The Alexandrian

Essentials Starter Set

September 28th, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons Starter SetI don’t have much interest in 4th Edition (see D&D is Dead, Long Live 4th Edition), but when I heard about the new D&D Starter Set I was hopeful that WotC was finally doing something that’s about 20 years overdue.

I’ve talked here before about the lack of a Gateway Product for D&D (and, by extension, the lack of a gateway product for the entire roleplaying industry). To sum up: From 1974 to 1991, D&D was available in a single boxed set (just like other games) with a relatively inexpensive price point. In 1991, however, the Basic Set became a pay-to-preview product. (The distinction being that pre-1991 you might buy the Expert Set, but you would continue playing with your Basic Set. After 1991, when you bought the Rules Cyclopedia or the AD&D core rulebooks you took your Basic Set, stuck it in the closet, and never looked at it again: You were paying for an ephemeral piece of advertising that was designed to sell you the “real game”.)

Thus, starting in 1991, the real entry point for the game became a hardcover book. And when the Rules Cyclopedia went out of print, the cost of buying the game skyrocketed to $100+. D&D was now a game that (a) didn’t look like other games, (b) was extraordinarily expensive compared to other games, and (c) also required an immense investment in terms of time before you could even start playing (going from less than 100 pages including a solo adventure to 800+ pages spread across three hardbacks).

Basic Sets and Basic Games continued to be produced, but all of them were pay-to-preview products: Instead of descending from the tradition of Gygax/Arneson, Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer, these were created in the same fashion as the AD&D First Quest boxed set: In other words, these are products which tanked when they were first created and have continued to tank for two decades.


Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set - Player's BookSo when I heard they were releasing a new red box Starter Set and specifically evoking the 1983 Mentzer set as part of a product line that was specifically designed to provide a stable set of introductory products and a clear pathway for new players into the game I thought, “Hey, maybe they’ve finally figured it out.”

Did they?

Nope. The Starter Set is still a pay-to-preview product. You can’t even get to page 3 of the Dungeon Master’s Book before the game is trying to sell you the full version of the game you apparently should have been buying in the first place. And once you buy those additional books, the Starter Set is specifically designed to be stuck in the closet and never looked at again. Suckers.

This is a product which new players joining experienced groups will be told to skip; which smart consumers will identify as as a pay-to-preview false start; and which less aware consumers will buy, discover is an incomplete pay-to-preview version of the game, and either (a) stop buying D&D products or (b) feel vaguely ripped off when they go to buy the book they should have bought in the first place.


The other stated goal of the D&D Essentials line is to eliminate the market confusion surrounding D&D. Imagine that you heard about a game called “Dungeons & Dragons” and you walked into a store tomorrow looking to buy a copy. In this scenario, there are arguably two problems with the PHB/DMG/MM triumvirate:

(1) They’re too expensive. $105 is an insanely high cost of entry.

(2) It’s entirely unclear that those are the three books, out of the vast number of D&D books available, that you’re supposed to buy.

So does Essentials solve these problems?

Of course not.

Dungeons & Dragons Essentials - Rules CompendiumCOST: Because the Starter Set is a pay-to-preview product, it’s a fake entry point to the game (suffering the exact same problem that the multiple versions of the 3rd Edition Basic Game did). If you’re entering the game through the Essentials line, the products you’re looking for are D&D Rules Compendium, at least one of the Heroes books, the Dungeon Master’s Kit, and the Monster Vault. Total cost of entry? $110. ($130 if you count both Heroes books. $150 if you bought the Starter Set.)

CONFUSION: The supposed ideal was that when someone asked, “What do I buy to play D&D?” The answer could be, “The Essentials.” But that doesn’t actually pan out because there are 9 different Essentials products (not including the dice set). You’re still facing a wall of confusing product and trying to figure out which three esoterically named products you’re supposed to be looking for (and that’s before we add in the extra confusion caused by the Starter Set fake-out).

Or maybe you’re supposed to buy all of them? At a whopping $210? That’s way too expensive, no thanks.

And this, of course, assumes that the consumer has gotten your note about the Essentials being the products they should be looking at. If they haven’t, they’re now faced with all of the Essentials products plus all of the non-Essentials products while trying to (a) realize that there are three different entry points into the exact same game and (b) which products, exactly, belong to which entry point.

COMPATIBILITY: But is D&D Essentials really the “exact same game”? It’s a debateable point. One can certainly say that D&D Essentials is just including (a) the errata and (b) alternate-but-completely compatible class builds.

But if I’m playing a fighter from Heroes of the Fallen Lands and my DM is using the Player’s Handbook, then we have two different versions of the fighter. That’s every bit as confusing as a player using a 3.5 ranger while the DM is using the 3.0 Player’s Handbook. Plus, the 4th Edition errata goes deep. This is a game which completely revised one of its core mechanics within mere weeks of being released, and more recently changed the basic foundation on which monsters are built. And the important point here is that not everyone uses the errata. Someone using a 4th Edition PHB without errata and someone using the new Rules Compendium are playing two versions of the game every bit as different as 3.0 and 3.5.

Now, I’m generally of the school of thought that 3.0 and 3.5 were more inter-compatible than most people gave them credit for. But I’ve certainly seen plenty of hiccups at tables where 3.0 and 3.5 PHBs were being used interchangeably. These sorts of problems will also crop up at tables attempting to use “vanilla 4th” and “Essentials 4th” at the same time.


I’ve talked before about WotC’s habit of saying, “Our goal is to do X. And in order to do X, we’re going to do not-X.”

So when Bill Slavicsek says, “[Essentials] forms the foundation of the the game moving forward and are designed to be the perfect way for new people to get into the game — thanks to the format, the price, and the approach to class builds.” Perhaps I should be unsurprised when we end up with is a format which is confusing to new players at a price point more expensive than any previous entry point for the game.

The Essentials line may or may not be a success for WotC. It certainly seems to be successful in getting some people (including myself) to take a second look at 4th Edition. (Unfortunately, the game I find waiting for me has the same basic problem that it’s still 4th Edition. And 4th Edition is still a game fundamentally designed to take most of the things I enjoy about roleplaying games out of D&D.)

But what I can guarantee you is that it will fail in its wider goal of reaching out to new customers in a new way. The Starter Set remains the same pay-to-preview product that has failed over and over and over again for the past 20 years. And the rest of the Essentials line is more expensive and more confusing to new customers than the existing options.

It’s a triple package of fail.

Which is not, of course, to say that no new players will enter the hobby through the Essentials products. First Quest may have been a failed product compared to OD&D or the ’77 thru ’91 Basic Sets, but people still bought it. And plenty of people have entered D&D through the PHB/DMG/MM triumvirate even if they are expensive and confusing for new players.

But we’re still waiting for WotC to offer a true gateway product for the RPG industry. And I anticipate that both D&D and the RPG industry as a whole will continue to suffer for it.

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One Response to “Essentials Starter Set”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    Justin Alexander
    Re: Cost. IME, if you know somebody who owns the game then your cost for trying the game is $0. If my buddy owns D&D or Arkham Horror or Halo 3, then I’ll be able to play those games without paying anything. (Similarly, over the past year I’ve introduced a half dozen people to D&D and none of them had to pay anything up front, although several of them have gone on to purchase D&D material.) Where cost becomes a barrier to adoption is specifically the guy who (a) wants to try the game, but (b) doesn’t know anybody who owns it.

    And for that guy to play the game, he’s going to need the DM’s material. D&D has this nice corner case where you can capture some income from the guy who liked the game well enough but not enough to shell out for it at full price, but for the guy who’s trying to get into the game by himself — the people for whom the Starter Set is presumably designed — that corner case doesn’t reduce the adoption price necessary for a new group to tackle the game.

    Re: Specialized game stores. While people who have become interested in D&D may make the effort to seek out such a store, those are the people who are also likely to do the web research. I’m far more interested in capturing the people who have a casual interest and spot the game in Barnes & Noble; or become interested and decide to check for it in the games aisle at Target. These are the people who are going to get discouraged by a wall o’ product or frustrated when they discover that their impulse purchase was actually a pay-to-preview trap for the unwary.

    I’ve been in those shoes: I was the kid trying to figure out what product I was supposed to be buying in order to start playing these roleplaying games I’d heard about. And I met with a lot of frustration until I finally spotted a Mentzer boxed set.

    And it applies beyond gaming, too: “Oh, hey. I’ve heard good things about this author. I think I’ll try the first book in this series. Okay, which one is the first book? Huh. There’s no list of the proper order. That’s weird. Maybe if I flip to the back and… Nope, not there either.” If I can’t figure it out right there in the store, I’ll usually walk away without making a purchase. And once that moment of opportunity it lost, it’s not unusual for that purchase to never be made.

    You’re right that if you’ve got somebody who is either (a) being mentored or (b) already passionate enough to overcome the hurdles you’ve put in their way, then those hurdles become irrelevant. But surely the purpose of a Starter Set is specifically to capture all the people who DON’T fit that description but might become your customers (and even avid customers) if you got those first hurdles out of the way?
    Friday, October 01, 2010, 2:56:05 AM

    Justin Alexander
    Another point: This is purely anecdotal (as it must be), but I’m struck by the fact that in my experience so many gamers are no more than 1 or 2 degrees removed from a player who self-taught themselves the game. (And I’m discounting all the people I’ve introduced to RPGs, since they’re all be default only 1 degree removed from a self-taught player.) Yes, mentorship is an avenue into gaming. But a lot of the people doing the mentoring seem to have taught themselves (or, at best, been taught by someone who taught themselves). And every year where you’re losing those self-teachers who failed to clear your hurdles of poor product design is another year where you’re losing those potential mentors.
    Friday, October 01, 2010, 3:00:37 AM

    I can certainly sympathize with the 80s D&D confusion. I started with Mentzer, but was still confused about how D&D interacted with Advanced.

    I still think you’re overestimating the confusion level at present. The Starter set is the obvious thing to pick up first, and has a very cheap entry price. The newbie DM can pass around the player/character gen booklet so everyone can try it out and make characters. Then the newbie DM can run them through the starter dungeon and make a few adventures of his own. Not as much as Mentzer, as we’d both prefer, but not a bad little intro. Crippleware though it may be, it does a pretty good job of introducing the concepts. The DM’s book in it also explains that the next thing for the DM to get is the DM’s kit, and that Heroes of the Fallen Lands is the book to expand the classes you’re already working with.
    Friday, October 01, 2010, 5:29:45 PM

    It is confusing why they don’t make a proper Mentzer-style basic set. I think your suggested approach to it would be perfect. That being said, I think you’re overstating both the cost and the confusion a bit.

    Re: Cost. buying the Rules Compendium and Heroes of Fallen Lands isn’t all that pricey for a player. It’s more expensive for the DM, but it’s still not a crazy amount of money, especially compared to most adult hobbies.

    Re: Confusion. Few people get into D&D completely cold. Usually someone is recommending it to them, and usually that someone can clarify. If someone is getting into it cold, they can figure it out pretty darn quickly with minimal web research. If they’re doing it through a retail store, the owner can clarify easily. Most game stores surviving at this point have better customer service than was once the butt of so many jokes.
    Thursday, September 30, 2010, 10:00:52 PM

    Leland Tankersley
    I guess the question I’d ask is, what would a Basic Set that wasn’t a pay-to-preview product look like? If it’s not a subset of the full game, can it really be an introduction to the game? Alternatively, what was it about the 1981/1983 offerings that avoid this criticism? (I’m assuming you feel they do/did, which may not be true. I never had a Basic Set; I went from OD&D to AD&D. I certainly knew of it, and I think I probably leafed through someone else’s copy at some point, but it didn’t make a big impression on me.)

    Hmm, looking back at your linked past posts on this topic I guess the issue is that they (the newer products) don’t really constitute “complete” games (of possibly limited scope). Yeah, I guess I can see that, if true (and I don’t really doubt it — from WoTC’s perspective as a business, the beast must be fed).
    Thursday, September 30, 2010, 1:51:23 PM

    Justin Alexander
    I think a return to the Basic/Advanced division (possibly without using those terms) would be the best way to go: Give me a complete, open-ended roleplaying game that I could (a) continue playing indefinitely and (b) use the supplements for the Advanced game with and you’d be heading in the right direction.

    It may be a bit bullshit to push at my “boy I wish I had an art budget so I could actually publish it” Legends & Labyrinths vapor-ware as “the way to do it”, but there’s a lot of truth to the idea that a lot of my philosophy about what would make a good Basic Set went into my design of L&L.

    In the case of 4th Edition, here’s what I’d do: Full character creation rules focused around single-build character classes (pick a class and it tells you everything about your “build”). Give me the rules for playing a full Heroic Tier campaign. Strip out a lot of the “advanced options” from your core rules and leave behind a functional core mechanic and extremely basic combat system (move, attack, damage and not much else). If you do it right, I should be able to pick up any Heroic Tier adventure and still play it in this “Basic Game” by simply ignoring any options I don’t have rules for. (Given 4th Edition’s modular design, this should actually be really, really easy.)

    I would sell this in a box that said “DUNGEONS & DRAGONS” on it. All of my books are expansions to this game. You buy the PHB and DMG because you want a more complicated game with all the bells and whistles and customization and options. All of my supplements and adventure scan work equally well with both D&D and the PHB/DMG expansion. (And I’d strongly consider reintroducing the “ADVANCED” moniker for the latter.)

    I’d probably also recommend PARAGON EXPANSION and EPIC EXPANSION boxed sets that give the same “stripped down” treatment to those tiers. But if you wanted to leave those higher tiers as selling points for the PHB/DMG set, that’s probably OK. (I’m not familiar enough with them to even know if the stripped down treatment would be particularly effective.)
    Thursday, September 30, 2010, 6:32:48 PM

    FWIW, I got into the hobby through the orange 3.0 box set, and I did continue to use it even after moving on to the PHB et al. Many of the rules were simplified in the box set, but basically it was the same game, except it only went to level 2.

    I still used the characters, maps, adventures, cardboard miniatures, etc that came with the box after I had gotten the PHB. In fact, there was a stepping stone effect, with the Adventure booklet serving as a pseudo DMG, and the monsters section filling in for the MM.

    That being said, I’m playing Pathfinder now, and that’s largely thanks to 4e. Pathfinder doesn’t have a boxed set entry point yet (but Erik Mona really wants to “take the time to do it right” at some point in the future), but its startup cost is a good deal less than 4e. The Core Rulebook includes everything you need to play, except monsters, for $50. Monsters are available in many places, but you can get the Bestiary for $40. So, $50 for a player, $90 for a GM. Not spectacular, but better than $100+. Of course, both of these are available as .pdfs for $10 each, so you could jump in for less than $20 if you have the means to reference a .pdf. Also, pretty much all of Pathfinder is OGL, so you can even start playing for free if you don’t mind having to reference a web site.
    Wednesday, September 29, 2010, 10:05:04 AM

    I sincerely do not understand what the hell theyre doing. I get the impression theyre trying to mimic Games Workshop in some ways, what with their expensive and ever-changing rules books, scenarios and such… but they’re doing a very bad job of it if they are?

    As you have said several times, they make clear and effective goals but then produce such rubbish.

    I can’t figure out if they’re extremely sinister, fantastically stupid or some combination of both.

    It’s upsetting.
    Wednesday, September 29, 2010, 7:29:48 AM

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