Saturday, December 06, 2008

Getting Started with 4th Edition

This post is primarily a review of the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set and so it is probably most useful for those of you that are brand new to D&D. But even if you have dabbled in one or more of D&D’s previous editions, I hope you will find at least some useful information here.

There are several products aimed more or less at the new 4th Edition D&D gamer. They include:

Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition For Dummies
H1: Keep on the Shadowfell

Recommending the Starter Set is a no-brainer for anyone new to 4th Edition D&D, and I am going to focus on it in this post. However, the other two items above can provide a decent introduction to the game and I will try and cover both in future posts.

Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set

The Starter Set is specifically designed as an introduction to 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons for new players. It contains everything you need to learn the basic rules of the game and play a session or two with pregenerated characters. By the time you have played a few sessions, you will probably be ready to pick up the Player’s Handbook and create your own characters.

What’s in the Box?

- 16-page Quick-Start Rules book
- 64-page Dungeon Master’s book
- 3 sheets of Dungeon Tiles
- 1 sheet of character and monster tokens
- A set of six polyhedral dice

The Box Itself

Let me rant for a minute about boxes. I really like good game boxes because you can chuck all kinds of goodies in them like dice, miniatures, pencils, etc. The boxes for both versions of the 3rd Edition D&D Basic Game were a little big, but sturdy. The box for the Starter Set sucks. It’s not really a box at all. You just get a thin, outer ‘shell’ with a cardboard liner to give it some stiffness. It is not useful at all for future storage of the Dungeon Tiles, tokens or dice that you get in the set. I give it a D-.

Quick-Start Rules Book

This is a very quick and dirty introduction to the rules. The booklet does a pretty decent job of covering the game’s major concepts in a short span of six pages. The focus is on the game’s tactical elements – movement and combat. The rest of the book's 16 pages are taken up by five sample characters; a Dwarf Fighter, a Halfling Rogue, an Eladrin Wizard, a Human Cleric and a Dragonborn Paladin. Each includes enough information to advance the character up to 3rd level. Unfortunately, there is basically no advice on actually playing a character; just the nuts and bolts of how to move and fight.

I would have also prefered that each character had been provided on separate sheets to hand out to players or even if WoTC had provided PDF versions of the character sheets on their website. As it stands now, you will have to head to the photocopier/scanner or rip up the book. I give it a C+.

Dungeon Master’s Book

As the name implies, this book is designed to be read by the Dungeon Master (DM). In D&D, the DM bears a heavy burden. It is his responsibility to know the rules, create the campaign world (including adventures) and run adventures in that world. He is also ultimately responsible for a large part of what makes the game ‘fun’. The DM's book puts it this way:

At the DM, you ...
  • Narrate the story of the player characters
  • Play the monsters
  • Design the dungeons
  • Reward the treasure
  • Referee the game rules
  • Build the world

The book provides a suprisingly good introduction for the prospective DM. Good advice is given on everything from playing monsters fairly to vividly describing combat. Also included is plenty of crunchy stuff including most of the same combat and encounter rules from the Quick-Start book. You also get a (very) short three encounter adventure and rules for building encounters, running skill challenges, traps and hazards, and creating dungeons. The book is rounded out with a surprisingly robust monster section. If you count all of the individual types (five varieties of goblins for example) you get more than 50 different monsters from levels 1-4.

The Dungeon Master's book is the strongest element of the Starter Set. The only problem that I could find with it is that it leaves out rules for some of the monster abilities like insubstantiability for the Phantom Warrior and disease for the Dire Rat. It also makes a cardinal sin for me by not including an index. Any book of this length (especially one designed for a beginner) should include an index. I give it an A-.

Dungeon Tiles

The Starter includes three sheets of WotC’s nicely produced Dungeon Tiles. All three are from previously released sets. Two sheets are from DT7: Fane of the Forgotten Gods and one sheet is from DU1: Halls of the Giant Kings. The tiles provide a pretty decent selection of generic elements, but the inclusion of the tile from DU1 has less useful stuff like giant-sized doors. I have a sneaking suspicion that these particular tiles might have been included because WotC had a surplus of them, but that’s just a guess. I give them a B+.

Token Sheet

The token sheet is of the same thickness and material as the Dungeon Tiles. The art is nice and taken straight from the DM’s book. The monster tokens are all double-sided with a different monster on each side. I thought it was a nice touch that you get eight tokens each for common monsters like orcs and skeletons. The five player character tokens have a green normal side and a red ‘bloodied’ side. These are really nice and make for a great portable alternative to miniatures. I give it an A.

Review Score:

Box D-
Quick-Start Rules: C+
Dungeon Master's Book: A-
Dungeon Tiles: B+
Token Sheet: A

Total Score: B


The Starter Set is a decent enough introduction to 4th Edition D&D, but less successful as an introduction to roleplaying in general. I also think it is more valuable to prospective DMs than it is for prospective players. With the Starter Set and a Player's Handbook you could actually get started running a campaign with no Monster Manual or Dungeon Master's Guide. If you are interested at all in 4th Edition D&D, pick it up and see for yourself.

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