Initial thoughts on the D&D Red Box

October 3, 2010 at 9:00 am
filed under Roleplaying

Today I ventured over to my FLGS. Ostensibly I wanted to take a look at the Red Box. I had heard good things about it and, if nothing else, I figured it would be nice rainy day activity for the lady and I. (And with the onset of Autumn, we’ve plenty of rainy days out here in the Pacific Northwest, let me tell you.)

Let me say something up front: the Red Box is priced to move. I assumed it would be somewhere around $30. That’s just how RPGs go these days. I assumed it’d be $35 and was not going to buy it. It’s $20. The same goes for the Heroes of the Fallen Lands book. Given that a nice hardcover RPG from White Wolf or Wizards goes for around $30, it’s hard to imagine not picking up one or the other if you think you’re ever going to play it.

At all events, I bought the Red Box, and I’ve had a chance to flip through it.

My first impression is that it’s quite adorable and delightful. It really makes me nostalgic. I can’t pretend I grew up with any of the $color boxen— I started with D&D 2nd Edition around the time that the black book came out. Before that, though, I was an avid fan of the Lone Wolf series of gamebooks. The means of introduction in the Red Box just so happens to be a gamebook-style choose your own adventure. It’s as if they’re trying to warm the black chunk of ice that serves as my heart. I’m flashing back to when I flipped through AD&D 2e for the first time. Even when I acquired the PHB, I read the “what is roleplaying?” introduction over and over. If anyone’s trying to compel me to have children, the Red Box is the most persuasive argument I’ve heard by far.

Mechanics-wise, all of the differences are not clear to me. Based on what I’ve heard, the engine— basic mechanics like defenses, attack progression, daily/encounter/at-will, saving throws, and so on— are mostly unchanged. Rather, they’ve changed the implementation layer, the classes and how they function.

When I heard about this, I had mixed feelings. I purchased a ton of books already and having invested a lot of time in 4e before Essentials. A lot of complaints that I hear are animated by ideas I’d rather the designers not act on. I strongly believe that 4e is a huge step forward in aggregate. People may get bogged down by choice, but as I saw it, it made a strong case for playing something other than spellcasters. They incorporated many concepts from indie RPGs, and in general made D&D that much easier to run.

Even so, it’s undeniable that 4e can really get bogged down in play. Some of this has to do with a preponderance of choices. People end up haggling over what to do, or simply can’t decide and default to using the same powers over and over. It can be difficult to track conditions. Experience mitigates this substantially, but for some people, it doesn’t seem to help.

From flipping through the Red Box books, Essentials’ thesis, so to speak, appears to have two parts: a) the fundamentals of 4e are solid, and b) classes can still be fun without being terribly intricate. In theory, that is pretty persuasive. They could rejigger some classes so they’re on par with the previous ones without reducing their potency. In practice, the implementation details are, er, essential. I think they have a lot of wiggle room, but hitting the sweet spot between overwhelming and underwhelming choice seems like a real challenge.

We’ll see how this works out with the Red Box. I’m guessing that, if nothing else, I’ll pick up the Essentials stuff to say in the loop. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even try running it for the group that found 4e too overwhelming.

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