Thursday, March 10, 2011

Repost from elsewhere: D&D Essentials Starter Set, aka "The Red Box" from August 9, 2010

I picked up the new Dungeons and Dragons "Essentials" box, henceforth referred to as the Red Box (a bit of D&D nostalgia implied) because I was interested in the monster tokens and the choose-your-own-adventure style of character generation, as well as just to see what it did to try to make 4th edition even "more" accessible than it already was. The choose your own adventure game is surprisingly fun, but that may be partly because I was obsessed with those kind of books when I was young and added a bit more nostalgia into the package. It also presents a way to get introduced to the game mechanics including the battle system in a one-player capacity by having you roll as the enemies as well as yourself, which is basically what Dungeon Delve does and so it's not exactly new, but it is really helpful. It sure beats having to get together three or four other people just to learn how to play the game. The whole thing, if you actually roll through the adventure, can take up to about an hour if you're really determined to work through it, and it's not just idling, you're actually interacting with the story since your choices change the events like in any "real" choose your own adventure book.

The process is mostly straightforward and works through the different stats, starting with what are the most pertinent to whatever class you select at the beginning and going all the way through weapons and defenses, although there are some minor snags like if you end up kicking the crap out of the goblins as a wizard, you won't get a chance to fill out your constitution score, and then when you move on it tells you to fill out your hit points based on your constitution score and you don't know how to do that so you have to backtrack to find what happens if you missed the goblin so you can get that number. Not completely elegant. Just for fun I've worked through it making a Dwarf Rogue and a Halfling Wizard. The wizard, even with the wonkiness of halfling racial mods, was pretty easy. The rogue, on the other hand, was jacked to all hell. There was a LOT of backtracking to get all the stats filled out, then once you got one filled out the next step in the adventure changed the numbers so you had to erase everything and put in new numbers, and then the numbers weren't consistent based on what it told you before. Part of this may have been because I chose one of the weirdest combinations I could think of just to see how strong the character creation system was; I intentionally chose a race that was incompatible with the class. In 4ed, rogues are "supposed" to be halflings, like dwarves are "supposed" to be fighters. I ended up having to change so many numbers around throughout the process making my dwarf rogue that I'm really not sure at this point if they're anywhere near right, since the end result was a super-powerful, nearly 90 point build. When I made my halfling wizard, it turned out an 82 point build. Later, I tried to make another halfling wizard based on the instructions in the regular 4ed player's handbook and it cranked out a 76 point build; I added 6 more points to make it in accord with the Red Box one just for comparison of the "end result" as a whole.

I think the most jacked up thing about the Red Box are the power cards. It's cool that it comes with power cards, color coded for your conenience into At-Wills, Encounters, and Dailies, it makes keeping track of them a lot easier and it's fun to turn cards over. The problem with the Red Box power cards is that they are often at a great variance with the "official" rules; moving a Red Box build into the regular game would not be without casualties. For instance, Magic Missile in regular 4ed is 2D4+Int modifier vs. Reflex against a single enemy, giving the damage usually in the 4-10 range. In the Red Box, it is 2+Int modifier automatic damage, against one OR two targets. So depending on whether your Int modifer is +3 or +4, it always deals 5 or 6 damage. OK. And your target can't defend or dodge; you use it, it hits. And you can smack two people with it. It seems like they're trading power for reliability here, but what if after you've worked through the Red Box and you've got your level 2 or 3 wizard and you want to move into the full game and all of a sudden you're rolling dice on something that was previously a gimme. Apparently this was the quandary way back when between the Basic Set and AD&D, but I don't know why Wizards would want to introduce *that kind* of nostalgia back into the game. Another jacked up power card thing is with the rogue. In the set-up adventure, it's established that the rogue has a dagger and that deals 1D4+Dex modifier; that's fine, the rogue is a dex-based class, so trading str for dex and limiting it to small blades is totally reasonable. However, when you get to the power cards and get to the rogue's special sort of traits, which boil down to blade arts, the damage magically upgrades from a dagger to a shortsword and all of the powers become 1D6 plus whatever modifiers the specific skill adds instead of 1D4. Now, I am totally fine with being upgraded from a dagger to a shortsword, but it seems like they'd have mentioned "Well, now that you're done doing this build, you find a shortsword on one of the goblins and toss your dagger in in favor of that!"

A last little nitpick that I actually sort of like, but is in variance with the regular rules, is that they seem to have introduced alternate builds for some races. In the Red Box, you can build a dwarf with +2 con and wis OR +2 con and STR; in the PHB you only get the +2 con and wis type. On top of that, they sort of streamline the thief/rogue dichotomy in the PHB by allowing you to build your rogue on acrobatics OR athletics. I'm too lazy to see if they have dual builds on all races and classes or just these. If so, that's a potential 64 differently nuanced characters that could be generated (4 races, 4 classes, 2 builds for each class, 2 builds for each race); however I doubt this. And the changes are so subtle it hardly makes a difference for some builds. Whether you use a wis or str based dwarf wouldn't much matter with the wizard build, since all the wizard's attacks are int based. It certainly didn't matter on the dwarf rogue, since all those attacks are dex based. None of these variant builds come at odds with integrating the character back into the full 4ed rules though.

Apparently the Fighter has some jacked up stuff but I haven't worked through that build yet. I DO like how supposedly the fighter just... fights. One of the big complaints about 4ed was that the fighter was given so many extra things that the spirit of the fighter, the "I want to hit it with my sword" mentality, was quite far away. So the Red Box fighter apparently just hits things with his sword. Probably has some powers like cleave and double strike, but no triple luxe spins with a battleaxe while singing Gilbert and Sullivan. Clerics are honestly pretty straightforward in 4ed, so I can't imagine the cleric OR the fighter being as jacked up as the rogue or to a lesser extent the wizard.

As I mentioned earlier, I did do a side-by-side comparison of the PHB method and the Red Box method, and I gotta say I like the Red Box one a lot more. What the Red Box DOESN'T have is a quick summary of what it did through the adventure to get you to those stats, so if you want to create a new character you have to go through the adventure again. I think they really could have just slapped one more page in there that explained what each step meant and how it was used to build the character, since it leaves those sort of up in the air and esoteric and are quite content with "just follow the adventure again." Of course, the PHB has a similar problem, which may even be worse. You've got to trudge through all three hundred or something pages to get all the information you need to put the character sheet together, and it saves how to calculate your AC, Fort, Ref, and Will until near the very end of the entire book. Making a character out of the PHB means you have to actually READ the PHB cover to cover at least once, and then if you aren't bookmarking the relevant tables and boxes for putting a character together, you've got to flip all around to find it again since the index is not very great. At the end of it, the Red Box creates a more powerful character than the PHB; you get more attacks, better stats, and a first-level feat (Jack of All Trades is the greatest thing in the entire world), but at the cost of having a less versatile character. At the end of the Red Box adventure, I felt more entertained but less "involved" with my character, since there weren't any ways to make the character unique. I found myself sort of screwing around by the end to try to make it stand out by being funny, coming up with absurd names and marking "Alignment" with things like "straight" or "bi-curious." With the PHB method, it takes a lot more time, you have a lot more options (especially if you've got the supplemental books that have EVEN MORE powers and feats for all levels) and the pen hits the paper more; I feel more "scholarly" when I do it "longhand," which I suppose is probably exactly the opposite of how a lot of people will feel about getting the chance to interact with their character as they create them with the Red Box adventure. Overall though the two characters came out evenly enough matched and I don't feel like one method is "superior" to the other one, just different. I did sort of like my Red Box wizard a little bit more despite the differences, but I was working out of just the PHB, I don't have Arcane Power so the choices for first level wizard powers are super limited. And I like not having to wait until level 2 for my first feat.

I think overall the Red Box succeeds exactly where it wanted to: to be a really great, solid piece of D&D introductory material, the "gateway drug" to the full game, as it were. They're coming out with enough Essentials line stuff over the next few months that you can keep the training wheels on for quite some time. I don't expect that the slight mechanics and rules changes from Essentials to regular 4e will be all that jarring or surprising once someone gets familiar enough with gameplay in Essentials, and maybe as with the case of magic missile, a wizard will be glad to have the thing do a little more damage than just an automatic 5 (which is, incidentally, the sort of damage a minion does). Essentials takes its place about halfway between the ultra-simplistic D&D Miniatures Game rules and the full 4th Edition rules, and the Red Box rules are elegant enough for new players and hardly require any time-consuming rules disputes, which are the speed train for pissing potential new gamers off so bad they never want to tabletop again. I'm looking at you, Rifts.

In the end, I think that having the Red Box is an awesome way to start on D&D, and I think it is a savvy advertising move for Wizards to make. The Red Box just doesn't have enough options to make it really fulfilling past level 2; unless Heroes of the Forgotten Lands has a LOT more stuff to spec out the characters with, it's going to sort of force players who want to continue to buy at least the PHB ($34.95 MSRP). I'm sort of curious to look at the new Essentials "Rules Compendium" book to see how they've fiddled with the PHB for the "complete" Essentials rules. I don't think that Essentials constitutes a "4.5" build of D&D at this point, not like what happened between 3 and 3.5. I see absolutely no major conflict at all with working Essentials into regular 4ed, slight mechanics changes be damned.

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