Monthly Archives: July 2014

D&D Starter Set: The Adventure

It is somewhat emblematic that the index for the Starter Set rulebook went on the back of the adventure. There are a handful of things (like how to set DCs) which find their way into the adventure that should have been in the rules. I assume that’s a function of space management. The rulebook was pretty pressed for space as is, but it still threw me a bit.

I’m going to spoil the hell out of the adventure when I get into it, so let me start with the non-spoiler stuff, and I’ll mark when I make the transition.

  • GM priorities are clearly articulated – When in doubt, make it up. it’s not a competition. It’s a shared story. Be consistent. Make sure everyone is involved. Be fair. Pay attention. Some of those are stronger than others, but it’s not a bad list.
  • No real nuance to character failure. I’m hopeful that the actual rules are more expansive.
  • Yeah, I totally skipped ahead to the magic items. Charged items seem to have switched over to a small number of charges, recover about half of them per day, risk losing the item is you use the last charge. Not a bad model.
  • It struck me that it’d be pretty trivial to have magic items that just expand the number of spells the wielder has prepared.[1]
  • Other magic items were about what I’d expect, though “attunement” is a nice addition. it takes time to attune to more potent items, and there’s a limit to how many items you can be attuned to. Good trick for limiting total magic item haul without including more mundane items. For example, the staves listed require attunement, but a +1 sword (apparently) does not.
  • Monster entries are interesting, and look more like 3e without class levels than anything. No minions or bosses. The few humans statted up this way have what seem to largely be one-off abilities (or spell casting). There’s a little bit of the distinctive color of 4e (goblins can disengage and hide easily, frex) but on the whole, these entries feel a bit more…utilitarian. It might just be a function of it being an adventure, though.
  • Monsters have challenge ratings (though there seems to be a fair amount of variation in what makes a “1”) which translate into XP. But the adventure just seems to be handing out Milestone XP, so I’m not sure what’s going on there.
  • Inspiration! Your roleplaying hooks grant you a point of inspiration when they cause you trouble, you spend that point for a bonus (advantage on a roll). Familiar mechanic, and I can’t fault it. The decision to limit it to a single inspiration is a nice incentive to use-or-lose, though getting that flowing properly will depend on the table getting a sense of its cadence. You don’t want to spend inspiration before you need it if you don’t think you’ll get a chance to get it back!
  • I admit I totally blah-blah-blahed over the forgotten realms stuff. It’s near Neverwinter, which is great (probably the single best 4e product). The maps are gorgeous, but, well, Mike Schley, so that very nearly goes without saying.
  • Yes, the adventure hook is thin, but it’s a starter adventure. Of course the hook is thin. It’s enough to start playing, and that’s enough for me (though I do wish there had been maybe a little more information on Gundran at the outset, if only for ease of reference)

Ok, done the general stuff. On to the meat of things.


The overview of the four main parts of the adventure was useful, but it left me pretty unclear on the whole transition from 3 to 4. As a whole it felt like:
1. Fight Goblins!
2. Save the Town!
3. Um….do a bunch of stuff. Y’know. Stuff
4. Go to Climax!

Not to say that act 3 is bad or unstructured, but the explanation? Left a bit to be desired.

Also, while I appreciate the absence of a ticking clock on this adventure, based on the description of what’s up, it feels like there should be one.

Goblin Arrows

  • As is to be expected, lots of GM guidance in the first fight, which is good,
  • The idea that you might keep initiative in the margins of the adventure sounds like something that was written before layout. Glossy paper + tiny margins == Not so much.
  • If the players kill the goblins but blow the Wisdom (Survival) roll, they pretty much are screwed. The DC is low enough that this probably won’t happen, but it would probably have been worth spending a sentence on.
  • I like the traps on the trail. They’re total sleight of hand, since they don’t really challenge resources (because their consequences are so mild) but that’s good for teaching the idea to new players. Doubly nice to put the more harmless trap first, so that if the partly learns their lesson and starts looking for traps after that one, they’ll spot the slightly more dangerous one.
  • The actual dungeon is nicely set up. There’s a lot of sleight of hand here (the loud river, the wolves always making noise, the sentries being lazy) to keep the encounters discrete, but that’s appropriate for an introductory adventure, and it’s done in such a way that it doesn’t feel too ham-fisted
  • I feel like there’s a really good chance of the party skipping acts 2 and 3 if they manage to charm or interrogate any of the goblins. Especially if Sildar doesn’t make it. The GM can plan for this by adding in some personal hooks into town, but it feels like this should be cut off at the pass, because as is, it’s pretty logical, especially since the cart (their other responsibility) is Gunden’s. I am pretty sure I would be all “Why don’t we take this cart of adventuring supplies and go…adventure with it!”
    • Especially because at that point, the town and the castle are roughly equidistant.
  • I loved the possibilities of the negotiation with Yeemik over Sildar. it is a shame that they don’t pad that out a little bit, especially the guaranteed betrayal. Even a small nod to the use of social skills in resolving things might have been nice.
  • Given that there’s a non-trivial chance of the party coming into Klarg’s chamber via the chimney, a little more guidance on how to play that would be nice. is the entrance out of sight? How quickly will they spot the first player up the chimney?
  • I dig the flood as a potential event. Memorable, but scarier than it is really dangerous. I would have liked a little guidance on what the Goblins to next.
  • Because I felt like doing the math, it’s about 75 miles from Neverwinter to Phandelver[2], or about 3 days, assuming that the cart is about as fast as walking (which presumes 24 miles a day) and the attack would be either very late on the second day or very early on the third day. Anyway, that’s 10gp for 3 days work. Modest cost of living (meals, lodging, a little booze) is about 1GP (3sp for meals, 5sp for a room, 2 sp for a gallon of ale for the day) so that’s a solid paycheck, but not an amazing one. Also, it suggests that housing is damn expensive.


  • I love frontier towns in D&D, I truly do, so I’m presupposed to like this town. Despite the name.
  • Ok, I cannot help but imagine some of these NPCs with gold question marks above their heads.
  • Given that the locations are not listed in alphabetical order, would it have killed them to number them or otherwise make the (lovely) map more referenceable?
  • The rumors are kind of a blunt instrument, but fair enough. Introductory adventure.
  • This is probably the section where the lack of examples hurts the most. The guidelines for playing NPCs are decent, but could REALLY use supplementation.
  • Membership in a secret society as a reward? Awesome!!! What does it mean? …I have no idea.
  • Scale on the map seems odd – suggests the buildings are pretty tiny
  • A bunch of push goes away if Sildar dies. Important to stay aware of.
  • Ok, I am liking the habit of including “what the X know” sidebars.
  • XP seems to be by fight now. I guess the streamlining in the goblins cave was just that?
  • Glassstaff’s bug out bag is a wonderful way to do random treasure in a strange place.

The Spider’s Web

  • Ok, yes, this is totally MMO’ish in its framing, but I admit, I totally dig this array of bite sized adventures. I mostly just wish the greater context of things did not make them feel a bit like faffing about.
  • Ok, I thought it was a stretch that the Black Spider’s letter beat you to town, but it’s gotten to the point where they have one of your faces AND have gotten it into hobgoblin hands? Really?
  • I would rather have 3 more little adventures than have Thundertree. But Thundertree has a dragon, so i guess its inclusion is mandatory.
  • That said, I’m startled there’s not a little more guidance on how to run the Venomfang encounter.
  • Cragmaw is nicely put together, but I admit I kind of want a diagram of who hears what, where and does what in response.
  • I don’t understand – are you saying that the owlbear leaves without ripping someone’s arm off? Your ways are strange to me!
  • Personal taste thing, but if I was GMing, and my party went straight to Cragmaw Castle, I would introduce some binary element to the information they receive, so they would have reason to not power on to Wave Echo Cave..
    • For example, Gundren’s map might be missing a key landmark, required to give it reference. He’d been keeping the map safely in Neverwinter until his brother notified him that they’d found the landmark. Now the players need to find it – Agatha, Reidoth or Hamun Kost could probably all identify it as a hilltop you can see clearly from Wyvern Tor.

Wave Echo Cave

  • When I saw this map, I died a little inside. I know it’s totally a D&D tradition to have a big sprawling map like this, but it’s a little bit bigger than my comfort level to run. I am not the target audience for this.
  • It’s made a bit worse because I can’t see the story of this map by looking at it. I could see the stories of all the other maps – imagine how people got in and out, moved around, used the space. This one? Just feels like a bunch of stuff.
  • That said, I really like the preliminary writeups of the dungeons, including default behaviors, actions, difficulties and so on. It feels like a similar level of care as went into the specific encounters for 4e. Make of that what you would.
  • Ok, yeah, they have totally been doing the training wheels things with XP. This time you have to look it up in the stat block. Which is kind of annoying, but I suppose it’s educational.
  • Ugh, wandering monsters, ugh. Specifically, Ugh wandering monsters who do not otherwise exist in the context of the adventure. I understand their utility as a pressure mechanism, but i hate that particular implementation. If these are supposed to be the creatures from other encounters, then give me a cross reference, so players don’t have to kill them twice.
  • And if I roll 4 Gricks, I am totally rerolling. Because I don’t actively hate my players.
  • The booming waves are neat sensory addition to things. I wish they had some payout. Or even a note like “clever players who time their movements to take advantage of the noise might get an advantage on stealth rolls”.[3]
  • The Mine tunnels, with the Ochre Jelly, are a kidn fo encounter I don’t particularly enjoy running. Either you convey “it’s mazelike!” which is dull, or you have a really unfun mapping experience. And if you draw attention to it, you pretty much ruin the point of a surprise attack.
  • I like the 10% stake in the mine as a reward. Honestly, for all that the magic items and such are pretty sweet, the less conventional treasures really make this adventure much more interesting.

And holy crap, I’m done. Or nearly done. Just a few more thoughts on the monsters:

  • The recharge mechanic feels clunky. I wish it were triggered by something in play rather than its own roll.
  • I do like the option for flat damage.
  • Bugbears looks scary. That double damage thing is going to hurt.
  • Several doppelgangers in this, but they’re not really used to the full extent of their abilities. I admit, I wonder why they went with Dops rather than actual drow (cynical answer to self: because drow are actually too scary)
  • Nice touch not giving the Evil Mage sleep. That would probably suck.
  • The bit about sprinkling the flameskull with holy water to kill it permanently made me wonder what it would take to know that. Regretting the absence of default lore difficulties.
  • Ghouls. Ghouls will mess you up.
  • The Grick’s damage resistance is kind of a bear.
  • The Wraith’s energy drain is clever! Hit points of damage are taken from max HP, and only come back after a long rest. That is nasty, but not distasteful.
  • The Redbrands have multiattack? CHEATERS!
  • As with the Flameskull, I’m wondering how much lore it takes to get what the Spectator is

And with that? Actually done. I may take a short break before going onto the PDF. This was actually a bit more of a journey than I’d originally planned.

  1. This is actually a pretty old school idea. There was a very old 1e era dragon article about giving players spell substitution magic items, so a wand of fireball channelling meant that the user could expend any of their level 3 spells to cast fireball (so you could memorize less useful spells, knowing that you had this fallback).  ↩
  2. Total taste thing, but I kind of hate that name.  ↩
  3. Yes, an experienced GM will just do that, but just as this gets a pass on a lot of things because it’s an introductory product, it also is expected to do stuff like this.  ↩

D&D Starter Set: Magic

Ok, the magic section. I admit, this is the one I was most excited about. Magic has always been such a critical part of D&D’s rules that it always reveals a lot about how the game is expected to play. And this time is no different.

Like the combat section, I walked away from this one quite pleased. It made me want to try playing a wizard, which is fairly high praise.

First and foremost, we should talk about the mechanic for casting a spell. This is definitely something which has gone through a lot of permutations, and while the new model steps back from the 4e model of powers back to something with discrete spells and casting, it’s definitely not the model from the 2e or 3e days. The new idea is that you can keep a certain number of spells prepared (which you do by studying the spellbook or praying), and a certain number of spells you can cast. That sounds familiar, but the important difference is that you don’t “Use up” a prepared spell when you cast it, and by extension, there isn’t a direct connection between the number you can prepare and the number you can cast.

This is a little hard to visualize, because it lacks the relative simplicity of “using up” spells. So, consider that at first level, I can prepare 5 spells, and I can cast 3 level 1 spells. That means I could prepare Magic Missile, Mage Armor, Sleep, Charm Person and Shield. It also means I could cast magic missile 3 times. Or sleep 3 times. Or two magic missiles and a detect magic. Any combination that I see fit.

This is a fairly novel solution to the age old question of how to keep the idea of spellbook/prayer and memorization (both of which are well loved) while giving the caster a little bit more flexibility in their spells, specifically so that the caster can have utility spells on hand without depriving himself of workhorse spells like attacks and heals.

[EDITED TO ADD (for all the Van Hœts): Yes, it will totally look familiar to fans of Arcana Evolved]

There have been a LOT of attempts at solving this problem, and there’s no guarantee this one will stick. I like it on paper, but am curious to see it in action. If it has a weakness, it’s that it feels a little bit abstract in a way that “using up” spells did not. But it’s not as abstract as 4e, so perhaps it will find purchase.

And I hope it does, because there are a lot of clever twists in this, especially regarding how spells are cast.

First, a number of spells are labeled as “Rituals”, which basically means that if you take 10 minutes to cast the spell, it won’t count towards your spells cast today. These are largely utility spells (detect magic, identify and so on) and there is definitely serious metagame thinking about the application of this label. There are spells with long casting times which aren’t rituals, because the logic is more that is the spell is really something that helps move the adventure along (rather than one which provides an immediate advantage) then it shouldn’t burn a resource. As someone who has had to hoard spell slots to keep some detect magics available, I applaud this thinking (doubly so, since wizards only need to have the ritual in their spellbook, something that suggests lots of interesting stuff).

Second, and even more interestingly, they have fiddled with the idea of spell level in really interesting ways. First, spells no longer scale with the level of the caster (except in terms of how hard the saving throw is). Fireball, for example, is a 3rd level spell, which does 8d6 fire damage[1].

However, and this is where the spell prep rules get interesting, you can opt to cast fireball as a higher level spell (using a higher level spell slot), in which case it does more damage (+1d6 per additional spell level). This has several implications. First, you no longer prep spells by level, just a certain number of spells. The caster is obliged to make sure that all slots are covered, but that’s a trivial burden. Second, this allows a little more leeway in writing interesting spells because they can toss the spells that are effectively improved versions of earlier spells (like the whole “cure…” chain). Third, this supports some weird and interesting concepts. You could literally play a mage who never casts anything but magic missile if you really wanted[2].

Between these two things, you capture a lot of what was good but too fiddly in the metamagic feats of 3e, and open it up to everyone. I REALLY like that thinking.

There are also some really interesting things about the spells themselves. First, I think they hit upon a fairly elegant solution to concentration and spell disruption. In short, you can’t disrupt someone casting a spell, but if the spell requires concentration to maintain (many good ones do) then damage may cause it to be disrupted. This is a nice but ultimately secondary benefit to a more subtle trick to concentration – you can’t maintain two different concentration spells at the same time, and since most buffs are concentration spells, the “Stacking buffs” problem[3] from previous editions is greatly curtailed. They also have explicit maximum durations for most concentration spells, so that undercuts a different category of abuses. That said, they have also created a fairly obvious hook for items and abilities to sustain secondary concentrations, which could be pretty scary. Something to keep an eye on.

Second, spells aren’t typed – there are no cleric or wizard spells. There are only spells. And they all are categorized by the traditional wizardly schools of magic. That is going to simplify some bookkeeping in the future.

While spells are no longer 4e style, the cantrips totally are. You prep them all, and cast them for free. This is actually a great thing because it provides two essential things. First, it gives the wizards Prestidigitation, which is one of the great things for making things feel Magical. In that spirit, they gave the clerics an equivalent of Prestidigitation (Thuamaturgy) and it’s about time. Now the cleric can speak in thunderous tones and generally do cool voice of god tricks.

Second, they give a default, reusable spell which is roughly comparable to a weapon. Ray of Frost, or example, does d8 damage, and can be used as often as you like.[4]

Speaking of which, another nice thing they did was basically get rid of the concept of touch attacks. It’s an attack, just like anything else, and the caster gets stat and proficiency bonuses to it, which suggests parity with mundane attacks. I am not sure how they address the magical plus issue at higher levels (where equivalent base bonuses become a discrepancy because there’s no +3 hand) but I am curious to find out.

As to the spells themselves, there are a few interesting things:

  • I like the abbreviated header, but the fact that Save information is in the text is awkward. Also, the fact that nothing calls for a strength or Charisma save means I’m no closer to envisioning what those mean.
  • Most things last a minute. Which is to say 10 rounds. Which is an amusing return of “the turn”.
  • Augury is the first ritual you come across, and it’s a great example of why making it a ritual works. Good spell to have but not necessarily to always use.
  • Bless uses an unexpected mechanic, granting +1d4 to attacks and saving throws (rather than a flat bonus or advantage). Shades of Alternity. it’s subtly potent though, as it can stack with Advantage.
  • Language on Charm Person and Command both seem a bit less prone to doom as past versions, but we’ll see.
  • Comprehend Languages is actually written usefully enough (including being a ritual) that i could actually see wanting to have it.
  • Detect and dispel magic are also both very nice and clear in their use.
  • Healing Word is a nice addition to the mix, basically providing a less potent cure spell usable at range. I suspect most clerics will appreciate the flexibility.
  • Inflict Wounds is its own spell – no fiddling around with reversing Cure or anything, which is just as well, since it actually allows it to be more potent (doing 3d10 damage, vs 1d8 + stat healing)
  • Mage Armor isn’t terrible.
  • Magic Missile starts with 3 missiles, 1d4+1 damage, always hits. Feels right.
  • Misty Step gives a level 2 short range teleport, which I very much like.
  • Revivify is basically battlefield raise dead for any target who died from wounds in the last minute. Practical, and good to have it available reasonably early on.
  • Shield is a reaction spell, basically giving you a retroactive +5 to AC (and immunity to magic missile). That’s very 4e, but in a way I like.
  • Shield of Faith is a +2 bonus to AC, so flat bonuses apparently have their place.
  • Sleep affects a number of hit points of creatures, starting with the lowest hit points affected first. I actually dig that, as it makes it an effective minion clearer, but not necessarily a fight winner.
  • Spider climb explicitly leaves you hands free, and is therefor awesome
  • Spirit Guardians, a 3rd level cleric spell, is a pretty serious defense. Effectively it puts the cleric in the middle of an ongoing 3d8 AOE attack (which can selectively ignore allies). Not a fun thing to fight.

The book ends with a page of conditions which are largely similar to the 4e conditions. This is good – 4e’s standardization of effects reduced a lot of bookkeeping. You can always do something that’s not on the list, but the list covers most situations.

All in all, I was pretty stoked by the magic section. With the increased flexibility provided by spell slots and 0 level spells, it just looks fun. And with little caveats like the fact that you can cast spells in any armor you have proficiency in, and the presence of finesse weapons to reward dex as a secondary stat, they have opened up some badass mage possibilities.

I’m looking forward to cracking open the adventure, but I admit that at this point in time, I would be more than happy to take the game for a spin.

  1. Which seems like a LOT to me. The spell damages seem pretty high overall, which makes me all the more curious to see the underlying hit point and damage model. The numbers I’m seeing make me wonder if they did something 13th Age-ish (But don’t tell me! No Spoilers!)  ↩
  2. That sounds flip, but it’s actually really interesting. Because spell prep and recovering spell slots are now separate things, it means that wizards are less crippled by the absence of a spellbook (and clerics by the absence of prayers, but that’s always been a lesser burden). Once you’ve prepped a set of spells, that’s permanently locked in until you actively change it. You could, theoretically, lock in your spells at first level and never look at a spellbook again. You’d be pretty limited, but it’s doable. This has fascinating implications for things like Sorcerers, which could really be modeled by “more prepped spells, but it’s MUCH harder for them to change them”.  ↩
  3. That is, just pile on the buff spells (stat enhances especially, in 3e) to make the team unstoppable for a while, then rest and recover when they wear of. Curiously, the system has one more check against these. 3.5 drastically reduced the duration of most buffs, and the 5e durations seem to be in that spirit.  ↩
  4. Cantrips seem to be the exception to the “use a higher slot” rule, as they actually increase in damage as you level up. Ray of frost does 2d8 and 5th, 3d8 at 11th and 4d8 at 17th. I should add, things like this are what leave me wondering if there are 13th Age style damage scaling rules in the core (as noted above).  ↩

D&D Starter Set: Adventuring

Ok, cracking open the adventuring section opens with jumping rules, which are basically one of the poster children for fiddly bits. I hope there’s a lot of jumping in the adventure because otherwise it is about a third of a page included for reasons of tradition.

Things get much more interesting when we get to the long and short rest. Interestingly, the Short Rest seems substantially changed from 4e, where it seemed more like “catch your breath for a few minutes”. Now it’s more “Lunch break”, demanding you take an hour to benefit from it.

It also is, apparently, the avenue for self healing through the “Hit Die” rule, which caught me by surprise. I hadn’t inferred anything like this from the character sheet, but I guess it’s something like you get a number and type of hit dice based on your level and class which you can roll for healing during short rests and recover during long rests (which are still 8 hours, with the caveat that you only benefit from them once per 24 hours).

I get the intent, but this seems like a somewhat baroque way to go about it. I guess making it dice just makes it more appealing than having it be a kind of abstract recovery pool, but that’s totally a flourish. Still, it remains delightful to see the continued influences of Omega World.

XP progression table reveals that, yes, the Proficiency bonus increases to +3 at level 5. That suggests some kind of fascinating stuff, specifically that the net bonus to hit (and damage) of a first level character is not that much less than that of a, say, 5th or 6th level character, unless there are some other bonuses that I’m not yet aware of (like exactly how common and potent magic items will be), and that in turn says interesting things to say about how AC is expected to scale (since it presumably advances about as quickly as attack bonuses). At present, it looks like the only thing that really scales up is hit points, which seems odd. I’m curious what piece I haven’t seen yet.

This is also where they mention that they’ve gone back to the 20 level cap, which I understand (it’s more familiar) but I regret the loss of the tiers from the 30 level model.

Next we get into equipment. Weights are in pounds, encumbrance is basically all or nothing, but it’s simple enough to calculate that I suspect that’s a fair tradeoff.

The armor section answers some questions. Shields are +2 to AC, which I like. Light armors allow full dex, medium armors allow dex bonus capped at +2, so things have stepped back form 4e, and now a maximized rogue (18 dex + Studded leather) will have a 16 AC, while a fighter in Splint Mail and a shield will have a 19 (as opposed to the 1 point difference you could end up seeing in 4e).

I assume the gap is wider with Plate Mail, but they don’t even include it on the list, which is an interesting (and slightly weird) choice. Flashes back to earlier editions where Plate Mail was something you had to save up for (or kill a dude for). But even so, it’s exclusion from something without chargen rules (and which may have characters going as high as 5th level) seems wacky, unless they’ve removed it from the game entirely, which seems unlikely.

Weapons are pretty well standardized. Non-martial weapons do a base of d6, up to d8 if it’s 2 handed, down to d4 if it has some other benefit. Martial Weapons do the same thing centered around a d8 (with the soul exception being the Maul, which does 2d6 rather than 1d12, for a slight upgrade over its contemporaries).

This looks pretty familiar, but it’s noteworthy for the absence of the “exotic” weapon category. Not sure if it’s gone (because in the absence of feats, it’s harder to handle) or if it just doesn’t have a place in the starter se.

The weapons keyword list is short and familiar. Finesse, Versatile, Range, thrown, and two-handed are all what you’d expect from previous editions. “Heavy” is basically “no Halflings” but it seems oddly applied, since it is synonymous with “Two Handed” for every weapon listed except the Greatclub, a discrepancy I can’t quite wrap my head around.

The “Light” keyword effectively means “usable in the off hand” and, predictably, the Scimitar is a Light, Finesse weapons. Because screw you Drizzt. The Ammunition keyword is exactly what you’d expect, but is noteworthy for its fast and dirty arrow recovery rules (spend a minute, get half your ammo back). This is something that a clear guideline is very helpful with, at least in my experience.

I like the use of the Loading keyoword, which is, effectively, the Crossbow keyword (but I could totally see it being used in other ways, such as truly oversized weapons). Thankfully, it does not require spending a round loading or anything, it simply says that you can’t make multiple attacks in one round with the weapon in question.

Rules for improvised weapons seem more complicated than they need to be, since the default is to model them after simple weapons, and if it sucks, roll d4.

After that comes equipment, and it’s fun, as is the nature of all such inventory lists. I don’t know what kind of money character’s start with, so it’s hard to really judge what’s cheap, but Spellbooks and Thieves’ Tools are clearly designed to be money sinks. There are a few interesting tidbits

  • The healers kit is basically the answer to the question of “how do I stabilize someone at 0 HP”
  • Oil. Ah, oil. The low level adventurers dearest friend. We forgot about you during 4e when everyone was awesome, but now that we are less awesome, we turn to you once more to kill things above our weight class. And you look down and say “no”, with your drastically reduced effectiveness.
  • The presence of the Potion of healing on the normal equipment list (even if expensive) is practical and telling. It suggests that they are a very matter-of-fact item more than something rare and magical. This is probably good, but also is going to lead to barrels of healing.
  • You can have proficiency with playing cards (as we saw on the character sheets) and it gives you +P[1] to rolls with them, and largely that just seems weird and disconnected from the rest of the rules.

I admit, these kinds of lists are fun, and while i wish it was longer, I realize that space constraints are a real issue. it wraps up with the cost of mounts and daily living stuff, which is nice, but in the absence of guidance for how they should be used, is probably less help than it might be.

All in all, this chapter is ok, but weak. Its got lots of good bits, but it’s kind of a grab bag, with little real sense of anything holding it together. That’s more of an annoyance than a problem because the reality is that for a starter set, you have to expect an “all the other stuff” chapter. For all that, I’d have been delighted if the travel and time stuff had been a little bit more coherently tied together (perhaps in the style of Dungeon World). But that’s a small gripe in the larger scheme.

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. That my notation (for “plus proficiency bonus”) not theirs, but I will be using it because I like it better.  ↩

D&D Starter Set: Combat

Ok, Combat chapter.

This was, all in all, pretty darn good. I have some nits to pick, certainly, but I got to the end of it feeling like I had a pretty good handle on how to run a fight. The whole thing felt closer to 3e than anything else, but as that’s a feeling, it’s pretty subjective.

The biggest thing is that this chapter made me a believer regarding the advantage/disadvantage rules. As a rule, by itself, it looks interesting but not too radical – it’s just bonus and penalty dice, after all. But this chapter reveals that the real power is not the specific mechanic but the way it gets talked about (though the mechanic itself is fun). When you dodge, any attack roll has disadvantage. When you help someone, they gain advantage. This is awesome for a couple of reasons:

  • It conveys the idea much more powerfully than fiddling with specific numbers would
  • It’s a state, which means it can easily be used as a trigger for other mechanical effects. The rogue, for example, can do sneak attack when he has advantage.
  • It’s flexible. It can work equally well in detail and position play as it can in handwavey approximation. To continue with the thief example, when backstab requires flanking, it demands positional awareness. When it requires advantage, it’s much more flexible.
  • It speeds up play. The single best piece of advice in 3e (when in doubt, just add +/1 2 and move on) and the best part of 4e (page 42) both centered around conveying the idea that if you’re in a complex situation, it is better to make a ruling and move forward than it is to stop everything and try to make it just right[1], especially when just right might mean a trivial difference than if you guessed. Because the advantage and disadvantage are dice, they feel more approximate, so there is no onus to give the correct bonus or penalty (’Should this be a +2 or a +3?”) so they make it easier for the GM to just rule that something has an advantage or disadvantage and move on.
  • It also improves the reading experience. “Gives advantage” makes sense in english, and conveys a mechanical ideas in a way that is easy to absorb.
  • It’s more forgiving. Chris Gardiner made an observation which absolutely sold me on the dice mechanic. If you forgot about an advantage or disadvantage when you rolled, the means of correcting that is to just roll another die. That, combined with the simplicity (rather than bonus-counting) of the mechanic removes a huge number of hold-ups in play, as a player stops to make sure he’s accounted for all his bonuses.
  • It’s universal. In previous editions, I would have felt weird having actions and saving throws interact because the bonuses weren’t quite the same thing. Now, if I help you in some way that might improve your death save, or help you remember who you really are, then that comfortably translates into an advantage (rather than some fiddly bonus)

I really and truly hope this mechanic is imbedded into the rest of the rules. If it’s not, it’s still a great piece in the toolbox, if only for adjudicating situations on the fly. But it’s a little bit less awesome if there are still going to be piles of bonuses to keep track of. That’s something I’ll keep my eye on when we get into the spells section.

There’s not much of a throughline for the rest, so I think it’s time to break out the bullet points.

  • My biggest single complaint is that I’m not sure that the introduction and explanation of terminology s very well synced. It’s almost certainly not going to be a problem for anyone coming in from another D&D experience, but I imagine it may be a bit confusing for a true novice[2].
  • I’m not yet sure about the game’s relationship with the grid. It feels like they stepped back to older editions, where the grid is a helpful but non-critical idea, but there are still enough references to “moving through a creature’s space” and such that I feel I’m really going to need to see the spells and the adventures to see which way they truly jump.
  • The basics seem solid. The various action options seem to be streamlined down to move (not “move action”, importantly) and action. No free or minor actions, which seems like an intentional streamlining, but that gets undercut by the necessity of including reactions and bonus actions. Which is fine – they don’t complicate things too much, but all such things are a function of trying to balance clarity and simplicity. Given the ways that free actions got abused in 4e (despite having common sense guidelines), I can’t fault this decision.
  • Oh, two weapon fighting, when will you stop haunting us? I now definitely need to check out the rules on shields, because an off hand weapon seems pretty sweet, at least at low level. The potential limiter seems to be the bonus actions rules – since the off hand attack is a bonus action, and you can only get one of those, I imagine that as characters level, that introduces some tradeoffs. But at first level, I have no idea why everyone who isn’t carrying a shield isn’t packing a second weapon.
  • Range is still in feet. Nothing wrong with that, but it would have been in the spirit of some of the other streamlining if they’d abstracted it a little. But, then, abstraction is a hot button for fan response, so I get why they wouldn’t.
  • Death Saves are basically what I was worried they would be. Effectively, it’s “keep making coin flips (slightly weighted in your favor) until you get three heads and live, or 3 tails and die”. I realize that the real purpose of the mechanic is to buy the character time for party members to help stabilize them while still maintaining a level of tension, but my own experience with it is that it’s largely an excuse to make a soda run.
  • That said, the halfling’s “reroll 1s” ability is even more awesome in the context of death saves. Another point for the tiny gods theory.
  • They kept one of the nice 4e rules – when you drop someone to 0 hp, you decide if it’s a kill or a knockout. So much simpler than subdual.
  • Crits double damage before mods. I can live with that.
  • Opportunity Attacks are fuzzy, and if I didn’t already ‘get’ the intent, I’m not sure I’d understand them from this description. They do seem to tie into the reaction economy (they’re a reaction, of which you only get one) so I think their importance is downplayed a bit
  • There’s fiddly stuff in here – visibility, cover and whatnot. I think it’s all about as clear as could be hoped for.

All in all, this is a good section. I dig it. And more, I feel like i’m getting more of an impression of that 5e feels like[3], and that’s pretty fun.

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. This is not a “system doesn’t matter” argument, just a simple acknowledgement that there may be times when the system is not clear, and you are better off falling back on (hopefully clearly articulated) core principles and making a call then you are to stop and get it ‘right’. This is especially true if the difference between a guess and a “correct” ruling is likely trivial.  ↩
  2. Which absolutely raises the question of how much of the target audience for this is new players vs existing ones, especially existing ones who may have gone to Pathfinder or the OSR. But sadly, raising the question does not answer it.  ↩
  3. So far my sense is that it’s the game that a time traveller would make if they took the knowledge of what 3e and 4e had done (along with other games in that time), went back to the late 90s and pitched 3rd edition D&D (which is why you can still feel the shape of 2e upon it). This impression might be totally upended as I get further along, but it’s my current snapshot.  ↩

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”.  ↩

D&D Starter Set: Character Sheets

As I pull out the character sheets, I am reminded that this is why I did not look at the previews they posted online. A well designed character sheet (which this appears to be) tells you a lot about the game, not just in terms of what mechanics there are, but also how they’re prioritized. If i’d dug into these earlier, I’d have been going mad with impatience.

5 is an interesting number of character sheets, given that there are only 4 base classes (Fighter, cleric, rogue and wizard), so I was curious how they’d handle that. The answer: 2 fighters. With that in mind, those are the two sheets I pulled out to really look at, thinking that any differences would be telling.


Name, Class, Race, Alignment, Player Name and XP. All as expected. No spot for sex. Background is the odd man out here, which is filled out in such a way that it suggests something like 4e style backgrounds. I hope they’re a little more interesting than that, but We’ll see.

Column 1

The fighters have identical stats (16, 15, 14, 13, 11, 9), though they are distributed curiously. One of them I can see (16 dex, 14 Str, 15 con for a Longbow fighter) but the other one took a 9 dex and a 14 cha, which I look at a little askance. It’s a choice someone might make for explicit roleplaying reasons, but in past editions of D&D, this would be a pretty crappy choice. I look forward to seeing if this is still the case.  The other classes have similar but not always identical spreads, so I presume there is a model they used.

If nothing else, dexterity doesn’t to seem to add to AC for heavier armor. This makes sense, but now I want to look at the spread, because i’m flashing back to the way AC spreads worked in 4e, and I’m curious how this answers that.

Saving throws are now by stat (with what appears to be an extra +2 bonus for favored stats[1]) which seems mechanically identical to skills (including the favored skill). This seems curious, and I’m not sure how it’s not just ditching saves in favor of skill rolls, but I’m looking forward to finding out. I admit, I’m not sure what a Charisma save looks like.  The actual skills are….well, skill like.

The proficiencies list some expected things (armor, weapons) but also oddities like “Carpenter tools” and “Playing Cards” and that actually feels strangely like 2e to me (not a bad thing).

Column 2

AC, Initiative, Speed, Hit points and hit dice are all what I’d expect (interesting to see HP called HP maximum, but I suppose that’s more clear). The space for Death Saves makes me curl up a little bit inside. 3 dots suggest 3 rolls (like it’s done in 4e) which is a rule that seems fine on paper (since it gives characters lots of chances) but which, in practice, has been a bit frustrating since it extends the amount of time that the players spends in limbo. But perhaps it has improved.

Weapon damage seems a expected, though it suggests no extra strength bonus to damage for 2 handed weapons. That said, since the section said “Attacks & Spellcasting) I actually checked out the non-fighter sheets, and discovered lots of fun stuff in here: Sneak attacks, an implication that there are lots of dex-based melee weapons, and a bit of spellcasting stuff. Seems slightly weird, since some of that seems like it belongs in the ”Features & Traits” box, but so be it.

This is also the first time I see reference to ‘Advantage’ and ‘Disadvantage’, so filing that away for future reference. I’m pretty sure of what it means conceptually, but I’m super curious what it means mechanically.

Column 3

Ok, the upper right corner is intriguing. Personality traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws. Not sure if these have any mechanical teeth to them yet, but their presence on the front of the sheet is very promising.

Of these, I am most struck by the ideal – I love the format of: “Ideal. Elaborating sentence.” For example, “Sincerity. I’m no good at pretending to be something I’m not”. That’s a great structure because it allows characters to have identical ideals with different explanations (like “Sincerity. I just blurt out the first thing to come to mind.”) Very useful if one were to, for example, do some half-pregenerated characters (for D&D or for another game, like Fate). You could pregen the term, but let the player fill in the sentence.

Features and Abilities are where a lot of interesting stuff shows up. Random observations from that:

  • Do shields now give +2 to AC? The cleric (Chainmail & Shield) has an 18 AC while the Fighter (Chainmail and +1 bonus to AC) has a 17.
  • It’s pretty clear the background’s mechanical bonus shows up here, and I nearly laughed when I saw it, because more than anything, they look like the Kit bonuses[2] from 2e, which is delightful.
  • Second Wind as a fighter thing, not an everyone thing? Interesting.
  • References to Bonus Actions, Long & Short Rests, and Advantage, Disadvantage show up again.
  • Fighting Style as fighter differentiator is interesting, and I’m curious if other classes have similar. Maybe the Cleric’s “Disciple” ability?
  • Halflings always reroll 1s? Yikes!
  • Several Halfling references to size, but no place on the sheet for size. Very curious if we’re going back to the 3e thing where Halflings were tiny gods.
  • Ok, if i’m reading this right, no extra spells for stat bonuses, but wizards get some stat-based spell recovery, and Clerics…don’t? Offset by domain spells, maybe?


Ok, text on the back. Lots of text. Very nice. Decent explanatory stuff, if a bit dense (but looking at it, has WOTC changed their default body font?). not looking too closely at the Advancement sections (too much to infer, too many questions) but I am intrigued at the XP values. 300 to level 2, 900 to level 3, 2700 to level 4, 6500 to level 5. That’s weird. I imagine it’s an intentionally quick on ramp, but now I wan to see the rest of it.

So, the character sheets have left me with many questions and curiosities. Time to see what the rulebook answers.


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. The fact that proficiency bonus (+2) has an actual entry suggests that it might be changed somehow.  ↩
  2. For the unfamiliar, 2e had a series of softcovers with name’s like “The Complete Fighter”, which allowed a character to use a “Kit” to customize their character class into a sort of ad hoc subclass, with some specific benefits and limits. So, for example, if you were a fighter, you might have the “Folk hero” or “Swashbuckler” kit. It was a really interesting idea, brilliant at points, but unevenly applied to a system that wasn’t really designed for it.  ↩

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.  ↩

When Not To Rule

The most dangerous thing about RPG rules is that they can be quite fun. That seems like it shouldn’t be much of a problem, and sometimes it’s not, but that is part of what makes it so dangerous.

To unpack this, it is important to lay out my own biases. My instinct favors lighter games (both in terms of character representation and resolution) and my rule of thumb is that any rule beyond that baseline framework needs to earn its place. It needs to explicitly and specifically serve the vision of the game, and if it does not, then it’s unnecessary decoration.[1]

Now, note that I value the rules for their contribution to the vision of the game (which is largely “fiction + intended table experience”), not their fun. Fun is, of course, part of the vision. Well constructed rules enable and drive fun, but they do not need to be fun in and of themselves. Utility is often sufficient.

But as a designer, it is easy for me to fall into a trap. I can be swept away by the elegance or fun of a rule and happily add it to the pile. Once or twice it might not be a big deal, but these things accumulate over time, and eventually look backwards and realize you have created a sprawling mesh of dependencies for what had seemed like such a simple idea.

Now, there are tricks for handling this. The easiest is to make the rules in question into removable bits, so that only a small number of them are in play in any given time. This can be done with GM options, but most often this is done by offloading the complexity onto the players. Feats, Stunts, Moves, Merits & Flaw and other similar rules constructs all serve this purpose, and they do a great job…for a while. But they invite two problems – creep and expectation.

It is always hard to tell when the body of player-rules has transitioned from “robust” to “overwhelming” but it almost always end up happening because micro-rules are the easiest thing to design. Worse, the least interesting micro rules are the easiest to design[2] so they just accumulate as cruft. This creep has its own sort of terrible inertia.[3]

Unfortunately, at that point, there is usually an expectation of more micro rules, so you have to create more (or if you don’t. your players will). It’s a classic vicious circle.

Now, the goal here is not to sound all gloom and doom. This stuff is all an upshot of making systems that invite hacking. Micro-rules are one of the best points of entry for a game designers to dirty her hands on. I am absolutely not suggesting against them.

But I am warning about a danger that comes with them which, if you fine game design fun, you are probably susceptible to. God knows I am. Sometimes you will find yourself making rules for the sheer unadulterated glee of it. It’s awesome and fun and if you’ve ever gotten on a roll with these things, then you know that joy. And if you do that, then don’t stop!

But when you do stop, then take a moment to think. Does your game need all these rules? And more importantly, does introducing these rules create an expectation for other, perhaps less good, rules? It’s great to come up with 10 awesome feats, but soul crushing to punch-card out another 40 out of a need for completion. Sometimes it’s worth dropping those 10 awesome feats in order to keep that door closed.

If this speaks to you, then awesome. I hope this helps. But I confess that I am largely writing this as a warning to myself, for there will be days when I will sorely need it.

  1. This is why I will occasionally double down on rules for borderline situations which the fiction might resolve without rules. It is not that I disagree with the sentiment. I’m actually a big proponent of it. But if I’m going to used this damned rule set, then I’m going to try to use it. And if I can’t, then I am less likely to leave a loophole than I am to largely discard the current implementation.  ↩

  2. So much so that you can save some headaches by standardizing them. Feats that give +2 to two skills or Stunts which grant a +2 in specific circumstances are functionally interchangeable, and it’s hard to justify giving each one a separate entry once you spot the pattern. Unfortunately, once you can see the pattern, it’s often too late.  ↩

  3. The *world system does something fairly novel to keep these things in check, but largely demanding that these micro-rules be tied to a character class, thus raising the bar for introducing a new rule. I think this is admirable, but it’s not a clear win – it creates barrier for good micro rules, and recognizing this, offers a solution in the form of Compendium Classes. Unfortunately, there is no such limitation on Compendium Classes, and they are subject to the same creep as everything else. I think this has been largely avoided so far for social reasons – CC’s are not terribly well supported, in part because I think they are largely viewed as adjacent to the core game. So long as that remains true, and there is friction to rolling out CCs, then they should resist bloat. But at the same time. I know that one of my goals is to make CCs a bit more central to my play, so I may be playing with fire.  ↩