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before the D&D starter set comes out #5 “.. that’s a whole game for $5!”

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

Since listening to a recent episode of the NPC Cast podcast I’ve started wondering if roleplayers use the word “game” slightly differently from the rest of us when discussing rpg products. In an episode devoted to Fate Core, NPC-del expressed surprise and delight that Evil Hat were selling their Fate Accelerated product for $5.

“That’s a whole game for $5”.

I love the NPC Cast (they have the only actual plays I’m able to stand listening to), and I’m not trying to have a go at Del, it’s just that the words “whole game” jumped out at me and whacked me on the head. I’ve read the Fate Accelerated book, it’s great, but I hadn’t thought of it as a “game”.

I’d describe it as the rulebook to a game, or perhaps a tool-box for making a game.

This reminds me of my first attempt to play a roleplaying game back in the day … and my first rpg surprise.

runequest box

My 14 year old friends and I spent two fruitless weekends trying to work this game out – then we put it away and never spoke of it again.

On opening the Runequest box and going through the various booklets we finally realised that it was up to us to “make” the game, that is, one of us was going to have to invent an adventure before we could start playing. DM’s writing adventures is such an expected part of roleplaying that I wonder if roleplayers can understand just how weird a thing that seems to outsiders. I’ve been trying to think of any other games where such a thing is asked of the players and I can’t come up with one.

And finally there’s this quote from the 2011 D&D Starter Set Player’s Book:

“You can find a number of ready-to-play adventures, both in print and online, that will provide hours of gaming fun for you group. But part of what makes the D&D Fantasy Roleplaying Game special is that you can build your own adventures, tailoring them to the players and their specific characters.”

A strange down-playing of published adventures against DM written adventures – particularly in a product aimed at beginners.

All of the above is by way of pointing out the importance of the published adventure for new groups of players and say, for those people at least, if it’s anywhere, “the game” is in these adventure books.

And I’d like to suggest to roleplaying rule-book writers that they add a statement like those other hobby products have such as “Some assembly required”, or “Batteries not included” so as to manage beginners expectations.

Perhaps something like: “Beginners are advised to buy one of our Published Adventures to really get anything out of this rule book”.


before the D&D starter set comes out #4 “opening the (red) box”

Recap: The D&D “Starter Set” for the next edition of the game is due out mid-July. I’m someone who has never successfully played a roleplaying game before – but I’m willing to give it another go. Is the Starter Set for me? It’s title implies it should be, but what would it need to contain to allow me and my friends and family to start our own playgroup and get into this hobby?

 Previously: first post, second post, third post,

I want to look closer at the 2010 Starter Set. I’m hoping it will spark a few ideas on what I would really want in a starting product. I talked about the outside of the box as part of the second post, so this time, let’s open the box.

dnd starter red box 3

The contents of the 2010 Starter Set. Not shown are some blank character sheets and a sheet advertising D&D Essentials products that also came with the game.

Is there a game in here?

Let’s imagine I’ve asked my friends around to my place to play our first game of D&D. We’re sitting round the table – we have the box in front of us – we open the box .. is there a game in here?

We pull out cards, tokens, maps, and dice. This certainly look like a game to us. We’re reassured – we’re reminded of the types of boardgames we’re used to. So far things are looking pretty “gamey”.

There’s also two booklets in here which must be the rules. One’s called the Player Book and the other is the DM Book. They are somewhat thick. A quick read of the Introduction tells us:

“Even if you haven’t played other fantasy adventure games before, this book will teach you how to have an exciting interactive experience in a fantastic world of magic, monsters, and heroic adventure.” – Players Book

We’re reassured – I’ve picked the D&D product that’s aimed at us.

Let’s play now!

Now one of us starts reading the Players Book further. They put the book down and say:

“Ummm, … the first thing we have to do is all spend an hour by ourselves playing the game in this book – solo!”

Not only that, but as the game only comes with one Players Book, we realise each of us will have to take turns playing – there goes the game session. We’re annoyed – this is not the D&D we were expecting ..

What were we expecting?

Is the situation a little unfair? Perhaps a more likely scenario has me looking through the box before I asked friends around. I read the Players Book. found out about the solo adventure and as the Players Book suggests, lend each player the book over a week or two so they could play through the solo adventure and be ready to play together when we all met up. Is that more reasonable?

For experienced players, starting a new game of D&D means “Prep”. Character creation for the players and adventure preparation for the DM. To the game writers I’m sure it was a reasonable idea, and quite a clever one, to simplify character creation by having players work through a solo adventure. In the tradition of the game it makes sense.

By my friends and I are not experienced players. We are new to D&D. We come from another place, one of board games and card games. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that most players who have never roleplayed before would come to it with preexisting ideas about what a game should be – specifically that you can open a game and start playing right away. The Starter Set is obviously different to that – but no where on the box does D&D set about trying to change our expectations.

D&D Next Starter Set: Must play straight out of the box?

So here’s the first thing I want the D&D Next Starter Set to be able to do.

I want to be able to play a typical (if lite) game of D&D straight out of the box with a group sitting round the table. No solo adventures and no more than 15-20 minutes of preparation time to read the rules.

shelf life – “one (or some) of these things is not like the others”

shelf life (01) one of these things


shelf life (02) one of these things


shelf life (03) one of these things


calm blue ocean

“calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean ..”

before the D&D starter set comes out #3 “a sudden realisation”

Recap: The D&D “Starter Set” for the next edition of the game is due out mid-July. I’m someone who has never successfully played a roleplaying game before – but I’m willing to give it another go. Is the Starter Set for me? It’s title implies it should be, but what would it need to contain to allow me and my friends and family to start our own playgroup and get into this hobby?

Previously: first post, second post

Sudden Realisation Edition: I’m sure I’m not the first to wonder about this, but I’ve only just had the thought. Perhaps the place to start for new players is actually D&D Board Games not the D&D Starter Sets.

dnd starter vs bg - BOTH 1

Which is a better gateway to D&D roleplay? D&D Starter Sets or D&D Board Games?

Combat rules are not the greatest hurdle

I don’t think learning combat rules and running combat is the most difficult and confusing part of learning the game for a DM. Far more daunting to me is DMing exploration and interaction, as well as creating fun adventure scenarios before play and reacting imaginatively to player choices during play – the “roleplaying” part of “roleplaying game”.

All of the above has at some point to be learned but perhaps playing the board games is a better place to start the process. By separating out the combat aspects of the game and teaching that first, players would soon have a good grounding in the mechanics of combat and could then focus on expanding out from there into all the other aspects of the game.

Expansions could extend the board game into these areas and eventually, with all players up to speed, DMing could be introduced and taught through a standalone adventure scenario based on the board game setting.


Here’s how I think board games could be developed to become learning tools for D&D roleplaying

1. D&D 5e board games:

Would allow you and your group to soak up the themes of D&D while you gain mastery of combat rules without the need for a DM. Combat rules would be identical to those within the roleplaying game.

2. D&D 5e board game “roleplay-expansions”:

Would add roleplaying set-pieces where you and your group would be introduced to exploration and interaction while still using the board game for combat – again without the need for a DM.

3. D&D 5e “starter scenarios”:

Would be short adventure scenarios developing from the previous two products. Players would retain their characters from the previous games. The role of the DM would be introduced and players would also take turns acting as the DM in short, fairly railroaded scenarios.



Each of these products is a complete game in itself or extension of a complete game.  So there’s a proper multiplayer game in every box instead of just a book of rules.

No preparation time would be needed prior to the group gathering.

Apart from a short period spent learning the rules at the start of the game (as you would with any board game) learning occurs as you play.

Each game builds on knowledge gained in previous games.

The board game format would provide a more accessible entry point to the game – a format most people are more familiar with.


No, I’ve never played any of the board games and I’m not sure how they would stand up to the task – no doubt they’d have to be tweeked to some extent. Most importantly they would have to be re-branded not only as great board games but also as the entry point to the entire roleplaying hobby with a clearly started progression path.

shelf life – those greeks

Here’s a lovely little chunk of books adapting, retelling, riffing off and re-shoeing ancient greek themes .. the stories are good .. the art is good.

bookshelf greeks

Olympians – an ongoing series by George O’Conner

Wonder Woman – an ongoing series by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang for Marvel

Promethea – a two volume collection by Allan Moore and J. H. Williams for ABC

Age of Bronze – an ongoing series by Eric Shanower


bookshelf greeks 2

(l to r): Olympians, Wonder Woman, Promethea, and Age of Bronze


before the D&D starter set comes out #2 “what (recently) came before”

The D&D “Starter Set” for the next edition of the game is due out mid-July. I’m someone who has never successfully played a roleplaying game before – but I’m willing to give it another go. Is the Starter Set for me? It’s title implies it should be, but what would it need to contain to allow me to get into this hobby?

Previously: first post.

Here’s the scenario. I’ve abstracted my own situation a little for the sake of argument.

I’ve heard about roleplaying games and D&D in particular and it’s always sounded fun. Unfortunately I don’t know anyone who already plays, I don’t have a game store near me, and I don’t want to find or join a group of strangers who already know how to play.

But I do have a small group of friends and family who are willing to give D&D a try. I’ve heard there’s a new edition of the game due out soon beginning with a “Starter Set”. So I’ll buy it and get some people together to spend an evening “playing D&D”.

What Should It Look like?

In this post, I want to focus on the outside look of the product, particularly the cover of the box. I’ll use the the two most recent Starter Sets as a guide to help me imagine what I want the new Starter Set to be like.

blue and red box

(l to r): The 2008 Starter Set (blue box) and the 2010 Starter Set (red box)

Blue Box: The biggest text on the cover is the D&D logo which stands out well on it’s white background. Under it, disappearing a little into the blue background are the words “Roleplaying Game Starter Set”. Below that is an atmospheric picture of a male fighter at three-quarter view with two other fighters and a monster of some kind behind. Above the logo in small letters it says “2 to 5 players” and “Age 12+” while below the picture are the words “Easy to set up and play” and “Includes dice, dungeon tiles, and tokens”.

Red Box: Again, as you’d expect, the biggest words on the cover are the D&D logo. Below that, in small letters is “Fantasy Roleplaying Game”. “Starter Set” is next in the second biggest letter size and below that we see the picture of a fighter battling a dragon. the dragon faces us while the fighter is shown from behind. In small letters above the logo is “Age 12+” while below the picture it says “The ultimate game of your imagination, complete with monsters, magic, and treasure” and in slightly smaller letters “For 1 or more beginning or intermediate players”.

It must feel like a game: When I think of “games” I think of “cardboard boxes with things in it”. Both previous Starter Sets have been contained in cardboard boxes and there’s no reason to think the new set will be any different. This is good. Making the product seem familiar will reassure me.

It must tell me that this is where I need to start: The range of D&D products available is vast and for an outsider, confusing. The Starter Set has to make it clear that it is the place to start for new players. The words “Starter Set” are what D&D has used in the past and I can’t see any reason to change. The fact that it is in a box will also set it apart from the other D&D game material which are usually hardcover or paperback books.

It must jump out of the rack at me: Although in my little scenario I’ve already heard of the Starter Set, there are always potential players coming to the D&D product line cold. Imagine for example someone confronting the display racks of D&D products at a store or online. The Starter Set needs to jump out from all the other D&D products and say “start here!” Of the two previous Starter Sets, neither really does that for me. The words “Stater Set” are just too small. I assume D&D wants a unified look across its product line, but I think the Starter Set is a special case. I think “Starter Set” needs to be as big and as obvious as the D&D logo.

dnd so many choices

I want to start playing D&D .. but where do I start?

The art must depict the core activity of the game: Simply put, the introduction product to Dungeons and Dragons must feature a picture of a dungeon and a dragon. Comparing the previous two sets, the picture on the Red Box is better on the whole than that on the Blue Box. While the Red Box shows a dynamic picture of someone fighting a dragon the Blue Box shows a fighter facing something off-panel while a monster that is not a dragon prepare to attack from the side. The Red Box’s message is simple and obvious while that of the Blue Box is the opposite. The Red Box cleverly positions the fighter facing away from us, allowing us to imagine ourselves in their position, a common technique in manga to draw the reader into the role of the protagonist. The Blue Box tells us what our characters will look like while the Red Box, by downplaying the specificity of the fighter, allows us the freedom to project ourselves into the drama.

Tag-lines should reassure: Of all the tag lines on the Red and Blue Box, the best for me is the one promising the game to be “Easy to Set Up and Play”. The idea that the game is the “ultimate game of your imagination, complete with monsters, magic, and treasure” can better be conveyed via the picture while the fact the box includes “dice, dungeon tiles, and tokens” should be left for the back of the box. The only other things I need to know are how many people are needed to play this game and what the age range is.

Cost: It looks like the Starter Set will be going for $20. This seems a reasonable price to me – I’m willing to pay that to see if this game is right for me and my group. Anything more would make me think twice.


dnd greg starter set 3

before the D&D starter set comes out #1 “intro”

News from The Escapist Magazine – it looks likely that the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons will begin its roll out in mid-July with the release of the “Starter Set” on July 15th selling for about $20.


My past experiences with roleplaying games have been disastrous so, although I’m enthusiastic about the start of a new edition, I’m also wary of having another go at trying to get into the hobby. But there’s reason to think that this time the Starter Set may better cater for people with little or no roleplaying experience, like me.

runequest box

My 14 year old friends and I spent two fruitless weekends trying to work this game out – then we put it away and never spoke of it again.

Here’s Mike Mearls listing his aims for what he’s calling the “basic, core rules”:

In an ideal world, a group of new players can pick up the game in about the same time it takes to learn a board game such as Settlers of Catan. The basic rules are at the forefront of recruiting new players, whether they’re 10-year-olds trying their first RPGs or DMs coming back to the game after 10 years away. Adult D&D fans should feel that this is the best way to bring their kids into the games.”

Is he talking about the Starter Set? Not sure. I do like the part about being able to learn the core game in a short time – within a night if the Settlers of Catan comparison is true. Specifically he talks about a group of new players picking up the game. I wonder if he’s including a new DM in that group? If so, picking up enough of the game to be able to DM a game in the same time it takes to learn a board-game would be a pretty amazing thing.

This all really interests me because I think in the past the makers of D&D have relied upon new players learning the game by joining an already experienced group and for people to take up DMing only after getting a reasonable amount of experience as players.

I’d be really happy if instead I could buy a Starter Set and DM a game for a group of people – all of us with no previous roleplaying experience – all within one evening.

I think between now and July 15th I’ll try and jot down what I’d like to see in this Starter Set. Then once it arrives I’ll be able to see if it’s in any way what I’d imagined it to be. I’ll start .. next post.