It not a full ruleset like Mentzer's Basic Dungeons & Dragons. It is designed to take somebody who hasn't played Dungeons & Dragons at all and teach them to play and referee. It has enough additional material to for a couple of sessions of play and for the referee to come up with his own adventures.
It is meant not so much to be read but to be used. From the beginning of the players books to the start of the last chapters of the Dungeon Master's book it is designed be read in order and has the reader doing stuff from the first couple of pages onward.
This places the Starter Set not in the Holmes, Moldavy, Mentzer lineage but in the various First Quest, and other beginning D&D set.
There is very little reference material, in fact for somebody experienced in roleplaying this books will seem tedious and confusing. Only references it has are the power/item/actions cards that are included and a small monster reference. They do get +1 for including two pages about Nentir's Vale in the back. I always like this mini-setting, felt it had great potential as a setting for a sandbox campaign.
The Twisting Halls is one of the places that the Starter Set shines. It is seven encounters that the authors made interesting and challenging. The dungeon for the D&D day is a follow up to this module. It includes a full color double sided battlemap with the Twisting Halls on one side and a some smaller encounters on the other. It has dice, some nice character sheets, and a full color set of counters to use for miniatures
Physically the box is one of the sturdiest I seen. There is a inset that you can remove that they use to package the contents. Once remove I can see that much of the D&D Essential line will fit into it. My D&D 4e referee screen likewise also fits.
The player book is setup in a choose your adventure style designed to teach a person about creating and playing one of the four iconic classes (Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Thief). They use the standard array for assigning attributes.
The Dungeon Master is a more traditional read and has the usual 4e excellent advice on DMing followed by some encounters for a novice referee to try running, followed by the Twisting Hall, detail on creating your own encounters, the Monsters Reference, and finally two pages on Nentil's Vale.
The books are printed in full color magazine style as well as the paper (thick and glossy).
So what do I think about it. Well.... it not aimed at me, my friends, or the readers of this blog. They are not kidding about it being for 24 million players of D&D that are not currently playing. I can see a dad or a mom who hasn't played in 20 years going "oooo... this looks familiar" picking up the Starter Set and learning how to play D&D 4e. The Twisting Hall dungeon, shines as an example of 4e design filled with interesting and created encounters.
But I think it going to fail.
Why? It not because every single starter set failed where the Holmes, Moldavy, Mentzer, version succeeded. Because in the introduction they make the fatal mistake of taking D&D head to head with video games.
The Dungeons & Dragons game is the original pen-and-paper roleplaying game, the inspiration for generations of other games both on the tabletop and on computers and game consoles. If you've ever played Neverwinter Nights, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, or games like those., you already have some idea of what the Dungeons & Dragons game is about. With this book you're about to experience the game in its latest and greatest incarnation.In subsequent paragraphs they describe how you going to enter a fantastic world of adventure, take on the role of a legendary hero in a world filled with ancient ruins, vast caverns, and wild frontiers.
And so what? I can already do that with those computer games and with a lot less hassle. So what makes Dungeons & Dragon different today. I give D&D a pat in the head for being the progenitor of we see today but those 24 million players are not going to put with the hassles of running a tabletop rpg you got to make a case for it. And they don't do that. Instead it leaps into the details of the mechanics the games which dominates the remaining 96 pages. Yes there are a few pages of player and referee advice. Good advice in fact. But they are overshadowed but the sheer bulk of the encounter and stat blocks. And all the encounters are about combat and direct conflict.
The singular advantage of roleplaying games is in the human element. The human referee, the human players. The infinite imagination and creativity they bring to the table. And that doesn't come across with only 2 pages (6 and 7 of the DM Section) devoted to stuff other than the mechanics of the game.
The encounters the authors made for the Twisting Halls are interesting and well thought out but without the larger picture they are without soul and just pieces on the board for the players to kill. I feel bad hammering this because here and there I can see the authors injecting things that are great hooks for roleplaying. For a novice or somebody hasn't played in decades these are not obvious and there nothing written on how to use them if they do notice them.
Because of this game feels like more complicated version of pushing chess pieces around. It not a problem of mechanical complexity but a problem of presentation. There are plenty of RPGs with complex mechanics that do a great job of promoting roleplaying as well as combat. In today's market the human element of roleplaying is the only thing that separates the tabletop game from it's computer version and starter sets need to pound on that to make a lasting difference for their parent game.
I give Mike Mearls and the 4e team an A for the Starter Set as a tutorial to use the D&D 4e mechanics. But as a introduction to the roleplaying game it doesn't do Dungeons & Dragons justice.
So how can this be fixed with the D&D Starter Set?
With apologies to Mike Mearl and the 4e design team but I had to do it being the grognard that I am.
I will have a follow up on the actual play. It was a lot of fun and I got to referee another person's first roleplaying game.