Michael's Reviews > Starter Set

Starter Set by James Wyatt
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really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy, role-playing
Recommended to Michael by: Serendipity
Recommended for: Young Adults, Gamers, Grognards

I started out with the Holmes version of Basic Dungeons and Dragons around 1980, so I am both well-informed, but probably also somewhat biased, in my reading of the newest “basic” version of the game. After all, what we encounter at the age of ten tends to make a deep impression. Still, I do find this introduction to the Fifth Edition of the game I’ve been playing since childhood to have some merits.

Let’s start with the “basics” (heh). Dungeons & Dragons is the world’s first and historically most successful role-playing game (RPG). Traditionally played around a tabletop, players pretend to be warriors and wizards in a heroic fantasy setting and battle monsters and accrue treasure. While the game was invented as an extension of tabletop wargaming, and thus was originally envisioned to involve strategic use of miniature figures representing the players and their adversaries, many of us simply used paper, pencil, and imagination to create the worlds and situations to overcome. Hence, it often became a less strategic game, and more of an expanded version of “let’s pretend” with rules, which is how its creator, Gary Gygax, described it more than once.

The game has undergone many variations and editions, more in fact than the current designation of “Fifth Edition” would suggest, since this was preceded both by “Original” D&D (OD&D) and by the version of Basic invented by J. Eric Holmes (and the modifications made by Tom Moldvay shortly after I came on the scene). The rules grew out of a series of handwritten notes and conversations between Gygax and the young Dave Arneson, and for many years the only way to learn the game was to play it with someone else who understood them to some degree. House rules varied widely from place to place, and in some areas (such as Intiative and Surprise), even Gygax admitted that he didn’t play strictly by the book. Over the years, the development of many different role playing games has resulted in a much clearer set of rules that can actually make sense to people who haven’t been initiated into the secrets by established players, and I will confess that this is a Good Thing. It’s actually fairly likely that 12-year-olds can pick up these rules, read them through, and start playing a game with their friends that is pretty much like the games they will encounter at conventions, in other circles of friends later in life, and in general, anyone playing the game.

Old-time players like myself are sometimes referred to as “grognards,” and we have a reputation of being grouchy about the newer editions of the game. Some of that applies here, although here I admit that this version appears better than the last one. The Fourth Edition seemed to me to favor the players to the point where it was much too easy to quickly rise to superherodom and there was little risk to balance the rewards given to adventurers. This version curtails that somewhat (and therefore will probably be unpopular with fans of the Fourth Edition, who will one day be old grognards themselves. So it goes…). Still, if I were running a game, I’d probably change a few things. I think level progress is still too fast and easy in this version. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of the lower levels more than the easy successes of the upper ones. I think that the classes overlap too much, blurring the distinctive roles of each character to give everyone a chance to participate in everything that comes up. In this version, not only can wizards use swords (!), but they have offensive “cantrips” which allow them to deal damage every turn of combat, so there’s really nothing that special about being a fighter. Fighters, meanwhile, have the ability to heal themselves once per day, making clerics less important party members. And everyone starts off with way too many hit points (though at least this applies to the monsters as well).

The structure of the rules is interesting, following the outline of my old Holmes edition in some ways, but not in others. We get two books: a “Rulebook” which is for everyone, and an “Adventure book” which is really for the Dungeon Master. This is similar to the Basic Set’s rulebook and Module (“B2: The Keep on the Borderlands” in my day), but there are interesting differences. The only monster stats you get are for the monsters included in the adventure, and these are in the Adventure Book, not the rulebook. The same goes for magic items. If you want to include monsters and treasure not specifically listed in the adventure, you have to buy more books. Actually, because of the rapid level progression, you’re going to need more books after running through the sample adventure anyway, since the rules only take you to level five. Holmes only went to level three, but you could finish both B2 and the “Sample Dungeon” in the rulebook and still have characters below that, allowing for many further session before you needed more products. Even more extreme, the Starter Set includes no rules for character creation or designing adventures. You play with the five “starter” characters provided, you run the one adventure, and then you need to get something more to proceed.

The true test of a set of rules for a game is in the playing, however. I look forward to giving this version of D&D such a test in the coming years. I may find that my grognard heart takes to this version more than I anticipate, though I’m sure I’ll still return to the classics nevertheless.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 28, 2017 – Shelved
June 28, 2017 – Shelved as: fantasy
June 28, 2017 – Shelved as: role-playing
June 28, 2017 – Finished Reading

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