Playing D&D Essentials: Exploring the Red Box

I was very excited to finally be able to get my hands on the 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons Essentials in the retro red box edition. While I own the core set and some other books, it’s hard to haul out a stack of thick, intricate rulebooks and tell a newbie “Hey, this is easy!” It looks scary. So this Monday, I picked up the red box at Borders for about 14 bucks with a coupon.

I’ll admit, I was a little surprised at how empty the box seemed after I opened it. I’m sure pretty much every major DnD blog has already cataloged the complete contents of this game to the most minute detail but I’ll give a brief rundown of what’s included before I launch into telling you what my experience was.

  • Player’s Guide: Basically a massive tutorial that allows you to play a solo adventure while simultaneously creating your character. This played out in some good ways and some weird ones
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide: Haven’t explored this as much but it has the continuation of the solo adventure when you presumably form a party with more than one player
  • Power Cards: Very basic, paper cards with the powers listed. I’m thinking of laminating these because one soda spill and they would be toast
  • Tokens: There are Hero Tokens and Bad Guy tokens. These were surprisingly useful once gameplay started but confusing at first. Each side has a different baddie, which basically doubles their usefulness. Win.
  • Map: There’s a map for your adventures included in the box. Glossy, pretty, nothing new.

Now that I had an easier way to introduce some of my friends to the game, I took the box when I went to campus today. Tonight, I had the novel experience of helping a new player set up her character and play through the solo adventure. It was novel mainly because I’d never created an Essentials character before. I set up in the college lounge and I took the top of the red box and set it upright on the edge of the table. The fierce dragon on the front attracted quite a few people. Most of them assumed that it was the vintage edition and had no idea that WOC had created a boxed set for 4.0. Some of them were simply gaping because the two people actually playing were female.

Because my friend Brie had never played before, I walked her through the tutorial. She decided right away that she wanted to be a male elf cleric and that she wanted to be Lawful Good. (She is familiar with the concepts of the game) While this was convenient, it also meant that I basically fast-forwarded through parts of the adventure that were designed to help you figure out what you wanted to be. Maybe it’s just engrained but I helped her to figure out her character stats before playing because all the flipping back and forth meant that it would’ve been clumsy to play at the same time. Now, I could see someone who already played DnD picking this up very quickly but it has its confusing aspects.

The adventure opens with the noble Cleric riding on a wagon with a dwarf. I decided to mix things up right away by making the gender of the dwarf a mystery. I figured it would be more interesting. The goblins attacked but I ran into the first problem. I couldn’t find any place that said how many goblins should attack. I arbitrarily decided to throw 3 of the little minions at her and found the goblin tokens. The amazing genderless dwarf took an arrow to the shoulder. The Cleric pulled out his mace and proceeded to completely pound the minions to pieces. That was pretty awesome.

I did have one goblin flee and he took the dwarf’s chest with him. My friend chose to talk to one of the goblins to gain information so I had to backtrack and change one of them from ‘dead’ to ‘pretty near’. This create a minor road-bump because some of the skill-checks were basically useless because she is trained in Heal and Diplomacy and so rolling was basically just a nod to game rules, rather than a necessity. Because she had decent Charisma and rolled a *19*, she not only managed to get information from the goblin, but the goblin considered her a friend. However, she chose to let him die peacefully rather than using her heal skill to save him.

From there, she basically went straight to the Evil Hideout and found 4 other goblins there. However, this time she faced a problem. As far as I could see, she only possessed melee attacks, so the archer goblins were able to hit her for a solid 4 points of damage while she had to get close and personal to get a hit in with her mace. She managed to take out 3 of the goblins before falling unconscious. When that resulted, the story says that she wakes up in an Inn because she was rescued by a kindly stranger. I decided that the genderless dwarf, while not brave enough to steal back hyr box, was brave enough to drag her to safety.

Altogether, I found it pretty enjoyable and I’m looking forward to meeting up with a few other people who want to play so we can assemble a party and then continue on the adventure outlined in the DM’s guide. I’ll list what I’ve enjoyed and not enjoyed so far.

Good Stuff About the Red Box

  • Themes: It was really easy to tell my friend “OK, do you want to be a Sun Cleric and protect your friends, or be a Storm Cleric so you can smite your enemies? She chose the Sun Cleric and that instantly let me figure out the power cards that she needed.
  • Scores: Everything is laid out for you. It might be more rigid but it is simpler. Your most important score is predetermined-so, as a Cleric, her Wisdom score was 18. This ensures that most characters won’t be crippled by someone making a bad choice. For example, the rogue that choses a 9 in DEX. You then have a set of scores that you can assign to the rest of the abilities like Strength, Charisma, etc.
  • It’s Lightweight: You really can run the game just from this box. It feels stripped down and raw but in a very good way
  • Feats: Easy to chose and the choices are pretty obvious depending on your class. They all seem useful and worthy of taking.

Bad Stuff

  • Misleading Stuff: The player’s guide says that you will use the map in your solo adventure…but you don’t actually use it until the very end. So basically, you play blind until you get to the final encounter, which seems odd to me.
  • Missing Info: I couldn’t find anywhere that laid out what damage the cleric’s implement dealt. Seriously. I flipped through the pages many times, trying to find somewhere, anywhere that just said IMPLEMENT DOES X. As far as I’ve seen, it never does
  • Incomplete Character Sheet: There is nowhere on the sheet to list your passive perception and passive insight, only how to calculate it. But it sounded like it should be on the sheet somewhere. I finally listed it under character notes
  • Hard to Simply Create a Character Without Playing the Adventure: If you don’t want to play through the solo adventure, it’s kind of a PITA to create the character. It’s basically like a giant choose your own adventure book so you will be turning a lot of pages. Not as intuitive. Maybe the Rules Compendium will address this

All in all, the experience was a positive one and it made me excited. My complaints are more minor bugs that might disappear once I hit the DnD forums and see if any of this has been addressed. In any case, I look forward to running Essentials in the future. Like I said, it’s a lightweight system that feels quick on its feet. I don’t feel intimidated by it at all and best of all, it didn’t seem to overwhelm my friend, either. In the end, I think the Red Box is hitting the mark.

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September 15, 2010. Uncategorized.

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