The Starter Set for 5th Edition D&D isn’t actually designed for the likes of me. Mike Mearls and his team’s declared intention with the product is to produce something you can give to a beginner and which can train them to be a Dungeon Master from the get-go. At the same time, it comes bundled with a 5E adventure (Lost Mine of Phandelver) intended to take characters from level 1 to level 5 – a substantial prospect in its own right – and it comes at a low enough price that I didn’t see any harm in picking it up.
Overall I’m impressed. Yes, the box is a little big for the rather sparse contents – a set of dice, a 32 page set of starter rules, a 64 page adventure, 5 pregen PCs and a blank character sheet with an advert for the D&D Encounters organised play network on the back. But when you take out the spacer at the bottom you end up with a nice deep box to stash your other 5E bits in – whether you end up getting the full-bore Player’s Handbook and other core books or just print out the Basic D&D PDF that Wizards have put out for free. And the actual contents themselves are perhaps the best introduction to D&D that Wizards has ever put out.
In OSR circles in particular, the various TSR-era Basic Sets get a lot of love. Some dig the Holmes-edited set for its direct quoting from the original Dungeons & Dragons rules and for the interesting ways it deviates both from its predecessor and AD&D (which was then still in development). Many have fond memories of the Tom Moldvay-edited Basic Set because of the cool, trippy Erol Otus artwork and the way it combines with Zeb Cook’s Expert Set from the same period to yield a version of D&D which neatly handles levels 1 through 14, which arguably is as many as you really need unless you are running truly epic campaigns. So many love the Frank Mentzer-edited “red box” (which combined with the other Mentzer-edited sets to form a line running from level 1 to level 36 and beyond to cover immortal PCs) that when Wizards decided they needed to put out a new introductory box for 4E, they copied the Red Box trade dress wholesale. Some even say kind words about the “black box” version which came out in support of the Rules Cyclopedia, the last major iteration of the non-Advanced line under TSR.
But there came a point where TSR’s approach to making introductory sets for Dungeons & Dragons waned, and Wizards seemed to inherit their disdain for the format. Subsequent boxes were conceived as advertisements for 2E, 3.X, or 4E, rather than being fully developed games in their own right, which meant two important shifts:
- Fully-featured character generation rules were not, by and large, included in subsequent sets. (To be fair, in earlier basic sets they only allowed for characters up to level 3, but in TSR-era editions of D&D that’s actually a substantial amount of play in its own right.)
- The included adventures tended to be shallow taster experiences rather than offering the weeks or months of play that a module like Keep On the Borderlands (bundled with the Moldvay basic set and later editions of the Holmes one) could supply.
Evidently both TSR and Wizards were concerned that offering a deep game experience in the starter set would lead to people never buying a product beyond that, and so introductory sets from the post-Rules Cyclopedia era tended to be desultory affairs, sprucing up their meagre offerings with gimmicks like this corny CD that were at best peripheral to the core experience of D&D.
The Starter Set does not change the first point because it would be redundant to do so: a key plank of the 5E strategy is to distribute Basic D&D for free. The Basic version of 5E, rather than being a taster, covers the entire level 1 to 20 range; it’s “Basic” in the sense that no optional rules are included, and only the most iconic races (human, elf, dwarf, and halfling) and classes (fighter, thief, wizard, cleric) are represented. At the moment it’s only a 100-odd page document covering character generation and the rules of play; when the Player’s Handbook comes out then extracts from the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide will be added to Basic D&D to make it a complete-in-one-document game.
Now, giving your rules away for free isn’t new – it’s what the OGL and SRD are built on. But the SRD is written as a reference document, not a document someone could learn to play from; conversely, Basic is presented and formatted precisely for the purpose of helping people play 5E without investing one penny in the “big 3” core books. The Player’s Handbook is sold not because it’s considered essential, but because it’s crammed with classes, races, and other options that didn’t make it into Basic; the Monster Manual is sold not on the basis that it’s essential. but because it’s got a huge heap of monsters; the Dungeon Master’s Guide is sold not on the basis that it’s essential, but because it’s a toolkit for customising the game to suit your personal vision.
This being the case, it makes perfect sense that the character generation rules aren’t included in the Starter Set. The rules booklet points those who want to make their own characters in the direction of the Basic rules anyway, and to include a printout of Basic in the Starter Set, whilst nice, would up the cost – and why make people pay for what they can get for free? Yes, in principle the somewhat expanded descriptions of mechanics found in Basic may be useful to help kids interpret the starter rules, but that’s a lot of reading before you start playing, and actually the points in the starter rules I found most confusing more or less universally turned out to be spots where my existing knowledge of D&D was tripping me up – an issue newcomers to the game won’t actually have. Yes, new players might not end up playing this thing strictly as the core 5E rules are intended to be played, but the guidance here is enough to let people muddle through and have fun with it, which is what is wanted.
Where the Starter Set does manage to harken back to the Holmes/Moldvay glory days is in the inclusion of a really meaty sample adventure. Yes, there’s some railroady portions at the beginning, but there’s also a reasonably substantial sandbox section where PCs can go on a range of optional quests along the way to the final confrontation with the big bad (or, indeed, afterwards if they skipped over some of the side quests earlier). It’s also a reasonable introduction to some of the distinctive aspects of the Forgotten Realms setting – communities being built on the ruins of much more ancient and magically/technologically developed cultures, masses of secret societies with their own agendas (more or less all of which could potentially recruit the players), and all that jazz presents a vision of the Realms which is distant from the whole “Elminster/Drizzt ruins everything” deal and which is very reminiscent of the Baldur’s Gate games, which is my favourite implementation of the Realms.
You’d probably need several weeks of play to get through the adventures here, and whilst they’re designed to ease players and DMs into using the mechanics, at the same time the scenarios presented are not dumbed down or patronising. The dungeons – yes, plural, there’s several of them – are all nonlinear, the adversaries have clever strategies which are properly thought through, and there’s plenty of stuff that ties in with the pregen characters’ backgrounds. On the whole, it’s pitched right on the level where a prospective DM could just read the rules book and first chapter of the adventure, hand out the pregens, and get playing right there and then.
Thanks to the generous nature of the Basic PDF, players could conceivably get hooked via the Starter Set and never give Wizards a penny subsequently. Wizards are gambling that people will be excited enough by their adventure material and the offerings in the big 3 core books to invest in them anyway. Whether or not this is true, I think the Starter Set has the potential to rear a generation of high quality DMs. Yes, it uses boxed text, which is burdensome, but equally it gives suitable encouragement to let the players decide what their characters are interested in and what direction their characters want to go in, and to present challenging situations where there is no one “true” answer to the dilemma. If this is what the next generation of referees are going to be reared on, I think they’re going to come out just fine.