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before the D&D starter set comes out #6 “that retro design thing”

May 10, 2014

Previously: first post, second post, third post, fourth post, fifth post


The retro design of the 2011 D&D Starter Set .. what was that all about?

The Starter Set tried to court two markets – the new player, and the experienced or lapsed player of previous editions.

And that was a mistake. Here’s the Starter Set surrounded by the Essentials Line of products that were released around the same time.

dnd starter set surrounded by essentials

I’ve talked about my thoughts on the look of a new Starter Set here, concluding that what it must do is stand out from the rest of the range, declaring itself the starting product for new players. The 2011 Set certainly does stand out – but what’s with the retro style? Why doesn’t it look like the other products?

From what I can gather the Starter Set had two purposes. One was, as you’d expect, to be the starting point for new players to the game. From there, new players are advised that the next step was to buy the new D&D Essentials products.

“When you’re ready for more adventure look for the other D&D Essentials products.”

The second purpose of the Starter Set was to encourage lapsed players and players using older editions to move on to the 4th edition rules. Wizards of the Coast spent a lot of time emphasising the similarity of the starter set to starter products from back in the day. The reason for the retro look was to remind older player of previous starter boxes – to appeal to their nostalgia. After watching unboxing and review videos of the Starter Set by experienced players, I get the feeling that for them, the contents of the box was a disappointment, and obviously so. There was nothing in the box for them, that couldn’t be found in the Essentials line proper. If the product did in anyway resemble the kinds of products that had first introduced them to D&D in the past, this kind of product was not what they needed today.

It seems obvious that a product aimed to bring new players into roleplaying needs to be very different to one aimed towards updating experienced players on a new rules set. The 2011 Starter Set appealed to one group on the outside and another on the inside. I’d love to know the thinking behind the decision to bring these two different ideas together in one product. If I’m being cynical, was it simply a way to boost the sales of the product – by selling experienced players a product they didn’t need? Does this show a lack of commitment to people wanting to start playing the game independent of existing game groups? Has D&D ever produced a satisfactory product for new players?

I don’t know. Certainly, if you listen to D&D and other roleplaying podcasts long enough, you will hear variations on the same anecdote:

“My introduction to D&D was the [insert old product name] book. I didn’t really understand what it was on about and I’m sure we never really played exactly by the rules ..”


For potential new players the initial effect of the look of the 2011 box can have only been one of confusion – why is this old looking product sitting among the current line?

A person coming cold to any product line, especially one with such a vast array of products from many editions as D&D, needs to be completely certain what is the latest edition. Even to assume that a new customer knows that there are different editions to the game is a mistake as is relying on the staff of game stores to point people in the right direction.

So any future starter product needs to be:

Exclusively focused on one group only – the new player – not experienced players coming from previous editions.

Assume the customer has the absolute minimum of knowledge of the game and product range and rely on it’s own packaging to explain where it sits within that range.


Where should the Starter Set position itself?

The core of D&D Next should obviously be the Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual (packaged in whatever form D&D choose). But it must be realised that these products are only useful for experienced players or new players joining an already experienced group. For the new player, or new group, these products are not adequate in themselves – in fact I’d say that they are not suitable at all and buying them with the aim of learning how to roleplay is a waste of money. The Starter Set should position itself as the essential first item to buy for these people – it should be their “introduction to roleplaying * “.

Perhaps a renaming is needed to emphasise this. Instead of calling it a “Starter Set” it should be called “THE BEGINNERS BOX”. The “Starter Set” is not the starting point for ALL players, but it should be the place where roleplaying begins.


* Speaking of which, roleplaying designer Robin D Laws who co-hosts the podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, was spurred into action by a question I sent him and Ken asking why roleplaying rulebooks emphasise Character Creation over the techniques of roleplaying. Here’s the episode link. He’s now begun writing an introduction to roleplaying for the rpg publisher Pelgraine Press. He says that it will feature Pelgraine products as examples obviously but that it will be able to be licensed by other publishers for inclusion in their products.

It’s such a shame that it’s too late for it’s inclusion in the D&D Next Starter Set due out in July. This is exactly what is needed in any Starter Set – or Beginners Box!

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