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Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set – A Much Needed Fresh Start?

August 8, 2014

Seeing as a number of people have asked me for my first impressions of the new D&D Starter Set, I thought it might be fun to write up my thoughts in a little more detail than Twitter allows. In short, the Starter Set is both a brilliant introduction to a new set of rules and a fantastic opportunity to re-launch Dungeons & Dragons both as a brand and a hobby. However, while the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is a breath of fresh air, it is nowhere near enough to fill the lungs of someone who is already half-drowned.

 

The Weight of History

I first started playing tabletop RPGs not long after the release of the Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. AD&D2 was really nothing more than the original 1977 D&D rules with a load of extra sub-systems bolted onto them. An excellent example of the design philosophy underpinning D&D at the time was the way that different editions handled skills:

  • D&D featured no skills beyond fighting, spellcasting and a few abilities with their own discrete sets of mechanics like picking locks or noticing the gradient of a slope.
  • AD&D1 kept all of these discrete mechanics and introduced the concept of secondary skills but provided little in the way of mechanical support for those additional skills.
  • AD&D2 kept the discrete mechanics and introduced new rules that served to flesh out the secondary skill system. Despite presenting the rule changes as a more integrated system that encompassed languages, weapons and non-combat skills, the proficiencies were really nothing more than a tidy way of allowing players to choose and then keep track of their areas of expertise and the ever-expanding network of sub-systems that governed them.

If the name and design principles underpinning AD&D2 make it sound cluttered to the point of complete inaccessibility, then you would be completely right. It was nearly 25 years before someone thought to take D&D back to first principles and one can only assume that this reluctance to mess with the rules was derived from an unspoken assumption that the audience for D&D was the same as it had always been. If you assume that the only people buying AD&D2 are the people who already own AD&D1 then it doesn’t really matter that rules changes mean additional sub-systems… it’s not as though anyone has to learn all the rules from scratch! Similarly, if you assume that the only people interested in playing D&D are the people already playing it then every rule change runs the risk of alienating the people who have been playing the same campaign for 20 years. Do these designers not realise how difficult it is to port a 75th level Paladin Demigod from one edition to another?

The collapse of TSR and purchase of D&D by Wizards of the Coast inspired a long-overdue re-examination of the rules but while the game’s third edition replaced AD&D2’s warren of sub-systems with the integrated d20-based mechanics, the iteration of the d20 rules that became 3E was still an incredibly insular piece of game design. The reason for this creative introversion is that 3E was developed during a time when D&D was under intense pressure from games that tried to put RPGs on a slightly different footing.

The original D&D rules are a model of simplicity; After presenting its readers with the revolutionary notion that they could play a game entirely in their own heads, the box set provided just enough mechanical support to make those imaginary worlds seem concrete. However, because the rules were originally drawn up as the basis for a war game that focused upon individual characters rather than units and because the game wound up being marketed at boys, D&D came to be seen as a game primarily concerned with tactical combat, a myth that the publishers of D&D were only too happy to support through an endless barrage of publications pandering to the tactician’s need for more monsters, more traps, more encounters and more magical bling. As this ‘canonical’ vision of how to play D&D slowly emerged, gamers interested in other aspects of roleplaying such as playing roles and solving mysteries began to drift away towards games that emphasised their vision of what gaming was all about. As is so often the case in small sub-cultures, the desire for legitimacy and visibility inspired hyperbole that in turn provoked social schisms.

The more some gamers sought to distance themselves from traditional D&D, the more people interested in tactical play came to revel in a form of tactical fundamentalism in which non-tactical aspects of play received little or no support in published materials. It was during the years spanning the move from ADD2 to 3E that White Wolf Games reached out to fresh audiences with the promise that their games would not be about killing things. Despite this injection of new blood into the hobby and the manifest truth that hundreds of gamers had moved away from D&D, the game’s publishers listened to the tactical fundamentalists and turned their back on people less interested in tactical play.

 

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Despite being built around a core mechanic that could support almost any form of tabletop play, 3E featured a set of combat and movement rules that encouraged the use of miniatures as part of a highly tactical playing style. The tactical nature of in-game combat exerted a pressure on every aspect of the game as the need to make the right tactical decisions in combat encouraged players to think more strategically about their character design, which in turn created a huge market for gaming materials aimed more at players than at the Dungeon Masters who had traditionally been responsible for buying most of the books.

Nowadays, people frequently refer to the d20/3E years as something of a gold rush in which the market for RPG books expanded massively and unpredictably heralding the rise of new companies and the collapse of older ones. However, as many books as 3E managed to shift, the gold rush was not fuelled by the arrival of new players but by the more effective exploitation of existing markets. 3E saw existing players spending more and lapsed players returning to the fold either by ‘getting the band back together’ or by engaging in a weird kind of vicarious RPG experience in which they would hang out on RPG forums and buy lots of RPG materials without ever actually sitting down to play. 3E made a lot of companies a lot of money but it did almost nothing to grow a hobby that was already showing serious signs of institutional neglect.

Unlike most geeky hobbies, tabletop gaming expects you to spend time in the same room as other people. In fact, in order to get the most out of an RPG campaign, you regularly need to spend long periods of time in the same room as the same group of people who are all doing exactly the same thing as you… and who has time for that in this day and age? Nowhere is the toxic nature of capitalism more evident than in the changing face of work: A generation ago, a family could support itself with only one person working a regular 9-5 job but the waves of economic collapse that have swept around the world since the 1970s mean that everyone now works increasingly long hours with increasingly unpredictable schedules. Ever happy to exploit, the companies that helped to shatter the traditional work/life balance now peddle their wares as rewards and escapes from the demands of the unreasonable workplace that they themselves created. The upshot of this capitalist push-me-pull-you is that people now regularly return home in a state of physical and spiritual exhaustion that lends itself more readily to medicinal applications of booze and shit TV than to arguing with your friends and doing maths. Some of the main beneficiaries of our increasingly horrid work/life balances are massively multiplayer online RPGs such as Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, a game inspired by tabletop RPGs that removes the need to prepare adventures, do maths or meet up with people in real life. Given how successful MMORPGs have become, it is hardly surprising that the next iteration of D&D would use MMORPGs as a point of aesthetic departure.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition remains the most radical reworking of the rules to date. While the designers drew inspiration from the 3E rules and retained a lot of the iconography of previous editions, the game is best understood as an attempt to create a board game based upon principles of MMORPG design. Unlike 3E, which provided a flexible skill system that wound up focussing on tactical engagements, 4E was built with nothing but tactical engagements in mind resulting in characters almost entirely defined by lists of powers. Despite making some gratifying inroads into the MMORPG market thanks to the widely publicised (and presumably expensive) support of Penny Arcade, interest in D&D4 plateaued when people suddenly realised that it was nothing more than a regular MMORPG with added maths and travel times.

Dungeons & Dragons has long been paralysed by the weight of its own history. Early editions simply assumed that anyone wishing to play was already playing and when that toxic attitude finally receded it was replaced by the equally problematic assumption that anyone wanting to play D&D would want to play it in the exact same manner as the brand’s core audience. This weird cultural ego-centrism will be instantly familiar to anyone who expressed an interest in science fiction only to have Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo thrust into their disappointed paws. Sure… the Heinlein juveniles served as a gateway drug for a lot of young readers but should we really assume that young readers today will respond to the same things as young readers in the 1940s? This is not the 1970s and not everyone is a socially inept teenaged boy, why do the owners of D&D continue to ignore thousands of potential customers? Simple: Cowardice and short sightedness.

 

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A Fictional History

In what is possibly the single most insightful article ever written about Dungeons & Dragons, Ron Edwards points out that early hobby gaming functioned as a sort of Cargo Cult:

Everyone knew about “this new great game.” Everyone had on hand a hodgepodge of several texts, which in retrospect seem to me to be almost archaeological in their fragmentary, semi-compatible but not-quite, layered-in-time-of-publication nature. Also, although newly available texts obviously modified local oral traditions, they also arose from them, generating a seething hotbed of how-to-play instructions in print in other locations. Everyone had to shape, socially and procedurally, just what the hell you did such that “role-playing” happened. How did you know it worked? What did you do it for? All of it, from Social Contract right down to Stance, had to be created in the faith that it worked “out there” somewhere, and somehow, some way, it was supposed to work here.

So everyone just did it locally. I consider role-playing to have been constructed independently in a vast number of instances across the landscape, sometimes in parallel, sometimes very differently. Over time, further unifications or contact-compromises occurred, whether through tournament standards, military bases, conventions, or APAs, or simply by people meeting when they converged on college campuses. Full unification never occurred. There never existed a single, original D&D.

This certainly matches my personal experience as the maps-and-minis tactical game that I first played was very different to the abstract and conversational sessions that I created when I began running games and introducing people to the hobby. Inspired by the French gaming magazine Casus Belli, my table became a place at which players were expected to inhabit a role and ‘animate the session’ by interacting with NPCs and challenges in an entertaining fashion. This theatrical focus was very different to the games I would play much later where characters were dumped in a historical setting and left to acquire money and status by any means that took their fancy. It was also very different to the game that took place one-town-over at which the DM would hide physical objects in the room with the players and encourage them to literally toss the room for in-game clues. No two games of D&D were ever alike because no two groups of D&D players were ever alike and while the rules certainly had an influence upon the sessions, group dynamics always played the biggest part.

Edwards goes on to explain how the ‘hip new hobby’ that featured in ET became a hobby played almost exclusively by socially inept teenage boys. Like most sub-cultures, gaming proved to be highly adept at exclusion; Perpetually unstable, gaming communities dealt with their internal tensions through a process of purification that forced out everyone who was not a socially inept teenage boy with a fetish for maps and tactics. The more dissenting voices were encouraged to drift away, the less those voices were heard as D&D compiled its own social history. This skewed cultural memory was then legitimised by the owners of D&D who pandered to the tacticians and ensured that each successive edition of the game became less and less attractive to anyone who was not interested in tactical resource management.

 

Battlemat

 

The decision to pander to tacticians has had devastating repercussions on the hobby at large as Dungeons & Dragons remains the only RPG with enough visibility to serve as a shop window for the hobby as a whole. In the early 1980s, D&D was simple enough to be understood by children and the game was available in every toy store and bookshop in the English-speaking world. By the 2010s, D&D had become a game so narrowly focused and mechanically complex that the only people capable of making sense of it were the grown-up versions of the same socially inept teenagers who had already forced everyone else to flee the hobby. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to find a game unless you are already part of a group. The hobby is so small that little infrastructure exists to support the search for local players and those players who do build successful groups tend to advertise only as a last resort, lest they be invaded by men who smell like piss and Nazi memorabilia.

Tabletop gaming is on its uppers and the hobby can no longer afford for its one window on the outside world to be dominated by a playing style that has proved so utterly inept at bringing in new people. Yes, gaming is suffering from the fact that its members spend too much time in small groups dominated by aging men with questionable social skills but change can happen when it comes from the top. The hobby needs Dungeons & Dragons to take inspiration from what White Wolf accomplished in the 1990s, it needs to abandon its core audience and reach out to a whole new generation of gamers. However, while the new D&D Starter Set is an excellent introduction to a fresh set of rules, it is also an introduction to a set of rules written by people who have completely failed to learn from the mistakes of the past. Accessible and simple though the text of the Starter Set may be, it heralds the arrival of a game far more complex and convoluted than anything that might have been accessible to those kids playing Dungeons & Dragons in the opening scenes of ET.

 

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Unboxing

The D&D Starter Set is in and of itself quite an attractive product. The cover artwork is reminiscent of the original 70s box set and there’s quite a pretty set of dice included.

The rest of the box comprises some character sheets and a pair of booklets:

  • At 32 pages in length, the rules booklet compares quite favourably with that of American board games such as Last Night On Earth and Arkham Horror. In fact, given the density of the text, it would not surprise me to learn that a decision had been made to keep the rules booklet as short as possible.
  • The larger 64-page booklet contains an introductory adventure named Lost Mine of Phandelver along with stats for all the monsters, NPCs and magical items contained therein.

The artwork in both booklets is pretty damn fine (no chainmail bikinis in sight) although the rules booklet would have seemed more inviting had it been less dense and contained a bit more artwork. Another grumble is that the booklets are printed on glossy paper making it harder to highlight and scribble notes. This is particularly problematic when it comes to the adventure as any attempt to take notes in the booklet itself will transform your beautiful glossy pages into a nightmare of illegible smears. Emphasise the beauty of the box by all means but why not emphasise practicality when it comes to the working parts of the game? I made the mistake of not photocopying anything and I’m convinced that any attempt to re-play the adventure would require me to purchase another Starter Set.

 

NotDFWsUlysses

 

The character sheets are well designed and legible despite being tied to a set of characters that were built for the adventure included in the box. Double-sided and printed on good quality paper, the sheets include not only descriptions of the characters’ abilities and back stories but also tips on how to play the characters. One thing I particularly liked was that the sheets contain some suggested character names… one of the real downsides of pre-generated characters is that players don’t acquire the sense of ownership they get from creating their own characters. Allowing the players to select their own name is a nice step towards remedying that problem whilst getting players used to making decisions about the character they are preparing to play.

Another problem is that the game does not include a blank character sheet and while character sheets are available online, neither booklet bothers to mention this. Once in play, the pre-printed character sheets rapidly become difficult to navigate as well as completely impossible to re-use should the owner of the box decide to run the adventure for another group.

Though relatively minor quibbles, these details do speak to a real lack of care and attention. Would it really have cost that much to develop the Starter Set as a product that might be used and re-used? Given how little material is actually included in the box, it is easy to feel a little bit cheated by a desire for brevity that all too often feels like stinginess.

 

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Rules

D&D5 is the kind of smoothly integrated system that AD&D2 dreamed of being. The iconic combat mechanic of rolling to hit a particular armour class remains but that mechanic is really only an iteration of a core mechanic that has you roll a d20 and apply a modifier for the relevant skill. Somewhat confusingly, the rules booklet does not provide you with a set of difficulty numbers but these numbers do appear in the adventure booklet for reasons that must have made perfect sense to someone at the time.

The combat system is obviously an attempt to create a sense of rich tactical complexity without the need for battle mats and figurines. By and large, the game does manage to achieve its aims as the various tactical complexities like cover, disengaging and attacks of opportunity all sit atop the same simple combat mechanic. However, the success of this trade-off is a direct result of the decision to omit everything that is not directly relevant to running a single adventure for a particular group of characters. Sure… the Starter Set manages to avoid overwhelming you with too many rules but that’s because most of the game’s rules have been left out of the box! I suspect that the principle behind the Starter Set is similar to that behind the rules changes to AD&D1 and AD&D2: Get the players used to playing with simple rules and then gradually introduce new concepts until they wind up accidentally playing quite a complex system. I’m not sure this bodes particularly well for the long-term accessibility of Dungeons & Dragons and the novices I played with kept trying to skirt around the rules they found too complex (meaning that most of the level-based power increases allowing characters to make multiple manoeuvres in a single round wound up being completely ignored).

 

DDRules

 

Part of the problem is that when the rules booklet introduces you to the various tactical options available to players, it doesn’t provide any examples that might help people to explain how those rules function in context. A page or so of simulated combat really would have helped to make these abstract ideas seem a bit more concrete. The same is also true of the saving throw system, which has no examples at all and remains a constant source of bewilderment to everyone who plays at my table (including myself, a 20-year veteran).

The game’s principle of keeping it as simple as possible also applies to the magic rules, which follow the 4th Edition in allowing low-level magic-users to cast more powerful spells early on. I particularly like the cantrips (spells you can cast at will) and the fact that you can put low-level spells in higher-level slots to create more powerful spells. Unfortunately, because the Starter Set only includes enough rules to support the pre-generated characters, I must admit that I struggled to make sense of how clerical magic is supposed to work; the rules mention spheres of influence determined by the character’s chosen divinity but with only Healing represented in the text, it was quite difficult to imagine the kind of choices that a freshly created cleric would have to make. Admittedly, these choices are made a bit more clear in the rules that have been made available for free online but the rules of the Starter Set are a lot more complicated than those of traditional D&D and this added complexity offers absolutely no benefit to novice players locked out of character creation. If you are thinking of running this game, I would seriously suggest warning neophytes away from magic-users entirely and that’s really quite a shame. Personal mileages vary but I found the magic rules quite intimidating.

 

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Adventure

Lost Mine of Phandelver is really quite a solid introductory adventure. Aside from being clearly written, the adventure also includes loads of additional information that will allow the DM to handle most problems without having to leaf through the rules booklet: How difficult is it to sneak into this room? What happens when a character gets knocked off their feet by a flood? Can a character talk their way out of trouble? An experienced DM would know how to handle these situations without the need for written instructions but the inclusion of said instructions is a great way of getting novice DMs used to handling those sorts of situations in the appropriate way. The inclusion of information that contextualises the skill rules is so effective that one regrets the decision to omit doing the same for the combat rules.

The adventure is also very cleverly structured as it moves from a simple encounter to a small dungeon before opening the game up into a sandbox filled with side-quests and opportunities for roleplaying. As with everything else in the Starter Set, this structure is all about introducing new players to new concepts without overwhelming them. Handled that fight okay? How about a series of fights in an environment that requires strategic thought? Now how about learning when to run away and when to undertake more challenging quests? Experienced gamers can make these types of decisions in their sleep but allowing new players more and more freedom as the game progresses is a great way of ensuring that they don’t get overwhelmed.

One concern I did have about the structure of the adventure is that the difficulty curve is far from even. For example, the opening combat involves a group of enemies who can make use of tactical manoeuvres to gain the upper hand on the characters. It was pretty obvious from the get-go that a canny use of these manoeuvres could lead to a total party kill on the very first encounter and so I made the decision that, because the creatures were supposedly quite stupid, they wouldn’t be all that tactically adept. In hindsight, I’m really not sure how this differs from fudging the dice rolls and that suggests that there’s something very wrong with how the game estimates difficulty. There’s also an encounter later in the game that is simply not winnable but, because most of the other encounters are fairly straightforward, I suspect that most novice players would bundle into the encounter happily expecting to have a chance of winning. Purists might point out that the chance of imminent death is a part of the D&D experience and I would agree but for the fact that the Starter Set contains no character creation rules. What is supposed to happen if one of the pre-generated characters is killed? Should the player just go home and wait for the rest of the rules to be published? Again, this shows a real lack of care and attention.

 

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The meat of the adventure takes place in a rough-and-tumble frontier town whose distinctly American flavour owes more to Deadwood than it does to either Sherwood or the Shire. Populated by weak officials, criminal gangs and secretive political groups, the adventure provides players with a sandbox reminiscent of the kind of towns that Gary Gygax used to include in adventures like Temple of Elemental Evil… and therein lie a couple of problems.

One concern with this structure is that the number of side-quests is quite substantial meaning that novice DMs would have to prepare not only the sandbox itself but also the numerous side-quests that are accessible from the central hub. This results in quite a sudden increase in the amount of material that a DM has to prepare for a single evening’s play. I can totally imagine a novice DM pulling a face and saying ‘Um… can we do that one next week?’ but then I guess that all DMs need to learn how to deal with open play at some point and the neatly self-contained side quests included in the adventure are an easy place to start.

I was slightly worried by the rate at which characters progressed through the levels. Admittedly I once played in an AD&D2 game where the group took three months to reach level 2 as they kept running away from danger, but is it really wise to route-march novice players through the game at the rate of one level per session? One of my novice players actually asked if she could ignore second-level spells as she was still getting to grips with the spells she had after about 4 hours of play. D&D characters never used to progress at this rate and I’m not sure of the reasons for the change other than experienced players wanting to leap straight into playing higher-level characters, at which point why not just roll up a fifth level character?

One of the things that most surprised me about Lost Mine of Phandelver is the expectation that the players would wind up putting down roots in the local community. Most groups that I have played with tend to move from place-to-place in search of adventure. At most, you might expect a recurring villain or a persistent setting but Mines of Phandelver allows for the possibility that, come the end of the adventure, the characters are not just local heroes but people with real economic and political investments in the community. This is an audacious move for an introductory adventure, even if it is not entirely successful.

 

Temple

 

 

I recently happened to re-read Gary Gygax’s adventure The Temple of Elemental Evil. The experience of playing Temple was quite an important influence on my early approach to gaming but the experience I had at the table bore almost no relation to the experience that Gygax had evidently intended. For example, Gygax goes into considerable depth describing the internal politics of a local town and what might happen if the characters decided to get involved in local politics but my memory of the town is of a place where you healed up, re-equipped and sold off loot. We never engaged with all the political stuff because it did not even register that we might want to get involved… nothing in the game encouraged us to do so. Lost Mine of Phandelver falls into the same trap as the text of the adventure is full of things that gamers might care about but with absolutely no indication as to why they should. Conversely, the players have plenty of reasons to care about the next dungeon and the next stack of loot. The hooks that the adventure provides are all on the level of ‘if you do X then Y will give you money’ but it might have been a good idea to make access to various subquests dependent upon the characters making friends with the NPCs and getting involved in their lives. This might also have served to introduce novice players to the idea of playing a role in a non-tactical context, a set of training wheels that is entirely absent from the text of the game.

Even if we assume that those hooks are there to encourage the creation of adventures once the Starter Set material runs out, it would have been nice to see a couple of pages devoted to explaining how a novice GM might write their own adventures spun off from the events of the Lost Mine of Phandelver. As is often the case with the Starter Set, an experienced DM would know exactly how to make use of the resources contained in the box set but a lack of care, attention and empathy for beginners means that no relevant advise has been included. A group of beginners might erroneously assume that, having completed the Lost Mine of Phandelver, their only option is to sit still and await further instructions in the form of another published adventure. Learning to express yourself and create adventures that suit your players are some of the most important lessons that a DM can learn and I would have liked to have seen a bit more about that process, if only as motivation for progressing from the Starter Set to the main rules.

 

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A Familiar Setting

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Lost Mine of Phandelver is set in the Forgotten Realms. Originally developed by Ed Greenwood as a setting for his childhood fantasy stories, the Forgotten Realms became the more of less default setting for D&D during the AD&D2 years. While D&D has supported a number of campaign settings over the years (including Dragonlance, Greyhawk and Dark Sun) the Forgotten Realms wound up featuring in a number of popular novels and games including Baldur’s Gate. I completely understand the instinct to use an existing setting and familiarise new players with what is arguably D&D’s most famous intellectual property outside of the name ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ itself, but I was struck by quite how dated the Forgotten Realms feels compared to much of what now passes for popular fantasy.

Though the roots of the Forgotten Realms stretch al the way to the 1960s, most of the setting was built in the 1990s along post-Tolkienian lines. The term ‘post-Tolkienian fantasy’ itself dates back to the 1970s when Terry Brooks’ hugely derivative Sword of Shannara series uncovered a vast untapped market for books that were a little bit like Lord of the Rings. As varied as the epic fantasy market may have been, a lot of books wound up featuring worlds filled with magic, dragons and an assortment of fantasy races lifted more-or-less directly from Tolkien.

 

Dragonlance

 

Despite being rarely acknowledged as such by genre critics, Dungeons & Dragons was itself a major influence on post-Tolkienian fantasy. Throughout the 1990s, D&D media tie-ins such as Weiss and Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles and Salvatore’s Icewind Dale Trilogy would regularly make it onto the New York Times’ Best Sellers list, suggesting that the market for D&D-style novels extended not only beyond the gaming community but also beyond the traditional market for fantasy fiction. The success of these tie-ins was such that even novels without obvious ties to D&D wound up bearing signs of the game’s influence as writers either tried to emulate the success of the tie-ins or began their writing careers having spent years playing D&D themselves. The influence of D&D goes someway to explaining the enduring success of certain peculiar tropes including humanoid fantasy races, magical items, post-apocalyptic ruins and an explicitly moral universe in which good’s inevitable triumph over evil merely serves to maintain the status quo. Most of these tropes made more sense in the context of a D&D session than they do in the context of a novel.

The reason that the Forgotten Realms now feel incredibly dated is that the influence of D&D has almost completely dissipated. Rather than swaying to the rhythms of the post-Tolkienian media tie-in, fantasy now dances to a beat set by Hollywood blockbusters, critically acclaimed TV series and Young Adult novels that outsell anything to have featured a moody dark elf with two swords and a ‘90s hairstyle. Today’s fantasy owes less to the post-apocalyptic Catholic Manichaeism of Tolkien than it does to the amoral violence of George R.R. Martin, the urban romance of Charlaine Harris and the hundreds of successful YA fantasy series that have followed in the wake of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. The Forgotten Realms used to be vanilla, now it is simply old-fashioned.

Given how much time and money D&D’s various owners have invested in building up the Forgotten Realms, it is unsurprising to find the Starter Set gently shepherding us back to those shores. However, fantasy has now moved on and the visibilty of IPs like Baldur’s Gate and Drizzt Do’Urden has waned to the point where I suspect that many younger players might actually struggle with the setting. The owners of D&D would be well advised to remedy this situation by either bringing out some more up-to-date campaign settings or marketing the Forgotten Realms at a YA audience.

 

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Conclusion

The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is an excellent introduction to what is ultimately quite a complex game. Quibbles about presentation and the need for a few more examples aside, it is difficult to imagine how the designers might have improved upon this box set: The rules are clearly written, the adventure is well-structured and the decision to provide the players with a set of pre-rolled characters complete with ties to the world of the adventure are a great way of getting new players to engage with the game without their having to wade through the complexities of character creation… and therein lies the rub.

My real beef with the Starter Set is that, despite choosing to step away from the tactical complexity of 4E, D&D5 is still immeasurably more complicated than the rules that brought D&D its greatest success and built the foundations of the hobby. The rules included in the Starter Set are not only more complicated and less flexible than the rules included in the original D&D box set, they are also considerably more complicated than I am comfortable with as a player. The only reason that the game feels manageable is that most of it is missing from the Starter Set. A full range of character-creation options entails a full range of character capabilities and each capability is another barrier for the novice gamer to climb over and another rule that novice DMs must keep in their heads. The ethos of this redesign should have been ‘what would an interested non-gamer be able to cope with?’ but this is manifestly not the ethos that the designers chose to follow (and why should they, given that the rules were reportedly play-tested in an echo-chamber made up of dozens of existing fans?).

Dungeons & Dragons has always struggled with the weight of its own history and the self-imposed and self-perpetuating myth that D&D is a complex game of tactical resource management. Clearly ambitious, the Starter Set does try to strip out some of the complexity that the game has acquired in recent times but I see little indication that D&D5 will be anything other than a complex game of tactical resource management aimed at an already shrinking audience. I have been playing D&D5 for a few weeks now and while I do not resent the time I have spent with the game, I have seen nothing that would encourage me to return to the fold and pick up the new rulebooks when they eventually appear. This is not a game that makes me feel welcome and it is not a game that is welcoming to novices, I shall take my little group and move them onto a more accessible game but the ability to do that is a privilege that few novices will possess. It saddens me to think that a novice DMs might find it difficult to motivate their friends to come back to the table and it sickens me to think of all those novices who might try this Starter Set and then go back to their books, films and video games because they wanted to do something other than kill things and take their stuff.

 

 

DD-Next-Problem

7 Comments
  1. August 8, 2014 12:18 pm

    Thanks, Jonathan.

    I do wonder if D&D5 isn’t aimed at an already lodged market–Pathfinder players. A lot of D&D players jumped to Pathfinder after the advent of 4e, I wonder if 5e isn’t an attempt to take that part of the market.

    …instead of, you know, trying to make the pie grow.

    Like

  2. August 8, 2014 1:49 pm

    Hi Paul :-)

    My theory is that while the marketing people are working to bring in new people by making the game more visible and more inviting, the designers simply could not see beyond the limits of the existing market that, as you rightly point out, has been under pressure from the Pathfinder people.

    Re-reading the review before posting it, I was mindful of the fact that some of my arguments were very close to the arguments we hear about diversity in our little corner of the net. After all, the core demographic is going to be mostly white men of a certain age (like you and me!).

    So I did a little digging to see how the new edition was being received by fans and I came across this rather excellent post:

    http://failforward.co.uk/post/93348768153/how-dungeons-and-dragons-is-endorsing-the-darkest-parts

    Turns out that some of the people banging a drum for old school purity are the same people who don’t think the game should be accessible to people who aren’t them.

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  3. August 8, 2014 4:16 pm

    This ties into the Michael Underwood theory of “levels of text”

    There is, especially among the Indie gaming community, an unspoken sort of acceptance of this sort of hierarchy. I wouldn’t hand a lot of the games my pals and I have tried to non-gamers, not ever.

    D&D in my view *should* be a 101 game. That’s what its *for*. Design doesn’t seem to get there always, though.

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  4. August 8, 2014 4:39 pm

    “Levels of text” in the sense that some texts are easier to get into than others and that more difficult texts require some familiarity with the basic texts?

    D&D *should* be a 101 game but that’s not the direction in which design and economics decided to take it. Weirdly enough, I’ve had a lot of good experiences running Call of Cthulhu for complete novices as they understand the 1920s, the idea of monsters and the idea of running away or going insane.

    A graduate-school equivalent text would be Amber DRPG, a game that’s almost unplayable without a cast-iron relationship between GM and players.

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  5. August 8, 2014 4:54 pm

    Agreed, ADRPG is not something I’d play with anyone, because it requires a LOT of trust. CoC *is* a 101 game. A game Fred Kiesche has started has a couple of RPGs neophytes as well as veterans like me. We all are doing well.

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  6. September 12, 2014 5:13 am

    “Like most sub-cultures, gaming proved to be highly adept at exclusion; Perpetually unstable, gaming communities dealt with their internal tensions through a process of purification that forced out everyone who was not a socially inept teenage boy with a fetish for maps and tactics. The more dissenting voices were encouraged to drift away, the less those voices were heard as D&D compiled its own social history. This skewed cultural memory was then legitimised by the owners of D&D who pandered to the tacticians and ensured that each successive edition of the game became less and less attractive to anyone who was not interested in tactical resource management.”

    You just described Fire Emblem fandom in the early aughts. But unlike D&D the designers never really gave a fuck about the gearheads.

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  7. September 12, 2014 8:30 am

    I suspect I’m probably describing every fandom and social group that isn’t held together by professional and/or financial obligation.

    If you join a group and your idea are radically different to that group, a time when come when you either leave the group or compromise your ideas. The Internet almost encourages walking away from groups because there’s always another fandom splinter out there somewhere.

    It’s only when you’re dealing with your family or your job that you wind up having to work towards solutions that keeps everyone inside of the tent.

    Actually, I hadn’t heard of Fire Emblem. I wasn’t anywhere near a nintendo console in those days and I must admit that I’ve never immersed myself in a fandom devoted to a particular IP. I’ve hung out with film people, book people, game people and comedy people but I’ve never invested so heavily in a particular game, book or film that I felt the need to hang out with people who only talked about that particular title. I think this says as much about my age as it does my general distrust of groups :-)

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