The new Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Starter Set (or Red Box) was released this month. It is designed as the main entry point into D&D, a sort of on-ramp for beginners and lapsed gamers. It is also the first release in the new D&D Essentials line which is a new direction for D&D that includes simpler class builds and lower priced books. While D&D Essentials is not a new edition (although there has been much debate about this), it is a shakeup of the status quo. The D&D Essentials line probably deserves a post of its own at some point. The Red Box goes directly for the nostalgia factor by using the same cover as the Basic D&D Red Box that came out in 1983 and brought many people into the hobby.
The new Red Box has a low price point of $20 ($13 on Amazon). You get a lot for the price. The box contains a player’s book which includes a solo adventure that contains character creation (more on that later) and a dungeon master’s book with the rules, an adventure, and some monsters. There is a nice set of thick card stock character and monster tokens, a large double-sided poster map, and a set of dice. Finally, there are several sheets of somewhat flimsy power cards that describe the PC powers.
First, I’ll talk about what it does well. The new Red Box does a fantastically good job at what it is designed to do: get new people into the hobby. This is mainly due to the player’s book included in the box. It contains a “choose your own adventure” style solo adventure. The original, old-school red box had something similar. But in the new Red Box, it’s not just a solo adventure. It’s character creation, too. This is brilliantly executed. Speaking as a relatively new gamer, this tackles two of the biggest hurdles to getting into pen and paper RPGs: 1) Just getting your head around the concept 2) Character creation. Before I got into gaming, I had a hard time even understanding how RPGs work. ACs, attack rolls, damage rolls, just the general flow of the game. All foreign concepts and difficult to understand if you’ve never played. The solo adventure really helps introduce these concepts. Character creation is very intimidating to new players. When you don’t understand the basics of the game, it’s hard to create a character because you are required to make decisions on concepts you don’t understand. The solo adventure walks you through these concepts and at the end you have created a character and have a basic understanding of the game. I feel confident I could hand the solo adventure to someone who has never played an RPG before and they would be off and running without any help. In fact, you could give a group of complete newbies the Red Box and, in an hour or two, they’d be running an adventure. That’s huge. I don’t there has been a product on the market that you could say that for since the original Red Box. It cannot be understated how important it is for the hobby to have a product like this on the market.
The Red Box and the Essentials line in general is a departure from the original 4th Edition class design philosophy. When 4E first came out all the classes had roughly the same distribution of powers. All classes had At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers. The idea was for each class to have the roughly the same level of tactical options and combat complexity. While I think they accomplished this, it added a extra layer of complexity to all the classes which makes it more difficult for new players. Essentials shakes up that philosophy. The new Fighters no longer have at-will or daily powers, both of which were a little problematic anyway. Rogues don’t have daily powers any more either and have more movement powers. The result is that the class designs are easier to run and make a little more sense in general. I think these new class designs might also have the benefit speeding up encounters. It is important to note that the new Essentials fighter does not take the place of the original 4E fighter (or any of the other classes). It is in addition to it. So, you can have an original 4E fighter fighting alongside the new Essentials fighter in the same game with no problems. It’s all still 4th edition.
That said there are a few things that the Red Box fails on. The main thing is that while it is a great starter set, it is only a starter set and nothing more. It is not a full game. It only covers levels 1 and 2. Character creation only exists in the solo adventure. Which can be annoying if you want to create multiple characters or if you have multiple people building characters all at once it would be hard if you only have one Red Box. A quick summary of character creation would have been nice. There is no equipment list for some reason. It doesn’t have a lot of fluff describing races or the world. Powers are only described on the power cards. So, if you lose a card, you’re out of luck. The Red Box is only useful if you are brand new to the hobby (or a long lapsed player). Anyone else would be better served by the other Essentials products coming out. The Red Box is very much geared to getting you started, then steering you on to other products rather quickly.
I think Wizards of the Coast is heading in the right direction with the Red Box and Essentials. They should be focusing on new and lapsed players. The old school folks are well served by the retro-clones and the OSR. The 3.x edition folks have Pathfinder. 4th edition is a great system for new players with it’s consistent clearly spelled out rules and PC abilities and it’s very easy to DM. I’m glad to see that WOTC is playing to that strength.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with the new Red Box. It accomplishes what it set out to do. It is probably the best and most accessible starter set to come out since the original Red Box. There really should have been a product like this for every edition of D&D. 4th edition should have had something like this from the start. I like it so much that I plan on running a beginner’s D&D session using the Red Box at Rincon in a few weeks. I also plan to lean on the solo adventure for character creation whenever I get a game going for my family. It’s a great product and I recommend it if you are looking to get into the hobby.