:

        It’s funny you say that, DarkTouch, since I did not. However, since you pointed it out, I do agree with that statement. I think 4th Edition D&D would be a substandard introduction to the RPG hobby.

        However (and make that a BIG however) this is coming from someone who prefers the more imagination-centered type of gameplay as opposed to using grids, miniatures, powers, and crunchy tactical rules of 4th Edition. Since that’s my preference I would rather pass along that type game because I personally just enjoy it more and find it more immersive. It would just be my starting point for exposing new players and it’s where my values lie.

        My original point was this, though: I feel that starting with 4th Edition will be a very *different* introduction to the hobby than 2nd Edition (which I started with) or what the guys in the seventies started with. You’re getting a different experience than you are with a game where combat and exploration are centered in your imagination rather than on miniatures and grids. It is simply a different focus. That’s all I meant to say with my original post.

        • DarkTouch says:

          I think your use of the phrase ‘warmer feeling’ was enough to make your implication clear.

          Funnily enough, my very first introduction to RPGs was Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP) and what I most clearly remember about it was moving my little Collosus cardboard standee around the grid of the danger room. Of course that was pre-high school. I didn’t start playing RPGs heavily until college when I joined in with a group playing Live Action Vampire. You’d be surprised how tactically minded you can be with just Rock Paper Scissors.

  5. Elton says:

    * My original point was this, though: I feel that starting with 4th Edition will be a very *different* introduction to the hobby than 2nd Edition (which I started with) or what the guys in the seventies started with. You’re getting a different experience than you are with a game where combat and exploration are centered in your imagination rather than on miniatures and grids. It is simply a different focus. That’s all I meant to say with my original post. *

    I fully agree. When I read the PHB 1, I felt . . . that it was incredulously different than what I started with (Mentzer Box set). So much so, that I vowed I’d start my nephews on D&D with that old red box when they are 12 and 10. My other nephew I can’t start the game with since his autism makes communication nearly impossible.

    But, I’m receiving a copy of this boxed set so I get to, hopefully, approach the game from a new perspective. Lets see if it resonates the Old Professor when he was telling the story of the Hobbit to young Christopher. :)

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