ST Reviews: Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set

July 18, 2014 GM_ Mace 4709 1 Comment

Starter cover

After what feels like a thousand play-test packets we now have the final product in our hands… sorta. For now we only have the appetizer that is the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition Starter Set but it’ll have to do ’til August when the new Player’s Handbook comes out. July 3rd marked the soft release for stores within the Wizard Play Network. Those lucky stores got their hands on the box set while everyone else would have to wait until July 15th. Our team’s been poring over the starter set non-stop for the past week and they’re finally ready to weigh in.

What is Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition and what’s new?

DD5 covers

Dungeons & Dragons originally released 40 years ago and in that time it’s been edited and updated for five full editions. Each incarnation has changed the system in exciting ways. Sometimes adding new rules like THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0) and sometimes taking some rules out… like THAC0. But no matter what, the game has always revolved around rolling a 20-sided dice. Thankfully, that hasn’t changed. 5th Edition has gotten rid of the controversial “Powers” from 4th Edition and brought it back to the simpler days of AD&D and 3.5. In its place you have the Advantage/Disadvantage system and a simplified skill system. The combat flows faster and is a LOT more deadly.


Advantage and Disadvantage dice are the newest and biggest change to 5th Edition. Just as in life, certain situations will make things easier for you whereas others will make them harder. That’s where Advantage/Disadvantage dice come in. When you’re at a Disadvantage you roll 2 twenty sided dice and take the lower result for the check. Same goes for Advantages, except with Advantages you take the higher of the 2 twenty sided dice.

This edition of Dungeons & Dragons has also changed the skill system to reflect your character’s background. (Disclaimer: this isn’t in the box set but it is in the D&D Basic rules which can be found HERE.) When making your character you’ll still have your class skills that you can choose from. What’s interesting is that when you choose your character’s background you’ll get access to bonus skill sets. So say I have a cleric of Pelor. He does good, heals people, and blah blah blah boring. Now take that same cleric and give him the background Criminal and you have a brand new twist on an old classic. Not only does it make his background more interesting it gives him access to the deception and stealth skills, he now has criminal contacts, and a criminal specialty. Nothing says awesome more then a cleric who’s also a smuggler for the resistance.


A word of warning before you run a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons game – pull your punches. Players are a lot more kill-able in this new version, harkening back to the glory days of 1st and 2nd edition. Gone are the Second Winds and Healing Surges of the previous edition. In one of my games we have a player who has a maximum of 9 hit points. Take that player and throw him against a Goblin that can potentially do 1d6 +2 of damage every round and you could have a very short game.

In place of Healing Surges are Hit Dice. After a short rest you can roll any number of Hit Dice you have available to heal your character. Once you have used up a Hit Dice it’s gone till you rest for 8 hours. At first level you only get 1 Hit Dice, at second level you get 2, and at third level you get 3 Hit Dice. Use them wisely  and stock up on healing potions because they’ll be gone before you know it. You’ll need to work together and fight smarter to take down opponents in this game.


This version also does away with tokens and maps. Yes, you can still have them and the rules still support them but this version is geared more towards the theater of the mind. I know our combat junkies may have checked out at this point but they’ll be back… they always come back. Theater of the mind is where you trust your Dungeon Master to paint a verbal picture of the battle field. It will be on them to tell you when you get into range to attack and if there are enemies or hazards blocking your path. This requires a bit of trust from the player’s standpoint but overall creates a far more immersive game.


Spell casting has changed as well. In a bid to make magic more dynamic WotC has introduced spell slots. A spell slot is an open position for you to store spells in. Large slots can hold more powerful spells, while smaller spells can be kept in smaller slots. The interesting trick is the ability to store lower level spells into higher slots, thus making them more powerful. You cannot, however, dumb down a higher-level spell by placing it in a lower-level slot. Say you have a 1st level Cure Light Wounds spell that spell normally heals 1d8 of damage. If you were to take that that same spell and put it into a 3rd level slot it becomes a 3rd level Cure Light Wounds and can now heal 3d8 of damage. Wizards and Clerics also now have unlimited Cantrips, so once they’ve used their spells per day they can still be effective in combat. Oh hello combat junkies, didn’t see you there, welcome back.


Equipment is about the same in this version, except for oil. Oil is going to be in every munchkin’s bag of tricks. If you ignite oil in a square it does 5 points of damage, per round, to anyone within that square and creates difficult terrain for 2 rounds. That’s 5 points of damage for free; no rolling, no save, nothing. If our character from earlier spends 2 rounds in that square he’s done by round 2. Armor is simplified as well. Instead of having to deal with -2/-3/-5 for encumbrance you now take a Disadvantage dice for Strength or Dexterity checks.

What do you get in the box?

The Box set includes:

  • The Starter Set Rules
  • The adventure “Lost Mines of Phandelver”
  • 5 pre-made 1st level characters
  • A set of six polyhedral dice (notably absent is the double-digit ten-sided found in most modern dice sets, but it’s not necessary)
  • A blank character sheet

Is it worth the value?

That’s a tough one. For $20 the adventure pays for itself. Normal adventures take your characters from level 1 to level 3. “Lost Mines of Phandelver” takes your players from level 1 to level 5! That’s a beefy mini campaign. The lore of the adventure is designed for a Forgotten Realms campaign but it’s easy enough to slip into your home game. We had a lot of fun playing it and it’s a great way to introduce new players to the game and new Dungeon Masters to the rules.

The Negative

I only had a few issues with the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. My biggest issue is the lack of minis and a fold out map. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be played in the theater of the mind but that’s hard to do in a dungeon crawl, where players don’t have a lot of room to maneuver without being beset by pitfalls on all sides. The idea behind a starter box is that it gives you EVERYTHING you need to play. I was a little disappointed to open the box only to find two booklets, a few character sheets, but no maps or tokens. What is the point of the box if there are no small pieces? They may as well have handed us a vacuum sealed packet with dice in the center.

The Verdict

Overall I like the new system and the included adventure. I feel a little cheated because we didn’t get maps and minis but for $20 its not a bad deal. Pick it up if you NEED your new D&D fix, otherwise wait till the Player’s Handbook and the Tyranny of Dragons campaign coming out next month and skip this all together. We’re giving the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set a 3 out of 5.



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