Inside Pulse 12

Tabletop Review: D&D Starter Set Rulebook (D&D Next/Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition)

D&D Starter Set Rulebook (D&D Next/Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: $19.99 (for the full Starter Set) ($12.65 at Amazon.com)
Page Count: 32
Release Date: 07/04/2014 (Select Stores)/07/14/2014 (General Release)
Get it Here: Amazon.com

Back on July 4th, I did an unboxing of the D&D Starter Set. I showed a bunch of images and declared the set good, but I didn’t actually review it. Well, since June 14th is the official release date for the D&D Starter Set (although favored brick and mortar stores were able to sell it a tenday earlier), I decided to do a set of reviews on the piece. Today we will look at the rulebook in the D&D Starter Set, and tomorrow we’ll review the adventure, The Lost Mind of Phandelver.

Now, if you’re just looking for rules on how to play Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, you can always download the D&D Basic Rules PDF from Wizard of the Coast. It’s free and over a hundred pages long, but it is really only about character generation. If you want some monsters and DM’ing advice, you’ll need the Starter Set until all three core rulebooks are released. Oddly enough, those rules AREN’T in the D&D Starter Set Rulebook, but in Lost Mine of Phandelver. So why have a short thirty-two page rulebook in the D&D Starter Set when you can just download the Basic rules? Three reasons. The first is you get something physical with the D&D Starter Set. Some people still haven’t come around to the electronic version of gaming books for whatever reason, so they will gravitate towards this instead. The second is it gives you a little taste of everything in one box. If you don’t have an e-reader or laptop nearby, you can just take the Starter Set and go. Finally, the Starter Set Rulebook is meant to be used in tandem with the five pre-generated characters from the D&D Starter Set. It’s designed for a streamlined, easy experience. You just open the box and game.

Thirty-two pages might not sound like enough room to cover even the basics of Dungeons & Dragons, especially when you realize from page twenty on (more than a third of the book) is devoted to spells, but I was surprised how easy it was to take Dungeons & Dragons and essentially give it its own Quick Start Rules with this book. If there is something missing, you’ll probably find it in the D&D Basic Rules (except for Feats. That’s Player’s Handbook material only). The Starter Set Rulebook is divided into four chapters and an appendix, in a similar manner to the D&D Basic Rules, save for a lack of character creation information. As five pre-generated characters are available, and the Basic Rules provided character creation information, this should not be a big deal. Remember, the D&D Starter Set is for extremely quick play and to introduce newcomers to the game – it’s not for long time veterans who still calling rolling the d20 “THAC0.”

Chapter One is entitled, “How To Play,” and it gives you the core mechanics, such as the rolling of the d20 for combat and skill checks. It also discusses the six core D&D stats (called “Abilities” now) and the modifier you get for each rating. You still have STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA and you still have the general 3-18 range for a starting character (although racial abilities may raise or lower beyond the usual maximums). We also get a discussion on Advantage and Disadvantage, a relatively new concept for Dungeons & Dragons. If you have the Advantage at some point, you roll TWO d20s instead of one and keep the highest rating. If you have the Disadvantage, you do the same thing, but keep the lower of the two numbers. Cut and dry, right? Skills are trimmed down from 3e and even from AD&D 2es “Non-Weapon Proficiencies,” which should make for an easier time. If you don’t see the skill on your sheet, you’ll have to role-play instead of roll-play, which I greatly approve of. The skill checks we do now are specifically tied to a stat, which will change things for some gamers. Perception, for example, is tied to WIS, so this stat becomes a lot more important to trap spotting thieves than it used to be. Saving Throws are also now tied to a stat, so you won’t have a save vs Polymorph & Petrification or a Fortitude save. Instead you have DEX saving throws, STR saving throws and the like. This is a good idea, as it cuts down on the clutter on one’s character sheet. Overall, I think this chapter does an amazing job of explain all the core rules for D&D – and in only five pages to boot!

Chapter Two is “Combat,” and here’s where you get all basic rules for murdering hordes of monsters. Initiative is still rolling a d20 and adding your DEX modifier to it, with the highest overall score going first, and so on. There was a time in playtesting D&D Next where it looked like you’d roll for initiative each round, but that has been scrapped, thankfully. The rules do a really good job of explaining turn order to newcomers, as well as what one can do on those turns. There’s also the inclusion of “Reactions,” which is a single instant response a character can make. This is in addition to your usual move and act options. “Combat” also covers various things that come up in combat, such as being prone, difficult terrain and all the different things you can do on your turn besides attack, such as hide or search. There are also brief bits on invisibility and attacks of opportunity. Almost half a page is devoted to cover and how it affects one’s chance to hit or be hit.

Perhaps the biggest change comes with healing and/or death. When you drop to 0 hit points you are either dead or unconscious. There is no dropping to -10 Hit Points for death. Instead you start to make saving throws vs death or “death saving throws.” You roll a d20. If it is less than 10, you fail, and if it is 11 or higher, you succeed. If you get three cumulative successes, you regain consciousness with 1HP. If you fail three times, you die. That’s it. So the time needed to stabilize a character has been cut down drastically. Old school D&D fans will probably love this, while 4e fans might see this as a shock to the system. Now if you roll a 1, it counts as two failures and a 20 is an auto revive with 1 HP. This will really change the defensive strategy of a party, especially if they have a fragile character in the team. You also have an instant death option now, which there is no saving against. It will really only affect low level characters, as it takes effect if you are dropped to the negative version of your max Hit Points. So a character with 6 HP would instantly die if dropped to -6, while a character with 50, well… that’s going to be a rare occasion indeed when you hit -50!

Chapter Three is “Adventuring.” It’s a fairly short chapter that gives you a list of items, weapons and armor. For those that are curious, Armor Class is ascending rather than descending. So you want a 17 instead of say, -3. You also see the concepts of short and long rest return from 4e, which seemed to be one of the few universally liked ideas from that edition. There’s also a bit on jumping. Nothing about eating though, oddly enough. Not much to say here. The chapter is five pages of content and about half of that is taken up by lists.

Our final chapter is “Spellcasting” and it is by far the biggest chapter in the book. This makes sense, as spellcasters have never been more powerful than in 5e. More spells per level, spells do more than twice the damage they used to, and Wizards get a d6 for Hit Points instead of a d4. Yep, magic is unbalanced big time, but hey, it is what it is. God knows it was brought up repeatedly during playtesting, but WoC decided to stay the course with this one. Only time will tell how it affects the game. Anyway, it’s worth noting that you can cast a low level spell at a higher level for a more powerful effect. For example, “Burning Hands,” when cast as its regular Level 1 self does 3d6 damage. For each higher slot it is used at, the spell does an extra 1d6 damage. Interesting, no? You will also see that some spells, mainly divination, can now be expended without counting towards your spells per day maximum if you do so as a “Ritual,” which takes ten minutes instead of a normal action on your turn. This will play out interestingly, but again, shows how wildly overpowered magic is in 5e. A good number of spells are also missing their material spell components, which again shows how much easier it is to be a mage in 5e, but also makes sense, because spell components and encumbrance seemed to be the two rules most people chose to ignore in any form of D&D.

Other spell notes include unlimited cantrip casting spells, and these are not things like Mend or Dancing Lights, but spells that do 1d8 damage – more powerful than most previous first level spells in 1-3e… and now they are unlimited, yeesh. It’s things like this that really make me wish magic was back to the drawing board with 5e, as it is by far the most obvious weak spot in the rules. It really needed to be tuned down a bit, but instead, it’s by far the most powerful magic has ever been in the history of D&D. I’m really unhappy with the power creep here, and it’s the black eye on an otherwise return to greatness for the world’s oldest tabletop RPG, but as long as we don’t see entire parties of wizards, it might not be too bad. The strategy of “Geek the Mage” has never been more important for antagonists though.

So overall, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition is looking great. Aside from the obvious problems magic has, the rules really are a nice blend of first through fourth edition with a few new unique wrinkles. I will admit I am liking what I see so far better than third or fourth edition D&D, and looking at other DHGF staffers, that seems to be a nearly universal agreement. I would definitely recommend purchasing the D&D Starter Set, especially from Amazon, as it is less than the cost of three comic books. This way you can get a taste of Fifth Edition and decide if it is something you want to invest further in. Between the Starter Set and the Basic Rules, you’ll have enough to play D&D for some time without purchasing anything else – and all for well under twenty dollars. There aren’t too many other games giving you that amazing of a deal right now. Grab it while the deal is still this good.

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  • Kaylakaze

    I’ve gotta disagree somewhat on your take on the magic. Sure, it’s more powerful, but EVERYONE is more powerful. A 2nd level rogue can move into melee range of an enemy that’s already engaged with the fighter, automatically sneak attack, disengage as a bonus action, and move out of melee range without any AOO. Fighters can heal their own wounds. Wands recharge and can be used by anyone. They’ve increased power across the board to give everyone more options.

    Update: I read over some of the wizard’s cantrips like Ray of Frost and Fire Bolt and they may seem a little OP at first, but keep in mind 1d8 is the damage of a longbow, and a fighter with a longsword will generally do at least 1d8+2

  • Alexander Lucard

    It’s not just the damage. it’s unlimited access to those spells per day. That’s way too powerful, especially since you have type damage. Fire, Electric, cold, etc. I mean, completely gone are the days where you had to worry about what spells you are going to take. Trolls and undead? Pssh. Now you have unlimited fire. FIre Elementals? Now you have ray of frost every round. it takes a lot of the tactics and planning and potential danger out of the game.
    Meanwhile a longbow or longsword isn’t magic. The higher damage from a mundane weapon was balanced out by the lack of damage type and the lack of being magic. Now Wizards do the same damage every round and gain type advantage? There’s no way that isn’t overpowered. In 5e, magic users in general are pretty unstoppable compared to other classes even at low levels. Before it was you had to work for that level of unbalance in the game.

  • Rusty Q. Shackleford

    Um… Cantrips? This is your complaint? The thing people raved about the changes of in Pathfinder… Okay, well let’s explain some things…

    Sacred Flame: 1d8 radiant damage that ignores cover if a Dex save fails. (2d8 at 5th, 3d8 at 11th, 4d8 at 17th)
    Shocking Grasp: 1d8 lightning damage and prevent reactions if melee spell attack hits. (same progression)

    Ray of Frost: 1d8 cold damage and reduce speed by 10 if ranged spell attack hits. (same progression)

    So, 3 types there. One for each type of attack. Pretty OP… Not really. Especially when you consider 1st level spells that do 3d8. But let’s back up and look at the hit chances and the like here…

    Saving Throw: DC is equal to 8+Ability Mod+Proficiency. So, 10+Ab Mod at level 1. Or… DC 13 at level 1 for the pre-gens… Whoo, gonna be hitting all the things there.
    Attacks: Ab Mod+Proficiency. So on par with the other classes, except that you can’t augment this much by getting a +1 bow, or similar things.

    Also, consider that a wizard only gets to have RoF and SG, and must choose 4 cantrips total to have that they can always cast at will.

  • Alexander Lucard

    Thank you for completely proving my point. As I said in the review, it’s not just cantrips. but magic in generally that is really overpowered in 5e compared to previous editions.

    First, unlimited spell casting of cantrips definitely changes how one plays a wizard. It’s less tactical because you have a lot more options at low levels. That’s not necessarily bad. It gives a low level spellslinger a chance to survive, but it also unbalances the game in their favor from the start when previous it was only unbalanced towards spellcasters at high levels.
    Second, look at what you just listed. 1d4 to 1d8 damage used to be Level 1 spell damage. Now it’s CANTRIP damage. That’s a big increase. 3d6-3d8 is now first level spell damage. That used to be third level damage in first through third edition. So yes, that is very overpowered compared to wizards in previous incarnations of the game.

    Third, combine the fact wizards get unlimited cantrip casting, more spells per level, getting rid of material components for most spells, more powerful spells at each level (damage wise. I mean, light is still light), more hit points (d4 to d6) and gone are the days when Wizards had to think hard about what they memorized or had to rely on a good staff or dagger to get them through combat. It’s undeniable that Wizards are far more powerful in 5e than in 1e-3e (4e is like apples and oranges). You’re going to see a lot of elder gamers moaning on internet forums about how they used to clear the Tomb of Horrors with far less spells than these new fangled mages who have it extremely easy. I’m not quite that bothered by it, but as a critic I do have to point out the good, the bad, and the very big changes.
    Meanwhile a longsword is still doing just 1d8 damage. Sure, your fighter can get a +3 longsword, but that’s 1d8+3 while a Wizard is doing that at Level 1 without any of the work to get that extremely rare magic weapon.

    All of this adds up to the least balanced version of spellcasters in D&D yet. Now is it a problem? Yes, it’s one a lot of us that edited and playtested the game brought up repeatedly, but the core guys behind the game decided to stick with this decision. I mean I’m still working on adventures behind the scenes with the Wizards crew and I hear far more complaints about how powerful magic in in 5e than I hear praises for it. Does it ruin the game? God, no. it simply is what it is. No game is perfect. Do I still really like 5e? Yes. Is it better than 3e and 4e to me? Certainly. Do I have quibbles? Of course, but find me a RPG where a person doesn’t take umbrage with some mechanic or ruleset. That’s why so many people house rule things.

  • Quantus Rust

    I agree with the idea that magic is OP in 5e, but not with the way you’re approaching it. The way they tuned magic in the first 3 to 5 levels isquite balanced. Gone is the boring and nearly worthless low level wizard, clinging to his one or two useful useful spells for an entire session, spending the rest of the time hiding or flailing ineffectually with a zero-mod dagger before being vaporized. Now they have a cantrip that does ~60% of another party members weapon damage (1d8 vs 1d8 + 3, an easily obtainable stat mod) plus a few spells a day that can do twice what the longbow does. The damage cantrips are a major major improvement for low level magic users. Characters should be fun and useful from the start, not ineffective ball-and-chains you have to carry until 7th level when they finally unlock their potential.

    Where 5e’s magic gets out of hand is the same place it does in pathfinder. Spells per Day get very high. Damage gets very high. Magic users become demigods or more as their abilities scale up. 5e helps the martial classes scaling some, but it still allows the divine and arcane to get way ahead.

  • Alexander Lucard

    D&D has always had that problem though. Wizards were really week until they had access to third level spells and then they just begin to massively outpace the other characters in terms of damage and options (save for clerics and…psionists I guess, if you used them). So it’s no surprise 5e has that same problem just turned up a few extra notches for than usual.
    That said, I loved the low level wizard as you really had to plan your spells as well as your weapon proficiencies. In 2e AD&D (for example), I always made sure my wizard had a missile weapon like darts or a hand crossbow and a high dex so he could still be useful. You could also balance it out by taking a specialization so you’d get an extra spell here and there. Now they’re just far more powerful in those early levels than ever before, so that’s what I mean by overpowered. Now instead of having to work your way up to being a bad ass mage, you have things a lot easier and a higher rate of survival. I’m probably showing my years and gaming preference in wanting to see my mages work for their power level. ;-)

  • Rusty Q. Shackleford

    You seem to be ignoring some of the other things the other classes get… Examples:

    Fighter gets a bonus action (AKA: Extra attack) once per short rest at level 2. Starts out with epic Second Winds also once per short rest that heal him fast as a Bonus action (Instant, once per turn possible). At third level his crit chance doubles, in a game where crits have been far more standardized to only 1 in 20. And by the end of this adventure at 5th level he is sitting pretty with 2 attacks per action, meaning in one turn he can use 4 attacks (With the same weapon) and heal 1d10+5 HP. On those 4 attacks, he’s got a 10% chance each to crit, presuming he isn’t flanking with the Rogue for advantage.

    Rogue starts out with Sneak Atk, but it’s better than ever. Have advantage? Hit with your weapon? Do extra damage. Oh, don’t have advantage though? Well, just stand next to the fighter and you still get the sneak atk! At 2nd level you gain the ability to poof in and out of combat to almost guarantee a sneak atk. By your 5th level you take half damage as a reaction when someone hits you if ya saw it coming.

    So, presuming everything Hits, the warrior does a total of 8d6+4xstrmod damage at 5th level for that turn he uses his short rest (equivalent to encounter powers) abilities. If none crit.

    The Rogue gets to deal 1d8+3d6+dexmod and then be gone, or run to another combatant, etc.

    Wizard gets to deal a grand total of 8d6 lightning damage, if the enemy fails to succeed on a DC 15 dex save. At level 5.

    Everything got more powerful. That’s why so many of the monsters the players fight even from the first goblins have 13+ HP.

  • Alexander Lucard

    No, not ignoring at all. We’ve only been talking about magic.
    While everyone did get more powerful, Spellcasters got the lion’s share of the power increase, even more than they did in previous editions. Again, type damage is so important in D&D and spellcasters not only do more damage type wise, they get consistent access to it. All the examples you gave are regular damage – not magic based and not type based. So against anything from trolls to elemental, spellcasters have become all the more powerful. You’re also forgetting spread of attacks with a lot of spells. Burning Hands hits damn near everyone for example and so it’s not just 3d8 – it’s 3d8 to everything in the range of the attack.

    There’s no denying that rogues, warriors, and as people will eventually see Paladins, Rangers, Druids et all are slightly more powerful compared to previous editions, but spellcasting has still received far more of an increase. However much of what you have described for rogues and warriors were just as doable in 2e and especially 3e with the right build, save for the Second Wind. So again, you prove my point. I mean a bonus attack once per second wind or a spell that does approximately 20 damage to an entire squad of antagonists. There’s no denying which is the more powerful option.

  • PixelPrattleXP

    Good Points, though I a little confused by the more spell than ever before comment, I was pretty sure they gave them less spells per day likely to help balance out the new high power. Please correct me if I am wrong I am sincerely confused on this point.

  • Alexander Lucard

    Certainly. Characters definitely get more spells as well as more powerful ones now.
    A wizard in 2e AD&D got a single spell at first level. No cantrips. A 3e D&D wizard got 3 cantrips and 1 first level spell. in 5e, your character gets UNLIMITED cantrips and three first level spells in addition to be able to prepare five! So with Fifth Edition, you get more spells than ever before and they are far more powerful. That’s a huge increase.

  • PixelPrattleXP

    Ah now I see thank you, it does seem casters have become more powerful. However, and I do apologize for my pedantic nature as I feel the need to point out few things.

    1. According to the Basic D&D (pdf) rules; spell casters only get 2 1st lvl spells at first level, simple mistake just felt the need to pint it out, sorry.

    2.Also might I note; spell casters do not gain extra spell from having a high casting stat, as they did in 3.X & Pathfinder.

    3. In defense of the designer attempting balance,they did seem to try to balance out the power increase, by making Stronger forms of weaker spell slot take up higher spell slot, which they gave you notably less of.

    the designer seemed to try to balance thing over all in a bit of reverse fashion: Make the lower levels of wizard more powerful/flexible and needing less tactics and higher lvl wizards stay mighty but needing to be more tactical, do to stronger challenges and less readily available high levels spell.

    I totally see your point and agree to a certain extent, such as why make cantrips unlimited caste and make them so much more bloody powerful,however I am not sure how exactly these change will actually play out.

  • Alexander Lucard

    1. Actually in the Starter Set it’s three at first level, which is what I was reviewing here. That’s where I pulled my number from. That’s interesting that Basic Rules only has 2. It’ll be interesting to see which is the typo and which is correct. Hopefully it’s basic rules.
    Of course we can also look at Paladins who didn’t get spells until 9th level or so in 2e/3e and now they get them at SECOND level. That’s another good example.
    2. Be careful with quoting Basic. Remember there is a lot of stuff missing from it, such as feats. We’ve already seen it doesn’t exactly match up with the Starter set. It’s a scaled down sample/teaser of what you’ll see in the PHB and DMG, and not the final product. I already have those but can’t comment due to a NDA, but let’s just say owning those definitely influenced my review of the Starter Set.

    3. There are a lot more spells in the PHB than in Basic or the Starter Set, so that will change in just a few weeks.
    I do hope that you’re right in how things play out. We’ve done some high level campaigns (post 10th Level) and the unbalanced nature of magic actually seems to get worse. Hopefully though that’s just because so many of us testing the game have been playing for decades and thus know how to bend things in our favour.

  • PixelPrattleXP

    1.Oops my bad mate, I looked at my copy of the starter set and you are indeed correct; I would hope that the Basic rules are the right one in this case.
    2. Indeed, Fair point I will keep this in mind when commenting anywhere else in the future, besides I was already a bit weary to quote it anyways.
    3. I am glad to hear there are “alot more” spells in PHB,though you have me unevered that high level caster are too unbalanced;Well I guess have to see for myself when I get my hand on my own copy/ or at least one of my mates.

    P.S. Thank you for being so helpful and responding so courteous and quick (^-^)
    P.P.S. Also,What do you think the Chances are you will do a review of D&D (5e) when the PHB and/or DMG comes out?

  • Alexander Lucard

    It’s all good. All of the gaming community should be helpful and courteous to each other. At worst there should be a respectful debate on editions or writers, but in the end it’s all games not politics or something world shaking, you know? :-)

    I will definitely be doing reviews of the PHB, DMG and MM, along with the first two adventure campaign bits. When they go live depends on when WotC says I can. They are mostly done and like the Starter Set review, are mostly positive.

    Just remember though, because *I* think magic is unbalanced in 5e doesn’t make it so, it all just depends on house rules, your own particular way of playing and who you play with.

  • Rodney James Whited

    to be honest i’ve actually played with the starter set and by far the fighter feels much stronger then the wizard.

  • CrypticSplicer

    Most disappointing thing in this edition? They really didn’t learn anything from 4th. The one thing 4th edition did well is really encourage party teamwork and tactics. You could really synergize. Now it looks like its every man for himself again. Sure you have healers, but everybody else is just trying to do as much damage as possible. The sentinel feat tries to be a tank, but ultimately fails miserably. Though that isn’t really a fault of the feat, its because you can only make one opportunity attack per round and it eats your reaction. You can’t make a sticky defender anymore.

  • Alexander Lucard

    I think, but don’t quote me on it, because D&D 4e seemed to have such a negative reaction from a large percentage of gamer, that’s the edition they shied the most away from. They were trying to bring people back or into the fold entirely and witht he reputation 4e has, comparisons to that might not have been for the best.

    I agree the best thing about 4e was the teamwork. However, you can still act as a team here. We’ve come up with a few combos while playing the Starter Set, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle and the like. it’s not the same, but it is less pure hack and slash than say 1e.

  • Alexander Lucard

    Really? That’s pretty cool and something neither I nor any 5e players that I know have encountered! How so? I’d love to hear your tips or strategies.

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