Review: D&D Starter Set (5e)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 4, 2014

starter-set-coverWelcome to D&D 5e. Yesterday Wizards of the Coast officially launched the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons by releasing the D&D Basic Rules online and the D&D Starter Set in select FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Shops). For the past year and a half many D&D enthusiasts participated in the playtest of the new rules dubbed D&D Next. Although the D&D 5e rules look a lot like the final version of the playtest there have been some changes and dare I say improvements made since then. The playtest is over and the real thing is here.

It’s been a long time since Wizards released a new gaming supplement that you could by at your FLGS and hold in your hands. The D&D Starter Set is the first product released in the 5e lineup with the other iconic rulebooks coming out over the next few months.

The D&D Starter Set is like a delicious appetizer. You knew you were hungry when you ordered it but you didn’t realize how hungry until you took your first bite. It’s delicious and it leaves you wanting more. You know that the main course is coming soon, but this will certainly hold you over until then.

Before I go on and talk about what’s in the box, let me tell you that I haven’t yet looked at the D&D Basic Rules available on the Wizards of the Coast website. The D&D Starter Set is supposed to include enough details that you can open the box, read the materials, and begin playing. I wanted to look at this product with that mindset.

What’s in the Box?

starter-set-insideLet’s start with the box itself. A lot of old school gamers remember getting their first RPG materials in a box, me included. So for me there was an instant nostalgia factor at play. On the box is new artwork that pays homage to Larry Elmore’s classic red box cover. I love it!

Inside you find the following:

  • D&D: Starter Set Rulebook (32 pages)
  • D&D: Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure/campaign book (64 pages)
  • Six polyhedral dice (blue with white numbers)
  • Five pre-generated characters printed on the new D&D 5e character sheets
    • Human Fighter (Greatsword, high Dex)
    • Human Fighter (GreatAxe, high Str & Cha)
    • Dwarf Cleric
    • Halfling Rogue
    • Elf Wizard
  • One blank character sheet

starter-set-dnd-encounters-adInteresting to note is that the blank character sheet has the D&D Encounters Logo on it. On the reveres side of the blank character sheet is a new ad for D&D Encounters.

A Closer Look at the Books

The books are both soft cover and are printed on very glossy paper. Considering how many of my gaming books have greasy fingerprints on them from years of abuse, going with the glossy paper stock was a good call. The covers of these books are not the traditional covers you’d expect. Only half the cover is dedicated to the art work and it’s the same picture on both books, although one is a close up so they’re not exactly the same. On the lower half of the cover of both books is a table of contents.

D&D: Starter Set Rulebook

This book is broken into four chapters: How To Play, Combat, Adventuring, and Spellcasting. The last page of the Rulebook is an Appendix that lists all of the Conditions and the appropriate rules for each.

Important to note is that this book does not cover character creation, it just explains how to read the things on the pre-generated characters and how to use them in game play.

While I was looking through the very abridged equipment section I noticed that things like Plate Mail were not listed. I guess this is not something that a level 1-5 PC has a realistic expectation of affording so they didn’t bother listing it at all. It makes sense. There is also no mention of magic items in the introductory Rulebook.

This book is ideal for newer or younger players. If you’re coming to D&D for the very first time, you’ve never played, and you’ve never read any of the rules, then this book is just what you need to get started. The explanations are clear but not overly complicated. It’s perfect for the players and the DM, and the production value is great.

However, if you’ve played D&D before, especially if you played during the D&D Next playtest, then this book is a waste of your time. You are not the target audience and this book won’t help you. The only thing you’ll find useful is the Appendix listing the Conditions on the back cover. Once you photocopy it you’ll never need to touch this book again.

New Rules

As I went through the official new Rulebook a few things jumped out at me as being different than what I’d become accustomed to during the playtest. I realized that things would change but these things caught my attention and for the most part I think they’re all improvements. It’s entirely possible that I’ve misinterpreted a few of these, but this is what I got out of reading just this book.

  • If you get a reroll for any reason you only reroll one die. So if the attack you just made was with advantage and you get a reroll you only reroll one die, not both.
  • Advantage or disadvantage provides a +5/-5 modifier on a passive check. So a passive Perception (Wis) check used to hear a Stealthy enemy get +5 if the enemy is at disadvantage or -5 if they have advantage.
  • The Search skill was renamed Investigate (Int). Perform (Cha) was added as a new skill.
  • When standing from prone it costs you half your movement. This sucks if you’ve got a high speed, but it’s better than taking your full move action.
  • The double move mechanic formerly known as Hustle was renamed Dash.
  • You suffer disadvantage when making a ranged attack (with weapon or spell) against a creature within 5 feet / adjacent to you.
  • You only get one bonus action per round. Making an attack with a second weapon in your off hand is now a bonus action. The Swift casting time was renamed bonus action. The Rogue’s cunning action is now a bonus action. Now Rogues with two weapons can either attack with the second weapon or use Cunning Action to move again.
  • When you score a crit you roll all damage dice twice, including any bonus dice like a Rogue’s sneak dice, and then you add your appropriate modifiers like Str bonus.
  • You don’t track negative hit points. When you hit 0 you fall unconscious. However, if you ever take damage equal to your maximum hit points while you’re at 0 you die instantly. It’s dangerous at low levels, but not likely as dangers at high levels.
  • You must have 1 hit point at the start of a long rest to get the benefits of resting.
  • Spells that have the duration Concentration require the caster to make a Concentration (Con) save if they take damage. The DC is 10 or half the damage, whichever is higher. The spellcaster makes a new save after every hit.

I know a lot of players who will be upset that some of their favourite loopholes have been closed.

D&D: Lost Mine of Phandelver

This is where the meat of the D&D Starter Set is hidden away. This incredible 64-page book is a massive adventure that will bring your party from level 1 to level 5. The encounters are well thought out, the maps are some of the prettiest I’ve ever seen in any D&D book, and the interior art is great.

The adventure is set up much the same way as Scourge of the Sword Coast in that the PCs are headed for a small town, set up a central point from which they can head out on adventures, and then return to when they need to rest and recover. In Scourge of the Sword Coast it was Daggerford, in this case it’s a sleepy town called Phandelver.

As the PCs venture out from Phandelver they face the iconic monsters you’d expect in a low level D&D adventure including Bugbears, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Ogres, Orcs, Skeletons, Zombies and of course Evil Cultists. The stat blocks for all of the monsters you’ll face in this adventure are listed in the back of the book. In each encounter creatures you may face are listed in bold text to easily identify them among the rest of the text and description.

The PCs may be fortunate enough to discover a few magic items throughout the adventure. There aren’t many, but descriptions of the ones they may find are listed in the appendix.

This adventure is just as long as the last few seasons of D&D Encounters clocking in at 50+ pages of substance. I’d estimate it would take 30-40 hours of game play to finish this entire adventure. And that’s assuming the DM sticks to just what’s printed.

While the Rulebook may not have much for seasoned players, this book more than makes up for that. There’s enough detail provided that DMs could easily make Phandelver the setting for their next long-term campaign once they finish running this adventure path.

Weighing it all: The Good and the Bad

So now that I’ve looked at everything let’s recap what I felt were the highs and lows.

The Good

  • stater-set-diceThe D&D Starter Set is perfect for beginners. The material is easy to follow and understand. It comes with characters and dice and a fully fleshed out adventure. The price point is very reasonable and really only one players in your group needs to purchase this boxed set to get started.
  • For the more experienced players the Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure is certainly a good pick-up. It’s a quality product that you can mine for a lot of great materials even if you don’t plan to run it cover to cover.
  • The blank character sheet has a D&D Encounters logo on it. This is genius. Now every time a new player makes his own character he’s starting at the public play logo and asking himself, “What’s D&D Encounters?” Let’s hope this encourages new and younger players to visit their FLGS to join in the fun.

The Bad

These are fairly minor criticisms, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point them out.

  • There are five pre-generated characters provided and two are Human Fighters? Really? Come on; why not make the second Fighter an Elf if he’s going to be a bow Fighter?
  • There wasn’t a single poster map in the boxed set. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to get poster maps with boxed sets. We don’t need a tactical map with a 1-inch grid like we had in 4e, but why not provide a poster map of the Sword Coast? There’s one on page 5 of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, just blow that one up. And why not provided a full poster of the Green Dragon depicted on the cover? Maybe even print it on the back of the Sword Coast poster map?
  • starter-set-insertWhat’s with the cardboard insert? If you didn’t need the extra space in the box why not make it skinnier? I actually felt a bit cheated that half the space in the box was nothing but cardboard. If this was a board game I might think this was long-term planning for when the expansion comes out. Maybe the intent is that you throw minis in there once you buy some?
  • Where’s my digital copy? I was disappointed that there wasn’t a download code that would let me have my very own soft copy of Lost Mine of Phandelver. Considering I played the last year of D&D Encounters from a tablet, going back to using a hard copy will be difficult and seems like a big step backwards.

Final Thoughts

All in all this is a great introduction to D&D 5e. Remembering that this is intended for new players, the product does exactly what it’s supposed to do. I think any newbie who picks this up will be happy and will want more.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this for the more experienced players. If you’ve played before I’d say save your money for the Player’s Handbook and other hardcovers coming soon. However, if you’re one of those gamers who absolutely must own everything you should still find enough useful and exciting bits in the adventure to make you fell like you got your money’s worth.

  • Final score for new players: 10 on a d10
  • Final score for experienced players: 7 on a d10

Did you pick up the D&D Starter Set? What did you think? For those who aren’t planning to purchase the Starter Set what’s stopping you? If you could have a digital copy would that sway your decision at all? If you haven’t but want to get started in this great hobby do so now!

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1 Joe July 4, 2014 at 9:16 am

Interestingly, I think they said in the live unboxing thing they did on the Wizards site that they expected the adventure to take Experienced players a couple hours to zip through. Are their understandings of player/time interactions just incredibly flawed?

2 Joe July 4, 2014 at 9:17 am

It was also said (though not really made clear) that the Starter Set was more of a DM product, and that players should just go for the free Basic Rules (which cover a lot of the things not in the Starter Set box).

3 Snark Knight July 4, 2014 at 9:48 am

I would totally be down to pay for a PDF of Lost Mine of Phandelver. You make it sound completely worth it. Hell I’d pick up the box too if it had a big damn map of the Sword Coast from Ten Towns to Baldur’s Gate. I mean they have been pushing this region so hard the past year and now this part of the FR is the default setting. I’ve still got my big maps of Eberron and Athas from those campaign books, where’s the sword coast map? At this point they’ve published so much on these areas we don’t even a splatbook for this area.

4 froth July 4, 2014 at 9:52 am

Good review. I felt the only thing missing was a poster map. In the end, I guess they wanted to keep the price down but it still feels incomplete without one. I thought the rule book was extremely well written and clean. Very rules light compared to the last few editions.

5 Feeroper July 4, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Great review! Pretty well my thoughts exactly. The adventure in here is great, and this set does such a good job at showing new players what D&D is like. The combination of the free Basic Rules pdf for character generation compliments this set nicely.

As this is the first official release for the fifth edition, it looks like they taken a really good first step. Having followed this edition from the first set of public playtest rules, its hard to believe it is done now, and to see how far it has come.

6 DaMacGuy July 4, 2014 at 3:23 pm

In the WotC unboxing video they mention the box size and the insert. Marketing dictated the size of the box, as the larger the spine, the more visible the product. They shrugged it off and said it gives you extra space in the box for additional stuff.

I wouldn’t use the box for transport though. I have too many old box sets with busted corners to ever do that again.

7 YogoZuno July 6, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Interestingly, at least a couple of the ‘rules changes’ you note were already in effect in the last playtest – the hit point ‘floor’ of 0 (p22), and not being able to take a long rest at zero hit points (p24). So, if you’re out of Hit Dice and stable, I guess you’re in a coma until someone applies healing to you.

8 Jeffrey Allen Davis July 8, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Having jumped ship with 4E to go to Pathfinder, I’m really excited about 5E. I’m curious, though. Is the default setting for 5E going to be Forgotten Realms, much like Greyhawk was for 3E?

9 Mike July 8, 2014 at 2:39 pm

I was a bit bummed that there wasn’t any sort of tactical map or character tokens included in the box set, since we got them in both the 3E and 4E starter sets. Any ideas on how to run the game without these?

10 Doug July 8, 2014 at 7:42 pm

YogoZuno: “So, if you’re out of Hit Dice and stable, I guess you’re in a coma until someone applies healing to you.”

No, it’s not quite that tough. See the bottom of the first column on p. 76 — a stable creature regains 1 HP after 1d4 hours of unconsciousness.

11 kurgan July 9, 2014 at 9:36 am

Is it fair to assume the game is moving away from minis then?

I consider that a good thing personally. We never needed them growing up and combat was more exciting in the mind’s eye than on a battlemap. (Albeit, frequently confusing)

Also no minis make skype play a lot easier.

Speaking of which, remember how the whole point of 4e originally was to move games into the digital arena? Wizards did a hellava lot of work on an online tabletop and sold D&D online subscriptions with visionary promises that never happened. How did so many free sites beat the industry leader to it?

12 Kevin July 9, 2014 at 12:58 pm

For those of you that want maps: I’m planning to run the game with maps and minis. Mike Schley designed the maps for Wizards and he offers high-res downloads from his site. (You have to pay, but it’s about $1.25/map… not much at all for some great art.) All the Starter Set maps are here:

I used PosteRazor (free download!) to digitally cut the maps and print them out. After some cutting and taping, they look great. Really looking forward to running the adventure.

13 dcdnd July 11, 2014 at 5:54 pm

I am excited that my FLGS in DC will be resuming running D&D Encounters with the release of 5e!

14 Steven July 16, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Why is the 4e starter set the same size and price as 5th edition yet offered more plus it still managed to have a spacer in it as well? *sigh*

I watched the TSR video D&D Starter Set : Lost Mine of Phandelver Pt 1
and even they with a seasoned DM – constant position questions were asked. Where are you, ok where are you now?

If they had at least a map and some player tokens at least everyone would have a central focus.

We have all seen this numerous times before in any good game, players would be looking at the map and thinking about what to do next before it was their turn or at the very least looking at what other party members are doing.

D&D 5th edition needs to show off its potential and the starter set is supposed to get people excited and involved in a new gaming system, I am not seeing that being represented here.

15 Mike65 July 18, 2014 at 12:12 am

Yes, great review. Thank you.

Could you let me know… the adventure/dungeon. Is it a series of combats or more like earlier versions of the game?


16 Jimmerson July 24, 2014 at 3:44 am

Just posing a guess here on the cardboard insert: it may have been cheaper to produce it that way. If the printing company already had a box with inserts to that size, it might be cheaper to print it on existing product, rather than have a custom box made. At work sometimes we use existing templates at printing houses rather than have new dies made up for us.

17 Todd July 24, 2014 at 8:32 am

Hey there, I have only played D&D once or twice under older rules, but I have a few friends interested and so I plan on getting this set in the very near future, and DM’ing a game for them!

I’m very excited to hear so many positive reviews of Not just this box, but the 5E rules, and the campaign included. It’s definitely got me excited to get started on this adventure!

If any experienced DM’s have any tips that I should know, please reply to this post!

18 Gericko July 25, 2014 at 12:08 pm

My problem was with the “slick pages.” Unless you use permanent markers, my pens won’t stick to the page, but rub off. Highlighters, due to the slickness, stay very light and hard to see. Very frustrating for a DM who makes notes.

So, which shall I do? Make a copy one page at a time with my scanner or go buy a set of permanent markers? Guess it will be the markers.

19 Josh September 28, 2014 at 12:52 pm

the cardboard insert is the perfect size to leave room for the player handbook.

no complaints here! perfect travel size box

20 Robert Gamble January 1, 2015 at 9:51 pm

Actually the art, to me, is at least as reminiscent as of Earl Otus’s art as Elmore’s. I first noticed it when I saw that the adventure’a picture zooms out a bit sort of like the B/X rulebooks. The dragon is green, and there are two people attacking the dragon (including a mage type).

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