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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