D&D Review: D&D Starter Set

Many of my reviews are written as “capsule” reviews, which is to say, reviews where I’ve read the product but haven’t played through it. The sheer amount of product against the number of hours I have available to play games necessitates that. For products which I do have the chance to play, it’s something of a relief. My judgement as to whether it’s a good product or not is based on actual experience, even if the review ends up being a little “late”.

The D&D Starter Set, which is the starter for the newest (2014) version of the Dungeons & Dragons game, came out in July 2014. This review is 14 months later. In that time, I’ve played through the starter three separate times, with three separate groups of players. I’ve given it more of a work-out than almost any other D&D adventure in my collection. And here’s my considered opinion: This is an awesome product. It’s the best Starter Set that has ever been published for D&D, and I can’t think of a better adventure to introduce new players to the game than the one included in the box.

(I say this as someone who was introduced to the game with the 1981 Basic Set with the Keep on the Borderlands adventure, which was extremely awesome as well, albeit often baffling to my young self).

In producing this product, Wizards of the Coast did a few things that went against the accepted wisdom of creating an initial set. The major one is this: there are no rules for character and adventure creation in the box. Instead, you get five pre-generated characters, a set of rules, and an adventure to play. You also get a link to their website, where you can download the Basic Rules to the game, which include character and adventure creation – for levels 1-20, although not every option is available. The Starter Set thus gives you everything to start playing the game, and points you in the way to keep playing – for free – while you work out whether you want to buy the full rules to the game or not.

The rules it includes covers the important parts of the game: combat, ability checks, spells, exploration and equipment, as well as running the game. The text used is based on what is in the Player’s Handbook, so there aren’t any nasty surprises when you move to the full rules: the rules you’re using here are the same as the full game. These rules just don’t cover all the unusual cases. The core of the game? They cover that really well, and the starter rulebook (weighing in at 32 pages) is still useful as a reference book even when playing the full game, depending on how much weight you want to lug around. (Lobbing it at a player who needs the equipment list is the way I typically use it).

However, the highlight of the Starter Set is the adventure. Designed by Rich Baker, an extremely experienced and talented writer, it provides both a good introduction to the game as well as an adventure that more experienced players can enjoy. Key to this is the blending of two styles of play: it has a directed storyline, where you’re investigating the kidnapping of a dwarf and the secret of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, and a sandbox feel where many of the characters you meet have their own goals and can send you on missions not directly related to the main quest. This isn’t a linear quest: after the initial encounter, you can choose which way to proceed through the storyline. Each of my groups have gone through it in a different way. However, for those who want a more directed experience, there’s enough clues and direction so that you’ll rarely feel lost.

The players begin by discovering that their patron has been kidnapped by goblins. They then have to work out where he’s been taken, while dealing with the various troubles around town and in the surrounding lands. The adventure is set in the Sword Coast, a region of the Forgotten Realms that has been used for all of the published adventures so far. The players are based in the small town of Phandalin, which is now rebuilding after having been razed several hundred years ago in an orc attack. The town is well-described and has a number of interesting characters to interact with. This is one of those towns that could be developed by the DM and players to being even more dynamic and interesting than it currently is; as it stands, there are NPCs that can give quests to the characters, the town has trouble with a group known as the Redbrand Ruffians, and it’s a place to rest and resupply. Adding more than that is up to the players, but starting with the five NPCs that are the faction contacts and building up intrigue around them would seem a good start.

Unfortunately, the adventure doesn’t really go into describing the five factions and their influence on the world. (They’re far more important in the published adventures and the D&D Expeditions program). You can discover more on the Wizards website, but I find it disappointing that they’re not developed further here.

The adventure also describes the wilderness about the town. It contains a number of adventure sites, which are mostly the destinations for quests the players may be given in town. The adventure goes back to the “old-school” way of printing a hex-grid on the map to help aid judging travel distances, and trips are made less predictable by the use of a random encounter table. The cartography for this product is fantastic, and you can purchase electronic copies of it from Mike Schley’s website – I’ve done so to aid wilderness and town adventuring.

Apart from the town and the side-quests, there are four main adventure sites:

  • A set of goblin caves
  • An old manor
  • A ruined castle
  • The Lost Mine

Each of the adventure sites is relatively small, ranging from 8 to 20 encounters, with the two middle sites being about 14 encounters each. They’re all quite different from each other, with enough secrets and unusual features to keep adventurers intrigued and attentive. They’re also not linear – each dungeon presents a number of ways that they can be explored, and this leads to a lot of variation in play. There are also some good opportunities for role-playing in the dungeons; they’re certainly not “kill everything that moves” affairs, although some groups will still approach them in that manner!

This is not a “save the world” adventure. They’ll come later. Instead, it’s written to introduce players to the game and to the world. It does that well, and even after running it three times there are still aspects of the adventure I haven’t explored fully. The adventure gives a lot of aid and advice to the new Dungeon Master, but trusts them more and more as it progresses, introducing them to how experienced DMs handle running adventures and some of the important tasks, such as awarding XP.

Could the adventure be improved? There’s a couple of areas I wouldn’t have minded seeing more detail on: in particular, the aforementioned factions and the town in general. I’d also would have appreciated a little more advice on what course to take if the players get very distracted and don’t rescue their patron. How long is he kept prisoner until he’s killed? However, these are minor issues at best, and not really necessary for the play of the adventure. They’re things you can figure out yourself.

The fact is that this is an extremely well-designed and well-written adventure. It’s fun to play and run, and offers a lot of scope to the players and DM to make it their own, while still being accessible to newcomers. My experiences with playing it suggest it takes in the order of 20-30 hours to complete, although some groups may take longer.

Taken as a whole, the D&D Starter Set is one of the best RPG products I’ve ever seen, and incredible value. If you’re interested in running a game of D&D, pick this one up. It’s worth it!

7 comments

  1. Tony C.

    Good review, Merric. I whole-heartedly agree this is the best Starter Set adventure ever produced for D&D, and I’d go so far to say it belongs on the short list of great D&D adventures, period. The sandbox-like style, with plenty of side-quests, offers a very flexible adventure for players of all skill levels.

    I can’t think of a single reason not to buy the starter set, even for those who’ve been playing for decades. The adventure it contains is worth every penny.

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  2. jon

    Agree. Hugely impressed with the new ruleset, the starter kit, the artwork . . . everything. And it just feels right. Reminds me of the feeling I got starting D&D for the first time waaaay back in 1982.

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  3. Doug

    The only real problem I had with the adventure was the decision to make the pre-gen rogue PC a member of the Redbrands. In my game, at least, it took a lot of maneuvering to explain why that PC didn’t know the identity of the group’s leader or anything about the location and layout of its base of operations.

    Giving the rogue a connection to Phandalin is great; having them be a member of the organisation that the PCs are investigating made things tricky, though.

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      • trystero11

        To me, this feels more like being a bank clerk and not having met your manager or knowing the location or layout of the bank. It’s not a fatal problem, but it is a point of confusion that sneaked up on me (since I hadn’t read the pre-gen PC backgrounds), and I do wish the adventure provided a bit of GM advice on the subject.

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      • Callan

        It could do with the text priming the player not to think they know everything (and an idea of what they do know) – or if the author has it they do indeed know it all or lots of it, to have that in the text for the GM’s benefit. I think there can be lots of reasons the rogue wouldn’t know it all – but without priming the player might presume their character knows it all and get excited about that, and I agree, that’s an issue.

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