D&D Starter Set: The Physical Object

Ok, time to crack open the new D&D Starter Set.

(Note: I am literally writing this as I go, so I may occasionally trip over things which are clarified later on. This is the risk of capturing first impressions. I am explicitly starting with the boxed set, and will move onto the PDF afterwards because that’s the path that someone who hasn’t been sitting at the computer waiting for this to come out might take.)

I have been fairly obsessive about D&D boxes for a while. Early on in 4E they released a really wonderful Starter Set box that was full of everything you could want to play, including some great tokens. But the box itself was terrible. it was just a paper wrapper around a cardboard shell. Once you opened it, it no longer had the structural integrity to hold anything. The net result was a very disappointing product, so when they made noises about another box (the one that would eventually become the new Red Box) I was very vocal about how critical it was that the box be an actual box.[1]

It’s with that in mind that when I got the D&D starter set, the very first thing I turned my attention to was the box. Is this a box in which I can put books, character sheets, dice, pencils and the like? Or does it just end up on the shelf? The answer seems to be that it’s a decent box of exactly the sort that previous D&D products have come in. Nice, enough.

I was pondering a bit what it might mean if the box was made of heavier stock, the kind that modern board games are made of. Heavy enough that it really could be a portable kit. It’s a nice thought, but impractical – too expensive, and the size of the forthcoming hardcovers would be an issue. Something for the aftermarket.

The box certainly looks nice, and the branding is interesting. “Starter set” is actually more prominent than “D&D”, which is in turn more prominent than “Dungeons & Dragons”. Normally, this would raise my eyebrow as, it seems like it would be a problem for customers who see the box and don’t know what they’re looking at (like, say, shoppers at Target) or who are looking for the product by name. However, the presence of a giant dragon on the cover of the box probably offsets that somewhat.[2]

One interesting upshot of the more limited trade dress is that the artwork is more prominent than it was in almost any other edition. 3e books had a totally different design, and while 2e and 4e (and the updated 1e covers) had striking art, the titling was still quite prominent. The closest comparison would be the 1e books, but even that is not a fair comparison because the 1e art was effectively self-framed in black.

All of which makes the picture intriguing to me.[3] It’s a pretty cool picture, and it puts the “Dragon” part of things right up front, which is totally a win, but it’s really interesting to look at it compared to other editions. Setting aside 3e (the eternal exemption of cover design), the thing that strikes me is that the colors in this seem almost muted. All previous editions have been fairly striking in their color choices, but this one seems to largely be greens and browns.

This is not a criticism. I like it, and I certainly don’t know enough about color theory to speak to any deeper understanding of it. It’s just a curious choice. In much the same way I’m really intrigued to break down all the fonts being used in this but I’m really not the guy to do that.[4]

All in all, it’s a pleasing package, and one that, from the outside at least, looks like it’ll be worth the (very reasonable) $20.

So, I suppose I should open it.

Quick question: Knowing that there are dice in the box, what do you imagine they look like?

I had not given this much thought in advance, but if pressed, I would have expected one of each die type (maybe a second d10 for percentages, if it’s important) in a solid monotone, probably black or red. And with that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the dice are actually a fairly nice looking, slightly marbled blue. This is a very small thing, but it’s a thoughtful touch, since it means that the boxed set dice are cool and distinctive. In 10 years, you’ll find one, and know where it came from. In contrast, the super-bland monotones tend to disappear into the bottom of a dice bag, never to be seen again.[5] I like it.

In addition to the dice, the box contains 2 books (An adventure and a rulebook), 5 character sheets, an advertising sheet for D&D Encounters and a cardboard insert to make the whole thing seem more full. The books are staple-bound, glossy stock with no discrete cover, which is pretty much par for course. I understand the reasoning for it, but it emphasizes that these books are ultimately disposable, which does not increase the sense of value in the product.

In the absence of a true cover, they reveal the larger picture which the box cover was part of. More of the picture is revealed on the Starter set, with the whole picture (I presume) on the front of the adventure. I read this as an homage to the D&D artistic trick of progressive covers containing elements of previous ones (most famously in basic/expert, mirrored in the 4e covers) but I might be overreading into it, and it’s just clever art re-use.

The character sheets are on surprisingly nice paper (28# maybe?) and certainly look and feel nice. Given that they’re expected to be handled extensively, that’s another small but smart touch. It also emphasizes that they’re explicitly not glossy, which is a big deal. Glossy means you can’t write on it, and it’s a permanent part of the box. A character sheet on paper is more shareable and (critically) more usable.

it’s impossible to not compare it to the Edge of Empire starter set, which has a much crappier box but a much higher sense of value in its components (lots of punch out card stock, big map, stuff like that). On one hand, that might be an argument that WOTC could have skimped on the box (much to my chagrin) but since my EoE stuff currently resides in a box I had to find for it, I stand by my valuation of boxes.

So that’s the physical product. At $20 it feels like you’re largely paying for the box and dice, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not a ringing endorsement. At the $12 Amazon price point it’s absolutely worthwhile, and it’s up to you if your local gamestore is worth the extra 8 bucks. Mine was, but I’m lucky.

I admit I wonder if I’d feel different if they had combined the two books into a single perfect bound copy. It would be no different in terms of content, but it would feel like a more substantial product, which would probably have left me feeling like I had gotten a real bargain. Lots of reasons why that isn’t practical, but the illusion of value is a curious thing.

Same thinking applies to adding a map or some cardboard minis. I admit my sense is that the box really needed one more thing to feel like a value, but the there are many things the that one thing could have been.

Anyway, that’s enough about the physical object. Next time, we dig into the content.


  1. And it was. I just wish the content had been as cool as the first box. It was ambitious, but didn’t quite come together.  ↩
  2. All that said, I am intrigued by the little torn red Dungeon & Dragons trade dress. It’s not showcased well on a box, but i imagine that it will wrap around to the spine for books, for a consistent color band on the shelf. This is what intrigues me, because it’s set up in such a way that it could trivially use different colors and messages to communicate sub-brands, though I have no reason to think that it’s what they will do.  ↩
  3. I am told that it is part of a larger picture, but i have not gone looking for that, so I’m treating that as non-data for the moment. By the time I finished this and opened the box.  ↩
  4. if pressed, I wonder if it’s intentionally making the branding look even less like Magic.  ↩
  5. I presume they’re Chessex (edit: Or Koplow, thank you Lyndsay!), but the only identifying information is that they’re made in China. If they can be gotten on their own, I’ll probably buy another set, if only to get another d6 and d10 to make it more fully useful. Not likely to buy another starter box just for the dice.  ↩

6 thoughts on “D&D Starter Set: The Physical Object

  1. Michael Phillips

    “I admit I wonder if I’d feel different if they had combined the two books into a single perfect bound copy.”
    Yeah, my second favorite D&D starter set did that. http://rpggeek.com/rpgitem/69804/classic-dungeons-dragons-game (1994) is a reprint (minus the awesome folder full of dm’s walk through of how to run the game/dm screen) of the 1991 edition. Which was the first of four much too large boxes published in the line. I remember walden books having stacks of them on tables because they didn’t fit the shelves: http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/17533/new-easy-master-dungeons-dragons

    Reply
  2. Tim Gray

    I’ve got one too, and I also had the thought that one more thing in the box would have helped me feel the value. A map or card minis would have been good candidates. Over here it’s selling at £17, which is, I dunno, around what you’d pay for a 128-page rpg sourcebook.

    I’ve only read bits of the rule book so far, but I think I’m liking it more than expected. The set is clearly saying, look, have an experience of playing 5th edition, and if we convince you we’ll have lots more stuff you can get.

    (BTW, it does call itself 5th edition but it’s very low-key about it.)

    Reply
  3. Pingback: 5e Initial Review | The Walking Mind

  4. Sandra

    I don’t really need another d10 (I can just use the last digit on the d20 for the units on the percentile rolls) but I could do well with another d20! For advantage & disadvantage.

    Reply

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