Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: D&D Starter Set - aka D&D 5th edition

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set

Published July 2014, by Wizards of the Coast
32 and 64 page booklets, plus 5 pre-gen characters
MSRP $19.99
Age 12+

This is it - the first retail release of the D&D rules from the new edition. I received it yesterday, and read it almost immediately. So how is it?

The Starter Set Rulebook is aimed at both players and DMs. It's the basics of - what is roleplaying, what do these numbers on my sheet mean, and how do I resolve combat and tasks. It's done well. It's clearly written, the type isn't too small, and the magazine-gloss pages are easy to turn and don't feel fragile. There is a lot to like here - spells in alphabetical order (so you don't need to know the class and level to reference it), easy to read tables for equipment, broken out by weapon groupings for easy browsing, and plenty of . It's written like good technical writing - they aren't trying to impress you with their florid prose, just convey the game. It doesn't spend any time telling you what it isn't either. It just explains D&D to you and goes right ahead from there.

The second book, Lost Mine of Phandelver is aimed at the DM, and mixes some generic DM advice with specific advice about the adventure at hand. The adventure itself starts out on rails, although with the option to change the hook that gets it all started. After the first bit, the scope widens out, and it's less linear and more open. Towards the end, it's got the beginnings of an open adventure area. Basically, as the players and DM (in theory, both potentially totally new to RPGs) get used to the game, their options start to open up further.

The dungeons are good - there are straight-through ways to deal with them and rewards for players who look for ways to bypass encounters. Since XP is rewarded by finishing an area and accomplishing goals, avoiding unnecessary opposition doesn't reduce the worth of the adventure. No "chase down every rat" for XP or dragging away everything that isn't nailed down to ensure you don't leave gold and levels behind. Boxed sections deal with "go off the rails" bits - what if the players disguise themselves, what if they question prisoners, what if they do something cool. They give solid advice and specific rules information, too, to make it easier for a novice DM to say, "Yes, you can, and here is how that'll work."

If there is anything to complain about, it's the "read this text" admonishments not being "read or paraphrase this text." That, and perhaps the monster stats being all at the end, so you'd do well to photocopy them or write them down so you don't need to page-flip so often.

The encounters are generally interesting - monsters with cover, attempting ambush, working in unison, fleeing when they take too many losses, etc. - and the treasure is just interesting enough without being overwritten. Speaking of monsters and treasure, there are 27 statted monsters (including generic commoners, specific NPCs, and actual monster-monsters) and 13 magical treasures (some are categories, like +1 Armor, or Spell Scroll). I like the clear execution on them.

Finally, there are five characters, all starting at level 1. All of their level 2-5 choices have been made for you, so you don't need the Basic D&D document, or anything besides the sheet itself, to play all the way to level 5. That's nice, because you could conceivably hand someone just the character sheet and say, "Read this and you're ready to play." But still, if you have the document, you could easily use these with it - there is nothing non-standard about them. The characters have backgrounds but lack names, so you don't feel like it's someone else's character.

The characters are (in the form of race, class, background, alignment)

Human Fighter (Folk hero, LG)
High elf Wizard (Acolyte, CG)
Lightfoot halfling Rogue (Criminal, N)
Hill dwarf, Cleric 1 (Soldier, NG)
Human Fighter (Noble, LN)

They come on nice heavyweight paper I wouldn't let anyone use before I photocopied it, but still, I like the sturdiness.

Rules-wise, there are things I like:

- the mix between passive and active skill use, so the GM has good guidance on "so good you don't need to roll, or actively say you're trying to do this" vs. "you might fail." I like this kind of blend, where you are limited by your character's abilities but also rewarded for your own skill as a player.

- the way spell slots work. The lack of automatic progression of spell power, instead being tied to how high of a level you cast it at, allows for wizards with a lot of spells at hand but a real concern about not using more than you need.

- the relatively simple but clear combat system. Lots of useful choices, but not so many it's overwhelming or depends on clear system knowledge to accomplish any given task.

- that it's hard to just die outright (especially from a weak attack), but pretty easy to get on a slippery slope to death if you're not careful, you're overwhelmed, or you're alone.

Finally, the dice seem nice. I received nice blue ones, with easy to read white numerals on them.

Overall: I think this is a good value for the money. I'd play this game, as it seems like a good meeting point between the old-school D&D clones I enjoy (like Swords & Wizardry) and the more modern versions of D&D (3.x, especially) and skill-based systems like GURPS. I'm glad I picked it up, and after seeing this and Basic D&D, I'm hoping to get a chance to play. Even if I don't, I feel like D&D has come around to what I like - a mix between a simple rules base and some expanded detail. I can use this and I'm looking forward to more.

I may just have to triple-class to GURPS/S&W/D&D if it's as fun to play as it looks like it can be.

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