So I got in the mail today the new D&D Starter Set (the new red box), Dungeon Tiles Master Set: Dungeon, and Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the Rules Compendium. I think I may have wasted my money on all of those except the tile set.
The new D&D Starter Set for the game is just… Odd. You open the boxed set and take out the Players Book (which is labelled helpfully with “Read This First”) and immediately find… A choose your own adventure-style guide for choosing which class to play. Uh… Huh.
Do you choose from one of five listed actions, or number 6 and be creative! If number 6 you have to flip back and forth through the book to find entry #42 (because they helpfully don’t tell you what page that is on) and that entry tells you… that you are out of luck because you are playing a solo choose-your-own-adventure module and to go back the beginning and suck it down and choose one of the other five choices.
Yeah… Great way to introduce players to the creativity and freedom of a RPG game.
As it is, the new D&D Starter Set is poorly laid out. The choices of where to put information and rules are confusing, the lack of page number references in the players book in particular are frustrating as you flip around to find the next entry. In terms of introducing players to the game it is an embarassingly poor tool compared to the old old Basic Set red box from the 1st edition era (which way back when I used to introduce quite a few friends to the hobby, and to freak out the librarian at my grade school).
In fact, the poor layout seems to be a theme for the Essentials releases as the Heroes of the Fallen Lands book is so awful that it gives me a head ache just trying to use it. It is a 360′ish page trade paperback soft-cover rule book, so right up front I have to say that you aren’t going to be able to flip to a specific page and lay the book down in front of you and actually make use of it. It simply won’t stay open or on the correct page.
On top of that, if it is a tool for introducing new players to the game it is a poor substitution for the 4E PHB. The way the book is organized, the lack of differentiation between the fonts used for headers making it look cluttered and hard to spot things on a page, the way the new class features are listed in the book in a order that requires you to flip around wildly while making a character, and to an extent the order the chapters are written in all contribute to being a less clear, more confusing, book for new players to struggle to use to make their first characters than the 4E PHB is.
Which is all the more frustrating because the DDI Character Creator tool hasn’t been updated with this info yet (and no date for that update has been given since the info won’t even show up in the DDI Compendium for another week).
The poor layout, poor typography, and poor DDI support aside the actual content feels both slightly over-powering and somewhat incomplete compared to the PHB classes. For example, the Mage build for Wizards seems to be quite superior at first glance to any of the implement wizard builds when you start looking at the specialty powers you get and the additional at-will, though at the same time the book only has 3 schools of magic to be specialized in (though a 4th “The Pyromancer” is up on DDI right now) and relatively little support in terms of feats (the rules for Mages imply you can have more then one school, but I can’t find any way for that to actually happen as I expected it’d be a feat). There are however feats for wizard implements (orb, staff, etc.) but the only mention of what implements even are in the entire book are one small entry in the keywords section and mentions in the gear / magical item section.
All in all, the book is just confusing and I imagine will perplex new players more than help them get interested in the game. For existing players it serves as a source of new ideas for character builds, but again the layout of the book is so poor that I can’t see wanting to actually use any of the info until it shows up in the DDI tools and I can just print of what I need from there.
The Rules Compendium volume is a mixed bag. On one hand, it is a well organized listing of the rules from the various books released so far. Just the rules though, how things work and not listings of every ability, spell, etc. On the other hand, I expect it’ll fall out of date within a six months due to errate being released or new keyword or ability or effect type comes out that won’t be covered in this book. It also means you are basically buying a copy of rules you already have again, just collected neatly now into one small easy to carry trade paperback.
The other problem I have with it is that there is some stuff that just isn’t rules but is fluff that is included in it. The default set of 4E gods aren’t rules, they are names with some vague traits attached. Descrptions of the three official 4E campaign settings also aren’t rules, neither are the vague guidelines re-printed from the DMG on suggestions of how to run a campaign and maybe the stye of one to run.
All in all, I don’t think the Rules Compendium is a bad book but just isn’t a great one and given the format (trade paperback) it’ll be a little more ackward to update when errata comes out then I find the full size hardbounds are (where I usually have the errata tucked inside the back cover and sticky notes on the pages that have been errata’d to remind me about it).
The Dungeon Tiles Master Set: Dungeon though I am finding rather nice. It came in a sturdy box which is big enough to hold all of it’s tiles and at least two or three of the older released tile sets. I haven’t gone through it yet to identify how many of the tiles are re-prints of older out-of-print sets and how many are new ones but all in all the quality of the tiles are good, the box is sturdy and can actually be used as a large tile itself given the grind terrain printed on it. For it’s cost, I imagine I am going to get far more use out of it than anything else I purchased in this order.