Absolute Beginners – The Essential Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set review

Legendary. That’s the word I would use to describe the first Red Box I saw. The set, originally released back in 1983, was the gateway into gaming for so many friends. The iconic artwork by Larry Elmore led caught the eye of thousands of would-be warriors and potential paladins, sending them tumbling into a world of fantastic stories and battles. In living rooms and basements around the world, people got together to battle against monsters and quest for glory. Forget the iconic scene in ET where the kids fly in front of the moon on their bicycles – for me, I’ll always recall them playing Dungeons & Dragons (or at least something like it).  I wanted to do that, and the old Red Box was my way in.

Nearly thirty years later, the licence for D&D has passed through a handful of companies but players are still joining afresh. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson are long gone and the game now sits with Wizards of the Coast. Members of the new generation tend to get preoccupied with their dragon games online, but we all know where it
all started. According to them it’s as big as it ever was. The 4th Edition of the game was released back in mid-2008, complete with a Starter Set based around the new streamlined rules. In late 2010 this was rebranded and repackaged using the artwork from the famous original Red Box – a clever move on WotC’s part, no doubt done to try and entice all those players of a certain age who had fallen by the wayside, reminding them of the classic box they’d played with many years ago… After all, that dragon looks bloody brilliant.

So, what do you get in the box? Actually, a fair bit of stuff. There’s a couple of books in there; one specifically for players that will help you create a character of your own and send them off on a solo adventure, the other a stripped down version of the Dungeon Master guide. There’s also a stack of tokens to punch out that represent the heroes and monsters from the various adventures included in the pack alongside a double sided grid map to put them all on (one side a leafy forest, the other a grim dungeon). A bunch of character sheets are also packed in, a selection of Power Cards and – as it wouldn’t be D&D without them – a selection of different dice, ranging from d4 up the the ubiquitous d20.

The contents of the box! Plenty of stuff for not much outlay.

Now, let’s get this straight. This is not a set for people who’ve had a fair bit of experience in playing D&D before. The 4th Edition Red Box is very much aimed at two crowds: either total newbies to the game, the kind of kids who grow up not having a hobby or comic shop within reachable distance, or people who haven’t even thought of D&D in over twenty years and have an itch that needs to be scratched. Everything you need to get a flavour of the game is in the box, but that’s it – a flavour. This is the equivalent of a tasting plate, a one-shot to see if you like the streamlined experience that is on offer. You get to choose from a small selection of races and classes, roll up a basic character and play a short solo or group adventure – that’s your lot. It’s still 4th Edition D&D but pared down, and far less terrifying than the three hefty hardbacks that I tote around when I want to play. The key word here is accessible.

The all new Red Box does a lot of things well. The solo adventure does a good job of getting players used to the rules and how the game itself works and the group adventure is challenging, especially for those new to the genre. Including the Power Cards was a great idea – it makes life a lot easier when you have them all laid out in front of you, flipping them after use – new players won’t have to scrabble amongst their character sheet to see what they could possibly do. Character creation is reasonably straightforward and the writing is entertaining hooking you into the mythos quickly. Also, considering that it’s not a very expensive product, the production values are pretty high – you certainly feel like you’re getting your money’s worth from the set.

There are a few issues, however. Some examples given in the rulebooks contradict the actual rules which can lead to a bit of confusion (in which case, going to the default ‘Let the GM call it’ rule can feel like a bit of a cop out). While this is meant to be a very basic introduction to D&D, it can sometimes feel like you’ve got someone holding your hand, leading you around in certain ways – in other words, there’s not a huge amount of room for experimentation. However, as I said above, this is aimed at players coming in on the very ground floor – perhaps they will appreciate the limitations placed upon their characters? If you focus on trying to do a few things well, it’s a lot better than flustering about attemping to manage a wide range of powers and items. I also found that the group adventure is more an exercise in getting the rules of playing with others straight rather than actual Role Playing – understanding the game is certainly important, but so is the RP in RPG…

This new version of the Red Box is very much 4th Edition at Entry Level – though I don’t necessarily think that’s so bad. Characters will max out at level 2, meaning that this is truly just a taste of what may come. One major complaint coming from experienced players who have checked out this package is that your creations are not easily transferrable into the Essentials line that WotC really seem to be pushing – quite the oversight. Of course, once you’re finished with the Red Box and all it contains, you’ll invariably discard your first characters and want to roll up something a bit meatier. If you take this release at face value I think it’s worth investigating, especially if you’re looking to get younger players interested in role-playing games. The Essentials books, though excellent, can still come across as a little daunting to those totally new to D&D – and though it’s not perfect, the all new Red Box is a good stepping stone to get people into the game.

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The Essential Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set (colloquially known as The Red Box Starter) was designed by Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicsek and James Wyatt. Released in 2010 by Wizards of the Coast, it caters for between one and five players and is available for around £13 / $20. For more information, check out the official site at http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Product.aspx?x=dnd/products/dndacc/244660000

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Absolute Beginners – The Essential Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set review

  1. Craig

    You ask in your review of the box if the players will appreciate the restrictions on the characters, as someone who is “coming in on the very ground floor” with a group of friends on the same level, I can’t say we noticed the restrictions. Not only that but looking at the larger and infinitely more complicated standard character sheet it seems that the full blooded game has picked up a few too many rules over the years which I hope are explained fully in the core game books.

    So yeah in a way we do appreciate the limitations because we really just wanted to experience the game and not have take college course to learn all the rules that we probably wouldn’t use.

  2. Renato

    Can i play the adventures of the 4th edition with only the books of tehe starter set and a 4th edition character sheet downloaded from the internet or, I have to buy the Monster manual, the Players handbook 1 and the Dungeon master guide?

    • idlemichael

      You can, but it’ll be a very stripped down version!

    • No, not really. You would have to make up most of the rules as you went along. The starter set only has the most basic, starter rules. Any adventures supplements you buy would will state on them what books you need to make full use of them. You would have to “wing it” so much without the core books that it really wouldn’t be worthwhile. You would have no information for any abilities after the characters reach level 2, a severely limited selection of races and classes for characters to choose from, not to mention a severely hampered ability to add treasure and encounters if you did not make up rules for all of it yourself. In all honesty, 4th Edition is really accessible and not at all that complicated. Anyone over the age of 13 should have no problem with the essential rules, especially if they have no trouble with the starter rules. At the very least, I would suggest a Player’s Handbook. (Personally, I wouldn’t bother without the three essentials, but if you are buying published adventures an experienced of foolhardy DM could make it work.)

  3. Tony

    I played D&D a lot some 20+ years ago. I’m considering starting playing again with my son and his friends (11-12 yrs old). Do you think the starter set would be a good way to get started?

    • idlemichael

      It’s definitely a great way to dip your toes into 4th Edition D&D, but remember that a new version is due for release in the near future. Playing this will certainly set you up well for role playing of all kinds though. I also can’t recommend the Pathfinder Starter Set highly enough, plus that has the added advantage of not going through a relaunch.

  4. Teri

    In the early 1980s I was a part of lively group of D&D players. My kids found out and told their friends. Now, they want me to teach them how to play. Let the fun begin again!

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