Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Observations on the 4e Starter Set

I've seen a few starter sets (or basic sets, as they called them in my day). The old ones, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer -- these were the classics.

Later on, TSR started putting the bare bones of the rules in such sets. They started the pregenerated character thing (it wasn't WOTC; I still have such a set). (Of course, WOTC/Hasbro is still doing it...)

It's as if somebody said "Give 'em less!"

Now, the function of a starter set is to get people interested in a game. You give them the basics and let them try it. I can kind of see not including character generation.

Let's compare this one with the 3.5 starter set:

3.5 had a dungeon. Lay out these tiles is this order. These are the encounters; don't skip any or the characters won't make second level. It didn't say what to do if the Harpy (!) wiped out all the pc's the first time they encountered her! That's what happened the first time I ran it.

So, we've got a railroad with monsters too powerful for the fragile characters. There's no exploration, you just move on to the next encounter (with it's next dungeon tile). This is a good thing? I admit, I liked the props. And if you're going to insist on using a square grid, then saying how many squares a character can move works.

Okay, so how is 4e different?

First of all, there are five characters, instead of four. (Oddly, the text flat out states that five characters is best. But they don't give you any criteria for such a statement.) There are tokens, instead of figures, but this way you can have more.

Instead of a few dungeon tiles, there are punch-out cards containing really thick, plastic coated dungeon segments, including rooms, corridors, doors, a pit, a bearskin rug, a bedroom, etc. The kind of thing you can lay out and the players immediately see where they're at. I approve.

The dice in both versions are exactly the same (so now I have a pair of each...)

The DM book for 4e is where the game really shines. There's a scenario, of course, and this one has more of a background than "You're exploring this dungeon..." like 3.5 had. (If I recall correctly.)

There is discussion of how to design your own adventures, which is nice. There are plenty of monsters, which is nice. The characters are still pre-gens, but at least you can advance them to third level, which is kind of nice. There are still skills, but a vastly reduced list, so it doesn't overwhelm play like in 3.5.

But what really got me was on page three of the DM's book. I'll reproduce it here for your consideration:


The DM is the final authority when it comes to rules questions or disputes. Here are some guidelines to help you arbitrate issues as they come up.

* When it doubt, make it up! It's better to keep the game moving than to get bogged down in a rules issue.

* Have fun! D&D is a game, after all.

* Use ability checks. When players try something not covered by the rules, ability checks should be used to determine success.

* It's not a competition. The DM isn't competing against the player characters. You're there to run the monsters, referee the rules, and keep the story moving.

* It's not your story. It's the group's story, so let theplayers contribute to the outcome through the actions of their characters.

* Be consistent. If you decide that a rule works a certain way in one session, make sure it works that way the next time it comes into play.

* Don't play favorites. Make sure that every character has a fair chance to shine.

* Be fair. Above all else, use your powers as Dungeon Master only for good. Treat the rules and the players in a fair and impartial manner, and everyone will have fun.

There's some really good stuff there. I could quibble about the ability checks thing, but on the whole, that's just some damn good advice, no matter which edition of which game you're running.

Bottom line, America: I don't hate the 4e Starter Set. I could run a game using this for a good long time (I could improvise some character creation rules, and I'm planning on collaborating with a guy to do just that...).

But it still doesn't beat the original three little books. They're still my favorites.

1 comment:

Chgowiz said...

This was why I liked the Fast Play rules back in the late 90s - you could almost run an entire low level campaign just on the rules itself. In fact, my long plotted Vale campaign that is finally seeing more play than just the intro dungeon was based on some of the backstory from the 2E Fast Play modules. They were semi-railroads, but they were fun and loose enough to modify.