D&D Starter Set: Rules Essentials

Definitely curious to dig into the Starter Set Rulebook, so I naturally start with the Table of Contents. I’d normally just skip over it and start reading, but it’s worth pausing and viewing it as an outline for the doc. It’s an interesting breakdown – 32 pages total, 6 on the essentials, 6 on combat, 6 on adventuring, 12 on spells and a 1 page appendix of conditions.

This is actually a pretty informative split. Combat is smaller than the stereotypical image of D&D might suggest, and rather it is the magic section which really eats up the pages. This is not new – magic (and magic items) have always greatly outstripped the base mechanics in terms of volume, even if we don’t always think about it in those terms.


Into the actual text, I was struck by a very nice touch – after the initial (perfectly solid) “What is D&D?” Paragraph, we actually open with an example of play. It’s not that the example is particularly amazing – it’s fine – but starting with example text illustrates a priority of design that I like very much. Sadly, it’s a head fake – after two examples on the first page, that’s pretty much the end of the examples. So, bummer.[1]

It also , honestly makes me a little more skeptical of the text explaining the very basics of how to play. The reality is that I’m a very poor judge of their quality – I have done this too long to freshen my eyes that much, but as I look for things like examples (or a glossary) and don’t find them, I worry a bit. of course, the counterargument is that a) space is tight and b) there is enough ambient information on what an RPG is that no one is really just learning from the text anymore. I’m sympathetic to a, but worry about b as a bit self-fulfilling.

The description of the Structure of Play is a nice inclusion. It’s fairly solid:
1. DM describes environment,
2. Players describe actions
3. DM narrate response.

I could nitpick some of the details, but really my only beef is that I wish the statement that the end of 3 was back at #1 was a bit more prominent.

In a curious layout decision, the rules for halving (round down) is its own section rather than a callout box. I’m presuming because it’s immediately followed by a large callout box on “What’s Next”[2] so the decision was forced. Tiny thing, mostly revealing that I spend more time than I should thinking about layout, but I suspect that’s not news.

The stats…er, Abilities are largely familiar to any D&D player. It reveals a few interesting things, like the fact that monsters have stats in a very 3e-sounding fashion. It also confirms that 18’s get a +4 (no 18’s on the character sheets to check that).

What caught my eye was something in the stat descriptions. Wisdom is described as “perception and insight” while Charisma is described as “force of personality”. This is interesting because of a missing element – willpower. As those are written, I’m not quite clear which stat I’m going to be rolling to resist, say, magical persuasion. Given the new shape of the saving throws, I’m VERY interested in the answer to that question. Now, it’s possible this is just unclear because it’s a shorthand, but I’m putting a pin in it in hopes of finding out.

The words spend on distinguishing ability score from ability modifier gives me fresh appreciation for the elegance of Dungeon World’s stats where you have a 17 “dexterity” and a +2 “DEX”, so it is clear which id being referred to.

The core rule is the same it’s been since 3e: roll d20, add a value, equal or exceed a DC or AC. Simple enough, but nothing is said about what DCs mean, so there’s another pin.

And, finally, we get the actual Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. They went with the bonus die/penalty die model. if you have an advantage, roll an extra d20 and keep the better one. If you have a disadvantage, roll and extra d20 and keep the worse one. I’m withholding opinion until I’ve tried this a bit at the table, but I certainly like the idea. The underlying construct of an abstract Adv/Disadv is a great rules hook, and I think it is unreservedly a good idea. The only question is whether the extra die (which seems fun) is more or less hassle than just calling it a, say, +2/–2[3]

The ability section took a couple of read-throughs. Some of that may be my own assumptions, but I think the clarity is a little weird. As explained, you don’t make skill checks, rather, you always make ability checks, and skills fold into that. I can see the logic to that in the abstract, but the presentation of the skills on the character sheet suggests the opposite (that you make skill checks by default, with their bonus derived from the relative stat and modified by proficiency).

Put another way, as described, you can use dexterity to do acrobatics, be sneaky, or perform sleight of hand. Skills equate to these arenas of dexterity, and grant a bonus if you’re proficient. I actually like this explanation quite a lot. But if you look at the character sheet and see that you have a dexterity of +2 and an acrobatics of +2, it seems that would suggest that you take +4 to the roll when getting acrobatic. If you already know the system and realize that it’s just a cross reference, then you can suss it out.

I’m not faulting the design for this – as I said, I kind of dig this approach, though it’s not flawless – but I’m faulting the character sheet for not reflecting it. If it turns out the basic rules actually talk about skills[4] in the normal fashion (as reflected on the character sheet) then this may have just been a complication in the name of simplification.

I’m trying to judge how this intersects with the number of skills per stat, especially because of some weirdness. Con has no skills, which seems bad, but I presume it shows up a lot in saves lot or something. Strength has only one skill, but it’s Athletics, and it encompasses climbing, jumping and swimming, so that’s a pretty badass skill. Dex has three skills Ca has 4 and Wis and Int have 5 each.

Setting aside the weirdness of Constitution, the historical thinking with these things has been that Strength and Dex are so dominant in D&D that there is a balancing effect to adding more skills to a given stat. However, I don’t think that’s true any more. If the idea is that I’m rolling Wisdom (rather than Insight) then I’m actually being penalized if there are more skills.

To illustrate what I mean, consider if there were Climb, Jump and Swim skills under strength. That would be 3 skills, making it 3 times as expensive to be good at those three things than it is with a single skill (athletics).

Now, it’s not quite so clear cut as all that, but since the bonuses pretty much all work the same way, the real “balance” is in the determination of how many useful things fall under each stat. If we take the number of skills as a shorthand for that, then it might make sense to consider more skills to mean a more “potent” stat. However, that idea falls apart when we look at the actual skills involved. Of intelligence’s 5 skills, 4 could easily be combined into “Lore” skill (if that was desired), so they do not reflect a broader penumbra for the stat so much as it does more narrow slicing (and since the 5th skill, investigation, feels hijacked from wisdom, it seems all the more arbitary). Similar things can be found in the division between Insight and Perception. These are traditional divisions, and I’m not sure they still hold up.

Add in the fact that saves seem functionally identical but are treated as mechanically separate, and I admit I’m kind of throwing up my hands. If there is a unifying idea behind this section, I can’t see it. Perhaps it becomes more clear in the actual rules, and it’s merely suffered from the abbreviation that comes of going into a starter set. I certainly hope so.

And to be clear, I don’t think this is going to be a problem in terms of learning to play (excepting the potential character sheet confusion) because the ultimate mechanic remains very simple. And more, since I don’t yet know how proficiencies are distributed, I can’t make any real comment about balance, but I’m definitely giving it the hairy eyeball.

The section ends with a callout box on finding hidden objects which could probably be labeled “reasons for things to no be found” which is not the best note. 🙂

So far the game seems fine as a game, but I’m definitely struggling with some of the decisions and presentation. Hopefully more becomes clear as we proceed.

EDIT: After I posted, I realized a clearer summation of my concern:  I like how they rethought the idea of skills, but in doing so, it does not feel like they rethought what things should be skills (with all that entails).. 

Boilerplate: I skipped the beta. I am writing these as i read each section, which means I will frequently reveal misunderstandings and faulty assumptions.  That is the cost of doing this “live”, so to speak, but I want to capture those impressions, warts and all.


  1. Despite their brevity, there’s something interesting about the examples – there’s no explanatory or framing text, it’s pure script format, with everything expressed in the way it’s said at the table. It’s a good format.  ↩
  2. This is the call out to go get the basic rules at the website and a plug for the forthcoming core books.  ↩
  3. No, that’s not mathematically equivalent. Were I to guess, it might be closer to 3 or 4, but I don’t have the math on hand to be sure.  ↩
  4. While I like the concept, it has one HUGE flaw that I don’t see an easy path through, and that is that it is simply awkward for the GM to call for a “Strength(Athletics)” check rather than just an “Athletics check”.  ↩

25 thoughts on “D&D Starter Set: Rules Essentials

  1. MIchael

    I posted my initial thoughts on the starter last night and wanted to say my biggest disappointment was the lack of ‘play examples’ throughout. I’ve only recently gotten into FATE core but thought the continous examples was great touch and hope to see more of that in other games. Granted they had page count concerns, but especially when you get to spell slots vs. prepared spells, vs. spells known, there will be confusing (already is, from what i’ve seen).

    Thanks for sharing,


    p.s. my other two disappointments, in case you are wondering, were lack of a DM screen and I wanted a real set of dice (so another D10 for % and 3 more d6’s)

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I will totally check that out once I finish! Trying not to spoil myself yet. 🙂

    2. newbiedm

      FWIW, I asked Mearls about the lack of beefy play examples, and he told me that they thought how-to-play videos would be a better route.

      I leave it up to you to decide if that’s a better route. I tend to disagree, given how the starter set doesn’t even give links to their youtube channel or a line telling us to go to these videos to see the game in action.

      1. Rob Donoghue Post author

        That’s a totally reasonable sentiment if those examples are easy to find, but given that this is the first i’ve heard of them, that suggests the Starter Set could probably point to them more clearly.

  2. Tim Gray

    I had a very similar set of thoughts.

    It feels to me like it needed one more editing pass by somebody fresh. I think describing the basic roll as vs DC and then refusing to give an idea of what those might be is a major booboo. (There’s some at the beginning of the adventure book.)

    I don’t think any of this makes it a bad product… but it could have done with being a few clicks better as a -starter- product.

  3. Baz Stevens

    It’s weird but I’ve really enjoyed not having to parse players requests into skill rolls in the games I’ve DMed. Instead, I ask for ability checks, and the players suggest a skill to add, and I say yay or nay. That reads like it might take longer, but only in seconds and it’s a natural conversation that somehow puts a touch of narrative into the players hands, a good thing IMO.
    Imagine it this way, if the character sheet only listed your proficiencies, it would be more akin to 13th Ages backgrounds. They work brilliantly. This system clearly is not so free form, but it does work well.

  4. Jason

    Great write ups!

    Having played the early playtests with our group, I will say that Advantage/Disadvantage rolls played much more fun for us than simple +2/-2 of previous editions.

  5. Michael Phillips

    Advantage/disadvantage shifts the center of the curve 3.325 points up or down without changing the end points. Which has cool implications for design. A minus 3 penalty means you can never hit a DC within 3 of your maximum while disadvantage just makes it harder. I like.

    1. Tim Gray

      When I did something kind of similar for Albion, I described it as giving lift or drag on rolls.

  6. Chris Gardiner

    The other slick thing about advantage is that it addresses a common problem: when you make a roll, forget to add a modifier, then remember it a few minutes later after you’ve forgotten exactly what you rolled. The whole “No, wait – on my last go I should have added +1 from the bless spell to that attack roll, does that mean I hit?”

    When most modifiers are replaced by advantage, if you forget you had it and remember later, the GM can just say “roll your advantage die now” and all the information you need is there. You don’t have to remember what you rolled before.

    I’m impressed. When I think about how often this happens at the table I realise it’s a lot (especially in modifier-heavy games like D&D) but not one I can think of many games addressing.

  7. JasonLW

    The division between Insight and Perception seems the same as between, say, Empathy and Notice to me. One is interpersonal and the other sensory.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      In the classical, skill-based sense, you are *totally* correct. But I highlight them to illustrate a peculiarity with 5e. They are not skills in the normal sense, but rather refinements on what you can already do with Wisdom. This means that you could, without difficulty, combine them into one “awareness” skill, or just as easily divide them into three skills (Say, Empathy, Notice and Danger Sense).

      Contrast this with Strength, which combines Climbing, Jumping and Swimming in one skill. It too could just as easily be 2 or 3 different skills.

      And, importantly, none of these combinations would be *wrong*. As long as they make a rough kind of sense, then they have no intrinsic problems.

      But if you abstract one layer, the question becomes how you make the decision regarding how you’re going to divvy up these concepts, and what that means. If you make these decisions willy-nilly, it can have unexpected consequences.

      In this case, the question is whether a stat is really better if it has more skills under it if the number of skills don’t really broaden the scope of what it can do. Intelligence provides a really fantastic example of this because in 5e, Intelligence lets you do two things – know stuff, and investigate*. But because “Know stuff” is divided into 4 categories, it artificially inflates the ‘cost’ of that.

      In contrast, strength lets you do 3 things (Swim, Jump, Climb) but because those things are combined, you are getting a discount. So, in the scope of this, Strength is a pretty good deal to invest in, because with 1 Skill, you get good at 3 things. Invest in INT, and one skill gets you 25% of good at something.

      It’s a simplification, of course, but it highlights the key underlying point – the *number* of skills is no longer reflective of the utility of the stat and, in fact, fewer skills can actually be an advantage. This is backwards from past ideas (and is largely a result of there being no apparent penalty for being unskilled).

      * – And investigate is partly throwing it a bone, partly deciding that Sherlock Holmes maybe shouldn’t have a high wisdom.

      1. Michael Phillips

        I like Sherlock with a low wisdom. That makes watson’s role to do things like make sure he stops to eat or doesn’t step out in front of a car or implicate himself in a crime in front of a cop.

  8. Wayne Peacock

    Very interesting, but looking at this quote: “Now, it’s not quite so clear cut as all that, but since the bonuses pretty much all work the same way, the real “balance” is in the determination of how many useful things fall under each stat.”

    Not sure if this version of “balance” was or should be a design goal for D&D, however interesting it may be to ponder.

    More exactly how often do you want (in D&D) to have a high STR character who is better at jumping vs. climbing? How important a reference is that in the D&D archetypes?

    Whereas it is important to have someone better at natural lore (druid) vs. arcana (wizard) vs religion (cleric). So the divisions would seem to exist to reinforce the archetypes, right?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      So, bear in mind that I have no particular dog in this fight regarding the right combination, I’m merely interested in what the decision communicates. Past versions of D&D have tried to take steps to avoid the “Dump stat” phenomena, and the most straightforward way to do that is to expand the scope of what a given stat (especially a non-physical stat) does.

      That this choice configuration works for you is genuinely a good thing. I think it will be a good match for a lot of people, especially those with enough 3e/pathfinder under their belt that this seems “intuitive”.

  9. CarlR

    Better of 2d20 averages 13.825 which is 3.325 better than the 10.5 average for 1d20. So your intution “between 3 and 4” is correct. Worse of 2d20 is 7.175.

    Thanks for the detailed examination, I’m finding your posts very interesting.

  10. Alex

    I think the significant thing about the advantage die is actually nothing to do with what it does to the average dice score. It is what it does to the extremes.

    In particular, if you have advantage, your chance of a 1 (fumble) goes from 1 in 20 to 1 in 400. If you have disadvantage your chance of a 20 (crit) likewise goes from 1 in 20 to 1 in 400.

    So while the range of possible numbers stays the same as 1 through to 20, disadvantage makes it really difficult to do exceptionally well, advantage makes it really difficult to do exceptionally badly.

    IMO that is one of the neatest things about the idea.

    The one thing that I don’t know whether it is spelled out is how advantage and disadvantage conditions ‘stack’. i.e. if you have two things that would give you advantage and four things that would give you disadvantage, then it cancels out to ‘disadvantage’. if you had two things that might give advantage and one that gives disadvantage it would cancel down to ‘advantage’. Alternatively, does any number of advantage things count for advantage, and any number of disadvantages count for disadvantage, and so if you have any amount on either side of the equation they cancel out. I hope they have clear rules on that, it is something I’d like to see.


    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Indeed – that is something I’ve always liked about using bonus dice rather than modifiers. And the text seems to be clear on the implementation, thankfully.

      Only the “any amount cancels any amount” bit is a little counterintuitive, but I imagine it undercuts the risk of advantage/disadvantage counting, which I could see getting tedious, fast, so it seems like the right call.

  11. Joshua

    I really like how any amount of advantage/disadvantage cancels the other, since that’s yet another thing that reduces the chances of “Oh, I should have had 3 stacks of advantage vs. 2 disadvantage, so I should have had advantage on that roll” *and* it means you can stop looking for whether there are any applicable sources as soon as you spot one.


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