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The D&D Starter Set: As tested by a six- and four-year-old

Pictures of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set.
Pictures of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. Michael Tresca

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set

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The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set hits store shelves today. Thanks to Wizards of the Coast I received an advanced review copy, so I immediately put it to the most rigorous test possible: my children. It should be noted that we didn't read any of the rules prior to playing, and looked up everything on the fly (as I imagine many gamers do). I have participated in the earlier playtests previously and have over three decades of D&D under my belt, but I'm not familiar with the final product. Both kids have played D&D kid-friendly variants before.

My six-year-old boy and four-year-old girl were eager to tear open the box but disappointed to see there were no color maps or miniatures. The Adventure Board Games spoiled them. What does come in the set are two staple-bound full color booklets, a character sheet for a dwarf cleric, an upper-class melee fighter, a rustic ranged fighter, a halfling thief, and an elf wizard. It's roughly the same race/class set up as the Dungeon board game, which meant we were able to easily pick miniatures for them to play with. The box has a white cardboard filler in it to make it seem like there's more content in the Starter Box than there really is. I'm assuming this was for packaging purposes so the box was roughly two D&D books thick -- the good news is if you want to include maps and miniatures you certainly could.

The boy's character was named Electro AKA Elec (he's a fan of Spider-Man) and the girl's was named Elektra AKA Lektra (she's a fan of her brother, and copies whatever he does). The two characters they played were illustrative of what's different in this edition.

Proficiency Bonus, which applies to saving throws as well as attacks, alters everything. Everyone does more damage and hits more at first level. Proficiency Bonus adds to both attack and damage, so there's no need for a composite bow -- all bows add Dexterity bonus to damage. Of particular note is the deadly nature of a thief's sneak attack ability at 1st level. It doesn't work with surprise. Here's how surprise works:

If you’re surprised, you can’t move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can’t take a reaction until that turn ends.

And here's how sneak attack works, also quoted from the Basic rules:

Beginning at 1st level, you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe’s distraction. Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon. You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.

I could do without the double negatives ("isn't incapacitated" and "you don't have disadvantage") -- how about creating a new condition, "active" that means you're not incapacitated. But when you put these two rules together, it means that a thief doesn't get advantage from surprise, which means he doesn't get his sneak attack damage. Winning initiative no longer means as much as it did before.

Overall, the glimpse of 5th Edition from the Starter Set seems like a prepackaged set of earlier rules without showing all the math. I would have liked a set of miniatures as well as a map, but this edition consciously avoids both of those. In fact, the maps are available for printing or using on virtual table-tops, but you now have to pay for them.

It's also a very conscious attempt to invoke older editions of D&D, as evidenced by the disclaimer at the end of the Starter Set Rulebook:

Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of any failed saving throws, including but not limited to petrification, poison, death magic, dragon breath, spells, or vorpal sword-related decapitations.

It's unlikely new players have any clue what that paragraph is all about. You can order this set at Amazon.

For more impressions of how my kids fared in the adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, see the links below.

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