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Thursday, October 14, 2010

[Review Corner] Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Red Box Starter Set Part 6

Not a comic post this time.  As I am covering the Dungeon Master's book.  With luck I won't confuse some things said in this book with the Rules Compendium I have been reading through.  (Which is a 320 or so page book of nearly pure rules.  Obviously I am reading it very slowly when I have the desire.)

(Also I have had a busy work schedule as of late so its best to knock this one out.  Don't worry, comics covering more of Essentials are in my future.  Its too fun not to!)

We already know what the DM's book is size and looks wise, so let's hop in to that content.  I will probably add a few mentions about the Rules Compendium for comparison though.

We start off with some basic information about the book's contents, some basic rules of good Dungeon Mastering, and more mentions about what Essentials products you can buy next.  WOTC needs the money I guess.

Then its your FIRST ENCOUNTER AS A DM, getting your players together for a little woodland skirmish against some monsters with basic information on monster statistics, some of the terrain elements, and that "Combat Advantage" thing I mentioned in an earlier installment of the review.  Compared to 3.x editions the monster information is much shorter, or at least it feels that way, though it is much more readable and organized.

I am sort of ambivalent on the monster stat blocks.  On one hand its everything you NEED to know to properly run the monster in combat.  On the other its almost TOO defined and hard coded.  Again with the videogame similarities.   The level 1 monster type in this scenario has 30 HP each, +6 to hit, and does a d6 +5 damage.

As I mentioned this edition of D&D REALLY has shot all the numbers up.

Now its back to more rules, which is sort of odd.  Its like the game wants you to get playing quickly, but then its back to book reading time.  In this case 14 pages worth of somewhat dense rules with more DM advice here and there.  I am honestly unsure why they just didn't either spread the rules out with the rest of the adventure as needed, or even put the introductory skirmish in the front instead of with the rest of the module.

To be fair most of the advice is pretty good, though is nothing you haven't heard before.  They then get into "Skill Checks" where you take a Skill, add in modifiers like training and stat mods, and beat one of three target numbers.  They start at 8, 12, and 19 but in Rules Compendium go up as the PC's level does, roughly keeping the odds about the same.

I am really torn on this.  It basically means skills never REALLY get better as your odds roughly stay the same throughout the 1-30 levels Essentials itself allows.  Personally I would just call a target number based on difficulty and not particularly worry about PC level.  Maybe some things are just plain IMPOSSIBLE for a low level PC to do.  A cheap lock on a peasant's door?  Probably a 10.  The adamantine lock on Azalin's phylactery?  35.  Maybe even 40.

Then its on to how to run combat, going over the information from the Player's Book and then into Opportunity and Immediate actions.  Opportunity Attacks basically work like Blood Bowl or 3.x D&D though MUCH simpler than 3.x.  If you do certain actions while adjacent to an enemy they get to take a free swing at you.  I will possibly go into further detail if I decide to cover Rules Compendium in full, but from my current reading and D&D Encounters experience I can say they work MUCH better and are easier to understand than in 3.x.  Immediate Actions are pretty much like Instant spells in Magic the Gathering.  If X happens you may do Y.  You may only do 1 per round of combat, and never on your actual turn.  Immediate happen in response AFTER X happens, and Interrupts go before X is resolved.

It works its simple I have no problem with it overall.  Its adding a lot of IF THEN actions to a round of combat though.

Next up are "Action Points".  PCs get one per period of time (pretty much one per game session though not doing a full rest for multiple encounters can net you an extra one) and if they choose to use it they get one free action, either Standard, Move, or Minor.

I don't much like them honestly.  Some monsters can have em too, but its rare.  Its just..  I don't see the point at ALL of them.  "Hey for no reason whatsoever once a day or so you can do something twice.  No explanation."  Uhh...

Then its movement, covering falling damage, forced movement and whatnot, ending with basic exploration movement speeds made simple.  Your average well armed and armored PC party is moving 25 miles per day.  (Or 2 1/2 miles an hour.  Or 250 feet per minute.  This is a speed 5 party.  It goes up if everyone is somehow speed 6 or 7.)  The Rules Compendium says this is for 10 hours of normal walking travel and adds in options for some faster movement and such.   Its grid based movement mostly.  Yay.

Now we get on to your attacks, starting with the generic Melee Basic and Ranged, then some Close attacks, and area of effects, either "Burst" or "Blast".  Mostly simple and as you would expect.  There is some penalties for long range attacks with certain weapons, but not a whole lot and they don't seem to come up much.

It continues on with attack modifiers and the stuff I have generally mentioned in earlier installments.  Its all basic stuff most of you out there reading this probably know already.  Charging now is part of attacking and not a move with bonus (you can get extra movement squares with penalties for what a "Run" is considered now though!) but a certain set of requirements for a NORMAL move that gives you a minor bonus to hit.  Critical hits now generally just do maximum damage for weapons, though it mentions certain weapons and spells and items do extra dice in damage or whatnot instead.

It then goes into various status effects like continuing damage, dying, being slowed, and Saving Throws to try to avoid or shake off such effects.  Which is usually just a 55% chance to shake it off at the end of a character's turn.

I don't have much issue with this stuff either.

Hit Points get covered in detail next, and now death happens at a negative value equal to a character's "Bloodied" value.  (So Rufus in our example comics can survive up to -14 before kicking the bucket.)  Making a 1-9 on the DON'T DIE roll 3 times before brought out of negative HP equals death, 10-19 is no change, and if a 20 or better (they don't much explain HOW one would get a higher roll though) a Healing Surge can be spent, waking up the knocked out character with whatever the Surge or other healing effect used on the PC gives them.  Or 1 HP if no surges remain.

Its a bit simpler than the 3.x or even 1-2nd ed AD&D dying and death rules.  I kind of like the change.

Before a really cool sidebar picture on page 19 we are told about the "Short Rest" which is roughly 5 minutes and regains Encounter Powers plus allows the use of multiple Healing Surges.  The "Extended Rest" which is about 6 hours of nap time (with 12 hours of non ER time before it can be done again) and gives back all the Healing Surges, Daily Powers, and 1 fresh Action Point.  (You might have had more AP but if you hadn't used it it resets to 1.  A nice little way to egg players to not camp after EVERY SINGLE FIGHT they can.)  The Rules Compendium goes into more detail, but its simple, basic, and works.

Again, I have no beef with this.

Next up is the 2 page overview (with more basic DMing tips) of the adventure.  Overall its a simple dungeon with lots of monsters to fight over 7 2 page encounters.  A 2 page section in the middle of this explains "Skill Challenges" which are utterly silly things where PCs pick applicable skills to get through some task and if they can pass X number of checks before accumulating 3 failures which then usually leads to having to find some other way to complete the task at hand.  (Protip: Usually combat.  Again, the Rules Compendium goes into more detail, encouraging failure to just make things rougher on the players but not roadblock them.  Which isn't a BAD way to do things really. )

This is sort of like dialogue or event trees in computer RPGs where if you get X rolls correctly or select the right choices you can get neat in game effects like sex with the hot redheaded bisexual bardess in your party or get King Bob to give you more loot for killing the dragon.

In a tabletop RPG ITS OVERCOMPLICATED AND DUMB.  Just.. just let PCs use skill checks as needed and don't quantify needing X many successes to do something.  It just doesn't make any sense to me in a tabletop format.

I haven't read the adventure in full detail, but its basically a sequence of fights with the odd element to make things interesting.  Like the potential to use those Skill Challenge things to talk a mildly disinterested dragon from fighting you, and various room elements to make the fights more than basic JRPG whackamoles.   Here and there a few other rules elements (like moving a multi square monster in smaller areas and such) come up as needed.

Its an introductory adventure and it does complete the basic setup from the PC book.

It concludes with the basics of leveling up to the big deuce (most of your non stat abilities and damage goes up a point every other level, plus some preset HP per class and possibly new powers and a feat.), and is nice enough to give you as the DM options as to where to take the story next.

(Of course the Dungeon Master's Kit has a BIG 2 booklet adventure meant to be run next, and I keep hearing conflicting information if the Monster Vault contains one to take place after that.  But you don't HAVE to use them if you don't want.)

The next few pages talk about making your own adventures including chopping up the map to be used in a geomorphic manner, awarding XP, and the roles various monsters have in encounters.

Just like they give for PC classes, monsters have specific roles they are sort of designed for.  I never liked this KNOW YOUR ROLE thing in MMORPGs and I don't much like it here.  I guess for monsters it makes it easy to know what the critter should be doing in a fight but.. eh.  Like 3.x, there is a chart listing basic recommended encounter sizes for various PC parties as to not overwhelm them which I don't much have issue with.

34 monster stats are provided next, with a bit of fluff and art to tell you about them.  Sadly, most are just repeated from the adventure itself WHICH IS TOTALLY LAME.  Its wasted space really.

We close out the rules in the book with some explanation of rewards aka EXP and PHAT LEWTS, with the magic goodies in this box being listed on those thin cards I showed yall in the 2nd installment.   They give you recommended treasure amounts too.  (Again with the hard guidelines guys?)  But like most of these recommendations its good for newbies to know roughly what kinds of challenges and prizes they should be dishing out as new DMs though I would just give out what I damned well wanted to.

A quick 2 page setting known as the Nentir Vale is next, providing you a nice starter setting for adventures.  Even if I would MUCH rather they just use the Grand Duchy of Karameikos from Mystara instead of reinventing the wheel.  It does seem nice enough, and easily plugged into a setting of your choice or the start of your own campaign world.  Its a roughly 100 by 150 mile rectangle of bog standard fantasy area.

The back cover is a quickie reference for those status effects, attack modifiers, overland speed, and skill check difficulties.

The book overall does what it NEEDS to and is fairly packed with content and is a good rock solid overview to most of the rules you need to play D&D 4e Essentials, though as I mentioned, the Rules Compendium goes into greater detail and covers a few more things one would need for 30 levels of adventuring.

Look forward to part 7 of this review series where I bring my conclusions and give a final score rating.

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