by Demian Katz
Dungeons & Dragons (3.5) Basic Game
Published by Wizards of the Coast
Written by Jonathan Tweet
Back to Basics
I’m not ashamed to admit that one of the more exciting days of my childhood was the day that I unwrapped my shiny red Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set and learned about roleplaying for the first time. In addition to adding words like “charisma” and “cleric” to my ten-year-old vocabulary, the process of rolling up a first-level fighter and carefully mapping my way through a solitaire dungeon seemed like the first step into a vast and endlessly exciting world. Obviously, there’s really no way to completely recapture that joy of discovery, but my subsequent roleplaying experience has left me feeling that I sometimes enjoy learning new games more than I enjoy actually playing them. For this reason, I’m always excited to try out a new introductory product; however, in years of searching, I really haven’t seen anything that rivals that first Basic Set.
Four years ago, when Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition was new, I had a chance to review the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game. Though it did a rather poor job of explaining what roleplaying is all about, it was pretty effective at introducing the Third Edition mechanics, and it was a bargain at $9.95. New players could get some dice and counters to start playing with, and veterans could preview the new game system without making a major investment. The inclusion of six ready-to-run adventures wasn’t bad, either. Now that Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 has arrived, the Adventure Game has been replaced by the Basic Game. While this new product’s large square box is more inviting than the Adventure Game’s slim orange container, the $24.99 price tag makes it less of a no-brainer purchase.
What’s in the Box?
Obviously, part of the thrill of any boxed set is unpacking it. The first thing owners of the Basic Game are greeted with is a pile of sixteen painted miniatures, all individually sealed in plastic bags. Past D&D introductory products have included counters and fold-up paper figures, but this is the first time fully-painted plastic miniatures have been included, straight from the D&D Miniatures Game. You get four adventurers, some undead, some orcs and kobolds, a troglodyte, a dire rat and a small but nice-looking black dragon. I’m sure results vary, but mine all looked rather nice except for poor Regdar the Fighter, whose sword was bent at the goofy angle familiar to pre-painted miniature collectors and whose paint job was especially poor. Most of the figures look at least as good as they would have if I had painted them, though, so I can’t complain. Mixed in with the miniatures is a bag containing seven dice. These look very much like the six dice included in the Adventure Game, but there is a new addition: an extra d10 with multiples of 10 on the sides, making percentile rolls a bit more readable. It’s a small addition, but a useful one. This die also happens to be called a d90 if the rules are to be believed – I’d never heard that before.
Immediately beneath all the baggies is a “Read This First” sheet telling players how to start; we’ll study this in detail momentarily. Beneath this sheet is a pile of four full-color character sheets: Regdar the Human Fighter, Lidda the Halfling Rogue, Eberk the Dwarf Cleric and Aramil the Elf Sorcerer. Aramil is new to Basic sets, but the other three are pretty much the same as the character sheets in the Adventure Game (though that set included several further characters – I guess they skimped a little here to avoid including more miniatures). These sheets are followed by two thin, half-size booklets: Quick Start Rules and the First Adventure Book. These are followed by an Advanced Rule Book containing 64 pages and some punch-out stat cards to go with the miniatures, while the bottom of the box holds four thick, two-sided tiles portraying full-color environments for the miniatures to inhabit.
The First Game
Enough rooting through boxes – it’s time to see what the latest generation’s first D&D experience will be like. One thing is certain: it cuts to the chase. If the “Read This First” sheet is obeyed, in just a couple of minutes, everyone will have a character sheet (or a couple, if fewer than four players are available in addition to the DM) and miniatures will be on the table. The character sheets very concisely introduce the various characters’ backgrounds and motivations as well as providing stats, abilities and an explanation of dice and related notation. There is also a “Character Special Abilities” page on the back of the “Read This First” sheet, but it largely duplicates material on the character sheets. The players can also presumably read the Quick Start Rules at this point to learn the basics of combat and dungeon exploration in six pages, but they don’t have to; indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any instruction to refer to this booklet anywhere else in the box outside of the Advanced Rulebook, which says on its cover not to refer to it before starting play.
While players are studying their character sheets, the DM is reading through the 10-page First Adventure Book. This explains the role of the DM in a single paragraph, then describes how to guide the players through the first two rooms of a dungeon (once home to an alchemist) as they attempt to retrieve a ring stolen from a local baron by kobolds. After figuring out how to get past a locked door, the players will have their first combat and encounter a trapped chest. The booklet ends by explaining how the players will be rewarded with treasure, experience and shopping opportunities when they finish the quest and return to town; however, they may not wish to go home just yet, since the kobolds’ lair contains a mysterious door leading into another room, the contents of which are described in the Advanced Rule Book. Of course, the DM will have to do a bit more reading before the tale can proceed...
At this point, it is clear that this set’s approach to introducing the game is very different from the set that started me on the path to role-playing. The old red box set that I’m so fond of is designed to give a single reader a somewhat leisurely introduction to the rules and setting of D&D. Concepts were brought up gradually during the course of reading a story that becomes increasingly interactive as it proceeds, and a significant villain was introduced in order to add a semblance of plot to the dungeon exploration and fighting. While I loved it, I can see the drawbacks to the old approach – first of all, it’s no good if you have a room full of kids who all want to play right away. Secondly, it’s more fun for people who love reading than for those who prefer to learn by doing. Considering the pace of most modern entertainment, I can see why the new set aims to simply get a group adventure running right out of the box; however, that doesn’t really excuse the bland and uninspiring first impression that this adventure gives.
The story begins with some flavor text explaining how “[l]izard creatures called kobolds” robbed a “local baron” of his treasured ring. There’s also a mention of the alchemist whose ruins the kobolds were recently sighted near and promise of “ancient underground dungeons.” I understand that this is a basic set aimed at introducing the game, but that’s no reason for such soulless writing. Why say “[l]izard creatures called kobolds” when you can shift a few words around and say “some of the lizard-like kobolds that have been terrorizing the region?” Why not give the baron a name or mention what he’s the baron of? And speaking of nameless characters, why not reveal some of the the alchemist’s background right away to intrigue or frighten the players, or give them some compelling reason to want to find out more about the ancient dungeons he lived near? There is no sense of setting, heroism, mystery or excitement in the setup to the adventure, and there needs to be at least a little spark of this in order to convey that this is more than just an overcomplicated board game, especially since no mention has been made of role-playing thus far. While things get better later on, the first part of the game feels more like a routine errand than the start of a life of adventure.
Mechanically speaking, playing through this initial segment is an adequate introduction to the basics of picking locks, kicking doors in, fighting monsters, and so forth. There are a couple of omissions, however. The rules never explicitly say what happens when a player or monster runs out of hit points (though I suppose this is fairly obvious). A more serious problem is the absence of an explanation of what to do if the kobolds are alerted of the players’ presence prior to the adventure’s main battle. The DM is told to position the miniatures in a different spot, but there is no mention of how to handle the monsters getting the advantage of surprise. In spite of its flaws, at least the adventure has the good sense to end on a somewhat more intriguing note than it started – the door to the remainder of the dungeon is old and dusty and reads “Friends Welcome; Enemies Beware.” It’s still pretty bland, but it seems more inviting to adventurers than most of what has come before.
Continuing the Adventure
Even though the continuation of the introductory adventure begins forty pages into the Advanced Rule Book, most players will likely end up going there before reading the preceding information. Fortunately, things become more interesting almost immediately; even the read-aloud text here is more descriptive and intriguing than the blandness found in the First Adventure Book. The first room of the dungeon encountered after leaving the kobolds’ lair is the alchemist’s laboratory, and its contents make up for much of the earlier disappointment. The single chamber offers a “find the key to the door” puzzle while also providing interesting distractions in the form of alchemical paraphernalia and a magical talking mirror which the players can converse with in order to learn about the dungeon and Venzor, the previously-nameless (and now long-deceased) alchemist. As the players explore the room, they should start to realize just how wide-open the possibilities of the game are, and if forced to role-play the part of the magic mirror (whose name is Alyssa), any fledgling DM will begin to catch on to the joys of NPCs.
The remaining chambers serve to further introduce and reinforce game concepts. Room four does what the First Adventure Book failed to do by explaining how to handle a monster that has been alerted to the adventurers’ presence. Other locations demonstrate such things as discovering unidentified items, searching dangerous environments and encountering wandering monsters. One thing which the adventure itself does not address is leveling up – although the end of the First Adventure Book explains that this happens when a character accumulates 1,000 XP, someone will have to root through the earlier parts of the Advanced Rule Book in order to figure out what this entails. It will probably be necessary to do this before the party will be capable of defeating the black dragon that serves as the biggest threat in the adventure. Of course, even when this beast is beaten, the game need not end – the creature flees before it can be killed, making for a potential recurring threat, and the dungeon map provides unresolved areas like a cave-in and a long corridor into “the vast Underdark itself” which can be used for the DM’s own homemade adventures later on. There’s even a blank map (showing an alternate arrangement of the included tiles) which can be used to get a DM started on building a new adventure.
Learning the Rules
Presumably, somebody will read the Advanced Rule Book either after or while playing the introductory adventure. This is fairly similar to the rulebook included in the earlier Adventure Game, and whole passages are lifted from that book with only minor alterations. However, the order of information is different, and there is a major addition: full character generation rules. Of course, players can only use the four races and four classes found on the included sample character sheets, and their alignments are simplified (Good, Neutral or Evil; no distinction is made between Law and Chaos except in the notes on D&D Miniatures Stat Cards). Still, it’s nice that players have the option of making up their own PCs.
Some of the descriptions found in the character generation section are a little cringe-inducing (the average Dwarf, for example, is summarized as a “[s]tern, tough person from under the mountain”), but there are enough details and examples to convey what the game is supposed to be about and to get players going. It’s also a nice touch that the “Description” section encourages players to “invent details about...looks, personality, and background, the same way you’d invent those details if you were writing a story or a movie script.” It’s not much, but it’s another hint at the roleplaying elements of the game. As in the Adventure Game, rules are provided for reaching second level, but the section on third level characters is simply a plug for the Player’s Handbook.
Although players will definitely need the Player’s Handbook sooner or later, this book does give them a respectable handful of things to play with. For players, it describes eleven feats, eight skills, a good assortment of weapons and armor, twelve basic pieces of adventuring gear and twenty-two spells ranging from levels zero through three. DMs get a whole bunch of tables for randomly generating rooms and treasures (which can also be used for solitaire play – a nice touch) along with descriptions of several types of magic items and a “Basic Monster Manual” containing write-ups for the eight creature types represented by the miniatures. There is also a chapter on combat right in the middle of the book which clearly explains the system and uses numerous illustrations of miniatures to clarify most major points. The book closes with a plug for the D&D Miniatures Game, explaining that an Entry Pack will allow skirmish games to be played and that Booster Packs will provide new monsters and characters suitable for use in future dungeons.
Is It All Worth It?
This set is undoubtedly one of the nicest-looking introductions to Dungeons & Dragons yet. But at the same time, it doesn’t really give players a lot of bang for their buck. At two and a half times the cost of the previous introductory set, it offers one sixth of the adventures and a smaller assortment of monsters to fight. The addition of character generation rules is good (though limited without a Player’s Handbook), and the miniatures undeniably increase the “cool” factor while also taking most of the blame for the limited monster selection (plastic miniatures are more expensive than cardboard counters, after all). The two-sided, square cardboard tiles look a bit nicer than the poster maps found in previous sets, but since they have multiple numbered rooms on each side, they don’t really offer that much more flexibility. I would rather have seen either Warhammer Quest-style die-cut dungeon rooms, or a larger assortment of two-sided squares printed on cheaper stock. With all of the components on display here, it’s not hard to see where the money has gone, but it’s still a little hard to justify the expense when all you get are two levels worth of character rules and a single adventure.
The previous Adventure Game set for 3.0 was clearly a “loss leader” designed to give players a good value for their money in order to induce them to buy further products. It was essentially designed as an advertisement, but it was cheap enough and contained enough stuff that the buyer couldn’t really complain. This new Basic Game set is also trying to induce players to buy products – in fact, it’s now hocking even more of them, thanks to the mentions of miniatures – but it’s priced like a complete, stand-alone game. I can understand the decision not to include more miniatures, but a thicker book with a few more adventures and monster descriptions would have made a big difference and shouldn’t have increased manufacturing expenses much, especially since some of this material could have been recycled from the earlier set with only slight modifications. There are certainly good points to this set, but there is no reason for veteran players to buy it, and even newcomers may find it a bit on the short side.
Another complaint I’ve had about Dungeons & Dragons for many years is the speed at which recent versions of the game expect players to transition from introductory products to the full-fledged game. Certainly, there are some players who will be thrilled to buy a Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual after working through this set and will enjoy immediately creating their own adventures and building complicated characters. However, I also feel there is a market that likes a little more simplicity, and this market is not really being supported.
The old red-boxed Basic Set that I keep bringing up didn’t offer a whole lot more than this new Basic Game – it only had rules to get characters through third level, and the included adventure wasn’t even fully written, requiring the DM to construct the ending. However, this was less of a problem because the set was supported by a lot of good beginner-oriented products; the B-series modules provided a diverse range of ready-to-run stories well-suited for low-level characters, and it was then possible to graduate to a whole series of boxed sets (Expert, Companion, Master, etc.) which introduced more complex rules incrementally and had their own accompanying lines of complexity-appropriate adventure modules. By contrast, the Wizards of the Coast schedule for 2004-2005 shows no releases designed to support this set; indeed, the only pregenerated adventures they seem to be planning are in support of the new Eberron campaign setting.
In spite of the occasional attractive introductory set, I feel that beginners and casual players are being shortchanged, and this is potentially harmful to the hobby as a whole. Of course, my taste doesn’t always match that of the crowd around me, and perhaps modern players would rather collect nifty painted miniatures than easy-to-run adventure modules and lots of rules sets. If I’m right, though, Wizards of the Coast is missing out on some important sales, and there may even be a new d20/OGL niche in need of filling. All I know for certain is that this Basic Game resurrected a little itch to return to my roots, and I wish that there was somewhere to go from here other than the dense complexity of the standard hardbound rules.