Many of us earned our nerd cred by playing old school D&D. Well, there is a new version (unofficially called D&D 5e) that has just hit the tabletops. Is it worth breaking out the pencil and paper and the ‘ole lucky 20-sided die?
What’s in the box?
I just unboxed the new Starter Set to see if it works for it’s intended purpose: drawing in new players. The Starter Box will only set you back 20 bucks, which is a great price point for anyone who might be just the least bit curious as to what the new rule system of D&D offers.
The first thing is noticed is there is a stark simplicity to both the package and the contents. Hold that thought, because it’s highly relevant later.
The second thing I noticed is that there isn’t much in the box. There is a set of polyhedral dice – which are always a welcome edition – then there is a 30 page rulebook, a 64 page adventure, and some pre-generated characters. Noticeably absent are any sort of character tokens, miniatures, play-mats or maps.
The Pathfinder Beginner Box and the recent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game really upped the ante in terms of producing a box aimed at bringing in new players. For starters, the Star Wars box included 4 full color character folios that clocked in at 8 pages each, a token for each character, plus 30+ tokens for NPCs.
But then the pathfinder Beginner Box took things pro. Not only did it include everything that’s included in D&D box, but it also include a great play-mat map and tons of monster and player stand-ups. There are some beautiful maps in D&D’s “Lost Mine of Phandelver” adventure book, but it’s DM only. It’s a shame that one wasn’t included that could be shown to the players.
As previously mentioned, the D&D Starter Set includes some pregenerated characters in the common fantasy tropes. They are very plain and in terms of simple, they work. But they lack consistency in writing. An example: the fighter said he uses big words to impress, but they very next box says says he doesn’t try to be someone he’s not.
It’s a tiny thing, but Wizards of the Coast worked on this launch for a long time. You have to stick the landing, and there are distinct areas where the Starter Set can’t compare to work like the iconics from Pathfinder.
I’ve spent a ton of words comparing this first offering from D&D’s new releases to Pathfinder because I think it’s an apt comparison. Pathfinder has been taking D&D’s lunch money. D&D was in danger of being nothing more than a brand name at this point.
So if other RPG rules systems have recently made such high quality offerings aimed at new players, why would Wizards of the Coast make what appears to be comparative dud? Well, once you start to read through the rules and the included adventure, you can begin to see exactly what the hope is this this 5e version of D&D.
What is GREAT about the Starter Set
The simplicity, the lack of shock and awe is intentional. This edition if the rules is streamlined; the designers have taken the core elements of the game and distilled them down into something elegant and efficient. Gone are layer upon layer of fiddly rules, heaps of +1/-1 slogging, and all the nonsense of the last edition (4e) that made it feel like a glorified miniatures games.
It’s as if the designers wanted you to bring along your imagination and nothing else. It has a wonderful throwback role playing feel to it. Thirty pages of rules are enough to get you going, which is fantastic. Sure, there is no way to create your own characters, but Wizards offer a downloadable PDF of Basic rules that give you those extras.
But it’s not just that they cut out fiddly rules in order to create a shorter rulebook. They cut the crud, leaving the core of what’s great from the history of D&D. Then they added some new stuff as well!
The new Advantage and Disadvantage system is wonderful. The way this works is that there a times when players are naturally at a distinct advantage and a DM can declare that. To mechanically illustrate this advantage they would roll TWO 20-sided dice and take the higher result. This is make for some great gameplay.
Gone are cumbersome Move, and separate Minor and Standard actions for each turn. These are replaced with a simple (an old school) Move and Action system. The game’s math is simpler again, with only a couple modifiers being added to most rolls. Not only is everything easier to understand, but it’s much more fun at the table as well!
The Lost Mine of Phandelver
I’ve already mentioned that the Starter Set comes with a 64 page adventure and it’s fantastic.
You begin by [SPOILER ALERT: Stick your fingers in your ears!] traveling along a road, hired to protect some goods. Of course, you come across dead horses and a goblin ambush. Nothing fancy; just perfect fantasy adventuring.
The whole adventure feels familiar and old school, but it also feels totally fresh. It was co-written by celebrity DM Chris Perkins (squee!!), so we should’ve expected no less.
All in all, the adventure is an absolute treat and I want to write it’s name on my Trapper Keeper with little hearts around it like I’m a teenage girl or something.
Star Wars: Edge of the Empire has been introducing some excellent new dice mechanics and Paizo has been doing some excellent publishing work with things like their Adventure Paths. But this new version of Dungeons and Dragons proves they still have a lot left in the tank.
In fact, I think it may even be more than that. If they haven’t reclaimed the crown of the world’s best role playing game, they have at least embarked on a mighty quest to reclaim that crown. And given their popular brand identification I’m declaring advantage for them, giving them a second 20-sided die for their saving throws.
I REALLY want to play through Lost Mine of Phandelver right now. Level 1 Neutral Good Dwarf Cleric. Looking for group.