NewbieDM Review: Red Box Starter Set

Posted on September 6, 2010 by


I’ve been struggling with this review for a few days, and I can’t quite come to terms with how it is I feel about this new Red Box as a starter set to D&D.  I’m also struggling to find for whom exactly this set was designed for.  Was it for the completely new players who have never been into fantasy rpg’s, or is it for the old school gamers who left D&D and Wizards wants back into the fold?  These are questions that I still don’t feel like I have an answer for, and are clouding my judgment of the box.  In as far as production values go, this product is top notch.  I do however, have some issues in both content and presentation that make me look at the box with a bit of a negative slant.  Here’s what’s inside:

  • 32 page Player’s Book
  • 64 page Dungeon Master’s Book
  • 7 sheets of power cards & magic items
  • 4 character sheets
  • Sheet of 56 double sided cardboard tokens
  • Double sided battle map
  • Complete set of dice

Nostalgic presentation outside. But what's inside?

Right off the top, my favorite thing about this box are the tokens.  They are made of thick cardboard with a glossy coating on them.  They are double sided, but only the player tokens are double sided to reflect a bloody status.  The monsters are double sided only to accommodate a second monster on the flip side.  Still, I can see these tokens become popular and maybe weening folks off minis.  I know they work for me, but if you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I love tokens.

It’s worth mentioning the monster selection in the tokens, as I feel that they are very iconic to D&D, and fantasy in general.  Even casual fans of the genre will probably identify some of these bad guys when they take a look at them.  We have goblins, kobolds, orcs, skeletons, zombies, dragons, and lizardmen, among a few other types.  The tokens also include 5 action point tokens as well.  The only negative thing that I can say about the tokens (and it is a very minor thing) is that they aren’t labeled with the monster names.  Again, a minor, easily ignored thing.  These tokens are gorgeous.

Another thing I like is the included map.  One side is a complete reprint, and the other is just a random dungeon made up of dungeon tiles, to be used in the included adventure.  If you are new to D&D you’ve obviously have never seen these before, you get the “Crossroads” map (which comes from the D&D Miniatures Starter Set), and the “Monster Lair” map.  Both have seen the light of day before, but again, if you are new to D&D this is irrelevant.  Still, it’s a nice map (as are most poster sized battle maps).  The flip side is the dungeon for the adventure included in the Dungeon Master’s book.

Dungeon side of the battlemap

The power and treasure cards are printed on very flimsy paper, it isn’t quite cardstock, but a little stronger than regular paper.  They are not very impressive, but not completely crappy either.  Just adequate enough for play would be my comment.  I have heard of people ripping them by mistake when attempting to punch them out, so be careful.

Power Cards

The red box trip down memory lane continues with the Player’s Book, and its instructions on the cover to “Read This First!”. Now, the Player’s Book is a little frustrating to me, and I’ll tell you why.  It’s a 32 page “choose your own adventure” exercise meant to guide the player as he or she creates a character.  This has been hailed as a neat idea, and it emulates the 1983 Mentzer red box that this set is inspired by, yet something feels missing here.  I don’t feel that it’s right to compare both products, as almost 30 years stand between them and they are two separate games, but I’ll make a small comparison.  Although to be frank, WOTC invites the comparison by slapping Elmore’s artwork on a red box.

Anyway, the Mentzer red box did give you a “choose your own adventure”, but it also gave you stuff on going to town to buy equipment, finding npc retainers, adventuring, rations, dividing treasure, classes, races, and character creation.  This current red box does none of that for the player.  It is literally a big solo adventure that builds the character as you go.  So if 4 friends want to play D&D for the first time, my assumption is that they have to take turns going through the solo adventure, because there are no rules on character creation whatsoever.  In fact, there aren’t even any racial descriptions here.  What’s a dwarf?  This will not tell you.  Halfling? Hope you remember when Hobbits were called that in the Lord Of  The Rings films to make a connection.  Other than pictures, there is nothing here to show a new player what the heck a fantasy race is. Again, this leads me to question for whom exactly this box is?  For ex-players?  For new blood?  Is there an expectation of familiarity with fantasy tropes?

Frankly, I’m a little stumped as to why character creation rules were not offered outside the narrative of the solo adventure, it certainly merits its own section of a “starter set”.  Perhaps a small equipment list?  Rope?  A 10-foot pole?  Anything?

I’m also not going to get into the builds of the classes here, as I’m not to concerned about that, but I’ll point out that there is an entire thread over at ENWorld on the fact that the characters made with this box aren’t even compatible with the Essentials characters in “Heroes of the Fallen Lands”.  If this is true or not, I don’t know.  If it is, big screw up.  If it’s much ado about nothing, then sorry for the unnecessary link.  I felt it was worth mentioning.  There is also a thread on errata for the red box. Sigh.

The DM’s book is a little meatier, weighing in at 64 pages, and it is packed with all sorts of good info for the newbie 4e DM.  After the opening page with the standard “what a DM does” stuff, the first thing presented is the 4e encounter format, in the form of the encounter that immediately follows the solo adventure in the player’s book.  There are also combat rules, a full adventure, a how-to build adventures section, and a mini monster manual all included here.  I can’t complain about the way advice is laid out here, or what’s given.  It is rock solid  advice that a new dm will find useful.  There is a whole section on further adventures, but again, without character creation rules, how many further adventures can those pregens go on without even being able to change their armor or weapons?

One thing about the DM’s book that I didn’t like is that I’m not sure I understand the logic of including some stuff in the DM’s book, rather than the player’s book.  I’m specifically talking combat rules and things about saving throws, death and dying.  Certainly players need to know how to handle combat, saving throws, etc… I know that when we started playing 4, my players referenced the combat pages a lot.  Too bad for the players going through this game, as the adventure is in the same book as those rules.  The DM just can’t hand it over without grinding the game to a halt.

In my opinion, by including this stuff in the DM’s book, you are creating a situation where a group of newbie players will assume that it will be their DM’s job to teach them the rules of the game, rather than them learn it themselves by reading their book.  Being a new DM is tough enough already, and including this stuff in a DM book meant for a newbie, adds more to the plate than is necessary.

These things should have been part of the Player’s Book, just like it is with the core hardcovers.  Seems like an odd design choice, but they must have had their reasons.  On the plus, the encounters have nicely detailed tactics for the monsters, and the included skill challenge is one of the nicer written ones I’ve seen.  Granted, it is a basic social challenge (influencing a dragon), but the writeup gives the DM plenty of different strategies the PC’s can take, and how the dragon should react to them.

The book is then rounded out by a mini monster manual with different versions of the following monsters:  Doppelganger, Dragons, Drakes, Goblins, Humans, Kobolds, Lizardfolk, Orcs, Oozes, Rats, Skeletons, Spiders, Stirges, Wererats, Wolves, and Zombies.  A brief look at the Nentir Vale ends the book.

So what do I think about the red box?  Well, it certainly looks nice, but I’m just concerned about a few of the decisions made in the presentation.  I’m not crazy about the lack of character creation rules and the placement of most of the stuff that’s important to players inside the DM’s book.  I don’t like that the characters created for the solo adventure and the adventure in the DM’s book apparently can’t really live on past this box.  They wouldn’t know what to do with a weapon picked up from one of the enemies for example.  There are no rules for them besides the “choose your own adventure” rules.

I love 4e D&D, I really do.  I enjoy playing it, DM’ing it, writing about it, and being a part of the community.  But I have to call a spade a spade and see through the hype.  This product could have been greater than what it is.  A big chunk seems missing if the real intent is hooking new people on the world of D&D.   I’m not feeling it.  Perhaps I’m wrong.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been reading the Mentzer box as I wrote this.  It seems the wealth of material in that box set a complete unreachable standard when it comes to intro sets.

Is the red box pretty?  Yes.  Is it nostalgic?  The cover is, yes.  Is it the best intro to RPG’s I’ve ever seen?  No way.

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Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming