After reading through the Rulebook and looking over the pre-made character sheets, I dug into the adventure booklet provided with the new D&D Starter Set.
Some background info:
I recently moved overseas for my job in the military, and all my household goods are ready to be delivered to my house. I have a trunk full of all my RPG materials, including several piles of miniatures I used for 4E campaigns.
I feel like I could reach into that trunk (once it arrives) and dump the minis out on the table, because this adventure has a little bit of everything.
It’s really not that bad. There are 27 entries in the “Monsters” Appendix, and at least one of them is a guy who’s supposed to be on your side. (If you end up fighting the NPC you were sent to rescue, then something has gone horribly wrong with your players’ decision-making processes.)
I did glance through descriptions of some of the different caverns and off-shoot rooms in the major adventure areas, and I found it odd to discover that one room would have some zombies, the next a flameskull, the next ochre jellies, and then a doppelganger running around causing mayhem.
I get it. They’re sprinkling a little of everything in, because maybe that gets them a repeat customer, and maybe that tells the DM what the players at a specific table are most interested in. Still, it feels like a jumble of monsters conveniently sharing the same cave complex for no other reason than “Hey, we could toss in some of these…”
That’s the overall impression I came away with. But there were some specifics that caught my eye and made me smile.
First, the intro explains a bit about taking on the mantle of DM. Some key phrases I’m glad to see: “The rules are a tool to help you have a good time. The rules aren’t in charge.”
Suck it, rules lawyers.
In fact, here’s a pic of “Rules to Game By” from page 2:
The adventure starts with the PCs escorting a wagon of supplies to the central town. They come upon a goblin ambush to start out with an easy combat. The last goblin attempts to flee, and the previous victims are NPCs the characters are supposed to have a connection to. So this discovery and event inevitably leads down a trail to a goblin cave hideout.
I said in a post about combat that there is no mention of squares or emphasis on miniatures and tile/grid maps. The adventure leaves the option open by providing a grid map of the hideout, while making no effort to mandate a certain style of combat or play. The map is clearly provided to give the DM an idea of where things are. If it gets blown up and printed out, or doodled onto a grid map, great. If not, that’s fine too.
Each room is described in plenty of detail and offers interesting options other than “this room contains five bags of hit-points you can beat down for XP.” The writers assume you might be a new DM, so they provide useful tidbits and reminders along the way, such as “Check to see if any of the characters or monsters are surprised when combat starts. Do this by looking at passive perception…” with an explanation of how the rules work, or at least a reference to the applicable rulebook section.
Part 1 is intended to get the players past level 2, and there is a helpful reminder just in case.
Part 2 puts the heroes into the central town, with a host of NPCs and potential side quests as they try to learn more about the Big Bad Evil Guy. There’s a handy explanation for new DMs about role-playing NPCs (don’t try to wow your players with your acting skills, do try to get into the head of the particular NPC and think about what that person might care about, etc.).
Potential threats and locations of interest are all thoroughly explained. Part 2 should get the players to level 3.
Part 3 involves a variety of leads and inquiries to learn more about the main villain and his plan. There’s a handy explanation for rules using the overland map provided earlier in the book, along with suggested description to make the journey interesting. This section also includes everyone’s favorite, the Random Encounter Table!
There are a few locations described for the purpose of roleplaying social interaction (or as much social interaction as you get from trying to get answers from a banshee). While these can conceivably degenerate into fight scenes, the idea is for this to be more talking than punching. Again, this serves the purpose of introducing concepts, like “Perhaps the Mage with the zombies would be willing to strike a deal” instead of “Kill every living thing we encounter.”
The leads eventually bring the heroes to Cragmaw Castle, which (once explored, and once its inhabitants are defeated) will point them to the location of the Big Bad’s lair. Again, this all captures the idea of a sandbox. There are several locations available and several branching decision paths open to the players. Some areas may not be visited because they’re not necessary.
All this kind of goes without saying, because of course that’s what D&D is about. But my point for including it is to show that the writers took the time to ensure there is a robust set of options available for new players and/or DMs.
By the time the Big Bad is defeated, the players should be level 5. All the levelling information and perks are already printed out on the back of the pre-made sheets, so there’s no painful delay while everyone figures out their options and upgrades their sheet.
Besides the Monsters appendix, there is also an appendix for all the magic items the players might potentially encounter.
Finally, the back cover of the Adventure provides a Rules Index, pointing to appropriate pages in the Rulebook. Perfect for the new DM who is put on the spot to answer a player’s question, “How does it work if I want to try to Persuade?” or “What does it mean if the Ogre smashed me in the face and dropped me to 0 hit points?”
All in all, this looks pretty slick and well-prepared for a group of 4-5 players. I’m excited about the Starter, for the low cost I paid for it.
I’m not sure this gets me signed up for a $50 price tag for each of the core books once those come out later this year. When I get home and have time to give this a shot with my wife and kids, that answer will become more clear.
But for now, the set accomplishes its stated purpose. It gets me eager to gather a group, set the stage, and roll some dice. I want to get started playing some D&D (again).
I hope this post and the others help if you’re on the fence about looking at a new edition. If you get the starter, what’s your take on it? If you’re not getting the starter, do you like what you saw here? Let me know your thoughts in a comment.