I remember being a kid (probably between the ages of 12 and 14, though I don’t really remember exactly) and getting my first Dungeons & Dragons set. It was the “Red Box” set. So recently when the new 5th edition of the game came out and they were selling a starter set (and on Amazon it was only like $11-$12) I decided to pick it up and see what it was like. With that in mind, I’m going to try to do two things with this post. First review how well Wizards of the Coast did at creating a introduction to the game. My second part of the review is going to be how it compares, in my own head, with how TSR handled this in the 80s. Keep in mind this is going to be a pretty direct comparison between those two things. I still have many of the books that I had as a teenager but I haven’t played the game in well over 20 years.
To be clear, I don’t intend on discussing the new 5th edition rules. I may at some point, but not today. This is just how well I think this set meets the goal. So, what’s in the box? There are two books. One is a 30 page rule book that covers the basics of how a game is run. How to determine initiative, how to generate a character, etc. is explained in very clear, straightforward text. There are many, fully painted illustrations. Then there is a 60ish page adventure that covers a gaming scenario. The module (do they still call them that?) is designed to walk a new Dungeon Master (DM) through his or her first adventure. There are many “read this” boxes to help the DM understand what they should say or how to describe the environment the characters are in. There is a set of the standard 6 dice and 5 pre-rolled characters that can get players up and running quickly with a little filling out of the details.
Overall I think the set is a success. It does exactly what it intends to do. Get a set of novices to the point that they can run a D&D game. Everything is explained in brief in the rule book and then fleshed out a bit more in the adventure. I have no doubt that any group could pick up this set and be playing in short order with no prior role playing experience. I believe that was the goal so it is very successful in that. The books feel a bit like magazines to me, with thin covers and glossy pages. The box is also about twice as deep as it needs to be. It even has a cardboard insert in the box to take up extra space. I know, weird. Again, just to be clear though, this set does what it sets out to do.
Now onto my evaluation of it in comparison to the sets I got from TSR many moons ago. I realize this may not be fair and is probably entirely emotional but oh well.
One of the things this new set cannot do that the old sets did was make it easy to build your own adventures after playing through the existing adventure. It did this by having two books, one a Player’s Handbook, the other the Dungeon Master’s Guide (these are not to be confused with similar hardcover books for AD&D, a related, but distinct game). The DM’s Guide had a small adventure where the book walked you through leading an adventure (much smaller than the one included in the new set). The bulk of the book was set aside for information to assist the DM in creating other adventures, things like, treasure information, a listing of monsters to use, etc. These things are not covered in the new set. I’d suggest that WoC just wanted to sell you more books but they do have a full download of the rules available free of charge. Of course that doesn’t include monsters if you want to start constructing your own adventures so maybe that is what they’re after.
The books themselves were, at least in my estimation, of a higher quality. They had heavy cardstock covers. The pages inside the books were not the full color glossy magazine style pages which made them great for note taking and highlighting. The fact that the rules for the DM & players were in two separate books was, in my opinion, superior to the new set. Sure you’d have some repetition but you wouldn’t have to trade the book back and forth during play.
There’s also a more intangible property to the old sets. Perhaps they just remind me of being a kid, a simpler time and all that. But the new set seemed like just what it was, rules for a game, not an introduction to a world to play in which is how my young brain handled the old Red Box. I wish the new set carried with it some of that magic the old ones had.
And the books have a weird smell to them, literally. I know that’s a weird complaint but I love books. And part of the experience of holding a book is its smell (at least for me).
So, if you have never played D&D (or any other role playing game) and want a quick way to jump in and play, this set will be great for you. Personally, I’d probably find a used set on eBay and play the old game but I’m sure that’s purely for nostalgia’s sake. Definitely an easy in to a game with unlimited possibilities.